Puns have been called both the highest and lowest form of humor. There is something about them that is at once painful and pleasurable, capable of causing either a cringe or a chuckle.
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.