Friday, August 28, 2015

The comedy keeps coming


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but while we’re on the subject of humor, here’s another mistake that is often made in discussions of it: failing to identify precisely which aspect of the phenomenon of humor a theory is (or is best interpreted as) trying to explain.  For instance, this is sometimes manifest in lists of the various “theories of humor” put forward by philosophers over the centuries.

In my previous post, I mentioned (and tentatively advocated) the incongruity theory, according to which we find something funny when it involves some kind of anomalous juxtaposition or combination of incompatible elements.  Other examples would be the superiority theory, which holds that finding something funny involves a feeling of superiority over and contempt for others; and the release theory, which holds that we find something funny when it involves release of tension or pent-up feelings.  (There are several other theories too, but I’m not going to rehearse them all -- you get the idea.)

Now, Aristotle and Aquinas are sometimes represented as putting forward yet another theory of humor, called the play theory.  The basic idea is conveyed by Aquinas as follows:

[J]ust as weariness of the body is dispelled by resting the body, so weariness of the soul must needs be remedied by resting the soul: and the soul's rest is pleasure... Consequently, the remedy for weariness of soul must needs consist in the application of some pleasure, by slackening the tension of the reason's study. Thus… it is related of Blessed John the Evangelist, that when some people were scandalized on finding him playing together with his disciples, he is said to have told one of them who carried a bow to shoot an arrow. And when the latter had done this several times, he asked him whether he could do it indefinitely, and the man answered that if he continued doing it, the bow would break. Whence the Blessed John drew the inference that in like manner man's mind would break if its tension were never relaxed.

Now such like words or deeds wherein nothing further is sought than the soul's delight, are called playful or humorous. Hence it is necessary at times to make use of them, in order to give rest, as it were, to the soul. (Summa Theologiae II-II.168.2)

While excess is possible here as elsewhere, Aquinas is clear that deficiency vis-à-vis humor can even be at least mildly sinful:

In human affairs whatever is against reason is a sin. Now it is against reason for a man to be burdensome to others, by offering no pleasure to others, and by hindering their enjoyment… [A] man who is without mirth, not only is lacking in playful speech, but is also burdensome to others, since he is deaf to the moderate mirth of others. Consequently they are vicious, and are said to be boorish or rude… (Summa Theologiae II-II.168.4)

You might say that for the Angelic Doctor, “chillaxing” can be positively virtuous (as opposed to neutral, let alone bad).  And since humor facilitates chillaxing, humor can be virtuous.

Now, this is often discussed as if it were a rival to theories of humor like the incongruity theory, the superiority theory, etc.  But it seems to me that that is not the case.  For Aristotle and Aquinas are simply not addressing the same question those other theories are concerned with.  Those theories are addressing the question of what makes something funny, of why we find it humorous.  But the “play theory” of Aristotle and Aquinas is not trying to explain what makes something funny.  Rather, it is explaining the benefits of humor in human life, its function in facilitating our psychological well-being.  You might say that the incongruity theory, the superiority theory, etc. are theories about the formal cause of jokes and other forms of humor, whereas Aristotle and Aquinas are concerned with the final cause of jokes and other forms of humor.  They are saying, in effect: “Whatever the factor is whose presence causes us to find certain things to be funny -- and we’re not addressing that -- finding things to be funny has an important function of facilitating relaxation of mind.”

To be sure, writers on humor sometimes point out that one can combine different theories of humor, but noting that in this case the theories in question are addressing entirely different aspects of the phenomenon -- a difference which, again, can be characterized in terms of the traditional and independently motivated distinction between formal and final causes -- allows for greater conceptual precision than just averring that more than one theory may contain elements of truth. 

Take another example, from Jim Holt’s little book Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes (which is great, by the way).  Holt reports on a 1998 discovery by UCLA researchers that, by stimulating a patient’s brain, the patient can be made suddenly to find all sorts of ordinary and unremarkable things funny.  Holt worries:

If, given the application of a little current to a spot in the brain, absolutely everything becomes invested with risible incongruity -- becomes, that is, a joke -- then how can humor pretend to be an aesthetic category worthy of philosophical analysis? (Baudelaire observed that the same effect could be produced by hashish, but never mind.) (p. 122)

As that last line (and the overall tone of his book) indicate, Holt isn’t really all that worried by this finding, so I hesitate to attribute to him any weighty thesis about the implications of neuroscience for the philosophy of humor.  But (given the neuromania rampant today) someone might seriously think that the finding in question somehow undermines the point of philosophizing about humor.  And as with other instances of neuromania, such a conclusion would be fallacious.  For here too, we have a claim which is not actually in competition with anything the traditional theories of humor are saying. 

For one thing, if the traditional theories are addressing formal and final causes, you might say that what the researchers uncovered were material and efficient causes.  In particular, they uncovered (some of) the material and efficient causes of the psychological state of being amused.  By contrast, the play theory is addressing the final cause of that psychological state (viz. to facilitate relaxation of mind), whereas the incongruity theory, say, is addressing the formal cause of the psychological state (viz. a perception of something as incongruous). 

For another thing, we need to distinguish between normal and deviant cases.  Neurologically induced hallucinations can tell you something about normal vision, since there are features they have in common, but it would be absurd to conclude from this that normal vision can be assimilated to hallucination.  The differences between the cases are hardly less important than the similarities.  By the same token, it would be absurd to suppose that all cases of finding something funny can be assimilated or reduced to what is going on in the case of a patient whose brain is being stimulated in such a way that he ends up finding all sorts of unremarkable things amusing.  This is a highly abnormal case, and precisely as such, it can only tell us so much about the normal cases.  Yet it is the normal cases that the traditional theories (the incongruity theory, play theory, etc.) are concerned with.

Of course, there are all sorts of nuances and qualifications that a systematic application of the Aristotelian four-causal approach would have to take account of, and I’m not addressing all that here.  Anyway, as in philosophy more generally, so too in even so esoteric a subfield as the philosophy of humor, the four causes continue to have application.  Funny, no?

106 comments:

The Masked Chicken said...

Dear Ed,

Perhaps you don't have the time, but this really should be the basis for an article. It would help organize some of the divergent research interests among humor scholars. ISHS puts out a newsletter:

http://www.humorstudies.org/ISHS%20Newsletters%20Online/Newsletter28_1.pdf

As for the stimulus effect, there have been a few such brain stimulation accidents over the years (I know of 3), some with mirth and some without. In fact, I wrote a paper on laughter that showed how this was possible based on a neuron model of the brainstem respiration system. The SMA (supplemental motor area) is the region they stimulated and this has reciprocal circuits to the pre-frontal cortex where humor processing is thought to occur. What the neuroscientists did not, apparently, realize is that they applied an oscillating AC voltage, and it is the oscillation that mimics script-switching, not the voltage.

St. Thomas describes what William Fry named a Play Frame - a state of mind willing to consider alternatives in a lightened mood (not a good summary by me - it is in his book, Sweet Madness).

It seems that the three theories you mention can be united into a single theory. I'm catching a bus, home, soon. If I have time, I'll explain, how.

The Chicken

Thursday said...

While excess is possible here as elsewhere, Aquinas is clear that deficiency vis-à-vis humor can even be at least mildly sinful.

In the case of feminists, it can be a fairly serious sin.

Thursday said...

Is it possible to distinguish different purposes for different kinds of humour?

In the category of low comedy, you'd have to put things like Airplane! or the Three Stooges. The point of this seems mostly to be what Aquinas is talking about: relaxation.

But in high comedy (Moliere, Shakespeare, even Wilde) there is some serious social or intellectual commentary being made, amid the jokes.

Then with satire (Juvenal, Swift, Waugh) you have some fairly pointed moral points being made.

thefederalist said...

Disclaimer: I am in that category of person who thinks puns are among the highest forms of humor, and the worse they are, the better they are.

Isn't there also often an element of delight in many examples of humor, different from the incongruity? I'm having a hard time coming up with an example of wordplay that doesn't involve some element of incongruity, but it seems that often a lot of the humor is to be found in the cleverness itself. Or is it the incongruity that even makes the cleverness visible?

The Masked Chicken said...

I am not a fan of neuromania, either, but sometimes one has to use the best tools for the job. How is it that delight and incongruity go together? They don't. The pleasure comes from finding a resolution to an impasse created by the incongruity. Basically, the ventrolateral pre-frontal cortex (vL PFC) is involved in the storage of proceedural actions as small neural groups or patterns called, structured event complexes (Woods, 2009) which are, essentially, the scripts of script-switching. There is a circuit running from the vL PFC to the dorsolateral PFC, which is involved in social hierarchy perception. There is a circuit running from there to the anterior cingulate cortex, which, along with the nucleus acumbens and a few other spots, are the pleasure complex. The PFC, also, connects to the supplemental motor cortex, which I mentioned, above, and is where the motor aspects of laughter occur.

So, starting a low voltage oscillation of the right frequency, say, from script-switching, or a social hierarchy switch, etc., in any of these regions, feeds back into the other regions and they are all simultaneously activated. Whether humor is triggered by pleasure, superiority, or incongruity, the other portions go along for the ride. Thus, any form of humor can be interpreted from the perspective of pleasure, superiority, or incongruity because they are all activated whenever humor is activated. This could not have been known until about 2009, because the social hierarchy region was only isolated, then. it was at that point that I realized one could unite the three major theories of humor into a single theory.

I built a model of script-switching involving real Hodgkin-Huxley neurons in the PFC a few years ago (I am very slow to publish) and presented it at an international conference. One gets a very clear result of switching between the two sub-populations representing the two scripts.

Script-switching, at about 5 Hz, coupled with respiration, created micro-inhalations and micro-exhalations within the respiration cycle, which may be the origin of laughter, if the model is correct. I resisted publishing the results of the laughter model for years because there was a hitch at the bottom of the calculated laughter curve which didn't seem right. William Fry sent me a copy of the respiration tracings he had made using lie detector technology and asked if I could come up with a mathematical model. This was about 1994. Mostly, my work sat on the shelf because I didn't trust it.

In 1999 at a humor conference, the German humor physiologist/psychologist, Willibald Ruch, presented a talk on the physiology of humor and he put up a slide from a paper done in the 1960's by Italian researchers measuring the pressure variations in the esophagus during laughter and it matched my model almost exactly. I showed him a comparison during lunch and he asked if I had published the results. I got permission from the original Italian journal to include the original pressure wave recording and compared it to my model directly underneath. They match up very well, including the hitch at the bottom of the curve. It was that hitch, more than anything else that convinced me to publish the paper. It, also, explained Fry's tracings.

Continued.



The Chicken

The Masked Chicken said...

Continued...

In July, at the latest international humor studies conference, some more neuro people from UCLA presented an fMRI study of the opposite issue - the creation of humor. They examined people in the act of creating humor. I haven't had time to digest the results, yet.

In my opinion, the smoking gun for these models should be a, roughly, 5 Hz oscillation in the PFC during the processing of humor. Unfortunately, modern fMRI technology averages over time and is about half an order of magnitude too slow to detect any such oscillations. Evoked potential studies do see activity, but it is a surface scan, so not really clear. The best way to detect the script-switch oscillation, if it exists, is with magneto-encephelography, which can do fast 3d imaging on the time-scale needed. So far, exactly zero studies have been done that I know of, however. Eventually, it will be. If the oscillation is found, then, cool. If not, back to the drawing board.

The Chicken

The Masked Chicken said...

Just a few more comments and then I will quit (I'm going to run out of battery life, anyways).

