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The Philosophy of Humor

by David Boersema

If a philosopher alone in the forest tells a joke and nobody laughs, is it funny? (Well, if it’s Schopenhauer, sure it would be; but let’s not go there right now.)

Despite our differences and peculiarities, there are some human universals. Some of them are biological: we all need to eat and drink, and we all need to sleep. But there are also cultural and social universals: all cultures identify food taboos, kinship relationship rules, residence rules, and others. Even if different cultures use different criteria for who is part of one’s family and who isn’t, they still all draw some distinction between who is part of one’s family and who isn’t: ‘family’ matters across cultures.

One of those human universals is humor. It’s everywhere! Across cultures, across our life times, across generations, human beings find things – at least some things – funny. It is simply one of our basic modes of being in the world. No wonder, then, that philosophers from Aristotle on have wrestled with trying to get a handle on what humor is.

One of the features of humor that has been noted and emphasized, is that it’s a form of human bonding. We share jokes and can’t wait to tell our friends what ridiculous thing our co-worker said today, or show our friends some funny picture (cat videos, anyone?). Humor is a way we connect with others, and, so, a way we become who we are as persons. Of course, that sense of bonding can also have a dark side, when humor is used to demean or denigrate, as with racist or sexist humor. (But what could possibly be wrong with this: ‘Question: What do you call 1000 lawyers at the bottom of the sea? Answer: A start.’ Or this: ‘Question: What has an IQ of 200? Answer: Texas.’)

Clearly, there are ethical and moral dimensions to humor. In addition, there are cognitive and epistemological dimensions: What makes something funny? What is going on in our minds?

First, for humor to work, the listener needs to get the joke. The five-year-old child, might think that this is funny: ‘Question: What do you give an elephant with diarrhea? Answer: Lots of room’ but might not think this is funny: ‘Question: How many doctors does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: It depends on what kind of insurance you have.’ You need to understand what it means to refer to a ‘hung jury’ to appreciate this recent newspaper headline: “Two Convicts Escape Noose: Jury Hung”. And who but a philosopher could laugh at this: “The French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre was sitting in a cafe when a waitress approached him: ‘Can I get you something to drink, Monsieur Sartre?’ she asked. Sartre replied, ‘Yes, I’d like a cup of coffee with sugar, but no cream.’ Nodding agreement, the waitress walked off to fulfil the order, and Sartre returned to working. A few minutes later, however, the waitress returned and said, ‘I am sorry, Monsieur Sartre, we are all out of cream – how about with no milk?’”

Of course, there are non-verbal forms of humor, such as visual humor, the Marx brothers and Lucille Ball being classic examples (for better or worse, check out TotallyLooksLike.com). However, verbal humor, especially jokes, is the main engine for both philosophical and non-philosophical enjoyment. Who can resist the sheer delight in reading actual newspaper headlines such as these?:

‘Local High School Dropouts Cut In Half’

‘Lack Of Brains Hinders Research’

‘Milk Drinkers Are Turning To Powder’

‘Iraqi Head Seeks Arms’

Delightful? Yes, but also instructive about the importance of clear language and thinking.

Humor and philosophy are definitely good bedfellows, and the lessons about clear thinking abound. As just one example, when trying to explain the concepts of falsifiability and the biased interpretation of evidence, what could be more instructive than this?: “A married couple is making breakfast. As the husband is buttering the toast he says, ‘Have you ever noticed that if you drop a piece of toast, it always lands butter side down?’ The wife says, ‘No. It just seems that way because you remember the times when it makes a mess. Here, I’ll show you. Watch this.’ She drops a piece of toast and it lands butter side up. She says, ‘See. I told you.’ The husband replies, ‘Well, obviously you buttered the wrong side.’”

In Issue 25 of Philosophy Now back in 1999, Tim Madigan as Editor led a valiant foray into the topic of humor and its relationship to philosophy. Contributors looked at some similarities between humor and philosophy – how both point out foibles in our thinking and acting. Now, fifteen years on, the similarities are still there, the jokes are still funny, and, as the articles collected here demonstrate, the nature and power of humor are still ripe for philosophical analysis. On the other hand… let’s allow that master of contrariness, E.B. White, to have the last word: “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested, and the frog dies.”

© David Boersema 2015

David Boersema is a Professor of Philosophy at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, where his students have frequently told him that they are laughing with him, not at him.

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