Sunday, July 02, 2006

Simon Critchley on Humor


Lately I've been reading Simon Critchley's book On Humour. The reason is that I'm interested in the relation between jokes and rationality - and how jokes can shed light on what we call "critical thinking."

Critchley's book is pretty interesting - but it isn't very funny. Why is that? For one thing, I think there's a general tendency to treat humor itself very seriously. Second, there's a tendency among philosophers to over-theorize and that's what I think is going on here. So, while he makes some interesting points, they don't always correspond to what I think of as humor. In fact, many of his examples are only marginally humorous. Almost none are out-and-out funny; many are witty, or clever, or droll but, again, I don't think many of his examples (often drawn from Swift, or classical sources) are good examples of humor.

Plus, there are a couple of places where I think he is just mistaken. For example, he writes:

In my view, true humour does not wound a specific victim and always contains self-mockery. (14)
That's just not right. A few weeks ago a video made the rounds of Stephen Colbert interviewing Lynn Westmoreland, a congressman from Georgia. Westmoreland has sponsored a bill to post the Ten Commandments in court houses, and he was passionate about the cultural and moral importance of doing so. So Colbert asked him to name the Ten Commandments - and Westmoreland could only name three. Very funny! But this certainly had a specific victim - Westmoreland - since it made him look like a total fool. And I think it's very debatable whether there was any self-mockery in Colbert's interview. So, I disagree with Critchley's idea of "true" humor.

Here's another quote:

As the example from Beckett indicates, when the laughter dies away, we sense, with a sadness...that is always the dark heart of humour, what an oddity the human being is in the universe. (50)
Well, maybe, sometimes. There's nothing wrong with mentioning this "dark heart of humour" but I don't think it is right to say that this is always the case. Many jokes are just that: funny, but it over-intellectualizes matters to think that they say anything about our place in the universe. Of course, if you use Beckett to illustrate humor, that's exactly the sort of conclusion you'll reach - and that's why Beckett isn't the first person to come to mind when one thinks about humor.

The root problem, here, is that Critchley is treating certain examples as paradigms of humor when they really aren't. Becaue he uses these as paradigms he's able to suggest big philosophical conclusions. But that making too big a deal both of these examples (which aren't really all that funny) and of what philosophy can contribute to an understanding of humor.

To link up with an earlier post, Critchley seems to be approaching humor as a big problem that needs to be addressed by using heavy-duty philosophical machinery. But as Wittgenstein points out, often the best solution is to see how these apparent problems are actually caused by too much philosophizing.


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