The Madness Continues: Part 2

I recently chatted with Brendon Lemon on his podcast, The Madness Continues. We talked about the pandemic, humor, nihilism, philosophy, and other topics.


What If Truth Was A Woman?

I’m currently working on an essay for a forthcoming collection on nihilism and violence. Here’s the abstract:

Lars von Trier has claimed that Antichrist is his most personal and important film. Made as he was emerging from a period of severe depression, he says it approximates a pure “scream” that expresses his feelings of anxiety, despair, and rage. Because of its extremity, numerous critics have condemned Antichrist as indecent, pornographic, and misogynistic.

But there is something more than indecency or self-indulgence at work in von Trier’s Antichrist. While the explicit violence and brutality in the film may be expressive of the director’s own emotional struggles, the significance of this imagery transcends his personal psychology, casting light on wider issues concerning the nature of human suffering and spiritual transformation. The violence in Antichrist is nihilistic in character; but it is nihilistic in an active sense, evoking the “violent force of destruction” that Nietzsche claimed precedes and opens the way for a transvaluation of values.

Von Trier confesses that the title of his film, Antichrist, was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s book of the same name; a book that von Trier claims to have kept on his bed stand ever since he was twelve years old. This biographical detail is an insight into how intimately the director has been influenced and affected by Nietzsche’s thought. To understand von Trier’s Antichrist, then, it helps first to understand Nietzsche’s Antichrist. The consonance between these two works sheds a great deal of light not just on the meaning of the violence in von Trier’s film, but on the world-shattering nature of nihilistic violence in general.

Rioting as a Means of Discourse

I wrote the following essay in 1993, during the outbreak of rioting after the verdict in the Rodney King case. It originally appeared in Twilight of the Idols #7. It was reprinted in Radical Pizza, and in The Nihilist’s Notebook.

I was 28 years old when I wrote this essay. Reading it now reminds me of how little the world has changed:

Rioting as a Means of Discourse

19th Avenue was blocked by police cars, and by this time in the afternoon it was pretty obvious why. All day long television news coverage had been solely devoted to the riots and protests in LA after the “not guilty” ruling in the case against the police officers who had beaten Rodney King. It didn’t take much imagination to realize that direct action was more than possible in our own fair city of San Francisco. After experiencing the protests during the Gulf War and seeing the fires, vandalism, and blockades, it would actually have been shocking if similar disruptions didn’t occur this time around.

I ride a motorcycle, so I wasn’t too worried about getting caught in a mob. If things got too claustrophobic I could always find a gap to slip through, or even just take to the sidewalk to make my escape (sidewalks tend to be less crowded than streets during protests). After bypassing a police roadblock at 19th and Sloat, circling around through Stonestown Shopping Center and back up to 19th, I arrived where the trouble lay. A group of about 100 people were gathered outside of San Francisco State University, crowded into the middle of the street with newspaper vending machines and shopping carts acting as an impromptu barricade against traffic.

Analysts frequently resort to the “powder keg” analogy when discussing riots. The idea is that when large groups gather in public, an inherently unstable and volatile situation is created. A powder keg, however, just doesn’t “happen.” Someone has to pack the keg with powder, insert a fuze, and ignite the charge, so if we want to utilize the analogy we should follow it all the way through. By the laws of strict causality, the responsibility for any resultant explosion lies with he who lights the fuze. If the people who populate our urban areas are potential TNT, then the cops, judges, and law makers who frustrate, coerce, and abuse them are the match holders. No one is surprised when a powder keg detonates, so why the surprise when a population explodes?

The protesters outside of SF State were facing off with a Muni bus and its driver who refused to turn back down the road. She was yelling and gesturing towards the crowd, and the crowd was returning in kind. It was quite apparent that this barricade was not going to move, and that if the bus driver persisted in her provocations, her vehicle would end up as yet another piece of debris in the barricade. Suddenly the bus lurched forward, threatening to mow down the members of the protest, but instead of scattering they moved toward the bus, throwing whatever was at hand under its wheels. A few moments of thought later and the driver began a long, backwards journey down 19th Avenue, just in time to miss the “spontaneous” chanting provoked by a couple of newcomers to the scene.

