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On Philosophers: Part Lawyer, Part Comedian

I must first begin by telling you that I am an academically trained student and teacher of philosophy. Not only that, but I have decided to rough it outside the ivory tower. This becomes an issue because philosophy is thought by many to be of no practical value in the world – philosophy trains one in staring at their own navel. This idea comes from a misrepresentation and misunderstanding of what philosophy is and does. As a result of these misconceptions, the philosopher not pursuing a career in academia enters the working world with a disadvantage and must often defend their skills and expertise. That is what I am going to do right here, but indirectly. Instead, I’m going to argue that it is fruitful to consider a philosopher as a cross between a lawyer and a comedian.

Lawyers are at least experts at The Law. Thus, lawyers are usually in the position of determining and demonstrating whether particular acts are within the bounds of The Law or not. The People commonly find this to be important to society and worthy of protection via compensation. Comedians are usually in the position of provoking mirth in others. These others commonly find mirth to be valuable and something worthy of protection as well. Philosophers are thought to possess none of these tangible skills. In fact, philosophers are thought by many to sow the seeds of atheism and nihilism.1 Philosophy doesn’t advocate nihilism; nihilism is often resorted to (at least temporarily) in order even attempt to make sense out of the world. Philosophy just attempts to make sense out of everything.

To see the humorous in life, often the comedian must view society and culture from the outside; the comedian must “step-back” in order to see the absurdity. Philosophy itself could be described as the science2 of “stepping-back”. Likewise, lawyers often must often contain their private judgments, but lawyers are bound to The Law. As soon as you step-back from The Law and question whether The Law is good and should be upheld, you are doing philosophy. Philosophers are also importantly bound by laws: The philosopher recognizes that he is bound by Truth, and he attempts to divine this. Lawyers and philosophers share another proclivity (or prolixity?, depending on which ones you’ve met): Both are bound to reason-giving and argumentation. Lawyers and philosophers don’t just make arguments, but they must be as good (or even better) at evaluating arguments – determining the good from the bad.

Next, I would like to attempt to arrange the three disciplines at hand according to the gravity of each, as I hope my point to be a counterintuitive one. On an intuitive level, philosophy would seem to be the most grave and comedy the least, law falling in between. But I want to say that the mood of philosophy is similar to comedy. Philosophy is serious stuff, but it is ethereal (you can’t point at it, that is why many think that philosophers are useless navel-gazers). The philosophy teacher asks the student (or reader) to put aside their “opinions” and attempt to be “rational”, i.e. consider the evidence and reasons for what they are and not what you want them to be. This is the sense in which philosophy encourages a type of freedom: Freedom of thought from dogma and bias. Thus, the classroom is sequestered from the world, as is the comedian?s stage. The courtroom, on the other hand, seems very much “in the world”. Lawyers are always bound to particular cases and their nitty-gritty details. Herein, I am arguing, lies the gravity of (at least the practice of) The Law. So, although philosophy may be the most grave (ultimately), I would like to say that the demeanor of philosophy (at its best) is characterized by its levity. The virtue and grace of the philosopher is in her rigorous ecumenicism.

Another similarity between the philosopher and the comedian is their sensitivity to intuitions. Comedians are sensitive to the audience’s intuitions, whether the audience is one person or one hundred. The comedian pushes buttons folks, and you can’t poke buttons that aren’t there. The great comedian must act wisely, as they have their finger on a wall of buttons. Philosophy is the study of a different set of buttons. In a Philosophy 101 class, these buttons will often be: Your most cherished beliefs. In America these days, the topic of God is the easiest route to this discussion. Many people shy away from challenging dialogues such as God and morality. What makes this discussion especially difficult is that they come down to intuitions and “opinions”.3 So, the great philosopher is able to direct the dialog gracefully into theoretical issues, is able to wallow peacefully with these issues, and is able to return everybody safely to firm ground again with minds limbered (the mind is a muscle).

The role of the philosopher just described also points to performative similarities among the three disciplines. In the public sphere, debate of the philosophical issues of The Law (are they good?) is often done through comedy. American liberty is famous for their comedies. It could even be argued that comedy makes the plunge into philosophical topics go down4 smoother (and without the aftertaste5). Here is a rhetorical question: Why is it that left-wing political commentary tends to be much more comedic? But seriously, trial lawyers must also perform and thus there is an important element of finesse and charisma involved. And the philosopher, whether in person or print, if they are philosophizing they are performing (I would call it „demonstrating?).

  1. There is something to be said for this: the atheist/nihilist/etc. is usually just a stage on the path. []
  2. Yes, “science”, as mathematics is a science. As in the German wissenschaft. []
  3. When people say, “that’s just my opinion”, what people mean is, “my intuition is that X is true”. []
  4. Reference to Nietzsche. []
  5. Comedy actually tends to leave people with a kind of glow. []