Tag Archives: irony

In Lightning Memory: A Philosophical Dictionary à la Baroncelli

The following definitions combine insightful personal memories and personally memorable insights that I recall from, or associate with, Flavio Baroncelli (1944–2007) qua eloquent and witty teacher, brilliant and ingenious writer, fast and sharp conversationalist, generous and kind human being, and committed promoter of the teacher- and student exchange programmes linking together Iceland, my adoptive country, and the University of Genoa, my alma mater. Not all of them must be taken literally or too seriously; besides, I would not agree with some of them myself! All of them are, however, sincere tokens of gratitude, friendship and love to a truly remarkable individual, who enjoyed entertaining and shocking his audiences, but above all liked making them think, debate, and think some more. Furthermore, these definitions are a creative and inevitably poor attempt at exemplifying for the Anglophone public the sort of pithy and humorous style that, inter alia, made Baroncelli famous in Italy in his day.



Another word for potentiality.



A disease mistaken for moral failure.



Causing pleasure by sly words, even when the listener knows that they are lies. Philosophers, in their stately parlance, would call it a perlocutionary speech act.



The daily demonstration of how little control we have over our own will.



A polite way for educated people to be open-minded pluralists in theory but narrow-minded atheists in practice.


Analysis (of concepts)

The bizarre tendency to turn ambiguous profundity into unambiguous superficiality.


Analytic (philosophy)

A typically modern attempt at making self-conscious philosophers sound like respectable scientists.



The best way to acquire power in a capitalist society, especially if one wishes to destroy it.


Beauty (physical)

One of the most important life-defining characteristics that a person can have the good luck to possess and that philosophers keep stating not to matter.



A seemingly private place where both neighbours and State authorities seem often eager to enter.



The least understood yet most important principle of the French Revolution: without a modicum of genuinely felt compassion among fellow citizens, both liberty and equality will get used to ruin someone else’s life.



A dangerous and stupid way not to listen to dangerous and stupid claims.



When rasping hopelessly and continuously on a hard road surface, they exemplify instinctual behaviour as opposed to deliberate.



Powerful, sweet, devious killers.



The curse of any philosopher who may wish to come across as deep, original and worthy of enduring attention.


Coherence (aka consistency)

The unhealthy obsession with getting rid of all the instances of personal diversity, creativity, capriciousness and experimentalism that make individual life interesting and collective life possible.



The 20th-century political scarecrow that, for the duration of about one generation, made the de iure liberal countries of the world be actually a little more liberal than their de facto oligarchic past and present flag out.



The most important virtue cultivated by Christianity.



A much-cherished liberal value, as long as it does not apply to oneself.



Generally loathed by the very same people who have most reason to complain—an instance of slave morality.


Continental (philosophy)

A not-so-modern attempt at making self-important philosophers sound like profound mystics.



Someone else’s form of madness.



The folklore of the rich.



Coping with far-too-real nightmares.



Its training in infancy reveals how people prefer freedom to be qualified and circumscribed.


Discipline (and Punish)

The most important book by Michel Foucault, who taught us that the more societies publicly incense liberty and call themselves “liberal”, the less freedom common people truly enjoy in order to do as they please.



The ideal sort of loyal, selfless, hard-working and simple-mindedly grateful employees that employers would like to have.


Economics (contemporary)

A branch of mathematics mistaken for empirical science.


Economics (modern)

A branch of philosophy mistaken for empirical science.



Clarification articulating possible meanings of a pithy expression, with consequent loss of aesthetic and thought-provoking value of the latter. Sterilisation by explanation. (E.g. paraphrasing a poem, explaining a joke.)



The possibility for all people to be as bad and as silly as the rich and powerful minorities frequently are.



Aristocracy’s last ditch at controlling modern society.



See “Get lost!” below.



It is only after Darwin that people understood what the heck Lucretius and Telesio were talking about.


Exceptions (making)

The first step towards tolerance and pluralism.



An option generally available only to a person who stops doubting.



The culture of the poor.



Birds that can be confused with swans, especially in Iceland.



An exact formal science that can be used rhetorically as a persuasive labelling method for inexact metaphysical reasoning.


Get (lost!)

Uttered in a timely fashion, it can save a person the trouble of having to answer a difficult question.



If ancient, it is an excellent way to display one’s own erudition.



The true source of happiness, yet regularly forgotten until missing.


Hegel (Georg Friedrich)

A typical German philosopher, he wrote several tomes to demonstrate that nothing stays the same.


History (of ideas)

A way to find out why we think the way we think.



