Books editor’s blog: A funny thing happened on the way to ethics class

In Serious Larks, a collection of witty and wide-ranging essays from the philosopher Ted Cohen, a central theme is the need for rules and the pleasures of flouting them

May 10, 2018
stained glass moses

Ted Cohen (1939-2014), long based at the University of Chicago, was the kind of philosopher who could produce a book called Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters as well as an edited collection of Essays in Kant’s Aesthetics. So it is probably appropriate that a new selection of his writings is called Serious Larks: The Philosophy of Ted Cohen. In his introduction, Daniel Herwitz – a professor of comparative literature, philosophy and history of art based at the University of Michigan – recalls their first meeting in 1977, when he received “an extended lecture on the problem of penile frostbite and how it affects joggers in the Chicago winter”.

Herwitz soon got to expect and to love Cohen’s riffs on everything from “why Americans enjoy fast food” and “which university gyms have stained-glass windows” to “the nature of the beautiful and why Hegel was a million miles from understanding it” and “whether one has a moral duty to visit Auschwitz”. The new book is similarly wide-ranging, featuring lively, witty and accessible essays on everything from ceramics, Hitchcock, photography and the perfect gin to why jokes sometimes fall flat and how Cohen’s ageing grandfather managed to pass a driving test when he was manifestly a danger to himself and others. And, perhaps inevitably in a book by an American intellectual keen to display his “folksiness”, there are several discussions of the minutiae of baseball.

There are also occasional glimpses of university life. A chapter called “Ethics class” describes the experience of a philosopher with a particularly tiresome student who endlessly repeats his view that “there is no objective difference between right and wrong, and, further, that people, whatever they may say, always simply act in ways that will please them”. In the end, he decides to take him at his word, give him an undeservedly bad mark and, when challenged to change it, explains: “You’ve finally persuaded me that the only reason why anyone does anything is in order to further his own pleasure. It pleased me enormously to give you an F.”

If Serious Larks has a central theme, it is the need for rules and the pleasures of flouting them. Even the basic rules of games often contain intriguing logical contradictions and address some pretty unlikely scenarios, such as how to continue with a game of pool that has been interrupted by a hurricane or an earthquake. Just as metaphors explode our normal assumptions about what words mean and how language works, jokes often challenge accepted pieties and decorum.

Although this can obviously give offence, Cohen wants to celebrate the ways in which it can also build a sense of shared community and offer us a kind of freedom. “When you undertake these extravagances – making metaphors, telling jokes – you take a chance,” his book concludes. “You are Moses leading people to freedom with no way of compelling them to follow, and it will be a sore disappointment if you arrive in the Promised Land all alone.”

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