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Philosophy & Humour

Is there a possible world in which the great philosophers became successful standup comedians instead? No, there isn’t, says Trevor Curnow – and he shows us why…

Someone recently told me that she was working on a book about philosophy and humour. Someone else told me he was doing the same thing a while ago. In a shameless bid to steal their thunder, I thought I would try to write something about it before their books come out. When it comes to comedy, timing is everything.

It is far from unknown for serious thinkers to be interested in humour. Freud, for one, found it a fascinating topic. And I seem to remember reading somewhere that Ludwig Wittgenstein entertained the idea of writing a philosophy book entirely made up of jokes. However, there seems to be an obvious problem with such an ambition. What if the jokes are not funny? And even if they are, what is the advantage of such a strategy? Perhaps brevity and ease of remembrance? Anyway, nothing ventured, nothing gained, so here are a few suggestions as to what excerpts from The Bumper Book of Philosophy Jokes might look like.

Jonathan Swift: The invisible man’s outside.
George Berkeley: Tell him I can’t see him, therefore he doesn’t exist.

G.E. Moore: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Russell: Which chicken? I suggest you study my theory of descriptions.

Plato: Who was that lady I saw you with last night?
Socrates: That was no lady, that was Alcibiades.

Epictetus: How many philosophers does it take to change a light bulb?
Marcus Aurelius: I don’t know. How many philosophers does it take to change a light bulb?
Epictetus: None, because light bulbs haven’t been invented yet, and rational people do not attempt to do things that are not within their power.

Spinoza: What is the difference between God and Nature?
Leibniz: If they are indiscernible, none whatsoever.

Rush Rhees: What do you call something that’s brown and sticky?
Wittgenstein: That depends on which language game you are playing.

Marx: The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however is to change it. And there’s a man outside with a moustache.
Engels: Tell him I’ve already got one.

Kepler: Tycho Brahe’s got no nose.
Rudolf II: How does he smell?
Kepler: Awful.

Thomas Aquinas: What do you call a song that costs a pound?
Albert the Great: I don’t know. What do you call a song that costs a pound?
Thomas Aquinas: A quid-ditty.

Peter Strawson: What do you get if you cross a cow with a game of cricket?
Gilbert Ryle: A category mistake.

Zeno: Do you know a flying arrow is really at rest?
Parmenides: No, but if you hum it I’ll soon pick up the tune.

Gassendi: What is your favourite area of mathematics?
Descartes: Cogito ergo sums.

On second thoughts, perhaps Wittgenstein was wise to give up on the attempt, if he ever really made it.

© Trevor Curnow 2002

Trevor Curnow teaches philosophy at St Martin’s College, Lancaster.

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