“Hey, cool shirt.”

“I’m cool with that.”

Dean Martin was a cool cat.”

“Nobody’s gonna hurt anybody. We’re gonna be like three little Fonzies here. And what’s Fonzie like? … Come on Yolanda, what’s Fonzie like?”

“… Cool?”

The preceding exchange was taken from Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction. In this scene one character, Jules, convinces another character, Yolanda, to keep her “cool” during a standoff.


“O gentle son, upon the heat and flame of thy distemper, sprinkle cool patience,” Queen Gertrude tells her son, during the fourth scene of Hamlet’s third act.

As noted above, there seems to be an endless array of ways to use the word “cool.” That sort of thing might prove problematic for someone like me, who now wants to write a post, consisting of more than 1,000 words, about coolness as an aesthetic concept.

But maybe not.

If I’m to give you fine folks any adequate bearing as to what it is to be “cool,” I need to take a quick detour into metaphysics before returning to aesthetics.

It’ll be quick, I promise.

On what grounds do we typically call distinct objects by the same name? What is it, for example, that makes us refer to those sweet-smelling flowers that Juliet is musing about from her balcony as “roses”?

If you subscribe to Platonist metaphysical views like I do, your immediate response would be that there exist certain commonalities or properties held by all objects which we call “roses,” and that these objects have a certain distinguishing criteria for making them roses as opposed to non-roses.

You’d then go on to explain that all roses have smooth petals, thorns, and green(ish) stems, that their petals are typically either yellow, red, or white, and that they grow in shrubs and very often give off a pleasant aroma.

These attributes, one might say, constitute a “form” or “essence” of what it is to be a rose, and all roses are roses by merit of their instantiation of these attributes.

I think a similar case can be made for coolness. I’ve written at the beginning of this article a number of ways in which things may be said to be “cool,” and none of them really seem to be mistaken.

In my current project, if I’m to provide you cats with even a semi-adequate working definition of “cool,” I have to arrive at the essence of cool. That is, I must determine what it is that all things, which we call cool have in common.

Let’s begin with probably the most obvious attribute. Coolness is typically a positive trait. No one walks around yelling “You’re so cool, you asshole!” at people they don’t like.

Derived from that first principle: on what grounds would we say that a shirt is cool, or that we’re cool with something? This seems to me like a much broader, moving target, but my hunch is that we find something attractive either about the shirt in question, or about the situation with which we are cool.

The problem here, of course, is that different people find different things attractive at different times. Thirty years ago, perhaps, it might have been cool to wear a power suit with shoulder pads, whereas that sort of thing now only makes sense if you’re attending an ‘80s-themed party, or you’re just so cool that you can bring back a 30-year-old article of clothing and look fly without missing a beat.

On one hand, I get the feeling that coolness has a fleeting temporality to it. Fingerless gloves were quite cool in the early 90s, while that’s really not the case now.

And yet I think that coolness also has a universal, time-transcending side to it.

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For people your parents’ age,or older, Stan Getz and Charles Mingus were probably cool. For the people of Generation X, Michael Jackson or Run-D.M.C. might have been cool.

Nowadays, Kanye is cool.

Across the span of 50 years, we find no shortage of individuals who might be considered cool. The things they did differ significantly (OK, so I picked all musicians, but the point still stands.), and would have appealed to their respective audiences from different times in different ways.

But if we might pinpoint perhaps the essential commonality between the coolness of James Dean and that of Patti Smith, it probably has to be looked at as a certain kind of panache.

Cool individuals seem to have an intuitive grasp on their own coolness. They do what they do, and they don’t care who knows it. They’re glib in the face of criticism, and charismatic when receiving praise. They go about their business with such confidence that they in fact inspire other people to emulate them, thus becoming, whether wittingly or not, originators of a new culture, and pioneers of yet another facet of “cool.”

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Johnny Marr is cool and Johnny Depp is cool. Long after departing from television, Fonzie remains a sort of benchmark for coolness.

For those of you who have finished this article, I give you the same advice that Jules Winnfield gave Yolanda at that fateful diner where the end of Pulp Fiction was set: Be like Fonzie. Be cool.

Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of wallpapervortex.com.

headshotHorus Alas is senior philosophy major and can be reached at heliocentricnonchalance@gmail.com.


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