Samuel C. Rickless

Professor of Philosophy

A History of Western Philosophy
in 108 Limericks


THALES OF MILETUS (c. 624 – c. 546 BCE)

Famed Thales loved all things aquatic,
Some ice would have made him ecstatic.
“All is water,” he said,
“That’s the world’s magic thread!”
Let’s call him the first true fanatic.


There were two Eleatic companions
Whose view led to two contradictions.
But with all said and done,
And things proved to be one,
They saved face with two timely corrections.

SOCRATES (469-399 BCE)

Of smart know-it-alls there's a huge glut,
But they're dolts when you're down in a rut.
The one person to see
If your life's up a tree,
Is an ignorant pain in the ----.

PLATO (429-347 BCE)

For Plato the soul is tripartite,
Three parts in perpetual dogfight.
If appetite’s naughty,
Then reason gets haughty,
And drags spirit round without respite.

“Human heads are both large and quite small,
It’s not thanks to what’s small that you’re tall.
If you think that your wig
Makes you bigger than big,
Then you're wrong, and your theory must fall.”

There was an old man called "Parmenides"
Who was given to writing inanities.
He once said, "The One
Is not many, my son,"
Which gave Plato no end of anxieties.


Arete’s a great Cyrenaic,
Her theory is very prosaic.
What’s good is just pleasure,
Of wellness the measure,
Without getting too formulaic.


“It’s matter and form that make substance,
Bronze shape is a statue, for instance.
But form’s own existence
Needs matter’s persistence:
This breeds theoretic resistance.”

To make Aristotle eudaimon
What’s needed is reason and backbone,
Discharging each duty,
Friends, wealth, kids, and beauty,
And lastly a gleaming new iPhone.


If your impression’s cataleptic,
That will make Sextus quite dyspeptic.
But if what you’re seeing
Is not guaranteeing,
Then it’s advantage to the skeptic.

EPICURUS (341-270 BCE)

’Twas an old Epicurean sheep
Who thought death was no different from sleep.
As he lay down to die
To his friends he did cry,
“Well, I sure hope that nap ain't too deep!”


““Don’t judge!” is the smartest position
To take on the human condition.”
So the skeptic averred,
Wanting this, her last word,
To serve as a sure proposition.

JESUS CHRIST (6/4 BCE – 30/33 AD)

“We should all give our shirts to the poor,
If you won’t even tithe, you’re a boor.
Give a hand to the weak,
And encourage the meek,
Or miss out on God’s heavenly tour.”

It’s a challenge to find the best rule,
One that, ethically speaking, is cool.
For the Christian it’s stressed
That the Golden one’s best,
Though to sadists the Christian’s a fool.


“There is something that’s truly sublime,
When you want some, it won’t cost a dime.
While feeling its presence
You don’t know its essence,
It’s the greatest of mysteries: time.”


“An island lies near the equator
Than which there could not be one greater.
It’s impossible, mind,
This lost isle to find,
Unless you’re the best navigator.”


“My conclusion is widely believed,
Oh you monk who are sadly deceived.
A fool’s what I’m seeing,”
So mutters the being
Greater than which cannot be conceived.
[by Dana Kay Nelkin]

THOMAS AQUINAS (1225-1274)

“God’s being’s not part of his essence,”
Said Thomas, with no small insistence.
But it’s better to say,
In a negative way,
That God just is not in existence.

All the ways to prove God is are five,
Way the first is to see him alive,
If he yells, shouts, or screams,
That’s three more, so it seems,
And the last one’s too hard to derive.


I sing of the great Ockham’s razor,
That sharp philosophical laser.
A theory that’s bloated
Will fast be demoted,
And blasted with Captain Bill's phaser.


“The whole world is a small nutlike ball,
As it sits in my hand it seems small.
It sure looks like it should,
It is perfectly good,
And displays the love God has for all."


“It’s wrong to call women inconstant,
Or flighty, or fickle, or distant.
They’re much sharper than men,
More at ease with a pen,
And proudly sophistic resistant."

