Thursday, July 06, 2006

Ted Cohen: Jokes

After reading Critchley's On Humour, I've turned to Ted Cohen's Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters. My interest here is in the relationship between jokes and "critical thinking" - or how jokes shed light on rationality and common sense.

First of all, Cohen's jokes are better than Critchley's, and there are lots of them. Even the groaners ("What's big and gray and wrote gloomy poetry? T.S. Elephant.") are there for a reason. And Cohen doesn't shy away from telling jokes that can be admittedly offensive - again, if there is a good reason for doing so.

Second, Cohen's approach is refreshingly non-theoretical. He writes:

Only a fool, or one of those who believe in "theories," would presume to say, in general, what the purpose of joking is....I will attempt nothing global or universal; there will be no comprehensive theory of jokes or their purpose, not only because I have no such theory but also because I believe there could be no such theory. (9, 10)
This seems broadly Wittgensteinian to me - and also exactly right. It's a fine expression of philosophical modesty, and honesty.

Third, Cohen's avoidance of big "theory" doesn't prevent him from making many important observations. In his second chapter he observes how jokes are "conditional" on a shared background of knowledge. If someone doesn't get a joke, then it's probably because they don't have the same background knowledge that people who do get the joke have.

This, according to Cohen, explains why we're bothered when someone doesn't get our jokes. The reason is that jokes provide reassurance that we are like each other, and that we have similar values and interests and find the same things funny. Cohen points out that we worry more about whether someone finds our jokes funny than whether we are the victims of an evil demon - a problem with a long and respectable philosophical tradition (32).

Here's what I would add to this. So jokes are often a way of reinforcing social bonds, of strengthening community. Sometimes they do this by ridiculing outsiders - Poles, Jews, the Irish, etc. But sometimes they reinforce norms of rationality too: a joke that brings an absurdity to light strengthens a kind of cognitive (as opposed to ethnic) community.

Sometimes, when we tell a joke it's to make sure that what seems rational to us seems rational to others: e.g., "here's a story I think is crazy and I hope you will agree."

Here's an example, from Cohen:

A turtle was mugged and robbed by a gang of snails. When the police asked for a description of the villains, the turtle replied, "I'm sorry, but I just don't remember. It all happened so fast." (39)

What makes this funny? I think it's that the turtle uses a cliché ("It all happened so fast") even though, of course, being robbed by snails isn't fast at all. In fact, what the joke reveals is that this is a cliché, even though it might be the sort of thing we can easily imagine saying, in some circumstances. So, at the risk of absolutely killing this joke, I'd say that it is really akin to saying "Gosh, isn't it sometimes absurd when someone says 'it all happened so fast'? What does that mean? Isn't that sometimes just an excuse for failing to pay attention?"

In other words, this joke is actually making a point - and if someone laughs at the joke, then that signals agreement with the underlying point: that sometimes it's irrational or meaningless or clichéd to say "it all happened so fast."

Of course that's not all that makes the joke funny (part of it is just the absurdity of the premise) but I do think that the humor of this joke is at least partly a function of (what we hope) is a shared background of rationality.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

He doesn't just avoid a theory, he claims that any attempt to form one would be an essential absurdity. [The "former" would necessarily be a "fool."]

While I fully agree with your (and his, implicit,) praise of modesty, I disagree with the equally implicit notion that every theory of the matter necessarily false. We don't have a good one yet, so how could we know?

4:00 PM  

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