Is this some kind of a joke?

One of the problems that many students encounter, when reading older philosophy texts, is that they don’t get any of the jokes. I was thinking about this with regard to my recent “normative sociology” post, a term that comes from a joke that Robert Nozick made in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. I actually missed this the first time I read it through as well, just because one doesn’t expect there to be jokes in serious works of philosophy. (It is my colleague, Arthur Ripstein, who pointed it out to me.)

The “not getting the jokes” problem becomes even worse once a book is more than a century old. Apart from the fact that both humour and writing styles change, making it harder to tell when someone is joking, the mere fact that a book is old seems to lead people to assume that it must be entirely serious throughout. Actually, it’s not just students, academics sometimes run into the same problem – I’ve read entire papers that try to make sense of some passage, based on the assumption that the passage in question was meant seriously, when that doesn’t seem to me at all obvious. This is a particular problem in Hume studies, since Hume cracks a lot of jokes. Hobbes too, although there the line between “being ascerbic” and “being funny” is often blurred.

For instance, I think one of the best jokes in the history of political philosophy is this one, from the most famous chapter of Leviathan:

And as to the faculties of the mind… I find yet a greater equality amongst men than that of strength. For prudence is but experience, which equal time equally bestows on all men in those things they equally apply themselves unto. That which may perhaps make such equality incredible is but a vain conceit of one’s own wisdom, which almost all men think they have in a greater degree than the vulgar; that is, than all men but themselves, and a few others, whom by fame, or for concurring with themselves, they approve… But this proveth rather that men are in that point equal, than unequal. For there is not ordinarily a greater sign of the equal distribution of anything than that every man is contented with his share.

Okay now I understand that, the way this is written, it’s not exactly “ha-ha” funny. But it is incredibly funny. Also, the way he draws it out, saving the punch line for the final words of the paragraph “…that every man is contented with his share” is genius.

Or consider Hobbes’s argument for equality in marriage, which is hilarious:

And whereas some have attributed the dominion to the man only, as being of the more excellent sex; they misreckon in it. For there is not always that difference of strength or prudence between the man and the woman, as that the right can be determined without war.

That one makes me laugh every time: “they misreckon in it…” LOL

Actually, that line in Hobbes always reminds me of George Elliot, cracking wise on the same subject:

Some have felt that these blundering lives are due to the inconvenient indefiniteness with which the Supreme Power has fashioned the natures of women: if there were one level of feminine incompetence as strict as the ability to count three and no more, the social lot of women might be treated with scientific certitude. Meanwhile the indefiniteness remains…

The key sentence here has the same structure as Hobbes’s, a sort of backwards-involuted way of writing that drops the hammer in the final word, so that you finish the sentence not quite believing that it could have said what you think it just said. Of course, part of what makes these jokes great is that they are all sort-of serious, so you can’t just dismiss them. In each case the author is saying something totally provocative, but by being jokey about it, is ducking out on strict accountability for the claim.

Anyhow, the reason that I mention this is that I have a paper on climate change and social discounting that I’m shopping around, and I quote the following remark from Kenneth Arrow, where he is criticizing the demandingness of a utilitarian social-welfare function with a zero discount rate:

Strictly speaking, we cannot say that the first generation should sacrifice everything, if marginal utility approaches infinity as consumption approaches zero. But we can say that given any investment, short of the entire income, a still greater investment would be preferred.*

Okay now I just assumed that he was being funny here, kind of a nerdy calculus joke. I mean, I know that what he is saying is true, but the way he says it, and the fact that he’s saying it, is hilarious. I figure he was having a bit of fun at the expense of the position he was criticizing. But now I get the following response from a censorious journal referee:

The remark of Arrow’s you quote on seems to me merely correct rather than humorous. Arrow is mathematically accurate.

Seriously? Am I imagining things? I know there are not a lot of jokes in Arrow’s work. But it is possible to say things that are mathematically accurate and yet nevertheless funny…

Incidentally, the topic of zero discounting seems to put economists into a jokey mood. Here is Keynes:

The ‘purposive’ man is always trying to secure a spurious and delusive immortality for his acts by pushing his interest in them forward into time. He does not love his cat, but his cat’s kittens; nor, in truth, the kittens, but only the kittens’ kittens, and so on forward forever to the end of cat-dom. For him jam is not jam unless it is a case of jam to-morrow and never jam to-day.**

Admittedly, the style here is more obviously jocular than Arrow’s. (The “jam tomorrow” thing, by the way is a reference to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, which contains an incredible number of logic jokes.)

So here’s what I want to know: is Arrow trying to be funny, or am I being too easily entertained?



* Kenneth Arrow “Discouting, Morality and Gaming,” Paul R. Portney and John P. Weyant, eds. Discounting and Intergenerational Equity (Washington, D.C.: Resources for the Future, 1999), p. 14.

** John Maynard Keynes, The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, Vol. 9. Essays in Persuasion (London: Macmillan, 1972), p. 330


Is this some kind of a joke? — 5 Comments

  1. Of course it’s jokey. Don’t forget that Arrow and Kurz (1969, p. 12) quoted Ramsey on essentially the same point.

    But in an informal talk before congenial friends, his attitudes come through without being covered up by the Sunday-best clothes appropriate for a serious Economic Journal article; the passage is so charming we cannot forebear from a lengthy quotation (quoting) “My picture of the world is drawn to perspective, and not like a model to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings and the stars are all as small as threepenny bits. I don’t really believe in astronomy, except as a complicated description of part of the course of human and possible animal sensation. I apply my perspective not merely to space but also to time. In time the world will cool and everything will die; but that is a long way off still and the present value at compound interest is almost nothing.”

  2. I think the Arrow quote is unintentionally funny, but I might be looking too hard as well.

    I have a really strong memory of a Philosophy of Law class, my professor was talking about a famous paper by Lon Fuller, and he made an offhand comment about achieving a “fuller understanding of natural law theories” or something like that. It wasn’t exactly a knee slapper but it made me laugh. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t an intentional pun, becase the professor just glared at me and my friend who are both too easily amused.

    I also suspect there might be a professional difference between philosophers and other academics, especially outside the humanities. Marx and Wittgenstein both write about fairly dry material, but they’re both pretty funny if you keep your eyes open—same thing with Fodor. On the other hand, I can’t really imagine Hayek or Joe Stiglitz making a really good joke. But maybe I’m just not looking hard enough!

    • Really? I tell them the key to properly interpreting Locke is to regard him as a lickspittle.

  3. Too easily entertained, I reckon, though of course I may be missing something. At the risk of killing the joke, can you spell out why it is funny? I can’t really see the humour in the way he says it or the fact that he says it!