Leadership & Governance

The Unexamined Joke Is Not Worth Telling

October 24, 2007

Are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert the Socrates and Diogenes of our time? Indeed so, say philosophers in a new collection of essays about the two satirists and their verbal skewering of politicians and other powers that be.

The musings come from 18 academics, dubbed “Senior Philosophical Correspondents” by the book’s editor, borrowing from The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, on Comedy Central.

“I sent out a call for papers for this project and got upward of 50 proposals,” the editor, Jason Holt, a professor at Acadia University, in Nova Scotia, told The Sacramento Bee. (Among the courses he teaches is “Philosophical Aspects of Physical Activity and Sport.”) The result is The Daily Show and Philosophy: Moments of Zen in the Art of Fake News (Blackwell Publishing, 2007, part of the Philosophy and Pop Culture series.)

The essayists had fun analyzing “truthiness,” the term coined by Mr. Colbert (now running for president) to mock the intuitive knowledge claimed by President Bush and other leaders. The writers also compared Mr. Colbert and Mr. Stewart to Socrates and to Diogenes of Sinope, another Greek philosopher who pilloried puffery and blowhards.

Diogenes once lived in a bathtub to show the folly of the pursuit of wealth and comfort. And Socrates was known for comically feigning ignorance to dissect an opponent’s argument. (Plato quotes him in the Apology, an account of Socrates’ trial for treason, as saying, “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”) Perhaps the essayists’ arguments on this theme are best summed up by the title of the book’s third segment: “Critical Thinking and the War on Bullshit.”

Mr. Stewart “shares Socrates’ appreciation of one-on-one encounters, and he resembles the ancient sage when he pretends to be confused and requests explanations that underscore how ridiculous someone else sounds,” writes Judith Barad, a philosophy professor at Indiana State University. “Socrates showed them that people may have high positions and power, yet at the same time be irrational and deeply confused.”

Ms. Barad even guesses that Socrates would have “made one of those awestruck faces Jon Stewart is famous for.”