Monday, June 20, 2005

The Joyful Science

Is there philosophical humour? We could probably do with it, philosophy being as it is so demoralizing and hard. What passes for humour in philosophy these days, however, is the feeble pun, or a cutesiness that reaches its nadir in Jerry Fodor.

There have been funny philosophers: Hobbes and Hume on occasion, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard more consistently, Russell, Austin, the sometimes nasty humour of Plato's Socrates and Peter Geach, and the lighter charms of Gerry Cohen, whose autobiographical book on egalitarianism is one of the enduringly valuable comic-political works of all time. Also, the collection of Proofs that P, and the Philosophical Lexicon.

But these are trivia, and my question was of course quite seriously meant. According to legend, Wittgenstein once said that a serious and good philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes. His own work provides few compelling examples. From Philosophical Investigations:

It can’t be said of me at all (except perhaps as a joke) that I know I am in pain.

This is unlikely to have them rolling in the aisles. But I like his question, also in the Investigations, "why do we feel a grammatical joke to be deep?"

I once invented a joke of the kind Wittgenstein apparently approves, but it unfortunately depends on verbal presentation.
Q: (pointing) What's that?
A: A demonstrative pronoun.
Even presented verbally, I'm afraid, the joke is very bad. But it has a philosophical moral, albeit it a boring one, about the confusion of use and mention.

No doubt Wittgenstein had bigger fish to fry. His "grammatical jokes" were meant to expose confusions deeper than the one I found, to drag us spluttering but smiling from the seas of language in which we are otherwise likely to drown. I am tempted to understand Wittgenstein's attitude in relation to this aphorism by Mary Douglas (from her anthroplogical essay, "Jokes"):
A joke is a play upon form that affords an opportunity for realising that an accepted pattern has no necessity.
This goes along with a family of readings that make Wittgenstein some sort of conventionalist: one who accepts the contingency, or at least the arbitrariness of "grammar". It is a topic I would like to think more about; I don't know how to read Wittgenstein on necessity. But at least this seems true: it is distinctive of Wittgenstein to resist a metaphysical conception of necessity, the kind of conception on which a necessary truth must flow from, and be explained by, what it is to be one thing or another.

Without that conception, the constructive project of philosophy – that of deriving necessities from the natures of things (analysis in a newly metaphysical guise) – is bound to lapse. That would make some sense of Wittgenstein's therapeutic and anti-theoretical approach.

A hard question: how to adjudicate the matter, even if we can be clear about it?

I won't begin to do that here, returning instead to my principal topic: philosophical humour. Does it have a non-trivial, but non-Wittgensteinian form? I suppose there is always the absurd example, the joke that brings out the necessity of what is necessary, not the space for an alternative. But while this is not as bad as the pun, or Jerry Fodor, it is pretty drab all the same. I am afraid the anti-metaphysicans have all the good lines.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

On intentionally-humorous philosophy, there is Charles Dodgson's 1895 article in "Mind", "What Achilles said to the Tortoise".

And Umberto Eco's novel, "The Name of the Rose", has lots of subtle jokes about medieval philosophy.

However, nothing I've read about Wittgenstein would persuade me had any sense of humor at all, with the exception, perhaps, of a juvenile, practical-joking kind. This is a man who took himself very very seriously.

4:02 PM  
Anonymous Matt Weiner said...

Once a bunch of grad students were discussing deixis in the Squirrel Cage, I asked, "What is deixis, anyway?" and Doug Patterson pointed at a beer bottle and said "That bottle."

I am far too fond of the dreadful pun myself. Gil Harman is very funny in his presentations but I don't know if that solves the problem. (I'd add Prior's "The Runabout Inference Ticket" to anonymous's list of funny philosophy; and Entailment is very funny for a book on philosophical logic. Though there the humor may not be essential to the work, except as it makes it much more readable.)

2:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It is always easy to tell whether people are doing good philosophy: they are if they are laughing" Charles Daniles (quoted p.204 of van Fraassen, "The scientific image")

5:37 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

There are certainly funny philosophers. The question raised by Wittgenstein's remark (about a serious and good philosophical work) is whether the joke can be more than incidental. Perhaps it is in the case of Dodgson on Achilles and the Tortoise. And I have argued before that humour is doing real work Frankfurt's essay "On Bullshit". But its role is not systematic.

I like the quote from Daniles, via van Fraassen, though I would have been inclined to say the opposite. In a way that is what the post was about.

If one thinks of "constructive" philosophy as linguistic confusion, or nonsense, it is possible to see how doing philosophy (now as therapy) could be inherently comic. It is ironic, laughable, that what seem to us the deepest questions are little more than "grammatical" mistakes. If you have faith in metaphysics, or take it seriously, the joke is on you.

1:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

there are several treatise on laughter, on by baudelaire (philosophical, if not philosophy) and one by bergson. both are worth a read.

