Often, philosophy is so dense and hard to fully process that it feels impossible to understand and enjoy. Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein are trying to fix that problem. Their book, Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar explains some of the deepest thinkers of all time, like Immanuel Kant or John Locke, with humor. Both authors join the show to tell stories, crack jokes, and clarify some of the big ideas of philosophy.
- Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, philosophers, humorists, and authors of Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar… Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes
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17-08 The Funny Side of Philosophy
Gary Price: Anyone who has taken a philosophy class knows that pondering the big questions in the universe is serious business. The teachings of such heavyweights as Plato, Aristotle, and Kant are no laughing matter, right? Well, somebody forgot to tell Danny Klein and Tom Cathcart. They’re co-authors of the book, “Plato and a platypus walk into a bar: understanding philosophy through jokes.” So, what’s so funny about philosophy? Klein explains…
Danny Klein: It’s not that philosophy’s so funny, it’s the jokes explain philosophical ideas and somehow make it funny. This is a little something that we discovered just telling jokes one time. Our background is in philosophy. We took our undergraduate degrees in philosophy at Harvard 50 years ago. It’s been on our minds since. We still read the stuff, but we also tell jokes all the time and for a while I was even in the joke business in New York working for comedians. So one time I tell Tom this old joke that just happened to be in my mind. It’s about a guy’s making love to his best friend’s wife when they hear the husband’s car pull up in the driveway and the friend jumps out of bed and he’s naked but he runs and hides in the closet. Just then the husband comes sauntering in goes to the closet opens the door and he sees his friend standing there stark naked. He says, “Lou, what are you doing there?” And Lou says, “Well everybody’s got to be somewhere.” That’s an old Myron Cohen joke that was actually told on the Ed Sullivan Show in the 1950s if you can believe it.
Price: Doesn’t sound like anything you’d hear from the great thinkers, and Cathcart says that’s the problem — the famous philosophers didn’t have a sense of humor…
Cathcart: So our task was to take stories that have nothing on the surface to do with philosophy and show how they made a philosophical point. So that night when Danny called me on the phone I said, “Oh you see what’s going on in the joke, Danny? That guy in the closet is giving a Hegelian answer to what was intended as an existentialist question. That’s what everybody thinks! It’s so obvious….Not! So Danny says, “Oh, yeah, yeah I see what you mean. He said, “Like Hegel was doing philosophy from on high, like he was looking down on the whole sweep of history as if he wasn’t part of it and then the existentialist came along and said, no, no no, you can’t do that, you know, we’re people; we’re human beings, we’re existing human beings and you only do philosophy from the ground. You can’t do it from God’s point of view. So the husband in the story is obviously asking an existentialist question, like he’s asking a question from the ground. “What are YOU doing in MY closet in that condition?” And for reasons of his own the guy in the closet prefers to answer a more abstract question and he says, “Everybody’s got to be somewhere.”
Klein: It’s true, everybody does have to be somewhere. I happen to be in a motel in Plymouth, at the moment.
Price: Klein, the joke writer, was convinced there was a book in there somewhere, but Cathcart wasn’t so sure…
Cathcart: And I said, boy that’s going to be a short book Dan. There are probably four jokes in the world that explain philosophical ideas. And Danny said, no, no, there are hundreds of them. And he turned out to be right.
Klein: I’m often right you ought to know.
Price: Cathcart says that many of the jokes they found to explain deep thoughts were just “borscht belt” stories immortalized by the old-time comedians.
Cathcart: Jokes from Shecky Greene and Milton Burle and those guys. For example, there’s a philosophy called empiricism, which is the philosophy that underlies science. It says that the way we learn about the world is through our sensory experience. But you not only have to have the experience through your senses, but you also have to interpret it. You have to bring your own experience to bear to come up with an interpretation of it. So the story that illustrates it is a guy goes to the doctor and he says doctor, I think my wife is losing her hearing. And the doctor says, well there’s a very simple test for that. He says when you go home tonight stand about ten feet behind her and ask her a question. If she doesn’t answer more up to five feet behind her and if she still doesn’t answer go up right behind her and ask her again. The guy says that’s a terrific idea. So he goes home that night, his wife is cooking dinner. He stands in the kitchen door and he says, “Honey what’s for dinner. There’s no answer. So he moves half way into the kitchen he says, honey what’s for dinner? Still no answer. So he walks up right behind her and he says, honey what’s for dinner? And she turns around and she says, “For the third time, chicken!”
Price: The topic of philosophy doesn’t often come up in everyday conversation. And it makes you wonder if we really need to understand it the way people did before scientific knowledge explained so much. Klein says that in some ways, we need it now more now than ever.
