Wittgenstein’s tree, and other terrifying jokes

“In philosophy it is significant that such-and-such a sentence makes no sense; but also that it sounds funny”.

(Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel #328)

“the more I think of it, the more I find that all the philosophy of the world is summarised in good humour”

(Ernest Renan, quoted in Life of Ernest Renan by Francis Espinasse

Ever attuned to the “ordinary sense” of words and phrases, Wittgenstein commonly gives examples of words being used oddly or incorrectly, as in this note published in his Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology (Vol.1):

We don’t say “I see this as a human being” of a conventional picture of a human being.

Or this, from the Philosophical Investigations:

It is correct to say “I know what you are thinking”, and wrong to say “I know what I am thinking”.

He isn’t merely exploring quirks of usage for a bit of lexicographical fun; the question is always: why do they sound wrong? What’s revealed by their failure to fit with ordinary use? In the volume of notes titled On Certainty, Wittgenstein considers various statements you might meaningfully make about being in pain:

“I know that I feel it here” is as wrong as “I know that I am in pain”. But “I know where you touched my arm” is right.

The statement “I know that I am in pain” is wrong in exactly the same way “I know what I am thinking” fails. They’re simply not what you would ordinarily say about what you know:

“To say one knows one has a pain means nothing.”

Wittgenstein seems to enjoy linguistic thought-experiments, conjuring up slightly peculiar conversations, pressing at the limits of language, patrolling its boundaries, probing its edges. Noticing where meaning fails. For example, in note #461 of On Certainty, he conjures up a rather Pythonesque scene in which he plays the role of a doctor. A patient comes in and holds up his hand, saying: “This thing that looks like a hand isn’t just a superb imitation — it really is a hand”. Wittgenstein then ponders whether that rather disconcerting statement is nonsense or not.

A couple of notes later he makes the following remark:

This is certainly true, that the information “That is a tree”, when no one could doubt it, might be a kind of joke and as such have meaning. A joke of this kind was in fact made once by Renan.

Wittgenstein seems to be saying that if the statement “That is a tree” is made (in earnest) about a tree when no one in the scenario is in any doubt whatsoever that it’s at tree, then the remark is meaningless. It has no business being made. However, it does have meaning in this context if it is said as a joke. If “That is a tree” is a joke, the statement shifts into a different paradigm — a different “Sprachspiel” or “language game”.

The later Wittgenstein famously put forward the idea that people used language in a variety of “language games”. In his Blue Book, he lists “telling a joke” as one such game:

“… a great variety of games is played with the sentences of our language: Giving and obeying orders; asking questions and answering them; describing an event; telling a fictitious story; telling a joke; describing an immediate experience; making conjectures about events in the physical world; making scientific hypotheses and theories; greeting someone, etc., etc.

There’s no onus upon a joke to give information or describe an event: the language game of telling a joke is played by different rules. If in the tree scenario the statement “That is a tree” is a joke, then it’s not “wrong”. Wittgenstein says explicitly: “it might be a kind of joke and as such have meaning”. It has meaning if it’s meant as a joke. But what possible kind of joke is “That is a tree”?

Given the context of Wittgenstein’s tree joke (someone pointing out that a tree is a tree “when no one is any doubt that it’s at tree”) the joke, insofar as it’s a joke at all, would seem to have something to do with the incongruity or inappropriateness of pointing out the flaming obvious.

In On Certainty, Wittgenstein considers another remark very similar to “That is a tree”:

the words “I am here” have a meaning only in certain contexts, and not when I say them to someone who is sitting in front of me and sees me clearly, — and not because they are superfluous, but because their meaning is not determined by the situation, yet stands in need of such determination.

Word-strings like “I am here” don’t “have a meaning” independent of the situations in which they’re used. The phrase “I am here” has the innocent air of a statement that means something in and of itself — after all, it’s a common enough thing to say, and it looks meaningful enough on the page. But according to Wittgenstein the words “have a meaning only in certain contexts”. Or, as he puts it in his Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology (Vol 2):

“words only have meaning in the stream of life.”

