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Trekkie philosophy: professor looks at great thinkers through pop-culture lens

February 6, 2013

Matthew Tedesco, below, describes one of his courses as one that will “boldly go where some of the greatest thinkers in history have gone before.”

Matt Tedesco 

The associate professor of philosophy is referring to Introducing Philosophy through Star Trek, a course he is currently teaching this spring.

“I’ve always thought, as I teach Introduction to Philosophy, ‘There’s a Star Trek about this.’ Why not just make that explicit and bring these two together?” he explains.

Tedesco, who first taught the course last year, screens episodes from Star Trek: The Next Generation during class and then uses those as jumping off points to discuss the philosophical issues it raises.

For example, the episode “Measure of a Man” is about the debate that ensued after a Starfleet member wanted to disassemble the android, Lieutenant Commander Data, to see how he works. The characters held a hearing over whether or not Data is a human and if his interests and wishes should matter.

Tedesco asserts this episode raises the philosophical question of what makes someone a person. “Is Data a person? Is a fetus a person? Is a chimpanzee a person?” he asks. “You can see how this abstract question about the fictional character Data can launch into some interesting real world philosophical questions.”

Philosophical issues are not, however, limited to Star Trek. Tedesco says there are publishers that specialize in connecting popular culture with philosophy. In fact, he has written essays for Facebook and Philosophy: What’s on Your Mind? (Open Court, 2010), James Bond and Philosophy: Questions are Forever (Open Court, 2006), and Game of Thrones and Philosophy: Logic Cuts Deeper Than Swords (Wiley, 2012). 

“I’m pretty supportive of these efforts that reach out to speak about philosophy to a broader audience, and this pop culture medium is a nice way to do it,” Tedesco said. “If I can reach more people and say something interesting, I think that’s sort of meaningful.”