Humor can open doors to new worlds and new ways of thinking. This is true now, as it was true before: contrary to popular belief, philosophers have used and studied laughter for centuries. “Philosophy was created as a response to ancient tragedy, and has many connections with the comic,” explains Lydia Amir, professor of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University. In books like Philosophy, Humor, and the Human Condition: Taking Ridicule Seriously (2019) and Humor and the Good Life in Modern Philosophy (2015), Amir uncovers a largely forgotten philosophical lineage, in which Socrates poisons himself to mock his executioners, and Plato, famous for expelling comedians from the Republic, defines true comedy as that which unmasks one’s own ignorance.
Along Amir’s guided journey, we learn that Aristotle considered the proper use of laughter a social virtue, and catalogued true wit as the hallmark of a free and honorable person; that the Cynics wandered the streets in broad daylight, holding out a lantern to “search for an honest man;” and that Epicurus advised us to laugh, philosophize and take care of our home, all at the same time.
During the Renaissance, Erasmus wrote a book of jokes. And for Montaigne — who claimed that absurdity was “a uniformly distributed property” — humor allows us to contemplate matters under a new light, which in turn can help us understand how all things have different aspects and different shades. For his part, Spinoza saw in laughter a careful attempt, not to mock, but to understand human passions; while Kant described it as “an affect resulting from the sudden transformation of a heightened expectation into nothing.”
According to Amir, the gradual split between philosophy and humor occurred when the former became increasingly enclosed in the confines of the academy, and as a discipline, opted for rationality and a focus on analytical clarity. “Humor is, in essence, ambiguous, and that’s why we chose to leave laughter aside when it came to philosophizing,” Amir explained, in a telephone interview with EL PAÍS.
Now, however, academia appears to be opening its doors to humor. This spring, the Complutense University of Madrid, the Panamerican University in Mexico City, and the University of Kent in England have all hosted academic gatherings on the topic of philosophy and humor. “Traditionally, laughter was considered a matter of popular interest — like emotions: far from the purity of philosophy — but now the discipline is starting to come down off that pedestal,” explains Javier Vilanova, professor of Logic and Theoretical Philosophy at the Complutense University. “The old intellectual prejudice against humor is giving way to an interest in its cognitive and pedagogical strategies, in how we might learn to think through philosophical laughter,” adds Saleta de Salvador Agra, a professor in Philosophy of Language at the same university.
The initiative has been well received by students — an unsurprising development, considering humor’s unique power as a tool of communication, and also, perhaps, given the popularity of the figure of the comedian, who, as Vilanova puts it, analyzes everyday life and takes contradictions to “to the point of absurdity and collapse.”
The success of stand-up comedy offers a good example of Vilanova’s point: A person with a microphone, on a stage, who in a kind of collective catharsis can make an audience laugh using a dose of crude anti-establishment criticism, and poking fun at the everyday miseries of human existence. George Carlin, a star of the genre, used to say that comedy is the popular exploration of truth. Spanish comedian Ignatius Farray tends to agree: “The three fields that focus on searching for truth are philosophy, comedy and crime novels, but, as Socrates knew, and as his method teaches, truth can only be called truth when it emerges out of cooperative dialogue.”
For Farray, author of Meditaciones (2022), the public pays for admission to a stand-up show so that they can peer into the abyss and listen to a comedian say out loud the things we often dare not face ourselves. A bit like philosophers who seek knowledge in solitude. In that space, we are pushed to go “a little past our limits, to find new spaces of freedom, to do the dirty work,” he says.
During that encounter, issues that challenge us as a community can be laid out on the table, like when the Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby spoke about the brutal violence she suffered in her homeland for being a lesbian: “I took everything I knew about comedy, cut it up, and created a monster from that corpse,” she told EL PAÍS’s Jaime Rubio Hancock.
With merciless humor, comedians can show us how we are being racist without knowing it, why we never learn from our mistakes, or how to face death. As Farray does, when he points to the “unresolved existential tension” between him and death, and jokes that on his tombstone he plans to write, “I could see it coming,” and that to trick death, just before that fatal hour, he plans to “play dead” so that death will hesitate, as if to say: “Do I have the wrong guy? Am I shaking the same hand twice?”
I read Kierkegaard
For years, the Spanish comedic duo Faemino and Cansado have made audiences erupt in laughter with their celebrated skit: “Qué va, qué va, qué va, yo leo a Kierkegaard (”Hey now, come on, I read Kierkegaard!”). The refrain gets at something deeper than a good laugh. As the Danish philosopher once wrote: “When I was young, I forgot how to laugh… when I was older, I opened my eyes and beheld reality, at which I began to laugh, and since then, I have not stopped laughing.”
For Kierkegaard, the tragic and the comic are ultimately the same thing: a contradiction. While the former is painful, however, the latter is an incongruity seen in perspective and, therefore, painless. In this way, the person who views something with a sense of humor can find a way out: the person is aware of the contradiction, and doesn’t know what to do about it, but is also no longer tormented by it.
Along these same lines, Amir proposes an ethics of compassion through humor: her thesis is that in human beings, all desires contradict each other, and are incongruent with reality, which leads to a tragic situation where we react with complete rigidity. The comic sensibility, on the other hand, knows how to see and live with duality and contradiction. “Realizing this irresolvable incoherence can bring us peace,” says Amir, who invites us all to adopt a self-reflective posture, by ridiculing ourselves (“but gently, and with forgiveness”). A form of salvation — precarious, holy — just within our reach.
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