Monthly Archives: December 2009

Books of the Year

Five of the most enjoyable philosophy books to be reviewed by tpm in 2009.

The Idea of Justice
by Amartya Sen

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” runs the old adage. Amartya Sen has taken this truism and turned it against almost all his illustrious predecessors who have written about justice. To Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant and even his old teacher John Rawls, Sen adds: and likewise justice idealised is justice not realised. At least he would have done, had he been a canny intellectual opportunist rather than a thoughtful, measured Nobel laureate. Such pithy sound bites are absent from a text which is at times repetitive, loose and in need of a good edit, but which also contains such a generous measure of incisive, clear and important ideas that any such failings are quickly forgiven.
Read full review by Julian Baggini

Rescuing Justice & Equality
by G.A. Cohen

Rescuing Justice & Equality forms part of a stream of writings about egalitarian justice which Cohen has produced over the last 20 years. It collects together, updates and adds to a number of key papers and arguments that he has produced over the period. The themes pursued here continue directly from the concerns of Cohen’s last book If You’re An Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?, even reproducing one of its chapters. […] The central claims of both parts of the book are interesting and highly original contributions to contemporary debates in liberal egalitarian philosophy. Arguments for these claims are conducted in Cohen’s characteristically forensic analytical style. This book is philosophers’ philosophy. It will be challenging for those who are uninitiated in the academic twists and turns of debates about Rawls’ A Theory of Justice and the ins and outs of academic debates in liberal egalitarianism.
Read full review by Rajeev Sehgal

by Roger Scruton

The cheery gnome on the back cover, the patronising blurb, the brevity of the book itself, all suggest that Beauty is another addition to the well-stocked Introduction to Aesthetics shelves. That is not what Scruton has given us. Indeed Beauty reads far more like a conclusion than an introduction – sweeping in scope but by no means a comprehensive treatment of the topic, rich in resonances with Plato, Hume, Kant and Schopenhauer among many others but offering little in the way of analysis of their work. This, it is clear, represents the distillation of a career’s worth of thought on the subject: confident, ruminative and idiosyncratic rather than thorough and impartial.
Read full review by Jenny Bunker

The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty
by Peter Singer

Singer seems particularly genuine when he lets loose a bit, even at the risk of offending some of his affluent readers. He writes a great couple of pages about the ludicrous yacht collection owned by Microsoft co-founder and not-so-impressive philanthropist Paul Allen. He also asks great questions about arts funding. In 2004, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York spent $45 million on a small painting of a Madonna and child. For that amount of money you could buy 900,000 sight-restoring cataract operations in a developing country, or perhaps save 45,000 lives. “How can a painting, no matter how beautiful and historically significant, compare with that?” The deep philosophical question of the book is about such comparisons, and the obligations they give rise to. But Singer doesn’t want us to get tied up in knots. Give much more, he seems to say. Just do it.
Read full review by Jean Kazez

Providence Lost
by Genevieve Lloyd

Providence Lost is, in large part, a marvellous history of two conceptions of providence, freedom, and the good life in western thought. This history runs from Euripedes and the Pre-Socratics through Kant. Lloyd masterfully blends philosophical analysis with compelling biography. A particularly good example of this combination is “The Philosopher and the Princess.” In that chapter, Lloyd examines Descartes’s famous correspondence with Princess Elisabeth. Lloyd focuses on Descartes’s struggle to help Elisabeth gain control of her passions and achieve the good life. The failure of Descartes’s various proposed remedies leads to multiple revisions of his view, and so the fact that Elisabeth is “encumbered … by the restraints and demands of a bizarre court life” leaves a lasting mark on Cartesian philosophy.
Read full review by Erik J. Wielenberg

Quotes of the year

In every issue of tpm, our mediawatch column collects pithy quotes by philosophers and about philosophy from the mass media. Here’s our selection of the best of 2009, with links to the original sources.

Philosophy, you understand, is a very pharmacopoeia of cures that are worse than the corresponding diseases.
Jerry Fodor, Times Literary Supplement, October 16

Any subject that has alpha-male status will breed complacency
Simon Blackburn, Times Higher Education, September 27

Fidelity to law, as such, cannot be a constitutional philosophy because a judge needs a constitutional philosophy to decide what the law is.
Ronald Dworkin, New York Review of Books, September 24

The American public’s real objection to the bonuses – and the bailout – is not that they reward greed but that they reward failure.
Michael Sandel, New Statesman, September 10

In “robust” democracies there should be no need to defend press freedom, because nobody would ever think to challenge it.
Umberto Eco, Sunday Telegraph, September 6

