How is a pun possible?—J. Derrida 1
Puns are not high on the philosophical horizon. 2 Wittgenstein, it is true, thought that the depth of grammatical jokes was the same as the depth of philosophy, but it is not unusual to smile politely at this remark, and move on. 3 Jokes, like puns, are philosophically puny. Or worse. The air of crime clings to puns. In some contexts the use of a pun is enough to convict one of the fallacy of equivocation, and even where “simply” fun, we refuse to laugh. By groaning, we punish the punster. Apparently we take puns more seriously than we consistently insist.
Puny or not, puns do exist, and any adequate account of linguistic communication should allow for the possibility of puns. Surprisingly enough, one natural way to account for this possibility brings us very close to a Derridean domain most philosophers of language make every effort to avoid. But with this result in hand, we may be better placed to understand the seriousness which by scoffing at puns we mask.
Puns can be made, but more often they are found. We can find ourselves surprised, sometimes embarrassed, by puns we have inadvertently put into play while thinking about some other, more serious, linguistic business. These are the puns I want to consider: inadvertent puns. 4 How are they possible? It is easy to think that in ordinary cases of using a word, we intentionally or contextually invoke some one of that [End Page 330] word’s possible significances and put that significance into play in our sentence. Successful communication would then consist in successfully transmitting that significance—and only that significance—to the receiver of our communication. The possibility of inadvertent puns shows that more meanings of a word are in play than those we have intentionally put into play. The possibility of puns which are not only inadvertent but also inappropriately sexual shows, in addition, that more meanings of a word are in play than are contextually called for. Inadvertent puns draw our attention to the occasional powerlessness of either context or intention to narrow down the possible significances of our spoken or written words to one. What are we to make of these facts?
At a minimum, the possibility of inadvertent puns shows that more meanings of our words can be in play than we normally suppose. We might want to say that only those meanings were in play which surfaced with the inadvertent pun itself. But is there any justification for drawing the line there? The only thing that makes the situation of the inadvertent pun different from the more usual one is that we noticed the intentionally and contextually surprising meanings. But the possibility of inadvertent puns is perfectly general, so the most straightforward account of the possibility of inadvertent puns is to say that all possible significances of a word are always in play whenever it is being used. The fact that we don’t normally notice this is no more remarkable than the fact that we don’t normally notice the size of people’s ears. Inadvertent puns draw our attention to what was there all along.
Immediately smelling trouble, we might consider backpedalling: insisting that the only meanings invoked by an inadvertent pun were those intentionally invoked by the producer of the pun. But that would be to deny the existence of inadvertent puns altogether; it would be to insist that they were illusory, merely apparent, artifacts of the circumstances, not really real, at all. This is as unpalatable a suggestion as that according to which the spinach was only apparently good for playing spinach tennis, simply because the cook did not intend to produce projectiles. The cook’s intentions make these qualities of the spinach unintentional, but not unreal. So, pedalling forward once again: what are the consequences of saying that whenever we use a word all of its possible significances are in play?
(a) We will have to reconceive our account of interpretation. When it is a question of providing an interpretation of a spoken or written text, this hermeneutical process...