After this bit of confrontation, I decided to take advantage of the lack of traffic on 19th to make a speedy journey home. I raced down the wrong side of the street, past Stonestown, towards the police roadblock at the other end of the road. A police officer tried to flag me down, but hey, all of this social disruption was the result of cops stopping a motorist. By allowing myself to be stopped I could be contributing to still more unrest. So, true to my sensitivities, I swerved around the cop, ignoring a line of road flares, crossed over to the right side of the road, and continued on course.

My bit of excitement for the day was nothing compared to the pandemonium that ensued elsewhere that evening. On television I witnessed looting, burning, and fighting on Market Street. It looked like a street carnival. Aerial footage of LA resembled the map from the beginning of Bonanza. I was simultaneously envious of those taking part and anxious about my personal safety. In the end, the concern for safety won out and I locked myself inside the apartment and sat transfixed by the violence on TV.

A funny thing about the TV coverage of the riots: the press were obsessed with the looting that took place and, it seemed to me, they considered this phenomenon to be far worse than the arson, shootings, and fighting with police. Frustration and anger could understandably be vented through acts of destruction, violence and mayhem, but taking consumer goods from stores was obviously a sign that the people involved were motivated solely motivated by greed! Time and time again, newscasters referred to the “thugs” and “criminals” who took advantage of the chaotic situation to perpetrate crimes. These individuals (so our dour faced correspondents informed us) would be doing these things regardless of the circumstances. What wasn’t explained was why all of these “thugs” and “criminals” decided to loot and pillage right after the court decision. Was it mere coincidence?

In San Francisco, a big deal was made over the fact that 90% of those arrested for rioting were white, and that the predominately black neighborhoods remained fairly quiet throughout the whole affair. The news media, using one part “powder keg” analogy and two parts “opportunistic criminal” explanation seemed at a loss as how to account for this fact. Certainly, they were quick to give a condescending pat on the back to the black community for “keeping its cool,” but at the same time there seemed to be confusion. Why would whites be so quick to demonstrate in such overwhelming numbers?

What no one in the media wants to admit is that there is a wide-spread dissatisfaction in this country on the part of those whose voices are not heard, and whose opinions are deligitimized. This is a group made up of many colors and ages, but what they have in common is an intense frustration with a system which allows them to speak only through the mouths of professional representatives. The opportunities for “direct action” are few and far between, so personal expression is most often forfeited to the media, judges, and political representatives. It is through these “legitimate” mouths that definitions are made for the rest of us. But more and more it becomes obvious that the definitions made by the few legitimate voices are definitions not acceptable to the many delegitimized voices. The power to control the realm of allowable perspectives is the power to control the population, and the power to control the population allows for a few to dominate the many.

The recent riots and protests are an example of what happens when definitions made by the legitimate few are transparently defective. Outrage over the Rodney King court case is outrage over the ineptitude with which our supposed representatives flubbed up the definitions of “right” and “wrong.” If police can rightly beat a citizen that badly, how wrong can it be to burn a building and smash a window? The media makes matters worse by positing faulty analogies and simplistic explanations in their coverage, further silencing alternative voices and staking out artificial boundaries of “true” and “false.”

Instead of the “powder keg” analogy I suggest the “powder puff” analogy. We all know that a little bit of makeup serves to smooth over and hide unsightly defects and blemishes. A touch of the powder puff can eliminate a shiny nose or cover up an ugly pimple. The media, our judges and politicians are quite aware of the importance of appearances. They don’t care about actually eliminating social problems, but simply about redefining them or giving them a certain appearance. With the application of the powder puff, widespread public frustration becomes simple criminality, criminality becomes “justifiable force,” public protest becomes “trouble making,” and vapid news reporting becomes insightful journalism.

What a bunch of crap.


Shelter in Place

Oh, I know it’s an absurd situation, but we’re all involved in it, and we’ve got to accept it as it is.

— The Plague, by Albert Camus

The shelter in place order has been active for about a month now here in California, and the reactions people are exhibiting in response to enforced isolation are dramatic. On the one hand, there are those who enthusiastically have embraced the stay at home order as if it is a new religion. In addition to praising the slower pace of life, they highlight the reduced rates of crime, the lower number of traffic fatalities, and the immense savings to the state that have resulted – apparently about a billion dollars for California so far. From this perspective, flattening the curve of the pandemic has been an unexpected reminder of a simpler, more relaxed way of life; one that it would, perhaps, be best to continue, to one degree or another, after the COVID-19 threat wanes.

