The world is that which is the straight face
November 22, 2014 9:18 PM   Subscribe

It was said by Wittgenstein that a perfectly good work of philosophy could be written which was entirely composed of jokes. Has anyone done it, in analytical or continental philosophy?

Quotation is from H. Dribble:

A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.

Now, Wittgenstein was probably one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century. Did anyone take him on, on this implicit dare?
posted by curuinor to Religion & Philosophy (13 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: (the quotation is from Wittgenstein, as quoted by H. Dribble)
posted by curuinor at 9:25 PM on November 22, 2014

Best answer: No, no one has done this.

I don't see how it would be possible (certainly not in analytic philosophy), outside of the sort of theoretical nature to which Wittgenstein was most likely referring.

I think LW was getting at the idea that to say something with philosophical import is not dependent on the particular academic language game/context in which most philosophy was (still is) conducted. I think the idea is that equally profound things can be said in any number of constructions, including jokes.

I can't imagine that anyone would attempt this, as I'm not sure what use it would be. I think the thrust of LW's point was simply that it would be possible, but not necessarily desirable.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:36 PM on November 22, 2014

Jacques le Fataliste, perhaps, but that was before W.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 11:22 PM on November 22, 2014

There was an essay called "Deconstruction in a Nutshell" in the '90s that I remember being pretty funny. Of course, that was probably like 20 years ago so I dunno if it holds up...
posted by mdn at 11:47 PM on November 22, 2014

If rhetorical irony counts as joking, you might never know, because the work could appear letter-perfect in its seriousness but also lend itself by design to some cute alternative reading. Since he may have only been engaging in a thought-experiment, perhaps Wittgenstein would have found the theoretical point relevant.

Other than that, I recall Daniel Dennett's "Where am I?" being drily humorous, not just in tone but as a chain of awkward events. I suspect what you're looking for is something where you have a series of set-ups with punch lines that each make some insightful point, though, and it isn't that. The only other things that come to mind are non-academic.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 1:17 AM on November 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Well, there's this [pdf]. It's a compilation though, and doesn't present any coherent argument.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 2:56 AM on November 23, 2014

It's a pretty big stretch, but Candide is one long joke, and it makes a philosophical point.
posted by Ned G at 3:24 AM on November 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Existentialism explained
posted by flabdablet at 5:46 AM on November 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

As others have said, the implication that this has to be 'funny philosophy' is not what Wittgenstein intended. This could cover both works of philosophy that are 'funny,' and funny works (plays etc.) that are 'philosophical.' There's plenty of the latter (for example Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist).
posted by carter at 6:32 AM on November 23, 2014

As I understand Wittgenstein, the previous commenters have it: that line doesn't mean "let's try doing philosophy with jokes!" but precisely the opposite -- you could do philosophical work with jokes without it being any different from work done with all due philosophical seriousness. The point of this being that what is meaningful in philosophical language happens whether it "looks" like philosophy or not (long, sententious sentences, etc), so if we can identify the parts that are just the "game" of philosophy vs the work then we can get closer to the core of philosophy. However, there's a few details here that might be interesting for this question ...

First, that Wittgenstein's own structure of philosophical writing and thinking is actually very joke-like, in a way: startling reversals of "common sense" which reveal the arbitrary and linguistically structured nature of so much we think of as thought, often presented in his notes without commentary. One of my favorite moments in a memoir of study with him is: "A curious thing, which I observed innumerable times, was that when Wittgenstein invented an example during his lectures in order to illustrate a point, he himself would grin at the absurdity of what he had imagined. But if any member of the class were to chuckle, his expression would change to severity and he would exclaim in reproof, 'No, no; I'm serious!'"

Second, there are some philosophers who work with jokes in a deep way -- even if it's different from what Wittgenstein is trying to do with this idea. Two who come to mind are Zizek (who uses jokes -- especially mordant Communist humor -- as a way of thinking about the paradoxes and "lies that tell the truth" in both politics and everyday life as understood by psychoanalysis), and Douglas Hofstadter, whose work often builds on jokes and riddles as ways of illustrating things like recursion and breakdowns of understanding to explore the philosophical problems posed by consciousness and artificial intelligence.

I hope this is helpful!
posted by deathmarch to epistemic closure at 7:46 AM on November 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

There's I Think, Therefore I Laugh by John Allen Paulos. According to one review it was inspired by that Wittgenstein quote (whether this is true and whether if so it succeeds in its goal, I don't remember).
posted by trig at 12:32 PM on November 23, 2014

Best answer: Here you go: Žižek’s Jokes. Even quotes the Wittgenstein thing in the marketing waffle.
posted by Acheman at 2:04 PM on November 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

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