Plato and a Platypus Walked into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes

When I started working on my master’s in theology, the class I dreaded more than any other was philosophy. It just seemed like so much gobbledygook to me—epistemology, ontology, noumenology, blahblahdelogy. In fact, I had a sneaking suspicion that all these fancy words were just ways to dress up a lot of ideas that either amounted to nothing more than common sense or that weren’t worth thinking about. But much to my surprise, I actually enjoyed philosophy and realized that those fancy terms could be a useful shorthand. Epistemology may be a long, fancy word, but it’s not nearly the mouthful that “the study of how we know what we know” would be. And the study of how we know what we know can be quite fascinating.

So I ended up finding philosophy interesting, but it isn’t always easy for me to keep all the terms straight or to wrap my mind around all the concepts explored in philosophy. I picked up this little book by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein in hopes that it could be a useful, and fun, refresher.

Cathcart and Klein cover such basic philosophical concepts as logic, ethics, relativity, existentialism, and yes, epistemology. As you might expect from the title, the book is written in a light style and is peppered with jokes that are meant to illuminate the concepts discussed. Here, for example, is a joke about empiricism (the belief that we gain knowledge through sensory data):

Morty comes home to find his wife and his best fried, Lou, naked together in bed. Just as Morty is about to open his mouth, Lou jumps out of bed and says, “Before you say anything, old pal, what are you going to believe, me or your eyes?”

Clearly, Lou is not an empiricist. And yes, the joke is corny. All the jokes are pretty corny—the kinds of jokes you’d expect some old guy to tell at a Catskills resort. I’ll admit I chuckled at a couple of them, but they weren’t knee-slappers, nor were many of them new. Still, some of them, like the one above, could help readers get their minds around philosophical concepts like empiricism. Others were, well, a stretch. How, pray tell, is this joke supposed to better explain the traditional Jewish and Christian response to the deist belief in an impersonal God?

A Jewish grandmother is watching for grandchild playing on the beach when a huge wave comes and takes him out to sea. She pleads, “Please, God, save my only grandson. I beg of you, bring him back.”

And a big wave comes and washes the boy back onto the beach, good as new.

She looks up to heaven and says: “He had a hat!”

Okay, God is in the joke, and God is active, but the joke doesn’t really illustrate anything about deism vs. traditional belief. It’s just sort of thrown in at a place that seems sort of appropriate.

At other times, the availability of jokes seems to drive the amount of space devoted to a particular idea. Feminism gets 7 pages (and 7 jokes), even though the idea of feminism is pretty easy to understand when compared to, say, essentialism, which gets only 4 pages (and 5 jokes).

In the end, I wouldn’t consider this a particulary good overview of philosophy for the newbie. It moves too quickly over several important topics. I’m not sure anyone who isn’t already familar with these ideas would learn much of value. However, it worked for me as a refresher. I could also see it being useful for someone currently studying philosophy, just as a fun supplement to the heavier reading. Maybe a bathroom book for the philosophy student.

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10 Responses to Plato and a Platypus Walked into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes

  1. christina says:

    I have been eyeing this book for some time. Thanks for the review as I haven’t read one yet.

  2. Care says:

    Well, now I have little philosophy education but I like that joke abt the Jewish response to the iimpersonal God. I see that the Jewish gma expects God to know every hair on the kid’s head and yes, his hat, too. Am I right?
    I do think the subject of philosophy with jokes – even bad ones would make the subject a lot less intimidating.

  3. I listened to this in the car. And it was clear that the philosophy angle was to a large extent an excuse to tell a bunch of jokes. But once you accept that, and listen to (or read) the jokes, it’s a fairly fun book! I notice they now have a sequel out too.

  4. Teresa says:

    christina: You’re welcome!

    Care: Doh! Of course! I was looking for more deism, I think. (And it is one of the jokes that got a chuckle out of me.) I do think this book could help make philosophy less intimidating, as long as the reader doesn’t stop here.

    rhapsodyinbooks: Yeah, I agree. The philosophy wasn’t bad (although I’m sure someone whose taken more than one class could find something in their definitions to quibble with), but the jokes seemed to drive the content at times. It does seem like it would be a great audio choice.

  5. rebeccareid says:

    I didn’t really like this much. But I’m a newbie who knows NOTHING about philosophy so I’d hoped to learn something.

  6. Teresa says:

    Rebecca: See, I suspected that at least a slight background in philosophy would make this better. As a refresher (or, I suspect, a supplement to in-depth instruction), it works well.

  7. Cara Powers says:

    You have any philosophy overviews you would recommend?

  8. Teresa says:

    Cara: Alas, no. We used a textbook for my class that was fine but read like, well, a textbook and then we read lots of original texts.

  9. Lorin says:

    Have you read Sophie’s World? I’m never studied philosophy but I enjoyed it a great deal and learned a lot when I read it, many, many years ago.

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