The European Journal of Humour Research

Vol 6, No 1 (2018)

Make comedy matter: Ernst Cassirer on the politics and morality of humor

Jennifer Marra


Many of Ernst Cassirer’s later works are concerned with the dangers of political myth. His analysis speaks at length about the role of philosophy during the rise of the Third Reich, and Cassirer argues that philosophers failed to combat the dominant ideology. Today, philosophers struggle to explain their relevance to greater public and governmental powers that see no intrinsic value. Given the current political situation in the US, we find ourselves at a crossroads as philosophers. We can either retreat and remain within the comforts of academia, or we can take up arms against dangerous and divisive political forces. If we take Cassirer’s prescriptions seriously, we must choose the latter. Fortunately, philosophy has not disappeared from public consciousness completely. An emerging theme in contemporary cultural studies is the exploration of connections between humour and philosophy. I argue we ought to take advantage of the status of the comedian as public philosopher, and for philosophers to take seriously the political power of comedians. To do this responsibly, I analyse a portion of Cassirer’s work that has been widely ignored in scholarship – his understanding of the politics and morality of humour. By analysing these passages in relation to Cassirer’s later works, we are given the tools to understand the power of humour in political discourse, as well as the responsibility of that power. I argue that “joking responsibly”, for Cassirer, means to reveal the motives and values which underlie sophistry, particularly the sort which lends itself to political manipulation.


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