In my philosophical reading experience it is striking that some thinkers crack really good jokes. They are humorous and I laugh with them. Others are comical in their unyielding seriousness: difficult not to make jokes of.

Humor is not exactly what you think of when you think of philosophy. Hardly anyone reads philosophy to get a good laugh, and neither do I. But when philosophizing, joking surprisingly often lies just around the corner.

Those unexpected jokes often pinpoint the really sensitive issues.

Philosophy approaches you with such extreme demands. Demands for absolute certainty; demands for complete universality: demands for vantage points so primordial that they don’t even belong to life, but “precede” all tying of shoelaces and other trivialities that people are busy doing without reflecting.

The need to joke arises under the pressure of these demands.

The contrast between the absolute demands and the life that you nonetheless live becomes comical. You can then either persist in making the demands even more rigorously, becoming a comical thinker, or you can become a humorous thinker who cracks jokes under the pressure of the demands – to return you to life.

In this spirit, Derrida made the following joke of the absolutely certain human vantage point that Descartes thought he found in his cogito ergo sum:

  • “I breathe therefore I am,” as such, does not produce any certainty. By contrast, “I think that I am breathing” is always certain and indubitable, even if I am mistaken. And therefore I can deduce “therefore I am” from “I think that I am breathing.”

“Even if I am mistaken”: even if I am dead. Derrida’s joke opens up Cartesian certainty to doubt. Absolute certainty about my human essence that is compatible with my no longer being alive: how can it be “what I am”!?

Wittgenstein said that he could imagine a serious and good philosophical work that consisted entirely of jokes. I could imagine such a work beginning with Derrida’s joke.

The need to think can be a need to joke!

Pär Segerdahl

The Ethics Blog - Thinking about thinking