Most people are surprised to hear there’s such a thing as philosophical humor, since most philosophy and philosophers, with a few exceptions, seem humorless. Well, it may just be a way of keeping their sanity, but some people in philosophy do have a sense of humor and can poke fun at themselves. Here I offer a few examples of philosophical humor, with some embellishment to bring out the more subtle points of each joke. (These are jokes that have been floating around the philosophy-blogosphere; their original authorship is mostly unknown.)
I do not suggest that most readers of this blog need help understanding the point of the joke. I’m sure that most of you do not. But I feel that even philosophical jokes have multiple levels of meaning and can be instructive. (Hopefully this is not a case of someone elaborating a joke to make it humorless!)
Look for the bracketed commentary: [xx]
First I have a set of fairly obvious jokes that don’t require much elaboration. But being an incurable elaborator, I shall elaborate a little.
Easy & Obvious Jokes:
Dean, to the physics department: “Why do I always have to give you guys so much money, for laboratories and expensive equipment and stuff? Why couldn’t you be like the math department? All they need is money for pencils, paper and waste-paper baskets? Or even better, why aren’t you like the philosophy department? All they need are pencils and paper.”
[In Mathematics they keep only that work which passes muster, theorems which can be proved. The rest is thrown in the waste basket. But in philosophy everything is kept; nothing is rejected as unworthy of attention. Nothing is thrown away, so there’s no need for waste baskets.
Actually this is a bit unfair to the discipline of philosophy. All ideas and theories might be discussed; but some are rejected in favor of others which stand the tests of logic, reason, and evidence better. But it is true that philosophy lacks the clear criteria of proof that’s found in mathematics and the general methodology of the sciences; and too much attention is devoted to ideas and theories which should have been discarded.]
The First Law of Philosophy: For every philosopher, there exists an equal and opposite philosopher.
The Second Law of Philosophy: They’re both wrong.
[This plays on the principle of dynamic physics that each action has an equal reaction, and pokes fun at the fact that for every philosophical proposition one can find a contrary proposition, and for every philosophical theory and equal, opposing theory. Philosophical disagreements seem without end; and most often there are no clear and objective criteria for evaluating those competing theories. In so far as philosophical consensus is lacking, all philosophical theories are wrong, but philosophers never seem to stop talking. This is often the criticism that scientists bring against philosophy. There’s some truth to it; but it tends to over-simply the issues. Consensus among scientific and mathematical professionals is not as pure and complete as they like to believe; and philosophers are not completely lost in a maze of competing ideas and theories. Philosophers actually manage to reach some agreement, make some progress on specific issues, and make positive contributions to a number of other disciplines, including science and mathematics.]
What is Mind? It does not matter.
What is Matter? Never mind.
[Bertrand Russell attributed this one to his grandmother, in his autobiography. It’s a good rejoinder to the classical metaphysical propositions asserting the dual nature of reality: mental and material. Much time, effort, and print have been expended by philosophers in trying to state the nature of matter and mind, and the relation between the two realms. This is a problem best left to the relevant sciences, which have made great progress in providing meaningful answers. On the contrary, metaphysical speculation seems to go nowhere. Hence, many of us are inclined to repeat the response to the metaphysical question: it doesn’t matter and never mind!]
The second set is a little more demanding. My exposition might have a point here.
A man was walking in the mountains just enjoying the scenery when he stepped too close to the edge of the mountain and started to fall. In desperation he reached out and grabbed a limb of a gnarly old tree hanging onto the side of the cliff. Full of fear he assessed his situation. He was about 100 feet down a shear cliff and about 900 feet from the floor of the canyon below. If he should slip again he’d plummet to his death.
Full of fear, he cries out, “Help me!”
But there was no answer. Again and again he cried out but to no avail.
Finally he yelled, “Is anybody up there?”
A deep voice replied, “Yes, I’m up here.”
“Who is it?”
“It’s the Lord”
“Can you help me?”
“Yes, I can help.”
Looking around the man became full of panic. “What?!?!”
“Let go. I will catch you.”
“Uh… Is there anybody else up there?
[Here we have the “test of faith.” In this case, the desperate man was not sure that should he let go he would be saved from sure death by the Lord. He may not even have been sure that the voice which responded to his cry for help was that of the Lord. The man lacks faith in the Lord, or at least in the presence of the Lord. Like many of us, he wants some empirical evidence of an effective rescuer. He could be a rational skeptic, unlike the man of faith who is prepared to make Kierkegaard’s leap of faith despite it’s having no rational grounds at all. Do we let go and trust in God or do we ask whether there’s “anybody else up there”? Most of us secular-minded types would continue yelling for help.]