On the other hand, there are those who want things quickly to “get back to normal.” They emphasize that there are too many people who have lost their jobs and joined the rolls of the unemployed. There are the business owners who have had to close their doors and are uncertain whether they will ever open up again. Worshipers are unable to pray together in their churches. Additionally there is the restlessness and anxiety of those who can’t stand to be confined to their homes. The boredom, the drinking, and an increased incidence of domestic violence all speak to the negative, destructive side of social isolation, which some people see as worse than the viral threat that provoked these measures in the first place. As a result, across the country, protestors have gathered to resist the stay at home order, claiming that not only has it put their livelihoods at risk, but it has also violated their Constitutional and religious rights.

I have friends who express both attitudes. Some are restless, impatient and angry about having their lives interrupted by the pandemic. They are resentful of the government for restricting their movements and telling them where they can and can’t go. Others have settled into a new, more relaxed daily routine that has, ironically, reduced their usual feelings of darkness and depression. With the pressures of work and social interactions diminished or eliminated, their lives have become much simplified and calmer.

I understand and sympathize with both groups. Though my own job seems relatively secure, I’ve been more anxious than ever about what would happen if I did get laid off and couldn’t pay my bills. My life would be altered drastically. But to a certain extent, it already has been. Though I’ve learned to use video conferencing to meet online with my philosophy students, it’s a poor replacement for our face-to-face conversations in class, which I miss. It feels like a big, important part of my life has been taken away, and I long, anxiously, for the day when it is restored. Additionally, while it might seem trivial, I’m sad that my band has been forced to cancel practices and postpone gigs. I miss the camaraderie found in playing music. I miss hiking with my friends. I miss family gatherings. I miss parties.

And yet I’ve also come to appreciate the slower, more unhurried pace of daily life under the stay at home order. I’ve been forced to abandon my normal, restless compulsion to go to the gym, run errands, and constantly be busy. Instead I’ve rediscovered the relaxation of just sitting on the deck with my wife my dog and my cat, snoozing and reading. I’ve become reacquainted with my neighborhood and neighbors now that I go running outside rather than on a treadmill indoors. I have more time to write and to just think.

So, I’m finding the pandemic is having ambiguous effects on my life; some bad and some good. And because of this, I don’t believe that things can, or should, go back exactly to the way they were before the pandemic. Life before the pandemic was never “normal” in the first place.

Before the shelter in place order, “normal” people were expected to spend most their days fixated on external concerns; on work, on entertainment, on errands, on the usual daily routines of conventional life. After the shut down of the economy, when many of the daily routines that encourage people to remain externally preoccupied collapsed, many of us have turned inward, asking ourselves difficult and uncomfortable questions about what is really important and what life is really all about. Instead of running here and there thoughtlessly taking care of business, forced isolation has encouraged some of us to engage in greater degrees of self-reflection and self-examination. And while many people have resisted this inward turn – through drinking too much, using drugs, or watching too much TV – I find myself increasingly welcoming the opportunity to do something that too often got neglected in my pre-pandemic life. The altered pace of the last month has reminded me that quiet, contemplative, non-productive thought is its own reward.

While philosophy has been the center of my private and professional life for a long time, the “normal” world discourages the pursuit of philosophy for its own sake. There is always the expectation that it should yield some tangible, useful result in order to be valuable: a publication, a presentation, a job, an answer. The shake up of my old routine has reminded me that this is a lie, that philosophical reflection is intrinsically valuable, and that a life without it is hollow. As Socrates said at his trial, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It sometimes takes a crisis to remind us of this simple truth.

