Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Jokes and Truth

Lately I've been thinking about the relation between jokes and "critical thinking." There's a natural connection since jokes often depend on the same failures of rationality that we try to teach in critical thinking classes. Plus, I think this would be a fun way of discussing the material. I'd like to see a short book come out of this - maybe a companion that could be assigned in critical thinking classes.

As I think about this there are so many connections and interesting issues that come up once one starts thinking about jokes. For example, when is a joke really funny? And is it right to even talk about a joke being truly funny? This gets into issues having to do with truth-conditions, and whether there are conditions that allow us to say "That joke was truly funny."

I'm willing to bet, based on experience, that 95-100% of my students would say that whether a joke is funny is merely "subjective", a matter of "opinion", etc. That's what a lot of people think, anyway. But I'm not so sure. Of course a lot depends on how you understand truth, but I don't see much of a difference between humor and other areas where we have no hesitation saying that something is "truly" one way or another.

Let's face it: some jokes just aren't funny. And other jokes are really, really funny. Moreover, if someone doesn't get a joke, doesn't find it funny, that doesn't mean there's no truth there: it's just as likely, I think (at least in some situations) that they just don't have a sense of humor. Just like if I met someone who didn't think that lying was wrong. That doesn't mean that there's no truth here; rather it means that they have some lack, some deficiency.

Jokes, I'd like to think, shed some good light here. Today, it doesn't matter much to me if someone doesn't share my general aesthetic taste. I don't care, much, if someone doesn't have my taste in music or art or architecture. But jokes are different. While I can brush off someone's different taste in music, if I tell a joke and someone doesn't get it, then that bothers me. That this bothers me is a piece of raw data that needs to be explained, and this can be the entering wedge in considering whether the language of truth extends farther than many people think.

What's the connection with critical thinking? This: critical thinking is about examining the reasons one has for believing that something is true. If we expand the range of what can be true - to include whether a joke is funny, say, but also issues in ethics, politics, aesthetics, etc. - then we can see how it is possible and worthwhile to hold a lot of things up for scrutiny. And this means that we are entitled to argue, debate, and discuss a wider range of topics than we normally do.

As Socrates said, "the unexamined life is not worth living" so by expanding the circle of true statements we are able to examine more of our life. Ironically, since Plato seemed to have a low opinion of laughter (Cohen refers to some passages in The Republic), jokes seem one way of encouraging this examination.

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