Reading Philosophy for Laughs

Why so serious? On philosophy, mood, and why seriousness is overrated.

Will Buckingham

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Image: Carl Bloch, Two Laughing Girls (1865), Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This post is one of a seven-part series on how to read philosophy, published first on LookingforWisdom.com

When we moved the Looking for Wisdom HQ up to Scotland a year ago, we packed away all our philosophy books into boxes. There were lots of boxes. So on the outside, with a big fat marker pen, we wrote the words: “Philosophy Books (warning: extremely heavy).” As jokes go, it was a pretty feeble one. But it kept us entertained through the stresses of the move.

This idea that philosophy is inherently and necessarily heavy is one that has a broad currency. The first recourse for the unimaginative philosophy publisher, looking for something to stick on a book cover or a website, is Rodin’s Le Penseur. That furrowed brow! That muscular male torso? That dark, brooding glint of bronze! The heroism! The seriousness! The sheer heft and heaviness of it all!

And this, we are often encouraged to believe, is what philosophy is all about. But what if it isn’t? Or not, necessarily? What if seriousness is not always a virtue, or if there are other virtues that might be set alongside the virtue of seriousness-equally persuasive, and equally revealing?

In the mood

Another way of putting this is that many people assume that philosophy requires not just a certain way of thinking, but also a certain way of attuning yourself to the world in which you find yourself. It requires a certain mood. And the mood it requires is a sombre one.

But what is a mood? And why should it matter to how we do philosophy? When you start to think about it, mood is a more complex and puzzling thing than it first seems. Moods are somehow nebulous. On the one hand, they are obvious and all-pervasive. We are in a particular mood, and our current mood seems to colour everything. But at the same time, moods are hard to grab hold of or to pin down.

For philosopher Martin Heidegger, mood ( Stimmung) is fundamental to our relationship with the world. Mood is about our attunement ( Befindlichkeit) to the world. Moods assail us, take us over, elevate us, lay us low… but we are always in some kind of mood or other. Even the…

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Will Buckingham

Writer & philosopher. PhD. Stories & ideas to make the world a better place. HELLO, STRANGER (Granta 2021): BBC R4 Book of the Week. Twitter @willbuckingham