Thursday, November 21, 2013

Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar by Thomas Cathcart & Daniel Klein

Source of book: Borrowed from my friend and longtime stand partner Donna.

“Understanding philosophy through jokes” is the subtitle of this book. Philosophy fascinates me for a number of reasons. Obviously, to anyone who reads my blog, I love pondering the big questions of life. I also find it fascinating that we still tend to fall in line with either Plato or Aristotle on so many questions. Well over 2000 years, and a myriad of changes in science, technology, sociology, and revolutions in our politics and economics, and we still are dominated by questions from bygone eras.

This book is a lighthearted take on the topic. Not shallow, but light. The authors’ main premise is that jokes are inherently philosophy. As they put it:

The construction and payoff of jokes and the construction and payoff of philosophical constructs 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 flip 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.

There are some rather funny jokes in this book. Which really do illustrate the concepts in a memorable way. If one is looking for an easy and painless way to approach philosophy, this isn’t a bad way to start. However, I would add that it is even better with a background in philosophy. (But one shouldn’t be too pedantic about it - this book is more about the fun than a truly rigorous and exhaustive approach to the topic.)

Several years back, I read through Socrates to Sartre: History of Philosophy by Samuel Enoch Stumpf, a venerable textbook still in print (in a later edition than I read). This book should not be confused with the book with a similar title by T. Z. Lavine, which I have not read. I highly recommend the Stumpf book for its systematic and sequential overview of the subject. I found it helpful to look at each succeeding philosopher as (in part) a reaction against what went before.

I’ll share just a few of the fun jokes as a teaser.

The book notes that the “Golden Rule,” which in Christ’s words is, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is found throughout history and the world in different forms. After listing the different iterations from different religious and philosophical traditions, the authors include one more:

SOPRANOISM (Twenty-first Century A. D.)

Whack the next guy with the same respect you’d like to be whacked with, you know?

Or this law related gem, which seems particularly apropos after a couple weeks of court in which various litigants have said peculiar things to the judge. (The philosophical point the purpose of laws and penalties, and the fitting of a penalty to the crime.)

A man waits all day in traffic court for his case to be heard. At long last it’s his turn to stand before the judge, but the judge only tells him that he will have to come back tomorrow, as court is being adjourned for the day. In exasperation, the man snaps, “What the hell for?”
The judge snaps back, “Twenty dollars for contempt of court!”
The man pulls out his wallet.
The judge says, “You don’t have to pay today.”
The man says, “I’m just checking to see if I have enough for two more words.”

The jokes are not the entire attraction either. The authors themselves are pretty witty with their succinct introductions to the various topics of philosophy. My favorite, naturally, concerns law and society.

Social and political philosophy examines issues of justice in society. Why do we need governments? How should goods be distributed? How can we establish a fair social system? These questions used to be settled by the stronger guy hitting the weaker guy over the head with a bone, but after centuries of social and political philosophy, society has come to see that missiles are much more effective.

So yes, this is a fun book. I recommend it, but also recommend a good background in philosophy as it will shed light on the great debates of history and our present time.

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