Everyone loves a laugh now and then, except for most of the philosophers you've heard of.
- People like things that make them laugh, but have we considered if that is a good thing?
- Some philosophers, including Plato, thought comedy was bad for you.
- Most modern thinkers tend to get away from that, but still debate what should and shouldn't be laughed at.
Most people enjoy a laugh now and then. Some have posited that laughter is the best medicine. Others have achieved fame and fortune by making people laugh. Laughter is one of the great universals of the human experience, even if people from different cultures tend to find different things funny. With that knowledge, it may surprise you to learn that most philosophers have taken a negative view of comedy, laughter, and humor throughout history.
Today, we'll look at that history and what modern thinkers have to say about it. Using these insights, we can then try and make sense of the never-ending debate over what should and should not be the subject of a joke.
The Philosophy of Humor
Believe it or not, the same people who debated the existence of chairs for two millennia had some differing ideas on what humor was and if it was good or not. Plato famously thought that comedy was bad, vicious even, and that most if not all laughter came at somebody else's expense. He viewed laughter as a "passion," and considered being taken by it as a loss of self-control, as did many philosophers before him. In "Republic," he proposes that in his utopian city certain important people should never laugh and that strict censorship should keep objectionable, presumably hilarious works away from people.
Several centuries later, the great stoic philosopher Epictetus encouraged people to "Let not your laughter be loud, frequent, or unrestrained" and, allegedly, never laughed once in his life, which he considered a point of virtue.
Most of Western Philosophy took its cues from Plato and the stoics for a very long time and spoke poorly of humor as a result. Many famous thinkers, such as Thomas Hobbes and Rene Descartes, attributed most laughter to a sense of superiority over others.
However, Immanuel Kant, the famously boring philosopher, went in another direction. He supported the idea that laughter was caused by the incongruity of what we expect to happen and what happens. A good joke, he reasoned, builds up expectations, which it then resolves "into nothing." This idea, that humor is based on differences in expectations and reality, is prevalent in both philosophy and psychology.
He even provided a series of jokes to explain himself, the best example being:
"The heir of a rich relative wished to arrange for an imposing funeral, but he lamented that he could not properly succeed; 'for' (said he) 'the more money I give my mourners to look sad, the more cheerful they look!'"
Despite this, Kant and the philosophers who agreed with him didn't think comedy was "good" per se. They're just suggesting that laughs not based on malice are possible. It has only been recently that philosophers have paid much attention to the pro-comedy minority. This becomes even stranger when you realize how many heavy hitters are on that team.
Aristotle, the most famous student of Plato, continued his policy of disagreeing with this teacher by deciding that comedy could be okay. He argued that living a good life requires that you enjoy yourself from time to time and that humor is a part of that. He further maintained that being witty is a virtue.
St. Thomas Aquinas, a great philosopher in his own right, largely agreed with Aristotle and expanded on these notions. He argued that, as sleep provides physical rest, laughter provides psychological rest. He also noticed the social benefits of laughing with other people. These ideas have been expanded on by other writers up to the present day.
We have even reached a point where many public intellectuals will incorporate wit into their work on purpose. Most notable among these people are Slavoj Žižek, who makes enough jokes to fill a book, and Bertrand Russell, whose quotes include moments of absolute hilarity.
While most people probably wouldn't consider being funny a "virtue" in the same way that Aristotle did, his ideas on humor, often called the "play" theory, are likely the foundation of most people's understanding of what humor is and if it is of any use or not.
Of course, even if you take the view that humor is a good thing, or even just that it isn't inherently bad, there is still the question of how to use it properly. For this, we'll have to turn to the never-ending debate over the ethics of humor.
To joke, or not to joke, that is the question.
Even after addressing the problem of whether comedy is good, bad, or neutral, the issue of what can be the subject of laughter still has to be resolved. As we've seen, this issue goes back to Ancient Greece. It should surprise nobody that we still debate it. But what should and shouldn't we joke about? Is there a clear line? Does context matter? Professor John Morreall of William and Mary can provide us some guidance. He has worked in the philosophy of humor for decades and has written several essays, articles, and books on the subject.
