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Fitting Attitude Theory and the Normativity of Jokes

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We defend a fitting-attitude (FA) theory of the funny against a set of potential objections. Ultimately, we endorse a version of FA theory that treats reasons for amusement as non-compelling, metaphysically non-conditional, and alterable by social features of the joke telling context. We find that this version of FA theory is well-suited to accommodate our ordinary practices of telling and being amused by jokes, and helpfully bears on the related faultless disagreement dispute.

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  1. Jacobson (2011).

  2. Early versions of fitting attitude theories were introduced by John McDowell and David Wiggins. See McDowell (1998) and Wiggins (1987). For further influential discussion of neo-sentimentalist and fitting attitude theories, see D'Arms and Jacobson (2000b, 2006). We also find a proto-FA theory in the work of Berys Gaut, see Gaut (1998, p. 60).

  3. The focus of this paper is a version of FA theory that gives an account of evaluative properties in terms of fit-relevant reasons sufficient for an associated sentiment. There are other sorts of FA theory that are not our focus here, cf., McHugh and Way (2016).

  4. We use ‘amusement’ as shorthand for the more cumbersome ‘comic amusement,’ and as synonymous with ‘mirth,’ which is currently in use in the sciences.

  5. For a seminal account of so-called buck-passing views, see Scanlon (1998, esp. chapter 1).

  6. D'Arms and Jacobson (2000a), Hieronymi (2005), Rabinowicz and Rönnow-Rasmussen (2004, 2006).

  7. For some seminal articles presenting response dependent accounts of aesthetic properties, see Walton (1993) and Goldman (1990). For a recent paper raising some criticisms of arguments supporting response dependent accounts of aesthetic properties, see Watkins and Shelley (2012).

  8. Weems (2014, esp., ch. 1).

  9. John Bender claims that this is a feature of most third-party aesthetic disputes. See Bender (2005).

  10. Cohen (1999, pp. 31–32).

  11. Contrast moral contexts where comfort with divergence is less common.

  12. For more on the distinction between being unreasonable and irrational, see Scanlon, ibid.

  13. We might add that the rational criticism could also be grounded in the strength of one’s amusement response not fitting the strength of the reasons for amusement. If there are only weak reasons for amusement, but one is overcome with a bout of amused delight, then one is also open to rational criticism.

  14. Raz (2002), Robertson (2008), Kagan (1989) and Broome (2004).

  15. Harold (2011).

  16. For different accounts of non-compelling reasons see Dancy (2004) and Wallace (2013).

  17. Little (2013).

  18. This recognition that different reasons have a different normative status is an interesting one because we might be tempted to think that ignoring a reason because we can’t be bothered is a paradigm instance of a rational failing.

  19. Little, ibid, pp. 128–129.

  20. It might do even better if conjoined with the recognition that there are a very large number of reasons for amusement, and that most of us simply couldn’t possibly go in for all of them.

  21. The faultless disagreement debate has gone through several iterations and has reached a degree of complexity that would take us too far afield for the issues at stake here. For a sampling of the arguments, see Kölbel (2003), Macfarlane (2007), Schafer (2011), Egan (2014), Palmira (2015) and Baker and Robson (2017).

  22. We say “very broad outline” here to acknowledge that the literature on this debate is quite expansive, and our comments here cannot do complete justice to it all. Still, we think that the version of FA theory on offer here has a novel contribution to make to this debate which can be seen by treating the debate in outline.

  23. There are other more sophisticated ways of cashing out the contextualist position, but for purposes of illustration this is sufficient.

  24. There are different ways of cashing out the exact relation in the literature. We’ve chosen to follow Kölbel’s “perspective” language for sake of simplicity. For the purposes of this paper, the precise details don’t matter.

  25. See e.g. Cappelen and Hawthorne (2009).

  26. See Palmira, ibid., for a discussion of this distinction. We agree with Palmira that the datum of apparent faultless disagreement has not been adequately specified and explored to provide support for any of the views in the contextualism/realism/relativism debate.

  27. This possibility is often overlooked in the literature, but is compatible with the realist understanding of such judgments (where realism is understood broadly to include mind-dependent theories that preserve the objective purport of such claims). See e.g. Schafer, K. ibid. pp. 275–277 for a discussion of this point. Baker and Robson attempt to capture a relevant sense in which people in a dispute like this would both be saying something false, and faultless. See Baker, C. and Robson, J. ibid, especially Sect. 6. We don’t take a stand on this issue here.

  28. We should emphasize that we would not be inclined to accept a one size fits all account for all disputes about matters of taste. For instance, in some cases we think that the contextualist is right, and we ought to understand putative disagreements as really being statements about subjective preferences. We suspect that adult users of English do this commonly with pure gustatory “disagreements” e.g. over flavors of ice cream.

  29. Schafer, K. ibid.

  30. For a discussion of this point, see Palmira, ibid, especially 362–364.

  31. Of course, it is a view that is wholly compatible with Schafer’s account. And we agree that his account might capture some relevant sense in which divergent judgments of taste can be faultless.

  32. These jokes are taken from David Chalmer’s website. Retrieved March 26, 2017 from; and a comment thread on Feminist Philosophers. Retrieved March 26, 2017 from

  33. Both Ted Cohen and Ronald de Sousa distinguish between jokes that rely only on shared knowledge between teller and hearer, and those that rely on something like shared evaluative commitments. Cohen calls the former hermetic and the latter affective; de Sousa refers to the former under the category of wit and the latter as phthonic. Here we avoid taking a stand on how to properly categorize proofs-that-p jokes.

  34. Cohen, ibid, pp. 12–32.

  35. See Cohen (1999, pp. 28–29), Carroll (2014, p. 85) and De Sousa (1987).

  36. There are two kinds of laugher, Duchenne and non-Duchenne only one of which signals genuine amusement, Duchenne. See Brown and Schwartz (1980).

  37. Still, we agree with Peter Kivy that such jokes also affirm others’ status as outsiders. We think that this fact raises interesting issues worthy of further examination. See Kivy (2003).

  38. Of course, we can imagine a situation that might call for the telling of only one proof-that-p joke, say if we were attending a talk by Putnam. But, in such a case, the hearer must be acquainted with proof-that-p jokes. Otherwise, she will likely experience confusion or misread the teller as deriding the speaker. All of this operates, we believe, to defang the jokes. Since the butts are proxies for us insiders, they are less mean-spirited than an outsider might think.

  39. Carroll (2015, p. 243).

  40. Gaut, ibid, pp. 53–54.

  41. Jordan and Patridge (2012).

  42. Assuming that this sort of counter-factual reasoning is valid. For an argument that it is not, see Jacobson (1997, p. 193).

  43. A similar point can be made about wrong kinds of reasons for belief—that is, reasons for belief that don’t bear on the truth of the belief. Learning that it is good to believe a falsehood does not in any way contribute to our believing it. In contrast, bona fide evidentiary reasons do. See Hieronymi, ibid.


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Patridge, S., Jordan, A. Fitting Attitude Theory and the Normativity of Jokes. Erkenn 83, 1303–1320 (2018).

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