Tag Archives: Jokes as Arguments

Make me one with everything

Jokes often work because of some unexpected but intelligible ambiguity in the circumstance or in some utterance.  That's how puns work.  For example:

Why do farmers give their cows money to eat?  Because they want rich milk!

The crucial thing is that the (i) the ambiguity be detectable and (ii) the slippage be understandable.  Same goes for amphibolies.  For example:

Boy: I broke my arm in six places!

Mom: I told you to stay out of those places!

Hilarious.  And, again, notice that in order for the joke to be appropriately posed, the ambiguity must be detectable by the audience and the audience must judge the slippage as understandable (that is, sees how both interpretations are reasonable).

Now check out this joke fail.  This reporter tells the joke:

So the Dalai Lama walks into a pizza shop, and he says: "Make me one with everything!"

To the Dalai Lama himself.  That's totally funny.  But the joke bombs.  Watch it here.

'Make me one with everything' is amphibolous.  On the one hand, it is a directive about pizzas — one with the works, please!  On the other hand, it is a directive about mystical vision — enlighten me, please!

The funny thing is that the joke fails on both fronts.  First, the joke has to be translated, so it's not going to have the same amphiboly.  Moreover, I'm not convinced that the DL really understands what a pizza is with everything.  But that's not the biggest failure.  Second, the DL, when he hears that he asks to be one with everything, he says, "That's not possible."  (At least, that's what I hear).  Which makes it even funnier, because it's a presentation of the DL's views that the DL doesn't seem to recognize as his own.  Moreover, why would the DL ask someone else to do that for him… isn't he the mystical teacher?

It would be like telling the following joke to Descartes:

So Renee Descartes walks into a bar.  He orders a drink, and the bartender asks him if he wants a fancy umbrella in it. Descartes replies, "I think not!"  And then he disappears.

Descartes' reply would be something like: I don't get it.  I said I know I exist so long as I'm thinking, but my thinking isn't what makes me exist.  You're worse than Hobbes.  Read Meditation II more carefully, moron.

Wittgenstein and Speaking Lions

This is the 1,001st post at the NonSequitur.  I failed to note the 1,000th posting, the last one.  I was more excited about the post.  Regardless, Colin and John have done a great job with the blog, and I'm really pleased to have been brought in.  And in honor of the event of passing the 1000 post mark, I want to pose the question: can a joke work as a counter-example?  Here's a test-case.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was a philosopher, one that did his most influential later work in the aphoristic style.  Asking questions, putting things in a cute way, and so on.  He made many of his points, really, with lines that could pass for jokes. One of the core commitments of Wittgenstein's system was that to speak a language, you have to share a form of life with others who speak the same language. To illustrate this commitment, he has the enigmatic-oracular line:

If a lion could speak, we could not understand him (PI: p.223)

Again, the thought seems to be that since a lion doesn't share our form of life, its language would be inaccessible to us. 

Now, I'm not so sure about Wittgenstein's point, simply on the reason that if we're able to recognize that the lion is speaking a language, then we must be capable of having at least a decent grasp of what he's talking about.  That is, a necessary condition for attributing to X the capacity to speak a language is that you've some evidence that the sounds X is uttering are semantically contentful and also what those contents are.  (Or at least that you know that they are contentful and you could find out what those contents are.)

But I want to play Wittgenstein's game of making points instead of with straight argument, but with aphoristic style.  And so, here's my proposed counter-example (in the form of a joke):

So a lion walks into a bar…  He sidles up to the juke box and selects a Led Zepppelin song.  He then plays a round of darts.  Then he goes up to the bar, and he says to the bartender: "Wittgenstein wouldn't get this joke."

Should someone committed to Wittgenstein's philosophy of language be troubled by this joke?  Is it funny, regardless?  What are the consequences?