What’s funny about puns?

I just got back from a week in Malibu, and along with that, I’m recovering from a pretty severe case of olympic fever.  What have I learned?  Simply this: some puns are funnier than others, and only partially because some work better orally than they do in writing.  For instance, consider the following three observations.

If I was going to compete in the Olympics, I would medal in other people’s business.

When some people visit the beach, they go shelling.  I’m more open than that.  When I visit the beach, I go Heidegger.

I think the name “Malibu” comes from a Chumash word for the aural intensity of the surf there (i.e., loud waves), but “Malibu” sounds too negative to signify that sacred sound.  A more positive name would be Malihooray, or better yet, Benihooray.

What can we conclude from this?  At the very least, we can probably agree that a lot of puns feel like bad jokes, but maybe the point of puns is less about being funny and more about performing some kind of phonosemantic alchemy, like Jesus using the “Peter is a rock (petros)” pun to enact the institution of his Church.


Schelling on the object of philosophy

This is a wonderful quotation from Schelling’s 1842 Philosophy of Mythology.  Here’s the German:

Bei jeder Erklärung ist das Erste, daß sie dem zu Erklärende Gerechtigkeit widersahren lasse, es nicht herabdrücke, herabdeute, ver kleinere oder verstümmle, damit es leichter zu begreifen sey.  Hier fragt sich nicht, welche Ansicht muß von der Erscheinung gewonnen werden, damit sie irgend einer Philosophie gemäß sich bequem erklären lasse, sondern umgekehrt, welche Philosophie wird gesordert, um dem Gegenstand gewachsen, aus gleicher Höhe mit ihm zu seyn. Nicht, wie muß das Phänomen gewendet, gedreht, vereinseitigt oder verkümmert werden, um aus Grundsätzen, die wir uns einmal vorgesetzt nicht zu überschreiten, noch allenfalls erklärbar zu seyn, sondern: wohin müssen unsere Gedanken sich erweitern, um mit dem Phänomen in Verhältniß zu stehen. 

Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, Philosophie der Mythologie: Volume 5, Schellings Werke, ed. Manfred Schröter (C. H. Beck, 1984), p. 3.

A translation:

With each explanation this is first: do justice to that which is to be explained, and do not suppress it, interpret it away, belittle it, or mutilate it in order to make it easier to conceptualize.  Here the question is not, “At what view of the phenomenon must we arrive to explain it in accordance with one or another philosophy?”  Rather the reverse, “What philosophy is requisite if we are to live up to the object, be on a level with it?”  It is not a question of how the phenomenon must be turned, twisted, confined, or atrophied so as to become explicable at all costs on grounds that we have completely resolved not to surpass. Rather, to what point must we enlarge our thought so that it is in proportion to the phenomenon?