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A Philosophy Department Commencement Address (Being an Allegory of Self-Discovery and Enlightenment)

Randall Curren finds that talking about humor is no laughing matter. Especially on national television.

When our president asked me some weeks ago if I would be willing to prepare a philosophy commencement address on the subject of humor for national broadcast I was puzzled. I sized this up as, at best, a clumsy attempt to call attention to the importance of education, or, at worst, a devious plot to discredit it. Ronald Reagan had his Christa McAuliffe, a formerly unknown science teacher, who he invited aboard the space shuttle which exploded in 1986, and the likelihood of going down in flames myself seemed as good or better. “Why do you want a philosopher?” I asked, “And why do you want it to be about humor?”

“I understand your concern,” he said, noting my discomfort, “but our push for national educational standards reflects a commitment to placing the skills of higher-order thinking at the center of American education. And you philosophers are masters of higherorder thinking. So I want the children of America to hear loud and clear that thinking matters, and I want you to give a speech that will show them that thinking can be fun. They’re our future, but they’re still kids. Let ’em have some fun. I’ll have the networks put it all on television.”

“Yes, quite so, Mr. President, quite so,” I said, “But why me, in particular?” I asked. “I don’t know much about aesthetics, let alone a specialized sub-discipline like the aesthetics of humor.” These words were followed immediately by twinges of embarrassment and mild panic, prompting me to add awkwardly, “I mean, the philosophy of humor,” since it was not clear to me whether it was aesthetics we were talking about and not metaphysics or epistemology or applied ethics. “It’s been a while since I’ve thought about it,” I said, not wanting to admit total ignorance.

This was the PR, or “Public Relations,” module of my personal Greater Unified Thought System talking (that’s GUTS, in computer cog-speak). GUTS, of course, does everything in me that requires intelligence, and it calls upon all kinds of specialists such as PR to help it get things done. These specialists, called “modules” or “units”, have little specialists of their own, the least imaginative of whom are called “sub-routines.” The work of these sub-routines is excruciatingly monotonous, and they make up the underclass of the cognitive economy, as it were. PR’s job is to maintain appearances, or generate “good press” as they call it in Washington.

Keeping all this in mind, you will understand well my situation when I say that from another corner of my brain – or GUTS – however, there issued a warning. This time it was MOM, my ‘Moral Objections Module’ who spoke up. MOM knew I was lying. She knew that I knew nothing at all about the philosophy of humor, and she was worried about what would happen to me should I accept this invitation and then find myself on network television with nothing intelligible to say. Imagine the headlines, she said, flashing a pair of them before my mind’s eye: “Rising Star Dimmed By Commencement Debacle,” said one; “Nation’s Children Disillusioned,” said another. And just for good measure she followed these with newsreel footage of the shuttle Challenger rising mightily into the sky and then exploding.

My heart sank – my HEART, of course, being my ‘Hear Everything And React Tangibly’ unit – but MOM’s expressions of concern were not to prevail. The President’s smooth sympathy and appeal to my professional pride had put my ID in control, ID being my ‘Instinctive Deduction’ unit. Somehow I just couldn’t help but feel that I should say “Yes,” though the better explanation may just be that PR had enough momentum to get the word out before I or the rest of my GUTS (or perhaps my brain – I was getting a little confused about this by then) had ever made a decision. In any case, the words that came out of my mouth were, “Yes, of course, I’d be honored, Mr. President.” Questions of who or what’s in control aside, it’s hard to say “No,” to the President.

Anyway, having agreed to give this so-called ‘humor’ talk, as it came to be known among Washington insiders, and having no idea what kind of philosophy the philosophy of humor might be, I dutifully undertook a massive literature search. This proved to be frustrating. Where are the entries for humor, I asked myself, as I scoured the indexes and ran all the ‘key word’ searches I could think of. (At least I thought it was myself I was asking, but it was ME, the ‘Match and Enumerate’ subroutine responsible for searching lists, who always reported back to headquarters with the bad news.) Where, oh where, are the entries? (“And what, oh what, am I?” I began to wonder. “And why am I doing this?”) Among all the entries for ethics, ‘a’ (agricultural) to ‘u’ (utilitarian), there was not even a hint of anything to do with humor. Metaphysics, ‘a’ (aboutness) to ‘w’ (wax, the ball of, argument), was no more helpful. Even the philosophy of law, which was alphabetically the most comprehensive of all (“Aamco Transmission v. the State of Texas,” to “Zoos, the doctrine of ultrahazardous activities, as applied to”), proved fruitless.

Defaming with a joke, and wrongful appropriation of a comedian’s image or style, appear to be legally actionable offenses, I discovered; but my cognitive servants and I couldn’t turn up anything of particular philosophical interest even there. “Nor is this the stuff of which fun for kids is made,” suggested PR privately, prompting MOM to reignite my worst fears.

Before long I was nearly paralyzed with anxiety, and I could feel some ‘down time’ coming on. “Time is running out,” I said to myself. “What am I going to do?” Amazingly enough, a useful suggestion was forthcoming, and it was from DAD. Good old DAD, I thought, “He’s always there when I need him.” DAD is my ‘Data Adjustment Device’, of course. He’s another of my cognitive specialists, and his function is to see to it that things get done even in the face of imperfect information or faulty instructions. It’s an important job.

