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CAFARD, Max. "Laughing Matters, or, In Praise of Folly"
Article published on 25 January 2006
last modification on 12 February 2013

by r-c.
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We humans have always expressed our deepest truths in a spirit of comedy. Indeed I would argue that there is nothing of more philosophical significance than the comedic. To attain wisdom, we must learn to laugh. Erasmus said that there is a Path of Folly that leads to wisdom, and he was right. But it turns out to be a more wayward path and a much crazier wisdom than he imagined. "Two dangers threaten the universe: order and disorder," wrote Paul Valéry. Valéry’s aphorism, a sort of proto-Catch-22, suggests no possible middle ground where we can find sanctuary. But I contend that there is indeed a way to negotiate between the Scylla and Charybdis of Valéry’s twin oppressors: laughter. Not the titter or the giggle, but the howling, Boschian belly laugh that delights in the vital, the creative, and the spontaneous and affirms these things in the face of the destructive forces that would reduce them to a stifling orderliness or a deadly disorder.

A wonderful illustration of comedic philosophizing is the work of Woody Allen. Though often dismissed as mere ludic absurdism, his humor contains elements of the most profound mockery. His carefully chosen target is often an abstract, idealist outlook that ignores the material realities of the human condition. For example, contemplating the idea of immortality, Allen comments, "if my soul exists without my body I am convinced all my clothes will be loose-fitting." In his mock-existentialist piece "The Condemned" he mentions that his antihero Cloquet "hated reality but realized that it was still the only place to get a good steak." Later he muses to himself, "Rely more on the body—the body is more dependable. It shows up for meetings, it looks good in a sports jacket, and where it really comes in handy is when you want to get a rubdown." He observes that while in prison Cloquet questioned the reality of death: "Men die, but does Cloquet die? This question puzzled him, but a few simple line drawings on a pad done by one of the guards set the whole thing clear."

In "My Apology" Allen puts himself in the shoes (or sandals) of Socrates but continually makes ironic comments about the absurdity of the Platonic idealism that Socrates usually mouths. When his disciple Agathon mentions that Socrates/Allen had previously taught that death is like sleep, he replies, "Yes, but the difference is that when you’re dead and somebody yells, ’Everybody up, its morning,’ it’s very hard to find your slippers." Allen manages to convey concisely with ironic humor what the often witty but seldom humorous Nietzsche also sought to disclose: whatever fantastic ideas philosophers and other would-be escape artists may entertain, we all know that we are our bodies.

Contemporary American philosophy, unfortunately, is not a very promising place to look for enlightenment on our topic. If, just for laughs, you were to check out the fairly numerous websites on philosophical humor, you would probably be disappointed. The voluminous material found on them consists mostly of nerdy attempts at hilarity, logic exercises masquerading as humor, and in-jokes about the profession (Q: How do you get a philosopher off your front porch? A: Pay for the pizza).

The universal favorite seems to be the one in which Descartes goes into a bar and one of his pals greets him with "Bonjour, René, how about a beer?" To which the philosopher replies, "I think not," and promptly disappears. Not bad, but you’re more likely to find something like this: "Aristotelian kiss—a kiss performed using techniques gained solely from theoretical speculation untainted by any experiential data by one who feels that the latter is irrelevant anyway." After which most readers will be ready to kiss off the topic of philosophical humor entirely.

Before giving up, though, we might also look at several recent works that touch on this topic. In his book I Think, Therefore I Laugh, mathematician John Allen Paulos argues that "conceptual humor and analytical philosophy resonate at a very deep level." Unfortunately, this insight doesn’t guide the book very deeply into philosophical issues, and much of it isn’t about what most people would consider humor at all. In fact, Paulos doesn’t have much of an ear for humor. He’s capable of including among his very limited collection of jokes the following clunker (which is far from the least humorous in his collection): "George goes to the You-Bet-Your-Life computer dating service to register his requirements (axioms). He wants someone who is white, not very talkative, comfortable in fur, yet disdainful of city life. The computer sends him a polar bear." Not only is this, like most of his examples, an utter groaner, but it leads nowhere philosophically.

Fortunately, Ted Cohen, author of Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters, has a very good sense of humor, and his brief work is well worth reading for its excellent collection of jokes. The best part of the book is his discussion of Jewish humor and his often hilarious examples of ironic wit coming out of that rich tradition. As Cohen notes, the Jewish people have had thousands of years of practice in an ironic relation to their societies and have developed an acute sense of irony as a means of coping with conditions of oppression and exclusion. He notes that "if your joke works, you will make people laugh at your oppressor, and if you are very lucky (and your joke is very good), you may even make your oppressor laugh at himself." Nietzsche made much the same point: "Not by wrath does one kill but by laughter."

