Tuesday, March 30, 2004

What Is It

What is humor?  What makes some jokes funny?  Why did the chicken cross the road?  Tune in for deep thoughts and big laughs as Ken, John and guest Ted Cohen, author of Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters, discuss the philosophical aspects of humor.  

Listening Notes

Most people would agree that laughter and humor are necessary and valuable forms of human expression. After all, what would life be like without humor? Are there philosophical theories of humor? There are some. Kant, as John explains, has a rather absurd theory of humor that he finds particularly interesting if not in the least convincing. According to John, Kant's theory is so entertaining because he backs it up with a few jokes. Of course, as Ken remarks, Kant telling a joke is humor in itself.

Where do we start, or where should we start, a serious philosophical inquiry into humor? Perhaps humor is objective. Perhaps there is a right or wrong answer to the question of whether a joke is funny or not. But if I think a joke is funny and you don't, does that make one of us right and the other wrong? It could be the case that, just like the taste of applesauce, the question of whether or not it's good is subjective. John points out that, however strange Kant's theory may be, it tends to rightly claim that humor is subjective.

Looking at Kant, Freud, and others, it seems that one of the problems with the theories they put forward about humor is their lack of familiarity with the data. That is, they have bad jokes or, more precisely, they don't know what a good joke is. Naturally, as guest Ted Cohen puts it, it would be a miracle of their theories turned out right. Cohen wrote a book in which he argued that there is no theory of jokes. Some people find some jokes funny; other people don't find the same jokes funny. What you can speak to is the types of jokes people find funny and how those jokes work in getting people to laugh. But beyond that, there doesn't seem to be much to say.

  • Conundrum (Seek To 00:53:05): This time, it's our own Nicole Sawaya calling in with a perplexing question. Why would somebody pay for something that they could get for free? Say I can get something for free that wasn't free to make, produce, or construct. Is it right for me not to make a contribution?