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The humour of exceptional cases: Jokes as compressed thought experiments

Introduction

As much as one might seek certainty and simplicity in life, the category boundaries that shape our perception and guide our behaviour are neither fixed nor certain. Rather, these boundaries are frequently the subject of examination, renegotiation and sometimes, even outright rejection, by creative individuals ranging from philosophers to artists, and jokers to scientists. In this paper we consider two of the cognitive activities that can influence these boundaries. Both are, we argue, remarkably similar in terms of the conceptual manipulations and strategies that they employ, yet both are used in very different domains, one primarily for scientific discourse, the other for social intercourse.

The first of these cognitive activities is a powerful conceptual tool for probing the underbelly of received scientific wisdom. The thought experiment, or Gedanken experiment (the latter term is often attributed to Ernst Mach; Mach 1960, 1976; Kuhn 1964), is armchair science at its most cerebral, presenting a purely conceptual means of probing the limits of a theory not with any physical apparatus, but wholly in the mental laboratory of the imagination. This cerebral quality notwithstanding, physical intuition about the world still plays a key role in most thought experiments. As Mach notes, the goal of a good thought experiment is to construct a conceptual scenario that dredges up, from the realm of the intuitive and the instinctive, previously unarticulated knowledge that can be manipulated at the level of concepts and categories. A thought experiment is a form of embodied reasoning that brings not just concepts, but instincts, intuitions and emotions to bear on a problem, motivating a sceptic to want to accept the conclusions of the experiment’s logical argument.

The second of these activities is humour. Thought experiments and jokes both take aim at the limitations of received wisdom, often employing the same high-level strategies to provoke an audience - perhaps even a hostile audience - into accepting an alternative conceptual perspective. In each case the inconsistencies of habitual thinking are exposed, frequently with a hint of derision, satire or superiority. And in each case, the role of imagination is vital, for jokes ask us to imagine scenarios that are so out of the ordinary that conventional modes or rules of behaviour appear to break down, in much the same way that thought experiments ask us to imagine scenarios for which conventional scientific theories fail to offer a consistent explanation. We shall argue then that many jokes are, in fact, humorous thought experiments, in which the theories under revision are social norms, genre conventions and taboos. Even off-hand witticisms and one-liners can possess the argumentative force of a good thought experiment, and we shall consider here examples that demonstrate a remarkable density of implicit argumentation. Conversely, we shall see that many thought experiments are philosophical jokes, in which the subversive logic of humour is used to induce a contradiction in an opponent’s theory.

 
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