When the Text Tickles You


Every once in a while it happens.

You’re reading a philosophy article or book, following the argument, monitoring it for mistakes or insights as you go along, and then something about the text gets you to crack a smile. You may even actually laugh out loud.

It could be a joke, a jab, an absurdity, a funny example, some clever wordplay, an amusing observation—even a well-crafted, seemingly compelling argument for what strikes you as a ridiculous conclusion: “hahaha there’s no way that can be right… now to figure out why.”

These little delights are sometimes glimpses of the person behind the philosophy. The humor we find in them may even tell us something philosophical relevant. At the very least they can make the reading experience more enjoyable.

Do us a favor and tell us about a bit of philosophical text that tickles you.


Related: “Bits of Laughing Matter“, “A Collection of Philosophical Humor

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Preston Stovall
1 month ago

From Russell’s “On Denoting”:

By the law of the excluded middle, either ‘A is B’ or ‘A is not B’ must be true. Hence either ‘the present King of France is bald’ or ‘the present King of France is not bald’ must be true. Yet if we enumerated the things that are bald, and then the things that are not bald, we should not find the present King of France in either list. Hegelians, who love a synthesis, will probably conclude that he wears a wig.

Last edited 1 month ago by Preston Stovall
taylor
taylor
Reply to  Preston Stovall
1 month ago

haha, i was 30 seconds too late to be the first to mention this joke

taylor
taylor
1 month ago

i ‘ha’ at russell’s joke about hegelians in On Denoting each time i read it

Punxsutawney Phil
Punxsutawney Phil
1 month ago

From Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s What Darwin Got Wrong:

“Stuff happens, as one well-known dinosaur remarked.”

Grad Student
1 month ago

From a footnote in Stalnaker’s ‘Context’:

“Robert Fagelin once started a paper on conditionals this way: ‘Linguists have remarked that subjunctive constructions are in the process of dying out of our language, and if this be true, it lends urgency to the enterprise of giving a proper account of them.’ A copy editor changed this to ‘if this is true,’ confirming not only what linguists have remarked, but also the suspicion, common to authors, that copy editors sometimes miss the point.”

Last edited 1 month ago by Grad Student
Daniel Muñoz
1 month ago

Who can forget the story of how epistemologists used to do business? Having offered to help you clarify how you know that p, they would gasp at your reasoning and declare that you don’t know it — or rather wouldn’t, if not for a reconstruction of your procedures invented by themselves. Then they would be gone, leaving you struggling to reconceive your relations to p along recommended lines.

Of course this, the style of epistemology Putnam once satirized as “intellectual Walden Two,” is now defunct. But the spirit animating it lives on. What the metaphysician offers to clarify is not how p’s truth is known, but what makes p true. Trouble is (you can guess the rest), a review of all likely truthmakers reveals that nothing does. Or rather nothing would, if not for a certain substitute truth-maker identified by the metaphysicians themselves. Whoever would persist in counting p true is thus forced to reconceive its truth as flowing from unexpected sources.

With apologies to Putnam, this approach to metaphysics might be called “ontological 1984,” in view of the Party’s penchant for tampering with the truthgrounds of everyday statements. Statements about the past, O’Brien explains, are true in virtue of what is preserved in records and memories; numerical claims owe their truth values to the Party’s stipulations. “You are no metaphysician, Winston,” O’Brien says when his prisoner boggles at some such revelation. Using the term in O’Brien’s sense, this paper explores some strategies for not being a metaphysician.

–Steve Yablo, “Singling Out Properties

praymont
praymont
1 month ago

“His words are: ‘I had a mind to know, from Prince Maurice’s own mouth, the account … of an old parrot he had in Brazil, during his government there, that spoke, and asked, and answered common questions, like a reasonable creature: so that those of his train there generally concluded it to be witchery or possession; and one of his chaplains, who lived long afterwards in Holland, would never from that time endure a parrot, but said they all had a devil in them.'” Locke’s Essay, “Of Identity and Diversity”

counterpart
counterpart
1 month ago

From Alvin Plantinga’s Warrant: The Current Debate:

You and I each hold a ticket for a valuable lottery; first prize is an all-expenses-paid week in Philadelphia. (Second prize, of course, is two weeks in Philadelphia.)

