Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Who's funniest: Plato, Descartes, or Sartre?

Multitasking has been getting a lot of bad press lately. You’re not even supposed to talk on your cell phone while you drive anymore. They say it causes accidents. Well, here is a multitasking project that you can do safely. Suppose you’ve been hired to MC a Moose Lodge event. Suppose at the same time you are about to appear on Jeopardy and one of the categories, you’ve been told in advance, is Western Philosophy. You can get jokes for your event and information for your game show appearance at the same time if you read Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar . . . : Understanding Philosophy through Jokes, by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein. Neat, huh? Just don’t do it while driving.

In fact, by reading this book you can simultaneously become educated in philosophy and expand your joke repertoire even if you have no game show appearances or MC gigs in the near future. Why put together jokes and philosophy? Besides being a more enjoyable way to learn philosophy than Western Philosophy for Dummies, the authors contend that philosophy, which is an attempt to understand the incomprehensible through language, and jokes, which use language to make you laugh, very often use the same central ideas to get to their separate ends. Plato and a Platypus supports this thesis well. Plus, it’s really funny.

There are some who enjoy philosophy and can vigorously debate such questions as free will versus determinism through the night and well into the morning. There are others who find philosophical arguments complex and jargon-ridden, and there are still others who ask “what does it matter” and simply don’t see the point in having a philosophical discussion at all. Cathcart and Klein are not unsympathetic to any of these positions, and their humor often reflects the absurd nature of philosophy as a discipline. If you love to indulge in the knots of existential thinking, they have a joke for that. But if you’re confused and befuddled by questions of reality and observation, they have a joke for that, too.

The jokes do have a certain similar tone throughout. Most seem to have been inspired by vaudeville comedians like Buddy Hacket and George Burns Here’s an example:
“My Grandfather knew the exact time on the exact day of the exact year he would die. “
“Wow! What an evolved soul. How did it come to him?”
“The judge told him.”


Really, the book ought to come with its own rim-shot kit. There are a number of jokes which take place at the gates of heaven, several involving psychiatrists, several which include (apparently Jewish) mothers, and a couple of travelling salesman jokes. You have to really enjoy that kind of humor to fully appreciate the book. And you have to wonder if other types of humor would so easily tie work with a discussion of philosophy. Here’s another one:
Salesman: Ma’am this vacuum cleaner will cut your work in half
Customer: Terrific! Give me two of them.

Some of the jokes illustrate the tenets of logic, some of them illustrate logical fallacies or the limits and failures of particular philosophies and some, are, well, just jokes that are inspired by a particular philosophy. If the book has a flaw, other than that all the humor is all pretty similar in tone, it’s that sometimes the jumps between explaining a philosophy and the jokes are a bit sudden. Cathcart and Klein, although committed to the task of relating in sensible terms the history of philosophy, simply can’t pass up a good opportunity to tell a joke. “That reminds me of a good one. . .” could introduce any number of jokes in the book.

Of course, that’s some serious nitpicking. Really, would you want to have it any other way? I mean would you want a guy who was telling you a perfectly good travelling salesman joke to interrupt himself and say, “That reminds me of a great essay by Foucault about knowledge and power?” No, you would not.

The book does clarify a great deal about philosophy for me, mostly because it simplifies many of the more difficult ideas, and it has given me a number of new jokes to try out on my family and friends. My wife was handy on several occasions as I read the book, so I tried some out on her. Unfortunately, I had to go through a half dozen before I got her to laugh at one. Like I said, this humor isn’t for everyone (or maybe there’s something to the talent of the joke teller). But here, from the book’s section on religious philosophy is her favorite:
If you have an ice cream cone, I will give you an ice cream cone.
If you need an ice cream cone, I will take your ice cream cone away.
That is an ice cream koan.


Seth Christenfeld said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Seth Christenfeld said...

Whose funniest what?

mr chompchomp said...

Whose changed to who's. Thanks for the heads up. Embarrassing . . .