The equalising social process deplored by anthropologists whereby identifying the poor, the outcast, the loathed, the derided and the downtrodden becomes a little less easy.


Hume (David)

An uncharacteristically prodigal Scotsman, he noticed that the only way to be sure that all matches in the box do work is to light them all up.



The misunderstood virtue of avoiding conflict in reality by accepting conflict in principle.



A set of loosely interconnected concepts, some of which may be even mutually contradictory, that allow people to feel justified in their claims and actions, or at least to project an air of justification for them.



The demonstration of the bodily basis of the mind.



The least acknowledged yet most important virtue in a pluralist society: by caring little about what other people believe or do, mutual tolerance can be the norm.


Insight (aka Intuition)

Prejudice we like.



The remarkable social invention whereby to preserve the memory of past errors and make the inexorably ignorant new generations somewhat less likely to repeat them.


Intervention (by the State)

A much-loathed socialist value, which liberals accept as soon as they are in trouble.



A valuable means of instruction that can reach even those who do not wish to be instructed.


Kant (Immanuel)

A typical German philosopher, he wrote two tomes to undo an earlier one.



That which philosophers seek and analyse most, and yet have the least of.



The precious and inevitable source of all misunderstandings.


Lashes (by whip)

As long as someone else gets more than you do, most slaves will not rebel against slavery.



Another good way to show one’s own erudition.



The political wisdom teaching that State authority should be used only to protect a person from her worst enemies: her neighbours.



A rather bothersome business, but also the only one in town.



An open motive among men; less so among women. Gender equality’s lewd horizon.



Another way to understand religion.


Marx (Karl)

A typical German philosopher, he wrote several tomes to demonstrate that, normally, if the employer gets more, the employee gets less—and vice versa.



A neologism by the privileged.


Mixed (marriage)

The easiest and fastest way to explain why a marriage did not last. No such option is available for divorces between people of the same ethnic origin, the explanation of which may then take years of keen psychological scrutiny.


Montaigne (Michel de)

His essays became so famous and commonplace that later philosophers forgot to mention the source of the ideas that they discussed and, eventually, Montaigne himself. There can be such a thing as too much fame.


More (Thomas)

Great wisdom expressed with clarity.


Nietzsche (Friedrich)

An atypical German philosopher, he wrote aphorisms to acknowledge a major yet neglected motive of human thought and action: resentment.



The likeliest outcome of a person’s life, which we spend trying not to think about it.



In practice, the supreme official principle of social life.



The future outcome of the present ignorance about the past.


Pain (and Pleasure)

The fabric of our inner tapestry.



When good, it is the playful use of our imagination and of our reason in order to break apart, toy with and recombine concepts, beliefs and habits of thought, in order to make better sense of them. When bad, it is the skillful use of our imagination and of our reason in order to do the same and, in the end, be even more confused.



An artificial reminder of life’s beauty.


Political (correctness)

The ungainly social process whereby the less respected members of a community can have a chance to be paid a little more respect.



A widespread yet uncomfortable signpost of liberal freedom.



Another word for actuality.



A person’s attribute that, if conspicuous, makes other significant attributes deplorable or intolerable to the surrounding individuals: age, race, religious affiliation, ignorance, ugliness, etc.



Insights we dislike.



A vice leading frequently to virtuous behaviour.



Often confused with quantity.



Often confused with quality.



The best instrument available to reveal how ignorant we are, no matter the number of university degrees we may have.



A historically popular but unnecessary notion which justifies people being nasty to one another. In its absence, freckles or bad pronunciation can serve the same purpose.



The art of making outlandish ideas sound plausible, thus duly impressing unsuspecting young minds and potential sexual partners.



The perplexing faculty to take apart whatever solid conclusion we had reached before.



The unjustly neglected study of how language shapes people’s life under all circumstances.



The most dangerous virtue cultivated by Christianity.



Unwise over-intelligent overthinking—it is by far too delightful an endeavour for most philosophers to resist the temptation of indulging in it despite their own better judgment.



A natural reminder of life’s beauty.


Spinoza (Baruch)

Great wisdom could be expressed with more clarity.



Having someone below you is usually more important than having someone above—another instance of slave morality.


Straw-man (fallacies)

Mistaken by logicians as fictional errors, they are the far-too-real claims of ordinary men and women; if one is willing, and brave enough, to listen to real people.



The regularly underplayed yet visibly increased outcome of greater freedom in human societies.



Birds that can be confused with geese, especially in Iceland.



A structured way of thinking and talking that allows the person using it to come across as astoundingly intelligent and thereby force another to shut up, even if the latter may actually be right.



