Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Paris Diderot University Paris 7In the treatment of fallacies in early modern logic textbooks, we sometimes find the following gem: "This goat is yours; this goat is a mother; therefore, this goat is your mother." If this looks something like a joke it is with good reason, for the formal structure of a joke might well be described as a satire or inversion of logical inference. Like other species of fiction, jokes aim at truth by trafficking in mendacity. This is a dangerous business, and one that tends historically to make them the target of regulation or outright suppression wherever there is a narrow and monolithic account of what the truth is. Relatedly, jokes are a marker of intelligence, of the sort of playfulness of spirit that is valued in a free society. We have here then an instance of what I shall argue is a much more general paradox, whereby reason depends for its survival on regular subversion by unreason, just as for its health the body requires a dose of the very thing that makes it ill. Jokes, I would like to show, are irrational, yet rationality—and by implication, civil public discourse—depends upon them for its continued vitality.
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