Up until a few years ago, no one knew how to even define incongruity, much less the notion of context, rigorously. Computational linguistic studies that attempted to detect incongruity used a feature-matching procedure that computed something called, semantic similarity, as a Euclidean distance in some metric space (it is still used, today in data mining). At the last international meeting of the humor society, in addition to there being more philosophical papers than ever, there were, also more computational papers, as well. Graeme Ritche came over from Scotland for the conference and his was his doctoral student, Kim Binstead, who created the first computer joke engine -JAPE, in the early 1990's. It was a template algorithm, basically, fill-in-the-blank from a large corpora of words and concepts (which had to be classified - which, fortunately, is built-in with the dictionaries used). I was one of the testers for the program. It worked, although many of the jokes were a little too punny. A few years earlier, when I was in graduate school, I talked to a famous computer scientist at our university, trying to explain my theories of humor and how they could be implemented on a computer (I was not a computer science major) and he said he would retire if anyone ever created a computer program that could create jokes. About 5 years later, Binstead did just that and she and I corresponded a great deal while she was working on the program, since I was one of the testers, and we both agreed on the method, which, if I recall, was similar to what I had shown the computer scientist earlier.

Sorry for all of the reminiscing. It is important to put some of the humor research in context, because finished books don't often tell the complete picture.

As the computational linguist, Christian Hempelman put it during the computational sessions, what computational linguists are doing is atheoretical - there is no theory from which they are working. They are just pattern-matching. I was in the audience when Robert Mankoff, editor of the cartoon caption contest of the New Yorker magazine and Dafna Shahaf, a computer scientist from Microsoft presented a paper on a computer program using AI that could judge the best entries 58% of the time, which, actually, was quite a feat. She (Shahaf is a woman) still, basically, used pattern-matching, with some statistical calculations. The pattern matching was for incongruities, but these had to be entered by hand and recognized by human observers. Still, no way to model incongruities. It seems strange to base a theory on something we can't even describe.

Is there a way to rigorously describe incongruities? I think so. Context, incongruity, and the like are human concepts, so it seems backwards, to me, to try to teach a computer how to recognize incongruities when we don't even know how we do it.

Well, how do we do it?

The Chicken

The Masked Chicken said...

I'm running out of battery life and I can't summarize about 5 years of research in a few paragraphs. Basically, it is possible to rigorously define the notion of context using a mathematical technique called Formal Concept Analysis, involves creating something called a concept table. One lists every attribute along the top, horizontally, and every object of importance, vertically, to form a table or matrix. Then, if an object just happens to have that particular attribute, it gets a 1; if not, a 0. Thus, one can define every object (which is an abstract term, because the object could be a concept or word, or image, or anything that represents something) in a context and by doing so, define the context. This produces a complete lattice structure, called a Formal Concept Lattice, from which one can see not only relationships between concepts, but, also, logical relationships.

Incongruity has a nice signature within the lattices -they show up as hypercubes. Thus, in theory. one can compare object, contexts, or attributes and define the degree of incongruity between any two objects, concepts, or contexts. I did this a few years ago, but the problem is that humans do not operate digitally, making yes/no judgment. Rather, they work with probabilities, so I had to develop Bayesian methodology, so that the attributes could be assigned as more and more information becomes available. Thus, the formal concept tables contain probability estimates, which are modified in real time as more and more information becomes available as the joke text unfolds.

Unfortunately, probability lattice theory is in its infancy, so no one knows how to generate probability lattices (although I have a way in the works). In any case, incongruity is a Bayesian process that is not static, but fluctuates as the text unfolds. Strong incongruity does not exist in humor, because there is truth content. Weak incongruity, of the statistical kind, is essential and does not interfere with truth valuation.

How do we process humor? We do it by inference. This involves Bayesian reasoning and connects really well with the neuro models. If I can, i might tie this all together, later. Battery is low. The technical way to rigorously define incongruity is by use of something called the Kullbach-Leibler Divergence, which measures how far away a model is from the real thing, or two things are form each other. That is the focus of my current research and there are really cool ways to actually model jokes using decision theory that anyone can use.

More, later.

The Chicken

JohnD said...

I'm sorry but I just can't help HOPING that each next post is going to be the post about Dr. Feser next book on Natural Theology!!!! Can't focus on humor in such a time of excitement!

Scott said...

JohnD:

Same here. Looking forward to it.

JohnD said...

Scott,

You have cool credentials (math & law). I feel like you need to start a blog as "Feser's bulldog".

Craig Payne said...

Of all the philosophers I know who really DON'T need someone else to be a bulldog for them....

John West said...

Thanks for writing the posts on humor.

Scott said...

No, Ed surely doesn't need a bulldog. And if he did, I wouldn't nominate or recommend me. ("Stand back, everybody! I'm going to try math.")

Glenn said...

Scott,

("Stand back, everybody! I'm going to try math.")

Was ist denn herausforderung?

After mathesis, math es (is) sencillo, no?

JohnD said...

Scott,

"No, Ed surely doesn't need a bulldog."

I distinguish. With respect to his family size and stacks of required reading, I would beg to differ! But with respect to the quality of his work, I agree with you.

Anonymous said...

OT: Looks like Bakker's Blind Brain Theory took another drubbing on a Whitehead site:

http://footnotes2plato.com/2015/08/14/response-to-r-scott-bakker-on-transcendental-phenomenology-and-bbt/

Seems like whenever Bakker runs into people he can't wow with his invoking of the "heuristics" boogeyman to eliminate intentionality the man behind the curtain is shown.

Santi Tafarella said...

Feser uses this post and his previous one on humor to segregate comedy from truth. He seeks to keep a wall of separation between: (1) incongruity and truth; and (2) diversion and truth. Such segregation diminishes comedy's metaphysical importance. If humor is kept on the side of harmless incongruity and is a mere diversion for one's leisure hours, it can't ultimately affect what's arrived at by abstract philosophical reasoning.

Gottfried said...

I see where you're going with this, Santi. You think Feser is trying to segregate comedy from truth in order to protect our great hero Putin from mockery. Actually, we couldn't care less about your malicious slanders. Go ahead and laugh. One day the mighty Putin will appear atop Twin Peaks astride a mighty stallion, bare chest glistening in the morning sun, to drive the gay and progressive hoards into San Francisco Bay. On that day, Santi, you will stop laughing.

Gottfried said...

Umm, those who haven't been following the "Marriage Inflation" thread should probably ignore my post above.

Gottfried said...

Also "hoards" should be "hordes." Damn.

Step2 said...

One day the mighty Putin will appear atop Twin Peaks astride a mighty stallion, bare chest glistening in the morning sun...

I don't know, this straight talk pinged fabulous on my gaydar.

Gottfried said...

Step 2,

The fact that in our culture a man can no longer publicly praise the glistening physique of a Great Man without some insolent popinjay shouting "gay!" shows just how much we need men like Putin.

Crude said...

In my previous post, I mentioned (and tentatively advocated) the incongruity theory, according to which we find something funny when it involves some kind of anomalous juxtaposition or combination of incompatible elements. Other examples would be the superiority theory, which holds that finding something funny involves a feeling of superiority over and contempt for others; and the release theory, which holds that we find something funny when it involves release of tension or pent-up feelings.

Are those theories all meant to be mutually exclusive? Or are they each attempting to nail down a theory about a particular type of humor, while not claiming the theory is exhaustive?

Santi Tafarella said...

Gottfried wrote: "I see where you're going with this, Santi."

Actually, just-Gott-fried, you missed it entirely.

The point is that Feser has made in this post the same intellectual error with comedy that he does with history, evolution, empiricism, and experience. He defangs comedy and brackets it away from metaphysics in such a way that it can be of no ultimate importance to it. It's yet another way that Feser shields his confident expressions of religious metaphysics from reality testing.

Comedy is dangerous to any CONFIDENT expression of metaphysics, for it lampoons pretense. Feser's pretense--his let's pretend game--is that human beings can see farther absent empiricism than in fact we reliably can; that metaphysics can be as confidently navigated beyond empiricism to sure conclusions as mathematics--and like mathematics, can be as self-enclosed, impervious to outside data. 2 and 2 are 4 and God exists. Nothing that happens in history can rattle 100% confidence in these conclusions. For the God conclusion, not even the Holocaust can rattle it.

Every major intellectual of the past four hundred years has seen the dead end that this sort of metaphysical castle building into thin air brings one to, and in rejecting it, intellectuals from Bacon and Voltaire on have also made ironic sport of it (I'm thinking of Candide as an example).

Voltaire's Candide speaks truth not just to power, but to truth. To truth.

Contra Feser, comedy and satire really are funny because they're true. Humor deflates and complicates; it speaks on behalf of the sorts of contending truths that religious metaphysics, in its seriousness and blinkered focus, tends to ignore, marginalize, and oversimplify. Humor is a weapon of democracy and experience, not miracle, mystery, and authority. Humor notices the marginal individual in the concrete, not just the abstract. It notices the individual as an evolved social animal; an actor in contingent history. Humor is subversive in that it makes the vantage of the outsider (the fool, the child, the fast food worker, the black lesbian) the fresh measure of all things; the vantage from which religion, God, and power might be judged--and found wanting. Humor is a form of critique that can be directed at any metaphysics that is in excess of sane measure and reality testing. ("The emperor has no clothes!")

Comedy is on the side of doubt, not certainty and religious metaphysics.

So Feser, as an Aquinastitionist (a neo-Thomistic apologist for metaphysical certainty, faith, authority, and superstition), is a 21st century version of Dr. Pangloss. He is a pan-glosser, dripping on all uncooperative hard surfaces (evolution, history, empiricism, experience, comedy, etc.) a shiny scholastic barrier that prevents religious certitudes from ever actually being touched by the hard-to-clean stains of reality.

His is the pose of the Wizard of Oz, the confidence man behind the curtain, and there's comedy in that, for here comes Toto.

Crude said...

Ed's talk about comedy brings something to mind: Ed O'Neill (Al Bundy from Married with Children) talking about his co-star's lesbian wedding.

And I think Ed's reaction there really sums up why comedy is something that the modern social liberal regards comedy the same way they regard guns: as something way too dangerous in the hands of anyone outside of their control, and if control can't be guaranteed, it's better to discourage it altogether, even ban it and punish the people who have it.

Humor is supposed to be wielded almost exclusively by those they deem worthy, and regarded as heresy when wielded by anyone else.

Really, listening to Ed O'Neill's pretty simple, straightforward reaction to the idea of two women dressed in tuxedos walking down the church aisle, it's easy to see why they regard unregulated humor with such dread: because modern liberal pretensions make for some supremely juicy targets. It turns out feminists are easy to laugh at, as is left-wing hero Bernie Sanders, as is...

Well hell. Most things.

Because, with the right skill, the right timing, the right lines just about everything is funny.

And as a guy who loves to laugh, I gotta say - I enjoy that. I enjoy Carlin, I enjoy Kinison ('You are in violation of John 3:16' is a line I use to this day.) I enjoy Rick and Morty, I enjoy Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and more.

You know. Laughter. Mirth. Rather the point of comedy. It's why people enjoy it.

But here's a bit of contextual comedy. Ed's pointed out that comedy involves, you know... mirth. Pleasure. Willful, good-natured, natural-reaction laughing. I've pointed it out. I dare say, most human beings would point it out. 'Humor is entertainment, it's about saying or doing something funny and getting laughs.'

Meanwhile we've got (let's be frank) the common SJW 'job who managed to bloviate at length about comedy, and who did this while near-completely avoiding acknowledgment of the central role of mirth and entertainment in comedy.

The idea of humor, first and foremost, being meant to entertain is alien to this sort of person - which is why they attack it so aggressively. After all, humor is all about subversively undermining metaphysical pretensions and democratically empowering the people's intellectual development.

Santi Tafarella said...

Dehumanizing and straw-manning me in the same sentence, Crude wrote: "The idea of humor, first and foremost, being meant to entertain is alien to this sort of person."

This sort of person. First and foremost. Hmm.

But contra Crude (and Feser and Aquinas), comedy reminds us that the truth is the whole; that it’s not just “out there,” but includes the too often ignored human subject.

Black lives matter. Gay lives matter. Women's lives matter. Egyptian Christian lives matter. Their perspectives matter. Their contingencies matter. Their voices matter. That's the serious side (the flip side) of comedy.

So in Feser's two recent posts on humor, he has missed something important: Comedy actually helps us reach the full truth of matters. Contra Feser, Aquinas, and Crude, it's not merely a healthy and temporary diversion to be taken in homeopathic doses between our otherwise serious efforts at reaching the truth. It is, rather, the flip side of truth; the counter-truths that get ignored.