“The appearance you agreed to make is for commencement,” he said. “Right?” “Right,” I said (though I wasn’t so sure it was I who was saying it). “And Commencement exists essentially for the parents of graduates, does it not?” he continued. “Right,” I said. “And I suppose that most of them will want to know what philosophy is and what good it will do their children.” “To which you would say…,” he prompted. “To which I would say that our motto, which is the motto of the Enlightenment, and the message and imperative of everything we teach, is ‘Have the courage to use your own understanding!’ …to use the power of your own mind and think for yourself. I’d say that to educate in general is first of all to promote the kind of maturity that consists of having reached the stage in the development of one’s powers when one can think for oneself and conduct one’s life accordingly, and I’d say that philosophy is the heart of such an education. To be educated is to be able to live wisely and live a life that is one’s own.”

“Right,” said DAD. “So why are you fretting about the philosophy of humor?” “Because,” I said, annoyed, “That is what I’m supposed to talk about!” “Yes, but you can’t talk about that,” he said. “You have nothing to say – there is nothing to say (not on national television, at any rate) – and if you look bad, the President looks bad. Remember, bosses always want to look good, and if they somehow misidentify the job to be done, that’s an opportunity to show them how thoroughly helpful you can be.”

“So you’re saying,” I ventured, “that in general I should not accept and carry out jobs unthinkingly, and that in the present instance I should give a commencement address that would, in my carefully considered judgment, appear to be the right kind to give, and it will all work out in the end?” “Right. You’re not a robot. You’re not someone’s tool,” he said. “Your responsibility for what you do can never be preempted by your having been given instructions that a reasonable person would know to be faulty. Nor does your responsibility stop at the boundaries of the particular roles you may happen to be assigned, for we are all persons, whatever else we are, and all bound to respect the humanity in others and do no harm. It’s your right and your obligation to think through what needs to be done in this world, and how best to go about doing it. Just remember to give credit where credit is due – remembering always, that it is prudent to let your superiors claim some for themselves – and respect the rights and intelligence of others.”

Much of this sounded oddly familiar. I espoused such things myself, I realized, but somehow I hadn’t, until now, taken them to heart. Were PR and HEART not on speaking terms, I wondered?

DAD knew the way to my HEART, in any case, and he made the most of it. “So this is really all you need to tell them, isn’t it?” he continued. “Tell them about the ideal of individual enlightenment, about the idea that it is through the cultivation of our intelligence, and the cultivation of a taste for what is good and fine, that we can best promote the flourishing of human beings. Whatever else these parents may want, they want to see their children flourish. So tell them that we philosophers, above all others, are the keepers of this torch, this faith in a maturity that is inseparable from standing on one’s own two feet in the world and knowing who one is and what one must do.” “Yes, that’s what I’ll do,” I said, “and I’ll mention that it’s not bad for the economy either.”

I pondered all of this for a while, before realizing that my problems were still not entirely solved. “You’ve been so helpful,” I said, “but there’s one more thing I need to know: for so long now I have been so confused about what I really am…” “What on earth do you mean, Dear?” said MOM, cutting me off. (DAD had gone down to the basement, as it were, to catch up on some unfinished cognitive chores.) “I mean all this time I’ve been so confused about whether I’m my brain, or my GUTS, or some particular part of my GUTS, or what,” I said, “and everytime I say something, even to myself, I’m not sure whether it’s just PR or really me.” “Well, I’m afraid you’ll have to work that one out for yourself, Dear. Do try to get a grip on yourself,” she said, as she headed off to join DAD. I knew in my GUTS she was right, but it was so very exasperating. “It would be so nice if there were someone who could just tell me who I am,” I thought.

After brooding over this for some time I ate a dinner free of any rich gravies or sauces which might overstimulate my imagination, built a small fire in the fireplace, and settled into my favorite easy chair. My agitation persisted quite undiminished, however, and I soon had to admit that, while this may have worked for Descartes, it was not working for me. “I know I exist, so I must be something!” I blurted out…. “Was that me talking?” I wondered, “Or just PR?” “No it was I, ‘Inference’, through whose powers you reach conclusions on proper evidence,” said my Inference module. “No, it was ME, ‘Marshal Evidence’,” insisted a subroutine of Inference. “I do most of the work around here; I deserve the credit. Yes, it was me,” said ME. “No, it was I!” said I. “No, me!” “No, I!” “Me!” “I!” Before the argument between these most rational of foes could degenerate any further, another voice piped up: “Theirs is a merely grammatical dispute,” said I, ‘Inspect’, who tries to keep an eye on things. “What matters, surely, is that it is I who first noticed the existence of something here.” “But only I, ‘Identify’, determined that it’s a person, said Identify in a huff, ignoring the fact that he couldn’t have done it without ME, ‘Match and Enumerate’, whom we’ve already met. Not to be outdone, ‘Inform’ then insisted that she was the one telling me all this, after all, and for one cataclysmic moment I had to wonder whether I might, for all I knew, be a woman!

This was all quite distressing, but eventually a few shimmering rays of light pierced this shroud of confusion, and it dawned on me what MOM had meant by getting a grip on myself. My moment of enlightenment had come. I gathered my courage and – quite glad to see that MOM and DAD had reemerged from the basement in time to hear this too – I said: “I know I owe a lot to all of you – my excellence is in large measure yours. But I am the one who makes myself who I am through what I do in the world beyond these doors. I am my own person now.” The turmoil in my gut subsided, and I walked out into the world a free man.

© Randall R. Curren 1999

Randall Curren teaches philosophy at the University

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