Klein: A lot of philosophical arguments are still raging. As a matter of fact the one about whether there’s a God and what we mean by God is raging big time now with all the so-called new atheists like Sam Harris and all those books about religion is bad for the health of the planet. And then some very interesting theologians and philosophers are arguing back saying you don’t understand what we mean by God. That’s philosophy and heaven knows it’s important part of our lives right now.
Price: Logic is a big part of the formal study of philosophy, but it’s also something we use every day. Klein says there’s “deductive” logic — the kind we use in math when we say two plus two equals four. Then there’s “inductive” logic that requires us to go out into the world and observe our surroundings to find the answer. We’ve all heard about Sherlock Holmes and his “powers of deduction.” Cathcart says we’ve been misled about the great detective’s abilities and he has a funny story to illustrate the error.
Cathcart: You know everybody says that he was very good at deducing who committed the crime. But that’s not really what he did. What he did was inductive logic, not deductive logic. So the story is that Sherlock and Watson are on a camping trip and in the middle of the night Sherlock wakes up and he wakes Watson up and he says Watson look up at the sky and tell me what you conclude. Watson looks up and he says, Well, Holmes, meteorologically he’d say it’s going to be a fine day tomorrow. Astronomically I’d say that there are thousands of stars and probably hundreds of galaxies. Astrologically I’d say the moon is in Leo, horologically I’d say it’s a quarter of three. Theologically I’d say that the universe is vast and we are a mere creatures. Why Holmes what do you conclude? Holmes says, Watson! You idiot! Somebody’s stolen our tent!
Price: If you’ve ever thought about taking a philosophy class, but balked because you thought it wouldn’t have any purpose in your life, think again. Cathcart says that the formal study of philosophy provides you with skills that you can use in every part of your life.
Cathcart: It does help you to think more clearly. You won’t come out of philosophy course or even majoring in philosophy thinking oh now I know the answers. I used to have all these questions and now I have them answered.
Klein: You usually end up with more questions.
Cathcart: Right, you usually end up with more questions, but you do come out feeling like, I have some tools now that make it possible to think more clearly and reason more clearly and argue my point of view more clearly.…of view more clearly.
Price: Philosophy can also help you cope with some of the scarier times in life — like death. Cathcart and Klein say that the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, had some useful ideas about death and dying that we’ve come to adopt in medicine and in popular culture.
Cathcart: One of the things he says is that it’s not wise to live in denial of your own death. You ought not to try to repress that. You ought to face it squarely that your life is going to come to an end. Because if you do that then you’ll be more alive, you’ll be more authentic, you’ll be more in touch with your real situation. You won’t sleep walk through your life, you’ll realize that this is the one chance I’ve got here. Thirty, 40 years ago, the idea of death was repressed, so that even if somebody was sick they didn’t face the fact they were going to die. Now we have the hospice movement, we have all these stages of death and dying that we can all read about. It’s very very practical in that way.
Klein: I think it’s also practical in the way that maybe it is to some people it’s better than seeing a movie like “The Bucket List” or hearing one of my favorite country songs about live like you’re going to die tomorrow or something like that. Essentially the same message, but it’s a different way of expressing it.
Price: Cathcart says one of the most gratifying things about using the humorous approach to serious questions is the feedback he and Klein got from academia.
Cathcart: We hear from college teachers and high school teachers around the country who say they are using the book with their classes, not as the principle text obviously, but as a supplementary text to hook kids in and get them interested and make philosophy more accessible.
Price: Many modern funny men have figured out that humor is the best way to get these big philosophical points across to the public. Actor Will Rogers and comedians Mort Sahl and the late George Carlin come to mind. Klein says that there are also some up and comers out there today who are keeping up the comedy-philosophy tradition.
Klein: Have you heard this guy Steven Wright? And there’s another guy Emo Phillips and he is hilarious. And very very philosophical. And sometimes both Steve Martin and Woody Allen can be very very philosophical while telling a joke. What Woody Allen says about death, he says, I don’t mind dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.
Price: If we in the modern world can benefit from using humor to explain philosophy, what about Socrates and Aristotle? Would cracking a joke now and then have helped them make their points a little better?
Cathcart: Probably not.
Klein: Actually I disagree. I think they could’ve gotten a wider audience because philosophy by its nature should be for everybody. The big questions that everybody, no matter what schooling they have asks why am I here? What is the meaning of life? What happens after death? What’s the right thing to do? What’s the wrong thing to do? You know, the big questions we all think abut, and these guys address them. They are serious questions, but it doesn’t hurt to have humor to approach them with.
Cathcart: They addressed them for each other. They left out all the rest of us. They developed their own language.
Klein: And we are the rest of us.
Price: To answer those questions for the rest of us, there’s Danny Klein’s and Tom Cathcart’s book, “Plato and a platypus walk into a bar,” available at bookstores and at Plato and a platypus.com. For more information about all of our guests, visit our site at viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary price.
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