Saturday, January 17, 2009

I Kant stand it.

Title: Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar...
Subtitle: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes
Authors: Thomas Cathcart & Daniel Klein
Bookmark: the wrapper from a cookie offered to me as Airport Emergency Rations

This was a Christmas gift from someone whose misguided love of philosophy nearly equals my own love of jokes. Upon receiving it, I was told that the goal was to bridge the gap: bringing me into the philosophy-loving fold using humor as the leash and choke chain. I later found out that an ulterior motive was "to annoy (me)." Guess which one won?

There are two links in my life to philosophy. One is a friend from college, who double majored in philosophy and physics. He claimed that this kept him from ever having to answer any questions, as almost any subject falls into (or near) one of those two camps. Asked a physics-related question, he could reply, "I don't know--I'm a philosophy major." Asked philosophy-related question, he could reply, "I don't know--I'm a physics major." I think I liked him because despite his interest in philosophy, he was willing to admit that a major in it was worthless. The other connection is my cousin, an idiot who serves no use whatsoever, except as a possible source of protein should you survive a plane crash with him in the Andes. Even then, I'd rather starve than pollute my constitution with such flabby, slack-jawed fare. He serves only to remind me how pointless a philosophy major is, and his occasional letters (to other members of the family) proudly illustrate how highly he holds himself in his own esteem, despite lacking the ability to provide anyone, anywhere, with any useful skill or service.

Philosophy may be interesting to some, but I don't see the point in churning out people who specialize in it. Everybody is a philosopher in some measure; we all think about life, death, greater meanings, etc. But the one thing that even most philosophers agree upon is that nobody really knows the answer to any of these questions--the only fun is in asking them. Which kind of eliminates the need for books on philosophy. I read to find answers. I already know the questions.

If your question is, "Can anyone explain philosophy to me, perhaps with the use of some light humor and fun new jokes?" the answer is, "probably, but not with this book." Sadly, it's the question I had in mind when I started reading it in the Columbus airport.

Both authors clearly have a deep love for both subjects, and neither author has any grasp of how to convey those subjects to someone else. I suspect that if I already knew a lot of philosophy, this could have been a fun, entertaining read. Knowing basically nothing going in, I had to settle for the jokes.

Lots of philosophical concepts are named or mentioned, but none are properly introduced. An entire sentence explaining some obscure new term is generous here; an entire paragraph rare, and a chapter unheard of. Even worse, the jokes peppered throughout to illustrate these obscure ideas are a little haphazard, and while they are usually introduced with a line like "In the following story, Marvin really comes to appreciate his ding an sich," the reader is given no clues as to what the hell that means, how Marvin comes to appreciate said ding an sich, or or even how the casual observer is supposed to come to such an absurd conclusion. It may help that Marvin is Jewish, because nearly every joke in the book is about Jewish people. Maybe they understand philosophy better.

Mark Twain, or maybe E. B. White (sources disagree), said that "Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog: you understand it better, but the frog dies in the process." Very true, but this book still needs a lot more explanation. The title itself promises a clearer understanding of one field via another, and despite my lifelong fluency with all manner of jokes, I still don't have any better a grasp on philosophy. Explain something to me, guys. Anything. Pick any damn concept anywhere in this book, and lay it out for me as though I'm not already an adept student of philosophy, because otherwise, those are the only people who will really enjoy your work. For the rest of us, dump the philosophical crap, cut about a third of the pointless, tired, or unfunny jokes (there are a few--most of the jokes are pretty good, but there are a few that don't deserve a place in a book of humor OR philosphy), and print it in a pamphlet, because by then, that's all you'll have left.

Oh, and get a freaking proofreader to fix your punctuation and make sure your sentences don't have leftover words from before you reworded them. Makes me crazy.

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posted by reyn at 4:05 PM


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