Chris
Chris
Reply to  counterpart
1 month ago

You forgot “As W. C. Fields remarked…”

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
Reply to  Chris
1 month ago

This is a bit rich coming from a guy in South Bend.

Zach Thornton
1 month ago

I’m teaching Jainism using Deepak Sarma’s Classical Indian Philosophy, a collection of primary texts. This passage from the translation of Hemacandra’s Yogaśāstra made me gasp when I read it:

“Manu gives [the following] derivation [of the word ‘meat’]: ‘The one whose meat I eat here [in this life], he is going to eat me in the next. This is the real meaning of the word “me-eat”.’”  (Yogaśāstra Chapter 3, passage 26.)

Siddharth Muthukrishnan
Siddharth Muthukrishnan
1 month ago

“This book is a congeries. Not indeed an incongruous congeries, as of congers and costermongers, but withal a congeries to conjure with.”

-Quine

This is the opening sentence of his review of Goodman’s Ways of Worldmaking for the NYRB

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
Reply to  Siddharth Muthukrishnan
1 month ago

Surely this is way over-written, trying way too hard to be clever.

Another Philosopher
Another Philosopher
Reply to  Tom Hurka
1 month ago

I usually admire Quine’s style, but this is by far the worst sentence I have ever read from him.

Siddharth Muthukrishnan
Siddharth Muthukrishnan
Reply to  Tom Hurka
1 month ago

Yeah, I didn’t intend to post this sentence as an example of good writing. But it is “ticklish” in the sense that it makes you kind go “Huh… lots of wordplay; let’s unpack that a bit.”

Brandon
Brandon
Reply to  Siddharth Muthukrishnan
1 month ago

I am a bit puzzled by people’s reactions. Sure it’s overwritten, but isn’t that the point? To have a bit of fun? Are we so dour that we can’t have a bit of excessive fun with words now and then? And I say this as one who usually doesn’t care much for Quine’s style.

Aaron Garrett
Reply to  Siddharth Muthukrishnan
1 month ago

Leave it to the New York Review of (our friends) Books to commission a review of a book by the author’s colleague.

Daniel Hoek
1 month ago

Here’s one I came across last week from Yablo (he is describing over-enthusiastic applications of the causal exclusion principle): “When an earthquake unexpectedly hits, and the buildings collapse, one property of the earthquake that seems relevant to their doing so is that it was violent. Or so you might think, until I add that this particular earthquake was barely violent. What with the earthquake’s bare violence being already causally sufficient for the effect, that it was violent made no causal difference. Surprising results! To the untrained eye, the redness and the violence are paradigm cases of causal relevance, but only a little philosophy is needed to set matters straight.”

Also since it apparently has not been mentioned yet, David Lewis responding to David Armstrong on necessitation: “I say that deserves the name of ‘necessitation’ only if, somehow, it really can enter into the requisite necessary connections. It can’t enter into them just by bearing a name, any more than one can have mighty biceps just by being called ‘Armstrong’.”

Last edited 1 month ago by Daniel Hoek
CDKG
CDKG
1 month ago

Just ran across this in Dave Chalmers’s new book:

“No doubt some people will still value the physical world greatly for its
own sake. The Australian singer Olivia Newton-John (perhaps paying
tribute to her grandfather, the great German physicist Max Born) famously
expressed a preference for physical reality, singing “Let’s get physical.”

Gorm
Gorm
1 month ago

“‘Why must that tower have such a long shadow? This terrace is so pleasant!’
His eyes turned to rest on me. My question had been rhetorical, but he did not take it so.
‘As you may already know, one of my ancestors mounted the scaffold with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. I had that tower erected in 1930 to mark the exact spot where it is said that he greeted the Queen when she first visited this house, and presented her with a peacock made of soap, then a rare substance. Since the Queen would have been one hundred and seventy‐five years old in 1930, had she lived, I had the tower made exactly that many feet high.’
It took me a moment to see the relevance of all this. Never quick at sums, I was at first merely puzzled as to why the measurement should have been in feet; but of course I already knew him for an Anglophile. He added drily, ‘The sun not being alterable in its course, light travelling in straight lines, and the laws of trigonometry being immutable, you will perceive that the length of the shadow is determined by the height of the tower.’ We rose and went inside.”
from van Fraassen’s Scientific Image
(the rest of the tale is worth reading as well)

Aaron Garrett
1 month ago

Argle: I believe in nothing but concrete material objects.