For Crude, Feser, and Aquinas, the truth adheres to what's "out there." It's external to us. The subject (the individual) is essentially excluded from the equation of ultimate truth. The individual submits to the truth and is incorporated into the hierarchy of truth (essence before existence); he or she is not the truth. God is the truth. God is central. The individual does not get to speak back to the ultimate truth with a metaphysically important counter-truth. The individual cannot deflate truth with humor. Truth stands alone.

But with comedy, comedy is central.

Think of the name of the sole cable station devoted to comedy: Comedy Central. Humor's subversive power is on behalf of the marginalized. God isn't central. Wall Street bankers aren't central. Islamic imams aren't central. The Democratic Party isn't central. Putin isn’t central. Heterosexuality isn't central. Fox News isn’t central. Metaphysics isn't central. The Church isn't central. Confidence men playing theological "let's pretend" games aren't central. Comedy is central.

That’s subversive. Comedy is metaphysically important.

Brandon said...

It's one of those irregular verbs: I am being humorous, you are dehumanizing and strawmanning.

It's pretty clearly a strike against the 'powerful commentary' position that it seems always to be affirmed by the most pompously humorless participants in the discussion.

Crude said...

As an exercise, imagine Santi's latest being delivered in stern tone as a commentary track for the last link I gave. Except the song gets louder and louder. And Santi has to keep raising his voice higher and higher to compensate, until he's positively screaming 'HETEROSEXUALITY... ISN'T... CENTRAL..!' while cartoon characters belt out yet another cataclysmically loud round of dueling banjos.

Santi Tafarella said...

Okay, if you think my analysis of comedy is off-base, then what is your theory as to why conservative comedy is only sparsely encountered? Why are conservative comics such a rare breed? There are libertarians who do comedy fabulously (Tray Parker and Matt Stone; Penn and Teller; Dennis Miller), but where are the God and Country comedians? Is there a religious conservative out in the world doing stand-up as funny as, say, Margaret Cho?

It just seems to me that an anti-authoritarian, fiercely democratic, anti-religious metaphysical subtext lurks just beneath the surface of just about all comedy. If you're seriously religious, nationalist, or contemptuous of the multicultural masses, it just seems like there needs to be a lot of cognitive dissonance and bracketing going on to really enjoy 21st century comedy in a sustained way. The swearing and sexual innuendo alone would seem to be a deal breaker, and swearing and sexual innuendo in comedy are like huge planets drawing in debris. Comedy seems to have a gravitational relationship to profanity and uncomfortable subjects. Why is that?

And there are no jokes to speak of in the Bible. The only religion which seems to incorporate humor explicitly into its practice is Zen Buddhism, which is curiously atheist.

Crude said...

It's bizarre to watch someone give an explanation of comedy while strenuously avoiding the idea of laughter, mirth and human pleasure, and to have the entirety of humor basically be reduced to 'That which I interpret as advancing and undergirding my sociopolitical aims - which cannot be spoofed and the mockery of which is never, ever funny, sir, good day.'

Seriously, that so-forced-drama of 'Heterosexuality isn't central.' is something I'm still stuck on. Put another way, Santi - look, I'm actually interacting with you this time, just like you've been begging for! - do you realize how absolutely easy it is to mock you and your ideas, to get one hell of a laugh at your expense, and in this thread alone?

C'mon, say no and that it's simply not possible. Give us more unintentional comedy!

Brandon said...

In all fairness to Santi, his account of the special affinity of progressivism and comedy would indeed explain why 'progressive policy' seems so often associated with 'joke', and why 'Santi Tafarella' so easily brings to mind 'clown'.

Glenn said...

So anyway...

1. We were on our way to Jackson Hole, WY, and had to change planes in Chicago. Bording was to begin at 3:45pm, but at about 3:50pm there was an announcement. The flight was being delayed due to the sudden appearance of ants on the plane. It was not known where they had come from, only that they had suddenly arrived.

Maintenance was called, and an effort would be made to vacuum up the ants. A maintenance worker carrying a vacuum shows up about ten minutes later, enters the gate area, then goes on to the plane. She comes out about 15 minutes later. Is the problem solved? No one was saying. She leaves the gate area, and the canister from the vacuum falls out, and a slew of dust bunnies and piles of dirt spill out onto the concourse. Oops. But just then another maintenance worker in a cart was passing by, and she flagged him down. He stopped, got out, and swept up the debris. Had ants had spilled out as well? Were they successfully swept up? No one was saying.

There's another announcement a few minutes later. The ant problem, alas, has not been solved, and the pilot has refuted the plane because of the ants. (That's what was said: the pilot had refuted the plane.) So now we the passengers have to wait until another plane can be found. How long this might take no one is saying.

Some thirty minutes later, there's a third announcement. "I have bad news and good news. The bad news is we can't find another plane for you. The good news is that the ants seem to be in retreat. Maybe they're West Coast ants, and don't like the air conditioning. Whatever the reason, they ants appear to be in retreat, and the pilot has retracted his earlier refuting of the plane. The ants are tiny, not fire ants or anything like that, and most likely are not harmful. But if any of you are allergic to ants, or don't like the idea that an ant or two might possibly fall into your lap while the plane is flying, we'll be happy to find another flight for you."

a) I hadn't known it was possible for a person working in Chicago to have a sense of humor.

b) I also hadn't known that a pilot could refute a plane. But then I figured that if a geometer can bisect a plane, there's no good reason why a pilot in Chicago cannot refute a plane.

c) What I one day hope to see -- or at least hear about -- is a geometer retracting his earlier bisecting of a plane.

d) The above just happened to have taken place in Chicago, and -- honestly, I'm sure -- I've nothing against Chicagoans.

e) Seriously, it actually was both nice and comforting to know that the pilot refused (sp?) the plane because certain standards were not being met. Delays are annoying, true. But I'd rather be safe and annoyed, then not annoyed and unsafe.

2. Somewhere between Chicago and Jackson Hole, I took out my Sansa Clip and began to listen to an old time radio show. Before leaving on our trip, I had loaded a slew of The Whistler episodes onto the clip. I hadn't paid attention to the particular episodes I was loading, just loaded a slew of 'em at random. Well, whadda ya know. The first episode on the clip was entitled, The Doctor's Wife. Ha. "I wonder..." Well, no, the doctor's wife was not exactly young, pretty and adulterous. She was, in this case, young, beautiful, adulterous and murderous.

(cont)

Glenn said...

3. We're in Jackon Hole now, and my wife and I stop at a market to buy some sandwiches. I get roast beef and provolone on rye, and my wife gets salmon with cream cheese and kippers on a bagel. The girl behind the deli counter did something slightly out of the ordinary that wasn't noticed right away. Both sandwiches were cut in half, as might be expected. But my sandwich was cut in half before it was wrapped in the usual deli wax paper wrapping, whereas my wife's sandwich, as it turned out, was wrapped in Saran wrap before it was cut in half. We get to the register, and a young guy is busy writing in a notebook. Formulas cover the page. "Calculus, eh?" "Yeah, I'm brushing up, and I'm trying to see how much I remember." He rings up our purchases, then starts putting the items in a bag. And it was only now that it came to light that my wife's sandwich had been halved out of order. The guy picks up the sandwich with one hand by one side, and the weight of the other side caused things to spill out on the counter. He was very apologetic, and offered to have the girl make another sandwich for my wife. "That would be nice, thank you," said my wife. I then pointed to the now messy sandwich on the counter, and said, "The two halves are discontinuous." The guy says, "What was that?" I said again, "The two halves are discontinuous." He laughed, and said, "Exactly!" We go back to the deli counter, and the young girl is also apologetic. But merely as a matter of form, apparently. For after apologizing, she made it clear who was entirely responsible for the mishap with the sandwich. Referring to the guy at the counter, she said, "He's an idiot." She finished making another sandwich for my wife, wrapping it this one with Saran wrap only after she had cut it in half, and then headed for the register. As my wife and I were walking out the door, we heard her ask, "What happened to the sandwich?" Tempted though I was, I didn't linger to hear the rest of the dialog. (As for why the sandwich hadn't fallen apart when my wife had carried it from the deli counter to the cash register, my wife has small hands, and used both to pick up and carry the sandwich.)

4. None of this is meant to be relevant to the OP, just a bit of a spritz of Fabreze re the Santiation above.

Santi Tafarella said...

Glenn wrote: "As for why the sandwich hadn't fallen apart when my wife had carried it from the deli counter to the cash register, my wife has small hands, and used both to pick up and carry the sandwich."

Oh, so that's what e.e. cummings meant! ("in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me, / or which i cannot touch because they are too near...i do not know what it is about you that closes and opens [the sandwich?]...nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.")

Santi Tafarella said...

Crude:

I agree with you. Play is its own reason. Humor is its own reason. Pleasure is its own reason. But if you don't think this is subversive of metaphysical projects, simply ask yourself why the Catholic Church forbids masturbation.

Crude said...

I'm pretty sure Santi just told me masturbates while watching The Daily Show.

Before you scoff, just ask yourselves - doesn't this explain one hell of a lot?

Crude said...

Swinging on back to the humor topic itself...

As dull and dry as it would probably be, I'm kind of curious how a philosophical analysis of laugh tracks would go. Positively viewed? Negatively viewed? Is it really humor if you need a cue and what amounts to automated peer pressure to laugh? Would it be regarded as a deviant case of a sort?

Santi Tafarella said...

A laugh track functions as an attenuated Greek chorus, assisting the slow in keeping up. Basically the same as my role here with you guys.

Brandon said...

I think the best way to think of laugh tracks is simply as a particular kind of music track; like a music track, it serves to convey intent. This is one of the reasons networks started using laugh tracks, in fact (besides the fact that live audiences are unpredictable in how and what they laugh at, making it difficult to have a smooth performance) -- audiences change their viewing of a show like Hogan's Heroes depending on whether they see it as a serious show with comic foibles or as a comedy with dramatic highlights. What's more, as Hogan's Heroes also shows, audiences will tend to assume by default that anything to do with certain kinds of subjects is serious unless it is quite clear that is not. That's also why classic TV fantasies like Bewitched or The Addams Family have a nearly constant laughtrack -- the point is less to make the show funny than to underscore that the audience doesn't have to take any of it seriously. When we're joking about coffins in The Addams Family, we're only goofing off, guys; we kid, we kid.

Used in that way, they are not a proxy for the audience but a communication to the audience that it's OK to relax about it; when it fails, it's like someone laughing at his own bad jokes.

Crude said...

Don't worry, Santi - we know you're not worth taking seriously already. A laugh track would be redundant!

Brandon,

I think the best way to think of laugh tracks is simply as a particular kind of music track; like a music track, it serves to convey intent.

Oh, I understand the practical use of it, and the... call it signalling use. That's clear to me. It's more that I was wondering if philosophical analysis had any special considerations about canned laughter, I suppose. I'm having trouble putting my thoughts about it into words, but I guess one way to put it would be: is it possible for laugh tracks to warp the sense of humor? The best but still clumsy comparison I can think of here would be with eating. Eating is good - gluttony is not. We can warp our sense of appetite. So how about our sense of humor?

There just may not be much to say here topic-wise - it's just a hunch and some speculation that I was curious of.

DNW said...

"Black lives matter. Gay lives matter. Women's lives matter. Egyptian Christian lives matter. Their perspectives matter. Their contingencies matter. Their voices matter."



To whom?

Why?

How do you know?

Craig Payne said...

Okay, not to be too terribly vulgar, but does anyone else think it's odd that one post mentions Jackon Hole [sic], the next quotes e.e. cummings, the next veers to masturbation, and the next veers even further to masturbating while watching the Daily Show?

At least it wasn't while watching Onan O'Brien.

Crude said...

Onan O'Brien.

Man, all these years watching Conan, and I never once thought of that one. Damn. It's so obvious in retrospect.

Santi Tafarella said...

Crude says that laughter and mirth are "the point of comedy," and so he is making my point: humor is subversive. Humor is its own reason.

