Standup comedian Steve Martin got his best laughs from misunderstandings that were at once dopey and brainy. “First the doctor told me the good news,” he gleefully reported. “I was going to have a disease named after me!” Martin loved the non sequitur—the goofy thought that doesn’t follow the previous statement. And on stage, he took advantage of the exquisite moments when jokes hung fire as audiences worked out the quirky punchlines. As it happened, Martin developed the knack for reproducing comical incongruities while also studying philosophy at California State at Long Beach.
Philosophy and comedy ought to be opposites. (I recall propping my eyes open with toothpicks while reading some treatises.) But if I’ve risked forgetting how often deep inquiry turns on play and mischief, my interview with professor Lou Marinoff in the American Journal of Play reminds me how important it is for thinkers to play with ideas and how important playing with ideas is to keeping us in a healthy mindset. Marinoff practices “standup philosophy” in his classes at The City College of New York. I asked him if philosophers could afford to be funny when asking the ultimate questions about life, the universe, and everything. He concluded: “If one asks these kinds of questions, how can one afford not to be funny?”
I immediately thought of Plato, perhaps the dourest of all philosophers, as a counter example. Plato represented the original sourpuss—profoundly dismissive of spontaneity in music and dance and suspicious of laughter too. Indications are that he might have been a wrestler in real life. It was a sport the Greeks favored, and his nickname sounds like the Greek word for “broad,” or as we might say, “beefy.” One thing is for sure: he made his students and critics grapple with concepts of the good, the beautiful, and the just in “dialogues” that have become canonical. He delighted in the philosophical back and forth. For Plato, dispute represented a form of contest. Disputation was play. But when this grouchy nitpicker set out to explore the nature of knowledge itself and how we know the world through the impressions of our senses, he let his imagination soar with a strikingly original metaphor. In his famous “Allegory of the Cave,” Plato imagined prisoners who had been chained in an “underground den” since birth (and whose visual impressions had, therefore, been limited to two-dimensional shadows). He thought that if freed, the depth of the real world would confuse them.
A millennium and a half later and at the other end of Europe, St. Anselm of Canterbury, who became a saint by virtue of his tidy, three-part “ontological proof,” revealed how the existence of God flowed from the very concept of the divine. The clever, self-contained argument unfolded like a postulate in geometry: 1) God is that being than which no greater being can be conceived; 2) To be real is greater than to be imaginary. (That is, reality is a property of greatness itself.); and therefore 3) God exists. Another five hundred years later, French philosopher Rene Descartes conducted a similar pure thought-experiment to discover that the one thing he could not be tricked into believing was that he did not exist: “I think, therefore I am,” he concluded reasonably. And since he could not be the victim of an evil deceiver in this one thing, he further deduced the existence of a truthful, benevolent God. Quod erat demonstrandum.
Since then, other philosophers detected flaws in the arguments for concurrent claims of omnipotence, omniscience, and divine benevolence. Playfully, they presented a version of the counterargument as a puzzle. If God is all-powerful and all-knowing and permits suffering, they teased, he must be malevolent. If, on the other hand, God is good and can do nothing about suffering then he is impotent. The idea of an omniscient omnipotent God, therefore, cannot survive the charge of malice or powerlessness. And then wise guys peppered the argument with impish but fair questions: “Hey mate, could a God be so powerful that he could make a rock so huge that he could not pick it up?”
Thinking—the first item in philosophers’ job descriptions—can be at war with feeling. Comedians are as good as philosophers in pointing this out. Woody Allen pinpointed the psychological hitch with agnosticism when he wrote, “I don’t believe in an afterlife, although I’m bringing a change of underwear.” The offbeat comedian Steven Wright unleashes a flood of observations that invites his happy victims to dissect conventional assumptions: “I have a very large shell collection,” Wright reveals. “I keep it on the beaches around the world…. Perhaps you’ve seen it.”
Despite philosophers’ fondness for the abstruse in their writing, their conversations often sparkle with playful wit. Once, during a presentation, the very distinguished Oxford philosopher of linguistics J.L. Austin was observing how in English a double negative will resolve to a positive meaning. (Consider how the wistful sentence “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her” means “I think of her every day.”) But there is no language, he claimed, in which a double positive implies a negative. Unhappily for Austin, seated in the back row was Columbia University’s brash and brilliant Sidney Morgenbesser, a master of the sharp and trenchant retort, who called out dismissively “yeah, yeah...”
The late George Carlin made a career of forcing audiences to think about our unwitting use of language. He asked, “Why do we need a hot water heater?” When Carlin went to a book store, he asked the clerk where he could find the self-help section. “If I told you, it would defeat the purpose,” she replied.
About a million miles separates the ashram from the comedy club, but teachers of Zen oblige their students to recognize the limits of rationality and the value of insight and intuition by telling them joke-riddles called koans. “Two hands clap and there is a sound,” goes the most famous koan. The rejoinder is a second nonsensical, playful non-sequitur: “What is the sound of one hand?” Another Zen riddle obliges the student to examine the terms of the question and the conventions of language: “Where does the light go when it goes out?” The Buddhist joke pointedly intended to trace the limits of logic and thereby insulate us against taking our provisional ideas too literally because that path leads to a slippery slope that begins in censoriousness and ends, disastrously, in repressive ideology. As the funny philosopher put it to me gravely, “Philosophical nonsense taken too seriously engenders blindness to one’s own deluded state of mind, which allows all the other negative emotions to arise, flourish, and propagate.” He also explained that philosophy is “therapy for the sane.” In fact, Marinoff said, especially in this age of extremity, clarity can “render therapy unnecessary.”