Philosophy, Humor, and the Human Condition

On February 28th, I participated in an author meets critics session at the Central Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association, in Chicago. This is the text of my presentation:

Author Meets Critics: Philosophy, Humor, and the Human Condition: Taking Ridicule Seriously, by Lydia Amir (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

Critic: John Marmysz


In Philosophy, Humor, and the Human Condition: Taking Ridicule Seriously, Lydia Amir argues in favor of a worldview that she calls Homo risibilis; a perspective portraying humans as “ridiculous” animals. She characterizes the human condition as “ridiculous” in order to highlight our hopeless entanglement in the enduring incongruities and contradictions of life; incongruities between our ultimate desires and the impossibility of their final fulfillment. Humans, for instance, desire Truth, and yet our intellectual capacities are finite and unable to fully grasp the absolute Truth. We desire Goodness, Justice, Beauty, etc. and yet we are incapable of actualizing these ideals. Human life, in its essence, involves vain and endless striving for things that are impossible to actualize. So long as we live, we are trapped by the irresolvable contradictions between our aspirational desires and our reasonable capacities; and there is nothing that we can do to resolve and settle these contradictions. They are simply part of the human condition. Human life is ridiculous in this sense.

Traditionally, this condition has been interpreted as tragic. In tragedy, darkness and sadness color our interpretations of the world, encouraging us to view our ridiculous condition as painful and dissatisfying. And yet, argues Amir, there is another option open to us. The ridiculous incongruities of life can also be interpreted through the lens of comedy, a perspective that sees the world as a joyful and happy place where everything is just as it should be. It is possible to make the shift from a tragic to a comic perspective on life, argues Amir, because both tragic and comic perspectives represent responses to incongruity. And it is preferable to view the world through a comic lens, she argues, because of the joyfulness and happiness that such a perspective brings.

The benefits of shifting to a comic perspective, according to Amir, are powerful. Instead of feeling crushed and stressed by life, the comic perspective helps relieve the tension generated by the absurdity of our existence, allowing us to become reconciled to, and satisfied with, our condition. This aids us in transcending the unhappiness we often feel about our lives. With humor and comedy, we can embrace our ridiculous condition, become liberated from our dissatisfaction, overcome our alienation, and embrace life for what it really is: an amusing, ongoing and never ending navigation through a world filled with contradictions and incongruities.

In the first chapter of her book, Amir makes a distinction between tragedy as an art-form and “the tragic vision” of life (p. 2). As a literary art-form, tragedy is derived from a prior, more fundamental vision of life that sees the world as torn between conflicting forces. This vision has been articulated in at least three ways, according to Amir: First, there is the “absurd” vision, championed by Camus (p. 11), which identifies a conflict between the human desire for meaning and the impossibility of satisfying that desire. Second, there is the Sartrean view that characterizes human beings as caught between the contradictory demands of the self and others [“Hell is other people”] (p. 12). Finally, there is the Kantian perspective that claims while humans are naturally drawn toward addressing metaphysical questions (Does God exist? Does the universe have a beginning? Is the soul immortal?) they nevertheless lack the capacity to answer these ultimate questions using reason (p. 13). In all of these cases, there is a disconnect between what humans desire and what they can ultimately achieve. We desire meaning, but it eludes us. We desire both to be individuals and to be part of a community, but these desires contradict one another. We desire answers to our ultimate questions about the universe, but our reason is incapable of answering these most important questions.

This all sounds very depressing and frustrating, and so it is no wonder that traditionally these reflections have contributed to a dark and tragic vision of life. If you accept these ideas, then our condition is one in which the most deeply held human desires must go unfulfilled. The tragic vision is one attempt to impart a dark sort of affirmation and meaning to this condition. But there is also another very common reaction in which thinkers rebel against the contradictions implied by the human condition, treating our shared human situation as a “problem” and thus as something that needs to be solved. In rejecting the tragic interpretation of life, many thinkers instead turn toward philosophy and religion to solve the “problem” of life.

Philosophy and religion have long offered various solutions to the incongruity between human desire and those things that humans reasonably can attain in life. If the inconsistency between desire and reason could somehow be dissolved, then all of our problems would be over. According to Amir this leads to three common “solutions.” First, there is the approach advocated by systems like Buddhism, Hinduism, Epicureanism, Pyrrohnism, and by such modern philosophers as Schopenhauer and Russell. In this approach, it is suggested that we renounce our unreasonable desires in order to reconcile ourselves with the way the world actually presents itself to us in reality (pp. 49 – 52). The second approach is one advocated by various Western religions and by Nietzsche and the German Idealists. In this approach, it is reason that is renounced so that desire can be partially or wholly satisfied (pp. 52 – 54). Finally, there are various forms of mysticism – such as Taoism – that denigrate both desire and reason, encouraging humans to transcend the apparent contradiction between what we want and what we can reasonably attain (pp. 54 – 55). What all three of these approaches share in common is that they view the human condition as a problem; as something to be solved and overcome. As such, according to Amir, their goal is to dehumanize us; to make us into something other than human. Amir’s contention, thus, is that none of these “solutions” are really desirable. Instead, she argues that we should strive to become reconciled to the inherently contradictory nature of the human condition.

