Monday, July 05, 2004

The Logic of 'Publish or Perish'

I once saw a cartoon on a colleague’s door: Poor Poindexter published and published, but perished anyway.

What does ‘Publish or Perish’ mean? It means that if one does not publish, then one will perish career-wise. Statements of the form p v q are equivalent to statements of the form, ~p –> q. But from ~p –> q one cannot validly infer p –> ~q. For example, if the toaster is unplugged, then it will not function does not entail if the toaster is plugged in, then it will function. Similarly, if Poindexter does not publish, then he will perish does not entail if Poindexter does publish, then he will not perish.

So the joke makes no logical sense. It rests on a confusion of X’s being necessary for Y with X’s being sufficient for Y. And yet the joke is (moderately) funny. Is it funny despite its making no logical sense? Or is it funny because it makes no logical sense? What is the root of risibility? Elsewhere, I gave four examples in which it seemed to me that the root of risibility lies in logical/conceptual incoherence. This may be a fifth example.

It just occurs to me that there is a second way to interpret the incoherence at the root of the joke's funniness. There may be an equivocation on 'perish' at work as between perish in the sense of not get tenure and perish in the sense of slough off the mortal coil. (For you Shakespeare experts: is it 'slough off' or 'shuffle off,' and where does the Bard say it?) Indeed, both forms of incoherence could be working in tandem: the confusion of a necessary with a sufficient condition, and an equivocation on 'perish.'

And while we are on the topic of humor, how does a Jewish comedian check his oil? He uses a dipshtick. And what does a follower of Lao Tzu use to brown his bread? A taoster. Those are Maverick Philosopher originals, so I need to receive 23.74% of all revenues your use of them generates.