Review 11: 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

Like most Liberal Arts undergrads, I took a few philosophy courses while I was in college. In fact, my sophomore philosophy final has the distinction of being the only one I have ever actually slept through. My roommate woke me up at 11:30 and said, “Didn’t you have a final this morning?” I don’t remember anything between that moment and arriving in the professor’s office, apologizing profusely.

The point is, philosophy never really made an impact on me. I mean, I get it – Philosophy is supposed to be the essence of what makes us human, the ability to think about the way we think about the world. Dolphins and monkeys may be clever, but do they sit around and ponder whether there’s actually a real world out there or if it is only a product of our senses? I doubt it, as it seem like they’re more preoccupied with frolicking around and having sex, which means that Douglas Adams really was on to something.

I don’t quite get the kick out of philosophy that I feel like I’m “supposed” to, being an educated, intelligent, un-American Elitist and all that, so I’m glad that someone has boiled down four millennia of human thought into a 200-page joke book. Definitely more my speed.

The book begins with Aristotle and his belief in a telos, an ultimate purpose for everything, and continues on through ethics, political philosophy, and religious philosophy, as well as existentialism, logic, epistemology and much, much more. Be warned – if you already know a lot about philosophy, then there’s really nothing new in this book for you except the gags. It’s written as a kind of Philo 101, for people who’ve always wanted to know about the different branches of philosophy, but always fell asleep fifteen minutes into the lecture.

By using jokes, the authors make complex philosophical and logical ideas much more immediate and understandable. Take post hoc ergo propter hoc, for example. I know what the Latin means – “After this, therefore because of this,” which is a definition that never struck me as being any clearer than the original Latin. As a logical fallacy, I never really convinced myself that I understood what it meant, until I read this joke. (warning: high bawdiness content follows):

An older man marries a younger lady, and they’re truly in love. However, no matter what the old man does, he is unable to satisfy his young bride sexually. He tries everything, but cannot finish the deed, so to speak. 

So, they go to a sexual therapist, who makes a rather unusual suggestion. “Hire a handsome young man,” the therapist says, “and have him stand over the bed and wave a towel over you while you make love. This will help your wife fantasize, and should help her have an orgasm.” So they follow the therapist’s advice, hire a handsome young man, and try it out. But still, no success.

They return to the therapist, who thinks for a moment and says, “Okay, why not reverse it? Have the young man make love to your wife while you wave a towel over them?” They return home, and the young man climbs into bed with the young wife, while her husband waves a towel vigorously. Within minutes, the wife has an amazing, ear-splitting orgasm.

The husband smiles, looks at the young man and says, “There, you idiot – that’s how you wave a towel!

See? Now I get it! Post hoc is where you assume that because event B happened after event A, event A caused event B. No amount of hypotheticals or dull as dirt lectures have ever explained that to me quite as well as this one ribald joke.

I think these guys are on to something, too. Philosophy has always been the pursuit of the super-intellectual, and anyone who tells you, “I’m a philosopher” is assumed to say next, “And would you like fries with that?” Being an intellectual in America is hard enough as it is, but once you start trying to deconstruct the very essence of what “good” means, much less whether it is actually worth being good, people start to look at you funny.

But tell folks a joke, and all that erudite navel-gazing becomes crystal clear. Of course the GOP is run by Utilitarians – this joke makes perfect sense:

A young widow belongs to a country club, where she enjoys sunning herself by the pool. One day, she sees a handsome stranger poolside, so she sits next to him and says, “I don’t think I’ve seen you here before.” 

“You wouldn’t have,” he said. “I’ve been in prison for the last twenty years.”

“Good heavens,” she said. “What did you do?”

“I murdered my wife,” he replies.

“Ah,” she says. “So you’re single!”

Just replace the young widow with Dick Cheney and the handsome man with, say, Halliburton and you have yourself the GOP in a nutshell!

If you’re an old hand at philosophy, check it out for the jokes – there are plenty of good ones in there. If you’re new to philosophy, or you were put off by the classes you took in college, check it out. You’re not as dumb as your philo teacher made you feel. All you needed was the right sort of explanation.

“A blind man, a lesbian and a frog walk into a bar. The barkeep looks at them and says, “What is this – some kind of joke?”
– from Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar

Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar at Wikipedia
Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar at
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Philosophical Humor compiled by David Chalmers


Filed under Daniel Klein, humor, jokes, philosophy, Thomas Cathcart

4 responses to “Review 11: Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar

  1. Hello!Just wanted to say that I’re recently podcasted all of your reviews and am now an avid fangirl :DI’ve come across many a book reviews that are a)To impersonal and seam to be read from back of book or b) Not satisfying enough for my bibliophilia.Haven’t heard this episode, am going to do so… NOW.Keep up the awsome job, I really enjoy it. And please, please, please consider reviewing Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta graphic novel sometime in the feauture, as well as more Gaiman :)-Your happy new fangirl, Kate (Podcasting you from Madrid, Spain)

  2. Many thanks, Katie! I’ll definitely put V for Vendetta on my list – a great book…, And believe me, there’s plenty more of Gaiman ready to go.

  3. I’ve googled near and far and still I can’t find this weeks book :S

  4. “The Areas of My Expertise” by John Hodgman?

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