Philosophy Through Humor

Sunday, June 21, 2009
First Aired: 
Sunday, July 22, 2007

What Is It

Why did Nietzsche cross the road? To get beyond good and evil! How is a good joke like a good philosophical argument? Are philosophical tenets at the core of much of humor? To find out, join the philosophers and their guests, Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, authors of Plato and A Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes.

Listening Notes

John and Ken broadcast from beautiful Portland, Oregon, speaking with the authors of the (perhaps unlikely) best selling book Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy through Humor.  John and Ken point out that some philosophical problems are, to those unfamiliar with philosophy, outright laughable: questions such as how do we know other people have minds, or how we can possibly walk from one point to another, often provoke chuckles from undergrads.  Our hosts and their guests explain that one of the parallels between humor and philosophy is that both generally begin with an obvious premise and lead to a startling or counterintuitive conclusion.

Our guests Tom Cathcart and Daniel Klein tell the joke that got them started thinking about philosophy and humor, giving both the Hegelian and the Epistemological versions.  John and Ken question just how far the connection between philosophy and jokes goes, and debate ensues.  Ken then proposes a game in which he gives them a philosophical topic and the guests must 1) explain it in “dry terms,” then 2) explain it via a joke.  First up: Existentialism.

Callers contribute their own jokes, and many more questions are raised.  Do philosophy and jokes share the downfall of sometimes stretching a point too far?  Is laughter universal or cultural?  Does it really stem from a sense of anxiety?  Why are socially taboo topics so frequently funny, and why do we laugh at others’ pain?  Listen to hear the answers to these questions debated, as well as to learn a few new jokes.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 5:06): Zoe Corneli goes on a mission to seek out connections between popular humor and philosophical thought.  She starts with Eddy Lawrence, and progresses to Woody Allen and Monty Python.  She finds that comedians can indeed be philosophers, and John seems to prove that the point works in reverse.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (seek to 50:05):  An expert in comedy himself, Ian Shoales points out the possible interpretation of Wittgenstein as a comedian.  He questions the difference between thought experiments and jokes, and explains why there very well might be a hippopotamus in your living room right now.