Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Today is the first of 101 days of philosophical limericks.  I would love to publish them (or more of them) as a book, but my agent thinks that the chance of this is less than the chance of my becoming the next US President.  (Word to the wise: I was born in France.)

First, a short introduction.

There are (at least) three things that I like in this world: philosophy, humor, and the possibility of immortality (though not in that order).  This led to a natural choice of career: professor of philosophy.  I thought that I would (eventually) take my rightful place in the philosophical pantheon, following immortals such as Plato, Aristotle, and Kant, by producing original and rigorous arguments that lead to surprising conclusions important to human life, such as that the propositional content of an utterance of a name is identical to the name itself.  (This was part of the point of my Ph.D. dissertation, which, to my astonishment, fell on deaf ears.)  But I soon realized that I would not be able to achieve immortality through philosophy.  Then I thought I might try stand-up comedy.  But I got up the next morning, looked in the mirror, and that was that.  So then I had a brilliant idea, even better than my dissertation topic!  Like Plato, who argues (in the Philebus) that the best kind of life is not the life of pleasure or the life of knowledge but rather a life resulting from a combination of the two, I thought that I might just become immortal if I combined humor with philosophy.  But I knew that I couldn’t do it in the manner of the true masters (such as Rogers Albritton and Jerry Cohen).  So it would have to be through something I knew absolutely nothing about: poetry.  (For those of you who care about these things, that was a non sequitur.) 

Actually, I’m pulling your leg.  The true story is this.  In the spring of 2014, I received an email message asking me whether I would be willing to contribute something to an event that was being held at UCLA to honor my dissertation advisor and mentor, David Kaplan, on the occasion of his 80th birthday.  I couldn’t make it to the Kaplan-fest, so I decided that I would try my hand at writing something that would express my admiration for him, with a little humor mixed in.  I didn’t have much time, so I tried thinking of a limerick with a first line ending in “Kaplan”.  Good luck to me!  It turns out that there are five words (including “plan”) ending in “plan”, but no words ending in “aplan”.  So I took it as a challenge to find a limerick that would work.  In the end, I came up with two, which I will share with you in due time.  And then I found that I couldn’t stop thinking of limericks.  Limericking became something of an obsession, crowding out other forms of useful activity (such as shopping for food, making dinner, and so on).  So, to my wife, Dana, and to our daughters, Sophie and Alice, I offer this apology:  Yes, it really is all my fault that you didn’t eat or drink for several weeks, and for that I am truly sorry.

As you read through the poems I post, please keep the following things in mind.  There is no rhyme or reason (well, there is rhyme, actually, and quite a bit of reason, frankly) to them, except that I have tried to follow a few rules of thumb. 

The first is that the reader should be entertained.  Some poems are accurate (or very close to accurate).  Whatever entertainment the reader derives from them is designed to be, at least in part, a function of their accuracy.  Other poems are not designed to be all that accurate: they simply represent my own very biased judgment.  Whatever entertainment the reader derives from them is designed to be, at least in part, a function of their inaccuracy.  In some cases, I try to distill the essence of some philosophical position into five lines.  In other cases, I don’t even pretend to do this.  Please do not infer, then, that my view is that all of Plato (or Augustine, or Cavendish, or Kamm) can be reduced to a limerick.  That would be unfair to these great philosophers, whose work speaks, and should be read, for itself.

The second is that much (though not all) of what I say that is or appears critical of famous philosophers is tongue-in-cheek, and should be taken with the good humor in which it was composed.  I can think of only two exceptions: you will know them when you read them.  Those are protest poems, if you will. 

The third is that I have chosen to highlight many who have been my mentors, or whose work had a profound personal influence on me or on my own work.  Looking back, I see how important these people were to my own life.  (I am thinking, in particular, of John Rawls, David Kaplan, Keith Donnellan, Philippa Foot, Tyler Burge, Warren Quinn, Robert M. Adams, and Barbara Herman.)  I thank them all, from the bottom of my heart.  Had it not been for them, I would not have written the drivel work that helps keep food on my family’s kitchen table (when there is any—see above).

The fourth, which is something of a corollary to the third, is that if I have not yet written a poem about X, please do not infer that I do not think much of X’s work.  Chances are that I really, really do.  But I gave myself an artificial limit of 101 limericks (at least, to start with), and this meant that I had to make arbitrary decisions about whom to target and whom to pass over.  If you would like me to compose a limerick about a favorite philosopher of yours, let me know.  That philosopher might just be included in the next blog sequence, which will become a blockbuster, as soon as I get my act together and get an agent.

The fifth is that, although I have focused on philosophers whose work I know well (e.g., Plato, Locke, Berkeley), I have also included poems about philosophers whose work is not (yet) part of the philosophical canon.  This is because I think that their work should be read and appreciated, sometimes for its influence, but mostly for its stimulating content.  

The sixth is that one poem (about Anselm) was actually produced by my illustrious wife and colleague, Dana Kay Nelkin.  She had the brilliant idea of imagining a reversal of the conversation between Anselm and Gaunilo.  If you like the limerick she wrote, you should thank her.  But I’m keeping the royalties (as soon as this blog goes viral).

With all these caveats and qualifications in mind, I hope you enjoy these limericks at least half as much as I enjoyed writing them.  It was a labor of love, and I am very happy to be able to share it with you.


  1. FYI: http://www.amazon.com/Rhyme-Reason-Limerick-History-Philosophy/dp/0819115622

  2. Thanks for the recommendation, Unknown! So it turns out that I am reinventing the wheel. It wouldn't be the first time.... I just ordered Rhyme or Reason (by Richard Aquila) and look forward to reading it. The more limericks, the merrier, as far as I am concerned.

  3. Greetings from Ireland, Sam!

    I’ve just stumbled upon your blog (via Leiter Reports). I don’t know if you know, but I grew up in Limerick—the limerick’s place of origin (at least I think it is!).

    I look forward to reading!

  4. Hi James, great to hear from you! Right, now I definitely have to find a way to visit your home town...

  5. I'd be happy to host you and Dana whenever I'm back home. But I have to warn you that there aren't many (if any) 'limerick' related activities in Limerick! There are poetry festivals, though...