One of the benefits of being a blogger, besides the swarms of groupies throwing themselves at me as I drive my luxurious Honda Civic 94, is the privilege of receiving, once in a blue moon, a free book to review. Which is how “Plato and A Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes”, a humorous journey through the history of philosophy, alighted on my reading desk.
Philosophy is a subject that most of us have an almost total ignorance of, even those like me who put a Doctor of Philosphy after their names. The main reason for this almost pervasive lack of interest is that the discipline of philosophy, as a whole, is often considered to be a dying subject, of no relevance to the modern world—an exclusive prerogative of stuffy, ancient academics and unshaven “intellectuals” at coffee shops. In other words, people who have no life because they spent their lives contemplating the meaning of life.
While it is beyond doubt that a passing knowledge of philosophy isn’t as much of a resume addition as a knowledge of let’s say .NET, it is also true that for people who want to construct arguments, understand opposing points of view, deconstruct the implicit assumptions we make in our speech and are as intrigued by the question “Are Pamela Anderson’s breasts real?” as they are by questions like: “What does it mean for something to be real?”, “What characteristics define Pamela Anderson?” or alternatively “If we take away her breasts, is Pamela Anderson Pamela Anderson?”, a little brush with philosophy may be a rather fulfilling experience.
Once however you get past the “Why should I”s you encounter the “How can I” — a formidable obstacle given that philosophy is very difficult to drink in through the mere swallowing of books. Why? It’s the language, silly. Any self-respecting philosopher will tell you that the impreciseness of language restricts our definition of reality, thought and understanding —no wonder then that it is so very difficult to convey anything substantial through it.
This is where the use of jokes to illustrate concepts of philosophy become such a potent pedagogical construct because jokes, with their “A-ha!” moment of the “punch”, convey ideas that are otherwise not as easily expressed in language. Of course in order to pull it off, you need to be able to tell the right joke in the right context and then be able to use language sufficiently well to make the connection between the “premise” of the joke and the philosophical construct being explicated and then let the mind do the rest.
The authors, Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, are able to do that consistently, displaying a good understanding of philosophy and an even better understanding of humor which makes reading “Plato and A Platypus Walk Into a Bar” an illuminating and entertaining experience. The jokes are nothing new, most of them old hat for Reader’s Digest readers, but the philosophical context in which they are placed shows them off in a totally new light giving one useful insights not just into the ideas being explained but also into what exactly it is that makes jokes funny.
Don’t however expect something very deep or profound here—-the book is after all light reading, both in terms of the number of pages as well as in the level of exposition. It is also hardly a 360 view of the subject, the authors are heavily biased towards Western schools of philosophical thought which explains the total absence of Hindu philosophy (there are however lots of “Indian yogi” jokes) from its pages. The only school of Eastern philosophy that gets a mention is Zen, where also the authors seem to be openly contemptuous of it because of its supposed “vagueness”.
There is nothing wrong per se in the fact that the authors are opinionated and freely express their biases—-after all this is not scholarly work that needs to hold itself up to standards of objectivity. Consider it more as a countdown show where the authors run down through the list of Top 10 philosophies, playing 30 seconds of music between wisecracks, banter and tomfoolery.
Of course, in an era of short attention spans and an overall dumbing down of all kinds of discourse, this attractive user-friendly “packaging” is not, in itself, a bad thing.
Summing up, if the book provides even a fleeting understanding of the difficult concepts that form its subject matter and motivates at least one person to “take it to the next level” then its purpose has been well served.
And that achievement is, by no means, a joke.