The Philosophy of Puns

28 July 2016

A Philosophy Talk show on puns can’t just consist of making puns, even if they are good ones.  We need to show what’s philosophically interesting about them.

First a couple of definitions.          

As a noun,  a pun a joke exploiting the different possible meanings of a word or the fact that there are words that sound alike but have different meanings: the pigs were a squeal (if you'll forgive the pun).

As a verb, to pun is to make a joke exploiting the different possible meanings of a word: his first puzzle punned on composers, with answers like “Handel with care” and “Haydn go seek” | (as adj. punning) : a punning riddle.

I see several connections to philosophy. First, puns are an interesting linguistic phenomenon.  Most are based on the intrerplay of sound and meaning, of  ambiguity and misunderstanding.  All philosophically interesting topics.  Second the fact that some people, like me, love puns, and others like Ken are, let’s say, less enamored of them, seems interesting.  And we ought to consider whether many great philosophical ideas have some element of punning in them.  And finally, our guest, at least, thinks puns were crucial to the development of civilization.

For example,  think of Hume’s term “impression”.  The term suggests the effect one physical thing has on another, like the impression a shoe makes in sand.    So it suggests the common-sense view, that perception involves external object affecting our physical sense organs.  But then Hume’s whole epistemology seems to rest on denying that picture.  No external objects, nothing physical to impress our sense organs.  One could argue that he is punning, but doesn’t want us us to catch the pun.

I sometimes wonder if the word “proposition” in 20th century philosophy of language isn’t just a series of puns.  How else can something a word meaning a statement, at the beginning of the century, end up meaning a set of possible worlds by the end of the century.

One might think that Citizens United shows that a majority of the Supreme Court was unwittingly punning on two words, “speech” and “person”.  How else can they get from a guarantee that people can say and think what they want, to the result that corporations can spend all the money they want to influence elections?

So puns may be a topic worthy of philosophical investigation.


Comments (9)

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Friday, July 29, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

I can just envision the

I can just envision the logician running to his grid of truth values, drawing out an intricate tracery of implication among the various possible meanings or "construals" of the terms of the pun. And, if anything, the prime motive of the technology of reason, if there is such a thing, is to eliminate ambiguity, not to celebrate it. Even if they do manage to nail down all the possible senses of each term and succeed in delineating all the possible avenues of true inference, they miss the whole point. It's funny. But geeks don't laugh. Computers don't get the joke. You see, the most ambiguous term in any language is "is" or "=". But if there is to be any language at all it is by playing with that ambiguity that we engage in its generation, and it is by eliminating that ambiguity that we pretend to become "philosophers". Unless, that is, we want to do "philosophy" as it is done at The Socrates Cafe, or better, in the Plato dialog Euthydemus.
But what if a proposition is a pun? What if it is not at all clear which, subject or predicate, is the organizing term? If unresolved, inference derived goes quickly wonky, and it takes a joker to unravel the mess, or even to see it is a mess. The logician's lack of humor is lethal to his mission of nailing down the terms of his formalism.
When Anne Bancroft died, Bette Davis was asked to comment. "You're only supposed to speak good of the dead;" she said, "Anne Bancroft is dead. Good!"
Hume's sense of 'impression' probably referred to the 'tabula rasa' metaphor for memory and experience. But once we are faced with multiple meanings we are posed with the dilemma: if we ask which one is which, which meaning is meant, we have already committed to a humorless accounting. The problem, then, is to find a way to be more expansive without losing our powers of judgment. That's why there is humor. Humorless precision is calcified, humorless flexibility is madness. Neither is capable of using language well, or even  partaking in its generation. In other words, humor is a recognition of the difference between the generation of language and the mechanics of judgment in it.

Gerald Fnord's picture

Gerald Fnord

Saturday, July 30, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

My apologies, but:

My apologies, but:
`I've become fond of continual gay necrophilia.' said Algernon in dead earnest. 

