Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar

This is philosophy? Are you kidding me? Well, yes, actually—that’s the whole point. A product of Harvard education and everyday inspiration, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar proposes the unlikely combination of intellectual sobriety and vaudeville humor. Explains authors Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, “…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, a gagster calls a zinger.” Ingenious, isn’t it?

Spanning centuries of philosophical history, this little orange book (lent to me by DA) contains ten different schools of thought within its beautifully laid out pages. In tackling each discipline, the authors introduce you to various philosophers’ takes on the issue at hand. So under existentialism, you have Hegel espousing a distant perspective of the world, Kierkegaard arguing for the anxiety of the individual, and Heidegger asserting that for anyone to live authentically, he must first be aware of his own mortality—and the constant possibility of death. For six pages, that’s some heavy stuff. But whether it be about existence, knowledge, or morals, each chapter also comes with an arsenal of jokes to keep you sufficiently non-depressed. In this book, hardly a page goes by without at least one joke. Some miss the mark, but a number are genuinely funny, capable of eliciting a hearty chuckle. (Sometimes though I have to reread a joke several times to understand the philosophy behind it, but maybe that’s just me overthinking.)

Like any good joke book, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar gets better as you keep reading. Problem is, pages fly by so quickly you hardly retain anything afterwards. The concept of reductio ad absurdum, for example, slipped past me completely: fifty pages after the book first mentioned it, I had to look it up again. I don’t count this against the book though, which I think wasn’t really meant to transform its reader into a philosophy whiz in the first place. It works as a light reference text, as introduction; and here it succeeds. It gets you interested enough to look past the jokes and check out real philosophy books—where, naturally, the real fun begins.

‘Hey, the other day Plato and a platypus walked into a bar. The bartender gave the philosopher a quizzical look, and Plato said, “What can I say? She looked better in the cave.”’

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