Monty Python and Philosophy

by Harry on March 29, 2006

Monty Python and Philosophy is now available (US;UK). Other CTers have expressed skepticism about the value of the Popular Culture and Philosophy series, and I must admit that this is the first one I’ve had a really good read of, but I think it provides a pretty accessible and fun introduction to a range of topics in philosophy, especially those less well represented by the CT team. There’s a great little essay by my much-missed erstwhile colleague Noel Carroll (splitter!) about why we laugh at Mr. Creosote, and nice essays about ordinary language philosophy, existentialism, and philosophy of religion, all set within a Python framework, and accessible to a broad audience. I’d have loved to have read it (or something like it) when I was in high school, and have acquired a bunch of copies to distribute to my Python-loving friends who are curious about philosophy. (Full disclosure: I contributed a chapter ostensibly about the Argument Clinic, but really about method in political philosophy, which, I’m embarrassed to say, works least well of the 11 essays I’ve so far read).



Brian 03.29.06 at 11:05 am

I’m opposed in principle to most of these X and philosophy books, but I’m not surprised Monty Python and philosophy works well. In part that’s because they were all (most?) philosophy graduates, so there are a lot of philosophy references in the sketches. Indeed, I suspect one could write any number of decent papers by explaining the references behind one or other sketch, and using that as a basis for riffing on some matter of philosophical interest.

For disclosure purposes, I should note that I use the argument sketch in the first lecture of my philosophy 101 class. That’s largely because the students pay more attention to a world famous comedian saying “An argument is a series of statements intended to establish a conclusion” than they would pay to me saying that. And of course the philosophical relevance of other sketches is not so flat-footedly obvious.


Brian 03.29.06 at 11:09 am

And to go back to being more negative about the X and philosophy series, I’d be really surprised if Harry (or anyone else) was as impressed by The Atkins Diet and Philosophy (see reference to it on the Amazon page Harry links to) as by MP and philosophy. Not as surprised as I was at George Mason making the Final Four, but really surprised nonetheless.


harry b 03.29.06 at 11:19 am

I thought that the Atkins Diet and Philosophy was a joke made up specifically for the Monty Python and Philosophy page. Alas…

Actually, what I really wanted to write was a paper about plagiarism in comedy, but I didn’t have time to do the research and there would have been nothing philosophical about it (the Pythons plagiarise significantly; if you listen to Hancock and the Goons you regularly recognise jokes and situations that appear, sometimes almost verbatim, in MP).

OK Brian, you’re getting an email from me about other things later today, but this I’ll mention here; what would you think about contributing to Dr. Who and Philosophy? (its a vague idea, not a plan).


joel turnipseed 03.29.06 at 11:32 am

Got the Simpsons and Philosophy as a gift a few years ago…

That said, I was watching A Bug’s Life with my daughter this morning before taking her off to daycare and thought I saw the Gettier Problem very nicely illustrated in Flik’s recruitment of P.T. Flea’s troupe. Now, how to explain Gettier Problem to a 20-month old?


Ginger Yellow 03.29.06 at 11:39 am

The funniest bit of the Mr Creosote sketch isn’t the “wafer thin mint”, but the anti-semitic cleaning lady. Does Carroll say why that’s funny?


James Wimberley 03.29.06 at 3:26 pm

“Noel Carroll (splitter!) …”Wasn’t the proper form of the insult “splittist”? Still used by the Chinese CP.


Brian 03.29.06 at 6:30 pm

There’s obvious potential for time travel papers in Dr Who and philosophy, and maybe some stuff about AI or about cross-species political issues. It could work I suspect.

I don’t really know enough about Dr Who to write well. I watched it a lot as a kid, not so much since. (I guess the new series just made it to America.) Are there episodes that are specifically about time travel and free will issues, or about changing the past?


John Holbo 03.30.06 at 4:38 am

I once tried to track down info on a Dr. Who episode I only faintly remember (and so may be significantly hallucinating). The Dr. has to go save the number 3, which is disintegrating. Or something. And it turns out to be this sort of throbbing, typical British skiffy low-budget effect. As if the number 3 could throb. I mentioned it off-hand once while giving a lecture on the problem of conceiving of numbers as objects. Namely, the more object-like you make them, the more ludicrous the theory sounds. And the less object-like you make them, the less contentful the theory sounds. Then I tried to go refresh my memory but I couldn’t find any episode guide that seemed to describe anything of the sort.


harry b 03.30.06 at 8:10 am

There’s nothing low budget about the new series of Dr. Who — it is astonishing. There’s a great time travel paradox episode called Fathers Day — if I get my act together I’ll send it to you Brian to try and get you to sign on. John — of course the number 3 throbs, everyone knows that. I have no memory of that excellent-sounding episode; but I’ll see what I can come up with from my sources…


Jason Kuznicki 03.30.06 at 9:36 am

I vividly remember a pulsating “H” from my Sesame Street days.


soru 03.30.06 at 4:38 pm

For Doctor Who, the recaps at TwoP should give you enough of the feel of the show to decide whether you like it or not.


