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The Humor in Philosophy

A serious and good philosophical work could be written that consisted of nothing but jokes.
—Ludwig Wittgenstein[1]

This week I went to my first open mic to give a five-minute version of my dissertation.

And I killed it.

People are hungry for philosophy. But I think they were also surprised just how humorous it can be.

I was surprised how amped I got even after so much teaching.

According to the dominant theory of humor today, the Incongruity Theory, humor fundamentally involves some sort of incongruity, or lack of fit, between what we expect and what we get.

Here’s an example:

What do Alexander the Great and Winnie the Pooh share in common?
The same middle name.[2]

The setup leads us to expect something clever, maybe even insightful; if we laugh at the punchline, it’s because it dashes our expectations by its sheer obviousness.

So what explains the humor in philosophy? It goes beyond the cartoonishly elaborate thought experiments and hyperprecise jargon.

Philosophy, as Wilfrid Sellars tells us, is about figuring out “how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.”[3] In philosophy, we aim to unite our beliefs about how things really are.

But that rarely goes as we expect. Reflecting on our everyday beliefs is often a dizzying affair. ‘Common sense’ is a disunified, self-contradictory jumble of ideas we’ve inherited from untraceably many cultural sources. The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese. So is it better to be first or second? (Maybe it depends if the worm is spring-loaded?)

When we begin practicing philosophy, we quickly encounter deep incongruities within our own thinking and practices. Framed appropriately, these incongruities can bring a uniquely bewildering style of humor to the practice of philosophy.

For instance, you know you have hands, right? But what if you’re an octopus hooked up by evil scientists to electrodes that are just feeding your brain the experiences of being a human being right now? (Well, then you’d have tentacles!) Of course that can’t be right—after all, octopi can’t think and reason like humans. Or at least, that’s what you would think, based on the experiences being fed to you via the scientists’ electrodes.

So do you know that you have hands or not?! It can be a little distressing to see our knowledge look so insecure.

Much of the humor in philosophy trades on the incongruity between what we first think we think and what we find out we really think on reflection. (Maybe I don’t know whether I have hands, or maybe I know I have hands but I’m not certain, or maybe I’m certain but still might be wrong, or maybe...) Philosophy is relentlessly surprising. Even as it clarifies one aspect of our lives, it often overturns another.

For example, the Incongruity Theory can help clarify the nature of humor. But of course, not all incongruities are humorous. Some are tragic, confusing, or aggravating. Suppose a loving father dies unexpectedly in his sleep. His death is totally incongruous, and our expectations are thoroughly subverted. But there’s nothing humorous here. Note that even if we ratchet up the story’s incongruity by making the father younger and healthier so his death will be even more unexpected, we don’t thereby make his death any more humorous. Incongruity alone isn’t enough to guarantee humor.

That means a fully worked-out version of the Incongruity Theory will owe us some way of telling which incongruities are humorous. But cashing this idea out has proved extraordinarily tricky. For example, the humorous incongruities aren’t simply the enjoyable ones; after all, we might enjoy the incongruities of a great tragedy without finding them humorous. Thus, even as we clarify one aspect of humor (the role of incongruity) we make clear how much more we don’t yet understand (what else is needed).

By its nature, philosophy is bewildering—an endlessly questioning, probing affair. The process of figuring out what we really think on reflection can be a roller coaster. And it might end in the intellectually humbling form of thinking, with Socrates, that we know not. I think such humility contributes to the widespread notion that philosophy doesn’t make progress. Here Philip Kitcher’s response is powerful: “when philosophers launch a study that plainly makes progress, people don’t call it ‘philosophy’ anymore.”[4] We call it mathematics, or physics, or developmental psychology.

Much of the distinctive humor in philosophy comes from its stubborn refusal to give us the clear progress we expect from our other studies. Philosophy continually subverts our expectations.

Of course the process of piecing our beliefs together isn't linear. We often have to get lost in the trees for a while before we can reorient ourselves within the larger forest. And at the end, our considered view of how all those trees hang together may be very different from what we first expected.

But if you can pull people out of their expected ways of thinking, even for a moment, you can show them some of the humor in philosophy. It's right in between how they think on autopilot and after a bit of reflection.

[1] As quoted in Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, 27-28. [2] Cohen, Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters, 30. [3] Sellars, Science, Perception and Reality, 1. [4] Kitcher, What’s the Use of Philosophy? 10.

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