One day, when I was listening to the radio show As It Happens on CBC, I heard that the Canadian Philosophical Association had put together a list of good philosophical jokes for one of its magazine issues. The joke I liked best, since I like metaphysics, is this one: “what is brown and stick-ey?” answer: “a stick”. When I told this to one of my colleagues in religious studies, he told me that that was a joke he’d already heard—from his 6 year old son. Either that kid was a genius, or philosophical humor shares something with the humor that young children like. Or maybe everyone gets metaphysics jokes—of course, there is always the possibility that my colleague was lying, or that the kid didn’t really know why it was funny. But we’ll leave those possibilities behind, to consider the promise and perils of philosophical humor.
David Chalmers has a great link to different kinds of philosophical humor on his website. There, one can find horoscopes for philosophy graduate students; philosophical break-up lines; cartoons; satires; and logic fallacies illustrated by Beavis and Butthead dialogue. Here’s the link, if you want to read or see what he’s collected: http://consc.net/philosophical-humor/
Sometimes it seems that philosophy jokes are best if short—one-liners or classic joke set-ups seem to be common currency for philosophical humor. And this is not surprising: writing funny is not easy, and longer pieces have a difficult time balancing the funny with the philosophical. It’s hard to write a philosophical story or poem that is also funny.
Our selections for this volume have balanced these demands in ways that we hope you’ll find both entertaining and enlightening. Chris Bousquet’s “What’s the News?” is funny not just because of the absurd story about the unfortunate Cole, who keeps trying to get laughs, but also because of the narrator’s sensibilities and style of story-telling—all of which is also about trying to write a story. One of our editorial staff said that the story seemed to be a commentary on irony and what we find funny, as well as a funny story itself. We like self-referentiality.
We also like paradoxes, which is why we chose James Nicola’s poem Genesis. This poem plays with the statement “This is not true”, and we invite you to revel in some nerdy humor and poetry by thinking about the complexities of creation and negation that James Nicola so artfully rearranges.
Finally, Stewart Lindstrom’s story NOIS is a darkly funny story about a terrorist attack by a group called TINNITUS, which results in a total absence of noise. “How are you holding up on the silence?” the main character asks another person via a note. She is amazed by the woman’s seeming courage in the midst of the panic in a totally noiseless city. The answer is a good one.
Some philosophers have seen in humor or laughter something disturbing, thinking that it reveals a certain sense of superiority, an attitude of derisiveness, or even emotions that ought to be extirpated rather than expressed. But we also know that laughter helps people learn, and that, as Henri Bergson said, it can be a particularly human virtue, a way of looking at the world that is essential to leading a human life. Perhaps that is the best conclusion for this introduction, and the best opening for the pieces that follow. In his book on laughter and the comic, Bergson says:
In a society composed of pure intelligences there would probably be no more tears, though perhaps there would still be laughter; whereas highly emotional souls, in tune and unison with life, in whom every event would be sentimentally prolonged and re-echoed, would neither know nor understand laughter. Try, for a moment, to become interested in everything that is being said and done; act, in imagination, with those who act, and feel with those who feel; in a word, give your sympathy its widest expansion: as though at the touch of a fairy wand you will see the flimsiest of objects assume importance, and a gloomy hue spread over everything. Now step aside, look upon life as a disinterested spectator: many a drama will turn into a comedy.