The socially crucial ability to endure people that we dislike.



The perplexing notion whereby tolerance is not enough in society, for we must also like the people that we dislike.



The most efficient way to get bad information from innocent weaklings and no information at all from guilty brutes.



To modern eyes, an old form of cannibalism.


Ugliness (physical)

One of the most important life-defining characteristics that a person can have the ill luck to possess and that philosophers keep stating not to matter.



That from which all great ideologies wish to free us once and for all, but which all great historians tell us that we must accept for any human endeavour to have a chance to work at all.



See defecation.



Whether threatened or applied, it is in practice the supreme unofficial principle of social life.



The best example of how being a master of style condemns a man to being remembered as a minor thinker.



A person’s attribute that, if conspicuous, makes other significant attributes invisible to the surrounding individuals: age, race, religious affiliation, ignorance, ugliness, etc.



We like thinking of it as free, despite all contrary evidence.


Wittgenstein (Ludwig)

A Continental philosopher mistaken for an analytical one.



One of the many words for the imaginary place of endless joy that all cultures have concocted and that only some silly philosophers would state not to want to go to.



The time of peak performance in a person’s life, the rest of which is spent trying to make use of ridiculous concepts that can help that person to enjoy some respect and self-respect: the wisdom of old age, the charm of grey hair, the value of experience, etc.



Often confused with “Jewish” and “Israeli”, it can be combined with them in the following matrix:

Jewish, Israeli and Zionist

Non-Jewish, Israeli and Zionist

Jewish, Non-Israeli and Zionist

Jewish, Israeli and Non-Zionist

Non-Jewish, Non-Israeli and Zionist

Jewish, Non-Israeli and Non-Zionist

Non-Jewish, Israeli and Non-Zionist

Non-Jewish, Non-Israeli and Non-Zionist

Lydia B. Amir, Humor and the Good Life in Modern Philosophy. Shaftesbury, Hamann, Kierkegaard (Albany: SUNY Press, 2014)

If there is any continuity in the numerous theories of humor, it could be found in the idea of the sudden and unexpected. Paradoxes, contradictions and incongruities are inherent in the human situation. Thinkers of many different disciplines have explored these inconsistencies, given them a variety of definitions and suggested possible ways of dealing with them.

As Lydia B. Amir demonstrates in her book, the tragic is one possible way to cope with “the constitutive contradiction of the human condition” (p. 226). The tragic sense of life is in her opinion epistemologically relevant, but because of the absence of meaning in the tragic, it is incapable of making use of the therapy that “humor is able to provide” (p. 228). Preserving the revealing insights of the tragic view, Amir shows us the benefits of the comic not attainable in the tragic. Amir argues, that the tragic way is impassable for those who cannot live with doubts and sees in humor the best way to confront and endure the ambivalence of our existence.

In her book Amir clarifies these benefits of humour and how they are connected to the good life. Amir claims that only two modern philosophers have seriously studied the function humor has for the art of living well: the third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671 – 1713) and the Dane Søren Aabye Kierkegaard who was born one century after Shaftesbury’s death. Between their works on the subject there is an interconnection, found in the studies of the German theologian Johann Georg Hamann.

Amir carefully explains the importance humor has for the good life according to both Shaftesbury and Kierkegaard. She describes the epistemological value Shaftesbury believes humor has for knowing the truth. According to Shaftesbury, what is true must endure the trial of humor. Among its benefits is that humor works as a lubrication and softener for critique and self-critique. Furthermore humor can have some kind of transcendence as a prerequisite: if you perceive reality or yourself with humor, then you have to do it from a distance from that reality or yourself. Humor has therefore its place in soliloquy, an important concept in the Shaftesburean philosophy. Soliloquy includes self-inspection, or the conversation of the mind with itself. Such a conversation requires the same kind of self-transcendence as humor.

The theories of Shaftesbury and Kierkegaard on humor are connected in the works of Johann Georg Hamann. Hamann elaborated the theories of Shaftesbury, whereas Kierkegaard has been called Hamann’s only disciple. Hamann and Shaftesbury found similar associations between truth and humor. Both saw in the latter the best attitude to grasp truth and both of them considered humor an epistemological necessity if God was to be apprehended. In the deistic thinking of Shaftesbury, with its emphasis on the harmony of existence, there was a much more direct link between rationality and truth than in the thinking of Hamann and Kierkegaard. Hamann saw a great danger in the adoration of rationality. According to him, truth was only accessible as sensual and materially. The incarnation, the Word made flesh, is therefore a key concept in Hamann’s theology, which is Christocentric, with an emphasis laid on the kenotic aspect of that event. Truth, Hamann says, is always paradoxical, and humor is the state of mind best capable of grasping paradoxical realities.