FRANCIS BACON (1561-1626)

Said Bacon, “In science, induction
Is better than boring deduction.
Don’t start with some hunches,
Get data in bunches,
Then work on some theory construction."

MARIE DE GOURNAY (1565-1645)

“Don’t strive for a great reputation,
Don’t aim for a much grander station.
Make your duty your aim,
Not a wish for world fame,
Pick virtue without hesitation."

THOMAS HOBBES (1588-1679)

Tom Hobbes said that pure ideation
Is only decaying sensation:
If you’re thinking of me
When your eyes cannot see,
Your mind undergoes calcination.

“Life is brutish and short,” says Tom Hobbes,
“It allows for just heartache and sobs.
But when working with those
Who want peace with their foes,
You'll get better than high paying jobs."

RENÉ DESCARTES (1596-1650)

“If I think, then I am,” said Descartes,
“It’s an argument dear to my heart.
With dogged persistence
I proved my existence,
That is why the world thinks I'm so smart."


Praise Anna Maria van Schurman!
She mastered Greek, Latin and German,
Hebrew and Syriac,
(Marvelous brainiac!)
Her efforts were just superhurman.


“My ideas are just acts,” says Arnauld,
“They’re not things that the mind wants to know.
When Malebranche objected
It left me dejected:
Metaphysically, progress is slow."

RALPH CUDWORTH (1617-1688)

“The nature of bodies is plastic,
Their motion’s not really stochastic.
Appeal to extension
Won’t answer the question:
We need a solution that's drastic."


Said Descartes, “There’s a powerful gland
Where the mind feeds the brain each command.”
But Elisabeth said,
“How that works in the head
Is causation I can't understand."

“Even virtuous folk make mistakes
For not having good sense of the stakes.
When you don’t know the deal,
It’s regret that you’ll feel,
And unhappy you'll be, them's the breaks."


“When a dropped glass falls onto the floor,
There’s no transfer of motion in store.
Rather, all the shards know
Where they’re fated to go:
Inert matter's a thing I deplore."

ANNE CONWAY (1631-1679)

“There are some who think matter is dead,
And that soul moves the brain in one’s head.
But a thing that’s alive
Can’t move stuff that can’t jive,
That's the vitalist truth," so Anne said.


“To a neutralist, freedom’s the thing,
Both no convent and no wedding ring.
With no husband’s commands
And no social demands,
There's some time to enjoy one more fling."

BARUCH SPINOZA (1632-1677)

Spinoza was once widely hated
For tsoris that he instigated.
For he said we’d be free
If we truly could be
From stupid beliefs liberated.

Spinoza says there’s but one substance,
For God needs no ontic assistance.
But we are of the sort
That needs ontic support:
'Tween God and his modes there's no distance.

JOHN LOCKE (1632-1704)

There once was a man named John Locke,
Who liked finding Cartesians to mocke.
But when those on his side
Judged that Jekyll was Hyde,
'Twas a real metaphysical shocke.

“Volition’s a magical potion,
Producing an action from motion.
But if will wills to will,
Then it’s willing things still:
Regress is a powerful notion."

“If I pick up an acorn, it’s mine,
After pressing my grapes, that’s my wine;
And once trading for goods
Comes to all neighborhoods,
The unequal results are just fine."


“There’s nothing less active than matter,
Struck balls are not hit by the batter;
For the only true cause
Is the oomph of God’s laws:
So ice cream does not make you fatter."


“All bodies are just aggregations
Results of the mind’s conjugations.
Put simples together
With fresh psychic tether,
And get fine monadic ligations."

“To leave the world wholly unblemished
A harmony’s been pre-established.
When there’s mush in the brain,
The main monad feels pain,
But causal relations are banished."

MARY ASTELL (1666-1731)

Give three cheers for great Mary Astell,
For courageous truths spoken so well:
“Let’s get women learning
And bad suitors spurning,
For a life of dependence is hell."

