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What’s So Funny?

by Rick Lewis

After the serious meaning of life broodings of the last issue, now for something completely different. Laughter forms a part of the life of everyone involved with an independent magazine – the happy laughter which goes with sharing ideas with lighthearted and talented collaborators; the tired laughter at the end of long pre-press editing sessions; the gallows humour of the accountant as he goes over the books and the demented cackle of the publisher as he is finally carted off in a straightjacket. Humour is a universal human characteristic (alright, almost universal). What better subject for philosophical investigation than humour?

Thus it was put to me by Tim Madigan, when he suggested the theme for this issue. And I fell for it. Tim has been one of our US Editors for some time and, among his many accomplishments, is an expert on the 19th century English mathematician and philosopher W.K. Clifford. Visiting London recently, Tim decided it was time for a pilgrimage to Clifford’s grave. It was therefore in the rather melancholy setting of Highgate Cemetery, as we kicked our way through the undergrowth, that Madigan explained in more detail his plans for the issue.

We also agonised – with all the seriousness due to such an important matter – over whether the word should be spelt ‘humor’ or ‘humour’. We’ve always standardised on British spellings in Philosophy Now – the magazine started in England, after all. But this issue was partly edited in the United States and the magazine is sold equally on both sides of the water. So we’ve decided to be inconsistent this time, and spell it both ways. If anyone knows of any other accepted spellings of ‘humour’ – perhaps particular to remote Australian outback settlements or in lowland Scots dialect – then please let me know and we’ll print them in the next issue for completeness.

Why we laugh is perhaps a question more for psychologists rather than philosophers, but the fact that humour involves an interruption of our normal patterns of thought and language gives philosophy a way in and, according to Peter Rickman (page 10) suggests that as activities philosophy and telling jokes may have unexpected similarities.

Many people regard philosophy as being very serious and very obscure. Have you heard this joke? “What do you get if you cross the godfather with a philosopher? An offer you can’t understand.” But take comfort in the fact in the words of Blaise Pascal: “To ridicule philosophy is truly to philosophise.” Sticks and stones may harm philosophers, but words? Never.

One thing which may harm professional philosophers (he says, achieving a tricky change of topic with flawless ease) is when their departments are closed down. Philosophy seems to be under threat in a number of universities at present. In Britain all courses are ending at Liverpool John Moores University (see p.5) and winding down at City University. In Australia a number of departments are threatened. It is too soon to say whether this indicates a general trend but it is something about which we should be concerned. “But why are you bothered?” you interject (‘you’ being my imaginary interlocutor). “Isn’t Philosophy Now dedicated to the notion that philosophy is too important to be left to the academics? Hasn’t the professionalisation of philosophy led to it becoming jargon-ridden and remote from the concerns of the average citizen? Philosophy Now is a magazine for the general reader, for the proudly non-professional philosopher – let the academics fight their own battles!”

Well, no. It isn’t just that the original philosophy produced by the academics enriches our culture, although it does and part of the purpose of Philosophy Now is to give their ideas a wider currency. To do philosophy you firstly need a clear head and the courage to think fundamental things through for yourself. These qualities aren’t restricted to trained philosophers. But a knowledge of the incredibly rich history of philosophy is helpful to say the least, and so is a training in how to reason most effectively. More and more people want to study the big questions and afterwards they fan out into a vast variety of different occupations, taking with them their skills in creative, critical thinking. Good philosophy courses and dedicated, scholarly teachers of philosophy are an asset to society, and we need more of them, not fewer.

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