Saturday, April 10, 2010

Review: Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar

Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein

Publisher: Abrams
Year: 2007
My Rating: Four Stars
My Source: Library

This is a little gem of a book that attempts to marry philosophy and humor. The intention here is to give a lay reader a very broad overview of the main branches of philosophy without the reader being mired in detail and complex terminology. With philosophy, even a broad overview can sometimes be overwhelming, and this books seeks to avoid this by incorporating jokes to illustrate philosophical concepts.

The book has ten chapters each of which deals with one broad area of philosophy - Metaphysics, Logic, Epistemology, Ethics, Philosophy of Religion, Existentialism, Philosophy of Language, Social and Political Philosophy, Relativity and Metaphilosophy. Each of these topics is divided into several subtopics with a couple of pages being dedicated to each of these subtopics. There is a brief introduction to a philosophical concept followed by jokes to illustrate it and some discussion as well. The authors have managed to find jokes that are very appropriate to the ideas - no easy task I imagine.

The authors, Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, both hold degrees in philosophy from Harvard, but what strikes me most is their ability to be witty in the text itself. In discussing Rene Descartes, they say

In the seventeenth century, Rene Descartes opted for reason over a divine source of knowledge. This came to be known as putting Descartes before the source.

Descartes probably wishes he'd never said, "Cogito ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am"), because it's all anybody ever remembers about him - that and the fact that he said it while sitting inside a bread oven.

Humor is fairly subjective and one man's great joke is another's groaner. I can only say I enjoyed most of the jokes very much although there were a few corny ones about - and I doubt if any joke book can avoid a few of those. For instance, the following joke is used to demonstrate the relativity of the perception of time:

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."
The joke is indeed a relevant example of the relativity of one's awareness of time. Good joke or groaner? You decide!

If you want a very basic introduction to philosophy but would like a page turner as well, this is a good book to read. If you are looking for more in-depth ntroduction to philosophical topics and philosophers, this book is certainly not for you. If you do not care about philosophy at all, I would say that this book still makes for a fairly good joke book.

Bonus: Learn about this book and others by the same author at the book's website which also has audiofiles on some major concepts and philosophers.

This review is part of Cym Lowell's Book Review Party Wednesday for April 14.

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