About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar...

Is the title of a delightful little book on, as the subtitle says, understanding philosophy through jokes. In recent years there has been a bit of a cottage industry of introductory books on philosophy for the general public – which I actually think is a good thing: philosophy has a bad enough reputation, especially in the United States, and anything that can help people appreciate thousands of years of efforts at understanding the big questions in life can't be all that bad.

Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein's book (which I haven't finished yet, but it's good enough to write about already) is short (200 small pages), comprehensive (you'll find everything there from logic to ethics, from metaphysics to the philosophy of religion), and, well, funny! Take this way of understanding the distinction between essential and accidental properties:

“When Thompson hit seventy, he decided to change his lifestyle completely so that he could live longer. He went on a strict diet, he jogged, he swam, and he took sunbaths. In just three months' time, Thompson lost thirty pounds, reduced his waist by six inches, and expanded his chest by five inches. Svelte and tan, he decided to top it all off with a sporty new haircut. Afterward, while stepping out of the barbershop, he was hit by a bus. As he lay dying, he cried out, 'God, how could you do this to me?' And a voice from the heavens responded, 'To tell you the truth, Thompson, I didn't recognize you.”

Did God confuse Thompson's accidental qualities for his essential ones?

How about the following explanation of inductive reasoning (for which Sherlock Holmes is most famous, despite the fact that everybody – including his author, Conan Doyle, keeps referring to his method as “deduction”)?

“Holmes and Watson are on a camping trip. In the middle of the night Holmes wakes up and gives Dr. Watson a nudge. 'Watson,' he says, 'look up in the sky and tell me what you see.' 'I see millions of stars, Holmes,' says Watson. 'And what do you conclude from that, Watson?' Watson things for a moment. 'Well,' he says, 'astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. Theologically, I see that God is all-powerful, and we are small and insignificant. Uh, what does it tell you, Holmes?' 'Watson, you idiot! Someone has stolen our tent!'”

OK, one more, just to entice you to get Cathcart and Klein's book. Again on logic, this time about the fallacy of the argument from authority:

“Four rabbis used to argue theology together, and three were always in accord against the fourth. One day, the odd rabbi out, after losing three to one again, decided to appeal to a higher authority. 'O, God!,' he cried, 'I know in my heart that I am right and they are wrong! Please give me a sign to prove it to them!' It was a beautiful sunny day. As soon as the rabbi finished his prayer, a storm cloud moved across the sky above the four rabbis. It rumbled once and dissolved. 'A sign from God! See, I'm right, I knew it!' But the other three disagreed, pointing out that storm clouds often form on hot days. So the rabbi prayed again. 'O, God, I need a bigger sign to show that I am right and they are wrong. So please, God, a bigger sign!' This time four storm clouds appeared, rushed toward each other to form one big cloud, and a bolt of lightning slammed into a tree on a nearby hill. 'I told you I was right!' cried the rabbi, but his friends insisted that nothing had happened that could not be explained by natural causes. The rabbi was getting ready to ask for a very, very big sign, but just as he said, 'O, God...,' the sky turned pitch-black, the earth shook, and a deep, booming voice intoned, 'HEEEEEE'S RIIIIIIGHT!' The rabbi put his hands on his hips, turned to the other three, and said, 'Well?'
'So,' shrugged one of the other rabbis, 'now it's three to two.'”

Part of the point of the book is that there actually is a close similarity between jokes and philosophy: both work by carrying you along what looks like familiar territory, only to pull the rug from under you at the last moment. In one case, the aim is to make you laugh, in the other to make you think. What could possibly be better, then, than thinking and laughing at the same time?


  1. I was considering getting this book since you advertised it so well, but it would seem to be a waste since I already knew the three jokes that you published :)

  2. Do the authors explain the jokes? I mean, the philosophy behind the jokes? Because, you know, an explained joke is never funny... :-)

  3. Jokes may be a good way to evaluate a culture. The one about the rabbis uses a familiar theme of the booming voice of God coming from the clouds. This makes me wonder about jokes in other religious cultures. Do Hindus have religious jokes where voices come thundering out of dark clouds? If not, do they have jokes that deal with the gods at all? Can god jokes be converted from one religion to another and still retain the humor?


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