Harry Potter and the real Philosopher

18 Jul 2011 09:01:00.000


A University philosopher claims that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books tap into ‘great’ English literary tradition of Dickens, Austen and even Shakespeare’s plays. But does this tradition reflect the reality of human existence and character, as many authors have claimed? Professor Greg Currie thinks not. 

Greg Currie, of The University of Nottingham’s Department of Philosophy, delivers his ‘Potter philosophy’ in a video which coincides with the release of the final Harry Potter film, just out in UK cinemas.  

Professor Currie argues that the Potter books are a modern parallel of Charles Dickens’ classic tales such as Oliver Twist. Their phenomenal success lies in their vivid portrayal of people in testing times. But the message of such stories—that character triumphs over circumstance—is probably wrong.

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The parallels between Twist and Potter are easy to see. Oliver, like Harry, starts out in very difficult circumstances. Both births are initially shrouded in mystery. Both then move to circumstances that seem happier—Fagin’s gang, for Oliver, Hogwarts for Harry. But both also face pathological, nasty characters in the form of Bill Sykes and Voldemort and go on to endure great suffering. 

Professor Currie argues that what appeals to us in both cases are the characters on show and how we might resemble them:  

“People are strongly attracted to the idea that they themselves are basically good and yet they are put upon by other people who are not good. And that of course is the position that Harry Potter starts his life in.  

“In such stories we imagine ourselves triumphing over adversity. But research suggests that our behaviour, unlike the behaviour of our favourite heroes and heroines, has little to do with our characters.  

“What you end up with is people in stories whose behaviour is driven by their character much more than real people’s behaviour is driven by their characters. There is quite a lot of evidence coming in from social psychology that real people’s behaviour is not much determined by character traits like honesty and integrity. It’s much more determined by the circumstances that they find themselves in.”

“Despite the fact that our favourite fictional characters may be less like us that we think, this doesn’t seem to change the fact that great characters are close to an essential in the great novel”. 

Professor Currie concludes:  

“Writers have tried to get away from the vivid-character formula, but if you want people to read your novels in their millions, it does seem as if you’re going to have to go back to this notion of character and give people what they want”. 

Prof Currie’s video philosophy ‘The Success of Harry Potter’ can be viewed here… www.youtube.com/watch?v=PtzP-LBfegM




More information from: Professor Greg Currie, University of Nottingham Department of Philosophy on +44 (0)115 95 15841 gregory.currie@nottingham.ac.uk or Emma Rayner, Media Relations Manager in the Communications Office at The University of Nottingham, on +44 (0)115 951 5793, +44 (0)7738 291242 emma.rayner@nottingham.ac.uk 

Professor Greg Currie :


Greg Currie was educated at the London School of Economics and The University of California, Berkeley. His first posts were at the universities of Otago and Sydney. Before joining The University of Nottingham, he was Professor of Philosophy and Head of the School of Arts at Flinders University, Adelaide.  

His work in recent years has been concerned mostly with aesthetics, cognition and the relations between the two. Current research includes an examination of ‘The Imagination’: conceptual issues concerning the relation of imagination to belief and desire, to play and pretence, to fantasy and supposition; issues in cognitive science concerning mental simulation, evolution, development and psychopathology. Narrative: fictional and nonfictional narratives and the nature of documentary; narrative and time; understanding narrative, the role of narrative in magical, religious and delusional thinking. Cognitive and cultural evolution and the emergence of art.

Notes to editors:

The University of Nottingham, described by The Sunday Times University Guide 2011 as ‘the embodiment of the modern international university’, has award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. It is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 75 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and the QS World University Rankings. It was named ‘Europe’s greenest university’ in the UI GreenMetric World University Ranking, a league table of the world’s most environmentally-friendly higher education institutions, which ranked Nottingham second in the world overall.

The University is committed to providing a truly international education for its 40,000 students, producing world-leading research and benefiting the communities around its campuses in the UK and Asia.


More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to the most recent Research Assessment Exercise, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. Research Fortnightanalysis of RAE 2008 ranked the University 7th in the UK by research power. The University’s vision is to be recognised around the world for its signature contributions, especially in global food security, energy & sustainability, and health. 

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Story credits

More information from: Professor Greg Currie, University of Nottingham Department of Philosophy on +44 (0)115 95 15841 gregory.currie@nottingham.ac.uk 

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