Humor has the potential to help us do this. Although it is rooted in the same source as tragedy, humor, according to Amir, addresses the incongruities of life from a different perspective than does the tragic vision. A sense of humor finds amusement in incongruities, interpreting them as comedic rather than tragic, and thus derives joy and happiness from what might otherwise cause suffering and pain. Humor does this by being tolerant of multiple, but conflicting, perspectives. This tolerance derives from humor’s tendency to detach us from our emotions and from our own egoistic desires. Whereas the tragic vision is preoccupied with the suffering of the ego, the humorous attitude relinquishes egoistic desires, allowing us to look at ourselves and at the world objectively in terms of its incongruous nature.

Just as artistic tragedy grows out of the tragic vision of life, so too does the worldview of Homo risibilis grow out of a humorous attitude toward life. This worldview consists of the recognition that human life is rife with incongruities, and that one of the key incongruities characterizing our world is that between tragedy and comedy. Life is both tragic and comic, and instead of trying to resolve one of these interpretations into the other, Homo risibilis instead accepts the truth of this conflict and derives joy from the ongoing repetition of its contemplation. According to Amir, this worldview offers a complete affirmation of the world, sublating all lower level incongruities into an all-encompassing meta-perspective that neither claims to offer a final understanding of reality, nor that abandons the passionate engagement with life. Homo risibilis overcomes individual alienation by recognizing and accepting the world for what it is: a place of irresolvable contradictions and incongruities that are at once tragic and comic. And in doing this, it reaches a paradoxical conclusion: “The incongruity that gives rise to the tragic and the comic will not be perceived as incongruous anymore” (p. 155). Through the perspective of Homo risibilis, the human condition is understood, paradoxically, to be congruous in its incongruity:

“The worldview I propose here amounts to a harmonious congruence with myself, others and the world, a situation that all philosophies seek to establish in their attempts to overcome alienation. [This worldview considers] conflicts as normal because they are constitutive of the complex being that I am and of the complicated relations I entertain with a world I do not fully understand” (p. 238).

Amir argues that Homo risibilis is the best alternative to the religions and philosophies that it competes with. Religions, in general, are inadequate, she claims, because they rest on something other than reason, and so are “lax” in their approach to understanding. They also, like many philosophies, rest on questionable metaphysical assumptions that must be accepted uncritically. Homo risibilis, on the other hand, is not dependent on any such beliefs, remaining open to new discoveries and skeptical of taken-for-granted assumptions about reality. In this, it is epistemologically skeptical (which Amir thinks is a benefit) and it presents an ethical picture of humankind as sharing a common condition, thus promoting compassion among humans while also encouraging joy and happiness in individuals.


Philosophy, Humor, and the Human Condition: Taking Ridicule Seriously is thoroughly researched, and draws from a comprehensive body of both classical and contemporary scholarship in the philosophy of humor. Amir does an impressive job of synthesizing this literature and harnessing it in support of her own original argument in favor of Homo risibilis.

I do have a few criticisms, questions and comments concerning two related issues in Amir’s book. First, I will address Amir’s claim for the uniqueness of her proposal concerning Homo risibilis. Second, I will call into question Amir’s conclusions regarding what she characterizes as the necessarily affirmative psychological effects of the worldview that she proposes.

Amir compares her conception of Homo risibilis to the contemporary theories of Cohen, Critchley, and Marmysz (pp. 151 – 154), acknowledging that all of these theories present the humorous perspective as a manner of responding to the incongruities of the world while steering away from tragedy and encouraging the affirmation and embrace of reality. However, Amir insists that her perspective is even “more radical” than these other proposals insofar as it “enables a celebration of humanity, allowing the individual to accept finitude and grace his folly” (p. 152 – 153). My question in this regard has to do with the precise manner in which the proposal of Homo risibilis is “more radical” than these other theories.