Bargle: There are many of your opinions I applaud; but one of your less pleasing characteristics is your fondness for the doctrines of nominalism and materialism. Every time you get started on any such topic, I know we are in for a long argument. Where shall we start this time: numbers, colors, lengths, sets, force-fields, sensations, or what?

Argle: Fictions all! I’ve thought hard about every one of them.

Bargle: A long evening’s work. Before we start, let me find you a snack. Will you have some crackers and cheese?

Argle: Thank you. What splendid Gruyère!

Bargle: You know, there are remarkably many holes in this piece.

Argle: There are.

Bargle: Got you!

Lewis and Lewis 1970

Aaron Garrett
1 month ago

“One of Butler’s great merits is to have pointed out dearly and conclusively the ambiguities of language which make it plausible. As a psychological theory it was killed by Butler; but it still flourishes, I believe, among bookmakers and smart young business men whose claim to know the world is based on an intimate acquaintance with the shadier side of it. In Butler’s day the theory moved in higher social and intellectual circles, and it had to be treated more seriously than any philosopher would trouble to treat it now. This change is very largely the result of Butler’s work; he killed the theory so thoroughly that he sometimes seems to the modern reader to be flogging dead horses. Still, all good fallacies go to America when they die, and rise again as the latest discoveries of the local professors. So it will always be useful to have Butler’s refutation at hand.”

C. D. Broad, Five Types of Ethical Theory (one of many)

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
Reply to  Aaron Garrett
1 month ago

Indeed just one of many. Broad was an inimitable writer.

Deborah Alame-Jones
Deborah Alame-Jones
1 month ago

I recall laughing out loud at this: “I cringe when I see young philosophers doing a smarty-pants demolition number in front of scientists, a talk that would go down like honey in a room full of philosophers but merely makes the scientists shake their heads in dismay.” ( Dan Dennett’s 2009
“The Part of Cognitive Science That Is Philosophy”).
It was the “smarty pants demolition number” that did it. I could just visualise the scenario.

tickled
tickled
1 month ago

From Peter Wolfendale’s “Essay On Transcendental Realism”, pages 12-13:

“For example, we can only have a genuine argument about whether ‘Bill Clinton is a ladies man’ if we both understand who Bill Clinton is, and what being a ‘ladies man’ entails.”

And from page 17:

“…language use depends on an ability to keep track of relations of anaphoric dependence between different uses of words. The simplest kinds of such relations are exhibited by uses of anaphoric pronouns within and between sentences, such as in the sentence ‘Bill Clinton is a ladies man, but he is a mediocre saxophonist’. Here there is a simple anaphoric relation between my use of the name ‘Bill Clinton’ and the pronoun ‘he’, where the latter gets its significance from the former. This is true regardless of who I pick out with the name ‘Bill Clinton’.”

Robert A Gressis
1 month ago

The Fregean theory of demonstratives claims, correctly I believe, that the analogy between descriptions (short for ‘definite descriptions’) and demonstrations is close enough to provide a sense and denotation analysis of the ‘meaning’ of a demonstration. The denotation is the demonstratum (that which is demonstrated), and it seems quite.natural to regard each demonstration as presenting its demonstratum in a particular manner, which we may regard as the sense of the demonstration. The same individual could be demonstrated by demonstrations so different in manner of presentation that it would be informative to a competent auditor-observer to be told that the demonstrata were one. For example, it might be informative to you for me to tell you that

That [pointing to Venus in the morning sky] is identical with
that [pointing to Venus in the evening sky].

(I would, of course, have to speak very slowly.) 

