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Joking, and Learning, About Philosophy


Okay stop me if you've heard this one. A Buddhist walks up to a hotdog stand and says, make me one with everything. The Buddhist pays the vendor and asks for change. The vendor says, change comes from within.

It helps to know a little about Buddhist philosophy to understand the joke, and the joke itself provides a little insight into Buddhist philosophy. And that's what Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein hope to accomplish with their new book, "Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar... Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes". They've got a million of them. And they join us from member station WBUR in Boston.

Welcome, Thomas.

Mr. THOMAS CATHCART (Co-author, "Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar... Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes"): Hi, Liane.

HANSEN: And welcome, Daniel.

Mr. DANIEL KLEIN (Co-author, "Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar... Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes"): Hi, Liane.

HANSEN: Okay, we're going to start with another example, and it's in the chapter metaphysics. And the joke is on page eight. Who wants to take it?

Mr. CATHCART: Looks like I'm up.

HANSEN: Okay, Tom, you take it.

Mr. CATHCART: A seeker has heard the wisest guru in all of India lives atop India's highest mountain, so the seeker tracks over a hill in Delhi until he reaches the fabled mountain. It's incredibly steep, and more than once, he slips and falls. By the time he reaches the top, he's full of cuts and bruises. But there's the guru, sitting cross-legged in front of his cave.

Oh, wise guru, the seeker says, I have come to ask you what the secret of life is. Ah, yes, the secret of life, the guru says. The secret of life is a teacup. A teacup? I came all the way up here to find the meaning of life and you tell me it's a teacup? The guru shrugs, so maybe it isn't a teacup.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: All right, Daniel, I'll go to you. What insight does that give? What philosophical concept does that illustrate?

Mr. KLEIN: Well, the whole idea of what is the meaning of life has been sort of the err question of a lot of metaphysical philosophy. And the simple answer is, there is no answer, and it all depends on who you're talking you to. So this guru actually is being very liberal about it. He's saying, well, so maybe I'm wrong.

It kind of reminds me of the thing that Groucho Marx said, which we also have in the book. And he said, these are my principles. If you don't like them, I have others.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: You call - it's the telos of life, T-E-L-O-S.

Mr. CATHCART: Exactly right.

Mr. KLEIN: Yeah.

Mr. CATHCART: Yeah. That's an idea that Aristotle had, that everything has a telos. It's the inner aim. The telos of an acorn is an oak tree. It's what the acorn is striving to be. And so Aristotle thought that life itself had a telos. The telos of life, Aristotle said, was happiness. That's what we're all striving for. And so this joke is about the telos. People…

Mr. KLEIN: This is - our favorite telos joke is this grandmother is with her two grandchildren; they're three and five years old in the carriages. And somebody says, well, how old are your grandchildren? And she says, well, the doctor is five, and the lawyer is six.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Isn't there also a joke where two grandmothers are sitting on a bench, and one goes, hoy, and the other ones goes hoy. And then they say, well, let's stop talking about the children.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KLEIN: Enough about the children. Yes, yes.

Mr. CATHCART: Exactly.

HANSEN: Well, what…

Mr. KLEIN: That's kind of Schopenhauer joke, actually.

HANSEN: Explain. What do you mean it's a Schopenhauer joke?

Mr. CATHCART: Schopenhauer sort of came to Buddhism philosophically. He didn't talk about Buddhism, but he, sort of, adopted that point of view via his own philosophical search. And he was the ultimate pessimist. Like the Buddha, he thought that all life was frustrating struggle and disappointment, and that the only way out was to, sort of, step off the wheel, as the Buddhist said, or Schopenhauer said, you know, to resign yourself and just sort of go with the flow because there's not a lot you can do about it.

And so the ultimate Schopenhauer person is the Jewish mother, hoy...

Mr. KLEIN: Enough about the children.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: I'm going to delve further into the book and get to the concept of the relativity of time. And the joke is on page 173, and Daniel, why don't you read the joke for us here.

Mr. KLEIN: A man is praying to God. Lord, he prays, I would like to ask you a question. And the Lord replies, no problem, go ahead. Lord, is it true that a million years to you is but a second? And the Lord says, yes, that is true. Well then, what is a million dollars to you? And the Lord says, a million dollars to me is but a penny. And the man says, ah, then, lord, may I have a penny? Sure, says the lord. Just a second.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Well, Dan, finite time and eternity there.

