Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar
I had intended to spend this whole week writing—but first thing Monday morning, I painfully! wrenched my neck. I’d like to say it happened as I stopped a runaway bus with my bare hands, thereby saving the lives of 30 schoolchildren. That would be a far more glamorous injury than what really happened, which is that I overstretched as I was sitting up in bed and something popped so violently that I screamed. The pain is slowly subsiding and I am almost back to my full range of motion, but for the last several days, I have been restricted to holding my head is one position and swallowing muscle relaxers. Not conducive to computer work or any activity that requires concentration! However, I had just the thing to occupy me, thanks to my Grandma Doris.
Grandma, known around these parts as Cybergrannie because of her fondness for blog reading and online shopping, always has a new stack of award-winning books in the living room. (For example, during a recent Christmas shopping trip, she gave me the scoop on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: “Post-apocalyptic, pretty dark, people eating each other to survive and stuff. I finished it, but I let your Uncle Rick take it home with him.”) Brandon and I had stopped to visit she and Grandpa on Sunday, and before we left she handed me Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes and said, “Take this home with you; you’ll get a kick out of it.”
Grandma is always right.
The authors are Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein (whose newest book, Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington: Understanding Political Doublespeak through Philosophy and Jokes, released this month). Apparently they have long had a sense of humor; after earning Harvard philosophy degrees they made their parents and professors proud by going into traditional philosophy careers like working with Chicago street gangs and designing stunts for Candid Camera. (Philosophy, as you know, is all about the questions, such as, “I spent thousands of dollars on your tuition and your new job is doing what now?” and the equally crisis-laden retort, “Do you have any idea how hard it is to land a tenured position in an ivy-league philosophy department?”) But don’t underestimate these two un-professors. Their little book of “philogags” introduces (or re-introduces, for those of us who’ve been out of college more than a decade!) the basic questions of existence and the thinkers who have dialogued about them over the centuries.
By quoting jokes—some of them groaners but also some that are downright hysterical—they explain the various categories and arguments of metaphysics, logic, epistemology, ethics, philosophy of religion, existentialism, philosophy of language, social and political philosophy, relativity, and meta-philosophy. What hath Athens to do with Second City? Cathcart and Klein explain in their introduction:
The construction and payoff of jokes and the construction and payoff of philosophical concepts are made out of the same stuff. They tease the mind in similar ways. That’s because philosophy and jokes proceed from the same impulse: to confound our sense of the way things are, to flips our worlds upside down, and to ferret out hidden, often uncomfortable, truths about life. What the philosopher calls an insight, the gagster calls a zinger.
For example, you can explain empiricism and the scientific method, but it’s quicker to tell this story:
A scientist and his wife are out for a drive in the country. The wife says, “Oh, look! Those sheep have been shorn.” “Yes,” says the scientist. “On THIS side.”
You can define “Occam’s razor,” or the principle of parsimony, as “theories should not be any more complex than necessary,” or you can illustrate it this way:
One evening after dinner, a five-year-old boy asked his father, “Where did Mommy go?”
His father told him, “Mommy is at a Tupperware party.”
This explanation satisfied the boy only for a moment, but then he asked, “What’s a Tupperware party, Dad?’
His father figured a simple explanation would be the best approach. “Well, son,” he said, “at a Tupperware party, a bunch of ladies sit around and sell plastic bowls to each other.”
The boy burst out laughing. “Come on, Dad! What is it really?”
(“It’s funny because it’s true!” I say in my best impersonation of Futurama’s Dr. Zoidberg.)
And don’t think this technique doesn’t apply to philosophy of religion, too. Yes, dear Mike, you could explain “Pascal’s wager” in a few sentences, but this illustration is so much funnier:
Inspired by Pascal’s Pensees, a little old lady goes to the bank with a satchel filled with $100,000 in cash and asks to open an account. The cautious banker asks where she got the money. “Gambling,” she says. “I’m very good at gambling.”
Intrigued, the banker asks, “What sorts of bets do you make?”
“Oh, all sorts,” she says. “For example, I will bet you $25,000 right now that by noon tomorrow you will have a butterfly tattoo on your right buttock.”
“Well, I would love to take that bet,” says the banker, “but it wouldn’t be right for me to take your money for such an absurd wager.”
“Let me put it to you this way,” says the woman. “If you don’t bet me, I’ll have to find another bank for my money.”
“Now, now, don’t be hasty,” says the banker. “I’ll take your bet.”
The woman returns the next day at noon with her lawyer as a witness. The banker turns around, drops his pants, and invites the two to observe that he has won the bet. “Okay,” says the woman, “but could you bend over a little just to make sure?” The banker obliges and the woman concedes, counting out $25,000 in cash from her satchel.
The lawyer meanwhile is sitting with his head in his hands. “What’s wrong with him?” ask the banker.
“Aw, he’s just a sore loser,” she says. “I bet him $100,000 that by noon today, you’d moon us in your office.”
Cathcart and Klein are no slackers. After ten chapters of jokes, they’re still not done, but offer a timeline of Great Moments in the History of Philosophy (see “1650: Rene Descartes stops thinking for a second and dies” and “1900: Nietzsche dies; God dies six months later of a broken heart”) and a Glossary (see “utilitarianism: the moral philosophy that right actions are those that bring about more good for the persons affected than any alternative. The limited utility of this moral philosophy becomes evident when you try to please both your mother and your mother-in-law on Thanksgiving.”)
In other words, philosophy is immensely practical—not just to professional metaphysicians but also to unprofessional ones such as the guys that came up with this book. Also funny.
Two cows are standing in the pasture. One turns to the other and says, “Although pi is usually abbreviated to five numbers, it actually goes on into infinity.”
The second cow turns to the first and says, “Moo.”
Moral of the review: if you don’t find this book engaging, you may be a cow.