Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Cathcart & Klein


What is the sound of one hand clapping?
This is the question that stopped me in my tracks.

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Whaaa? I said to myself. Come again?

It isn't often that I read a book on philosophy. In fact, there have only been a handful of philosophy books that I have been able to successfully read over the years. Jostein Gaarder's novel Sophie's World was probably the first. Translated from the Norwegian original, this is a philosophy class posing as a bizarre novel. The younger me read, loved, but ultimately forgot this fascinating history of philosophy rather rquickly. I still have the book with me though ... Might be tempted to read it again one of these days.

Then there were a couple of books by Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy (another book I own, but barely remember reading) and Why I am not a Christian. Then there was Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which was quite the rage with my friends, for reasons now rather unclear. Herman Hesse's Siddhartha was recommended reading for one of the courses I took in college, so I guess I could count that one. Sun Tzu's Art of War probably counts. And finally, Ayn Rand's books (We, the Living; Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead in particular) - probably the books I liked the least among this lot, but for better or for worse, remember the most.

Come to think of it, the list is a tad longer than I had imagined when I started putting it together. But still, I think it qualifies as 'only a handful of books'.

[By the way, in case someone out there is looking for a list of best philosophy books for beginners, this list above is probably as good a place to start as any]

The thing about reading philosophy books is that you need to be in a particular state of mind. A state of openness, inquiry. A state of calm. Free from tyranny of the next deadline. Philosophy can me mild altering. But it can also be frustrating. To the reader not in the right frame of mind, it can be vaccuous, artificial, and 'merely' semantic.

Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar is an admirable experiment. Two philosophy majors from Harvard, Tom Cathcart and Dam Klein have tried to write a short (very short) course in philosophy told mostly through jokes.

The idea is commendable. Jokes can often have subtle philosophic undertones, and can be a light medium to carry a heavy topic. Cathcart and Klein split the world of philosophy into ten groups - groups like ethics, logic, epistemology, religion, existentialism, language etc. They then write short chapters around each of these, with a lot of jokes thrown in to explain the theme being discussed. Throughout the book, in keeping with its 'philosophy through jokes' positioning, the tone is light-hearted, informal and fun. For instance, to explain what is Epistemology, the authors say -


How do you know that you know the stuff that you think you know? Take away the option of answering, "I just do!" and what's left is epistemology.
I thought this one was rather well done. I have also been reading Ayn Ran's The Art of Writing Non-Fiction recently. I was amazed at how often she uses the word 'epistemology' in the book. Needless to say, after hearing the word the first few times, I was totally confused about what it means. The Cathcart and Klein definition saved me.

The book also introduced me to some rather intriguing concepts. Take for instance: kōans from Zen Buddhism. What is a kōan? It is a story, dialogue, question, or statement, framed up in a way that is inaccessible to rational understanding, yet that may be accessible to intuition. Zen Buddhism is a philosophy of attaining enlightenment through meditation. One of the central concepts here is to break out of the construct of language and logic, and to try to reach the essence of something in its entirety.


From the perspective of Western thought, Zen philosophy is a kind of anti-philosophy. For the Zen master, reason, logic, sense data - all the stuff Western philosophy is built upon - are illusions and distractions from ultimate enlightenment.
So what do the Zen masters and monks do? They meditate. 30-40 minutes of zazen(meditation) four to six times a day. Quiet the mind's chatter. Recognize thoughts as distinct entities, allowing them to arise and then pass on. Try to grasp the 'buddha nature' within each person and every thing.

Back then to our question, what is a kōan?

A kōan is a riddle or story that, when told by a Zen master to a student, has the possibility of shocking that student into a state of consciousness known as satori - sudden enlightenment. In this consciousness, all the distinctions and evaluations of the everyday world evaporate, leaving one with a profound appreciation of the unity of the universe and of all experience in the universe.

A statement, a riddle, something that jolts a Zen student into enlightenment. Like the question -


What is the sound of one hand clapping?
Cathcart and Klein explain:


A Zen response to the one handed clapping riddle is not something literal and scientific like "The soft murmur of air being wafted by a moving, flat surface." No, the Zen response is more like, "Wow!" Kōans catapult us to enlightenment by confounding our minds with impossible ideas. Get beyond those, and bang, you're in satori.

If that isn't fascinating, what is?

Philosophy can be interesting, light, fun. Plato and a Platypus is a game attempt at making it so. In the final analysis though, the book falls short. The jokes get a bit stale, and speaking for myself, I started craving for more of the real stuff, and less of the laugh reel. Part way into the book, it starting feeling like the philosophy was being fit around the jokes, not the other way around. And that stops being funny.

Like the way we end the section on kōans -


If you have some ice cream, I will give it to you.
If you have no ice cream, I will take it from you.
That's an ice cream kōan.

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