A delightful little book that generates the “a-ha!” moment of understanding philosophical concepts through jokes.
Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar (henceforth shortened to PPWB) is a delightful little book that generates the “a-ha!” moment of understanding philosophical concepts through jokes. The central premise of the book is that philosophy and jokes both “tease the mind in similar ways”. Despite my initial scepticism about whether this link was strong, I was convinced very quickly of just how effective a medium jokes are for illuminating philosophical concepts. “Philogags”, as Klein and Cathcart term them, are an engaging way of highlighting the fundamental issues that philosophers address. Instead of the dry, convoluted language that is infamously associated with academic philosophy, the mind-bending nature of philosophical ideas is expressed here through the absurdity of a joke’s punchline.
A simple example, that I particularly like, is the joke used to illustrate the “post-hoc ergo propter hoc” logical fallacy, better known as the error of assuming that because one thing occurs after another, that thing was caused by the other:
“Every morning she steps out onto her front porch and exclaims, “Let this house be safe from tigers!” Then she goes back inside. Finally, we said to her, “What’s that all about? There isn’t a tiger within a thousand miles of here.” And she said, “See? It works!”
The punchlines in these philogags mirror the logical absurdities that philosophers investigate, and convey the central ideas very succinctly!
Reading this book made me realise just how effective jokes like this can be as shortcuts to an intuitive understanding of philosophy. The way philosophy is taught at university is usually via an abstract maze of reasoning that often means students lose sight of the simple idea that inspires the philosophical inquiry in the first place. Philogags start with conveying that simple idea, all philosophy lectures should start with them!
PPWB gives a wide range of philosophical topics its philogag treatment, certainly most of the subjects covered in an undergraduate philosophy degree are touched upon. A few of my favourite treatments include:
- Essentialism: the idea that if we had an object, some of its properties it couldn’t not have (essential properties), whereas others are merely accidental:
- “Why is an elephant big, grey, and wrinkled? Because if it was small, white, and round it’d be an aspirin.”
- Process Philosophy: the idea that God cannot predict the future, and that he evolves with the universe
- German Idealism: especially the idea of a “ding an sich”, a “thing in itself”. The idea is that we only know objects through the sense data they give us, but we know nothing about the actual “thing in itself” giving us the sense data:
- Secretary: “Herr Doktor, there’s a ding an sich in the waiting room.” Urologist: Another ding an sich! If I see one more today, I think I’m screaming! Who is it? Secretary: “How would I know?” Urologist: “Describe him.” Secretary: “You must be kidding!”
- Analytic/Synthetic Distinction: the distinction between things that are true in themselves, and so give us no more information about the world (analytic), and things that give us new information about the world (synthetic).
- “There’s a surefire way to live to a ripe old age – eat a meatball a day for a hundred years!”
My only criticism of the book is less of a criticism, and more a wish that this book was longer! The sheer number of topics it addresses means that many ideas are given only a page. It would be interesting to see if the philogag approach could be extended past the most basic aspects, to a more complete discussion of some of the subtler debates and issues around philosophical problems.
In summary, this book is excellent for anybody wanting a gentle, and engaging introduction to the fundamental questions in philosophy. An amateur or beginning student in philosophy will benefit most from this book, and will gain an intuitive grasp of philosophical issues. Graduates and more well-read philosophers will not learn anything new, or profound reading this book, but can no doubt benefit from the new perspective of the philogag, and appreciate an alternative way of explaining philosophical ideas.