Superiority Theory

‘The superiority theory implies that the point of joking is to feel better about our sorry selves by mocking people or situations we find ridiculous. This is probably the oldest attempt to explain what’s going on when we tell jokes, dating back at least as far as Aristotle, who called humour ‘educated insolence’.

Seventeenth century stand-up Thomas Hobbes thought that laughter was ‘nothing else but a sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others’. Later refinements of the theory suggest that we also gain some psychological comfort from laughing at people who we purport to be ridiculous, but secretly hate and fear.

The superiority idea was revisited by Henri Bergson in his famous 1900 essay ‘Laughter and the meaning of the Comic’. He thought that in making a joke or at laughing at one we are experiencing a spontaneous failure of empathy: the situations which strike us as comic are those that enable us to see a human being as somehow mechanical, as less than human. For Bergson, joking had a social purpose: to ridicule eccentricity, thus brushing aside any untidy idiosyncrasies and weaknesses which might otherwise constitute triphazards on the pathway of society.

More recently, Charles R. Gruner has developed a new superiority theory which reads joking as a playful game, but one with clear winners and losers. Finding the winner and loser isn’t always simple. Often, the joke-teller ‘wins’ and the audience ‘loses’ – for example, in the case of a riddle where the teller’s intention is to leave his audience stumped. Even simple puns can be seen as expressions of superiority according to this reading, since the punner intends to prove himself intellectually superior to his audience.

“I used to think that the brain was the greatest organ in human body, then I realized ‘Hey! Look what’s telling me that!'”
– Emo Philips

Other jokes have a clearer butt – an Irishman, a lawyer or some other hapless (deserving?) victim – and joke-teller and audience both ‘win’ at the expense of the character in the joke.’

“You cannot have everything. I mean, where would you put it?”
– Steve Wright

– Carr J., Greeves L. 2006. The Naked Jape – Uncovering The Hidden World Of Jokes London, Great Britain: Penguin Books (2007) p. 89-90

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16th and 17th Century Squirting

In the 16th century, the Dutch physician Laevinius Lemnius, referred to how a woman “draws forth the man’s seed and casts her own with it.” when referring to female ejaculation.

Nederlands: portret van Reinier de Graaf

Engraving of the Dutch anatomist Reinier de Graaf

In the 17th century, François Mauriceau described glands at the urethral meatus that “pour out great quantities of saline liquor during coition, which increases the heat and enjoyment of women.”

This century saw an increasing understanding of female sexual anatomy and function, in particular the work of the Bartholin family in Denmark.

In the 17th century the Dutch anatomist Regnier de Graaf wrote an influential treatise on the reproductive organs Concerning the Generative Organs of Women which is much cited in the literature on this topic.

De Graaf discussed the original controversy but supported the Aristotelian view where he identified the source as the glandular structures and ducts surrounding the urethra:

[VI:66-7] The urethra is lined by a thin membrane. In the lower part, near the outlet of the urinary passage, this membrane is pierced by large ducts, or lacunae, through which pituito-serous matter occasionally discharges in considerable quantities.

Between this very thin membrane and the fleshy fibres we have just described there is, along the whole duct of the urethra, a whitish membranous substance about one finger-breadth thick which completely surrounds the urethral canal […] The substance could be called quite aptly the female prostatae or corpus glandulosum, glandulous body […]The function of the prostatae is to generate a pituito-serous juice which makes women more libidinous with its pungency and saltiness and lubricates their sexual parts in agreeable fashion during coitus.

[VII:81] The discharge from the female prostatae causes as much pleasure as does that from the male prostatae.

He identified [XIII:212] the various controversies regarding the ejaculate and its origin, but stated he believed that this fluid “which rushes out with such impetus during venereal combat or libidinous imagining” was derived from a number of sources, including the vagina, urinary tract, cervix and uterus.

He appears to identify Skene’s ducts, when he writes [XIII: 213] “those [ducts] which are visible around the orifice of the neck of the vagina and the outlet of the urinary passage receive their fluid from the female parastatae, or rather the thick membranous body around the urinary passage.” However he appears not to distinguish between the lubrication of the perineum during arousal and an orgasmic ejaculate when he refers to liquid “which in libidinous women often rushes out at the mere sight of a handsome man.”

Further on [XIII:214] he refers to “liquid as usually comes from the pudenda in one gush.” However, his prime purpose was to distinguish between generative fluid and pleasurable fluid, in his stand on the Aristotelian semen controversy where he argued that the female contributes what might be called prepared matter; all it needs is the presence within it of the heat from the male and it begins a more or less lengthy and complicated developmental process, which he analogizes to a sort of automaton performing a complex set of coordinated movements once it is set in motion.