If words aren’t somehow grounded in a situation — determined by it — then they’re floating free of the context; they’ve escaped being given meaning by it. In this example, if you say “I am here” to someone who knows you’re here (where you both know this) you’re not providing extra information, or too much information. The words aren’t “superfluous” — they simply don’t fit the situation.

It’s the same when “That is a tree” is said about a tree “when no one in the scenario is any doubt whatsoever that it’s at tree” — you have the same failure to fit. In a way, the tree joke enjoys a strange kind of hybrid status insofar as it is both nonsensical (to its audience) and meaningful (because it’s a joke). It “sounds funny” to the person hearing it, because it “makes no sense”, but it’s a joke, so it’s permitted.

Wittgenstein refers to “a joke of this kind” being made by the writer Ernest Renan. So what kind of joke is it? The feature of the joke he’s referring to, presumably, is the incongruity of the remark in the context: the radical failure of the statement to be grounded in the scenario. There are, it’s conceivable, a few other things “a joke of this kind” might mean: this kind of joke might mean a joke about trees, a terrible joke, a joke used by a philosopher to make a point about the foundations of knowledge etc. but I think it’s fairly safe to say, from the context, that what he means is a joke about the way in which “That is a tree” fails to be meaningful — its ungroundedness. The fact that the wrongness, the ill-fittingness of the remark actual reminds him of another similar joke means that it actually stands out for Wittgenstein as an amusing joke premise, which gives us an important clue as to what tickled him: absurdity.

It chimes entirely with this passage from Norman Malcolm’s Memoir of Wittgenstein:

“A curious thing, which I observed innumerable times, was that when Wittgenstein invented an example during his lectures in order to illustrate a point, he himself would grin at the absurdity of what he had imagined. But if any member of the class were to chuckle, his expression would change to severity and he would exclaim in reproof, ‘No, no; I’m serious!’ The imaginary events and circumstances were so odd and so far beyond the reach of natural possibility that he himself could not help being amused; yet the intention of the example, of course, was serious.”

Wittgenstein was never the world’s jolliest soul (“I have continually thought of taking my own life, and the idea still haunts me sometimes” he wrote in 1920) and yet he was obviously amused by the idea of abnormal states of affairs, impossible events, and meaningless statements. The imagined doctor scene, where the patient says “This thing that looks like a hand isn’t just a superb imitation — it really is a hand” must surely have amused him. There’s no doubt he cracked a smile, perhaps even thumped his desk and guffawed, at the rank absurdity of “That is a tree”.

Wittgenstein alludes to exactly the same sort of “joke” as the tree joke in the Philosophical Investigations, where he uses an example that we’ve already encountered — about “wrong” ways of talking about being in pain:

“It can’t be said of me at all (except perhaps as a joke) that I know I am in pain.”

The statement “I know I am in pain” is deemed “wrong” — it’s ruled out of court — “it can’t be said of me at all”. It stands outside ordinary usage, unless it’s being uttered as a joke, in which case it can be said: it finds itself ruled back in on a technicality. The joke is the exception to the rule. And the exception to rules is what amuses Ludwig.

Using this logic of joke exceptions, you could presumably say “I am here” to someone sitting right in front of you as a joke and this not be nonsense. The words would “have a meaning” which they wouldn’t have if you were trying to inform someone who’s right in front of you that you’re there. Words which are spoken “as a joke” are being used in a different situation: they’re grounded in a different context.

The implication seems to be that joking can render any old nonsense meaningful. This would mean that there’s no such thing as a meaningless joke, because simply being said “as a joke” gives an utterance meaning. It’s like a free pass for gibberish.

