I speculated last Sunday that scholars of different disciplines are attracted to different kinds of humor. What about historians?
Historians tend to be acutely aware of irony. Whether they find it funny, though, is another question. In his 2010 book The Historian’s Paradox, Peter Hoffer suggests that historians are not very funny people at all: “As someone who has attended nearly one hundred conferences of historians and sat through countless panels of scholars reading detailed and dry papers followed by commentators reading equally detailed and dry comments, I can say that many historians do not seem fond of humor .... Apparently there is nothing humorous in what we study and humor has no place in how we do our studies.”
But I think Hoffer himself is being ironic, and enjoying it too, for he launches immediately into a discussion of the relevance to philosophy of history of shaggy dog stories – tales “whose ending does not quite measure up to our expectations.” Here is his chief exhibit:
“A young man decides to discover the secret of life. He wanders all over the world, asking its most revered holy men and women to explain the secret of life to him. Dissatisfied with their answers, he travels to Tibet to seek the wisdom of the holiest man there. From the holy man’s disciples, the seeker learns what he must do to purify his soul and prepare his mind for the answer. For years he practices the most rigorous exercises, and finally he is permitted to approach the holy teacher. ‘Holy man,’ the now older and frailer seeker asks, ‘What is the secret of life?’ The holy man replies, ‘Life is like a bending branch.’ Still perplexed, the seeker asks, ‘How is life like a bending branch?’ The holy man thinks for a moment and then answers, ‘You mean life is not like a bending branch?’”