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Humor & Philosophy in Simon Critchley's Book "On Humor"

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In Simon Critchley’s book, On Humor, Critchley admits that humor is an “impossible object for [the] philosopher” since “a joke explained is a joke misunderstood”. Though Critchley may be right that one can and should experience humorous amusement that never is to be reasoned or explained if one does go forth as Critchley does on the quest to philosophize humor it is revealed that through humor we are all philosophers. Aristotle said, “no animal laughs saves man” and much like this no animal thinks like philosophers.

The gap between animal and human is the place was comedy exists as well as philosophy. Critchley introduces us to the concept of “having” a body versus “being” the body. This ability humans have to detach themselves from their bodies allows for this act of observation. In both humor and philosophy people look at the world they inhabit and imagine it another way. Both Comedians and Philosophers ask the question why. Both question the authority and exist as social practices influenced by the public. Humor and Philosophy at their most basic level both ask the question why.

Why do human beings do what they do? Mary Douglas says that “‘jokes are anti-rites. They mock, parody, or deride the ritual practices of a given society”. Both philosophy and comedy make us question our unconscious habits, making the habitual strange and ridiculous, saying the unsayable, challenging conventions, challenging power. The Clouds by Aristophanes is a comedic play satirizing sophistry and philosophy fo the day. Socrates is portrayed as what he was sentenced for death for in 399 BC.

Aristophanes In The Clouds does just this pointing out ridiculous conventions and saying the unsayable. Both Philosophers and comedians share the common thread of a refusal to submit to authority. Especially in the art form of stand-up comedy. Both Lenny Bruce and Socrates were seen in public life as subversive and rebellious political figures in their own respected times. Underneath their perceived dissident attitude, there is a prioritization of the critical inspection of authority from both worlds of thinkers. Eddie Waters from the 1976 play, the Comedians says “he dares to see what his listeners shy away from, fear to express.

And what he sees is a sort of truth about people, about their situation, about what hurts or terrifies them, about what’s hard, above all, about what they want”. The same can be said for philosophers. Philosophers and comedians both use language as their medium. They both find power in the spoken word and delivery of those words in social environments. Practice is involved in both paths to becoming a great philosopher or a great comedian. Nonetheless the two present challenges to their audiences. They raise questions, paint alternative visions, and/or shine a light on things in a new way.

Both the audience of the comedian and the audience of the philosopher are refreshed and unsettled. They are both provoked to think and to put things in perspective. Critchley writes that “humor consists in laughing at oneself in finding oneself ridiculous and such humor is not depressing but on the contrary gives us a sense of emancipation, consolation and childlike elevation. The ability to create a joke or a philosophical pondering emancipates humans from their animality while also an ongoing expression of consolation for exploring the question of why that is.

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