Jokes and philosophy are an odd combination. Philosophy is mainly academic in flavour; full of terminology that locks most people out. Jokes make most people laugh. However Norman Malcolm wrote in Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, that Wittgenstein remarked “that a serious and philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes ( without being facetious )”. Jokes? Philosophy? Further investigation is required.
Jokes come in many forms: puns, funny gestures, pranks, irony, sarcasm, nonsense etc. Anything that in general makes us laughs. Comedians, of whom there are many fine examples, deliver jokes. Not a stand-up philosopher. Apart from a comedian’s sense of timing in delivering a joke, they can use gestures. Watch any clip of Tommy Cooper and you’re laughing before he speaks! All skills that a philosopher lacks.
However, Wittgenstein is clear: jokes need to be written down and therefore they must make the reader laugh without the aid of speaking or gestures. Some jokes that are delivered by a comedian can be funny in writing, in particular one-liners, for example one from Tim Vine “Crime in multi-storey car parks. That is wrong on so many different levels.” Wittgenstein also stresses that the jokes have not to be facetious. No “why did the chicken cross the road ?” type jokes. Also, he was not considering jokes about philosophers but rather about philosophical problems.
So what was Wittgenstein on about? It is difficult to image Wittgenstein laughing at a joke. He was mostly in a state of tension with periodic bouts of suicidal thoughts. Although there are some remarks in Wittgenstein’s work about humour and jokes, they are never developed enough to gain any insight.
Early in his life Wittgenstein read the philosophical works of Schopenhauer which may have influenced his ideas on the connection between jokes and philosophy. Schopenhauer’s view was that a joke lies in an object that can, at a stretch, be classified under a concept, even though it differs greatly from the objects usually classification. We laugh involuntarily when we grasp the inconsistency: when we see the object doesn’t really fit the concept after all. Sounds complicated but an example may illustrate what he is getting at. Amongst the many Spike Milligan jokes that makes me laugh is: “A man loses his dog, so he puts an ad in the paper. And the ad says, ‘Here, boy!’” The phrase ‘Here boy’ said within the context of a man walking his dog in a park we immediately understand without any problems or confusion, if not irritated when we are trying to soak up the sun. However when we move the context by placing the phrase in a newspaper we laugh at the inconsistency.
Wittgenstein’s view was that problems in philosophy arise when there is a failure to recognise that the words being used have lost their sense. When we come across a misuse of words, when they have lost their meaning, they could create an inconsistency. And rather than spending lots of time puzzling over the meaning of the sentence we should grasp it for what it is: nonsense, laugh, and move on.
So how would it work? My attempt is based on solipsism, the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist, and goes ‘A man thought he was the only person in the world, until he looked in the mirror’. Would Wittgenstein have laughed? Maybe not but I would hope for a wry smile.