On Some Yogisms

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse Yogi_Berra_1956

Ludwig Wittgenstein apparently once claimed that “a serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.” It's not clear what might have led Wittgenstein to say such a thing. Indeed, it seems an absurd suggestion. Philosophy is largely an explanatory enterprise, and, as we all know, there's no worse fate for a joke than for it to require explanation. However, it is clear that jokes can provide an occasion for philosophical reflection. Even though we do not need an explanation of a good joke in order to find it funny, we nonetheless may have reason to look for an explanation of the fact that it is funny.

The distinction between explaining a joke and explaining what is funny about a joke is subtle enough to seem bogus. Yet surely there is a difference between having to explain a joke in order to make the case that it is funny and offering an explanation of what is funny about a joke that is already acknowledged to be so. The former project is, as we've already mentioned, a joke killer; a joke that needs to be explained in order that one might find it funny is arguably no joke at all. But the latter project of explaining why we find a particular joke funny can be elucidating. For one thing, it calls attention to the varied phenomena of humor, including the puzzling features of language and communication that are often put on explicit display in a good joke. Perhaps eventually such explanations may be helpful in drawing important distinctions between, say, comedy and cruelty, or satire and defamation.

The recent passing of Yogi Berra has rightly occasioned reflection on his famous quizzical remarks that are now widely known as “Yogisms.” What is interesting about Yogisms is that they're clearly funny, but it is not clear why. On the one hand, several look like simple conceptual errors. For example, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” “Pair up in threes,” and “Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical” seem simply to misunderstand what forks, pairs, and halves are. On the other hand, others appear to be flat tautologies. Consider: “I knew the record would stand until it was broken” and “You wouldn't have won if we'd beaten you.” In the cases of both of these kinds, the comedy lies in a kind of unthinking tendency to malapropism. Had Yogi said only one such thing, there likely would be no humor in it; one would simply claim that he had on some occasion misspoken, or said something silly, and be done with it. It is Yogi's proneness to certain kinds of conceptual infelicity – his record of erring – that makes these slip-ups distinctively amusing.

But other Yogisms are more intriguing, and, importantly, these are his more widely-known sayings. Consider the most famous Yogism of all: “It ain't over till it's over.” On its face, it looks like another simple tautology. Yet it isn't. What's going on?

As we have discussed in a previous column, philosophers commonly draw a distinction between semantics and pragmatics. A similar notion is at work here. Let us distinguish between what is strictly said, with the sentence's component lexical meanings determining its overall meaning, and what is communicated, which may have some other contrastive or expressive function determined by the background. A simple example is that, if one were to say that “Some of these chocolates are tasty,” a listener may infer that one also is saying that some aren't. The funny thing is that the strict semantic meaning of the first sentence doesn't imply the second. But it's still reasonable for a listener to make the inference, because the sentence was uttered contrastively. If the speaker thought that all the chocolates were tasty, she would have said so. Consequently, when she makes a big deal out of saying some are, she's calling attention, indirectly, to the fact that some aren't. And so there's what's strictly said and what's more broadly communicated.

The more intriguing Yogisms derive their humor from the fact that they seem to communicate something in addition to what is contained in their stricter sentential form, “what is said”; in fact, their humor lies precisely in the way that they pull semantics and pragmatics apart. Or put another way, something important gets communicated by saying something close to nothing. “It ain't over till it's over” is a comically parsimonious way of communicating the rather complex thought that the attitude of defeat should not be embraced prior to the actual defeat at the end of the game, even when defeat is apparently inevitable. Therefore, one utters this sentence in order to encourage a listening audience to play hard and play to win until the very end. All that from what is strictly considered a tautology.

Similarly, consider “No one goes there anymore, it's too crowded.” This may look like an odd kind of contradiction: if no one goes there, how could it be crowded? But, again, it isn't. Here, the humor derives from the fact that although “no one” regularly means literally nobody, in this case, the scope of the relevant people is restricted. Here the restriction is to some understood group of people – presumably Yogi and his friends. The Yogism trades on this ambiguity in expressing the thought that no one in our group goes there anymore because too many others not in our group go there. Another example is the famous “You can observe a lot by just watching.” This plays on the apparent synonymy of “observing” and “watching.” However, synonymy is a strict semantic relation: synonymous terms can be substituted within a sentence without changing its meaning. But, again, things are different when it comes to broader communicative functions. Here, the Yogism claims that by simply watching, one can discover new and unexpected features of a situation or event. That's what observations are for this context – the same kind of thing that one makes when one is thinking about some set of concepts or an argument… one can observe that they are motivated by some concern or don't fit together. The joke lies in the tacit recognition that synonyms don't always mean (pragmatically) the same thing.

In a less enigmatic remark than the one with which we began, Wittgenstein contends that proper philosophy “leaves everything as it is.” We hope that the explanation we have offered of some famous Yogisms has not detracted from their humor. We have sought to provide an explanation of what is indeed funny about Yogisms – that they playfully trade on the distinction between “what is said” (semantics) and “what is communicated” (pragmatics) – rather than to change anyone's perspective on them. Yogisms make this shift so that what is said is very parsimonious, but what is communicated is quite complex and subtle. It should come as no surprise that Yogi Berra also uttered a Yogism about his Yogisms – a meta-Yogism, if you will. And it has the same combination of said simplicity, but communicated subtlety. When asked about his famous turns of phrase, he replied, “I didn't really say everything I said“. Of course, strictly, this is a contradiction. But given what we've shown here, Yogi's meta-Yogism is true to form. What he'd communicated with all those purported malapropisms are not malapropisms, even if he'd uttered the very sentences that strictly taken are ridiculous.