Plato And A Platypus Walk Into a Bar—A Book Review

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.

19 thoughts on “Plato And A Platypus Walk Into a Bar—A Book Review

  1. I still think the best book on this subject is Sophie’s World although I did enjoy reading this one.

  2. “If we take away her breasts, is Pamela Anderson Pamela Anderson?” – deserves a place in top 100 questions ever asked. 🙂

    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. — Bang on target.

    A very interesting review, Arnab. Thanks for it. I’m not sure if I’m going to read the book after this, though.

  3. One of your best reviews i read till now (not only of books). You did an excellent job of introducing the book. And if you wrote this piece under the after-effects of reading that book, i certainly think its worth reading.

  4. An India-specific version of this book would be useful and probably more hilarious.

  5. Nice post

    The word Zen actually originates from Sanskrit Dhyana.

    Never knew that they send free copies to bloggers. Now I must start blogging too!

  6. …besides the swarms of groupies throwing themselves at me as I drive my luxurious Honda Civic 94…

    @ Arnab
    as a co-Hnda Civic-er, I can say, Honda Civics rule…
    Try outfitting it with some of the Car gizmos u work with…

  7. P and a P walk into a B- what a name! Sounds like the kind of book one would like to read after a couple of joints. And then I thought that I must have been doped to be thinking like that. As this was a different kind of writing from your other ones. Or is it the same style of writing, and its just me thats thinking differently today? And so on..

    Actually Pam was more Pamela Sanderson with those silcon cones. But she has a nice thing down there too, on the evidence of the clandestine photos taken on her birthday escapade. Shes one of those women who looks unbearably ugly when she wears clothes while inducing in you an unbearable lightness of being when she doesn’t.

    Nice writing. If it wasn’t a recent book, i would have been inclined to think that this was a piece written by you years ago in Cal when the internet connection was down with the intended picture only half downloaded. But with Sanderson, that would have sufficed. Thats her ‘greatness’ vis a vis other chicks.

  8. Can we have some excerpts ?

  9. Hara hara bom bom October 2, 2007 — 5:52 pm

    The office of the future will have only three things. A computer, a man, & a dog.

    The computer to do the work. The man to feed the dog.

    And the dog to keep the man away from the computer !! 🙂

  10. Your review makes for an interesting read. It too might serve the purpose of a few people buying the book irrespective of whether they read it or not. 🙂

  11. Didnt know they send books to bloggers; hope they dont find me!

  12. Arnab I would be very interested to read your review of Code Name God

  13. Interesting…..both from the perspective/ richness of context addressed and the number of responses you have got as compared to your ‘usual’ posts

  14. Once i tried a philosophical book, Lila ( It was a hard read!

  15. Hara hara bom bom October 5, 2007 — 5:19 pm

    Confucius he says :

    • Man who fart in church must sit in his own pew.
    • Virgin like balloon — one prick, all gone.
    • Girl who make love in treehouse puts ass on limb.
    • Man who lays girl on hillside is not on level.
    • Boy who stand on toilet, he high on pot
    • Man who walk through airport door sideways going to Bangkok.
    • Man who drop watch in toilet have shitty time.
    • Man with hand in pocket feel cocky all day.
    • Constipated man; he no give a crap.”
    • Schoolboy who plays with schoolgirl in wrong period be caught red-handed.
    • Boy who goes to bed with sex problem on mind wakes up with solution in hand

    Confucius, he speaky too much.

  16. “the discipline of philosophy, as a whole, is often considered to be a dying subject”

    So long as men think, philosophy is not going to die. While on the topic, here is a link to a radio show devoted to the subject. Do take a look, it is fascinating.

  17. A nice review GB. I was nodding my head unconsciously while reading about the impreciseness of language(a more automatic response at is to drop what you’re doing and to ROFL). well put well put.
    Some of us are of the opinion that GreatBong is slowwly calming down. is it true? (The pam anderson question puts such doubts to rest, yes, but not forever.)
    tell us tell us!

  18. i dont know what to say but this review was great…super!

  19. Not exactly a joke-book but this book explains philosophy in a comic book format . I found it pretty nice and humorous. Though the Google books wont let me read beyond page 100.

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