Ben 03.30.06 at 5:28 pm

I’ve never read one of these popular philosophy and X type books, but I’m quite curious.

Disclaimer: One day I may like to write one.


jake 03.30.06 at 7:39 pm

Apart from the classic greeks vs. germans soccer match (amusing for a few minutes at least) one of the better Python philosophy things was the “funny words” skit: not sure of the exact title. The crew ask each other to pronounce various terms and words: “Wankel Rotary Engine.” The specific target is difficult to ascertain, but I tend to think it was a jibe at the Oxford ordinary language philosophy, which dispensed with politics, or logic, or metaphysics and instead took on the “silly things that silly people say” as Russell referred to it, mockingly.

Life of Brian also has some philosophical themes: especially good are the anti-marxist cracks–People Front of Judea..vs. Judean Peoples front! (a type of humor much lacking at most rouge Blogs , such as Long Sunday or woodslot).


Avery 03.31.06 at 6:37 am

#1 Brian: “I’m opposed in principle to most of these X and philosophy books….”
What a bizarre statement. It makes sense to be opposed in principle to all of them, if for instance you think that the very enterprise is blameworthy. But if you are opposed to most of them your opposition is not principled, it is something else. For what could the principle be? “If I don’t immediately see what is philosophically interesting in X, X is not philosophically interesting”? Or worse, “If the person(s) who created X were not all (most?) philosophy majors, X is not philosophically interesting”?
Well, amend that; your opposition may be principled, after a fashion, but the principle would be such as to be self-evidently indefensible once written.
Now you may instead have read each of the books and have a particular opinion about each, such that you can then summarize your particular judgments by saying, “for most X, the book X and Philosophy is a bad book.” But your jibe about the Atkins Diet book seems not to fit, since you seem not to have read it. (I haven’t either.) Did you read it? Why would you be surprised if Harry or anyone found it good? Just because you haven’t yet thought of anything philosophically interesting related to the Atkins Diet?
Since we’re doing full disclosures here, I am the author of an essay on Medgar Evers and Davey Moore in the Bob Dylan volume. I learned only this morning, by following Harry’s link, that Brian thought this paper was worth singling out (sight unseen, of course) as an example of philosophy not worth doing. I haven’t had anything to do with any of the other books in this series, and I’m not at all sure my essay in the Dylan volume was very good. I wrote it as a serious piece, trying to work out some problems in responsibility in (what Wisconsinite Claudia Card, following Primo Levi, calls) “gray zones” by applying it to two of Dylan’s songs. It was actually something that had been percolating for awhile and when the volume came along the (competitive) call for abstracts provided a good opportunity to work through the issues. I would be interested in the reactions of philosophers–though I’d appreciate it if you read the piece before telling me what you thought of it.


Nat Whilk 03.31.06 at 9:56 am

Are contributions to these books given any weight in promotion and tenure decisions? Do these books get reviewed in scholarly philosophical journals?


Avery 03.31.06 at 10:32 am

Are contributions to these books given any weight in promotion and tenure decisions?

I suspect it depends on the department and the school, and perhaps the subject-matter.
I included mine in my tenure file and include it in my personnel review file. It seems to have had no effect on the former and to count in my favor in the latter. If one’s entire CV consisted only of contributions to the pop-culture series, that would hurt, but then, it would also hurt if one’s entire CV included only chapters in conference presentations or scholarly anthologies — the problem would be that these do not count as refereed publications. (That may depend on the department, school, etc., as well.)
Some people snidely suggest that the pop culture series is used for CV padding by junior philosophers. My sense is that that’s exactly what it cannot be used for, for the reasons I just mentioned: if it looks like you’re doing that instead of refereed articles, you won’t do well. (Again, same goes for conference presentations and scholarly anthologies.) I know that a good bit has been written about the effect of blogs on the tenure process, and some of the same dynamics might be at work in both kinds of cases.

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