The Writes of Passage

Humor in Philosophy

Compiled by Norman Swartz.

Over the years, I have come across some passages in philosophical writings that have tickled my funnybone. Sometimes the humor was intentional, other times it was inadvertent (the product, simply, of bad writing). In any case, here are a few of those paragraphs that have amused me. I have not indicated which are deliberately clever and which are simply unintentionally funny. Enjoy!

  • G.E. Moore
    And in order to point out to the reader what sorts of things I mean by sense-data, I need only ask him to look at his own right hand. If he does this he will be able to pick out something (and unless he is seeing double, only one thing) with regard to which he will see that it is, at first sight, a natural view to take, that that thing is identical, not indeed, with his whole right hand, but with that part of its surface which he is actually seeing, but will also (on a little reflection) be able to see that it is doubtful whether it can be identical with the part of the surface of his hand in question. Things of the sort (in a certain respect) of which this thing is, which he sees in looking at his hand, and with regard to which he can understand how some philosophers should have supposed it to be the part of the surface of his hand which he is seeing, while others have supposed that it can't be, are what I mean by sense-data. [9, p. 218]
  • O.K. Bouwsma
    And in order to point out to the reader what sorts of things I mean by --------, I need only ask him to look at the cook's right hand. If he does this he will be able to pick out something with regard to which he will see that it is at first a natural view to take, that that thing is identical not indeed with the cook's whole right hand, but with that part of its surface which he is actually (?) seeing but will also (on a little inspection) be able to see that it is doubtful whether it can be identical with the part of the hand in question. Things of the sort of which this thing is, which he sees in looking at the cook's hand, and with regard to which he can understand how some kitchen visitors should have supposed it to be the part of the surface of the cook's hand at which he was looking, while others have supposed that it can't be, are what I mean by rubber gloves. [2, p. 206]
  • Bertrand Russell
    The reason why physics has ceased to look for causes is that, in fact, there are no such things. The law of causality, I believe, like much that passes muster among philosophers, is a relic of a bygone age, surviving, like the monarchy, only because it is erroneously supposed to do no harm. [12]

  • Bertrand Russell
    I remember the precise moment, one day in 1894, as I was walking along Trinity Lane, when I saw in a flash (or thought I saw) that the ontological argument is valid. I had gone out to buy a tin of tobacco; on my way back, I suddenly threw it up in the air, and exclaimed as I caught it: 'Great Scott, the ontological argument is sound.' [11, p. 10]

  • Anthony Quinton
    There is no limit to the number of things that can be present at a particular map-reference, provided that they occur there at different times. Equally there is no limit to the number of things that can be in existence at a particular moment of time, provided that they are to be found at different places. But this boundless promiscuity of positions in space and time considered separately is replaced by the most rigorous propriety when they are conjoined. A complete, that is to say spatial and temporal, position is either monogamous or virginal, ontologically speaking. [10, p. 17]

  • Adolf Grünbaum
    Contrary to Kant, the specific structural difference between the right and left hands can be given a conceptual rather than only a denotatively intuitive characterization as follows: the group of Euclidean rigid motions is only a proper sub-group of the group of length-preserving ("non-enlarging") similarity mappings. For the determinant of the coefficients of the particular linear transformations constituting the latter type of similarity mappings must have either the value of +1 or the value -1. But only those similarity transformations whose determinant ("Jacobian") is +1 form the group of Euclidean rigid motions, the remainder being the reflections whose Jacobian is -1 and which include the case of Kant's left and right hands. [4, pp. 331-2]

  • R.D. Laing
    One has then got to the position in which one cannot think that one cannot think about what one cannot think about because there is a rule against thinking about the X, and a rule against thinking that there is a rule against thinking that one must not think about not thinking about certain things.

