Introducing Buffoonery and Being Whimsical: The Fun of American Philosophy

Four Confirmed Participants: Two Presenters, One Respondent, and One Moderator

Panel Abstract:

"Having a sense of humor affects one's life globally; one does not take everything tragically or earnestly; one looks on the light side; one mutes misfortune with jokes – having a sense of humor is almost like having a philosophy."
Arthur C. Danto

Inspired by the notion that a sense of humor may be considered a philosophical attitude, the purpose of this panel is to investigate the ways that humor might contribute to a theoretical outlook on life.  To accomplish this, we will focus on two philosophers that we find funny: Charles Sanders Peirce and George Santayana.  We do so because we are convinced that the fact that both thinkers were possessed of a wonderfully wicked wit is not merely a shared characterological quirk but essential to the formation of their respective philosophical visions.  That is, we will argue that appreciating their humor is key to comprehending their philosophies.  In this way, finding amusement in Peirce or Santayana's writing constitutes what Arthur Danto has called "a kind of ontological proof of its claims through the fact that it can be read in the way it requires." (1986, 159)  We find further justification for our focus in the historical research of Nathan Hauser, who reports that Santayana described Peirce as "whimsical" in his recollections of the influence on his own thought of Peirce's third Harvard Lecture.  It is in this lecture that Peirce apologizes for "introducing buffoonery" but immediately defends doing so by claiming that "a bit of fun helps thought and tends to keep it pragmatical."

To be specific, the two presenters will pursue our exploration of the philosophical role of humor in the following ways.  In "Helping Thought and Keeping it Pragmatical or, Why Experience Plays Practical Jokes," the first speaker will argue that Peircian pragmaticism  provides us with a compelling exploration of the connection between rationality and risibility, that is, between our capacity for amusement and our ability to learn from experience.  It is her conviction that, by virtue of both temperament and vocation, Peirce was uniquely qualified to take delight in envisioning "the method of our great teacher, Experience" as "a system of teaching by practical jokes."  She will emphasize that, in so doing, Peirce shows us that our failure to achieve lasting certainty is not cause for despair or nihilism but ultimately an occasion to find "saving truth" in our affinity with "the reason operative in experience."  In "'We Are All Mad Here': Santayana and the Significance of Humor," the second speaker will examine how Santayana uses humor as a means of playing the fool to philosophy's many Lears, exposing their epistemological delusions of power and domination over nature.  Drawing, in part, on the claim that subjectivity is "normal madness," the presenter will show how Santayana's naturalism incorporates a humble and playful outlook that, by virtue of its claims to human limitation, illuminates an important wisdom.  Santayana's own humor will thereby become the starting point to a general discussion on the philosophical role of humor that incorporates contributions from sources as various as Leonard Bernstein, Emma Goldman, and Enid Welsford, a noted writer on the social and literary role of the fool.          

First Paper Abstract:

Helping Thought and Keeping it Pragmatical or, Why Experience Plays Practical Jokes

Aristotle famously suggested that we are not only rational, but risible, animals.  I find it happily appropriate, then, that the pragmaticism of our American Aristotle, Charles S. Peirce, should provide us with a compelling exploration of this essential connection between our capacity for amusement and our ability to learn from experience.  By virtue of both temperament – "personality and pragmatism are more or less of the same kidney" (EP2, 134) – and vocation, Peirce was uniquely qualified to take delight in envisioning "the method of our great teacher, Experience" as "a system of teaching by practical jokes." (EP2, 154)  In this way, he shows us that our failure to achieve lasting certainty is not cause for despair or nihilism but ultimately an occasion to find "saving truth" in our affinity with "the reason operative in experience." (EP2, 212)  Or, so I will argue in this essay.

Taking direction from Arthur Danto's definition of 'style' as "the relationship between representation and the one who makes the representation" (1981, 198), I will begin by examining Peirce's description of the workings of experience, regarding as central his claim that "that which experience does is gradually, and by a sort of fractionation, precipitate and filter off the false ideas, eliminating them and letting the truth pour on in its mighty current." (EP2, 153)  Experience does this by means of  "the highly instructive" phenomenon of surprise.  Our ability to be surprised is thus crucial to inquiry because it reminds us that "what really is ultimately consists in what shall be forced upon us in experience, that there is an element of brute compulsion in fact, and that fact is not a mere question of reasonableness." (EP2, 178)  (As Peirce cheerfully points out, this is why "A man cannot startle himself by jumping up with an exclamation of Boo!" (EP2, 195))  It is for this reason, moreover, that it is the surprising that fuels theoretical innovation: "nothing can possibly be learned from an experiment that turns out just as was anticipated.  It is by surprises that experience teaches all she deigns to teach us." (EP2, 154)  To be sure, surprises can be – and practical jokes always are – initially disconcerting.  Nonetheless, Peirce insists that we ultimately find immense value in happy surprises and successful practical jokes because, by curbing fantasy and promoting humility, they strengthen our practical attunement to reality.  In so doing, we come to regard the "pedagogic method" employed by "Dame Experience" to evince "her own affable and complacent nature." (EP2, 194)1