For Søren Kierkegaard – who has been named the greatest humorist in Christianity – humor is indispensable for a life that can be characterized as good. As also for both Shaftesbury and Hamann, this significance of humor has religious and metaphysical roots. It is impossible to understand existence and its many puzzles with the mere act of gaining knowledge, Kierkegaard says. If you want to understand existence you have to use subjective reflection, which is not opposed to objective thinking but completes it, as truth is never to be found in the objective reality alone. Humor has the function of assisting us finding truth which, according to Kierkegaard, is located in inwardness.

Kierkegaard thinks that human existence can be categorized in three main stages: Firstly the aesthetic, where all needs require instantaneous satisfaction; secondly the ethical, where the individual learns to master universally valid ethical demands; and thirdly the religious stage, which has eternal happiness as a goal. In order to advance from one stage to the next, the individual has to make the famous Kierkegaardian leaps by a free and conscious decision.  Irony is the mark of those who have reached the borders of the aesthetic stage. Humor characterizes individuals who have completed the ethical stage and have come to its limits, where a jump to the religious stage is the only way for them to proceed.

The young Kierkegaard as well as Hamann believe humor to possess an epistemological value and both of them stress the mysterious aspect of truth in Christianity. Kierkegaard elaborated these insights where Christian truths have been metamorphosed into paradoxes and contradictions. Everything has been comically turned upside down and will not thus be apprehended without humor. The later Kierkegaard considered the humorous life-view inferior to that of Christianity. Nonetheless, he saw in it the supreme life-view attainable by human reason. Therefore, Kierkegaard asserted in his later writings that humor per se was not necessary for the good life, but represented the second best and could be supportive in realizing the highest stage.

Kierkegaard and Augustine agree on the premise, that man cannot, unaided, be his own salvation, but needs an intervention from a higher being. All of Kierkegaard’s thought on humor is based on that religious condition. When Kierkegaard undertakes the assignment of teaching us to laugh well and properly, he is instructing us his version of Christian living, which is in his opinion the good life as such.

In her book Amir wants to find the function humor has for the good life, yet without the religious and metaphysical framework constitutive for the thinkers she discusses. Amir does not disagree with the assumption of Shaftesbury, Hamann and Kierkegaard, who all see the derivation of humor in the innumerable ambiguities of existence. She also has come to the same conclusion as they have, namely that humor is the best way and the most useful tool to approach, deal with and endure all the inevitable uncertainties of human life. The difference between Amir and the three thinkers is that she wants to propose a nonreligious theory of the function of humor in the good life, without an appeal to the Deism of Shaftesbury or the Christianity of Hamann and Kierkegaard.

This is the main task of the last chapter in Amir’s book. There she gives the reader a synopsis of numerous secular theories of humor. This subject was both important and popular among 19th and 20th century thinkers. Amir begins with an attempt to portray for us the tragic sense of human existence – which could be said to be even more tragic without a genesis as well as consummation attached to some higher purpose or transcendental realities. Having recognized this deep tragic condition of human existence, Amir sets out to show humor as a possible way to deal with this tragedy incorporated in our being. She is convinced that humor can offer humankind a therapy for its inherent tragedy which, as already stated, becomes no less acute when the possibility of comfort and hope from a force that is not a part of this tragic world has been removed. As Amir shows us, at least one of the reasons for the promise of salvation offered by the religions can be seen as a reaction to the hopeless tragic vision of human existence.  Amir finds that vision epistemologically relevant and she has no interest in bypassing it:

I believe the knowledge of the human condition brought about by the tragic views of life is worth preserving, but without the tonality accompanying it, the maddening pain and the constant brooding over it. The comic, I suggest, may prove helpful for disengaging the content of the tragic from its pain.” (p. 231)

Amir aims to define for us a sense of existence which shows respect both to the tragic and to the comic, without the metaphysical sine qua non. She adheres to a broader interpretation of humor, where humor is almost identical with the comical and approaches humor conjointly as a cognitive and emotional phenomenon. Amir recognizes numerous benefits of humor for the good life, both on an individual and on a social basis. Humor lessens social conflicts, helps achieving unity, it can be a sensible relief for aggression, it motivates empathy. Humor can be thought-provoking, self-corrective, and can be beneficial for figuring out and reaching philosophical goals, to name a few advantages of humor.

