Print Edition: April 8, 2015
Philosophy has a reputation of self-seriousness. While mapping out the conditions for living a good life, or the reasons for the existence of God, the stone-faced philosopher must derive truth from the most serious and rigorous of contemplations. There is no place for humour in the face of such a daunting endeavour.
It’s this reputation that Lydia Amir, associate professor of philosophy at the College of Management Academic Studies in Israel, contended with while lecturing on philosophy and humour in A233 on the Abbotsford campus, from 1:30 to 3 p.m. on Thursday, April 2.
“I’ve been quite lonely in writing about humour and philosophy,” Amir confessed. It’s a topic that has not gotten much traction in philosophy — so when she published Humor and the Good Life in Modern Philosophy last year, she didn’t expect the first printing to sell out in eight months.
Amir’s lecture offered an introduction to the findings in her book. There was in Greek philosophy a “comic tradition,” which included Socrates (the “comical philosopher”) and Democritus (the “laughing philosopher”). Even those philosophers (like Plato and Aristotle) who were not themselves comical — or at least weren’t given “comical” nicknames — found a place for laughter in their philosophies.
Though laughter has been the subject of much scrutiny, humour as a part of life has been largely ignored in modern philosophy. Humour, Amir argues, has hardly been given a place in the good life (the life that one would like to have) by post-Renaissance philosophers, with the exception of Shaftesbury, who argues that humour is what allows human beings to test ideas and claims, and Kierkegaard, who says that humour can be a barometer for finding one’s own ethical perspective.
Amir suggests that humour can be used as a tool to reach the good life, when used with the intentions of wisdom, freedom, and happiness. A pop-culture example of such usage can be found in stand-up comedians, who will often inject a healthy dose of reasoning with their joke, uniting truth-finding with cathartic laughter.
The most illuminating piece of Amir’s lecture came when she addressed how humour allows human beings to cope with contradiction. In reasoning, contradictions typically don’t make for a convincing argument, and are therefore avoided. And yet, human beings are contradictory. We want to be in love, but we also want to be free, Amir notes.
“The fact that you exist is comical,” states Amir at one point.
Humour allows us to see our paradoxical nature in all its quirky glory. While human beings may be rational animals, things get weird when we try to rationalize ourselves — and it can get pretty funny. And when we laugh, we understand ourselves in a way reasoning might not have been able to provide.
Given that her first book sold out so quickly, Amir might be spearheading a new intellectual movement within the field of philosophy.
Amir’s initial notes on humour and philosophy total up to over 2,000 pages, only some of which were used in the 400-page Humour and the Good Life. She intends to publish more books on the subject, which include writings on Deleuze and Nietzsche.