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The Philosopher as Joker

Peter Rickman on the unsettling similarities between jokes and philosophy.

Tell the average person – perhaps the proverbial man on the Clapham omnibus – that according to Plato, that bus is not real, is merely an appearance or an imitation or an intangible reality, the form or idea of a bus, the bus which “God made”. Or tell him, paraphrasing Descartes, that unless he was convinced of the existence of God he could not be sure of having a body. Or tell him, following Berkeley, that the existence of things merely consists of their being perceived. He will say “You must be joking.”

If joking means saying something to make you laugh, that traveller on the way to Clapham is, of course, wrong. Many philosophers – contrary to a widespread prejudice – have a sense of humour. Democritus was called ‘the laughing philosopher’; Plato was often suspected of talking tongue in cheek; the ponderous Kant had a sly sense of whimsy, and Nietzsche sparkled with wit. However, the startling views I attributed to three distinguished philosophers – and I could have listed many in a similar vein – were not intended to provoke laughter.

Yet that London Transport passenger is not wholly mistaken. He is aware of something like jokes. So to explore the resemblance of philosophy to jokes may illuminate the philosophic enterprise.

We may start with the recognition that philosophers find themselves compelled to misuse or twist language a little to make their point. They want us to look at what we take familiarly for granted with fresh eyes to make distinctions we had neglected, to see similarities we overlooked. They are certainly not worried about riding on buses, going for walks or sitting on chairs. When Johnson thought of refuting Berkeley by kicking a stone, he – to quote a neat phrase – “kicked a stone but missed the point.”

When philosophers take liberties with language to make their distinctive points they are not frivolous. Language because it serves primarily practical purposes is not designed for examining its own practice or the practices it serves. Here lies the link to jokes which are meant to shock us by ignoring, misusing or defying the convention which governs our speech and thought.

The capacity at the basis of both philosophy and jokes – to challenge one’s own treasured assumptions or to make distinctions which cut across time-honoured classifications, is a unique characteristic of our minds and lies at the heart of originality and creativity. To my knowledge computers, whatever artificial intelligence they may display, cannot make good jokes or produce inspiring philosophy.

Jokes, like philosophy, touch on all aspects of life: human nature and destiny, religion, politics and science, love and marriage, business and the way we communicate with each other. Like philosophy, jokes look critically and without reverence at the authority claimed by rulers, policemen, mothers-in-law, teachers, psychiatrists and all kinds of experts. The psychological and social functions of this universal human activity (who would disclaim having a sense of humour?) have been widely explored and need not occupy me here. I am concerned with the close parallels in the way philosophers and jokers make their points. But for this purpose I shall present and examine a number of jokes. I cannot claim that they are representative of the whole field, only that they are good jokes.

1. A couple ride in a car. The man while driving puts one arm round the girl. She: “Shouldn’t you use both hands?” He: “I would like to but the old bus won’t drive itself.” – this makes the general point that much of our language is ambiguous because we cannot and need not spell out every detail, which has provided the basis of philosophic debates. Here the answer is obvious: the commonsense context removes this ambiguity.

2. A cartoon picture obviously representing Heaven, shown several sheep on fluffy clouds. One sheep says to another, “I sang ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ thousands of times, but I never thought it was intended literally.” Like the first joke this is about our use of language. We constantly, without thinking about it, use metaphors and the meaning of what we say may be taken literally or metaphorically. This may represent a philosophical, though rarely a practical, problem.

3. Two people ride in a train. At the first station one of them begins to fret. At the next station he shows increasing distress. “What’s the matter?” asks the other passenger. “With every stop,” the unhappy traveller replies, “I realise more and more that I am on the wrong train.” This story which can with advantage be described as being about a political party one opposes, pinpoints two not uncommon mistakes. One is to treat as a matter of degree what is a matter of yes-or-no. The excuse of the girl who has an illegitimate baby that it is only a small one, comes into the same category. The other mistake is not to respond – be it from lethargy, stubbornness or fear – to the recognition that one is on the wrong course.

