Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2009


Physicist Mohamed Diagne ´97 follows in the footsteps of retiring Professor Arlan Mantz. Photo by Ron Cowie

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The 60-Second Philosopher

The 60-Second Philosopher
Pessin, who once had a recurring comedy role as David Letterman´s ´personal genius´ mugs for the camera. Photo by Bob Macdonnell

Professor Andrew Pessin spreads the word — of philosophy

By Amy Martin

With two new books this summer, Professor Andrew Pessin is on a mission to make philosophy — one of the world´s oldest subjects — fun.

“Philosophy has a very active and light-hearted sense of humor,” Pessin says. “It tends to be associated with the thick, dark-rimmed glasses of heavy thinkers, but could just as well be associated with those of Woody Allen.”

The first of Pessin´s books tackles the age-old question of God. Pessin says he got the idea for "The God Question: What Famous Thinkers From Plato to Dawkins Have Said About the Divine” after reading about the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Yes, that´s right — the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

“Basically, members of the ´Church,´ who call themselves Pastafarians, believe the universe was created by a supreme being who happens to look a lot like a pile of spaghetti,” Pessin says. “As I read through their obviously satirical material, I began to wonder whether, from the outside, to someone discovering them for the first time, the writings about God by the great western philosophers might in fact sound strangely similar.”

And thus the idea for “The God Question” was born. In the book, Pessin, who once served as David Letterman´s personal “genius,” gives each of the great western philosophers — from Plato to Aquinas, Averroes to Kant, Nietzsche to Freud — a short, easy-to-digest chapter to argue for, against or just generally about all things related to God.

In a recent article in the Jewish Voice & Herald, Pessin said the book offers “something for all kinds of readers — committed believers, disbelievers and those on the fence leaning one way or the other.” It could even help you make up your mind, he added.

Michael Schermer, founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and author of “Why People Believe Weird Things,” says the book is a must-read.

“If you want to know what the greatest minds of the past 2,500 years said on the most contentious issue ever, you simply must start with this book,” Shermer says.

While “The God Question” wrestles with one of life´s greatest mysteries, Pessin´s second book, “The 60-Second Philosopher: Expand your Mind on a Minute or so a Day!” answers questions you never even knew you had.

For example, the pocket-sized paperback explains why, philosophically, there is no path not taken, a rose by another name wouldn´t be a rose, the proof is in the (vanilla) pudding and intolerance is a virtue. And it does it all in 60 little lessons that can be learned in — you guessed it — about 60 seconds each. It´s what Martin Cohen, author of “101 Philosophy Problems,” calls a “potpourri of philosophical ideas.”

The book covers a broad range of topics and ideas that have kept philosophers busy over the millennia. It challenges readers to question common sense and recognize truth in the bizarre. And that, Pessin says, is the point.

“Philosophy makes you deeper, richer and more interesting,” Pessin says. “It may or may not bring you happiness, but it will bring you greater appreciation for whether happiness is something ultimately to be valued.”

Certainly that´s worth 60 seconds.

Gone in 60 Seconds

Sixty seconds is about how long it takes me to go from the depths of profundity to “Oh, look, something shiny on Twitter!”

Don´t get me wrong. I like to read. Just not to the end. And not for longer than it takes to microwave my oatmeal.

Basically, I´m a TV executive´s dream and a philosopher´s nightmare. I´m not proud of the fact that I have about 50 books on my shelves that I´ve never finished or that I forget to pay attention when my husband tells me his latest theories about how 50 years from now we´ll be able to download ourselves into computers and order a latte just by thinking about it. I like to think deep thoughts, really.

So, I picked up Andy Pessin´s “The 60-Second Philosopher” with the thought that if there was any hope for mind expansion, this was my last chance.

This first thing I noticed was that I could see from the beginning to the end of each chapter without turning a page. I was hooked. But just in case, I read the last chapter first just to make sure I didn´t add another unfinished book to my collection.

The second thing I noticed about Pessin´s book is that it´s not for bedtime. Namely, because it makes you think and think and think until your brain hurts. Take Chapter 15 — “A Rose By Another Name Wouldn´t Be A Rose.” I won´t ruin it for you, but let´s just say I´ve never thought so much about the non-existence of Santa Claus in my entire life.

Other chapters, such as Chapter 10 — “There Is No Path Not Taken” — made me laugh before I´d even read them. (Someone had to make the path!) Here, Pessin explains the idea that the choices you make are entirely determined by your character, experiences and other factors. Even if I decided not to drink that coffee this morning (which I would never do), I´d be doing it because of some other determining factor — like trying to prove Pessin wrong, which I did because of an anti-authoritarian streak, etc., etc.

He even has something to say about my little issue with zoning out when my husband brings up robots (see Chapter 48 — “In One Ear And Out The Other”), and he stopped me from ever feeling the need to buy anything again, pointing out in Chapter 30 that stuff is “composed mostly of empty space inside its atoms.” Also, thanks to Chapter 20, “You Choose, You Lose,” I´ll never be a pediatric surgeon (that chapter should come with a warning for people with heart conditions).

“If we´re going to think about things, then we need to think about just which things there are to think about,” Pessin argues. How true. But as Pessin writes at the end of the book, there really is no end to the number of things there are to think about. My many unfinished books are just the beginning.

“You´ll never finish,” he says. ­— Julie Wernau

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