A very religious man lived right next door to an atheist. While the religious man prayed day in, day out, and was constantly on his knees in communion with his Lord, the atheist never even looked twice at a church. However, the atheist’s life was good, he had a well-paying job and a beautiful wife, and his children were healthy and good-natured, whereas the pious man’s job was strenuous and his wages were low, his wife was getting fatter every day and his kids wouldn’t give him the time of the day.
So one day, deep in prayer as usual, he raised his eyes towards heaven and asked, “Oh God, I honor you every day, I ask your advice for every problem and confess to you my every sin. Yet my neighbor, who doesn’t even believe in you and certainly never prays, seems blessed with every happiness, while I go poor and suffer many an indignity. Why is this?”
And a great voice was heard from above,
BECAUSE HE DOESN’T BOTHER ME ALL THE TIME!”
[The heathen and non-believers among us love this one. People of religions faith, not so much. But the joke also oversimplifies the faith of religious folks. Many of them do not see their faith as a prudent one which will yield good material results in this life. This is not why they value their faith in God. But some do. I have occasionally joked that if God exists, he would prefer skeptics and atheists to the pious folks. The latter tend to bother him with their petitions and adorations. On the other hand, the skeptics and non-believers tend to be more interesting and entertaining for Him. He prefers a good game of chess to the constant “hosanna” from the pious believers. After all, eternity is a long, long time; and things can get boring even for God.]
When I was young I badly wanted a new, red, Schwinn bicycle in the local store window. But my parents were poor and could not afford to buy it for me. So, being a good Catholic, I recited special prayers each night for that bicycle. After months of diligent praying and not getting my bike, I set aside my prayers and thought long and hard on the problem. Finally I realized that God doesn’t work that way. I had to get the bicycle myself. So after carefully planning my move so as not to get caught, I stole that beautiful, Schwinn bicycle. Then I prayed to God for forgiveness.
[Are prayers answered? It depends on the prayer. How does God work? In mysterious ways, of course. Because of my history of poverty and longing for shiny, new bicycles -- which I never got -- I really enjoyed this one. I was a Catholic kid, but not able to improvise as the boy in this story. It was only after seeing this joke that I really understood that old bumper sticker that many Christians had on their cars: “CHRISTIANS ARE NOT PERFECT, JUST FORGIVEN.” Part of Christian teaching is that the redemptive work of Christ is necessary because humans are weak and cannot avoid sin. Humans need the grace that comes from Christ in order to be saved. Good works alone are insufficient; you need faith, grace, and forgiveness from God. The boy in the story realized this quite well, and got his bicycle in the bargain!]
Overheard outside the lecture hall: I passed my ethics exam today. I cheated!
[Cheating on an ethics exam? Isn’t that a paradox? Didn’t the course teach that student anything? These are questions that we raise when we think of a course in ethics as providing some moral training, or at least raising the moral consciousness of the students. Seeing an ethics course in this light, we would not expect a student to cheat on his exam. But this assumes too much. A course in ethics most often is a course in ethical theories and principles. The exercises of the course are intellectual ones; not ones in moral training. If students gain in moral consciousness, it is a side product of their primary lessons. Likely, those students who do well in the exam demonstrate only some intellectual progress, and not necessarily moral progress. But most people continue to think that an academic course in ethics does involve some form of moral training or moral awakening. Hence, the statement above sounds funny and paradoxical.]
A philosophy professor walks in to give his class their final. Placing his chair on his desk the professor instructs the class, “Using every applicable thing you’ve learned in this course, prove to me that this chair DOES NOT EXIST.”
So, pencils are writing and erasers are erasing, students are preparing to embark on novels proving that this chair doesn’t exist, except for one student. He spends thirty seconds writing his answer, then quickly turns in his final to the astonishment of his peers.
Time goes by, and the day comes when all the students get their final grades…and to the amazement of the class, the student who only wrote for thirty seconds gets the highest grade in the class.
His answer to the question: “What chair?”
[This is a clever one. How do you prove that something, like the chair on the desk, does not exist? Simply asking “what chair?” does not prove anything. So there’s more going on here.
All philosophy students know that one way to question ordinary existence of something is to focus on the meaning of “exists.” What do we mean when we affirm that X exists? Well, if X is there before me, and I can see and touch it, it exists. But what if I don’t perceive it? Most of us would reply, well you need to get your perceptual faculties checked; because the chair is there on the professor’s desk, whether you see it or not. But some philosophers have argued in favor of the counter-intuitive proposition that “to be is to be perceived” (Bishop Berkeley: esse est percipi). “To exist” is defined as “to be perceived.” The bright and quick student was probably applying this Berkeleian principle in his answer: What chair? I see no chair; therefore it does not exist. This was an exercise in Berkeley’s Idealism.]