It seems to me the most obvious way that Amir’s proposal might be considered more radical than other theories advocating humor’s affirmative power has to do with the ultimate meta-perspective that Homo risibilis carries us to, as described in Chapter 6 of her book. It is here that Amir suggests that a joyful state of mind emerges for the individual who reaches this epiphany. In this epiphanic state of mind, perception of the world’s incongruity seems to be dissolved when Homo risibilis comes to understand that the incongruity between tragedy and comedy is not incongruous at all, but a completely congruent aspect of a larger reality. To quote: “The incongruity that gives rise to the tragic and the comic will not be perceived as incongruous anymore” (p. 155). In the end, it sounds as if Amir is gesturing toward a perspective in which there is a monistic sublation of the world’s contradictions in the thought of Homo risibilis. In other words, despite its contradictory and incongruent appearance, the world as a whole is not contradictory or incongruent with itself. It is a single, “harmonious” whole that is more than the sum total of the parts.

Now, if this is what Amir is claiming, then it seems to me that she may be very close to repeating a strategy that she criticizes in many other philosophies and religions. If incongruity is not a “problem” in the first place, then why does Homo risibilis feel a need to resolve the incongruity between the tragic and comedic elements of life into a “higher level” harmonious congurity at all? Recall that Amir suggests (in Chapter 2) that there are three “solutions” commonly offered to dissolve the troubling incongruities of the human condition: 1. Deny desire; 2. Deny reason; 3. Offer a way beyond both desire and reason. All of these “solutions” view the human condition as a “problem,” and are focused on eradicating the incongruities characterizing human existence in order to solve this problem. According to Amir, the denial of desire is common to many Eastern religions (like Buddhism), while the denial of reason is common to Western religions (like Christianity) and the transcendence of both desire and reason is common to mystical philosophies/religions (like Taoism).

Amir herself claims that humor helps us to be more “objective” and to distance ourselves from emotion. In this way, she characterizes humor as allied with reason (p. 180). So, in advocating an attitude of humor toward our condition, is she leaning in direction number 1: the denial of desire? Is Homo risibilis just another way of talking about a non-theistic religion of the sort that we find in Buddhism? In Buddhism, the goal is to accept the world as it is, independent of how we desire it to be. This is the point of nirvana, which to me sounds suspiciously similar to Amir’s suggestion that Homo risibilis allows the “individual to accept finitude” exorcising “hubris and egotism” (p. 153). It also sounds quite similar to non-dual Hinduism, in which the dichotomies of the world are transcended and all is understood to be a manifestation of one underlying and completely congruent, self-sufficient reality. In coming to understand tragedy and comedy to be completely congruent with one another, doesn’t the perspective of Homo risibilis execute a similar transcendence?

And this raises a further question for me. If humor is a reaction to incongruity, then once one attains the perspective of Homo risibilis, thus coming to understand the world as completely congruent in its incongruity, how can humor survive? Does Homo risibilis become a humorless perspective, something like a sublime form of mysticism?

The second issue that I’d like to address is Amir’s claim that the transition from a tragic to a comic perspective in Homo risibilis is necessarily accompanied by happiness, joy, and a compassionate, ethical attitude toward others. My thoughts on this issue started to materialize as I was watching the recent Academy Award winning film Joker. This film dramatizes precisely the perspectival transition that Amir describes in her book, with a central protagonist who inhabits a world of tragic pain and suffering but who then switches his perspective in order to view the absurdities of his world through the lens of comedy. The result, however, is not joy, happiness, or compassion, but rather psychosis, cynicism and brutality. The Joker becomes someone who treats the human condition as one big, sick joke. With the eradication of his own ego, he no longer cares if he lives, dies, or suffers. And he treats others with the same sort of detached cruelty that he treats himself.