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Turtles All The Way Down

A jocular expression of the infinite regress problem in cosmology posed by the unmoved mover paradox – a philosophical concept described by Aristotle as a primary cause or mover of all the motion in the universe. As is implicit in the name, the unmoved mover is not moved by any prior action. Aristotle argues, in Book 8 of the Physics Book 12 of the Metaphysics: “there must be an immortal, unchanging being, ultimately responsible for all wholeness and orderliness in the sensible world.”

“Turtles all the way down” is a phrase that was popularized by Stephen Hawking in 1988. The turtle metaphor in the anecdote represents a popular notion of a so-called primitive cosmological myth, the flat earth supported on the back of a World Turtle. A person who believes the Earth rests on a giant turtle can thereby also deny the existence of the universe.

A Florida Box Turtle or Terrapene Carolina Bauri

A comparable metaphor describing the circular cause and consequence for the same problem is the chicken and egg problem – which came first? Another metaphor addressing the problem of this infinite regression (as the turtles would imply), albeit not in a cosmological context, is Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? – a phrase coined by the Roman poet Juvenus which is often translated as “Who watches the watchmen?” The same problem in epistemology is known as the Münchhausen Trilemma.

The Trilemma was named after Baron Münchhausen, who allegedly pulled himself (and the horse he was sitting on) out of a swamp by his own hair. This Trilemma is a philosophical term coined to stress the purported impossibility to prove any truth even in the fields of logic and mathematics. If we ask of any knowledge: “How do I know that it’s true?”, we may provide proof; yet that same question can be asked of the proof, and any subsequent proof. The Münchhausen Trilemma is that we have only three options when providing proof in this situation:

  • The circular argument, in which theory and proof support each other (i.e. we repeat ourselves at some point) “Only an untrustworthy person would run for office. The fact that politicians are untrustworthy is proof of this.”
  • The regressive argument, in which each proof requires a further proof ad infinitum (i.e. we just keep giving proofs, presumably forever) “A is proven by B, which is proven C, which proven by D etcetera ad infinitum.”
  • The axiomatic argument, which rests on accepted precepts (i.e. we reach some bedrock assumption or certainty) “A. Baron Münchhausen exists, B. Baron Münchhausen has got hairs on his head etcetera.”

The first two methods of reasoning are fundamentally weak, and because the Greek sceptics advocated deep questioning of all accepted values and refused to accept (unconditional axiomatic) proofs of the third sort. The trilemma, then, is the decision among these three equally unsatisfying options.

Back to turtles. The most widely known version of the Turtles All The Way Down story appears in Stephen Hawking’s 1988 book A Brief History of Time, which starts:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the centre of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

Hawking’s suggested connection to Russell may be due to Russell’s 1927 lecture Why I Am Not a Christian. In it, while discounting the First Cause argument intended to be a proof of God’s existence, Russell comments (with an argument not relevant to modern Hindu beliefs):

If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, “How about the tortoise?” the Indian said, “Suppose we change the subject.”

There is an allusion to the story in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (published in 1779):

How can we satisfy ourselves without going on in infinitum? And, after all, what satisfaction is there in that infinite progression? Let us remember the story of the Indian philosopher and his elephant. It was never more applicable than to the present subject. If the material world rests upon a similar ideal world, this ideal world must rest upon some other; and so on, without end. It were better, therefore, never to look beyond the present material world.

Philosophical allusion to the story goes back at least as far as John Locke. In his 1690 tract An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke compares one who would say that properties inhere in “substance” to the Indian who said the world was on an elephant which was on a tortoise “but being again pressed to know what gave support to the broad-backed tortoise, replied — something, he knew not what.”

The fact is the world does not rest on elephants, turtles or any other animal for that matter. However, the reasoning and philosophical attempts to prove a possibility of there being a giant tortoise on which the earth can rest are fascinating. Just as fascinating as the cultures out of which these beliefs have emerged.

To quote comedian Rich Hall: “This is why America has a space program.”

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7/iii mmxii


Raphanus Sativus or Radish

Plato’s real name was Aristocles. He taught Aristotle.

Aristotle believed buzzards had three testicles.

The ancient Greeks used blackberries to cure piles.

The ancient Greeks voted for the leaders until they were invaded by the Macedonians.

Raphanizien was the ancient Greek punishment for adultery, where a radish was forced into the adulterer’s anus. The word Raphanizien means ‘To put a radish into the anus.’

Philophilia Amoris

Philophilia Amoris: A particular preference or love for an equal friendship mainly stimulated by intellectual, humorous and openly free exchanges enthused by non-committal soft physical contact. The individuals in question allow each other to enter the proxemic intimate so-called close phase. A harmless condition set on fire – its post-reaction residue.”

– Willem Etsenmaker

Based on the concept of philia as coined by Aristotle in his Rhetoric part: (1380b36–1381a2) ‘[…] wanting for someone what one thinks good, for his sake and not for one’s own, and being inclined, so far as one can, to do such things for him.’