Monday, December 17, 2007

Not Pure Drivel

Some years ago, I wrote a post about philosophical humour. It ended up dwelling on philosophers. But there are also comedians who do philosophy.

Woody Allen is one of them, though he doesn't suit my taste: "When I was in school, I cheated on my metaphysics exam: I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me." More compelling, perhaps, is Steven Wright, as in this incisive contribution to debates about absolute generality: "You can't have everything. Where would you put it?"

But these intellects suffer from a lack of formal philosophical instruction, without which comedy is at best contingent. They should learn from such luminaries as Bill Murray, Steve Martin and Ricky Gervais.

In Born Standing Up, Martin describes his comedic and philosophical education. The latter took place at Long Beach State College, was stoked by Lewis Carroll's logic, and ended in Wittgensteinian despair. The former began with the discovery of jokes, "musty one-liners from other comedians' acts, but to me they were as new as sunrise." Like John Stuart Mill, however, who in his nervous breakdown was "seriously tormented by the […] exhaustibility of musical combinations," and Frank Ramsey, who found that there was nothing to discuss, Martin faced a crisis: what to do when the jokes run out, like the periods of Times Roman?

His solution was a construction of genius, the rigorous application of logic to the problems of life. Objecting to the Freudian theory of laughter as the release of pent-up tension, Martin asked:
What if there were no punchlines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anticlimax? What would the audience do with all that tension?
This refutation of the tension theory inadvertently confirms its rival: the conception of comedy as incongruity. What could be more incongruous, and thus hilarious, than set-up after set-up deflated, no punchline ever supplied?

On this basis, we can prove the necessity of humour. If a set-up is followed by an incongruous punchline, then the joke is funny; if there is no punchline or if it is not incongruous, this too is incongruous and therefore funny. Our happy conclusion – Steve Martin's sublime discovery – is that it is impossible not to be funny. You've got to laugh.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Philosophy for Elliot

Plato, Republic:
Suppose that we were painting a statue, and someone came up to us and said, "Why do you not put the most beautiful colours on the most beautiful parts of the body: the eyes ought to be purple, but you have made them black"; to him we might fairly answer, "Sir, you would not surely have us beautify the eyes to such a degree that they are no longer eyes; consider rather whether, by giving this and the other features their due proportion, we make the whole beautiful."
Kant, Critique of Judgement:
The faculty of desire, so far as it is determinable only through concepts, i.e. to act in conformity with the representation of a purpose, would be the will. But an object, or a state of mind, or even an action, is called purposive, although its possibility does not necessarily presuppose the representation of a purpose, merely because its possibility can be explained and conceived by us only so far as we assume for its ground a causality according to purposes, i.e. a will which would have so disposed it according to the representation of a certain rule. There can be, then, purposiveness without purpose, so far as we do not place the causes of this form in a will, but yet can only make the explanation of its possibility intelligible to ourselves by deriving it from a will.
Wittgenstein, Lectures 1932-35:
In teaching a child language by pointing to things and pronouncing the words for them, where does the use of a proposition start? If you teach him to touch certain colours when you say the word "red," you have evidently not taught him sentences. [...] What is called understanding a sentence is not very different from what a child does when he points to colours on hearing colour words. Now there are all sorts of language-games suggested by the one in which colour words are taught: games of orders and commands, of question and answer, of questions and "Yes" and "No." We might think that in teaching a child such language-games we are not teaching him a language but are only preparing him for it. But these games are complete; nothing is lacking.