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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  • 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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