SAMUEL CLARKE (1675-1729)

“It’s the fitness of things,” says Sam Clarke,
“To which righteous God-lovers should harke.
Analytically true
Is what He’s telling you:
As an agent, you're not in the darke."


“The right answer in ethics is clear,
If you know human nature, my dear:
Don’t infringe someone’s rights,
Don’t avenge any slights,
And from reason's commands, just don't veer."


It was George, future Bishop of Cloyne,
Who was desperately needful of coin.
He founded a college
To spread all his knowledge,
But the King said, "Too bad, I won't join."

-- “I can think of a tree on a green,
A grand oak in a place no-one’s been.”
-- “But what you can conceive
(There’s an ace up my sleeve)
Is perceived by your mind, sight unseen."

“My new theory’s been tested and tried,
It’s a cure in which I have great pride.
If you suffer from gout
Or your hair’s falling out,
Tasty tar water should be applied."

It was Johnson who stubbed his big toe,
'Gainst poor George thought he'd struck a death blow.
But an idealist's rock
Is a thing you can knock:
Some ideas are just hard, don't you know.


“Scientific hypotheses rock,
Though mere guessing is unneeded schlock.
Now don’t get too eager
When data are meager,
Universal attraction's a crock."

DAVID HUME (1711-1776)

“Let’s play billiards, dear Hume,” said his friend,
“’Tis one way a great evening to spend.”
--“I don’t know,” replied Dave,
“How those balls will behave
Doth our faculties greatly transcend."


It can happen that bad laws are passed,
Rules that leave me completely aghast.
But Jean-Jacques says each bill
Serves the general will,
Which is just my volition recast.

IMMANUEL KANT (1724-1804)

’Twas that stodgy Immanuel Kant
Who was terribly fond of his aunt.
When she told him, “Please me,
Lie to one to save three”,
Said that Kant to his aunt, "No, I shan't."

“Spatial stuff is not really in space,
Transcendentally, not in a place,
It is truly, you’ll find,
Just appearance, in mind,
Even if it's in front of your face."

JEREMY BENTHAM (1748-1832)

“It’s the hedons,” says Bentham, “that count,
Don’t check quality, check the amount.
Compare pushpin with verse,
It is clear which is worse,
Silly pleasures are what's paramount."


“The rights of men need vindication,
Their kings should learn prompt abdication.
But we women have rights
And some brilliant insights,
As I state in my next publication."


‘Twas Hegel who waxed so prophetic
In prose that was much too hermetic.
First his thesis came true
Then antithesis too,
And lastly, confusion synthetic.

MARY SHEPHERD (1777-1847)

Three cheers for the great Mary Shepherd,
Whose panning of Hume went unanswered.
For his theory of cause
She found littered with flaws:
Reproofs that left Dave's backers flustered.

JOHN STUART MILL (1806-1873)

Don’t forget to read John Stuart Mill,
Whose dad James was a jerk and a pill.
Poor John had to learn Greek
For deep wisdom to seek,
Which led son to stab pop with his quill.

“The best pleasure’s for experts to judge,
It’s the one from which they will not budge.
Spreading virtue’s a treat,
And philosophy’s neat,
But there's nothing that beats chocolate fudge."


“Life’s a great struggle,” says Kierkegaard,
“Why not complain when your days-are-hard.
But the pain I’ll relieve
If I choose to believe:
That's the way out of a life-that's-scarred."

KARL MARX (1818-1883)

There once was a man named Karl Marx
Who liked writing in quaint English parks.
When the dirt poor rebelled,
They were gunned down and felled,
So smart Karl just refined his remarks.

WILLIAM JAMES (1842-1910)

“’Twould be good to succeed in my aims,
I don’t want all my plans up in flames.
To stem inhibition
I’ll jumpstart my mission:
I have will to believe," says Bill James.


“Thank God for eternal recurrence,
For endings I have an abhurrence.
I just love Groundhog Day,
When it’s done, press Replay,
Thank God for eternal recurrence."

