james_geary's picture
Deputy Curator, Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard; Author, Wit's End

Charles Lamb once remarked that, when the time came for him to leave this earth, his fondest wish would be to draw his last breath through a pipe and exhale it in a pun. And he was indeed a prodigious punster. Once, when a friend, about to introduce the notoriously shy English essayist to a group of strangers, asked him, “Promise, Lamb, not to be so sheepish,” he replied, “I wool.”

Lamb and his close friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge shared a passion for punning, not just as a fireside diversion but as a model for the way the imaginative mind works. “All men who possess at once active fancy, imagination, and a philosophical spirit, are prone to punning,” Coleridge declared.

Coleridge considered punning an essentially poetic act, exhibiting sensitivity to the subtlest, most distant relationships, as well as an acrobatic exercise of intelligence, connecting things formerly believed to be unconnected. “A ridiculous likeness leads to the detection of a true analogy” is the way he explained it. The novelist and cultural critic Arthur Koestler picked up Coleridge’s idea and used it as the basis for his theory of creativity—in the sciences, the humanities, and the arts.

Koestler regarded the pun, which he described as “two strings of thought tied together by an acoustic knot,” as among the most powerful proofs of “bisociation,” the process of discovering similarity in the dissimilar that he suspected was the foundation for all creativity. A pun “compels us to perceive the situation in two self-consistent but incompatible frames of reference at the same time,” Koestler argued. “While this unusual condition lasts, the event is not, as is normally the case, associated with a single frame of reference, but bisociated with two.”

For Koestler, the ability to simultaneously view a situation through multiple frames of reference is the source of all creative breakthroughs.

Newton was bisociating when, as he sat in contemplative mood in his garden, he watched an apple fall to the ground and understood it as both the unremarkable fate of a piece of ripe fruit and a startling demonstration of the law of gravity. Cézanne was bisociating when he rendered his astonishing apples as both actual produce arranged so meticulously before him and as impossibly off-kilter objects that existed only in his brushstrokes and pigments. Saint Jerome was bisociating when, translating the Old Latin Bible into the simpler Latin Vulgate in the 4th century, he noticed that the adjectival form of "evil," malus, also happens to be the word for "apple," malum, and picked that word as the name of the previously unidentified fruit Adam and Eve ate.

There is no sharp boundary splitting the bisociation experienced by the scientist from that experienced by the artist, the sage or the jester. The creative act moves seamlessly from the "Aha!" of scientific discovery to the "Ah…" of aesthetic insight to the "Ha-ha" of the pun and the punchline. Koestler even found a place for comedy on the bisociative spectrum of ingenuity: “Comic discovery is paradox stated—scientific discovery is paradox resolved.” Bisociation is central to creative thought, Koestler believed, because “The conscious and unconscious processes underlying creativity are essentially combinatorial activities—the bringing together of previously separate areas of knowledge and experience.”

Bisociation is a form of improvised, recombinant intelligence that integrates knowledge and experience, fuses divided worlds, and links the like with the unlike—a model and a metaphor for the process of discovery itself. The pun is at once the most profound and the most pedestrian example of bisociation at work.