7:04 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

I've read bits of the Bergson. In the more distant past, some 18th century moral philosophers had things to say about humour: Hutcheson's "Thoughts on Laughter" (hard to find), and Shaftesbury on wit and humour in Characteristicks.

1:04 PM  
Anonymous Matt Weiner said...

The humor in the Prior piece may be more than incidental--somewhat like Achilles and the Tortoise, it takes an argument to an absurd conclusion without pointing out the moral. In fact, I thought of it because Nuel explicitly compares it to "Achilles and the Tortoise." I was going to say that argument could be restated non-humorously in premise-conclusion form, but Nuel thinks something would be lost, and he's probably right.

Blackburn's "Practical Tortoise Raising" may achieve something similar. Notice a trend?

And there's that article "Swamp Man of La Mancha" which consists of a detective story involving a swampman and a marsh woman, with philosophical annotation in the footnotes. I think the bit where the detective tries to console the Swamp Man by saying that it wasn't he who was married to the murder victim, and in fact he doesn't really have any feelings at all, may be irreducibly funny.

10:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe the Daniels quote (from Van F) I posted before was slightly out of place. I guess the idea might be not so much that philosophy is funny, but that in doing good philosophy, laughter is a key element. I can think of three reasons for that claim. First, regardless of whether one is pro- or anti- metaphysics, it is easy to be seduced by language. Having a sense of fun, being able to employ a silly example, is a useful corrective to reification, regardless of the more general question of whether all philosophy is simply linguistic confusion. Humour is constructive. Second, it is an important feature of being a good philosopher that one displays humility. Laughing at yourself - at your own reification of bits of language or to say something that, on reflection, is absurd - is an important sign of such humility. (And, more generally, any philosopher who doesn't sometimes think that there is something funny about a grown adult wondering whether tables really exist is scary.) Third, there is a certain sort of laughter that is the laughter of relief or admiration. "All our worries about counterfactual sentences are solved by being realists about possible worlds". Surely responding to that clam by laughing need not be mocking the claim, but showing an appreciation of its brilliance, just as we sometimes smile when we realise that a complex equation actually has a simple solution. It is the laughter of admiration at the beauty of the world and the detness of the solution, a kind of affirmation of life. So, as a philosophical tool, as evidence of character, and as evidence of an understanding of the beuaty of simplicity, I agree with Daniels. Any seminar where people are laughing is a seminar where good philosophy is underway.

5:46 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Anonymous: thanks for the explanation; I like it very much.

8:58 AM  
Anonymous David Duff said...

The only two philosophers who made me laugh out loud were Machiavelli, and the late, great David Stove, particularly in his "Darwinian Fairytales". Here is a taste:

Stove tells of E.O.Wilson and his puzzlement that certain animals possess the means to signal submission which is usually accepted by their opponents in a fight. Wilson thought this to be a "considerable theoretical diificulty: Why not always try to kill or maim the enemy outright?" Stove goes on, "If Professor Wilson is right, it would be a 'considerable theoretical difficulty' why Darwin did not try to kill or maim Samuel Butler, for example, or why Wilson himself does not try to kill or maim his bitter enemy and Harvard colleague, Professor R. C. Lewontain."

9:20 AM  
Blogger GF-A said...

It's not really philosophically deep, but I found Henry Fitzgerald's "Nominalist Things," published in Analysis 63.2 (April 2003), really hilarious. It certainly doesn't bear on the claim that jokes reveal apparent necessities to be contingent, but it is worth looking at -- and I was happily surprised that it appeared in the pages of a serious journal.

1:38 PM  
Anonymous Matt Weiner said...

Wow, that really makes Wilson sound dumb. You'd think he'd at least have heard of Hobbes.

7:47 PM  
Anonymous Anders Weinstein said...

Saturday Night Live once did a parody of commercials for home pregnancy tests, in which the product is instead an easy to use home headache test. A young couple gazes nervously at the device for a time, then their expressions turn to relief as it changes color to give the result that one of them does not have a headache.

This was done as humor, with no philosophical purpose. It seemed to me one could use this in teaching Wittgenstein, not just as an illustration of Wittgenstein's claims about sensations and knowledge, but also as an example of the idea of a grammatical joke.

3:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

another joke about the use/mention distinction, maybe a little bit more funny:
Teacher: John, could you please give an example of a direct command?
John: Shut up!
Teacher: Very good, John. Could you now repeat the command in indirect speach?
John: Hey, I told you to shut up!

12:04 PM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

More Wittgensteinian humour.

9:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"With his habitual cocksureness he announced that “no metaphysics of the supersensual will ever be written”. Kant would not have been Kant if he had not contradicted himself even here."


One can slide between gestalts on the latter sentence. It's either cheap, harsh and cold, or warm, genial, and gloriously deep.

3:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

These parodies of Wittgenstein are quite funny:

Tractatus Fuselagico-Umbilicus

Philosophical Tribulations

9:15 AM  

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