Comedy and Philosophy

[Update below. The original post was 11 March 2011.]

Sometimes comedians are on the cutting edge of philosophical inquiry.

The issue is illustrated in an anecdote about three baseball umpires who were arguing about their job. Each called balls and strikes; each was bragging as to who did the best job. Said one: “I call them as I see them—and no one can do better than that.” The second retorted, “That’s nothing: I call them as they are.” The third paused a moment, and finally added: “They ain’t nothing until I call them—and then that’s what they are.” (Doby 16–17)

That’s an old joke, recorded here in a textbook from 1954. It’s a funny joke, although Doby’s telling of it isn’t the best. But what makes it significant is that the joke is about performative utterances. British philosopher J. L. Austin formulated a line of philosophical inquiry based on speech acts, utterances that, by the very fact they are spoken, perform an action that changes our material world. Classic examples of performative utterances include “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” “I christen this ship the Queen Mary,” and the pronouncements of sports officials. The idea of performative utterances is quite insidious. At first it seems like a simple categorization of a small and quirky class of statement, but the implications for performative utterances run deep and can undermine much of what we think about language and how we use it. Austin’s speech act theory has become a productive staple of modern literary analysis.

But what interests me here is that Austin first formulated his ideas on speech act theory and peformative utterances in 1955 in a series of lectures given at Harvard and published in 1962 as the book How to Do Things With Words. The umpire joke predates this. It is included in Doby’s textbook a year before Austin gave his lectures, and the joke is undoubtedly older—Doby had to have heard it somewhere. Austin was clearly picking up on and refining a discourse that was “in the air” at the time.

For his part, Doby was skirting around the question of speech acts when he published the joke in his book:

One issue that often brings out passionate discourse in those scientists who are otherwise detached and aloof is the question as to whether the “laws” discerned by science constitute a part of the “real world,” or whether the real world can be described by atomic empirical observations and the “laws” are the products of orderly human minds (16).

I don’t have a big point here. I just find it amusing that some anonymous wag created a joke that succinctly expresses the heart of a philosophical movement some years before the philosophers discovered it.


It’s been brought to my attention that the phrase, “it ain’t nothin’ until I call it,” is commonly attributed to one of two baseball umpires, either Bill Klem (1874–1951) or Charlie Moran (1878–1949) (Shapiro 433). So the idea was floating around baseball long before Austin picked up on it.

Works cited:

Austin, J. L. How to Do Things With Words. Second edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1975. Print.

Doby, John T. An Introduction to Social Research. Harrisburg: The Stackpole Company. 1954. Print.

Shapiro, Fred R., ed. The Yale Book of Quotations. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2006. Print.

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