Mr. KLEIN: Yes.

HANSEN: Go ahead, explain every further about this idea of the relativity of time.

Mr. KLEIN: Well, can I explain it with another of my all-time favorite jokes?

HANSEN: Go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KLEIN: And that is: a snail is mugged by two turtles. And when the police asked him, what happened, he said, I don't know, it all happened so fast.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KLEIN: I love that one.

HANSEN: That is good. That is good.

Mr. KLEIN: Yeah. It is the idea that time is, you know - existentially in terms of a person - is relative to his own experience. You know, and there's the other story about this poor woman who's told by her doctor that she only has six months to live. And the doctor says, well, probably the best thing for you to do is to marry a tax attorney. And she says, is that can improve my health? And he - and the doctor says, no, but it will make six months seemed like an eternity.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: There's one in there, there's, it's just a line. It's a doctor's office, and the nurse comes in and she says, doctor, there's an invisible man here for an appointment. And the doctor says, tell him I can't see him.

Mr. KLEIN: Yes.

Mr. CATHCART: That's right.

Mr. KLEIN: Yeah. We call that our original sick joke. You tell them, Tom.

HANSEN: Explain.

Mr. CATHCART: Yeah. Kant, Immanuel Kant, had this idea that behind objects, somehow, somehow in the background, it's more than just a color and their size and their shape. There's something, there's something there that gives off all of these sense data. And we can't really get to it. We can't say anything about it. The only thing we can say anything about is what he called the phenomenal world. You know, that is the world of colors and shapes and sounds and smells -all the things that come to us through our senses.

But there's more to an object than that, he said. You know, there's something out there that's sending off all these vibes. And he called this the Ding an sich…

Mr. KLEIN: The thing in itself.

Mr. CATHCART: The thing in itself. The Ding an sich. And…

HANSEN: Thus, the sick joke.


Mr. KLEIN: The sick joke.

Mr. CATHCART: That's the sick joke, yeah.

HANSEN: How did you all hit on the idea that jokes actually have something in common with philosophy?

Mr. KLEIN: Well, I guess we've all - we studied it a long time ago, when we were students. And we started to see that there are a lot of similarities between the two. That what jokes and philosophical concepts have in common is they both kind of take us sideways, or they flip the world upside down and give you a different gander at it. And they surprise you with often-uncomfortable truths about life. And then Tom, you were saying there's something about getting a joke, which is like…

Mr. CATHCART: Yeah. Part of the delight, part of what you laugh at in a joke is, sort of, your own acumen. You know, a part of what's delightful is that you get it, you know? And so when somebody tells you a joke and you have that split second when you finally get it, it brings out a response of delight in you, because you're just so delighted with yourself that you got it.

Well, that's part of the appeal of philosophy, too. You know, a part of what it makes it fun is that you get a sort of a unique perspective on things that you haven't quite had before. The philosophers, sort of, throws that out at you. You go, aha, I get it. Very much like a joke.

HANSEN: So they are, sort of, constructed the same, and they have the same kind of payoff.

Mr. KLEIN: Very pretty much so.

HANSEN: So would philosophy students, do you think, actually come away with a deeper understanding of the discipline through this, or are you concerned at all that this might end up being kind of more like philosophy for dummies?

Mr. KLEIN: Well, it's something we did worry about. I would have to admit to your, to the original question - would they away with a deeper understanding. The answer has to be no, not a deeper one. But they would come away, I think, with a good general background, you know, it's kind of Philosophy 101, recognition of a lot of different concepts that they may not have caught or remembered first time through.

HANSEN: So it might cause them to go deeper into it.


Mr. KLEIN: Yes. I think it might have that value. And then there's the possibility that they say, you know, I'm not interested in philosophy, but those sure are funny jokes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein are the authors of "Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar... Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes." And they joined us from the studios of WBUR in Boston.

Thanks a lot, gentlemen.

Mr. CATHCART: Thank you Liane.

Mr. KLEIN: Thank you so much.

Mr. CATHCART: We had so much fun.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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