Monday, 15 May 2017

The Philosophy of Jokes

I say, I say, I say...
Posted by Martin Cohen
Ludwig Wittgenstein, that splendidly dour 20th century philosopher, usually admired for trying to make language more logical, once remarked, in his earnest Eastern European way, that a very serious work, or zery serieuse, verk in philosophy could consist entirely of jokes. 
Now Wittgenstein probably meant to shock his audience which consisted of his American friend, Norman Malcolm (who he also once, advised to avoid an academic career and to work instead on a farm) but he was also in deadly earnest. Because, humour is, as he also is on record as saying, ‘not a mood, but a way of looking at the world’. Understanding jokes, just like understanding the world, hinges on having first adopted the right kind of perspective.

So here's one to test his idea out on.
‘A traveler is staying at a monastery, where the Order has a vow of silence and can only speak at the evening meal. On his first night as they are eating, one of the monks stands up and shouts ‘Twenty two!’. Immediately the rest of the monks break out into raucous laughter. Then they return to new silence. A little while later, another shouts out ‘One hundred and ten’, to even more uproarious mirth. This goes on for two more nights with no real conversation, just different numbers being shouted out, followed by ribald laughing and much downing of ale. At last, no longer able to contain his curiosity the traveler asks the Abbot what it is all about. The Abbot explains that the monastery has only one non-religious book in it, which consists of a series of jokes each headed with its own number. Since all the monks know them by heart, instead of telling the jokes they just call out the number. 
Hearing this, the traveler decides to have a look at the book for himself. He goes to the library and carefully makes a note of the numbers of the funniest jokes. Then, that evening he stands up and calls out the number of his favourite joke – which is ‘seventy six’. But nobody laughs, instead there is an embarrassed silence. The next night he tries again, ‘One hundred and thirteen!’, he exclaims loudly into the silence - but still no response. 
After the meal he asks the Abbott if the jokes he picked were not considered funny by the monks? ‘Ooh no’, says the Abbott. ‘The jokes are funny – it’s just that some people just don't know how to tell them!’
I like that one! And incredibly, it is one of the oldest jokes around. This, we might say, is a joke with a pedigree. A version of it appears in the Philogelos, or Laughter Lover, which is a collection of some 265 jokes, written in Greek and compiled some 1,600 odd years ago. So it’s old. Nevertheless, despite its antiquity, the style of this and at least some of the other jokes is very familiar.

Clearly, humour is something that transcends communities and periods in history. It seems to draw on something common to all peoples. Yet jokes are also clearly things rooted in their times and places. At the time of this joke, monks and secret books were serious business. But the first philosophical observation to make and principle to note is that both these jokes involved one of those ‘ah-ha!’ moments.

Humour often involves a sudden, unexpected shift in perspective forcing a rapid reassessment of assumptions. Philosophy, at its best, does much the same thing.


  1. 'Humour often involves a sudden, unexpected shift in perspective forcing a rapid reassessment of assumptions.' Perhaps humour is detachment. Perhaps, further, it is a sense of having risen above something ... all of which Plato found rather base.

    1. My point really was that by giving us with these sudden shifts in perspective, jokes provide a useful function - one that philosophers in particular should respect! How many philosophical treatises struggle to do the same, with little success...?

    2. The taoists used it quite often, not?

    3. Yes indeed, Tessa. I've great admiration for Chuang Tsu aka Chuzi, who wrote so long ago but with such a sophisticated, witty, contemporary feel... I think the Taoists were at odds though with the traditionalists on humor - there's a whole political story there!

  2. Although not all writing — philosophical or otherwise — must necessarily deliver an “unexpected shift in perspective forcing a rapid reassessment of assumptions,” much of the cleverer writing does. Or, should I say, much of the “cleverer thinking(!)” does? Isn’t, for example, a major ‘shift’ in model or archetype or hypothesis or assumption ‘unexpected’ — one that delivers a novel “perspective [that] in turn forc[es] a rapid reassessment of assumptions”? Isn’t that how major advances in knowledge and understanding — insight and innovation — come about, including from the serendipitous nature of ‘thought experiments’? And doesn’t that hold true for many (most) fields of endeavour, ranging from the sciences to the humanities — yes, jokes included?

    1. Exactly. I couldn't have put it better myself!