Now, Joker is just a movie, but it does illustrate something that seems like a distinct possibility in the real world. Isn’t it possible that with the adoption of a comic perspective we might become so insensitive to the absurdity of the world that we could become less joyful, happy, and compassionate and instead become more insensitive, cruel, and cynical? Isn’t there a cruelty to laughter, humor, and comedy that is underestimated by Amir? After all, one of the oldest ways of explaining the power of humor and comedy, going all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, is in terms of superiority and dominance. According to this view, when we laugh at someone, we raise ourselves above the object of laughter, belittling and denigrating the target. We laugh down at people, making ourselves feel powerful at the expense of others. This suggests just the opposite of a compassionate stance in the humorist; one that potentially promotes a callous attitude toward the suffering of others. Is it possible that Homo risibilis could turn out to be more cruel than kind?


Overall, I find myself agreeing with most of what Amir argues in her book. I agree with her premise that the human condition is not a problem to be “solved” and that our reactions to life’s incongruities can take the forms of tragedy or comedy. I also agree that there are a number of affirmative aspects to the humorous, over the tragic, attitude toward life. However, I question whether it is desirable (or even possible) to adopt a final, meta-perspective that successfully and definitively synthesizes the comic and the tragic views of life.

Nonetheless, as with any worthwhile work of philosophy, it is the questions Lydia Amir’s book raises, rather than the answers that she provides, which make her efforts so interesting. The concept of Homo risibilis is one that I will continue to turn over in my mind for quite some time, and I look forward to further discussion of its precise contours, its meaning, it implications, as well as the methods by which it might be realized in thought.

The End of the World

It’s starting to feel like the end of the world here in lovely Marin County, California.

A few weeks ago I returned from the Central Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association, which took place in Chicago. In addition to participating in a couple of sessions on the philosophy of humor, I had the opportunity to reconnect with some folks from my past, including my dissertation advisor and an old friend and roommate from graduate school. I also attended some interesting presentations, including a talk by Daniel Dennett about autonomy and determinism, and a fascinating symposium on the sublime and awe. I didn’t get to see much of the city, but I was able to pop out with my friend one afternoon to get some Chicago deep-dish pizza at a pub around the corner from the hotel.

While at the conference, the COVID-19 virus was not even on my mind. Upon my return home, however, it has been nearly the only thing I can think about. A week after the conference, both my wife and I got sick just before the beginning of spring break. I developed a fever and body aches concentrated in my torso. My wife also developed a fever and then came down with pneumonia. At the hospital, she was given a chest x-ray, prescribed antibiotics and steroids, and was told by the doctor that she probably had COVID-19, but that since she is younger than 65 years-old she does not qualify for a test. It wouldn’t have made any difference anyway (other than to document the illness), since there is no special treatment.

And then the shelter-in-place order took effect. We have been told to avoid large groups and any unnecessary travel. We are supposed to stay at home as much as possible. All unessential businesses are closed. This is all in order to try and slow the spread of the virus; to blunt the curve of those who get sick so that hospitals are not overwhelmed with patients. The ominous message is clear: things are going to get worse.

College of Marin notified instructors that all of our classes are moving online for the remainder of the semester. I’ve taught most of my classes as internet courses at one point or another, so I was not as unprepared for this as were some of my colleagues and friends who had to scramble to upload their course materials and learn how to use the online tools. The abrupt transition is going to make for a bumpy ride all around.

In addition to dealing with my online classes, all of this at-home time has given me the chance to work on a couple of papers that I’ve promised to write (one on humor and nihilism, and another on violence and nihilism), and to re-read George Orwell’s 1984; a book that has predicted our current cultural situation better than any other dystopian novel ever written. It’s all in there: perpetual war, zenophobia, double-speak, thoughtcrime, Big-Brother.

We are definitely not living in doubleplus good times.

The Philosophy of Humor Yearbook

Editor-in-Chief: Amir, Lydia

In cooperation with Destrée, Pierre / Gimbel, Steven / James, Christine A. / Marmysz, John / Olin, Lauren / Lintott, Sheila

Aims and Scope

The Philosophy of Humor Yearbook covers the various intersections of philosophy with humor (and laughter, irony, and the comical), historically and contemporarily, descriptively and prescriptively, seriously and jocularly. It welcomes excellent academic papers of both the analytic and continental traditions, reviews of relevant books, announcements of forthcoming events, and a section dedicated to humorous short papers on philosophical topics.


