Finding the humour in 3000 years of philosophical thought

Robert Newman
Robert Newman

In a world gone crazy, can philosophy help?

It’s an interesting question that has troubled the finest minds and one explored with great wit and humour in comic Rob Newman’s standup show, Total Eclipse of Descartes.

In this erudite comedy lecture he attempts to sift through 3000 years of thought “from Pythagoras all the way to artificial intelligence by way of Pavlov’s dogs, Jane Goodall’s chimpanzees and Frankie Howard’s trousers” - philosophy’s favourite thought experiments being made to reveal their shaky foundations.

Newman, a best-selling novelist and Radio 4 Sony Award Winner who is well known for his activism and wilfully uncommercial boffin-style standup, will be in Belfast to perform his show at the Black Box in Belfast on May 8 as part of the 19th Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.

“Total Eclipse of Descartes explores 3000 years of good and bad ideas to see how we got into this mess, and investigates whether or not we might possibly be able to cobble together some kind of philosophy to help us through these turbulent times,” says Rob of the quirky piece.

Newman began his comedy career alongside partner David Baddiel doing a sketch called History Today in which they played fogeyish academics dissing each other’s mums.

Today Rob is assiduously mining history to create comedy gold, asking how the past might be able to explain the politics and particular troubles of the present - what insights have Descartes and the greatest minds bequeathed to us to help us make sense of our lives today?

What philosophy should we live by and has science given us all the answers?

What intellectual conventions are really quite logically flawed?

Can we recognise the absurdity of so much human behaviour?

In Total Eclipse of Descartes, like his two preceding shows, Newman takes aim at the body/brain duality proposed by the titular 17th-century philosopher - exposing the flaws in his logic. It was Descartes, of course, who said ‘I think, therefore I am’ and began outlining his Cartesian philosophy, paving the way for centuries of self-centered philosophising and existentialist navel-gazing that takes us all the way to Sartre and beyond.

Newman embarks on a restless tour of intellectual history to establish his own ‘terrestrial philosophy’, the kind of intellectual position he feels best explains where we are today: “This is my personal philosophy which tries to keep in mind our biological constraints, and sees us as ecological, situated beings. It is the opposite of the belief that ‘All is possible in infinite possible worlds’.

“I’ve tried to make the show less about the great icons of philosophy and more about the philosophy of everyday life, for example the philosophical baggage in our education system. I do find Descartes and Sartre funny and baffling and damaging.”

The show considers various ethical problems. American philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson’s ingenious thought experiment Fat Man On A Bridge is used to explore the ethical dilemmas thrown in our path by those driverless cars being developed by Apple, Google and Daimler and Newman considers the fate, post-conditioning, of Pavlov’s dogs.

“I was much heartened to learn that Pavlov’s dogs refused to co-operate with Pavlov’s experiments after the River Neva burst its banks in 1929 and flooded the Institute of Experiment Medicine where they were kennelled. Previously biddable dogs like Avgust, Pingel Postrel and Umnitsa refused to play the game ever again.”

Newman is certainly no intellectual slouch, and lists his favourite philosophers as Mary Midgley, Isaiah Berlin, Bertrand Russell and Marilynne Robinson. “I think people are always, in one way or another, thinking their way through philosophical questions all the time,” explains Rob. “Philosophy is ubiquitous.”

Newman loves using austere figures of intellectual standing to find fun, just like Monty Python loved to take aim at the highbrow philosophers in their ivory towers - remember the football game where none of them kicked the ball they were so busy philosophising?

In a similar vein, Newman imagines Pythagoras as a gangster defending the holy truth of mathematics: “2,500 years ago in Crotone, Calabria, Pythagoras murdered Hipparchus of Taranto for leaking the secret of irrational numbers, pi and the square root of two. This murder happened in southern Italy and was about what you might call mathematical ‘omerta’ which made me do the sketch like wise-guy Cosa Nostra/Chicago gangsters. This is one of my favourite bits to perform. What comes across as Cagney is my failed attempt to do Boardwalk Empire’s Lucky Luciano.”

Visit www.cqaf.com for ticket information.