As mentioned in the beginning of this review, the origins of humor can be found in the notion of the incongruities and inconsistencies of the human situation. Religion offers a way to live with or to save individuals from these paradoxes and discrepancies. Such a salvation is called “redemption”, it leads to the good life, and as Amir shows in her book, humor can have an essential function in that task of religion. However, and that is the main objective of Amir’s study, there is no inevitable connection “between religion and redemption because the source of need for redemption, such as death, evil, human suffering, and ignorance, can be answered in religious as well as nonreligious terms“ (p. 254).

Amir divides theories of redemption into three types. Regardless of whether the redemption offered is within a religious or nonreligious framework, each of these types demands the rejection of at least one element of our humanity: Firstly desire; secondly the awareness of the limits of human reason; and thirdly both the rejection of desire as well as the awareness of the limits of reason. All these types of redemption can contain possible dangers, because it is questionable to deny such a crucial part of our human existence, and as Amir points out, occasionally it can be wiser not to act at all. Sometimes the nonsolution is the best solution. There humor comes in. The relieving effect of humor can help us to live with unresolved tensions. Humor can serve as an effective way of self-knowledge and self-criticism. We must know how to embrace our own foolishness, accept the human ridicule, if we want to apprehend fully the truth of our nature. For Amir, therefore, homo risibilis “is a fitting description of humankind” (p. 264).

Humor smoothens the sharp edges of the many contrasts and paradoxes that characterize the human situation, therein having more than an assisting function for redemption, but also being itself a substantial element of the redemption. Amir proposes a redemptive function of humor where we accept the ridiculous situation of the human existence. That reconciliation with the ridicule has two effects: On the one hand, it saves us from the ridicule, as only those that are unaware of it can be ridiculous; On the other hand, this embracement decreases the yearning for redemption, which is in itself redemptive as its brings “about a liberated state capable of rivaling the highest ideals of religion and philosophy” (p. 273).

In the final section of Amir’s book, the author describes what she has in mind by using the concept of “The Good Life”. The idea of good life is essential for her study, as the title of her book suggests. Perhaps it would have been more constructive to explain for the reader the fundamentals of the good life right in the beginning of the book in order to lay the groundwork for the many connections the author and other thinkers see between humor and such an existence. Furthermore, it looks like the author presupposes a conformity in the use of the concept of the good life between the three main thinkers of the book, i.e. Shaftesbury, Hamann and Kierkegaard. It could be productive to ask if the Deist Shaftesbury and the devout Christian Kierkegaard have the same understanding of a life worthy of the predicate “good” and see if their differences have value for the study. Likewise, an analysis of potential divergences between religious based understandings of the good life on the one hand and secular on the other could have deepened the author’s examination and clarified her intention, to describe the function of humor in the good life on nonreligious premises.

Among the benefits of humor, according to Amir’s book, is that it helps us cope with the many incongruities of life without extinguishing them. In the religious idea of redemption, it is frequently included that paradoxes and contradictions must be dissolved: Sufferings will be transmuted into joy, despair into confidence and guilt into innocence. The Lutheran phrase “simul justus et peccator” could be stimulating for that discussion. Martin Luther thought that the believer was simultaneously both righteous and a sinner. His idea of redemption did not consist of one being absorbed by the other. Redemption does not annihilate the incongruity. The believer can rely on being righteous in the eyes of God but can at the same time recognize his or her awareness of an inner struggle. In Lutheran teachings, which focus frequently on the ambivalences and conflicts of the believer’s conscience, redemption has an obvious similarity to the comical. Luther’s attitude towards the double existence of the believer as a justified sinner was comical because in his opinion the awareness of sin and corruption was not capable of destroying the perfect joy of the Gospel.[1]

[1]Sein Glaubenshumor gründete gerade nicht, wie Eric W. Gritsch meint, im Gesetz, sondern im Evangelium. Der Beweis hierfür läßt sich mit dem Hinweis erbringen, daß Luther gerade angesichts der – allerdings zu komischen – Doppelexistenz des Christen als Sünder und Gerechtfertigter Humor zeigte…. Dieses Nebeneinander entspricht dem von Gesetz und Evangelium im Bewußtsein des Christen. Aber Luther wollte es keineswegs als statisches verstanden wissen, sondern als höchst dynamisches im Durchsetzungskampf der Herrschaft Christi. Der Sünder und der Gerechtfertigte Stehen in der Glaubensexistenz neben- und ineinander, beide in totaler Weise! Will sagen: Vollkommene Freude wird durch die Sünde mitnichten verhindert oder ausgeschlossen.” Werner Thiede, Luthers Humor. Zur Glaubensfreude des Reformators, Luther, 81(1), 2010, 17-8.