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Comedy and Philosophy

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Organizer: Stan Benfell

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Stereotypically, comedy is seen as an unserious and unrealistic genre, where, in the words of one scholar, we do not have the sense “that momentous metaphysical issues are being engaged.” In a well-known, if dated, discussion from the opening of A Natural Perspective, Northrop Frye divided all literary critics into “Iliad critics,” interested in “tragedy, realism, and irony,” and Odyssey critics, who gravitate toward comedy and romance.  And it is in comedy, he writes, that “the story seeks its own end instead of holding the mirror up to nature.  Consequently, comedy and romance are so obviously conventionalized that a serious interest in them leads to an interest in convention itself.”  This dichotomy – tragedy concerns itself with what is “real,” “holding the mirror up to nature,” while comedy ultimately reflects only back on itself – remains common but ultimately proves to be misleading.  The dichotomy rings particularly false with the rise of postmodernism and the breakdown of conventional generic categories, but many comic writers from the ancient world through the present engage with “metaphysical issues,” momentous or otherwise.    
In this seminar, we seek papers that interrogate the relationship of comedy (seen here in the first instance as a dramatic genre but also including film, television, and prose fiction) with philosophical thought.  We are interested in proposals that treat a wide range of periods, cultures, and authors.  Below are just a few possibilities.  And while these examples reflect the Western tradition of comedy, we are also interested in philosophical comedy from other cultures and traditions.

Ethics and comedy – individual choice and its consequences are often of primary importance in comedy.
The figure of the philosopher in comedy – from Aristophanes’s Clouds to Michael Schur’s The Good Place, the character of the philosopher occasionally plays an important role in comedy.  And while she or he is often a figure of ridicule, frequently important philosophical ideas are foregrounded as a result.  
Science and comedy – scientific and mathematical ideas and their philosophical implications have often formed the subject of comic writing in the last few decades Examples include Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood (and other Stoppard plays), McBurney’s A Disappearing Number, and David Auburn’s Proof.
Comedy and the Absurd – Ionesco, Beckett, and others use the conventions of comedy to explore absurdity.

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