Monty Python’s John Cleese Creates Ads for the American Philosophical Association

cleese philosophy psa

Cre­ative Com­mons image by Paul Box­ley

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. 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mon­ty Python’s Best Phi­los­o­phy Sketch­es

John Cleese Explains the Brain — and the Plea­sures of DirecTV

Learn The His­to­ry of Phi­los­o­phy in 197 Pod­casts (With More to Come)

Down­load 100 Free Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es and Start Liv­ing the Exam­ined Life

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (7)
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  • M. S. Fenton says:

    Not to be too cyn­i­cal but putting Amer­i­can and phi­los­o­phy in the same sen­tence is hilar­i­ous. The term Amer­i­can Philoso­pher is an oxy­moron. If there are any, they are in their 89s, like my friend Hugh. The rest are watch­ing real­i­ty tv, foot­ball, or qui­et­ly drink­ing them­selves to death.

  • Josh Jones says:

    What an asi­nine thing to say. There are hun­dreds of peo­ple work­ing in aca­d­e­m­ic phi­los­o­phy in the U.S. and many of them young and high­ly regard­ed “Amer­i­can philoso­phers.” I leave it to you to find out who they are. If you can type an inter­net com­ment, you can use Google to do a search.

  • yarg blarg says:

    M. S. Fen­ton,

    I see where you’re com­ing from. Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture does seem to be com­posed of real­i­ty TV, foot­ball, alco­hol con­sump­tion, and the likes, and none are wor­thy of admi­ra­tion or praise.

    But there is a dif­fer­ence between Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture and those who study and prac­tice Phi­los­o­phy in Amer­i­ca. Sim­ply prac­tic­ing a dis­ci­pline with­in Amer­i­ca does not mean one also par­takes in or is pre­oc­cu­pied with the ills of pop­u­lar cul­ture you men­tion. Being a Philoso­pher in US Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties and col­leges is as relat­ed to pop­u­lar cul­ture and its ills as much as being a postal car­ri­er in Amer­i­ca.

    The terms “Amer­i­ca” and “Amer­i­can” often mean many things to many peo­ple; some­times the mean­ing is cul­tur­al, some­times geo­graph­i­cal. In the case of “Amer­i­can Philoso­pher” the usage is geo­graph­i­cal for philoso­phers who prac­tice with­in the coun­try referred to as “Amer­i­ca.”

  • Steve Carroll says:

    M.S. Fen­ton,

    Can’t add much to the elo­quent replies already post­ed but maybe one of the first thing phi­los­o­phy teach­es us, is that sweep­ing gen­er­al­i­sa­tions get us nowhere.

    That’s a hell of a sweep you’ve made.


  • Ron A. Zajac says:

    I think Mr. Cleese’s point is to send a mes­sage to Amer­i­ca, putting in a good word for using one’s head.

    This is a time where a vast num­ber of reg­is­tered Amer­i­can Repub­li­can Par­ty pri­ma­ry vot­ers think that Ben Car­son­’s Zon­der­van pub­lished mytho­log­i­cal fables are nuggets of true wis­dom. And this is in a major eco­nom­ic pow­er that still has nukes.

    We need to thank our lucky stars when, from time to time, a per­son who can com­mand media atten­tion (like Cleese) clears his or her throat to say some­thing nice about things like “car­ing about mean­ing”, or “expect­ing nar­ra­tive integri­ty”.

    It’s a small ges­ture, a fart in a flaw, to be hon­est. But let’s be thank­ful for small mir­a­cles.

  • John G. Deville says:

    Many peo­ple think that phi­los­o­phy is a dead sci­ence. Accord­ing to Lud­wig Wittgenstein,philosophy leaves every­thing as it is . The world needs a new phi­los­o­phy and I am pub­lish­ing a book ear­ly next year in Amer­i­ca by the Amer­i­can pub­lish­er Strate­gic Book Pub­lish­ing and Rights Agency ( ).

    When my book titled : “A NEW PHILOSOPHY : BRAINISM or THE DEMYSTIFICATION OF CONSCIOUSNESS” is pub­lished , Phi­los­o­phy will nev­er be the same again . In my book, I have suc­ceed­ed in destroy­ing 5,000 years of phi­los­o­phy from Pla­to to twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry philoso­phers.


    Your answers will be wel­come.

    ( )

  • Jake Gerber says:

    Phi­los­o­phy as we know it,is akin to a Möbius strip . It’s nev­er going to be under­stood. You’ll find con­tra­dic­tions in every­thing you val­ue in life.
    John Cleese knows this.
    If he can put a pos­i­tive spin,or a real­i­ty check,on what is hap­pen­ing in Amer­i­ca ‚in terms peo­ple can under­stand and accept , that’s great.
    Phi­los­o­phy is based on the idea of argu­men­ta­tion .
    I’m not saying,that is the intent,but it is the effect.
    Con­fu­sion is pos­si­bly the only thing,a think­ing man,could glean from a philo­soph­i­cal argu­ment .
    I believe this post,will attest to that.
    Jake Ger­ber

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