At dinner the night before I was to give a talk in her department, a young professor solemnly told me that there’s no place for humor in serious philosophy. Since the paper on the relation of science and literature I was to present the next day was full of playful literary allusions and verbal jokes this was, to say the least, an awkward moment. Nonetheless, my paper was a serious piece of work – jokes and all. Now, thanks to Spazio filosofico’s imaginative choice of theme, at last I have my opportunity to explore what’s wrong with the idea that, to be serious, philosophical work must be humorless. It’s been a long time coming; but, as the saying goes, better late than never.
“Serious,” of course, has a whole raft of uses, and many subtly-interrelated meanings. We laugh about the apocryphal billionaire who complains that household expenses are skyrocketing – “a million here, a million there, and pretty soon you’re talking serious money”; meaning real money, a significant sum of money. Told something scarcely credible, we ask: “seriously?” – meaning: “really; no kidding?” We describe the measles as a serious illness, or a patient as in serious condition; meaning a grave illness, a potentially dangerous condition. We describe a crime as serious; meaning that it’s not just a misdemeanor, it’s a felony. We ask a friend who seems preoccupied and thoughtful, “why so serious?” – meaning: “why so solemn, why so glum?” But we also describe a hardworking, motivated young person as a serious student; meaning that he has a genuine desire to learn and is willing to do what’s needed to succeed in this. And I, for one, think of some people in our profession as serious philosophers, really trying to answer the questions they are tackling, while others – these days, I sometimes wonder if they might not be the majority – seem more concerned to make a name for themselves, or to ensure a safe, comfortable professional life, or ..., etc.
Etymologically, “serious” derives from the Latin, serius, “weighty,” “heavy”; and, in line with this, some of its many meanings point in the direction of “matters of significance, issues of real import” (“weighty”), and others in the direction of “grave, burdensome” (“heavy”). Hence my first approximation to an explanation of what’s wrong with the idea that, to be serious, a philosopher must be humorless: it confuses two distinct strands in the complex mesh of meanings of “serious,” two distinct sides of seriousness. It mistakenly supposes that, because philosophical questions are serious, i.e., have real significance, and because tackling them requires serious work, i.e., sustained thought and real commitment, a serious philosopher must eschew playfulness and go about his or her5 work, as the saying goes, in grim earnest. On the contrary, I shall argue, taking philosophy seriously and really working at it doesn’t mean that you must set aside playfulness or humor; far from it. In fact, playfulness and humor may actually help in philosophical inquiry, while solemnity and self-importance will, for sure, stultify it.
I chose a line of Peirce’s for my epigraph because, in my estimation, Peirce was one of the most truly serious of philosophers; because his reflections on what a genuine, committed philosophical thinker must do and how he should go about his work provide a starting point for understanding what serious philosophy is, and what it demands of us; and because he explicitly articulated the place in inquiry of a kind of intellectual free play. Moreover, implicitly and by example, his work allowed a real role – I’m tempted to say, a serious role – for humor; and on at least one occasion he suggested, albeit very briefly, what that role is. So, as I try first to articulate what serious philosophical work involves, and then to explain why this doesn’t preclude humor, I shall often call on his ideas.Haack goes on to state
secular forms of sham reasoning abound, now in support of one or another of the myriad fads and fashions to which our profession presently seems so susceptible: “feminist” this, that, and the other; “naturalized” everything; “neuro-philosophy”; “experimental philosophy”; the enduring Kripke-cult; the impulse to formalize every aspect of our discipline; and so on. And fake reasoning is ubiquitous. Professionally-ambitious philosophers blithely propose wildly implausible ideas: no one believes anything; it is pointless, superstitious, or politically incorrect to care whether your beliefs are true or are false; there is no truth, no meaning, no values of any kind; physics can explain everything; science is just a kind of confidence trick, nothing more than power, politics, and rhetoric; etc., etc. Those who propound such absurdities presumably hope – consciously or, more likely, in a convenient fog of self-deception – that this will make them famous, or at least notorious; and the not-so-ambitious who happily climb aboard one fashionable bandwagon or another presumably hope – consciously or, more likely, in a convenient fog of self-deception – that this will provide opportunities to join a clique and, better yet, a publication cartel. ...
Allow me to begin a little obliquely, by explaining why – whatever that solemn young professor I mentioned at the beginning may have thought – humor surely can contribute to the effective communication of serious philosophical ideas. To be sure, much of what’s published in philosophy today is written in a bland, chewy, impersonal prose larded with cliquish technicalities – a “style,” if you can call it that, presumably intended (insofar as there’s any particular intention behind it at all) to convey an impression of objectivity, professionalism, and the au courant. But this kind of academic automatic-writing invites, in response, a kind of academic automatic-reading – readers just look out for the jargon, the in-group phrases that enable them to pigeon-hole the author as belonging to one familiar clique or another, and then coast from there with no need for any real thought. And it has another, ironic consequence, tempting some of those who, like myself, find this bland style repellent, to adopt instead a brash, even vulgar tone more appropriate to popular journalism than to the communication of seriously thought-through ideas. So, far from contributing to communication, the deadly, deadpan pseudo-professional style-of-no-style that now seems increasingly de rigeur can only too easily impede it.
Real communication requires making a real connection with your audience; and humor can help you do this. Introducing a paper on tricky epistemological topics by quoting Donald Rumsfeld’s famously convoluted observations about “unknown unknowns” in U.S. military intelligence in Iraq, for example, as I once did, made the real-world importance of what might otherwise seem “arid and abstract” epistemological questions about relevance and comprehensiveness of evidence nicely vivid. Concocting an imaginary conversation between Peirce and Rorty entirely from their own words proved a devastatingly direct way to show how disastrously Rorty’s “pragmatism” diverged from the real thing – far more rhetorically effective than the detailed scholarly argument I relied on elsewhere. Quoting Kierkegaard’s image of the intellectually grandiose philosopher as a man who builds himself a magnificent castle but then, finding it too drafty and uncomfortable to live in, moves into a shack nearby proved an effective way of revealing how Popper’s philosophy of science shifts up and back between an official falsificationism that is really a thinly-disguised and quite incredible skepticism (the castle), and a ramshackle quasi-fallibilism (the shack). The story of my hopeless – and, in retrospect, hilarious – misreading of the instructions for assembling a flat-pack luggage-rack proved a good way to introduce the idea that exploring and classifying various kinds of misinterpretation can contribute to our understanding of interpretation. And so on. Of course, the humor had better be relevant humor: simply breaking off to ask “have you heard the one about the minister, the priest, and the rabbi who go into a bar?”39 – though it will, to be sure, give your audience a brief respite – does nothing to help get your point across, and may well distract their attention from it.