    If certain things cannot be thought about: and among the certain things that cannot be thought, is that there are certain things that cannot be thought, including the aforementioned thought, then: he who had complied with this calculus of anti-thoughts will not be aware that he is not aware that he is obeying a rule not to think that he is obeying a rule not to think about X. So he is not aware of X and not aware he is not aware of the rule against being not aware of X. By obeying a rule not to realize he is obeying a rule, he will deny that there is any rule he is obeying. [8, p. 42]

  • David Kaplan
    The present ending [of this paper] has been influenced by a number of different persons, most significantly by Saul Kripke and Charles Chastain. But they should not be held to blame for it. Furth, who also read the penultimate version, is responsible for any remaining deficiencies aside from Section IX about which he is skeptical. [7, p. 112n1, parenthetical gloss added.]

  • N.R. Hanson
    Seeing is an experience. A retinal reaction is only a physical state — a photochemical excitation. Physiologists have not always appreciated the differences between experiences and physical states. People, not their eyes, see. Cameras and eye-balls, are blind. Attempts to locate within the organs of sight (or within the neurological reticulum behind the eyes) some nameable called 'seeing' may be dismissed. That Kepler and Tycho do, or do not, see the same thing cannot be supported by reference to the physical states of their retinas, optical nerves or visual cortices: there is more to seeing than meets the eyeball. [5, pp. 6-7]

  • Michael A. Arbib
    "Why not be a rock?" If sheer survival and long life is the goal, what is superior to a rock? A rock has no problems, and even if, at the end of billions of years, a convict comes along with a sledge hammer and smashes the rock, at least it has a billion years of just sitting, which far transcends the human three score years and ten! So why aren't we all rocks? Unfortunately, earthly chemicals took a "wrong turn" a few billion years ago ... Once some moderately complex chemicals form, it is likely that they will form aggregates that are autocatalytic: reactions occur in which a chemical triggers the production of more chemicals like itself. Once that epochal "mistake" had been made, there was no turning back. [1, p. 62]

  • Richard Taylor
    One imagines that he is deeply, perpetually, unavoidably aware of something he calls "I" or "me." The philosopher then baptizes this thing his self or perhaps his mind, and the theologian calls it his soul. It is, in any case, something that is at the very heart of things, the very center of reality, that about which the heavens and firmament revolve. But should you not feel embarrassment go talk in such a way, or even to play with such thoughts? As soon as you begin to try saying anything whatever about this inner self, this central reality, you find that you can say nothing at all. It seems to elude all description. All you can do, apparently, is refer to it; you can never say what is referred to, except by multiplying synonyms — as if the piling of names upon names would somehow guarantee the reality of the thing named! But as soon as even the least description is attempted, you find that what is described is indistinguishable from absolute nothingness. Then when you realize that you began by fearing nothingness, that it was this invincible nothingness that was making you miserable, driving you toward madness; when you go back and review your thought and feeling and find it leading to the most familiar thing imaginable, you feel like a child caught making faces at itself in the mirror. You feel like a child plunged into anxiety by a skin blemish or ill-fitting pants, the absurdity is so overwhelming. [13, p. 122]

  • G.E. Moore
    There exists at present a living human body, which is my body. This body was born at a certain time in the past, and has existed continuously ever since, though not without undergoing changes; it was, for instance, much smaller when it was born, and for some time afterwards, than it is now. Ever since it was born, it has either been in contact with or not far from the surface of the earth; and, at every moment since it was born, there have also existed many other things, having shape and size in three dimensions (in the same familiar sense in which it has), from which it has been at various distances (in the familiar sense in which it is now at a distance both from that mantelpiece and from that bookcase, and at a greater distance from the bookcase than it is from the mantelpiece); also there have (very often, at all events) existed some other things of this kind with which it was in contact (in the familiar sense in which it is now in contact with the pen I am holding in my right hand and with some of the clothes I am wearing). <Note 1> Among the things which have, in this sense, formed part of its environment (i.e. have been either in contact with it or at some distance from it, however great) there have, at every moment since its birth, been large numbers of other living human bodies, each of which has, like it, (a) at some time been born, (b) continued to exist from some time after birth, (c) been, at every moment of its life after birth, either in contact with or not far from the surface of the earth; and many of these bodies have already died and ceased to exist. <Note 2> [9, p. 194]

      Note 1: There are 145(!!) words in the just quoted sentence. — N.S.

