John Cleese, you say, a spokesman for the American Philosophical Association? Why would such a serious organization, whose stated mission is to foster the “broader presence of philosophy in public life,” choose a British comedian famous for such characters as the overbearing Basil Fawlty and ridiculous Minister of Silly Walks as one of their public faces?
They chose him, I imagine, because in his various roles—as a onetime prep school teacher and student of law at Cambridge, as a comedy writer and Monty Python star, and as a post-Python comedian, author, public speaker, and visiting professor at Cornell—Cleese has done more than his part to spread philosophy in public life. Monty Python, you’ll remember, aired a number of absurd philosophy sketches, notable for being as smart as they are funny.
Cleese has presented his personal philosophy of creativity at the World Creativity Forum; he’s explained a common cognitive bias to which media personalities and politicians seem particularly susceptible; and he had his own podcast in which, among other things, he explained (wink) how the human brain works.
Given these credentials, and his ability to apply his intelligence, wit, and comic timing to subjects not often seen as particularly exciting by the general public, Cleese seems like the perfect person for the job, even if he isn’t an American philosopher. The APA, founded in 1900, has recently hosted conferences on religious tolerance and “Cultivating Citizenship.” In 2000, as part of its centennial celebration, the organization had Cleese record 22 very short “Public Service Announcements” to introduce novices to the important work of philosophy. These range from the very general “What Philosophers Do” at the top of the post to the influence of philosophy on social and political reformers like Martin Luther King, Jr., Jane Addams, and Simone de Beauvoir (above), showing philosophy’s “bearing on the real world.”
In this PSA, Cleese makes the controversial claim that “the 21st century may belong far more to philosophy than to psychology or even traditional religion.” “What a strange thought,” he goes on, then explains that philosophy “works against confusion”—certainly a hallmark of our age. There’s not much here to argue with—Cleese isn’t formulating a position, but giving his listeners provocative little nuts to crack on their own, should they find his PSAs intriguing enough to draw them into further study. They might as well begin where most of us do, with Socrates, whom Cleese introduces below.
Hear the rest of Cleese’s philosophy PSAs at the American Philosophical Association’s website, or click here to download a zipped file containing all of these audio clips. And should you wish to dig deeper, you'll find an abundance of resources in our archives, which includes big lists of Free Online Philosophy Courses and Free Philosophy eBooks.