“God is dead,” said Herr Nietzsche, “He’s toast.
He’s no more than an axed talk show host.
Though he sports a white beard,
And makes Christians afeard,
He's as dead as an ex-parrot's ghost."

GEORG CANTOR (1845-1918)

I love that huge class of all classes,
The class that none other surpasses.
“But wait! Larger we’ll get
With this set’s power set,”
Said Cantor, the king of wiseasses.

GOTTLOB FREGE (1848-1925)

“Our concepts are unsaturated,
With objects they need to be mated.
But that darned concept ‘horse’
Is an object, of course,
Which leaves me completely deflated."

“You all have to read my Begriffsschrift,
Post Kant it should bring you great uplift.
The symbols are crazy
And all oopsydaisy,
It's logic's remarkable Boole-shift."

G. E. MOORE (1873-1958)

“If you deny that you’re two handed,
Then you’ll be roundly reprimanded.
If in doubt you remain
Then you’re surely insane,
And hence in custody remanded."

BORIS PODOLSKY (1896-1966)
NATHAN ROSEN (1909-1995)

‘Tis Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen
Whom God in his wisdom has chosen
To teach us to query
The Danes’ quantum theory:
Smart Jews paradoxes repose in.


“Philosophical problems are bunk,
They’re just so much nonsensical junk.
If you let the fly out,
She’ll be happy, no doubt,
To escape metaphysical funk."


A phenomenological jerk
Hated good analytical work.
He composed Sein und Zeit,
And liked Nazis all right,
Firing Jews was a pleasant job perk.

D. C. WILLIAMS (1899-1983)

“I say, there is no universal,
Just tropes that exist in dispersal.
But if ‘trope’ is a type
Then my theory is tripe,
And that will cause total reversal."

KARL POPPER (1902-1994)

“In science, conjectures are tested,
And falsified theories protested.
But physics is great
In its falsified state:
Let's just have the theory retested."

AYN RAND (1905-1982)

“There are moochers and takers,” says Rand,
“For my own sake, I will take a stand.
If they come for my cash,
Their thin fingers I’ll smash,
They're all selfish, you must understand."

HANNAH ARENDT (1906-1975)

“Evil Hitler and Stalin are twins,
In their totalitarian skins.
Ruling’s all about fear
At the point of a spear:
They will both have to pay for their sins."

NELSON GOODMAN (1906-1998)

“Some predicates CAN be projected,
There’s “blue”; but then “grue” is rejected.
It’s been rattling the deans
Of fine art magazines:
Bleen covers must be re-inspected."

C. L. STEVENSON (1908-1979)

“When I say “That is good”, I emote.
If I say “I am phat”, then I gloat.
There’s no truth as I write
Of the wrong and the right,
But the best I must always promote."

WILLARD V. O. QUINE (1908-2000)

“Though it's clearly just terribly crass,
There's a gavagai eating my grass.
When I tell it to scat
It behaves like a brat,
Yells that undetached part: kiss my ---."

J. L. AUSTIN (1911-1960)

“I know that that bird’s a canary,
The scene I am in’s ordinary.”
--“But a finch it could be.”
--“In which case, woe is me,
My knowledge was just temporary."


I’m down with my man, Wilfrid Sellars,
He’s one of those cool Pittsburgh fellars,
Just totally driven
To junk what he’s given:
He's one of the great myth dispellars.

PAUL GRICE (1913-1988)

“To rely on your maxims is nice,
You communicate well at no price.
As a language machine,
Convey more than words mean,
And you'll implicate much," says Paul Grice.


With that grand Davidsonian flair
It was Donald who said, “Don’t despair!
When you meet someone new
And they’re talking to you,
Just assume that there's something up there."

G. E. M. ANSCOMBE (1919-2001)

It was Anscombe who liked reading psalms,
And returning her income as alms.
And when Harry Truman
Did something inhuman,
She inveighed against nuclear bombs.