Type of Publication:
Philosophy of Humor
Scholars, institutes, libraries

Editorial Information

Lydia Amir (Editor-in-Chief), Tufts University, Medford, MA, USA.

Associate Editors

Pierre Destrée, University of Louvain, Louvain, Belgium; Steven Gimbel, Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania, PA, USA; Christine A. James, Valdosta State University, Valdosta, GA, USA; Sheila Lintott, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA, USA; John Marmysz, College of Marin, Kentfield, CA, USA;¸Lauren Olin University of Missouri, St. Louis, USA.

Editorial Board Members

Noël Carroll, CUNY, New York, NY, USA; Simon Critchley, The New School, New York, NY, USA; Daniel Dennett, Tufts University, Medford, MA, USA; Stephen Halliwell, Emeritus, St. Andrews University, St. Andrews, UK; Kathleen Higgins, University of Texas, Austin, TX, USA; John Lippitt, University of Notre Dame, Sydney, NSW, Australia; John Morreall, Emeritus, The College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA, USA; Robert C. Roberts, Emeritus, Baylor University, Waco, TX, USA; Quentin Skinner, Queen Mary University of London, UK.

Submissions should be sent to the Editor at

APA Central Division Philosophy of Humor Meetings

APA Central Division, Chicago 2020

The International Association for the Philosophy of Humor


Three groups meetings


Thursday, February 27 Thursday evening, 7:30pm – 10:30pm


G3P. International Association for the Philosophy of Humor

“West and East: Humor in the History of Philosophy”

Chair: Lydia Amir (Tufts University/ Founding-President of the International Association for the Philosophy of Humor)

Introduction: Presentation of the Association (IAPH):

Announcement of a new journal, The Philosophy of Humor Yearbook (first volume, June 2020).

Announcement of a new book series, De Gruyter Studies in Philosophy of Humor (2021).


1. John Marmysz (College of Marin)

“That’s Not Funny: The Humor of Diogenes”

2. Lydia Amir (Tufts University)

“Clarifying Montaigne’s Thought through Homo risibilis: How the Philosophy of Humor Bears on Unresolved Problems of Interpretation”

3. Jonathan Weidenbaum (Berkeley College, New York)

“To Laugh in a Pluralistic Universe: The Relevance of William James for the Philosophy of Humor”

4. Choong-Su Han (Ehwa Womans University, Seoul, South Korea)

“An Elucidation of the Meaning of the Buddha’s Smile”

5. John Charles Simon (Independent Scholar)

“From Wildlife Biologist to Laughter Theorist: One Lone Scientist’s Relentless Pursuit of Obscurity”


Friday, February 28 Friday evening, 7:00pm – 10:00pm


G4U. International Association for the Philosophy of Humor

“Author-meets-critics, Lydia Amir’s Taking Ridicule Seriously: Philosophy, Humor, and the Human Condition.”

Chair: John Marmysz (College of Marin)

Author: Lydia Amir (Tufts University)


1. John Marmysz (College of Marin)

2. Michael Picard (Douglas College, Vancouver, Canada)


Saturday, February 29 Saturday afternoon, 2:00pm – 5:00pm


G5D. International Association for the Philosophy of Humor

“Philosophy of Humor”

Chair: Lydia Amir (Tufts University/ Founding-President of the International Association for the Philosophy of Humor)

Introduction: Presentation of the Association (IAPH):

Announcement of a new journal, The Philosophy of Humor Yearbook (first volume, June 2020).

Announcement of a new book series, De Gruyter Studies in Philosophy of Humor (2021).


1. Matthew Meyer (The University of Scranton)

“Between Tragedy and Comedy: Nietzsche’s Zarathustra IV as Zwischenspiel”

2. Lauren Olin (Center for Neurodynamics, University of Missouri- St. Louis)

“Comic Dispositionalism”

3. Michael K. Cundall, Jr., (North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University)

“Why the Case for Humor and Health Isn’t as Weak as Thought: Methodological Paranoia We Can Laugh At”

4. Michael Picard (Douglas College, Vancouver, Canada)

“Achenbach, Humor and Philosophical Praxis”

5. Dianna Niebylski (University of Illinois)

“20th and 21st Century Philosophies of Women’s Humor”