24 March 2008

Funny thing about philosophy

Last fall I noticed a little ad for a book in The New Yorker. The title caught my eye: Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar... The subtitle, Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes, convinced me to buy it for David for Christmas. The book is by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein [below].

David and I have enjoyed listening to Garrison Keillor's joke shows, reading political humor, and reading and talking about philosophy. (Sophie's World was one of his favorite books a few years ago.) So, I bought the book.

David read it in the days after Christmas. When he went back to Beloit, I asked him if I could read it.

There are some good jokes, but the title is just about the best thing about the book. The punchline is at the end of the book.

The jokes are illustrative of the topics in chapters on metaphysics, logic, epistemology, ethics, existentialism, et al. But I was really lazy when I read the book. I often wanted more explanation for the connections between topics and jokes. In other words, I didn't always get the philosophy.

If I were still teaching philosophy, I would probably "borrow" some of these jokes to use in class. Well, maybe. I'm not one of those people who readily remembers jokes and tells them spontaneously. The jokes would have to be in the lesson plans and I'd have to rehearse them.

Well, what, you ask, are some of the jokes?

Here's an epistemological joke: "A scientist and his wife are out for a drive in the country. The wife says, 'Oh, look! Those sheep have been shorn.'

"'Yes,' says the scientist. 'On this side.'"

How about an existential joke?

"Norman began to hyperventilate when he saw the doctor. 'I'm sure I've got liver disease.'

"'That's ridiculous,' said the doctor. 'You'd never know if you had liver disease. There's no discomfort of any kind.'

"'Exactly!' said Norman. 'Those are my precise symptoms.'"

There's this from the chapter on the philosophy of language: "As the poet Gertrude Stein lay on her deathbed, her partner, Alice B. Toklas, leaned over and whispered, 'What is the answer, Gertrude?'

"Replied Stein, 'What's the question?'"

Finally, there's a meta-philosophy joke: "A blind man, a lesbian, and a frog walk into a bar. The barkeep looks up at them and says, 'What is this — a joke?'"

Okay, my reaction is definitely mine. Your reactions will vary. If you're curious check it out.

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