      Note 2: However, this next sentence contains a mere 101 words. — N.S.

  • P.L. Heath
    Nothing is an awe-inspiring yet essentially undigested concept, highly esteemed by writers of a mystical or existential tendency, but by most others regarded with anxiety, nausea, or panic. Nobody seems to know how to deal with it (he would of course), and plain persons generally are reported to have little difficulty in saying, seeing, hearing, and doing nothing. ...

    The friends of nothing may be divided into two distinct though not exclusive classes: the know-nothings, who claim a phenomenological acquaintance with nothing in particular, and the fear-nothings, who, believing, with Macbeth, that "nothing is but what is not," are thereby launched into dialectical encounter with nullity in general. ...

    If nothing whatsoever existed, there would be no problem and no answer, and the anxieties even of existential philosophers would be permanently laid to rest. Since they are not, there is evidently nothing to worry about. But that itself should be enough to keep an existentialist happy. Unless the solution be, as some have suspected, that it is not nothing that has been worrying them, but they who have been worrying it. [6]

  • Martin Buber
    An animal's eyes have the power to speak a great language. Independently, without needing co-operation of sounds and gestures, most forcibly when they rely wholly on their glance, the eyes express the mystery in its natural prison, the anxiety of becoming. This condition of the mystery is known only by the animal, it alone can disclose it to us — and this condition only lets itself be disclosed, not fully revealed. The language in which it is uttered is what it says — anxiety, the movement of the creature between the realms of vegetable security and spiritual venture. This language is the stammering of nature at the first touch of spirit, before it yields to spirit's cosmic venture that we call man. But no speech will ever repeat what that stammering knows and can proclaim. [3, pp. 96-7]


  1. Arbib, Michael A., "The Likelihood of the Evolution of Communicating Intelligences on Other Planets", in Interstellar Communication: Scientific Perspectives edited by Cyril Ponnamperuma and A.G.W. Cameron, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1974, pp. 59-78.

  2. Bouwsma, O.K., "Moore's Theory of Sense-Data", in The Philosophy of G.E. Moore, Vol. IV of The Library of Living Philosophers, ed. P.A. Schilpp, Open Court Publishing, LaSalle, Illinois, 1942, pp. 203-221.

  3. Buber, Martin, I and Thou, 2nd edition, translated by Ronald Gregor Smith, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1958.

  4. Grünbaum, Adolf, Philosophical Problems of Space and Time, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1963.

  5. Hanson, Norwood Russell, Patterns of Discovery, Cambridge University Press, 1961.

  6. Heath, P.L., "Nothing", in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. V, pp. 524-5, ed. Paul Edwards, Macmillan and The Free Press, New York, 1967.

  7. Kaplan, David, "Quantifying In", in Words and Objections: Essays on the work of W.V.O. Quine, ed. by D. Davidson and J. Hintikka, D. Reidel Publishing Co., Dordrecht, 1969. Re-printed in Reference and Modality, ed. by Leonard Linsky, Oxford University, 1971. Page reference is to the latter edition.

  8. Laing, R.D., The Politics of the Family, CBC Publications, Toronto, 1969.

  9. Moore, George Edward, "A Defence of Common Sense", in Contemporary British Philosophy (2nd Series), ed. J.H. Muirhead, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1924.

  10. Quinton, Anthony, The Nature of Things, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1973.

  11. Russell, Bertrand, "My Mental Development", in The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell, ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp, (3rd edition), Tudor Publishing Company, New York, 1951.

  12. -----------, "On the Notion of Cause", Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 13 (1912-13); and in Mysticism and Logic (1st edition 1918; 2nd ed., 1929), ch. 9, pp. 180-208, Allen & Unwin, London.

  13. Taylor, Richard, Metaphysics, third edition, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1983.