Optimality has been a huge enemy of the practical.
Amartya Sen, Forum: A World of Ideas, BBC World Service, 2 August

Right-wing talk of moral clarity can be empty, but that is not the same as being meaningless: empty concepts remain concepts in search of an application.
Susan Neiman, New Humanist, July/August

Facts are stubborn. Not all problems can be resolved by intelligent compromise; some are not soluble at all. It is part of the literature of fact to recognise this feature of life.
John Gray, New Statesman, 16 July

Conventional wisdom contends that the current recession was caused by the free-market zealotry of recent economic policy and by excessively low interest rates. It is an absurd view, given that interest rates are not determined by market forces.
Jamie Whyte, The Times, 2 July

Nigel Warburton

Nigel Warburton

Many of us would like to believe that intellect banishes prejudice. Sadly, this is itself a prejudice.
Nigel Warburton, Prospect, July

I feel like a magician who is only producing hats and never rabbits
Slavoj Žižek, Financial Times, 7/8 March

Like so many modern ideologies, the new humanism seeks to define itself through what it is against rather than what it is for.
Roger Scruton, The American Spectator, March 2009

Scruton is an accomplished popular journalist – and when he chooses to stir, he does it with a shovel.
Jonathan Rée, Prospect, March 2009

Philosophy has no equations, predictions, or conclusive confirmations – that is precisely why some of us become philosophers in the first place.
Keith Ward, The Independent, 10 February

We may not be professional revolutionaries anymore, but we do make a profession of fierce argument.
Michael Walzer, Dissent, Spring 2009

Call me old-fashioned, but poetry, philosophy, physics, and investigative journalism cannot be blogged and crowd-sourced.
Joshua Cohen, Boston Review, 9 March

Timothy Williamson

Timothy Williamson

Analytic philosophers have a sound methodological instinct to start with simpler, more ordinary cases and build up gradually to the complicated, sexy ones; for advertising purposes, that’s a drawback.
Timothy Williamson, 3:AM Magazine, 25 April

It is completely wrong that UK law does not enable me to protect myself or my children from the loss of my self by arranging to be killed if the surgery goes wrong.
Soran Reader, Times Higher Education, 8 January

That seems to me a genuinely wicked thing to do – to disregard what somebody had quite explicitly said, that he wants to die – not to be resuscitated in certain circumstances and in certain circumstances to be helped to commit suicide.
Mary Warnock,, 7 January

The king of pain

Ward E. Jones explores the theory of comedy with The King of Comedy

It is common for recent philosophers to begin their writings on comedy by introducing two or three “rival theories of humour” – the usual suspects are the “incongruity theory”, the “superiority theory”, and the “relief theory”. The author then proceeds to defend one of them against the other(s).

This, I think, is a mistake. These alternative “theories” are best seen from the outset not as competitors but as each being concerned with a different aspect of humour. That this is true becomes clear once we realise that the fundamental focus of a theory of humour should be a state of mind. This state of mind, which goes under various names in the philosophical literature – “mirth” (de Sousa), “funny experience” (Feinberg), and, more commonly, “amusement” (Clark, Morreall, Scruton) – should be used to explain other phenomena in the realm of comedy. The behaviour of comedians, for example, should be conceived as an attempt to generate the mental state of amusement in their audience members. Amusement also differentiates genuine comedic behaviour, like laughter, from other, apparently similar behaviour; laughter without amusement is not laughter at all.

The fact that a theory of humour is, at its heart, a theory of a mental state, tells us at least some of its features: a comprehensive theory of humour will account, among other things, for the content and the function of amusement. While I do not know what a complete theory of humour would look like, it strikes me that each of the so-called “theories” of humour makes plausible claims about certain basic features of amusement, that is, that each will have a place in a complete theory of humour.

I will look at two of these features, a candidate for the content of amusement (the incongruous) and a candidate for its function (to generate partiality). I will ground each of these features of amusement in Martin Scorcese’s The King of Comedy, a film which invites and explores amusement in particularly complex ways. As with many of our mental states, amusement plays a large role both within narratives and in our engagement with narratives. Looking in some detail at these roles in a particular narrative has the potential to teach us a great deal about amusement. Proceeding this way may be especially fruitful when we have a mental state as ill-understood as amusement and a film as thoughtful as The King of Comedy.

The Incongruity Thesis (as I will call it) is a claim about the content of amusement, about what we find funny, about what we laugh at. The claim that the incongruous is what we find funny was given its first extensive airing by Francis Hutcheson in 1750. As a recent defender of the Incongruity Thesis, John Morreall, described it, the thesis states “We … come to expect certain patterns among things, their properties, events, etc. We laugh when we experience something that doesn’t fit into these patterns.”

