How To Tell A Philosophy

by John Holbo on December 1, 2013

And right on the heels of my brilliant observation that silly-seeming thought-experiments tend to be mildly whimsical, this from Alan Moore in the Guardian:

I like Jacques Derrida, I think he’s funny. I like my philosophy with a few jokes and puns. I know that that offends other philosophers; they think he’s not taking things seriously, but he comes up with some marvellous puns. Why shouldn’t you have a bit of fun while dealing with the deepest issues of the mind?

As an accomplished Derrida-disliker, I am obliged to set Moore straight. It isn’t that he told jokes but how that bothered analytic critics. Searle said Derrida didn’t get Austin’s arguments, which was true. But the thing that bothered him – but he couldn’t just say this is what bothered him – was that, as a result, Derrida couldn’t ‘tell it right’. (I said all this somewhere else, long ago. Well, I’ll just say it again.) Reading Austin for the Nietzschean spark is like reading Wodehouse for its Kafkaesque quality.

In general, Derrida is obviously extremely concerned to collect applause for his punchline – coup de don, etc. Which often comes right at the start. And it doesn’t work as a ‘snapper’, not just because he tells it at the start, but also because ‘I’m telling a joke and it’s going to be very funny!’ is painted all over his face.

That sort of obviousness about the fact that you are joking limits the styles of humor you can pull off. Analytic philosophy consists of jokes that can only be told in a more understated style.

The analytic-continental split, in philosophy, is a side-effect of different styles of joke-telling. Continental means not telling jokes: Heidegger. Or: telling Heidegger’s jokes in a French style. Analytic means not telling jokes: logic. Or: telling logic jokes.

UPDATE: The deepest issues of the mind arise equally in both traditions, but that tail can’t really wag both shaggy dogs, as it were.