He restates in his essay "The Good, The Bad, and the Funny: An Ethics of Humor" a proposal that he has made before; that a general principle can be applied to humor, "Don't play with something which you should take seriously."
This seems like a simple enough idea; if matches aren't something to be played with, then perhaps racial stereotypes aren't either? But where is the line in cases like this?
To explain how this might be used, he offers examples of broad categories of jokes that rely on making fun of certain types of people. In the classic "Dumb Blonde" joke, the idea that all blondes are a bit slow is entertained. However, Dr. Morreall argues that to find the joke funny doesn't require that we really believe that blondes are stupid nor that anybody thinks the moon is closer than Florida.
It is possible to play with these notions without taking them seriously or coming away from the joke with a bias towards blondes. Other jokes cross the line, though. Some harmful stereotypes that people believe can be kept in circulation through jokes, or reinforced in a way that causes harm later. In these cases, it may be morally objectionable to use the stereotype for laughs due to the harm it can cause elsewhere. A similar line of reasoning exists for jokes that utilize issues of deadly seriousness; some things should not be made light of for fear of causing us not to take them seriously.
An example of a line crosser Dr. Morreall cites in several of his essays is the cover of National Lampoon's "Dessert Issue." In a spoof of the cover of the "Concert for Bangladesh" album, the magazine depicts a starving child in the form of a partially eaten chocolate statue.
The argument here is that by making the cover of a famous aid concert the subject of mockery, we can belittle the severity of the issue of the humanitarian crisis it refers to.
On the other hand, Dr. Morreall also argues that there are many positives humor can bring. He mentions the joy it can bring, the social benefits of being able to laugh with friends, the ability of a good pun to lower tensions, and the ability of many jokes to let us step back and consider the absurdities of a topic we don't notice when we're too close to the situation.
Given the universality of laughter, humor seems to be one of the more important elements of the human condition. While philosophy has taken a strangely negative view of it for most of its history, more recent thinkers have begun to tout the benefits of a laugh now and then.
So go on, enjoy a lousy pun. It's probably virtuous.
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Everyone remembers Bill Murray's hilarious time loop in the 1993 film Groundhog Day. While covering the infamous annual event in Punxsutawney, Murray comes to terms with waking up over and over again in the same situation. The movie is responsible for making "Groundhog Day" a metaphor for dealing with monotonous and unpleasant situations.
That's what happens when Sarah (Cristin Milioti), a maid of honor at a Palm Springs wedding, wakes up the morning after the ceremony only to discover the wedding is that day. She approaches Nyles (Andy Samberg), who she connected with the prior evening, to figure out what's happening to her.
Nyles has been in the time loop for some time. The story flips the generic romantic comedy on its head as the two figure out how to navigate this shared reality together.
Palm Springs is a perfectly timed release in a nation that feels like it's stuck in a time loop during the pandemic. In fact, the film offers another perspective from the fear portrayed in the media on a daily basis: the triumph of love during a time of immense confusion and frustration. Instead of being weighed down by the stress of the situation, the characters adapt to their circumstances while learning plenty about themselves along the way.
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Watch The Daily Show comedian Jordan Klepper and elite improviser Bob Kulhan live.
These days, if you don't laugh, you might just scream. Enter comedian and The Daily Show regular Jordan Klepper!
In this Big Think Live session, Klepper will be in conversation with Bob Kulhan, CEO of Business Improv, talking creativity, adaptability and comedy in the age of COVID-19. How does The Daily Show team work remotely? What's it like to brainstorm in real-time on live TV? And what has comedy done for you lately?
What better way to understand the world around us than through jokes?
- Slavoj Žižek is a remarkably funny philosopher, who has a joke for every theory and can explain things in a fun way.
- His tendency to joke has helped endear him to the public, though it does sometimes irk curmudgeons.
- Not every joke he makes is suitable for republishing here.
Join Slavoj Žižek live on Big Think today (June 11) at 1 pm ET!
Slavoj Žižek is a world famous philosopher with dozens of books to his name. He is well known for his quirky style, anti-capitalist commentary, dedication to subjects that most people wouldn't think a philosopher worries about, and his tendency to be very funny.