The jokes in the third set are such that you must be familiar with some of what philosophers say and do to get the full implication of the joke.
For the sophisticated:
A boy is about to go on his first date, and is nervous about what to talk about. He asks his father for advice. The father replies: “My son, there are three subjects that always work. These are food, family, and philosophy.”
The boy picks up his date and they go to a soda fountain. Ice cream sodas in front of them, they stare at each other for a long time, as the boy’s nervousness builds. He remembers his father’s advice, and chooses the first topic. He asks the girl: “Do you like potato pancakes?” She says “No,” and the silence returns.
After a few more uncomfortable minutes, the boy thinks of his father’s suggestion and turns to the second item on the list. He asks, “Do you have a brother?” Again, the girl says “No” and there is silence once again.
The boy then plays his last card. He thinks of his father’s advice and asks the girl the following question:
“If you had a brother, would he like potato pancakes?”
[It is hard to say whether the young man impressed his date. Likely not, and if she agreed to see him again, he would be advised to abandon the philosophical tactic. But his hypothetical statement about a hypothetical brother directs attention to the way that philosophers and writers often proceed. In order to explore an issue they often set up hypothetical situations and try to learn the implications: if Jesus did return and tried to help the poor, downtrodden people, what would religious leaders do? (Dostoevsky takes up this hypothetical in his great novel, The Brothers Karamazov, and concludes that Jesus would be imprisoned as a troublemaker.)
Bertrand Russell and G. Frege present the following hypothetical: Suppose there’s a barber in the village who shaves every man who does not shave himself. Does the barber shave himself? Yes, then he does not. No, then he does. This is a little puzzle in formal logic.
By analogy, does the non-existent brother like potato pancakes? We can excuse the girl if she ended that first date early.
Philosophers dealing with the logic of language often assert counter-factuals (contrary to fact situations) and try to draw the relevant implications. A recent example of the statement: “The current king of France is bald.” Do we say that this statement is false or true? If false, then it follows that the king has a full head of hair, which in turn implies the false statement that he exists. If we say that it is true, then the false statement follows that a bald fellow exists and is currently the king of France. The original statement is a coherent one which is either true or false; but either evaluating it as true or as false entails a falsehood. So we’re stuck and don’t know what to say about that perfectly coherent proposition: “The king of France is bald.” Hence, the paradox of the counter-factual proposition.]
Descartes is sitting in a bar, having a drink. The bartender asks him if he would like another. “I think not,” he says and vanishes in a puff of logic.
[Most students of philosophy recognized this one as playing on Descartes famous Cogito, ergo sum argument: I think, therefore I am. In other words, given that I have some conscious thought (even a state of doubt), I exist as a thinking being. Then if you deny the antecedent, denial of the consequent seems to follow. I do not think, thus I do not exist. However, this is a logical fallacy, as anyone who has had a basic course in logic knows; and it is not clear that Descartes ever asserted denial of the antecedent of his Cogito argument. The joke is good in that it stimulates some thinking about Descartes’ tactics in his famous work.]
The French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre was in a café working at his craft when a waitress approached him: “Can I get you something to drink, Monsieur Sartre?”
Sartre replied, “Yes, I’d like a cup of coffee with sugar, but no cream”.
Nodding agreement, the waitress walked off to fill the order and Sartre returned to his writing. A few minutes later, however, the waitress returned and said, “I’m sorry, Monsieur Sartre, we are all out of cream — how about with no milk?”
[This is a subtle one, folks. It requires reference to one theme of Sartre’s philosophy, that of the concept of ‘nothing’ in his work Being and Nothingness. Sartre, along with some of the Germans, e.g. Martin Heidegger, often wrote of nothing as if it were a something. If you delve into certain styles of metaphysics and theology, you will find the writer talking about nothingness as if it constituted a special category of reality. It is in this spirit that we should interpret the waitresses question: “We’re out of cream, how about coffee with no milk?”
We ordinary mortals might think that coffee without cream is exactly the same as coffee without milk: namely, black coffee. However, those philosophers who probe deep reality will argue that ‘no cream’ signifies a different reality from ‘no milk.’ Maybe the joke is on them.
With apologies to Lewis Carroll: Nobody unlocked the doors to the office this morning. Nobody must have the keys to the office. How did he get them? That person, nobody, surely gets around! ---- Maybe I’m missing something about the Heideggerian-Sartrean style of metaphysics!]