Cohen is less than convincing, though, when he tries to trace Jewish ironic humor back to biblical sources. After all, many of these sources preceded the conditions that largely shaped the humor. For example, he finds evidence of humor in the fact that Abraham and Sarah, aged 100 and 90, laughed when informed by the Supreme Being of their imminent parenthood. Something funny does seem to be going on, but I suspect that even a couple of dour centenarian monotheists with an extraordinarily bad sense of humor might let out some sort of laugh at this kind of announcement. Cohen also sees something laughable in the scene in which Abraham is commanded to kill his son Isaac and is at the point of doing the deed when let off the hook. The case for divine comedy here might be more convincing if Yahweh had said something like "Just joking, you schmuck!" rather than "Congratulations, you’ve just passed the test."

Such theological quibbling aside, a major problem with Cohen’s book is that despite his promise of "philosophical thoughts," he gives us very little insight into the philosophy of humor. This is unfortunate, since he often touches on irony, and irony and philosophy are so closely interconnected. Take for example the famous Zen story recounted by Paul Reps, in which the Buddhist philosophical principle of nonattachment to ideas is illustrated through ironic wit: Two monks are walking along a muddy road and see a beautiful young woman who is distressed about crossing and ruining her fine dress. One monk quickly picks her up and carries her across. Hours later, the other monk complains, "Why did you pick up that young women? Monks are supposed to avoid contact with women, especially when they’re so young and beautiful!" The other monk replies, "What? I put her down hours ago. Are you still carrying her?"

Cohen does veer dangerously in the direction of hard-core philosophy when he observes that a major topic of humor is death. In his opinion, joking about death is a way of "domesticating" it. "It is a way of being in charge, even of death" by "simply being able to speak about it, because if you speak about it, it hasn’t numbed you completely, hasn’t robbed you of everything."

But this isn’t terribly convincing. Not being turned into a complete zombie by something does not mean "being in charge" of it. Death cannot be "domesticated," because it goes beyond the domestic realm. It is about our physical, corporeal, biological, embodied nature — and thus challenges our socially bound categories. And this is what links it to the comedic. The Grim Reaper is a natural ironist.

But — perhaps ironically — we have to go outside of philosophy to find philosophical insights into the comical. Screenwriter and film professor Andrew Horton, author of the book Laughing Out Loud, turns out to be much more of a philosopher of humor than either Paulos or Cohen. His topic is writing comedy, but he also delves deeply into the comedic as "a way of looking at the universe."


He notes that "comedy" comes from the Greek komos (merry-making) and goes back to drunken choruses dressed as animals and shouting insults during Dionysian festivals.

In Horton’s view there was from the beginning a link between the comedic and the carnivalesque, both being an expression of "the freedom to turn the world as we know it upside down and inside out without fear of punishment, pain, or consequence."

Horton’s view of comedy is very much in the Rabelaisian tradition of carnivalesque humor. As the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin noted in Rabelais and His World, the classic work on this subject, carnival celebrates our "temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order" and proclaims "the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions." It treats all these sacred cows with mocking contempt, and instead affirms through joyful laughter the supremacy of the human and the natural. Carnivalesque laughter is, Bakhtin wrote, "the temporary defeat of divine and human power, of authoritarian commandments and prohibitions, of death and punishment after death, hell...."

I see this battle between authority and anarchy each Mardi Gras in the French Quarter of New Orleans, La., when dour fundamentalists converge on our hotbed of sin and licentiousness, wielding tracts and placards, threatening revelers with death and damnation. To the great chagrin of these evangelists, the forces of ambiguity and irony — the frenzied dancers and drummers, the feathered and sequined multitudes, the transexual and the transpeciated, the naked and the undead — remain gleefully undeterred.

A problem with aspiring philosophers of humor such as Paulos and Cohen is that they remain too locked into their seriousness to give into the ribald, anarchic spirit of comedy, especially in its more carnivalesque expressions. Cohen is disturbed, for example, by that great ironist Mark Twain’s dictum that "against the assault of laughter nothing can stand," replying that "some things should remain standing." Cohen again remains too much in the grip of Western logocentrism.

The mocking, ironic, even outrageous humor of the trickster and the carnivalesque is a fundamental aspect of humor and responds to an important side of the human condition. But there is another side. Horton distinguishes between "the laughter of the ridiculous," in which we "laugh at someone or something," and "the laughter of the ludicrous," in which the laughter "is purely for its own sake."

This recalls a similar distinction made by the Czech writer Milan Kundera, who also identifies two kinds of laughter, the devilish and the angelic varieties. The devil’s laughter expresses a reveling in chaos, an assault on excessive order, authority, and seriousness. The laughter of angels expresses delight in the wondrousness of life and in the mystery of the order and fitness of things (Horton associates this with "romantic comedy"). It is an affirmation of being, goodness, and the plenitude of nature in the face of the destructive forces that would dissolve everything into meaninglessness and randomness. This distinction in fact goes back to ancient times. The Greeks had the mocking, comic god Momus, whose name means "ridicule," but there was also Thalia, the muse of comedy, whose name derives from "blooming," the creative force of nature.

So there is truly a philosophy of humor. As Wordsworth said long ago of the analytical mind, it often murders to dissect. And our philosophers of humor sometimes murder a good joke and kill the spirit of philosophical wonder in their excessively abstract, overly serious analyses. This world gives us much to mock with devilish laughter and much to exult in with innocent delight.


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