Sunday, May 16, 2004

The Philosophy of Humor is No Joke

Tell a joke to a philosopher, and he is more likely to wonder what makes it funny than to laugh. So what does make a joke funny? Different things in different cases, no doubt. But the root of the risible in many cases would appear to be conceptual incoherence. Yogi Berra, asked what time it is, replied, “You mean now?” This is funny because Yogi’s response suggests that it could now be some other time than now – which is of course incoherent.

Consider a second example. An optimist says, “This is the best of all possible worlds.” A pessimist replies, “I fear you are right.” I suggest that this is funny because of an underlying incoherence in the pessimist’s response, an incoherence that one who laughs at the joke senses. The pessimist’s response is incoherent in that it implies that there could be a world better than the best of all possible worlds – which is impossible. For if the pessimist fears that this world is
the best of all possible worlds, then he envisages, and would prefer, a world W better than the best of all possible worlds. Now W is either possible or impossible. Clearly, W is not possible: there cannot be a world better than the best of all possible worlds. So W is impossible. But if W is impossible, then W cannot be actualized. But a world that cannot be actualized is a world that cannot be reasonably preferred over any other world. Therefore, by fearing that the optimist is right in his claim that this world is the best of all possible worlds, the pessimist incoherently desires the impossible. Whether or not one can explain the incoherence as clearly as I have just done, one laughs at the joke because one senses the underlying incoherence. Or at least that is my theory.

A third example, borrowed from Will Rogers. “To make money in the stock market, you buy a stock when it is low, wait for it to go up, then sell when it is high. If it doesn’t go up, you don’t buy it.” I suggest that the joke is funny because the directionality of time makes it impossible to do something in the present (refrain from buying a stock that has failed to appreciate) that alters the past (one’s having bought that very stock).

Now suppose I have succeeded in showing that the humorousness of these three jokes is traceable to an underlying incoherence. This still leaves us with the question of why incoherence should be funny. My father once said something I took to be just plain stupid: “If I knew I’d get this old, I would have taken care of myself.” But he meant it as a joke. Thus on this occasion I failed to display a sense of humor. But what does one sense when one senses humor? I sensed
the incoherence all right, which is why I took my father’s statement to express stupidity. But I didn’t sense the humor. So humorousness must be something in addition to incoherence. There is a missing conceptual ingredient X, which, when added to incoherence, gives us humorousness. But what is X? I have no idea. Being stymied, I stop.