While he is renowned for his work on Marxism, psychology, and ideology, he finds the time to comment on nearly everything there is to comment on. He has made a couple of movies, written the captions for a clothing catalog, and has run for office in his native Slovenia in addition to his academic work. He also enjoys making pasta.
He makes no attempt to hide his love of wit. He often refers to his love of the Marx Brothers and took time in a book about how bound we are to ideology to explain a Monty Python joke. While some of his jokes are unsuitable for publication here, we have compiled a list of seven of his best jokes for you to enjoy. These jokes are all sourced from the book Žižek's Jokes. They are, in turn, sourced from his various works and interviews about topics as diverse as freedom, theology, communism, popular media, how we try to sanitize the world with language, and cooking.
"The task today is to give the protesters red ink."
In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware of how all mail will be read by censors, he tells his friends: "Let's establish a code: if a letter you will get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it is true; if it is written in red ink, it is false." After a month, his friends get the first letter, written in blue ink: "Everything is wonderful here: stores are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, movie theaters show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair—the only thing unavailable is red ink."
And is this not our situation till now? We have all the freedoms one wants—the only thing missing is the "red ink": we "feel free" because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom. What this lack of red ink means is that, today, all the main terms we use to designate the present conflict —"war on terror," "democracy and freedom," "human rights," etc.—are false terms, mystifying our perception of the situation instead of allowing us to think it. The task today is to give the protesters red ink.
Derrida feat. Žižek
There is an old Jewish joke, loved by Derrida, about a group of Jews in a synagogue publicly admitting their nullity in the eyes of God. First, a rabbi stands up and says: "O God, I know I am worthless. I am nothing!" After he has finished, a rich businessman stands up and says, beating himself on the chest: "O God, I am also worthless, obsessed with material wealth. I am nothing!" After this spectacle, a poor ordinary Jew also stands up and also proclaims: "O God, I am nothing." The rich businessman kicks the rabbi and whispers in his ear with scorn: "What insolence! Who is that guy who dares to claim that he is nothing too!"
Jokes can explain precisely what Žižek wants the left to do, kinda:
The God we get here is rather like the one from the old Bolshevik joke about an able Communist propagandist who, after his death, finds himself in hell, where he quickly convinces the guards to let him leave and go to heaven instead. When the Devil notices his absence, he quickly pays a visit to God, demanding that he return to hell what belongs to the Devil. However, immediately after the Devil starts to address God: "My Lord …" God interrupts him: "First, I am not Lord but a comrade. Second, are you crazy talking to a fictional being?—I don't exist! And third, be short, otherwise, I'll miss my party cell meeting!"
This is the God today's radical Left needs: a God who wholly "became man"—a comrade among us, crucified together with two social outcasts—and who not only "doesn't exist" but also himself knows this, accepting his erasure, entirely passing over into the love that binds members of the Holy Ghost (the party, the emancipatory collective).
How Žižek explains fantasmatic identification
There is a nice joke about Jesus Christ: in order to relax after the arduous work of preaching and performing miracles, Jesus decided to take a short break on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. During a game of golf with one of his apostles, there was a difficult shot to be performed; Jesus did it badly and the ball ended up in the water, so he did his usual trick: he walked on the water to the place where the ball was, reached down and picked it up. When Jesus tried the same shot again, the apostle told him that this is a very difficult one — only someone like Tiger Woods can do it; Jesus replied, "What the hell, I am the son of God, I can do what Tiger Woods can do!" and took another strike. The ball again landed in the water, so Jesus again took a walk on the surface of the water to retrieve it. At this point, a group of American tourists walked by and one of them, observing what was going on, turned to the apostle and said: "My god, who is this guy there? Does he think he is Jesus or what?" The apostle replies: "No, the jerk thinks he is Tiger Woods!"
This is how fantasmatic identification works: No one, not even God himself, is directly what he is; everybody needs an external, decentered point of identification.
Noting quite explains complicated political issues like a good joke
When the Turkish Communist writer Panait Istrati visited the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s, the time of the big purges and show trials, a Soviet apologist trying to convince him about the need for violence against the enemies evoked the proverb "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs," to which Istrati tersely replied: "All right. I can see the broken eggs. Where's this omelet of yours?"