The claim that incongruity is the object of all amusement has its critics, and there is clearly a great deal of work that needs to be done in making more precise the notion of incongruity involved in humour. However, there is no shortage of support for the thought that humour is a response to, at, and about incongruities or something closely related to them. From childish laughter at physical differences and deformities, to laughter at embarrassments, to sophisticated puns and wordplay, amusement seems to involve a response to a juxtaposition that one does not anticipate or an expectation that is violated. As one indication of this, we can look at the kind of challenges to which the amused person is susceptible: if I disagree with someone who found a performance amusing, I might explain to her that I found it “obvious”, “predictable”, “old” or “monotonous”. Each of these responses fits nicely with the thought that the content of amusement is the unexpected or incongruous.

It has often been noted that we do not always respond to incongruities with amusement. Some incongruities simply surprise us or make us curious; others, such as monsters, frighten us; still others offend us or make us angry or lead us to pity, for instance, immoral actions. An indication that amusement is a response to a certain kind of perceived incongruity lies in the fact that an agent’s laughter can be taken (or used) to signal a specific (e.g. comic) incongruity in the situation at hand.

This kind of signalling appears in the most complex scene in The King of Comedy, in which Rupert and Rita arrive at Jerry’s home. Their uninvited and unexpected appearance surprises and angers Jerry; indeed it stuns him into a seething silence for some time before he starts hurling abuse at Rupert. For Rita, Jerry’s response is incongruous, as she believes that Jerry invited them to his house. In a remarkable and unexpected shift, Rupert starts to laugh at Jerry. His laughter is intended to indicate to Rita that Jerry’s incongruous response is a joke, that Jerry is pretending that he did not invite Rupert and Rita to his home, pretending to be angry. Once recognised, such behaviour would, of course, be the basis for laughter, as a (pretended) incongruous response to invited guests. Rupert’s ruse (or delusion, I am not sure which) cannot last for long, of course. But in that brief moment, one appreciates how Rita is uncertain, how she might follow Rupert’s comedic signal to interpret Jerry’s behaviour as unexpected pretence rather than unexpected anger.

The close relationship between different kinds of incongruities makes possible so-called “dark comedies” like The King of Comedy. Dark comedies invite us to laugh at something which is, at least ostensibly, not funny at all. Like all dark comedies, The King of Comedy takes an act or event that would, under most descriptions or presentations, invite pity or anger, and gives it characteristics that invite amusement. A kidnapping is not a humorous event; kidnapping someone with the aim of getting onto his television show and being famous, however, may be. The darkness in The King of Comedy derives from immoral acts – not only kidnapping, but also extortions and invasions of privacy – lurking behind the film’s invitations for us to laugh. However, even this image of darkness “lurking behind” humour does not capture the intimacy between the immoral-as-incongruous and the amusing-as-incongruous. Dark comedy does not just layer one incongruity on top of another; on the contrary, it is essential to the humour of the kidnapping in The King of Comedy that it is a kidnapping. The immorality of this event is crucial to its humour. What is so funny is that Rupert and Masha do this in order to achieve their ends, that what they do is itself a violation. The humour here derives, we might say, from the morally incongruous being incongruously used.

Thomas Hobbes pointed to a second feature of amusement when he claimed that it is “a sudden glory arising from some conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.” Hobbes’s claim is pretty clearly not true of a great deal of humour; it is hard to believe that our laughter at puns, for example, involves a comparison between ourselves and other persons. Nonetheless, Hobbes was right to draw our attention to the role that amusement plays in interpersonal relations. Those who have recognised that he was onto something – mostly social psychologists – have expanded his thought into what I will call the “Favouritism Thesis”. The Favouritism Thesis holds that S’s being in the state of amusement is correlated with S’s partiality towards or away from features of the humorous situation.

One influence described by the Favouritism Thesis is that being amused affects one’s partiality towards people or things in the humorous situation. This is perhaps most obviously illustrated by the use we make of humour in our attempts to garner someone’s favour or agreement. Particularly crude examples occur among schoolchildren: think of a child ridiculing another child in order to ostracise the latter and be popular himself. Of course, we need not attempt to disparage anyone (else) in order to use humour to win someone’s favour: think of the lecturer who makes jokes – perhaps about herself – in order to make her students like her. In these cases, leading someone to laugh with you inclines them to be partial towards you.