— David Kaplan, “Demonstratives”, p. 514

Meme
Meme
1 month ago

This is a bit of a stretch, but I love this juxtaposition in Benjamin Jowett’s translation of the Apology:

“SOCRATES: ‘And so Meletus proposes death as the penalty. And what shall I propose on my part, O men of Athens? Clearly that which is my due. And what is that which I ought to pay or to receive? There can be no more fitting reward than maintenance in the Prytaneum, O men of Athens, a reward which he deserves far more than the citizen who has won the prize at Olympia in the horse or chariot race’.

The jury sentences Socrates to death.”

*cue closing credits for Curb Your Enthusiasm*

Dramatic Pause
Dramatic Pause
Reply to  Meme
1 month ago

Incredible. I lol’d just reading your comment about it.

Balint
Balint
1 month ago

These are inflationary times, and the cost of nominalism has just gone up.

— Fred Dretske, “Laws of Nature,” Phil of Science 44(2): 268.

Matt L
1 month ago

“Reading the Socratic dialogues on has the feeling: what a frightful waste of time! What’s the point of these arguments that prove nothing and clarify nothing?”

  • Wittgenstein, in “Culture and Value”
Pageturner
Pageturner
Reply to  Matt L
1 month ago

That’s rich, coming from Wittgenstein. At least Socrates made arguments.

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
1 month ago

Kant: When someone who likes to vex and annoy peace loving folk finally gets a right good beating for his efforts, even he, if he’s reasonable, must admit justice was done to him.
I thought of this a lot in that brief cultural moment where many of my students wanted to know what I thought about the ethics of punching a Nazi.
I can’t remember the exact quote but Kierkegaard’s line about how he discovered his vocation of making people’s lives more difficult also cracks me up.

Matt L
1 month ago

Meatloaf once said that while other performers made it look easier than it is,
he made it look harder than it really is. Much the same can be said of this collec-
tion’s analysis of the morality of American drug laws.

Jerry Gaus, ending a book review of the book _Drugs and the Limits of Liberalism_.

Griffin Klemick
Griffin Klemick
1 month ago

From Mary Astell’s “Some Reflections upon Marriage, Occasioned by the Duke and Duchess of Mazarine’s Case…”

“Besides, it [would be] ridiculous to suppose that a woman, were she ever
so much improved, could come near the topping genius of the men. And
therefore why should they envy or discourage her? Strength of mind goes
along with strength of body, and it is only for some odd accidents which
philosophers have not yet thought worthwhile to inquire into that the
sturdiest porter is not the wisest man.”

Mark Alfano
1 month ago

Who can forget Nina Strohminger’s review of McGinn’s book on disgust?…

giulia
giulia
Reply to  Mark Alfano
1 month ago

that review was epic!

grad student
grad student
Reply to  Mark Alfano
1 month ago

That was amazing. Thanks for sharing this one.

Euan MacDonald
Euan MacDonald
1 month ago

The opening lines from Sorensen, “Unbeggable Questions”, Analysis (1996):

“Richard Robinson (1971) denies that there is a fallacy of begging the question. My rejoinder:

(A) There is a fallacy of begging the question.
Therefore, there is a fallacy of begging the question.”

Cal
Cal
1 month ago

Wittgenstein (PI §70):

Someone says to me: “Show the children a game.” I teach them gambling with dice, and the other says “I didn’t mean that sort of game.”

Rob Streiffer
1 month ago

“If you make a chair and then leave it out in the rain for several months, you will have caused it to be in dire condition. Similarly if you make a child and then leave it out in the rain for several months.” ~ Thomson, “More on the Metaphysics of Harm”

Rob Streiffer
1 month ago

“Both years [on leave] were pleasant and productive. They inspired in my son the ambition to be, when he grows up, a philosopher on leave.” ~ Stalnaker, Inquiry

Rob Streiffer
1 month ago

“If you make a chair and then leave it out in the rain for several months, you will have caused it to be in dire condition. Similarly if you make a child and then leave it out in the rain for several months.” ~Thomson, “More on the Metaphysics of Harm”