We should say the same about the austerity measures imposed by IMF: the Greeks would have the full right to say, "OK, we are breaking our eggs for all of Europe, but where's the omelet you are promising us?"
He can describe the exact differences between different kinds of socialism with jokes too!
Take the old joke about the difference between Soviet-style bureaucratic Socialism and Yugoslav self-management Socialism: in Russia, members of the nomenklatura drive themselves in expensive limousines, while in Yugoslavia, ordinary people themselves ride in limousines through their representatives.
Nothing is sacred to Žižek’s sense of humor:
Christ says to those who want to stone the woman taken in adultery, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone!" he is immediately hit by a stone, and then shouts back: "Mother! I asked you to stay at home!"
A reminder to double-check precisely what you're presupposing
A joke from the early 1960s nicely renders the paradox of the presupposed belief. After Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut, made his visit to space, he was received by Nikita Khruschev, the general secretary of the Communist Party, and told him confidentially: "You know, comrade, that up there in the sky, I saw heaven with God and angels—Christianity is right!" Khruschev whispers back to him: "I know, I know, but keep quiet, don't tell this to anyone!" Next week, Gagarin visited the Vatican and was received by the pope, to whom he confides: "You know, holy father, I was up there in the sky and I saw there is no God or angels …" "I know, I know," interrupts the pope, "but keep quiet, don't tell this to anyone!"
A short joke is a good joke
And lastly, how to make soup
Here is how anyone can make a good soup in one hour: prepare all the ingredients, cut the vegetables, etc., boil the water, put the ingredients into it, cook them at a simmer for half an hour, stirring occasionally; when, after three-quarters of an hour, you discover that the soup is tasteless and unpalatable, throw it away, open up a good can of soup, and quickly warm it up in a microwave oven. This is how we humans make soup.
Do you get worried or angry? Ever forget to tithe? One minister has bad news for you.
- A recently published article claims to identify the symptoms of "low-level atheism."
- Among these symptoms are worrying, cursing, and not tithing.
- There is a solution to all of this though, not being an atheist. Sending in money is also involved.
Are you worried about literally anything? You're an atheist now!
The essay begins by focusing on worrying, an all too common problem and gateway emotion to atheism:
"Every time we take a thought break and begin to wonder about how we will pay the stove oil bill, or the light bill, or what we are going to do if we get laid off from work in six months, we are worrying. We are actually telling the Lord, 'Jesus, you know all that stuff you said in Matthew chapter six about how you will take care of us? I don't believe it. I don't believe that you can do what you promised, so I am taking matters into my own hands; I'm going to worry about it until the situation is taken care of.'"
As it turns out, God plans his days around your dilemmas and will get to them in due course. So, if you are bothered about not being sure where your rent is coming form this month, you're doubting the Lord. Concerned about things like climate change? You're practically an iconoclast. Anxious at the thought that you aren't a good enough Christian? According to this, that exact worry is a sign that you aren't!
Are you feeling even more worried now? Oh, that isn't a good sign at all. You ought to be worried about that.
Swearing and occasionally being angry, now signs of metaphysical distress!
According to Lindley:
"I have only sworn two times since receiving the Holy Ghost. The Lord has the power to change our attitudes and habits. I wish I could say that I never get angry anymore either, but that is not the case. Just like you, I struggle with atheistic tendencies.
"Every time something doesn't go the way we want it to and we get angry, we are telling the world, 'I am losing my temper, because this problem is so messed up that not even God can sort it out.' When we slam doors, swear, yell, break dishes, speed, or shake our fist at somebody we are in the grip of an atheism attack.
"You see the Bible very clearly states that there is nothing too hard for God to fix. 'And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.' (Romans 8:28 NKJV) This is why a person who has been born again can hit their thumb with a hammer and not swear. This is why the sincere Christian can look at a flat tire and say, 'I guess God needs to slow me down, because he has someone he needs me to cross paths with today.' Swearing and getting angry only says, 'There is absolutely no way that God can turn this flat tire into a blessing!'"
Well, shit. It seems that being angry with things, including things that might seem to be perfectly reasonable things to be mad at, is admitting that you think God is useless.