Being said as a joke is not only the context thing that can allow what would otherwise be nonsense to be said meaningfully. In note #468 of On Certainty, Wittgenstein imagines someone saying to him “That’s a tree”, and lists a few possible ways in which this might be a meaningful utterance to make:

He might say this sentence because he remembers having heard it in a similar situation; or he was suddenly struck by the tree’s beauty and the sentence was an exclamation; or he was pronouncing the sentence to himself as a grammatical example; etc., etc.

These are all possibilities, certainly, but in this imagined conversation Wittgenstein doesn’t know why this person has said to him “That’s a tree”, so he decides to clear the matter up:

“And now I ask him “How did you mean that?” and he replies “It was a piece of information directed at you”. Shouldn’t I be at liberty to assume that he doesn’t know what he is saying, if he is insane enough to want to give me this information?

Up until the imagined moment of clarification, Wittgenstein didn’t know whether the remark was meaningful or not. Now, suppose the person who said to him “That’s a tree” in this thought experiment had been joking — when Wittgenstein asked “How did you mean that?” he’d said “It was a joke”. With the revelation that it was all a joke, meaning is restored and all’s right with the world. Prior to the reveal, the statement hovers in a kind of quantum multiple-state of both possible-sense and possible-nonsense. In Wittgenstein’s actual example, it’s revealed to be nonsense: “It was a piece of information directed at you”, an explanation so nonsensical it makes Wittgenstein doubt the speaker’s sanity.

Obviously there are plenty of contexts in which a joke is said without there needing to be any great reveal that what’s just been said is a joke. An example would be watching a comedian on stage, where the audience knows the nonsense they’re going to hear is meant as a joke. There’s no mystery. You don’t need to shout “How did you mean that?” after everything the comic says (although sometimes it’s tempting).

Equally, it’s perfectly normal, in an ordinary conversation, to say something as if you’re being serious when you’re really joking, and not to flag it up in advance as being a joke. Let’s suppose, for whatever strange reason, you decide to deliver the tree joke. The joke “That is a tree” is already feeble enough that you wouldn’t want to risk undermining it even further with some sort of awkward preamble: “What I’m about to tell you about that tree is a joke. That is a tree”. So you tell it completely deadpan. No wink to the audience, no clue that you’re joking. You’re saying something which seems absurd as if it really is absurd. You take a deep breath, point and a tree, and give it your best shot:

“That is a tree”.

You pause for laughter, and none comes. (It’s not beyond the realms of possibility no one would laugh at this, especially if Wittgenstein isn’t in the audience). Everyone looks at you as if you’ve gone nuts. Someone asks “How did you mean that?” — what do you reply?

What if, in that appalling moment, overcome by the ghastly absence of laughter, you prefer to appear temporarily insane rather than to have people think you have the world’s worst sense of humour? So you pretend you were serious all along, that you were trying to impart a piece of information about the tree, you blame sunstroke for a momentary lapse into gibberish, and the conversation moves on. It’s never mentioned again. The joke-ness of the joke hasn’t impinged on the “stream of life” of the situation. So did a joke just occur? Did the joke ever exist “as a joke”?

Or the opposite: what if you’re chatting to Wittgenstein near a tree and you decide, in a moment of insanity, to say to him “That is a tree” — to say this, in all seriousness, as “a piece of information” — but then you catch the look of incomprehension in Wittgenstein’s eye and decided to lie (we’ve all done this) and pass it off as a joke. There’s a harrowing moment of silence before Wittgenstein bursts into a roar of laughter (as we know, he finds this sort of incongruity hilarious), slaps you on the back, you manage to force out a chuckle, and the conversation moves on. Does that mean a joke just happened? In the “stream of life” of the situation, it certainly looks that way.

As we’ve seen, when Wittgenstein himself imagines a situation in which someone says to him “That’s a tree”, he doesn’t have the person provide any clue as to what the remark means (if it means anything at all). Wittgenstein lets himself, as the listener, be stranded momentarily in a limbo of confusion. He doesn’t know what language game is being played. And this is perfectly normal — being in a conversation with someone and not knowing what they just meant, or whether in fact they’re insane.