The target of humor can be left or right, and doesn't even have to address either faction to be subversive. It can be subversive of earnest feminists; it can be subversive of earnest monotheists EVEN WITHOUT REFERENCING THEM.

Whatever else humor is doing, it's Dionysian; it undoes Apollonian projects simply by dancing in the forest free of them--whatever the dance. It makes earnestness unimportant (no danger here).

So humor is always subversive because it falls off script. It doesn't attend to the right things at the right time rightly. Its response to situations is not just disproportionate to the situation, it actually directs attention to the wrong things.

Crude, Feser, and Aquinas are thus right that humor is a subset of play, but what they're missing is that play is not neutral. Aquinas is not needed here, but Emily Dickinson. She sharply nailed play as supremely subversive in one of her poems:

God is indeed a jealous God —
He cannot bear to see
That we had rather not with Him
But with each other play

This is Isaiah Berlin's tension between the hedgehog and the fox. The hedgehog earnestly knows one big thing (a big metaphysical or political truth to which the human subject supposedly ought to orient her life to), but the fox knows many little things, many supplements. These supplements subvert the hedgehog's myopia.

Humor is a foxy supplement; a counter truth to big "T" versions of hedgehog truth. Contra Feser et al., humor really is funny because it’s also true. Humor reminds us that truth is LARGER THAN GOD; that truth is the whole, containing even the most quirky vantages coming from the "least" of human subjects--and even when that vantage is focused on the most trivial of diversions.

To put it in gospel terms, the first shall be last; when you’ve done it to the least of my brethren, etc. That’s the subversiveness comedy achieves just by existing. When a black lesbian comic like Wanda Sacks steps on the stage, she’s saying, “I am in the house,” and she is invisible no longer; attention is paid. The truth is seen through her eyes (the fox), which becomes part of the truth, a truth now greater than God (the Hedgehog), for it contains both her and Him.

Santi Tafarella said...

Oops. Misspelled Wanda Sykes name, but my point is that, when Wanda Sykes as a black lesbian steps on stage, she becomes the measure of all things. Edmund Berke would not be pleased. It's too democratic; it's subversive of a traditionally royalist and hierarchical conception of truth and what is worthy of attention. When we laugh with her, we see her truths. It's akin to that painting of Norman Rockwell's (titled, Freedom of Speech) in which a blue collar dissenter with rough hands and darker skin than his compatriots (clearly he works out of doors and is not part of the white collar audience that surrounds him) rises in the meeting hall and is attended to. He is in the house.

DNW said...

"Santi Tafarella said...


"When a black lesbian comic like Wanda Sacks steps on the stage, she’s saying ..."


"Oops. Misspelled Wanda Sykes name, but my point is that, when Wanda Sykes as a black lesbian steps on stage, she becomes the measure of all things. Edmund Berke [sic] would not be pleased. "


Oops. Now, that's real driving-a-fork-in-your-own-forehead comedy. A fool fooling himself.

Gottfried said...

I'm sure Emily Dickinson and Sir Isaiah will be thrilled to learn they're the latest posthumous recruits for Santianism.

Anyway, I think it would be futile to deny that popular religiously orthodox stand up comics are a rare breed these days. Santi seems to take this as proof that comedy is on the side of the godless. But can any God fearing funny people be found? Even if we restrict our search merely to hopeless Catholic reactionaries, we find that it includes the two funniest (imho) major writers of the 20th century, Evelyn Waugh and Flannery O'Connor. So perhaps things are not so simple as Santi would have us believe.

*Note to the humourless: This comment may contain some sarcasm.

Crude said...

Alright, so keeping track here:

With Santi, we've gone from 'It's Comedy Central. Not Heterosexuality Central!' to 'I use Jon Stewart in place of Viagra', to now... something along the lines of 'The fat black lesbian on stage is bigger than a hedgehog (no kidding) who is also God. The hedgehog, I mean. Not the fat black lesbian.'

Still missing: any grasp of actual 'humor' from the guy. He's someone who would try to take a fart joke and explain it in five pages talking about how it's an act of defiance against the patriarchy and religion, which is about as convincing as the guy in the Popcorn Factory sketch.

DNW said...

Gottfried said...

I'm sure Emily Dickinson and Sir Isaiah will be thrilled to learn they're the latest posthumous recruits for Santianism."

We'll have to check with Berlin's "Two Concepts of Liberty" essay as to whether he stamped nihil obstat on Santi's positive liberty fetish. That is "Liberty", redefined as your mandatory attendance upon the neuroses of others, so that they may experience the joys of self-realization through your compelled affirmation.

It's an attitude Santians in general widely share, and is outstandingly exemplified by someone in the news recently: 'Please keep working out player...when the heads stop turning, it's AWFUL!!!'

As far as comedy goes there have been of course "conservative" comedians. One of the most famous in American history, was also famously conservative in many respects.

One might also argue, and surprisingly, that in one of the more popular comedy franchises in recent motion picture history, the "Scary Movie" style parodies, some at least were produced and directed by men who could be called "conservative" in some respects. At least two of them self-identifying as "Red Staters" in what appear to be non-ironic commentary remarks.

Santi of course admits that Libertarians don't hesitate to gore sacred cows.

But Santi's definition of the driving impulse and goal behind what he considers as comedy, i.e., a uninhibited and transgressive jockeying for a position of esteem and affirmation within a collective identity, is not likely to elicit much enthusiasm, or expenditure of energy, from those interested in liberty.

Unexpected incongruity seems funnier than joining in with an unbalanced personality as they rave at stuffed shirts.

In fact, there is nothing intrinsically funny about someone's abusively wailing for entre', unless you feel comfortable laughing at their neediness or moronic vulgarity. What was that Groucho opined about joining any club that would actually have him as a member?

And too, there are some things which might initially appear quite funny in the abstract, but which conservative sensibilities would likely prevent the average conservative from laughing at ; not because he sees life as intrinsically meaningless, but because he sees it as the opposite.

Crude said...

Gottfried,

Anyway, I think it would be futile to deny that popular religiously orthodox stand up comics are a rare breed these days.

Well, stand up comics are a rare breed, period, in some quarters. Remember that this entire topic came about in part because of the recognition that social liberals are completely humorless at this point, and regard actual comedy as kind of frightening.

It's not as if atheists don't get made fun of in all kinds of quarters. Or, for that matter, scientists, SJW sensitivies, and more. Reverence, period, is a detrimental with comedy, whether socially liberal or conservative.

Anonymous said...

Actually the late night talk show hosts on the major networks are all Catholic. Colbert, decidedly so (see the current issue of GQ). Not sure what Conan counts himself as these days, but his senior thesis was on O'Connor. There are certainly others.

And you can probably throw Percy in with Waugh and O'Connor.

DNW said...

Crude said...

Alright, so keeping track here:

With Santi, we've gone from 'It's Comedy Central. Not Heterosexuality Central!' to 'I use Jon Stewart in place of Viagra', to now... something along the lines of 'The fat black lesbian on stage is bigger than a hedgehog (no kidding) who is also God. The hedgehog, I mean. Not the fat black lesbian.'

Still missing: any grasp of actual 'humor' from the guy. He's someone who would try to take a fart joke and explain it in five pages talking about how it's an act of defiance against the patriarchy and religion, which is about as convincing as the guy in the Popcorn Factory sketch.

September 4, 2015 at 9:50 AM



I've personally never understood - or been able to appreciate - scatologically themed jokes.

I guess they are intended to elicit a "we are all just folks together" guffaw from the audience. But having seen plenty of horse shit piles in paddocks, and had my life's quota of mercifully brief encounters with gleefully self-stimulating .... retards .... if I may use such a word, Mel Brooks doing farts, or Steve Martin running in hand-flapping circles yelling about fellatio, just leaves me the feeling of looking at so much ... irrelevant road-kill.

DNW said...



"And you can probably throw Percy ..."


"There's no insulting someone from Michigan ..."

DNW said...



Or maybe it was "It's impossible to ..."

Crude said...

DNW,

I've personally never understood - or been able to appreciate - scatologically themed jokes.

Oh sure, it's not for everyone. Just like a good share of comedy. But if there's one thing more ridiculous than scatological humor, it's someone trying to word-soup the whole thing into a daring critique of transphobia or whatever else is the SJW flavor of the moment.

DNW said...

rude said...

DNW,

'I've personally never understood - or been able to appreciate - scatologically themed jokes.'

Oh sure, it's not for everyone. Just like a good share of comedy. But if there's one thing more ridiculous than scatological humor, it's someone trying to word-soup the whole thing into a daring critique of transphobia or whatever else is the SJW flavor of the moment.
September 4, 2015 at 10:40 AM "


I'm not sure that our own senses of humor are stable. When I was a kid starting college, Monty Python was being rerun on the local PBS. I watched a half hour of TV a week and that was it.

I thought it was the most hilarious thing I had ever seen. Shortly there was a virtual mania. It now seems tedious and reaching ... for the most part. Guess you had to have been there.

I remember the first time I saw Allen's "Love and Death" on some late night rerun. Parts of it left me laughing so hard my side hurt. I guess I thought the parodically muddled philosophical references were funny; as well as the cowardly vainglorious fumbler routine that he admittedly stole from Hope. The dueling scene still is worth a laugh. Too bad the that he's a perv. Dulls the humor.

Nonetheless, I was going to link to that last speech before he dances off beneath the line of coppiced trees, but YouTube's ads make it tedious and pointless.

DNW said...



Crude,

I failed to clear the "the", when I changed the sentence to a direct reference.

Read: "Too bad that he's a perv. Dulls the humor."

George LeSauvage said...

@thefederalist:

Disclaimer: I am in that category of person who thinks puns are among the highest forms of humor, and the worse they are, the better they are.

Isn't there also often an element of delight in many examples of humor, different from the incongruity? I'm having a hard time coming up with an example of wordplay that doesn't involve some element of incongruity, but it seems that often a lot of the humor is to be found in the cleverness itself. Or is it the incongruity that even makes the cleverness visible?


I think there is wordplay which gives pleasure, without really relying on incongruity. Two examples:

From Lehrer's "When you are old and gray":

An awful debility,
A lessened utility,
A loss of mobility
Is a strong possibility.
In all probability
I'll lose my virility
And you your fertility
And desirability,
And this liability
Of total sterility
Will lead to hostility
And a sense of futility,
So let's act with agility
While we still have facility,
For we'll soon reach senility
And lose the ability.


And one I expect any philosophy major to know (can't give the title for obvious reasons):

And now, if e'er by chance I put
My fingers into glue,
Or madly squeeze a right-hand foot
Into a left-hand shoe,
Or if I drop upon my toe
A very heavy weight,
I weep, for it reminds me so
Of that old man I used to know --
Whose look was mild, whose speech was slow,
Whose hair was whiter than the snow,
Whose face was very like a crow
With eyes, like cinders, all aglow,
Who seemed distracted with his woe,
Who rocked his body to and fro,
And muttered mumblingly and low,
As if his mouth were full of dough,
Who snorted like a buffalo --
That summer evening long ago
A-sitting on a gate.


I grant that the meanings in both do use incongruity for their humor, and quite blatantly so. That's not my point. I have in mind the way the simple repetition of a single rhyme has its own kind of humor, which I think is separable from the meaning. Part of it is just a kind of exuberant extravagance. (That's also a factor in Cleese's final speech in the parrot sketch.)

George LeSauvage said...

(continued)


There's another kind of humor, again not incongruous so far as I can see, which comes from really well done imitation. Usually we think of parody, where the joke is outright. But I'm really thinking of pure pastiche. An example is in Knox's Let Dons Delight (another case of humorless orthodoxy). After each chapter (each set 50 years from the previous) he follows with quoting a contemporary "source". And the ones I can judge, seem to me spot on. The Samuel Johnson passage, I swear, you could slip into Boswell, and no one would know it wasn't real.

