WORLD PHILOSOPHY DAY was on November 16th.
UNESCO designated the third Thursday of every November to be a day the world celebrates the… well, I’ll just let UNESCO explain it −
By celebrating World Philosophy Day each year, on the third Thursday of November, UNESCO underlines the enduring value of philosophy for the development of human thought, for each culture and for each individual.
Did you know that?
Nah, me neither.
Who really pays attention to philosophy these days, anyway?
At least that’s what you’d think if you watch t.v
I can tell you, I watched television all day on November 16th, and there was not one mention of UNESCO World Philosophy Day 2017.
I can tell you what they did talk about on the t.v., though – Louis CK.
For those of you out there who have no clue who Louis CK is, he’s a comedian.
Louis CK has – had a t.v. show.
He had a couple, as a matter of fact.
The reason, if you don’t know, why Louis CK has been in the news has to do with this:
That’s why Louis CK doesn’t have his t.v. show anymore.
I was − still am − a fan of Louis CK’s work. Show me any of Louis CK’s HBO stand-up specials, and I’ll laugh like I wasn’t aware that the jokes aren’t eerily too similar to the behavior Louis CK is accused of doing to women in real life.
Yeah, Louis CK is… problematic.
I watch a lot of comedy. Not just the highbrow stuff, either. I’ll laugh at the Three Stooges or an Adam Sandler flick like I don’t got no more than two functioning brain cells in my head.
I initially became a fan of Louis CK, not just because his comedy is funny or because his comedy is smart and witty, but because
despite the now-creepy comedy routine Louis CK’s jokes are philosophical.
That is, Louis CK’s jokes make you think – make you think.
The overwhelming presence of dick jokes in modern comedy might lead one to think that comedy can’t be philosophical, but comedy is no stranger to philosophy.
The ancient Greek philosophers Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics all wrote about comedy.
In Poetics Aristotle categorizes comedy as either farce, romantic comedy or satire. Aristotle says comedy, along with tragedy, epic poetry, and lyric poetry, make up the original four genres of literature.
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates criticizes laughter-inducing comedy, stating that laughter causes men to become irrational and to lose self-control. Laughter, according to Socrates, is to be avoided, because, says Socrates,
“for ordinarily when one abandons himself to violent laughter, his condition provokes a violent reaction.”
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote “Let not your laughter be loud, frequent, or unrestrained.”
The story goes that no one ever saw Epictetus laugh.
The Greek playwright Aristophanes wrote The Clouds, a satirical comedy about Athenian intellectuals and (specifically) the philosopher Socrates.
A scene from Aristophanes’ The Clouds:
I wonder what then would you say, if you knew another of Socrates’ contrivances?
What is it? Pray tell me.
Chaerephon of the deme of Sphettia asked him whether he thought a gnat buzzed through its proboscis or through its anus.
And what did he say about the gnat?
He said that the gut of the gnat was narrow, and that, in passing through this tiny passage, the air is driven with force towards the breech; then after this slender channel, it encountered the rump, which was distended like a trumpet, and there it resounded sonorously.
So the arse of a gnat is a trumpet. Oh! what a splendid arsevation! Thrice happy Socrates! It would not be difficult to succeed in a law-suit, knowing so much about a gnat’s guts!
That’s a joke about Socrates.
It’s supposed to be funny.
Hobbes, Descartes, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Kant also wrote about comedy.
I’ll tell you nothing is less funny than reading Kant analyzing a joke.
“For if we admit that with all our thoughts is harmonically combined a movement in the organs of the body, we will easily comprehend how to this sudden transposition of the mind, now to one now to another standpoint in order to contemplate its object, may correspond an alternating tension and relaxation of the elastic portions of our intestines which communicates itself to the diaphragm (like that which ticklish people feel). In connection with this the lungs expel the air at rapidly succeeding intervals, and thus bring about a movement beneficial to health; which alone, and not what precedes it in the mind, is the proper cause of the gratification in a thought that at bottom represents nothing.”
Did that make you think of something funny?