4. The psychiatrist says to the patient, “You don’t have an inferiority complex, you are inferior.” The unlikeliness of this actually occurring suggests that psychiatrists may deal with the patient’s ideas without relating them to the facts.

5. A beggar gains entrance to the house of a rich man and to get his help expounds his troubles: he lost his job his wife is very ill, his son has had a serious accident etc. After a while the rich man rings for the butler and says “Throw him out, he is breaking my heart.” Here neatly a point is made which was powerfully argued by Spinoza. The feeling of sympathy can be counterproductive or at least a substitute for action. What is needed is rational recognition of the other’s need and action in response.

6. The ship is tossing dangerously on the high seas. Smith rushes to the captain asking him about the danger. “We are all in God’s hands,” says the captain. “Is it as bad as that?” exclaims the passenger, appalled, revealing the cynical view of Divine governance implied in our use of the phrase.

7. A man is observed constantly waving his hand across his face. When asked what he is doing, he explains that he is driving away elephants. “But there are no elephants here,” the questioner exclaims to get the reply: “You see, it works.” opening whole vistas of crazy theories based on ill-conceived evidence.

In each of these jokes the short-circuiting of common sense, the absurdity, jolt us into reflection on how we talk, think and act. In philosophic literature such themes as the ambiguities of language, bigotry, self-deception, the proper response to the needs of others, the relation between thought and reality and the failure to act on ones insights are pervasively present.

Jokes share with philosophy the characteristic of being, in a sense, meta-activities, i.e. second level responses or reflections on what we normally do. Forced to move against the grain of normal usage, they thrust upon us unexpected links and so make us look again at what we took for granted.

“Stop” the reader might say. “Are you being carried away by a few parallels? Philosophers, like jokers may shock us by using language in eccentric ways and jumping to unexpected conclusions, but there is a vast unbridgeable gulf which you admitted right at the start. Jokes are light relief. Their purpose is to make us laugh while philosophy is a serious business, is no laughing matter.”

Of course, to deny any difference between the armchair philosopher and the stand-up comic would reduce philosophy to a “mere joke”. Calling the philosopher a joker is a metaphor designed to illuminate his activity, but like all metaphors has its limits. If you call a stupid man an ass, you do not mean that he can be hired out for children to ride him on the sands.

However, we must also look more closely at the business of being serious. Good jokes are a serious business. By ‘good’ I mean that such jokes have a point. I want to distinguish them from witless jokes – schoolboy jokes by people of any age and either sex – who, for example, find the use of ‘rude’ words or any reference to bodily functions funny (though of course there can be good jokes about sex). Jokes are, very frequently, about serious and even painful subjects: about death, illness, physical deformity, poverty, national prejudices, religion, cruelty, the abuse of power, sex and infidelity in marriage. Some such jokes may seem unkind and in bad taste but they also tend to free us from emotional involvement with this situation and help us view the human situation with detachment. And this is a serious business.

We need not argue at length that philosophy is serious, but this does not mean that it needs to be solemn or humourless. That it drives out cheerfulness is a slur, springing from prejudice. Philosophy does mean standing back from the involvements of everyday life. Indeed to those who think only such things as making money or providing material goods are serious, it may seem frivolous. So if the line between joking and philosophising is finer than one might think at first, what what can the comparison tell us about the latter?

Philosophy is, essentially, the search for meaning in our lives and activities. To set out on this search we need to question conventional wisdom (“what every schoolboy knows”) to awaken in us – as so many jokes do – a sense of life’s incongruities and apparent absurdities, the difficulties of communication, and the all too apparent inadequacy of our responses. It has to re-enact the role that the fool played at the court of medieval kings.

© Prof. H.P. Rickman 1999

Peter Rickman is a Visiting Professor at the City University in London.

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