Another type of non-incongruous humor - possibly related - might be a function of familiarity. Many comedy shows rely on just the appearance of a popular character, like Rosanne Rosannadanna, to get people laughing. OK, that's often a cheap way to do it, but haven't people here gotten a chuckle when the Socratic litany begins, with its horse trainers, ship captains, and carpenters?

While mentioning Socrates, is it incongruity which makes this funny:

Lys. I very much approve of the words of Socrates, my friends; but you, Nicias and Laches, must determine whether you will be questioned, and give an explanation about matters of this sort. Assuredly, I and Melesias would be greatly pleased to hear you answer the questions which Socrates asks, if you will: for I began by saying that we took you into our counsels because we thought that you would have attended to the subject, especially as you have children who, like our own, are nearly of an age to be educated. Well, then, if you have no objection, suppose that you take Socrates into partnership; and do you and he ask and answer one another's questions: for, as he has well said, we are deliberating about the most important of our concerns. I hope that you will see fit to comply with our request.

Nic. I see very clearly, Lysimachus, that you have only known Socrates' father, and have no acquaintance with Socrates himself: at least, you can only have known him when he was a child, and may have met him among his fellow wardsmen, in company with his father, at a sacrifice, or at some other gathering. You clearly show that you have never known him since he arrived at manhood.

Lys. Why do you say that, Nicias?

Nic. Because you seem not to be aware that any one who has an intellectual affinity to Socrates and enters into conversation with him is liable to be drawn into an argument; and whatever subject he may start, he will be continually carried round and round by him, until at last he finds that he has to give an account both of his present and past life; and when he is once entangled, Socrates will not let him go until he has completely and thoroughly sifted him. Now I am used to his ways; and I know that he will certainly do as I say, and also that I myself shall be the sufferer; for I am fond of his conversation, Lysimachus. And I think that there is no harm in being reminded of any wrong thing which we are, or have been, doing: he who does not fly from reproof will be sure to take more heed of his after-life; as Solon says, he will wish and desire to be learning so long as he lives, and will not think that old age of itself brings wisdom. To me, to be cross examined by Socrates is neither unusual nor unpleasant; indeed, I knew all along that where Socrates was, the argument would soon pass from our sons to ourselves; and therefore, I say that for my part, I am quite willing to discourse with Socrates in his own manner; but you had better ask our friend Laches what his feeling may be.


I think Ed was correct to be tentative in picking incongruity as a basis for humor. It does seem to cover the most ground, but not, that I can see, all. And I often feel people in these discussions get a bit Procrustean, stretching and cutting to make the evidence fit. Of course, I don't refer to here. Well, almost no one.

Mr. Green said...

Thursday: But in high comedy (Moliere, Shakespeare, even Wilde) there is some serious social or intellectual commentary being made, amid the jokes.

I wonder if this is really a different kind of humour — well, it’s different from slapstick, but I think you could argue that the comedy in such examples is still a kind of relaxation; specifically, an added layer to relax the audience so that the serious point goes down more easily. On the other hand, that suggests that the humour is something separate that is bolted on; but sometimes there is, say, an exaggeration in order to draw attention to some point, and the exaggeration is also humorous. But I think that still counts as a “relaxing” or pleasing aspect, since whatever the serious point is, it could presumably be made in a humourless, tedious way.


The Federalist: a lot of the humor is to be found in the cleverness itself. Or is it the incongruity that even makes the cleverness visible?

I think humour is a kind of delight, so the cleverer it is, the more delightful. Incongruity certainly highlights cleverness, since the less two things fit together of their own nature, the more clever one must be to find a way to unite them. An example like “What’s the vector, Victor?” does not reconcile anything incongruous, since there is no reason why somebody named Victor can’t work with vectors, but there is no reason why people who work with vectors should be named Victor, either. (Of course, that’s not an especially clever connection, so instead of being a thigh-slapper, it’s merely pleasantly amusing.)


George LeSauvage: (can't give the title for obvious reasons)

Oh, I never knew that poem was called “For Obvious Reasons”!

Part of it is just a kind of exuberant extravagance.

That sounds right. The connections are “extravagant” because they don’t need to be there (or, in the case of an actual incongruity, they shouldn’t be there), and yet they are.

But I'm really thinking of pure pastiche. […] The Samuel Johnson passage, I swear, you could slip into Boswell, and no one would know it wasn't real.

I think this supports the idea of jokes being little pieces of delight. We are pleased at the cleverness of an accurate impersonation, and in such small concentrated doses, that delight constitutes humour.

Many comedy shows rely on just the appearance of a popular character, like Rosanne Rosannadanna, to get people laughing.

Hm, I suppose that relies largely on anticipation?


Crude: it's easy to see why they regard unregulated humor with such dread: because modern liberal pretensions make for some supremely juicy targets.

When things that ought to be standard comedy thick-sidekick schtick — such as, say, not being able to tell the difference between men and women, etc. — is one of your seriously-held beliefs, is it any surprise that you might be anxious to redefine “humour”?


DNW: I've personally never understood - or been able to appreciate - scatologically themed jokes.

Some things aren’t funny, even if they have the form of a joke. Of course, taste is as susceptible to the ravages of original sin as anything else. Our literal sense of taste can think that over-salted, over-sugared [simultaneously!], over-chemically junk-food is appealing even though someone with more refined tastes would rightly judge it otherwise. Some things are too ugly to be delightful, and thus cannot really be humorous. Of course, as always, there are degrees. And even more than always, there is context. It’s not that there can never be genuine comedy in black humour, for instance, but the devil is in the details, and much proposed comedy really is simply inappropriate. (Proportion is paramount in art — recall that “humour” derives from the older, more general theory of humours, and something puts one in “good humour” if it balances the humours appropriately.) But Modernity is the assault of the ugly on the beautiful….

Mr. Green said...

Crude: is it possible for laugh tracks to warp the sense of humor? The best but still clumsy comparison I can think of here would be with eating. Eating is good - gluttony is not. We can warp our sense of appetite. So how about our sense of humor?

I think Brandon is (of course) right to say that a laugh-track is like musical accompaniment. (Snobs about laugh-tracks don’t say that music shouldn’t illustrate the emotional aspects of a film! To be fair, folks will complain about “mickey-mousing”, when a musical score ploddingly spells out every action on the screen — something that often happens in (older) cartoons (hence the name), where it actually can be appropriate, given their highly exaggerated nature.) Another practical justification for laugh-tracks is to give an audience time to laugh (instead of just having dead air while the performers wait for the assumed reaction from the viewers at home).

We should also note the distinction between a laugh-track and canned laughter: the former is often the reaction of a live audience. Including genuine reactions in a finished program is legitimate on its own terms; it is also often an advantage to the actors when they have a live audience to play against. On top of that, there is the genuine good of camaraderie in enjoying a performance, even when a viewer is sharing it with a disembodied pre-recorded audience.

Given any legitimate use, canned laughter can be substituted if a live reaction is not available for some reason — for instance, if a scene cannot be recorded before an audience, or to cover over gaps when the film is edited, or because it took multiple takes to get the shot and the audience was understandably not as amused the tenth time around, etc. In general, a show with an audience [’s reactions] is a different kind of show from one without (cf. debates about how audiences should react during classical concerts).

Of course, like any tool, a laugh-track can be abused. I suppose using canned laughter to pretend that a joke which flopped is funny is a sort of lying, though I don’t know how much effect that has on viewers. More morally problematic would be using laughter to encourage people to accept dirty [pseudo-]jokes or political standpoints as inappropriately humorous… although again, I’m not sure how much effect that has beyond the “normalising” influence without a laugh-track. Since the laughter is just one ingredient, I suspect that we need to look at any given program as a whole to judge its worth.

Scott said...

Mr. Green:

Oh, I never knew that poem was called “For Obvious Reasons”!

That's what it's called, but its name is "The Title." (And that's just what its name is. Its name is called "One I Expect Any Philosophy Major to Know.")

Of course the poem actually is "A-Sitting on a Gate." The tune, on the other hand…

Brandon said...

I'm having trouble putting my thoughts about it into words, but I guess one way to put it would be: is it possible for laugh tracks to warp the sense of humor? The best but still clumsy comparison I can think of here would be with eating. Eating is good - gluttony is not. We can warp our sense of appetite. So how about our sense of humor?

Like you, I wouldn't have much more than hunch and speculation on this particular point. But I think it's interesting that the parallel with music still holds: think, for instance, of music conveying heroism as used in propaganda, or sinister music in horror. So one can ask a similar question of the music, as well.

Santi Tafarella said...

I woke up this morning with a thought about humor in relation to Buddhism.
Other animals only release stress hormones under a present danger, but we do so in both recall and anticipation as well.

So it would seem that our human intelligence is a curse. It's frequently incongruous with our present reality. But look again. That very same intelligence that causes so much turmoil and overreaction in us also provides a method for managing it, and this was perhaps first explicitly noticed and articulated by the Buddha.

To remove from the inner lion’s paw the thorns of trauma, regret, present suffering, dissatisfaction, and anxious anticipation, you don’t need metaphysics, just irony. Irony.

When Buddha was asked who he was, he said, “I’m awake.” This was his way of saying that he was in on the joke of avidya—the belief born of ignorance that we have separate and permanent selves; that we’re not embedded in an ever changing cosmos largely out of our control.

And Buddha had a method for letting others in on this joke: close meditative attention to present experience.

And this happens to be how the comic writes her jokes.

This is why Buddha explicitly resisted metaphysical speculation. One can get relief from suffering and anxiety by attending closely, with calm detachment, to experience alone. Insight is the lotus blossom that rises out of one’s random experiential muck. No gods need apply. You simply don’t require metaphysics to cultivate an ironic relation to your delusive states. You just need a meditative practice.

Or a comic one.

Gene Callahan said...

OK, Santi, but in the end of one's meditative practice comes the divine light of the void: the goal is still God, even if some flippant Western atheists try to term Buddhism an "atheist" religion.

Glenn said...

Santi,

A pair of handy-dandy helpful guides for the intellectually insatiably curious [1]:

1. A handy-dandy helpful guide on how to get gored by a bison

Relevant details in this from June 3, 2015: 2nd Photo-Taking Tourist Gored by Bison in Yellowstone National Park.

Knowing how to get gored by a bison makes it easy to know not to get gored by a bison. Always willing to err on the side of caution (well, almost always), I thus upped the recommended distance of separation to about 30 yards. (And knowing the benefits of having a backup plan, I also shot a video rather than snapped a picture.) So, when the bison here got about that close, I imitated Snagglepuss, and exited stage backwards.

2. A handy-dandy helpful guide on how to be bored by a wanna-be buddhist

Being bored by a wanna-be buddhist is easier than getting gored by a bison; one needn't travel to Yellowstone National Park, only connect to the internet.

That said, how might one be bored by a wanna-be buddhist? A simple, two-step process is involved: a) read the wanna-be buddhist's proclamation that Buddha explicitly resisted metaphysical speculation; and, b) be cognizant of the fact that a person can implicitly engage in the very doing he explicitly resists. (A not wholly unrelated associative term from your shrill, bible-thumping fundamentalist past is 'hypocrisy' (which term, in a desperate attempt to make oneself feel better, can be replaced with or spun as 'irony'). [1])

Of course, one's response to the potential doldrums of being bored by a wanna-be buddhist need not be the same as one's response to the potential danger of getting gored by a bison. That is, in the presence of a boring wanna-be buddhist, one need not imitate Snagglepuss and exit stage backwards. One can, instead, simply pull back. After all, there is little point to wasting time and energy on someone who, in addition to not being ready, is neither willing nor able.

- - - - -

[1] Do you qualify?

[2] Check out, e.g., Hammett's so-called Flitcraft parable. ("I don't think that he was conscious of having stepped back naturally into the same groove he had left[.]") Oops.

Glenn said...

(s/b "...so-called Flitcraft parable...")

Scott said...

Apropos of nothing beyond the general topic of humor: doesn't The Flitcraft Parable sound like the title of a Robert Ludlum novel?

Glenn said...

Scott,

Ha. Actually, it does.

This just in: Ludlum originally was going to have Mr. Bourne conked on the head by a falling beam; but, man, Lillian raised hell, so he took another tack.

