The Philosophy of Humor
and the Humor of Philosophy

by Ralph Dumain

As the philosophy of humor is the only topic I take seriously these days, I could not resist buying the humor issue of Philosophy Now, the very first issue I have bought or read. I was excited to see a confirmation of the possibility that my personal obsession could be in tune with the zeitgeist, though my expectations were not high, as I have never been satisfied with the philosophical treatments of the subject I have read. A characteristic example is John Allen Paulos' Mathematics and Humor. While examining the mathematical structure of jokes has its merits, the treatment of humor and the type of humor that is adduced for such treatment tends to be rather shallow and formalistic. Paulos refers to Wittgenstein as Madigan does, i.e. that a philosophical work consisting of jokes could be written, and Paulos went on to write another book, of that sort, I Think, Therefore I Laugh. Your humor issue, much like Paulos, engages both the philosophy of humor and the humor of philosophy. However, the tendency here too is to flatten out the potential depth of both topics by drawing parallels between them that focus upon logical, semantic, and epistemic puzzles and paradoxes. Such is Madigan's and Rickman's approach. Could this be because of the dominance of analytical philosophy over other traditions in the English-speaking world? I fear that when I finally get my hands on William Irwin's Seinfeld and Philosophy, I'm likely to find the same sort of thing. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's a shame to see a great opportunity wasted.

The only article that approaches a serious philosophy of humor is Garcia's "The Secret of Seinfeld's Humor." Garcia is on the right track when he argues that humor highlights the significance of the insignificant, thus drawing attention to the minutiae, mores, arbitrariness, and absurdities of cultures and human behavior. However, Garcia did not go the whole distance. The real secret of Seinfeld's appeal is the severely simplified and restricted moral universe in which the characters dwell and their relentless one-dimensionality. Seinfeld and his friends, unlike even the shallowest of real people, can never experience real tragedy: their psychic lives are entirely reduced to the superficial mechanics with which they negotiate their interpersonal interactions.

So much for the philosophy of humor; now what about the humor of philosophy? What would it mean to make philosophy humorous? My approach is to examine irony as a philosophical method. The figures that most interest me are Friedrich Schlegel, Kierkegaard, and Adorno, though one would have to add Nietzsche to this list. Irony comes to the fore when communication is suspect and philosophy becomes an object of distrust. Adorno's philosophy of non-identity dwells in a different universe from the technocratic smugness of analytical philosophy, whose social role is to suppress the actualization of philosophical self-consciousness of society as a whole.

Published as Letter to the Editor, Philosophy Now, no. 27, June/July 2000, p. 39.

©2000 Ralph Dumain

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Irony, Humor, & Cynicism Study Guide

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Uploaded 27 June 2000

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