Comedy and Philosophy I: Topical jokes and comparative philosophy

I’ve been thinking about intersections between comedy and philosophy for some time. I plan to post a recurring, if perhaps disjointed, series of reflections on such intersections here.

Recently, I heard one of my favorite comics make what I think is a brilliant point about the kind of comedy that stands the test of time. (I hesitate to link the podcast since it sometimes veers into vulgarity.) In short, his point is that political humor (and more generally, topical humor) has the shortest shelf-life of all jokes. Why? It is so contextually specific that within a short amount of time, it becomes incomprehensible or at least uninteresting. Anyone up for a Spiro Agnew joke? On the other hand, jokes about generic and lasting features of the human condition have a better chance of standing the test of time. While political cartoons or humor from the 1920’s are distant from our own sensibilities, it’s easy to smile while watching  Buster Keaton’s physical comedy because we all confront physical awkwardness at some level and can relate to it.

So what’s the connection with Indian philosophy, then? Well, most of us studying it in the modern academy are on some level, comparativists. Whether explicitly or not, our training typically involves some level of comparing, contrasting, and general connection-making between our Indian thinkers and the leading figures in the west.  See this post for one influential strategy in this regard. But I think that there is a similar concern of which we should be aware.

While it is certainly important to make connections that allow for reciprocal illumination and help us notice dialectical resonances which facilitate deeper understanding, if we make such connections too strong, tethering our classical thinkers to fleeting, if temporarily important western thinkers or ideas, we run the risk of putting them in a box and dating them. The whole reason that we continue to study our classical thinkers is that their work is worthy of attention, year after year and century after century. To box them in is to undermine this.

We’ve all probably read some of the early 20th century dissertations that are made into books by some leading Indian publishers. I tend to skim over the comparative elements when they focus on thinkers who may have been in the news back then but are frankly off of my own radar, and I then focus on the straight focused discussion of the Indian thinkers.

So, have I merely gotten lost in a vortex of YouTube discussions of comedy, or is there something to this concern?

And while on subject, perhaps we can lament the loss of my (at least) favorite American Buddhist comedian.

About Matthew Dasti

Matthew R. Dasti is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bridgewater State University.

8 Replies to “Comedy and Philosophy I: Topical jokes and comparative philosophy”

    • That sounds like a great talk!

      Coincidentally enough, I recently wrote a chapter for the new book, Louis C.K. and Philosophy, that focuses on Louis C.K.’s discussions of death in conjunction with Early Buddhism and Epicureanism. Details here:

      Getting at Matthew’s original point, I tried to make the case in that chapter that Buddhism, Epicureanism, and Louis C.K. all give us resources to help us accept death as part of the human condition. Louis also shows, I think, that the human condition is kind of funny if you really think about it.

      • Andrew, feel free to mention the idea to him and he can write me if he’s interested in a guest post.

        And Ethan, if you’d like to summarize your paper in a post, why not do so? Feel free to make it an installment of the Comedy and Philosophy post series if you wish.

  1. Thank you, Matthew, for pointing out the issue. The problem, as I see it, goes as follows: The more something is made “actual”, the more we engage with it (I, for one, have to admit that I am really charmed by political jokes, much more than by B. Keaton). However, actual elements become old very soon. Thus, the paradox: If we want to make Indian philosophy look actual and relevant, we risk to make it by the very same token look outdated. To elaborate: Scholars who compared Buddhist Yogācāra with Idealism, were up-to-date when they did it, but make the same school look outdated and surpassed now, so that scholars like “our” Coseru have attempted to point out that the label “Idealism” is not necessarily appropriate, and that “phenomenology” could be a better comparandum. This reopened the debate about Yogācāra, but we will need future scholars to explain that “phenomenology” was not the ultimate label for Yogācāra, should one forget to read Coseru’s book and solidify this definition at a time in which “phenomenology” would sound “old” and surpassed. And so on.

    The same applies to translations in “slang” english, a topic we have discussed already in the past.

    Let me conclude by stressing that, as you said, there is a way to make things relevant without appealing to actuality. But it might be harder, since it presupposes abstracting some core elements of human reasoning, just like joking about Trump or Clinton is easier than becoming a new B. Keaton.

    • Good points, Elisa. I think there may be ways to make it “actual” without tethering it too closely to this or that thinker, but I think you deftly identified a tension we face.

  2. Great post, Matthew! Thanks for sharing.

    I wonder if one way of addressing your point is to engage in more historical comparisons (something I also wondered about in the post on Matilal that you linked to). That is, if Plato or Epicurus have stood the test of time in some sense, maybe connecting them to Indian philosophers who have stood the test of time makes more sense.

    But on the other hand, interpretations of historical figures do change over time, both for Western and Indian figures as do the lists of texts and figures considered to be important. Mystical interpretations of Plato, for example, are less popular than they used to be, and today the Republic is considered his magnum opus whereas it used to be the Timaeus. Likewise, the evolution of scholarship on Yogācāra could be seen in a similar light as responding to larger cultural shifts in interest, only part of which would be whatever’s hip in “mainstream” Western philosophy at the time (especially since whatever’s hip is itself partly a response to larger cultural trends).

    Does any of this mean there aren’t any trans-cultural issues about the human condition in these texts? Of course not. Just that such issues are always mixed up with less perennial things like academic fads and specific historical conditions.

    Lastly, I find it funny whenever Indian philosophers talk about “fat Devadatta” and even Vasubandhu’s descriptions of hell realms are amusing to me. I also love Jayarāśi’s insults. Are these ahistorically funny bits of classical Indian philosophy?

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