Which reminds me (and I'm being serious now): I remember being surprised to learn that Carlos the Jackal wasn't merely a fictional character.

Santi Tafarella said...

Whether we cultivate irony, wisdom, and calm detachment from the constant emotional and attentional clamor around us via meditation or humor, the goal is to get ourselves in a state of mind akin to the sublime, as when Pliny the Younger witnessed the sublime terror of Pompeii’s eruption, but from a safe distance. A safe distance.

And mistaking a rope for a snake--a common Hindu trope--works as a meditation on fear's relation to perception, and has the potential, in the hands of a Charlie Chaplin, for turning funny.

Thus, like meditation and the presence of the sublime in art, humor makes a space for contemplation and emotional detachment from danger. The witnessing self, which usually comes under the spell of the serious dramas surrounding it—and loses itself in them—recovers its strength by ceasing to cling to its narrow and habitual identity, disengaging from it, relaxing the mental grip, and observing existence’s otherwise unnoticed qualities and dynamics.

All three--humor, meditation, and contemplation of the sublime--zoom-in and out on the fires of experience, feeling the heat, but without actually sending the witness consciousness up in flames ("O Bikkhus, the world is on fire!" "O Pliny the Younger, your father by adoption, Pliny the Elder, is on fire across the Bay of Naples!").

Thus the two iconic images of the Buddha: a calm one (the Indian Buddha) and a laughing one (the Chinese Buddha). Flip sides of the same ironic coin. No danger. Not really.

Santi Tafarella said...

Gene said: "OK, Santi, but in the end of one's meditative practice comes the divine light of the void: the goal is still God."

No, not with Buddhism. The goal is the non-dual. No space without time, no light without dark, no speech without silence, no being without nothingness, no vase without void. These, being in dynamic relation in history are empty of independent selfhood; of self-presence (akin to Jesus emptying himself of godhood to enter history). Nirvana is samsara in Buddhism.

As for Buddhism and God, early Buddhism (and therefore the earliest traditions surrounding the Buddha) makes him out to be an agnostic, following a middle way, neither affirming nor denying God's existence, and insisting that his method for freeing oneself from suffering required attention to experience, not metaphysical speculation. The early Buddhist trope is the foolishness of not removing a thorn from a lion's paw until you've established exactly how it happened.

Later Buddhism, via Nagarjuna, works out a metaphysics grounded in the non-dual and emptiness, not being prior to, and independent of, emptiness.

Buddhism distinguishes itself from Hinduism by affirming, not the Atman (the self), but the anatman (no self) doctrine. All things in Buddhism--even the gods--are a mutually interdependent, dynamic, and unstable arising.

Santi Tafarella said...

The Catholic novelist Walker Percy, in his 1983 non-fiction book, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, is at once funny, existentialist, and actually pretty suggestively Buddha/Nagarjuna-like in contemplating the paradoxes and puzzles of the self and desire. Like Stephen Colbert, Percy was a Catholic writer who could do brilliant comedy.

Glenn said...

Santi,

>> Gene [rightly] said: "OK, Santi, but in the end of one's meditative practice comes the divine light of the void: the goal is still God."

> No, not with Buddhism. The goal is the non-dual.

Lol.

In order that the retort might make sense, it is necessary to: a) think of God Himself as being that which He is not (i.e., dualistic); or, b) believe that God Himself really is that which He is not (i.e., and again, dualistic).

Good luck finding a Thomist or a classical theist -- one who is at least mostly orthodox -- who holds that God is composite (which He'd have to be in order to not be 'non-dual').

As a side note, you seem to think that the 'non-dual' is attainable by making a purée of separate and disparate things. Such a purée, however, is naught but a muddle (and quite a non-translucent one at that).

In reverse order:

The early Buddhist trope is the foolishness of not removing a thorn from a lion's paw until you've established exactly how it happened.

Should one come across a lion with a thorn in its paw, however foolish it may be to pause and consider how the thorn might have come to be lodged in the paw, such foolishness pales in comparison with the foolishness of attempting to remove the thorn without first pausing and considering the risks involved (in approaching an injured animal (and especially one whose mouth can easily accommodate your head)).

Nonetheless, the intended point of the trope is obvious [1], and the point is well taken [2]. So I find it odd that one who makes it his business to frequently throw a snit fit over this, that and the other thing, should raise it. But perhaps you express it with the hope that, eventually, you might actually be guided by it.

As for Buddhism and God, early Buddhism (and therefore the earliest traditions surrounding the Buddha) makes him out to be an agnostic, following a middle way, neither affirming nor denying God's existence, and insisting that his method for freeing oneself from suffering required attention to experience, not metaphysical speculation.

How did the Buddha occupy himself whilst sitting under the Bodhi tree? By picking his toe nails?

It was via metaphysical ruminations during that time that he arrived at his conclusions re the cause of suffering, and how freedom might be had from (the kind of) suffering (which can be avoided). And, as has happened before, you overlook, ignore and/or reject the fact that three integral parts of his 'solution' are: right thinking, right attitude and right view.

(And if you think that Thomists, classical theists and other non-buddhists are not concerned with those three things, think again: the majority of the responses to your posts over these many months have been aimed at, at least, calling attention to the wrong thinking, the wrong attitude and the wrong view so frequently exhibited in your comments.)

- - - - -

(cont)

Glenn said...

** There isn't anything about the trope's point which is particularly profound, Buddhist or Eastern. A normal person is gone for the day, comes home, opens the door and smells gas. One's first thought might be, "Why was the stove (or boiler) left on?" or, "How did the pilot light go out?" But one's first instinctive reaction is to head for the stove (or boiler) to turn off the gas, and then open windows and doors for ventilation. Only then -- when all that can be reasonably done to address the immediate problem at hand indeed has been done (just like doctors, firemen, rescue workers and many others in emergency-type situations do) -- does one pause and attend to other things (such as, e.g., possible/probable cause(s)).

If there is anything particularly Buddhist or Eastern about the point, it is this: the immediate problem, i.e., the 'emergency', is our suffering in the world (which suffering in the world actually is mainly not because of the world (but because we misuse and abuse our minds (i.e., our intellects and wills) in our dealings with the world), and that we ought to be seeking 'enlightenment' rather than busying ourselves with worldly things.

But, then, this really isn't particularly Buddhist or Eastern, is it? And you learned the gist of it long before you turned your back on and rejected the religion of your upbringing. Remember? Christ told us to seek first the kingdom of Heaven (and only then would all else will be added unto us), and that the kingdom we should be seeking, i.e., His kingdom, is not of this world.

Glenn said...

(The double asterisk, "**", s/b "[1][2]".)

George LeSauvage said...

@Scott:

Mr. Green:

Oh, I never knew that poem was called “For Obvious Reasons”!

That's what it's called, but its name is "The Title." (And that's just what its name is. Its name is called "One I Expect Any Philosophy Major to Know.")

Of course the poem actually is "A-Sitting on a Gate." The tune, on the other hand…


I wish this site had up votes.

Santi Tafarella said...

Glenn:

Maybe it's helpful to clarify what Nagarjuna is saying. Nagarjuna begins his reasoning with an ecological insight: emptiness. What Nagarjuna means by emptiness is that nothing has an essential and independent existence. Echoing the poet John Donne, no person or thing is an island–and therefore can never just be. Everything that exists does so on the condition that other things be present.

Put another way, when you dig into a flower, you don’t find a flower. You find the veins of its leaves, the silky fibers of its petals, the green ooze coming from the cut stem. What you don’t find is the self-same flower through and through. You find parts that, combined, you call a flower.

Likewise with an individual. Peer down through the pupils of Marilyn Monroe's eyes (were she still alive), and you don’t find her behind there–only ocular equipment and a brain. Where’s Marilyn? She depends utterly on a very particular set of circumstances that are not Marilyn; she emerges (Venus-like?) out of the Great Sea of Prior Conditions, but not of herself. She is not something all by her lonesome, but dispersed into the system of contingent relations--including perceptual relations. Absent the right bodily, environmental, and perceptual conditions, Marilyn is not the self-same Marilyn she is at this moment. She's empty. Change conditions and perceptions, you change Marilyn.

Same with God. God is akin to the joke about the horse a peasant insists MUST BE in the locomotive. After hearing how the engine works, the peasant replies, "But there is a horse inside the engine, yes?" No. On being invited to look into the engine himself, the peasant sess no horse and says, "Oh, it must be an invisible horse."

The paradoxes of stand alone, self-same being prior to beings and nothingness ends up sounding an awful lot like nothingness.

Glenn said...

Santi,

Change conditions and perceptions, you change Marilyn.

Same with God.


That is to say: change conditions and perceptions, you change God.

Which in turn is to say: God is a function of conditions and perceptions.

I won't disagree that a person's idea or understanding of God can be a function of conditions and perceptions. [1]

I will, however, disagree that that of which one has an idea or an understanding is nothing other than the idea or understanding itself [2][3]...

...and I will claim that an idea or understanding of something can change without that something itself undergoing any change. [4]

I will also disagree that God Himself, i.e., that God as He is in and of Himself, is a function of conditions and perceptions -- that is, I will disagree that God is contingent. [5]

She depends utterly on a very particular set of circumstances that are not Marilyn; she emerges (Venus-like?) out of the Great Sea of Prior Conditions, but not of herself.

Most of the rest of us here likely would state it differently, but the essential idea is correct. Of course it is. And it is correct for, i.e., is true of, every creature.

Did you think it might be news, on this blog, that that which is created does not create itself?

- - - - -

[1] "The received is in the receiver according to the mode of the receiver."

[2] The term 'of' indicates a relation between a 'this' and a 'that'. If someone has an idea of 'X', then there are (at least) three identifiable entities:

a) someone who has the idea;

b) the idea itself; and,

c) 'X' (i.e., that of which, regarding which and/or pertaining to which an idea is had by someone).

[3] Since you say, "Everything that exists does so on the condition that other things be present", I will take it that you agree that that of which one has an idea or an understanding is necessarily something other than the idea or understanding itself.

(In fact, I am confident you won't disagree. And my confidence that you won't disagree is based on the fact that, in order to disagree, you'd have to contradict yourself and claim that an idea or understanding can exist on its own independently of anything else. Since the great lengths to which you go in order to avoid contradicting yourself is a matter of public knowledge, i.e., is widely known, I am confident you won't contradict yourself, and, therefore, that you won't disagree.)

[4] Snake, rope, 'nuff said.

[5] Since he argued that the existence of a creator of the universe is unintelligible, for in response to the positing of a creator of the universe one could ask who or what created the creator, Nagarjuna would disagree with the claim that God (should He exist) is not contingent. [5']

[5'] Nagarjuna, apparently, was farsighted: he could see what the GNUs would argue, but he couldn't see what Aquinas would argue.

Glenn said...

(...Nagarjuna would disagree with the claim that God (should He exist) is not contingent.

(Awkwardly phrased.

(The actual claim is, "God is not contingent," and is made by one who holds that God exists.

(The following is also awkwardly phrased, but it also seems to better convey the intended meaning:

(...Nagarjuna, who did not believe that God exists, would disagree with someone who holds that God exists and is not contingent, by saying, "I don't believe that God exists; but if He does exist, I would disagree that He is not contingent.")

Glenn said...

Santi,

God is akin to the joke about the horse a peasant insists MUST BE in the locomotive. After hearing how the engine works, the peasant replies, "But there is a horse inside the engine, yes?" No. On being invited to look into the engine himself, the peasant sess no horse and says, "Oh, it must be an invisible horse."

1. I will tell another joke (which is a compound joke (lucky you--three for the price of one!) with a Zen-like ending):

It would seem to validly follow from what Santi has said -- "What Nagarjuna means by emptiness is that nothing has an essential and independent existence. Echoing the poet John Donne [who neither came into being nor wrote until long after he had been echoed], no person or thing is an island–and therefore can never just be." -- that Santi's head, which is a thing, can never just be (still?), and, therefore is emptiness itself.

