Philosophy and Humor

by Gerald Dworkin

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There is a story about the philosopher Nuel Belnap who collapsed in his classroom. After a period of time, having recovered, he returned to the classroom and began “As I was saying…” It has been several years since my last blog. My absence is partly due to my having had heart surgery and partly due to trying to finish several philosophical projects. Since both were successful, I return to the fold.

Readers with a long memory will remember two pieces Short Takes and More (and longer) Short Takes. They were excerpts from a commonplace book on philosophical humor– and lots of short, serious stuff– that I had been collecting for many years. One of my projects was to finish (or rather just stop collecting) this book. It now has been published as an e-book on Amazon and other sites. It is called Philosophy: A Commonplace Book.

A few weeks after the book came out, and with no causal relation, a post on the website Reddit called “What’s the most intellectual joke you know?” went viral. Since intellectual does not equate to philosophical, the majority of the jokes are of the “a mathematician, a physicist, and an engineer” type. But there are some good philosophical ones as well.

“Is it getting solipsistic in here, or is it just me?”

“I’m a linguist. So I like ambiguity more than most people.”

“According to Freud, what comes between fear and sex? Fünf.”

“This sentence contains exactly threee erors.”

“Every word in this sentence is a gross misspelling of the word “tomato.” –Doug Hofstadter”

So far the site does not include two of my favorites, and I forgot to include them in my collection as well.

Heaven is where the police are British, the chefs Italian, the mechanics German, the lovers French, and it's all organized by the Swiss. Hell is where the police are German, the chefs British, the mechanics French, the lovers Swiss, and it's all organized by the Italians

A Franciscan priest sits down next to a Jesuit priest while riding a train to Rome. After a while the Franciscan notices that the Jesuit is smoking and praying. Franciscan: I’m surprised to see you doing that. Jesuit: Why’s that? Franciscan: Well, our order asked the Holy Father for permission to do that and were denied. Jesuit: Really? We asked the Pope, and he said we could. What did you ask him? Franciscan: We asked if we could smoke while we prayed, and he said no. Jesuit: Ahhhh! That’s the problem. We Jesuits asked if we could pray while we smoked, and he said, “of course!”

Now, for something completely serious. Wittgenstein famously said that a serious and good philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes. It is not at all clear what he had in mind by this. Perhaps it is significant that he never wrote this down. It was reported by Norman Malcolm as something he once said to Malcolm.

My best interpretation of this gnomic saying is that many philosophical theses, e.g. to be is to be perceived, one cannot be sure of anything unless God exists, to say that Hitler was an evil person is to say “Hitler. Boo!”, the only serious philosophical problem is suicide, can best be met by saying, “You must be joking” or “You can’t be serious.” For a very funny take-off of Wittgenstein see this piece by Michael Frayn.

Jack Handy used to have a regular feature on Saturday Night Live called Deep Thoughts. One of them seems to me a wonderful parody of the the period in contemporary philosophy called by Rorty the linguistic turn. “Maybe in order to understand mankind, we have to look at the word itself. Mankind. Basically, it's made up of two separate words: “mank” and “ind”. What do these words mean? It's a mystery, and that's why so is mankind.”

I

Freud observed of the Jews that “I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.” A nice example is this. A Frenchman, a German, and a Jew walk into a bar. The Frenchman says, “I am so thirsty. I must have wine.” The German says, “I am so thirsty. I must have beer.” The Jew says, “I am so thirsty. I must have diabetes.”

Can something similar to Freud’s observation about Jews be said about philosophers? While every discipline has its jokes–mathematicians, lawyers, economists– philosophers seem particularly prone to wit; perhaps because so much of the writing is critical in nature and hence open to sarcasm, irony, and other forms of intellectual assault.

Another reason is that the discipline itself is regarded by so many with disdain, scorn and skepticism. One defense is to pre-empt such attitudes by insider fun-making. Berkeley and his philosophers raising a cloud of dust and then complaining they cannot see. Russell who said philosophers, for the most part, are constitutionally timid, and dislike the unexpected. Few of them would be genuinely happy as pirates or burglars. David Stove observing that Hegel loses a lot in the original.

But even if this speculation were true–how would one measure the relative disciplinary amounts of humor?– it would be true because of a contingent fact. Philosophers don’t get much respect from the general public. So humor is explained as a defense mechanism.

The more interesting issue is whether there is something about the nature of the philosophical
enterprise that encourages humor. One speculative thought is that both Jews with their logic-chopping interpretation of the Talmud, and philosophers with their logic-chopping as occupational deformation are led to conclusions that might be seen as laughable. Reductio ad absurdum is well-named.

There is a well-known joke about Talmudic interpretation. A Jew is talking to his Rabbi.
Rabbi,” the man said, “Explain the Talmud to me.”
“Very well,” he said. “First, I will ask you a question. If two men climb up a chimney and one comes out dirty, and one comes out clean, which one washes himself?”
“The dirty one,” answers the man.
“No. They look at each other and the dirty man thinks he is clean and the clean man thinks he is dirty, therefore, the clean man washes himself.”
“Now, another question:
If two men climb up a chimney and one comes out dirty, and one comes out clean, which one washes himself?”
The man smiles and says, “You just told me, Rabbi. The man who is clean washes himself because he thinks he is dirty.”
“No,” says the Rabbi. “If they each look at themselves, the clean man knows he doesn't have to wash himself, so the dirty man washes himself.”
“Now, one more question.
If two men climb up a chimney and one comes out dirty, and one comes out clean, which one washes himself?”
“I don't know, Rabbi. Depending on your point of view, it could be either one.”
Again the Rabbi says, “No. If two men climb up a chimney, how could one man remain clean? They both are dirty, and they both wash themselves.”
The confused man said, “Rabbi, you asked me the same question three times and you gave me three different answers. Is this some kind of a joke?”
“This is not a joke, my son. This is Talmud.”

II

Perhaps the analogy between Jews and philosophers is not a good one. As the following joke embodying both jewish and philosophical humor suggests.

What’s purple, hangs on the wall, and whistles?
I don’t know.
A herring.
Herrings aren’t purple.
So, paint it purple.
Herrings don’t hang on the wall.
Hang it on the wall.
But, herrings can’t whistle.
No analogy is perfect.

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