It seems like there’s no practical reason why you can’t be playing one language game one moment, and then the next moment — when someone asks “How did you mean that?” — pretend to have been playing another. As it were, changing horses mid-stream of life. 

Let’s go back to the chat with Wittgenstein, to the moment it crosses your mind to tell a joke. Perhaps you think Ludwig needs cheering up, and you think the best way to do it is this: to look at the nearby tree and say “That is a tree”. Perhaps you’d read a similar joke in Ernest Renan’s Life of Jesus — or perhaps you’d heard about Wittgenstein’s penchant for incongruity. Maybe you saw him grinning in one of his lectures at an absurd imagining. The question is: why does Wittgenstein find absurdity funny? We know that he does — but why? What is it about meaningless or incongruity that gets him grinning?

In both the cases we’ve considered where Wittgenstein supposes that a nonsensical sentence might be said “as a joke”, it involves someone saying something you can’t really say. Wittgenstein gives another example of that kind of misspeaking: “I know that this is my hand”. Having some deep and undoubting acceptance of my hand as my hand is part of the “bedrock” of my world, not something “I know”. It’s more fundamental than that: 

What we have here is a foundation for all my action. But it seems to me that it is wrongly expressed by the words “I know”.”

Wittgenstein talks a lot in On Certainty about the “grounds” or “foundation” of our knowledge. Within our “world picture” we take innumerable things for granted: “My life consists in my being content to accept many things”. These things can no more be reasonably doubted —“absence of doubt belongs to the essence of the language-game” — as they can be asserted as knowledge. “That is a tree” isn’t something you can meaningfully assert as information, it’s something you simply accept; it’s part of “the scaffolding of our thoughts”. If you do attempt to assert it, you’re doing something other than quietly and reasonably accepting “the substratum” or “grounds” of your world, and you’ve crossed over into insanity.

If I say to you, as if I’m imparting information, “That is a tree”, I’m not just trivially telling you something you already know, I’m showing you that I’ve gone actually “insane”. But if I then reveal it was just a joke, it turns out I was just pretending to be mad. Ha ha ha. Phew. That was close.

In the “innumerable” occasions referred to by Norman Malcolm, where Wittgenstein is amused at the absurdity of some thought experiment or other, imagined scenarios in which people are saying “wrong” or meaningless things, he’s imagining humans behaving insanely, giving inappropriate responses, being ungrounded. He’s playing with madness. He’s imagining what it must be like to be floating free from your rational rootedness. Wittgenstein himself was no stranger to mental illness. “I often think I am going mad” he told Bertrand Russell. “I often believe that I am on the straight road to insanity” he told von G.H. von Wright. And even though it amused him to toy with the madness of meaninglessness, it was always, as he said himself during the lectures, a “serious” business.

In these examples of the “wrong” thing being said, it’s not just a “funny” turn of phrase that’s being grinned at, it’s a broken world. Sometimes the characters in his scenarios may have been pretending their world is broken, mimicking madness, spouting ungrounded nonsense as a joke, other times they’ve gone insane. Either way, Wittgenstein is presenting (to us and to himself) the possibility of the scaffolding of our thoughts falling apart, the loss of our mental “hinges”. It’s a kind of psychological “edge-play”.

When you and I both know that a tree is a tree and I point at a tree and say to you “That’s a tree”, I’m showing you what it means to be unhinged. You hear me say “That’s a tree” and suddenly you’re staring into the abyss. You can feel the “ground” slipping away from under you, your mental scaffolding totters over at a wild angle. You manage to croak the desperate words “How do you mean?” But then, just as your world-picture is crumbling down around your ears I take pity and say “ha ha! just joking!” and you realise that I’m not insane after all, meaning prevails, and your world picture clicks back into focus. And best of all, you don’t have to have a full-blown nervous breakdown. Everything’s fine. Don’t panic. It was just a joke.

Sort of.