Gerald Fnord's picture

Gerald Fnord

Saturday, July 30, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

In the National Lampoon's

In the National Lampoon's High School Yearbook the central pages of photographs of all the students contains several hundred Cartalk?-style credit pun names,  finishing with a young man yclept 'Theophilus Puneval'. 

kipjmejia's picture


Monday, August 8, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

I visit this blog first time

I visit this blog first time and inspire by this good stuff work. Incredible post keeps up posting such great information. If you like to write essays then you can use cheap essay writing service  for a trust worthy service.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, August 10, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Puns are charming. Sometimes,

Puns are charming. Sometimes, engaging; sometimes, annoying; occasionally, more poignant than the thing(s) they poke fun at. I used to participate in punditry, but seldom do so now, preferring instead to conjure sayings that may somehow illustrate that truth is either more or less than fiction, but seldom as interesting. I have shared a few of these in comments on other phil-talk blog posts. Here is another for your perusal: Anticipation precedes disappointment. Think about all of the things you may have so-anxiously looked forward to having (or doing) the first time. You had probably heard all sorts of accounts of how wonderful; special; illuminating; life-changing; or earth-shaking these things were to be when first experienced. Then, the time came for your turn at the helm. And, tragically, it was just not all you had expected it to be. A lot like the lies your government tells you, proffered for your well fare, but more honestly(?) connected to "national security". Nothing is ever what it first seems. Nor is any of it quite as advertised.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Friday, August 12, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

If the rules of evidence

If the rules of evidence applied, Trump would not be able simply to deny intending to say what is the most reasonable sense in which to construe him, he would have to explicitly repudiate that sense and those who cheer him on in that sense. It is not frivolous that courts require that parties to a legal procedure be held to a high standard of discourse. The only reason politicians are not is because journalism derives a better profit potential from ambiguity and unresolvable factual claims. It gives them more to blather about and the condidates more reason to buy advertizing. But one thing should be clear: the most dangerous consequences come of supporting a candidate on the assumption he does not mean what he says.
Yes, puns profane the unfounded bias of the analytic school, and so help to reveal the fundamental fallacy of logic: you can't quantify the qualifier. The meaning of all terms in any language, including the gobbledegook used by logicians, emerge as the profaning the qualifier is of the quantifier. Words come to mean what they mean through a dialectical drama in which it becomes impossible to determine which, subject or predicate, is the engine of the meaning of the proposition. But logicians, nevertheless, proceed blissfully, or dogmatically, unaware of the fallacy of their conviction that the whole edifice of valid reasoning derives from and proceeds as that ability to enumerate which one is which.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, April 5, 2019 -- 11:37 AM

The pictorial puns

The pictorial puns illustrated on your post page reminded me of something similar I saw, back in the 1980s. It was a small cartoon booklet, entitled Droodles. The subject matter was akin to the material depicted as introductory to your blog post, showing such laughable cartoons as a foggy picture with a pink-nostrilled something at its center. The captioned answer? "A pig, coming out of a fog bank". The entire book was replete with these clever, visual puzzles. Wish I still had it, because it was entertaining, for young and old alike: probably even qualifying as 'educational', on some cognitive level. Puns are, in one sense, 'metaphors with a sense-of-humor'. And, of course, metaphor is one of our inter- national treasures, whether it is the stuff of English language; 'las idomas' of Spanish or the sometimes-less-than-serious quips of Confucius(his own, or someone else' rendition of what he might have said, notwithstanding). Thanks for jogging loose a pleasant memory. Look Droodles up sometime, Professor, if you do not already know of it. Somehow, I suspect you do. Cordially, Neuman

michaelcassady's picture


Sunday, April 7, 2019 -- 12:41 PM

Good comment, Harold. I'm

Good comment, Harold. I'm fond (wrote "found"?) of British self-mocking humor. After working with them, I've never quite been the same if I can claim I was anything before what came after!

Here are two:
A rye way of describing an unfortunate soul who some might think is not the most intelligent: "He's a thick as two short planks." ("thick" meaning not-bright)

A nudge is as good as a wink to a man's who's as blind as a bat.

michaelcassady's picture


Sunday, April 7, 2019 -- 11:58 AM

I'm a puny fiend of Oscar

I'm a puny fiend of Oscar Wilde

One: Be yourself, everyone else is taken
Two: My wife and I never disagree, she's just wrong sometimes
Three: Marriage is a state in which two people become one: but which one?