Reading philosophy can be fun

April 15, 2008

Exposing the humor and leisure of thinking

By Allan Roy Andrews

At one time, I worked as a young, aspiring academic teaching psychology to students in a community college. While there, I offered a manuscript to a book salesman who took it to his editors for critique. My manuscript amounted to a prolegomenon to the study of psychology (of course, I avoided using the word prolegomenon because only philosophers, theologians and literary critics use such a term). I called my offering, Getting Psyched: An Introduction to the Introduction to Psychology. (Agents and publishers take note: I still have the manuscript tucked away somewhere in my garage.)

In my proposed little book, I argued that every psychologist begins the study of human behavior from a perspective that presupposes some view of humankind, a philosophical anthropology, if you will.

After his editors had a look at it, the salesman-friend came to me with the manuscript containing one word circled in red in several places by one of his editors. My book couldn’t sell, he told me in earnest seriousness, because I had used a word that self-respecting psychologists never use; the word was philosophy! Yes, those were the days in which psychology was dominated by behaviorists and multivariate statisticians who saw themselves as scientists laboring with difficulty to break away from the casual subjectivity of philosophy.

How I wish now I could have turned to my bookcase and pulled out one or all three of the books I’m about to describe. This incident, of course, preceded the phenomenon of the “For Dummies” series, though that genre of books doesn’t introduce any subject with the talent and verve contained in the books I’m urging upon my audience here.

Reading philosophy can be fun and of great value–even for psychologists and other overly serious thinkers.

To support this assertion, I suggest a perusal of three books, one more than a decade old and two others of more recent vintage. Even if one has never read another publication related to philosophy, one should take up these three books and read. They clearly demonstrate that one can be at ease while confronting the conundrums of human thought.

The oldest of the three is a book that masks as a novel. In Sophie’s World, published in 1994, author Jostein Gaarder, a Norwegian high-school teacher, set out to interest his children in philosophy and wound up writing a surprising international best-seller. Most critics have derided Gaarder’s fiction, but they’ve judged his exposition of philosophy from the Garden of Eden to the Big Bang theory of cosmology as first-class.

The sub-title of Gaarder’s book is “A novel about the history of philosophy,” and each narrative chapter interweaves a summary of an epoch in Western philosophical thought.

A colleague at my school confessed after reading Gaarder’s book that he understood Plato’s analogy of the cave for the first time, and a woman in a study group that I am a part of told us that she never read or understood philosophy at all until her husband introduced her to Sophie’s World.

The second of my triad of books is a non-fiction text aimed at teachers (and I mean authentic teachers, those who nurture pupils in grades 4-8). It is a volume for the philosophically challenged called Little Big Minds, a textbook of sorts for those who believe they’d like to share philosophy with children.

The author, educator and consultant Marietta McCarty, has been introducing philosophy to kids in elementary schools for more than 15 years. In her words, “kids are natural philosophers.” The sub-title of her book explains her conviction: “Sharing Philosophy with Kids.”

McCarty takes a topical approach—friendship, responsibility, happiness, justice, and so on through freedom and love—for 15 chapters. Each topical chapter focuses on a philosopher or pair of philosophers; e.g., Time: Augustine and Alan Watts. The exposition is followed with lesson ideas and discussion topics for presenting the topics and thinkers to young minds; i.e., to “Little Big Minds.”

Of course, one is guaranteed that by taking the plunge into a book aimed at teaching children one is bound to learn a great deal for oneself. I believe it was Gail Sheehy, the author of several popular psychology books in the late 1970s and early 1980s, who confessed that one of her secrets of doing research was to first visit a children’s library and find the wonderful books that aim at teaching difficult subjects to kids. Her point, of course, is that one can learn a lot from kids—or from teaching kids. McCarty would certainly concur.

My third recommendation is a joke book written by two New England students of philosophy (and graduates of Harvard’s philosophy program) who seem to have found their niche in humor. It comes from the best-seller lists of 2007; it is a tiny book called Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar. The title alone hints that philosophy and humor await anyone who delves into its pages.

Authors Tom Cathcart and Dan Klein clearly have recognized the affinities between college teachers of philosophy and stand-up comedians. It’s difficult at times to tell whether they have written an introduction to philosophy punctuated with jokes or a contemporary joke book interlaced with lessons from philosophy. Either way, one is treated to sane thinking and wry humor because the authors rightly recognize that philosophy and comedy both attempt to turn things upside down and challenge us with what is uncomfortable about life.

To be sure, many of the jokes are corny or bawdy or both, and much of the philosophy is secular and simplified, but both are presented in a relaxed and easy-to-take manner. Cathcart and Klein clearly not only want their readers to think, they want them to relax and smile while doing so.

The authors of each of the three books I’m suggesting to readers in their own way exhibit elements of leisure at the root of their writing. Gaarder in mystery and fantasy; McCarty in childishness and innocence; and Cathcart and Klein in humor and dilemma. They seem to grasp the true meaning of being at leisure and they recommend it. So I recommend them to anyone seeking to be at ease with the puzzlements of life.

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