The Comedy of Philosophy
“Philosophy and comedy might not sound like natural and traditional bedfellows because there aren’t many jokes in the great works on philosophy,” said Newington Philosopher-in-residence Julian Baggini at the first Centre for Ethics lecture for 2016. But, who is to say that you can only learn about the big concepts in philosophy from Kant, Rousseau and Sartre and not from Homer Simpson and Monty Python?
Speaking to an audience of Newington boys, staff, families and friends in the Old Boys Lecture Theatre, Mr Baggini argued that cartoons such as The Simpsons and comedies such as Monty Python are great mediums to explore and convey philosophical ideas because in the same way that Homer critiques the meaning of life, so do philosophers.
“There’s a kind of illusion and a pretense in philosophy that fine details really matter but people’s commitments at the end of the day are based on those big broad arguments and not on the fine details,” he said. And who is a better conveyer of big, bold statements than Homer Simpson?
In this way, cartoons are more in line with philosophical thinking than literary fiction because the various comedic devices of satire and caricature are better suited for providing social commentary.
Satire is deeply conservative said Mr Baggini because it feeds on existing prejudices and assumptions. The Simpsons is very clever in the way it employs satire because everyone gets it.
“The Simpsons satirises the climate of opinion that we have,” said Mr Baggini in relation to the episode titled ‘Homer the Heretic’, which shows Homer questioning the reason he goes to church. In this episode we see Homer come to the understanding that there is no absolute truth about God, yet you also can’t deny people of their own God even if it comes across as ridiculous and so there must be some truth in untruths and half truths. So while we might be laughing throughout this episode at Homer, he is also teaching us some useful information about Standpoint Theory and the relationship between Truth and Objectivity.
Likewise, Python also comes across as an unlikely source of philosophical theory because instead of pompous French philsosphising, it chooses to use irreverent, almost slapstick British humour to critique the metanarratives of ‘progress’, ‘reason’ and ‘history’, said Mr Baggini.
“Humour is a great vehicle for skepticism because it shows us how ridiculous we can be,” said Mr Baggini about Python. And while philosophy can provide an outlook on life that can be demoralising and nihilistic in our Postmodern day and age, comedy provides us with an attitude shift in how we engage with this reality.
“In a world where people have an attitude like Python and Homer, that is not a world where people kill each other over ideology… it’s one which is kind of inherently compassionate. It’s a compassionate philosophy because there’s a realisation that we’re all in it together and we’re all kind of absurd.
Most utopian projects have been disastrous and have led us astray, so it’s not bad to have more skepticism but the second thing is that there is a kind of radicalism in this kind of worldview which is kind of different to political radicalism.
It’s about seeing the world more kindly, more equally…and the absurdity of all people is the great leveller of all people.”