It is a small step from the Favouritism Thesis to the thought that at least one of the functions of amusement is to encourage social grouping. My becoming amused leads me to form biased attitudes toward other people, and in doing so it leads me to bond with certain people and to separate myself from others. The mental state of amusement, says the Favouritism Thesis, is one of the complicated mechanisms by which we form social groups. “Those who laugh together,” the thesis reminds us, “stay together.”

The Favouritism Thesis leads us to expect that, in a group of people who do not get along well, humour will be more or less absent. This expectation is borne out in The King of Comedy. With the exception of Rupert’s dream/delusion sequences, the interactions between characters in the film are fraught with anxiety, and as the Favouritism Thesis predicts, there is very little humour among them. Jerry, the professional comedian, is dour and serious in all but his first appearance in the film. In most of her scenes, Masha is either bickering with Rupert or professing her fanatical love for Jerry. While Rita tries a bit of light humour at dinner with Rupert, he does not return it. Rupert never uses humour in his interactions to gain favour with the other characters. Rather than attempting to woo Rita with comedy, Rupert is uncomfortably straightforward in expressing his unhealthy feelings for Rita, speaking of a future in which she is his “Queen”; similarly, Rupert never uses humour to impress Jerry or calm Masha. Astonishingly, for a film with this title, none of the main characters in The King of Comedy is able or willing to create affability in their companions by engendering amusement.

For most of the film, the same is true of us, the film’s viewers. While we have plenty of opportunities to laugh at Rupert and Masha, we are never invited to laugh with them. One of the central ironies in The King of Comedy is that its lead character, the self-styled “King of Comedy”, is extremely unfunny. Our amusement never leads us to be fond of him, to be partial towards him, to have any sympathy or connection with him. Not, that is, until the end of his monologue on the Jerry Langford Show, where he tells his audience that he has kidnapped Langford so that he could be on the show. The audience, of course, does not believe him, and taking him to be pretending, they laugh just as they had been doing throughout his monologue. We laugh, as well, but this time we laugh not at Rupert but with him; unlike his studio audience, we are privy to the truth of what he is saying. There is incongruity in that, of course, and a source of amusement for us. More deeply, however, Rupert is revealing to us that, contrary to what we expect of him, he sees the humour in what he has been doing; he sees that we have always had reason to laugh at him. In other words, we see Rupert, for the first time, truly and genuinely making light of himself. As the Favouritism Thesis predicts, we are led to feel, for the first time in the film, a bit of softness for him.

Immediately, however, our feelings for Rupert are thrown back at us, for as the film ends it reveals just how calculating Rupert’s kidnapping and monologue were. Vincent Canby, in his 1983 review of the film for the New York Times, wrote that the film is “full of laughs, but under all of the comic situations is the awful suspicion that our laughter is going to be turned against us, like a gun.” The suspicion that Canby describes is an apt description for what actually happens in the film, for just when we feel we are connecting with Rupert, just when we feel something other than bewilderment and condescension, the cynical, scheming nature of his plan is revealed to us. The darkness of The King of Comedy turns out, in the end, to involve ourselves. Our finally laughing with Rupert, our finally feeling a little fond of him, shows us that we are not exempt from being complicit as his fame-making fans. Our partiality towards him, generated by our laughter with him, ultimately attaches us to him and his deeds.

Jerry Lewis once made the intriguing claim that “Most people fear comedy. Because the truth of it is like a bone coming through the skin.” Whatever danger we might see in humour, it seems to me, must lie in the realm described by the Favouritism Thesis, in the social binding and ostracising that results from the play of humour. Lewis may have been thinking of being made fun of or being laughed at when he said this; being laughed at can be a difficult and painful experience, especially when the target is a sensitive, embarrassing feature of oneself. Watching The King of Comedy, though, reveals another, more complicated way in which comedy can be painful, namely when humour leads one to side with a character who, ultimately, turns out to be a nasty piece of work. The comedy at the end of The King of Comedy targets the audience by pulling the audience members in, by getting them to ultimately side with its main character; our eventual partiality towards Rupert Pupkin, mediated by his humour, means that, in the end, his dirty character besmirches our own.

Ward E. Jones is associate professor in philosophy at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa

New issue

The latest issue of tpm is now in UK shops and with UK subscribers, and will be arriving state-side soon. From December 7th, selected content from the magazine will start to appear on this website. You can subscribe to tpm here.

December podcast

bpm200The last Philosophy Monthly of 2009 features previously unreleased extracts salvaged from the cutting room floor from six of the best interviews of the year: Michael Frayn, AC Grayling, Jonathan Sacks, Peter Singer, Timothy Williamson and Tony Wright MP.

You can listen or download here, or download from
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