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Is This Some Kind Of Joke?

Tim Madigan laughs at platypi.

[A review of Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar… Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein; and Sci-Phi: Philosophy from Socrates to Schwarzenegger and Everything I Know I Learned from TV: Philosophy for the Unrepentant Couch Potato, both by Mark Rowlands.]

Kant’s Joke. Kant wanted to prove in a way that would dumbfound the common man that the common man was right: that was the secret joke of this soul. He wrote against the scholars in favor of the popular prejudice, but for scholars and not popularly.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 193 (Walter Kaufmann translation).

I don’t know if Kant would have appreciated Nietzsche’s witty remark, but I must admit it made me laugh when I first read it. Yet I suspect it’s not the sort of joke (or meta-joke) that would amuse anyone who was not steeped in the weird world of German Idealism. The virtue of the three books being reviewed here is that none of them presume any background knowledge in philosophy – they seek to enlighten through amusement by relying on jokes and examples that just about anyone could understand. Consider the following old chestnut that Cathcart and Klein relate:

Secretary: Doctor, there’s an invisible man in the waiting room.
Doctor: Tell him I can’t see him.

Drumroll, please! Somehow Cathcart and Klein use this to illustrate Kant’s discussion of the ding an sich and his paradigm shift in epistemology. Through retelling other classics Henny Youngman himself might have blushed at using, they shamelessly illustrate many of the main points of philosophy. Here’s another example, in a discussion on ‘situation ethics’:

Armed robbers burst into a bank, line up customers and staff against the wall and begin to take their wallets, watches, and jewelry. Two of the bank’s accountants are among those waiting to be robbed. The first accountant suddenly thrusts something in the hand of the other. The second accountant whispers, “What is this?” The first accountant whispers back, “It’s the fifty bucks I owe you.”

Cathcart and Klein both majored in philosophy at Harvard, but wisely chose to pursue careers in social work and comedy writing. They know their stuff, and wear their learnedness lightly, and Plato and a Platypus is a pleasure to read. The title, by the way, is a joke set-up, and they are offering a prize for whoever can come up with the best ending for it (see their website www.platoandaplatypus.com for details).

As a lifelong aficionado of old jokes I can’t help but love this book, and I have been quoting liberally from it in my classes. Here’s another favorite of mine, which they use in their chapter on the Philosophy of Religion to discuss the possibility of knowing the future:

“My grandfather knew the exact time of the exact day of the exact year that he would die.”

“Wow, what an evolved soul! How did it come to him?”

“The judge told him.”

That’s fatalism with a smile.

Mark Rowlands, Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire, takes a slightly more conventional approach in his two books, at least in the sense that he gives more thorough analyses of philosophical concepts than is found in Cathcart and Klein. In the Sci-Phi book he utilizes such popular science fiction films as The Matrix, Total Recall, Star Wars and Blade Runner to illustrate such topics as Cartesian skepticism, personal identity, good versus evil, and death and the meaning of life; while in the TV book he mines such popular television shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and Seinfeld to unearth what they have to say on such topics as ethical obligations, the connection between moral goodness and psychological health, the nature of happiness and individualism and selfishness. In this regard he is emulating the approach taken by the myriad other ‘Philosophy and Popular Culture’ books that have flooded the market. The difference, though, is in Rowlands’ tone. He is, to put it bluntly, a smartass. He writes in the vernacular, drops in wisecracks on every page, and can’t resist a snide comment whenever the occasion arises. For instance, in Sci-Phi, when discussing the idea that philosophy is a form of therapy, he attributes the idea rightly to Ludwig Wittgenstein; but then Rowlands adds that Wittgenstein was “a man as in need of therapy as any philosopher who ever lived.” Most academic philosophers would recoil in horror from such an ad hominem remark; but somewhere in his eternal recurrence Friedrich Nietzsche is smiling. And after all it was Wittgenstein who once remarked to his friend Norman Malcolm that a serious work in philosophy could consist entirely of jokes. But while the three works in question don’t consist entirely of jokes, their intent is certainly serious – to make off-puttingly abstruse concepts accessible through humor.

As with most other ‘Philosophy and Popular Culture’ works, I’m not so sure these books alone are sufficiently explanatory. For novices interested in learning more about the topics addressed it would be best to supplement their reading with equally well-written but less joke-laden books such as About Philosophy by Robert Paul Wolff (whom Cathcart and Klein credit as being a mentor, kind of). Still, I highly recommend all three: they are good opening portals into the mysteries of philosophy for beginners, and pleasing reminders for those of us already ascending the dank, mossy walls of Plato’s Cave to not take ourselves too seriously. As that jester Friedrich Nietzsche asked in Thus Spake Zarathustra, “Who among you can laugh and be elevated at the same time?” Or, as Mark Rowlands puts it, in Everything I Know I Learned from TV, “Philosophy hasn’t died in our modern cultureless culture; it has simply relocated.” Similarly, old jokes never die, they just get recycled – as in the following from Cathcart and Klein’s discussion of Platonic Virtue:

At a meeting of the college faculty an angel suddenly appears and tells the head of the philosophy department, “I will grant you whichever of three blessings you choose: Wisdom, Beauty – or ten million dollars.”

Immediately, the professor chooses Wisdom.

There is a flash of lightning, and the professor appears transformed, but he just sits there, staring down at the table. One of his colleagues whispers, “Say something.”

The professor says, “I should have taken the money.”

© Tim Madigan 2007

Tim Madigan claims to have originated the following joke, which never fails to elicit a ‘spittake’ when related at American Philosophical Association gatherings: “What’s a logician’s favorite pornographic novel? Venus Infers.“

Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar… by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, Abrams Image, 2007, ISBN: 978-0-8109-1493-3; 200 pps, $18.95 Sci-Phi by Mark Rowlands, Thomas Dunne Books, 2003, ISBN0-312-32236-4, 276 pps, $14.95. Everything I Know I Learned from TV by Mark Rowlands, Ebury Press, 2005, ISBN 0-09189- 835-1, 282 pps, $12.89.

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