2. Possibly what you meant to say is, "God is akin to the horse in the joke about a peasant who insists that a horse MUST BE in the locomotive..."

But if that is true, then so too is the conclusion eventually arrived at: God, without visible presence, is in the locomotive (i.e., and to be only slightly less general, God, without visible presence, is in the natural substances of the locomotive).

a) "When [Aquinas] argues for God as first cause of the world...he does not mean 'first' in a temporal sense. His argument is rather that the universe could exist here and now, and at any particular moment, only if God is conserving it in existence, for anything less than that which is Pure Act or Being Itself could not in his view persist for an instant unless it were caused to do so by that which is Pure Act or Being Itself, to which it is related in a per se rather than per accidens way. In particular, anything which is in any way a compound of act and potency (as all compounds of form and matter are, and, more generally, as all compounds of existence and essence are) must be continually actualized by that which need not itself be actualized insofar as it is 'already' Pure Actuality. (See Aquinas for the details.)" -- The dreaded causa sui

b) "I answer that, God is in all things; not, indeed, as part of their essence, nor as an accident, but as an agent is present to that upon which it works. For an agent must be joined to that wherein it acts immediately and touch it by its power; hence it is proved in Phys. vii that the thing moved and the mover must be joined together. Now since God is very being by His own essence, created being must be His proper effect; as to ignite is the proper effect of fire. Now God causes this effect in things not only when they first begin to be, but as long as they are preserved in being[.] Therefore as long as a thing has being, God must be present to it, according to its mode of being. But being is innermost in each thing and most fundamentally inherent in all things since it is formal in respect of everything found in a thing[.] Hence it must be that God is in all things, and innermostly." -- ST 1.8.1

c) But you"re more of a "story" kind of person, so...

(cont)

Glenn said...

...from the Kena Upanishad (and for your consumption, delight and edification):

- - - - -
Once the gods won a victory over the demons, and though they had done so only through the power of Brahman, they were exceedingly vain. They thought to themselves, "It was we who beat our enemies, and the glory is ours." Brahman saw their quality and appeared before them. But they did not recognize him.

Then the other gods said to the god of fire: "Fire, find out for us who this mysterious spirit is." "Yes," said the god of fire, and approached the spirit. The spirit said to him, "Who are you?" "I am the god of fire. As a matter of fact, I am very widely known." "And what power do you wield?" "I can burn anything on earth." "Burn this," said the spirit, placing a straw before him. The god of fire fell upon it with all his might, but could not consume it. So he ran back to the other gods, and said, "I cannot discover who this mysterious spirit is."

Then said the other gods to god of wind, "Wind, do you find out for us who he is." "Yes," said the god of wind, and approached the sprit. The spirit said to him, "Who are you?" "I am the god of wind. As a matter of fact, I am very widely known. I fly swiftly through the heavens." "And what power do you wield?" "I can blow away anything on earth." "Blow this away," said the spirit, placing a straw before him. The god of wind fell upon it with all his might, but was unable to move it. So he ran back to the other gods, and said, "I cannot discover who this mysterious spirit is."

Then said the other gods to Indra, greatest of them all, "O respected one, find out for us, we pray you, who he is." "Yes," said Indra, and drew nigh to the spirit. But the spirit vanished, and in his place stood Uma, God the Mother, well adorned and of exceeding beauty. Beholding her, Indra asked, "Who was the spirit that appeared to us?" "That," answered Uma, "was Brahman. Through him it was, not of yourselves, that you attained your victory and your glory." Thus did Indra, and the god of fire, and the god of wind, come to recognize Brahman[.]

This is the truth of Brahman in relation to nature: whether in the flash of the lightning, or in the wink of the eyes, the power that is shown is the power of Brahman. This is the truth of Brahman in relation to man: in the motions of the mind, the power that is shown is the power of Brahman.
- - - - -

Santi Tafarella said...

Glenn,

Actually, I think Nagarjuna does anticipate Aquinas. Nagarjuna, in the seventh stanza of his Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness (translated by Tenzin Dorjee and David Komito), writes this: “Without one there cannot be many and without many it is not possible to refer to one. Therefore one and many arise dependently and such phenomena do not have the sign of inherent existence.”

In other words, God (the one) and the many (us) are both empty. If multiple beings need the one to meaningfully be said to exist, the one also needs those multiple beings to meaningfully be said to exist. It's a paradox that Thomistic metaphysics papers over rather than solves.

How does it paper over it? Well, if you "solve" the paradox of the one and the many by positing an unconditioned, transcendent God prior to the conditioned many (an unmoved mover), the paradoxes simply shift to what's going on internally within that "simple" unmoved being. A maximally existent, simple, self-same being through-and-through looks for all the world to be indistinguishable from NOTHING. An invisible horse.

Glenn said...

Oops; left off:

3. Since you like "systems of...relations", you might as well refer back to 2. a) and b).

Santi Tafarella said...

Nagarjuna would also say the one/many paradox applies to other things usually associated with God (how can you have maximal and independent good and beauty without evil and ugliness, etc.). The Tao Te Ching also reasons in the manner of Nagarjuna. Here's lines from the second purport (Stephen Mitchell's translation):

When people see some things as beautiful,

other things become ugly.

When people see some things as good,

others become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.

Difficult and easy support each other.

Long and short define each other.

High and low depend on each other.

Before and after follow each other.

I would say that from the logic of Nagarjuna and the Tao Te Ching, what one arrives at is something like Spinoza's idea of God, not Aquinas's.

Put another way, prior to the creation of the many, if God has a mind, and (S)he thinks about something--anything--which one then is God--the thinker or what appears to thought? Does God talk to Himself? "I think I'll make some of my Platonic thoughts into material form." Who's speaking and who's listening? Suddenly God is two (a speaker and a listener to himself). All this curious activity inside the "unmoved mover."

So where's God in this hive of activity within God? Suddenly, what is supposed to be one, simple, and self-same through-and-through is now holding in mind an object--an object of thought (a Platonic form). He is a subject contemplating an object of thought. He's no longer an unmoved mover. His thought is moving around an object of thought. But he's an unmoved mover. Hmm.

So even if you give the many thoughts of God no material form, and just make them objects in the mind of God, you've got the same problem as if they were created forms.

And what spurred this action of thought in God's mind in the first place? The regresses and paradoxes simply shift to the black box of God himself.

Which is why Spinoza and Vedanta make more sense than Aquinas. If you're not going to be a Buddhist or atheist, and posit The One as God, well then get on with it and pose the many--whether mental or material--as God manifesting himself (herself?) as immanent in creation.

Make the black box of God the whole cosmos + all logically possible Platonic forms. Make God basically Borges' infinite library. Throw it all in there: good, evil, beauty, ugliness, being, the many, nothing--all of it, emanating like white noise.

White noise.

The white noise that cannot be pinned down with a designation because (S)he is all of it is God. "The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao."

But then why believe in God (or Brahman) at all? Whatever is, is--and interconnected (and therefore empty of independent existence). But now we're back to Nagarjuna asking, "Why put forward the invisible horse within the engine at all?"

When Moses asks God, "Who are you?" the answer returned is, "I am that I am." Aquinas interprets this as an affirmation of unchanging, self-same, transcendent Being, but maybe it was God offering more of a shrug, translating to: "What you see is what you get." The I AM is all the colors emanating collectively as white noise. All of it. Auschwitz. Flowers. Homo nelidi. Harvey Milk. The Hubble telescope. Santi. Glenn. Derrida. Feser. All of it. All of it.

Even Richard Rorty.

Santi Tafarella said...

I like your Upanishad quote, by the way, but I also think it makes Nagarjuna's point: if Brahman exists, the one is actually indistinguishable from the many, and needs the many (as the many needs the one). What Hindus call the one or Being (Brahman) and Buddhists call empty (or zero) are hard to distinguish, pragmatically. One falls into silence in saying anything about them. And Vedanta has long been observed as more akin to Spinoza's idea of God, not Aquinas's, so it's hard to see why you would deploy it in support of Aquinas.

Anonymous said...

And remember, class, atheists are the most open-minded of all. They only accept their viewpoints after examining all the best arguments and evidence. Theists believe only for emotional reasons and don't care about the evidence.

I wonder if any variation on the above has ever been insinuated in Pigliucci's classes.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, wrong post!

Glenn said...

Santi,

It's a paradox that Thomistic metaphysics papers over rather than solves.

How does it paper over it? Well...


I think a more accurate statement about the matter is that Aquinas does not engage in the crappy logic upon which the existence of the so-called paradox depends.

Santi Tafarella said...

Glenn:

Think about what it would mean to simply and maximally exist in extent as one thing through-and-through before anything else existed. Where would you stand in relation to your oneness to even have a thought? ("I think I'll make a material universe out of all these Platonic forms swimming in my infinite mind--but where did these forms come from in the first place? They just popped into my head, I guess.")

So to think, you need to be a subject WITH an object of thought held before your mind. But if you were God before there was a creation (the One before the many), the moment you thought something--anything--it would now be you and this Platonic thought over here that you're thinking about. That's two things.

So now there's two things in God--you and your Platonic thought. It's just a short step from this paradox (if you want to retain the notion of God) to Spinoza (whether the thought is in the mind of God or made flesh by God is of no significance--it's all God)--and from Spinoza to Nagarjuna (why posit the invisible horse behind the train engine of existence at all? Who needs that hypothesis?).

There's a good reason a lot of smart people aren't Thomists. If the logic for God's existence as a simple being was as tidy and compelling as you and Feser try to play it, everybody would arrive, sooner or later, at Thomism. But they don't. It's because Thomism papers over the paradoxes by hiding them in God.

So intellectual history seems, instead, to be moving over the past four hundred years ever further away from Aquinas and toward Spinoza and Nagarjuna. And Auschwitz accelerates this.

Both logic and history render problematic the idea that the traditional God of western monotheism exists. Brahman, Spinoza's God, maybe--but why? Yahweh? No. Nagarjuna? Yes.

Emptiness looks more plausible than God--and why Buddhism looks ever more intriguing to educated Westerners.

Glenn said...

Santi,

Think about what it would mean to simply and maximally exist in extent as one thing through-and-through before anything else existed. Where would you stand in relation to your oneness to even have a thought? ("I think I'll make a material universe..."

Is that what they did to you? Got you to think of yourself or imagine yourself as God?

Or did come up with that on your own?

Glenn said...

Santi,

I like your Upanishad quote, by the way, but... it's hard to see why you would deploy it in support of Aquinas.

Well, the Upanishad quote hadn't been deployed in support of Aquinas.

1. I had said, "But if that is true, then so too is the conclusion eventually arrived at: God, without visible presence, is in the locomotive (i.e., and to be only slightly less general, God, without visible presence, is in the natural substances of the locomotive)."

2. Sans the parenthetical portion, the conclusion is, "God, without visible presence, is in the locomotive."

3. That conclusion is a statement, and as a statement is a particular instantiation of the more general statement, "God, without visible presence, is in X."

4. It was in support of the more general statement (which was not explicitly stated, but implied (by the particular instantiation)) that:

a) the quotation from Dr. Feser was offered;

b) the quotation from Aquinas was offered; and,

c) the quotation from the Kena Upanishad was offered.

5. This is primarily a philosophy blog, so the quotation from a philosopher, Dr. Feser, was offered first.

6. Aquinas and A-T topics are frequently mentioned or covered in the OPs, so the quotation from Aquinas was offered next.

7. I was speaking to you, but you seem to be not so interested in philosophy, Aquinas or A-T topics, and seem to be more of a 'story' kind of person (and one with an occasional leaning towards Eastern, or Eastern-like, matters), so I quoted from the Kena Upanishad, and did so last.

Santi Tafarella said...

Okay, Glenn, but I find your response odd to the philosophical issue I'm directly raising. It's not a philosophical response at all. You said (as if to blow blue pipe smoke onto the intellectual chessboard where I've obviously got you in an uncomfortable check): "Is that what they did to you? Got you to...imagine yourself as God?"