And, as anyone will tell you, Ayn Rand is nothing short of pure comedy.
Just as philosophers have tried their hands at comedy, comedians also dabble in philosophy.
Proving that comedy is more than just the standard fart and poop jokes, comedians have mined philosophical topics like existentialism, nihilism, and the absurd for comedic effect since mankind discovered that philosophy can be funny.
There really is nothing funnier than a good metaphysics joke.
Comedians use humor to observe and examine the human condition, something that philosophy is sorely lacking.
Wittgenstein was brilliant, but he wasn’t funny.
Philosophy is at the center of the plot of the modern comedy classic, Groundhog Day, and in the films of Wes Anderson and Woody Allen*. Many fans of philosophy enjoy the philosophy- drenched comedic genius of Monty Python (FYI: some of the troupe’s most popular sketches are based in philosophy). Television shows like Seinfeld and Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm often feature philosophical themes. In stand-up comedy, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, Lewis Black, Louis CK, Patton Oswalt, Sarah Silverman, Mitch Hedberg, and Ricky Gervais (who actually studied philosophy) entertain audiences with jokes that not only make people laugh, but also make people think.
Prospect Magazine named Russell Brand the world’s fourth most influential thinker in 2015.
Yes. That Russell Brand.
Well, unless he’s telling a joke.
Then you can laugh.
Bill Maher’s stand-up often includes philosophical observations on religion and politics.
Comedians like John Oliver and Jon Stewart fill the role of public intellectuals.
Folks like the Sartre used to do that.
This is the reason why Chris Rock says that comedians are the last philosophers.
If that’s true, then Louis CK is the Diogenes of comedy.
That would also make Ayn Rand the Carlos Mencia of philosophy.
The Greek philosopher Socrates caused a stir in ancient Athens. He challenged the social order and angered the people. Socrates was the gadfly. Comedians are the modern gadflies.
When Politically Incorrect host, Bill Maher, less than a week after the September 11, 2001 attack on the U.S., stated:
“We have been cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly…Staying I the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.”
Maher did not merely challenge the perception of the terrorists responsible for the deaths of nearly 3,000 people, Maher questioned the notion of courage.
Courage, if you didn’t know, is an Aristotelian virtue.
Bill Maher also lost his late night t.v. show for what he said.
The late comedian Lenny Bruce rattled the chains of 1960’s conventional American society. Bruce’s comedy involved frank and open jokes about politics, religion, and sex − and like Socrates, Lenny Bruce was no stranger to accusations of vulgarity. Bruce was eventually charged with, tried, and convicted of obscenity.
…which is kind of like Socrates being tried for corrupting the youth of Athens.
In the end, both Socrates and Lenny Bruce paid with their lives.
But this is the thing: If philosophy was restricted to observations of people and the human condition, what Chris Rock said would be true. Comedians observe, often keenly so, but there’s no ontology; no ethics. Carlin’s Brain Droppings has bits of wisdom but it’s no Nichomachean Ethics.
And really, comedians shouldn’t be the new philosophers. Philosophers should be the new philosophers.
Why look to comedians for wisdom when there are plenty of folks out there who are doing philosophy who actually studied philosophy?
Unless that comedian is Chris Hardwick. He has a philosophy degree.
From UCLA, no less.
Slavoj Žižek, Noam Chomsky, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Daniel Dennett, Martha Nussbaum, Cornel West, Judith Butler, David Chalmers, Michael Sandel, Peter Singer, Christine Korsgaard, Alvin Plantinga, and Saul Kripke are just a few of the philosophers – living − right now − doing philosophy.
And it ain’t all navel gazing gobbeldygook, neither.
Sure, they may not be a funny as Louis CK…
…although it’s pretty hard not to laugh every time Žižek rubs his nose
And if you think philosophers are above sex scandals, forget it.
But if you’re contemplating the meaning of life, you might want to check out what Schopenhauer had to say about it.
At least check it out before you watch the Monty Python flick.
*There are many philosophical comedies – The films of the Coen brothers are good for philosophical movie watching. Heck, check out any Peter Sellers comedy.