I had a joke…

Malcolm Keating
5 min readJul 25, 2020

“I had a joke about construction, but I’m still working on it.” It’s a sort of dad-joke, the pun which gets a groan or eye roll at best.

But it’s also an immensely meme-able joke, since, to kill it in the sort of way analytic philosophers might, the joke meme’s structure is “I had a joke about X, but Y,” where X is a topic and Y is some stated reason which works both for person’s supposed lack of a joke, but also brings to mind key elements of topic X.

For some reason, which I don’t know, but some very-online person probably does, Twitter began to spin out variations on this joke yesterday, on topics ranging from human resources to politics to physics, and, of course, philosophy. Once the joke made it to my corner of Twitter, I dove in. The tweets resulted in a good number of likes and retweets, and corresponding oxytocin hits (or whatever psychological reward system keeps me coming back to Twitter).

But I imagine there are some people who didn’t get the jokes. Or who don’t know about Indian philosophy. So, for those of you, below, I kill the jokes through analysis, but maybe introduce you to some interesting philosophy.

One of my more well-received attempts at meme jokes.
  1. I have a Sanskrit joke, but it isn’t well-formed. This was my first attempt. The English word “Sanskrit” is derived from the Sanskrit word for the language, saṃskṛta. The prefix sam in combination with the past passive participle of the verb kṛ can mean a range of things, including something which is made or constructed (kṛta) in a complete or excellent (sam) way. So, well-formed. (Why the s between sam and kṛta? That’s saṃdhi, or phonetic rules about how sounds change in Sanskrit.)
  2. I have a joke about Mīmāṃsā hermeneutics, but its been around forever. For this one, you’ll need to know that Mīmāṃsā is a group of Indian thinkers concerned with explaining the interpretation (hermeneutics) of an ancient set of texts known as the Vedas. These texts were orally transmitted, with extreme accuracy, for many generations before being written down. Their origins being lost in time, according to Mīmāṃsā thinkers, that they are eternal (nitya) was the best explanation.
  3. I had, didn’t have, both had and didn’t have, and neither had nor didn’t have, a joke about the catuṣkoṭi. As Indian philosophy jokes go, this is pretty low-hanging fruit. The catuṣkoṭi is a set of four (catur) options (koṭi), for which Nāgārjuna is famous. These are a set of four, exhuastively possible responses to any given claim, and the Buddhist thinker aims it at earlier Buddhist philosophers in a way which is still subject to a lot of debate. Basically, you can make a catuṣkoṭi joke about anything by affirming it, denying it, both affirming and denying it, and neither affirming nor denying it.
  4. I had a joke about anumāna, but it turns out it’s pretty pervasive. This one depends on knowing that anumāna is a kind of reasoning which involves a “pervasion relationship” (vyāpti). The standard example is that you come to know there is fire on a mountain in the distance by seeing just the smoke on that mountain. How do you know this? Because where there is smoke, there is fire. Or, in other words, smoke is pervaded by fire. Every place which has smoke has fire.
  5. I had a joke about dhvani, and it’s a resounding success. My joke about rasa, though is pretty sappy. These two are best read as a pair. Both of them depend on translations of the Sanskrit terms, dhvani and rasa, which are related concepts. Dhvani means “reverberation” but it also refers to a theory about how poetic meanings are suggested or have resonance, from ordinary statements or metaphor. And rasa means a “juice” or “sap” or “flavor” but it also refers to a theory about how the point of dhvani is to suggest a particular kind of aestheticized mood. For example, “Pārvatī counted the petals on her lotus” just refers to a girl counting petals on a lotus flower she’s holding. But in the context of Kālidāsa’s Kumārasaṃbhava, it has a resonance: she’s shy in front of her betrothed, Śiva. And that, further, leads to the mood of erotic love.
  6. I had a joke about avacchedakas, but it didn’t make the cut. This one is pretty terrible, I admit. An avacchedaka is a technical term in Nyāya philosophy which is usually translated as “specifier” or “delimitor” or “distinguisher” because it can be something which distinguishes an object from other objects. For instance, if Devadatta is holding a staff, that is an avacchedaka for him, as opposed to other people. Or, if we say that Devadatta is not at home, we could say that the delimitor of his absence is his home. The term is etymologically broken down into constituents including the verb root chid, which means “cut” — and so an avacchedaka “cuts” since it separates one thing from other things.
  7. I had a joke about Indian philosophy, but it was excluded by subtle mechanisms of institutionalized racism and canonization which were explained away by reference to supposedly universal norms of reason. This joke relies on some knowledge about the relationship beteween Indian philosophy and contemporary philosophy departments. Plenty of other people than myself have made the point that the history of the practice of philosophy in places like the United States and Europe involves the exclusion of other voices out of racist agendas. Often, despite examples of what would usually count as philosophy (see all the instances above), Indian philosophy has been excluded from serious study because of its being “religious” or “mystical.” (As if that’s prevented Greek philosophy from being taken seriously!) The typical canon of philosophical works starts with ancient Greece, despite the interaction between Greece, China, India, and other parts of the world. And, unfortunately, explicit racism on the part of folks who decide what’s “in” (such as, but not only, Immanuel Kant), along with assumptions about what Indian philosophy is and is not, leads to the study of Sanskrit philosophical works in religious studies and not philosophy departments. So my joke was a not-very-subtle jab at my discipline’s continuing exclusion of these thinkers.

So now, if, after being subjected to these terrible jokes, you’re interested in learning more about Indian philosophy, check out the links in the paragraphs above.



Malcolm Keating

Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Yale-NUS College, Singapore. I work on language & knowledge in Indian philosophy.