Book Review: Plato And A Platypus Walk Into A Bar by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein

This was my “coffee table” book that I dipped into every now and then, after finishing Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities. It’s a book that I had been after for some years, but could never find it for a reasonable price. One day, I was exploring around the philosophy section of the Waterstones flagship store in Piccadilly I spotted it out of the corner of my eye.

The subtitle of the book gives the concept: explaining philosophy through jokes. From the start, I found it to be a delight. The general structure is that the authors give a short précis about a topic in philosophy before demonstrating it in use in a joke. Many of the jokes are those you will have heard before and though this is not an analysis of humour, it does help understand the absurdities that create the humour – or rather, it helps to understand why the absurdities are absurdities.

What we have then is a whistle-stop tour of the history of modern western philosophy. We take in a broad scope of metaphysics, philosophy of religion, feminism and philosophy of language, amongst others. The explanatory elements are always done in a tongue-in-cheek way, yet this isn’t done at the expense of their pedagogical element. If you want an introduction to philosophical ideas, I suppose you could get Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, which, though I’m sure it’s very good, wouldn’t quite have the same verve about it that this work has. I admit I made fairly short work of it, as it was just too interesting to read a few pages at a time. I wanted to keep going.

Even the setup included a Socratic dialogue that runs through the length of the book, with one character trying to demonstrate to another what philosophy is all about. The only criticism I might have about it is that it does demonstrate a bit of an American bias at times, so every now and then, you might just be jolted into thinking, “what the heck? That doesn’t belong there” against some throwaway comment or a reference to a celebrity you’ve never heard of. Unless you think Immanuel Kant is a contestant on American Idol, that is. Mind you, I’ve heard of a tv show featuring Aristotle, Bentham and Spinoza entitled The Only Way is Ethics.

I would estimate that it would be almost impossible for you to read it and not learn something. I would also say it would be exceedingly difficult to keep a straight face throughout. Hugely enjoyable, and one of my favourite books of the year.

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