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Philosophy and Humor
An introduction by Tim Madigan.
“It is worth noting that Wittgenstein once said that a serious and good philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes (without being facetious).”
Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir
The above passage is rather ambiguous – does it mean that Wittgenstein said such a thing in a nonfacetious tone, or would the work he is proposing be nonfacetious? (An uncharitable soul might say that Wittgenstein succeeded in writing such a book – Philosophical Investigations.) Such are the types of linguistic analyses which philosophers are prone to engage in, which is no doubt why the profession is often seen as being humorless in the extreme.
Must philosophers be unfacetious? Can one tell a joke without having to also examine what it means? In a recent book Ted Cohen, a noted philosopher from the University of Chicago, ably demonstrates that it’s possible to appreciate a funny anecdote on its own terms, while also exploring the complicated set of conditions that must be met for it to elicit laughs. Consider the following example he gives:
“The things about German food is that no matter how much you eat, an hour later you’re hungry for power.” This joke is largely unavailable to anyone who doesn’t know the old chestnut about Chinese food invariably leaving one hungry soon after eating, whether one believes that about Chinese food or not. But then one must also know the commonplace about Germans that they long to control others, to have and to wield power. Now it makes some difference whether one only knows this commonplace, or whether or knows it and believes it to be true. And finally, it matters whether one has negative feelings about Germans on that count, or doesn’t. If it offends one to have Germans represented in this way, then the amusement may be lost altogether. (Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters, University of Chicago Press, 1999, pp. 21-22).
So you can see, jokes are no laughing matter. The stereotype of philosophers being dour souls is, like most stereotypes, not always the case. Diogenes the Cynic, Voltaire, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Bertrand Russell were all known for their keen wit, and recent philosophers like O.K. Bouswma, Daniel C. Dennett, Richard Gale, and Richard Watson have sprinkled their learned tomes with witty asides and lowbrow puns. As Friedrich Nietzsche (no slouch in the humor category himself) once wrote: “Who among you can laugh and be elevated at the same time?”
If you go to any philosophy department you are more than likely to find a good number of professors’ doors festooned with cartoons, culled from such sources as The New Yorker, The Economist, and their own local newspapers. (I know that I for one died a little when ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ ceased publication). Such comics not only cause chuckles – they are often quite helpful in elucidating philosophical concepts. Indeed, one of my goals is to take up Wittgenstein’s challenge, and put together a philosophy text consisting solely of comic strips. In the meantime, if you’d like to combine your love of wisdom with a love of witticisms, I highly recommend the University of Miami Philosophy Department’s webpage:
The following articles attempt to both use and mention humor, all in the cause of improving one’s knowledge about the comical cosmos in which we live.
Dr Timothy J. Madigan
Tim Madigan works for the University of Rochester Press in Rochester, New York. He is a US Editor of Philosophy Now and former Editor of Free Inquiry.