In other words, I've made a clear-as-a-bell critique of a key dubious philosophical move that Aquinas and traditional monotheists typically make--papering over and hiding the paradoxes and mysteries of good/evil, being/change, and one/many in the black box of God--and your response appears to be that it is impious to imagine one's way into the mind of God in the first place.

Thus you make my point. You're papering over the mystery. If you're not prepared to extend your empathy to the divine and imagine yourself as God (what it would mean LOGICALLY for an infinite, maximally existent, simple, and self-same being to think a thought about a Platonic object), then what you're doing is burying the mysteries and paradoxes of being/change that Thomism supposedly "solves" behind the Oz curtain of taboo thought and Dostoevsky's "miracle, mystery, and authority."

Let's be clear: The moment a simple and infinite being thinks a thought, there's no longer one thing, there's two (subject/mental object of thought). And there's no more self-same unmoved mover. God has moved. God has modified.

So if you posit this being as INFINITE, then God has undergone a modification within himself and become two (subject/object of thought), WHICH MEANS EITHER HE IS NO LONGER GOD, OR THE MODIFICATION HAPPENED IN GOD. IN GOD.

Spinoza opted for the latter move. Every modification of infinite being is a modification of itself. Thus God cannot be separate from His thoughts or his material creations. It's all God. There's nothing outside of God. Not really. A mental modification (God thinking about an object) is God, and a physical modification is God. It's all God.

You haven't told me why Spinoza was wrong to think his way into the notion of an infinite being and then play out the implications of infinite being to this conclusion. Every modification of an infinite being remains that infinite being, just in a different aspect. (This is also Vedanta, by the way. Spinoza just arrived at the same train station via a Western route.)

So why is this conclusion wrong?

And isn't this conclusion--all modifications of mind and cosmos are just modifications of the infinite being--another way of saying that everything--everything!--is a mutually interdependent arising (Nagarjuna's point).

I think Taoism, Nagarjuna, and Spinoza all took the one logical step further on that Thomism balks at: God is what we call the white noise of the cacaphony of multiplicity; the Tao that can't be named. God is the sum of every name, every modification in each moment; the non-dual that is the flip side of the dual. You really can't have one without the many. They somehow arise together and play out the logic of their "infinite structure" in a deterministic way.

This is why Einstein loved Spinoza. It's not a stupid position. Smart people--people every bit as smart as Aquinas--have noticed that Thomism gets off at one metaphysical train station too early, making important points, but not quite reaching the non-dual.

Glenn said...

Santi,

...your response appears to be that it is impious to imagine one's way into the mind of God in the first place.

There are sound reasons for holding that the doing to which you refer is impracticable.

But the doing of something, and the attempt to do something, are separate things.

And though the attempt to do what is impracticable can be described in terms of piety or impiety, whether that is the best or most accurate way to describe such an attempt is open to question.

If you're not prepared to... imagine yourself as God..., then what you're doing is...

...a) remaining sane; or,

...b) remaining eligible to be sane.

...Thomism gets off at one metaphysical train station too early, making important points, but not quite reaching the non-dual.

It can be safely said that many Thomists subscribe to the privation theory of evil.

Under the privation theory of evil, good has actual being and evil does not.

This is not to say that evil does not exist; of course it does.

But it is to say that, ultimately, evil exists only in a manner of speaking, i.e., that, ultimately, evil is the absence or deprivation of good.

So, if Thomism (to the extent it itself, and not just many of its adherents, can be said to subscribe to the privation theory of evil) does not reach the non-dual, it is only because it is with the non-dual that it starts.

That is, Thomism (to the extent, etc.) starts with the non-dual Good Itself (which it calls called God).

Santi Tafarella said...

Glenn,

Three problems with what you've said directly above:

(1) If, for reasons of impiety or avoidance of hubris, you think it's a bad move to imaginatively extend logic behind the black box of God and into Her mind--if that's a source of craziness for you (you would lose your sanity to do so)--then your Thomism functions exactly as I've suggested all along: it provides the appearance of sufficient reason going all the way down, but it actually just sweeps all sorts of paradoxes and problems into the black box of God. This is why physicists don't say, "Oh, Aristotle and Aquinas finished off Parmenides and Heraclitus; we're done puzzling over time and change. We've got these locked down with the grounding concept of simple Being prior to the beginning of multiplicity and change. The low-down is that there is a transcendent Unmoved Mover, pure actuality absent any unfulfilled potencies, which creates (as a whim?) less actualized and contingent beings with potencies." They don't do this because such a concept of God simply sets the problems of existence back a step, restating the paradoxes and puzzles that adhere to the real world, but without actually solving them. God simply becomes THAT TRANSCENDENT ONE WHO HAS NONE OF THE PROBLEMS OF MULTIPLICITY AND CHANGE WE SEE AROUND US--and who, for some unfathomable reason, made an imperfect cosmos of multiplicity and change.

(2) If in your last sentence above you've now reached the conclusion that God is in fact the non-dual, then you're a Vedantist or panenthiest of the Spinoza variety, not a Thomist.

(3) Saying that one could not remain sane if one attempted to apply logic all the way down to the mind of God is an admission of overall defeat: God is so thoroughly ill-defined by you that it is simply impossible to know why God does anything at all: out of necessity, a love of play, anger? Who knows. Nothing can be predicted from your God hypothesis because it is ill-defined. Virtually any state of affairs is possible under it. Even Auschwitz doesn't unsettle the thesis. God works in mysterious ways.

Glenn said...

Santi,

So tell us: what is it like to be God?

Glenn said...

Santi,

If, for reasons of impiety or avoidance of hubris, you think it's a bad move to imaginatively extend logic behind the black box of God and into Her mind...

There's an ancient joke which goes like this:

An Abderite, seeing a eunuch conversing with a woman, asked him if she was his wife. When he answered that a eunuch could not have a wife, he replied, "Then she must be your daughter."

Two interesting things:

a) your 'reasoning' not infrequently functions somewhat like that of the Abderite's, albeit inversely; and,

b) Abderite, according to one source, is a reference to Democritus, native of Abdera, and later acquired the generic meaning of "scoffer".

These two things lead to this modern version of that ancient joke:

A scoffer once asked a man to imagine himself as God. When the man, who thought the attempt possible but the actual doing impossible, said that that was impracticable, the scoffer replied, "Then you must think it impracticable for one to be led by what is known through natural reason to that which is above reason."

- - - - -

Btw, you Wittgensteinian response to the earlier question is appreciated. Keep up the good work.

Santi Tafarella said...

Since we're telling jokes now, here's one:

Two priests in a park are talking on a bench:

"Do you suppose there will ever be married priests?"
"Not in our lifetime. Perhaps in that of our children."

Santi Tafarella said...

Glenn:

You asked, "What is it like to be God?"

Aristotle already told you. He imagined himself into the uncluttered mind of a wholly existent, simple Being and concluded that, absent parts, such a Being could only contemplate one thing: itself. God is akin to the ouroboros. He is the ultimate narcissist; the ultimate mental masturbator.

Thus logically, God as supreme and simple Being, lacking potencies, is really not a person, but more akin to a gravitationally heavy singularity (black hole): The Great It attracts things to Itself, but shows no evidence whatsoever of having things to which It is attracted.

So a pure, self-same Being outside of time and space could neither think nor have objects of attention beyond its singular self. Logically, you need time, space, and objects of thought to, for example, build a syllogism.

Of course, Aristotle’s unmoved mover--as Strange Attractor--is completely incompatible with traditional monotheistic notions of God as a person with thoughts, will, preferences, etc. Putting Aristotle together with the Hebrew Bible is thus logically incoherent. But what we would call incoherence in any other context gets papered over with the term “mystery.” Whenever you hear the word mystery applied to God, you pretty much know you’re dealing with a logical contradiction that is being hidden in the black box of God. “Mystery” is religion-speak for an incoherence-we-choose-not-to-see.

Gottfried said...

He is the ultimate narcissist; the ultimate mental masturbator.

I can think of someone to whom this description would be better applied.

Glenn said...

"Do you suppose there will ever be married priests?"

Since...

a) there have been;

b) there are; and,

c) there will continue to be (married priests)...

...the only thing 'funny' about the alleged joke is the Magoo-like myopia of the one who claims it to be a bona fide joke.

“Mystery” is religion-speak for an incoherence-we-choose-not-to-see.

Well, we do see your incoherence -- how can we miss it? -- and you're still a mystery to us.

Santi Tafarella said...

Gottfried:

But then I would have to be of infinite extent. : )

Glenn said...

If you meant to say, Thus logically, God as supreme and simple Being, lacking potencies, is really not a person [as is commonly understood, i.e., like we creatures], then, somehow, you have managed to give utterance to a statement of truth.

Glenn said...

>> I can think of someone to whom this description would be better applied.

> But then I would have to be of infinite extent.

The ancient joke previously mentioned was lifted from the PDF file at the 4th link here. If you, Santi, look at the 25th joke in the PDF, in no time at all you'll see that your behavior is merely a newly minted replica of (very) old-fashioned behavior; and this is kind of sad (less because it is less than decent behavior, and more because, as a putative modernist, you're really an extension of a certain class of pre-medievals).

Santi Tafarella said...

The fact that Glenn didn't find my joke funny raises the question of why (or when) blasphemy or irreligious humor can be funny, and to help us here we need Feser, who wrote the following: "It is incongruity detached from any immediate danger that is funny,..."

I see Feser's observation as very important here, for detachment from immediate danger can entail, not just physical danger, but spiritual and social danger (threats of excommunication, hell, social exclusion, shunning).

Put another way, the question of danger becomes: What sort of anxiety related to danger—physical, social, or metaphysical (otherworldly)—is being discharged by humor, and for whom? That is, it’s not just the comic who must bring irony and freedom from fear to the table, but the audience.

From the audience’s side, the target of the comic’s humor can find that humor dangerous, treat it seriously, and thus not see it as funny. But the comic herself can decide she won’t let the danger of hell or social offense (or punishment if done under threats of violence, as with Charlie Hebdo) deter her from open expression, and those who share her audacity will then share her emotional distance from danger as well, and find her irreverent humor funny.

When Tray Parker and Matt Stone draw Jesus wrestling Satan, or Satan in hell, they're saying: We're not afraid of divine retribution; we’re emotionally detached from this metaphysical threat, and find hell to be a funny method that institutional religions use to keep people in a state of Stockholm Syndrome-like control (where love and threat are coming from the same source).

So if you laugh with Parker and Stone's absurdist representations of hell, you find it funny too. When a cartoonist draws Mohammad for Charlie Hebdo, she’s emotionally detached from the danger as well. Comic detachment, like the cultivation of meditative calm and wisdom under fire, can be a form of bravery; of a public existential choice in a heated situation.

Like a tightrope walker, the comedian is always risking danger "over the heads of her audience" (to echo a line from the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti). Part of the pleasure of humor is for the comedian to come uncomfortably close to audience taboos--but without actually crossing them.

How much truth can you hear, and keep laughing? That's part of the dare-game of comedy.

So just as a participant in a meditation class marks herself as someone on the way to enlightenment—a member of the sanga (Buddhist community)—so the comedy club audience member who participates in the collective laughter elicited by the comedian marks herself as a member of the doubting community--the ironic community--on its way to the expression of truths that often go unspoken or ignored. No sacred cows means no fear of sacred cows.

The physical world is burning and human communities are burning with seriousness and threat, but these don’t have to burn you. Like Buddha and the comedian, you can be awake, in on the joke. You can, at least when meditating or laughing, not come under the spell of the clamor and narratives of the dangerous and serious world. You can experience them in a state of ironic detachment and calm, enjoying liberating counter-truths from those affirmed by ethicists, teachers, advertisers, politicians, metaphysicians, confidence men, and religionists.

So there's more revelation in Monty Python than monotheism. Humor takes one much farther along the road of truth than theology. Riffing on Keats’ own aesthetic irony: “Humor is truth, truth humor. That is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.”

Glenn said...

The fact that Glenn [of all people] didn't find my joke funny...

...is a serious blow to your theory that the joke is funny.