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A Sceptical Style: Wit and Laughter

Lecturer: Valery Vinogradovs

Originally Taught: Evening School Semester 2 2020

Watch Iceberg Slim interviewed by Joe Pyne in 1968.

Watch Dave Chappelle introducing Iceberg Slim’s memoir, “the capitalist manifesto”, named Pimp (1967).

Can we call such “cold” street narratives witty? If so, what makes them witty? What does the audience laugh at? Is it one and the same thing? Why do they tend to laugh, rather than, say, shed tears/feel disgusted?

Watch a ceremony of Tom Cruise accepting the Freedom Medal of Valour awarded by the Church of Scientology.

Customarily, philosophy is presented as a serious intellectual activity, leaving little room for wit, a form (and art) of judgement that is readily attributed to comic literature and performing arts, such as theatre, cinema, and circus. Philosophical activity typically capitalises on rationality and logic as a means of discovering and evaluating meaning. Interestingly, with regards to philosophies of self-fashioning, many seminal authors - recently: Foucault and Shusterman - argue that no well-rounded philosophical understanding can be achieved when the body and our aesthetic responses are neglected. A traditional philosophical inquiry gravitates towards establishing and entertaining a problem, a position, a belief, or a set of thereof, while an exercise of wit aims toward experiencing laughter, an embodied aesthetic response. It is not surprising, then, that neither wit nor laughter has been taken seriously enough in the history of philosophy and philosophical education.

This course aims to bring to light some of the space in this gap. Firstly, it seeks to show that wit - channeled in irony, satire, pun, farce, parody, or slapstick - is an underplayed sceptical weapon. It’s one that has a distinctive, fearless access to philosophical problems; one that is often indispensable in exposing errors in thinking and, more broadly, matters of culture; one that shows, against all odds, that philosophy can and should be funny when it is appropriate. Secondly, the course will explore the varieties of laughter - e.g. gentle, hysterical, cheerful, vulgar, empty - as vital expressions of one’s interpretation of the world and, consequently, her/his individuality. Not only problems and beliefs can be empty. Laughter is an awareness, a life-affirming force. Different kinds of life are affirmed as we laugh. An example: laughing at Iceberg Slim’s story of the exploited, yet troublingly grateful sex worker. Or the women of Greece laughing, having captured the Acropolis. Or the laughter of the self-proclaimed midwife, Socrates, a half-fictional man, inducing the dreams of an examined life.

Mindful of the unprecedented and uncertain current global circumstances, our course will patiently traverse a vast terrain intersecting philosophy with literature and other arts, on a journey to make sense of what is probably the riskiest of all survived sceptical jests, ‘perhaps it’s that, when nothing else from today has a future, our laughter is the one thing that does!’ (Nietzsche, BGE).

1. Lysistrata and Socrates: Comical Knowledge?

  • Aristophanes. 1973. Lysistrata. London: Penguin Books.
  • Plato. 1892. ‘Apology of Socrates’. In The Dialogues of Plato vol. 2. London: OUP.
  • Plato. 1892. ‘Charmides’. In The Dialogues of Plato vol. 1. London: OUP.
  • Tanner, Sonya. 2017. Plato’s Laughter: Socrates as Satyr and Comical Hero. Albany: SUNY.

2. Diogenes and Menippus: Classical Cynic Satire

  • Bosman, Philip. 2006. ‘Selling Cynicism: The Pragmatics of Diogenes’ Comic Performances’. The Classical Quarterly, vol. 56: 93-104.
  • McLuhan, Eric. 2015. Cynic Satire. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Press.

3. Lucian: Roman Laughter

  • Lucian. 1905. ‘Philosophies for Sale’. In The Works of Lucian of Samosata, vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Lucian. 1905. ‘Dialogues of the Dead’. In The Works of Lucian of Samosata, vol. 7. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Beard, Mary. 2014. Laughter in Ancient Rome: on Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up. Oakland: UCP.

4. Erasmus: Proverbial and Colloquial Wit

  • Erasmus, Desiderius. 1982. Collected Works of Erasmus: Adages 1-100. Toronto: UTP
  • Erasmus, Desiderius. 1878. Colloquies. London: Reeves & Turner.

5. Rabelais: Fearless Wit and Humanist Education

  • Rabelais, François. 1685. The works of Rabelais, faithfully translated from French, with variorum notes, and numerous illustrations by Gustave Doré. Privately printed with twenty additional new illustrations.

6. Montaigne: Idiosyncratic Humour as a Mark of Self-Knowledge

  • Montaigne, Michel. 2003. The Complete Essays. London: Penguin Press.

7. Shaftesbury: Wit as the Test of Truth

  • Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper. 1981. ‘Sensus Communis, an Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour’. In Complete Works. Stuttgart: Frommann-Holzboog.

Amir, Lydia. 2014. Humor and the Good Life in Modern Philosophy. Albany: SUNY.

8. Diderot: Enlightened Subversive Wit

  • Diderot, Denis. 1993. The Indiscreet Jewels. New York: Marsilio Pub.
  • Diderot, Denis. 1986. Jacques the Fatalist. London: Penguin Press.

9. Kierkegaard: the Comic and a Religious Existence

  • Kierkegaard, Søren. 1941. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. NJ: PUP.
  • Kierkegaard, Søren. 1989. The Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates. NJ: PUP.
  • Morton, Andrew. 2008. Tom Cruise: an Unauthorised Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

10. Freud and Bergson: the Unconscious, the Comic, and Phenomenology (with Justin Clemens)

  • Freud, Sigmund. 2003. The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious. London: Penguin Press.
  • Bergson, Henri. 2005. Laughter: an Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. New York: Dover.

11. Old New Trends: Horror and Feminism

  • Morreall, John. 1983. Taking Laughter Seriously. Albany: SUNY.
  • Carroll, Noël. ‘Horror and Humour’. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 57: 145-160.
  • Willett, Cynthia, Willett, Julie and Sherman, Yael. 2012. ‘The Seriously Erotic Politics of Feminist Laughter’. Social Research, vol. 79: 217-246.

12. Nietzsche: Immortal Laughter

  • Nietzsche, Friedrich. 2002. Beyond Good and Evil. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich. 2007. The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, and Other Writings. Cambridge: CUP.