Laughter; the best medicine 

 

I’m more a man for observational humour than for jokes; but perhaps the joke has been on me…

British humour tends to the downbeat. Ironic, sarcastic and even cynical – there’s always the risk of us talking everything down. With my new optimistic élan, I’m doing my best to avoid all that. 

But if you can’t ‘bitch and moan’, where are the laughs at work? Our place is dead clever, but also dead earnest. I realised the other day I hadn’t laughed all week…

Thank goodness Philosophy Now spurred me into action with their humour edition!

Two strong explanations of humour are the ‘Superiority’ and the ‘Incongruity’ theories.

Anya Steinbeck explains the first:

“The so-called superiority theory is prominent among explanations of humour. In fact, so prominent that it has been championed by philosophical heavyweights such as Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes and Bergson

Thomas Hobbes’ formulation of the superiority theory is this: “Laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own, formerly.” 

If Hobbes is right, humour becomes a tool for making ourselves feel better by thinking of others or our own past selves as inferior. So if Ted is a terrible golfer he can overcome the pain of this truth by making fun of Fred who is an even worse golfer. 

Plato believes this kind of humour to be damaging: “Taken generally the ridiculous is a certain kind of evil, specifically a vice.” It counts as a vice because it is symptomatic of a lack of critical self-awareness as we ridicule others. 

I would suggest that the two most serious problems with hierarchical jokes are these: 

1) Firstly, as Plato says, the aesthetic form of a joke form is just so attractive and appealing that we may not pay enough critical attention to the moral content. 

2) Secondly, far from having a dialogue function, jokes can be conversation stoppers. As Theodor Adorno says: “He who has laughter on his side has no need of proof.” 

In other words, humour is, next to its wonderful properties, also a great potential tool for manipulation. Dress them up as a joke and you can get away with outrageous statements. 

So what of the ‘Incongruity’ theory? The Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy gives us this:

“The first philosopher to use the word incongruous to analyze humor was James Beattie (1779). Our laughter “seems to arise from the view of things incongruous united in the same assemblage.” The cause of humorous laughter is “two or more inconsistent, unsuitable, or incongruous parts or circumstances, considered as united in one complex object or assemblage, as acquiring a sort of mutual relation from the peculiar manner in which the mind takes notice of them.”

Beattie may be right but he’s not exactly got us rolling in the aisles with that description.

And it gets worse… Given his well deserved reputation for seriousness, perhaps not surprising that Kant is stronger on theory than gags…

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“In everything that is to excite a lively convulsive laugh there must be something absurd (in which the understanding, therefore, can find no satisfaction).”

“Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing. This transformation, which is certainly not enjoyable to the understanding, yet indirectly gives it very active enjoyment for a moment. Therefore its cause must consist in the influence of the representation upon the body, and the reflex effect of this upon the mind.”

Kant illustrates with this story:

“An Indian at the table of an Englishman in Surat, when he saw a bottle of ale opened and all the beer turned into froth and overflowing, testified his great astonishment with many exclamations. When the Englishman asked him, “What is there in this to astonish you so much?” he answered, “I am not at all astonished that it should flow out, but I do wonder how you ever got it in.”

Following that cracker he serves up another:

“The heir of a rich relative wished to arrange for an imposing funeral, but he lamented that he could not properly succeed; ‘for’ (said he) ‘the more money I give my mourners to look sad, the more cheerful they look!’”

Whilst I wouldn’t recommend he gives up his day job, I’m with Kant. When it comes to making people laugh, I like incongruity. 

Superiority all too easily leads to the worst type of humour – arrogance, trashing others and talking people down. Now I know what I’m looking for, I realise I’ve seen plenty of ‘superiority’ humour about. It’s not pretty. 

Keep it incongruous I say. As my boy did with his little joke in the car this morning; it made me laugh out loud:

“What did one rebel sausage say to the other?”

“May the fork be in you!”

 

Obscurantism

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I congratulated a colleague yesterday on some lovely prose. His concise, interesting and informative writing made me happily read about 80 Moments which changed history – learning a lot in the process.

This morning, I read another piece of quasi-Academic writing; but which was much more of a slog. It was saying some important things, but in a rather portentous – even pretentious style. The few key points, could have been made a lot more simply.

Then, by happenstance I moved onto to a super article on ‘Obscurantism’ in the equally super Philosophy Now magazine. The question it poses is: when is being complex and hard to decode legitimate, useful; even necessary – and when is it plain unhelpful.

Here’s some of what Siobhan Lyons has to say:

‘Obscurantism’ can indeed be an effective manoeuvre, provoking greater thought-processes and intellectual investigation.

This couldn’t be illustrated more clearly than in Rembrandt’s The Holy Family with a Curtain (1646). I am less concerned with the religious meanings of this painting than I am about the curtain itself; a seemingly innocuous, pointless part of the work, and yet it provokes the viewer to wonder what lies behind it.

The curtain, blood red and purposefully pulled partly to the side, teases the viewer, offering not even a partial glimpse of what it completely obscures. The Virgin is plainly seen; and there is Joseph, semi-obscured in the background, near the curtain; but whatever is behind the curtain itself is left unanswered.

The painting thus features three forms of creative depiction: the Virgin’s clear visibility, Joseph’s semi-obscured form, and the curtain itself, a symbol of obscurantism, or rather, of the ability of obscurity to be creative, by emphasising the ambiguity that so often confronts us, which may however be the source of great art, and indeed philosophy.