PHILIPPA FOOT (1920-2010)

“To discover the good, study plants,
It is not that they flourish by chance.
They need water and sun,
And some innocent fun,
But, above all, they need true romance."

J. J. C. SMART (1920-2012)

“To kill one to save five is a must,
For the best of results is what’s just.”
So says J. J. C. Smart
On utility’s part,
But that's one clever dude I don't trust.

JOHN RAWLS (1921-2002)

“Basic structures are just if they’re fair,
The two principles fix each one’s share.
And the fairest position
Comes from knowledge attrition:
All the rest I leave up in the air."


There’s no better logician than Ruth,
She’s a great logic formula sleuth.
If all has to be good,
It must be that all’s good:
That's an axiom, the God's honest truth.


There’s a clever professor named Ed,
Who wrote pages from sunup till bed.
Then he had one idea
About knowledge, you see,
Now he spends his time golfing instead.


Let's praise Chomsky, the radical gnome,
He who authored a magical tome.
"There's an organ, you see,
For the language in me,
That poor Skinner's boxed in," so says Noam.


“To signify, language is needed,
But signs have all been superseded.
All presence is absence,
And absence is non-sense:
In selling this crap I've succeeded."


“Descriptions can be referential,
Their meaning is oft consequential.
What is known as ‘the Prez’
Need not be what he says:
Just Bush acting half-presidential."


“To find out if the brain represents,
To discover if words make no sense,
We’ll see the solution
In our evolution:
It's with fitness that we must commence."


There once was a young man called “dthat”
Whose name Frege made faces at.
But when Kaplan said “No,
Gottlob, say it ain’t so”,
His friends all agreed dthat was dthat.

Philosophers much prone to gaffes
Took words to be just phonographs.
But when Kaplan’s endeavor
Showed that “colour” is “color”,
'Twas David who had the last laughs.

WARREN QUINN (1938-1991)

“You should not always aim at the best,
If you harm, then you’ve wrongly aggressed.
Direct agency’s bad,
If it tempts, you’re a cad,
Show respect: I'll be greatly impressed."

ROBERT NOZICK (1938-2002)

“The worst form of theft is taxation,
It’s worse than eternal damnation.
To force contribution
For wealth distribution
Cuts into my Paris vacation."


“A name is no hidden description,
It’s meaningless, needs no decryption.
And a fictional name
Names a thing just the same:
It's not just an empty inscription."

DAVID LEWIS (1941-2001)

“If you think of a possible sin,
Such as kicking a friend in the shin,
Note the one who will pay
At the end of the day
Won't be you, but your counterpart twin."


It’s the Robert and Marilyn show!
Are they geniuses? I would say so.
From Augustine to Kant,
And Siger of Brabant,
There is nothing that they do not know.


Honest Pat says the mind is the brain,
Oxytocin’s the way to end pain.
Forget ibuprofen,
It just gets you loafin',
It's the love drug that kills your migraine.


Says Dick Arneson, “Fault forfeits first,
When unjustly content you’re the worst.
If you’re happy to see
An arch-Nazi go free,
Your good karma should all get reversed."


Let’s hear it for Barbara Herman,
She keeps consequentialists squirmin’.
She knows her Kant backwards,
She sets all the standards,
And can't be refuted in German.


I’m impressed with the great Tyler Burge;
From his mind wondrous theories emerge.
He’s a true polymath
Who has blazed a new path:
For the sum of his writings, I'll splurge.


Pay heed to that sharp Peter Singer,
The great consequentialist ringer.
If you save that poor kid
You’ll be glad that you did:
In striving for good, don't malinger.


I’m in awe of the great Frances Kamm,
She’s the intricate cases grandam.
If a runaway tram
Starts a wham bam slam jam,
Lazy Susan will just have to scram.


I’m a fan of the great David Brink,
In defense of the just he won’t blink.
No matter the season
He listens to reason:
Before acting, it's better to think.


That iambic pentameter’s cool,
Had to learn it in primary school.
But trimeter’s the best
When the foot’s anapest:
In great poetry limericks rule.