Heeding Danto's proviso that "only in an act of ruthless but necessary abstraction can we sunder style from substance" (1981, 198), I also aim to highlight how Peirce conveys his account of inquiry to his readers.  That is, I will argue that he practices what he preaches.  For, if the desire to learn requires an appreciation of the unexpected, and if such appreciation is, as John Morreall urges, the essence of amusement (1987, 130), then it is deliciously fitting that Peirce uses his wonderfully wicked wit to introduce and illuminate his major claims.  Consider, for example, the slyly mocking way that he chastises Hegel for his failure to acknowledge the ineliminability of brute fact: "Let the Universe be an evolution of Pure Reason if you will.  Yet if while you are walking on the street reflecting upon how everything is the distillate of Reason, a man carrying a heavy pole suddenly pokes you in the small of the back, you may think there is something in the Universe that Pure Reason fails to account for." (EP2, 177)  Or, think of his droll illustration of the dangers of blind allegiance to theory, with its correlative neglect of the kind of careful observation that we attribute to the artist, in his arguments against the assumption that 'pain' denotes a unique feeling: "But the majority of those who opine that pain is a quality of feeling are not even artists; and even among those who are artists there are extremely few who are artists in pain." (EP2, 189)    

In short, my objective in this essay is to show that not only the content of Peirce's account of inquiry but the means by which he teaches it to us – both the substance and the style – reinforce the dependence between cultivating a sense of humor and developing fruitful habits of investigation.  In this way, both the initial frustration we feel in first reading Peirce and the lasting satisfaction we derive from his originality and wit strengthen that cognitive flexibility definitive of both rationality and risibility.

1 I suspect that most contemporary philosophers will find troubling Peirce's genderizing of experience as 'she.'  (In large part, this is because it implies that the normal inquirer is male.)  I will address this concern in my presentation and suggest ways to soften its force.

Second Paper Abstract:

"We Are All Mad Here": Santayana and the Significance of Humor

The words in this title come from Lewis Carroll, not George Santayana.  And though they are spoken in Alice's wonderland by a grinning Cheshire cat, they serve well as an introduction to this, our everyday world, as seen through Santayana's eyes.  The madness depicted in Carroll's nonsense reality is not meaningless cacophony, but involves deliberate plays on the limits of logic, language, and social structure – tactics that make us laugh because they thwart our expectations.  Santayana would share Carroll's bemusement at our attempts to make reality wholly orderly and predictable.  He affirms reason – its structure and its productions – as a highly successful adaptation for the human animal to have come by, but he is just as interested in poking fun at our desire to exceed reason's scope and bring existence itself under our ultimate dominion.  In essence, Santayana plays the fool to philosophy's many King Lears, inverting their epistemological delusions of power and dominion over nature.

Santayana's philosophy is a tragicomedy, and to deny either aspect of this dramatic style would be to miss his point.  Both tragedy and comedy express the inevitability of human foibles and, in depicting our limitations, illuminate some important wisdom.  Whereas tragedy ends in misfortune, comedy overcomes difficulties (often due to some accident of fate) and ends happily.  Santayana's view of life encompasses both.  As he points out in "Long Way Round to Nirvana," our eventual fate is oblivion, but this is no cause for despair because this is simply the natural way of things: "The relapse of created things into nothing is no violent fatality, but something naturally quite smooth and proper" (Santayana 1936, 572).  The end of the human drama is inevitably death, which is, from one's personal perspective, tragic.  But in a wider scope, everything does turn out as it should, and the true tragedy is the human hubris in expecting something different.

It is in this sense of comedy – one based on a problem of perspective – that I plan to explain Santayana's humorous outlook, a sense that is well expressed by his phrase "normal madness."  In Dialogues in Limbo, Santayana characterizes subjectivity as normal madness in order to describe why, practically speaking, our best schemes to make sense out of the world are, at bottom, no more than adaptively meaningful illusions.  If our best accounts of reality are fundamentally illusory, it follows that the healthy, or sane, individual is not one who denies the hallucinatory nature of one's visions but who can acknowledge it in good humor.  If the truly mad person does not realize he is crazy, we might imagine the inverse to be a characteristic of sanity, just as Lear's fool is the one who is truly wise.

Ultimately, the purpose of this paper is to examine Santayana's playful attitude in order to discuss the importance of incorporating humor into a philosophical outlook.  To make this case I will not only appeal to Santayana's own work but will also draw on sources as various as Leonard Bernstein, Emma Goldman, and Enid Welsford, a noted writer on the social and literary role of the fool.  Bernstein, for example, in his essay "Fun in Art," not only refers to "fun" as the goal of Santayana's aesthetics, he also makes an excellent argument for the place of serious fun in art and, by extrapolation, in life in general (Bernstein, 1982, 104-07).

If life ends in annihilation, we can bemoan the fact, we can try to overcome it by denying it or arguing it away, or we can accept it and have some fun with the paradox that our intimately valued existence is not valuable absolutely.  As I will argue, a smiling acceptance of this paradox is not admitting to a failure of life, nor need it be a retreat from its fray.  Rather, a humorous outlook on our natural fate affords us a humility by which we may put into relative perspective our otherwise totalizing aspirations, pursue a moral life without succumbing to moralism, and, ultimately, live affirmatively the life that we are given.  And when all is said and done and we dissolve like the Cheshire cat into nothingness, we leave the world with a wicked grin by which to remember us.