PLATO AND A PLATYPUS WALK INTO A BAR…Understanding Philosophy through Jokes
By Thomas Cathcart & Daniel Klein (Abrams Image, June, 2007)
Review by Nancy Yanes Hoffman, the Writing Doctor and Would-be Philosopher,
585-385-1515/ 16 San Rafael Dr, Rochester, NY 14618
Once, in the bluest of moons, a volume sneaks out from under the book tower and begs for review. So it was with the enticingly titled Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes (Abrams Image, June, 2007).
An instant best seller, beating out the anti-Hilary pontifications on the best-seller list, P&P establishes “philogagging,” a neologism for using jokes to illustrate arcane philosophical precepts, as a modus operandi. Yes, the jokes are old. So? Most accepted philosophical constructs and struggles with meaning are even older than the jokes.
What is the principle of philogagging? C&K believe:
“The construction and payoff of jokes and the construction and payoff of philosophical concepts are made out of the same stuff. They tease the mind in the same ways…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.”
Just who are these philogaggers par excellence? What did Paul Tillich, who taught these typically sixties characters, predict for their future? What does happen to two Harvard 1960s philosophy majors as the years pass? Just what you know happens to the rest of us. The Philosophy of Time and the tricks of Relativity catch up with them—just as their jokes did. Their beards are white. Their hair—what’s left—is combed over the top to pretend there’s more wisps than meet the eye. But their wit and their grasp of philosophy remain rich and fertile. Maybe even richer than half a century ago.
Do all the years demonstrate whether time and truth are relative or absolute? C&K don’t know the answer any more than do the rest of us. But they try to figure it out. Focusing on varying perceptions of time’s relativity, they illustrate with these jokes:
“A snail was mugged by two turtles. When the police asked him what happened, he said, ‘I don’t know. It all happened so fast.’”
“A man is praying to God…’Lord, is it true that a millions years to you is but a second?’
‘Yes, that is true.’
‘Well, then, what is a million dollars to you?’
‘A million dollars to me is but a penny.’
‘Ah, then, Lord,’ says the man, ‘may I have a penny?’
‘Sure,’ says the Lord. ‘Just a second.’”
Not to be outdone by philosophy’s age-old wrestling match with the meaning of meaning, Cathcart and Klein play with definitions of “meaning” through the centuries. In one of their best chapters, “Philosophy of Language,” which sees philosophy as semantics, they remember “When William Jefferson Clinton responded to a query, ‘It depends on what your definition of “is” is.’” Clinton was employing Language Philosophy, note C&K, adding, “He also may have been doing other things.”
Willing to comment on philosophical history, C&K outline “Great Moments in the History of Philosophy” in the back of the book. Their history includes such stellar occasions as “399 A.D. A review in Alexandria Asp dismisses Hypatia’s Neoplatonism as ‘chick lit’”; C&K add that Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792 and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in 1958 suffered the same fate; “1328 William Occam invents the Gillette Mach 3”; “1650 Rene Descartes stops thinking for a second and dies.”
Their glossary is equally enlightening—and pertinent. They define a priori as “Known prior to experience. For example, one can know, prior to ever watching the show, that all American Idol contestants believe they are singers because American Idol is a singing contest for people who—for reasons best known to themselves—believe they are singers.” The zinger here comments, “Contrast a posteriori,” which means “Known by experience; known empirically.”
When you walk into C&K’s literary bar (just where is it located?) with Plato & a Platypus, do a quick reading for the jokes and then reread their little book for all the philosophical definitions and comments that aren’t as simple as they seem. The subjects range from metaphysics, logic, epistemology, philosophy of language and relativity (my favorites) to existentialism and ethics.
What to do with such a little book? Digest the philosophy, try to remember it (that’s the tough part), and use the philogags, no matter how tired. At your next cocktail party when the conversation lags and your feet hurt despite your Doctor Scholl’s pads, confound your drinking confreres with your philosophical know-how. Then, buy the book for all those know-it-alls who disagree with you.