For the greatest philosophies are aware of their own limits – aware of when they cannot answer the questions their philosophers ask. As Wittgenstein stated, language must be beset by certain limits.

So obscurity in language can be seen as not always self-defeating, but, ironically, as sometimes illuminating. Moreover, if language were a purely functional tool for communication, we would cease to have literature as we understand it.

If all curtains in all art were pulled completely aside to expose what lies behind them, then the need for imagination would deteriorate. This also explains why good writers are those who not only have a masterful grasp of language, but who also know how to pull it apart and put it back together in different ways.

Nicely put. Not everything in life, thought or Art can be expressed simply; and some things can’t be expressed at all. The art is in knowing which. But also, I think, in having a try. Only practice makes more perfect.

The Reasonableness of Reason

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I’ve just splashed out a fiver on a hardcore philosophy book ‘The Reasonableness of Reason’. Second hand mind you, austerity reigns. But absolute austerity is probably slightly unreasonable.

It is, by all accounts, an exhaustive investigation of whether following reason is better than scepticism or belief. My current bedtime read Philosophy Now carries an admirable review by Professor Raymond S. Pfeiffer of what I’ve bought, which I précis here:

Naturalists argue that there are some general goals that almost all humans in all societies have in common, such as obtaining safety, food, love, meaning, and an understanding of the world. In fact, no one has suggested possible alternatives.

Naturalists further argue that human goals are best achieved by a group of standards, rules and methods referred to as ‘the theory of middle-sized physical objects’. This theory is the idea that there is a world inhabited by everyday objects that behave in the kind of way they seem to behave in our experience of them.

The naturalistic claim is simply that a preponderance of evidence reveals that using the claims, methods, standards and rules of the theory of middle-sized physical objects (a.k.a. using reason) is the best way to fulfil human goals.

This process – which is the use of reason and the scientific method – has produced the best confirmed and most useful thinking about reality, and continues to do so.

Others may choose a different process to understand the world, such as basing some of their beliefs on faith. But history has shown that such an approach often goes wrong in some way, and that, when corrected, it is usually corrected by the use of reason and the scientific method.

Furthermore, sceptics, who suspend belief in reason and seek to follow the customs of the culture in which they live, use the very same theses, methods and rules of thought as the theory of middle-sized physical objects, and so use the tools of reason anyway.

Hauptli (the Author) concludes that “If we seek optimum goal-fulfillment, the use of reason will promote this best in the long run.” So although there is no certain proof of the advantage of using reason, it provides a better option than any known alternative.

How very reasonable. I have a feeling I could have saved myself that fiver.

Is isn’t Ought

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Useful to be reminded this week that among David Hume’s many contributions to the world of ideas is this one – you can’t get an ought from an is.

So it is. You can describe a phenomenon or circumstance, however awful or wonderful but it doesn’t mean it’s objectively good or bad.

Nearly everyone struggles with this. It feels all wrong – but that’s the point, it feels. ‘Oughts’ are a matter of interpretation and beliefs, not matters of fact.

9/10ths of bother in human affairs derives from this misunderstanding. And so it was this week as I was besieged by people pointing out things they didn’t like – and inviting me to agree with them on what ought to be the case. Generally I didn’t.

Sometimes, all you can do is give people the context; more facts and data, the ‘oughts’ we all end up deciding for ourselves.

Strawberry

20111113-150850.jpgI’ve discovered Philosophy Now via Kindle. And a find it is too. This month’s edition delves into the Philosophy of Mind which I studied twenty odd years ago. What’s new? Quite a lot. But, also, quite a lot is not.

Neuroscience is the new 200lb gorilla on the scene. Is philosophy, contemplation and introspection irrelevant when you have brain scanners and MRI? The argument cuts both ways. Reductionism says its a simple case of describing something complex. I used to agree, now I’m less sure.

Before cosmology we harboured intuitive, and often mystical, beliefs to explain sun, moon and stars. Then telescopes were invented and we moved on to facts and evidence. Aristotle imagined ‘biles and humours’ drove the body, until medicine discovered intricate circulatory and nervous systems. Reductionists say we’ll get over our belief in ‘consciousness’, ‘intentions’ and ‘ideas’ once the science advances enough to describe ‘brain states’ better.

The alternate thesis – much more where Aquinas, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche might land – is that describing a TV’s wiring misses what’s on screen. The ’emergent phenomenon’ is a living feeling being, living a unique life, intimately connected to other living feeling beings, all equally unique but interdependent with each other.

It comes down to complexity in the end. A computer or iPhone full of data apparently weighs fractionally more than an empty one. But it is only fractionally more. I read the entire ‘weight’ of data contained in the Internet could easily be stored in the mass of a strawberry. But the ‘knowledge’ exists in myriad computers, data centres and browsers interlinked with myriad minds.

In one way a strawberry already contains a nearly perfect dataset to describe humans. In its DNA it describes carbon-based life, an oxygen rich atmosphere, the rise of flowering plants – and who knows, maybe, some clues to cultivation. It is already bursting with data, just of a ‘natural’ flavour.

And this is the point for me. Let’s imagine we could load the entirety of human culture, knowledge and experience into a strawberry and fire it into space. Billions of years on, when our planet has long since expired, suppose an alien civilisation finds it. From which would they learn more about living as a human being – reading the data locked in the atomic structure of the strawberry, or simply eating it?