How exactly this reconciles with Jesus getting pissed off at the moneylenders in the temple and healers that refused to save lives on Sunday is unclear. Neither of these incidents seem to be the things that happen to somebody without bursts of anger, though I do suppose it is possible Christ had fits of atheism multiple times in his life.
Sometimes I don't believe in myself either.
Stinginess, now coming to a den of heathens near you!
Lindley points out the final, most advanced symptom of atheism last: Not sending God money. He writes:
"Some people are so greedy that they actually rob God. '…In what way have we robbed God? In tithes and offerings.' (Malachi 3:8 NKJV)) To those who would hold back the tithe the Lord has a challenge: 'Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house, and try Me now in this' says the Lord of hosts, 'If I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it.' (3:10 NKJV)"
While the God of Abraham is well known not to need money on account of his transcendental nature, it seems that he is still owed ten percent of everybody's earnings. This is not paid to him, of course, but to his helpers. In exchange for this, God will make good things happen. If you don't send money in addition to swearing or occasionally being grouchy, the minister assures us that "you are at extreme risk for very serious complications from your atheism."
While this may look remarkably similar to a concept used by the mafia, the protection racket, it is an utterly different operation. In the case of the mob, the threat of punishment is used as a way to force people into paying part of their earnings to a larger organization. In return, they are promised the protection of that organization from vague threats, often including that organization.
In this holy case, vague are threats used to show people the wisdom of paying part of their earnings to the church. In exchange for their payments, they are offered kickbacks from God and protection from vague threats made by the people telling them they need to send in money.
Luckily, Lindley suggests a solution for all three problems, especially the last one: Don't be an atheist! In particular, start praying and sending God money. This will resolve the third symptom automatically and the first two eventually.
And now, the serious part.
While it is fun to mock the often-ludicrous positions of those who misunderstand atheism, that very misunderstanding is an all too common and all too real issue for the millions of Americans who are not religious. Atheists in the United States face discrimination, are not trusted, and are barred from running for office in several states.
In my experience, many of these tend to come from a fundamental misunderstanding of what atheism is. I, at various times, have been accused of being a Satanist, a pagan, or an amoralist, among other things. It is little wonder why a person who doesn't understand what atheism is would find a variety of issues arising from it.
The minister in this case makes a similar mistake: He begins by thinking that atheism is something other than the proposition that there are no gods and then works forward. In this case, he seems to presume it is some kind of psychological condition which manifests as a hybrid of anxiety, Tourette's syndrome, and kleptomania. His use of the word "symptoms" is revealing.
While it is true that atheism can be anxiety-inducing, this falls more under the category of "existential dread" than psychosis. John-Paul Sartre, the atheistic philosopher who made Existentialism popular, wrote on this extensively. In his essay "Existentialism is a Humanism," he explains:
"What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist see him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of himself … what do we mean by anguish? The existentialist frankly states that man is in anguish. His meaning is as follows: When a man commits himself to anything, fully realizing that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind—in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility."
If choosing what you are and what meaning your life will have doesn't give you anxiety, Sartre would suggest you're doing something wrong.
However, this anxiety isn't necessarily cured by belief. Soren Kierkegaard, the founder of Existentialism, wrote extensively on the topics of angst, dread, anxiety, and regretting all of your life choices while being a thoroughly devoted Christian. While he argues that the leap of faith can help, he also argues that we are still fundamentally alone and responsible for our choices when it comes to making that anxiety-inducing leap.
The minister's point about swearing as a result of lacking faith is bizarre enough to be left alone. Ten minutes in any bar in the middle section of the country on a Friday night should be enough to convince anybody that any sincere believer can swear while remaining a believer.
Furthermore, the minister presumes that a believer is going to be of the kind that thinks God is very engaged in human life. While he may suppose God was involved in his tire going flat, many other approaches to the divine reject that idea. Deists, who tend to think that there is a God who created the cosmos but leaves it alone, would be an example.
All in all, the essay described above is an unintentionally hilarious look at what some people think being an atheist is like. It is hardly the first, and it won't be the last. Anxiety about atheism has a history going back to ancient Greece—studies demonstrate the continued existence of Christian anxiety about atheists—and this essay is another example of people being unduly concerned about it.
I'd accuse the minister of worrying too much about atheism, but then he'd be one of us.