At dinner the night before I was to give a talk in her department, a young professor solemnly told me that there’s no place for humor in serious philosophy. Since the paper on the relation of science and literature I was to present the next day was full of playful literary allusions and verbal jokes this was, to say the least, an awkward moment.
Nonetheless, my paper was a serious piece of work – jokes and all. Now, thanks to Spazio filosofico’s imaginative choice of theme, at last I have my opportunity to explore what’s wrong with the idea that, to be serious, philosophical work must be humorless. It’s been a long time coming; but, as the saying goes, better late than never.
“Serious,” of course, has a whole raft of uses, and many subtly-interrelated meanings. We laugh about the apocryphal billionaire who complains that household expenses are skyrocketing – “a million here, a million there, and pretty soon you’re talking serious money”; meaning real money, a significant sum of money. Told something scarcely credible, we ask: “seriously?” – meaning: “really; no kidding?” We describe the measles as a serious illness, or a patient as in serious condition; meaning a grave illness, a potentially dangerous condition. We describe a crime as serious; meaning that it’s not just a misdemeanor, it’s a felony. We ask a friend who seems preoccupied and thoughtful, “why so serious?” – meaning: “why so solemn, why so glum?” But we also describe a hardworking, motivated young person as a serious student; meaning that he has a genuine desire to learn and is willing to do what’s needed to succeed in this. And I, for one, think of some people in our profession as serious philosophers, really trying to answer the questions they are tackling, while others – these days, I sometimes wonder if they might not be the majority – seem more concerned to make a name for themselves, or to ensure a safe, comfortable professional life, or …, etc.
Etymologically, “serious” derives from the Latin, serius, “weighty,” “heavy”; and, in line with this, some of its many meanings point in the direction of “matters of significance, issues of real import” (“weighty”), and others in the direction of “grave, burdensome” (“heavy”). Hence my first approximation to an explanation of what’s wrong with the idea that, to be serious, a philosopher must be humorless: it confuses two distinct strands in the complex mesh of meanings of “serious,” two distinct sides of seriousness. It mistakenly supposes that, because philosophical questions are serious, i.e., have real significance, and because tackling them requires serious work, i.e., sustained thought and real commitment, a serious philosopher must eschew playfulness and go about his or her work, as the saying goes, in grim earnest. On the contrary, I shall argue, taking philosophy seriously and really working at it doesn’t mean that you must set aside playfulness or humor; far from it. In fact, playfulness and humor may actually help in philosophical inquiry, while solemnity and self-importance will, for sure, stultify it.
I chose a line of Peirce’s for my epigraph because, in my estimation, Peirce was one of the most truly serious of philosophers; because his reflections on what a genuine, committed philosophical thinker must do and how he should go about his work provide a starting point for understanding what serious philosophy is, and what it demands of us; and because he explicitly articulated the place in inquiry of a kind of intellectual free play. Moreover, implicitly and by example, his work allowed a real role – I’m tempted to say, a serious role – for humor; and on at least one occasion he suggested, albeit very briefly, what that role is. So, as I try first to articulate what serious philosophical work involves, and then to explain why this doesn’t preclude humor, I shall often call on his ideas.