Skip to content

‘Pataphysics: The absurd philosophy that mocks academia

The multi-leveled constructions of metaphysics are the collective workings of a fantastical virtuality. Did you get that?
a drawing of a person standing next to a pair of shoes.
Annelisa Leinbach / Big Think; Wikimedia Commons
Key Takeaways
  • ‘Pataphysics is a “science of imaginary solutions” that satirizes the nonsense found in some corners of academia.
  • It was created by the absurdist playwright Alfred Jarry, who believed the world cannot be understood in one easy, obvious way.
  • There are two bits of wisdom in ‘pataphysics: beware of pretentious nonsense and people who claim there is only one way to view the world.

If you delineate from the amalgamation of various metaphysical, and occasionally familiar, variants, what you get is something that bears great resemblance to ‘pataphysics. Of course, most reading this will, under the vestments of academia, twitch in chagrin. But, never in the course of human history, will so much understanding be wasted on other-regarding interests, if we disregard ‘pataphysics.

Okay, I’ll stop. Well done if you got this far. What you’ve just waded through is an example of ‘pataphysics in action (the apostrophe is meant to be there). What is ‘pataphysics? Well, the first thing you should probably learn comes from Andrew Hugill’s ‘Pataphysics: A Useless Guide:

“To understand pataphysics is to fail to understand pataphysics. To define it is merely to indicate a possible meaning, which will always be the opposite of another equally possible meaning, which, when diurnally interpolated with the first meaning, will point toward a third meaning which will in turn elude definition because of the fourth element that is missing.”

But here’s an attempt at a definition: It’s a playful and satirical (and, of course, French) philosophy that mocks the conventions of science, religion, and philosophy. It revels in absurdity and paradox, intentionally defying traditional logic and embracing contradictions. That’s because ‘pataphysics is a double-sided satire. It satirizes not only the ideas and theories proposed by scientists, theologians, and philosophers but also the ways they use language to express those ideas — often a kind of incomprehensible word salad that feels like it should make sense but rarely does.

More than this, ‘pataphysics is the belief that, even if you do manage to understand what people are trying to say, what they’re saying is probably bunk (or “pseudoscientific bullshit“) anyway. So, at the risk of upsetting both ‘pataphysicans and normies alike, let’s explore what ‘pataphysics is all about.


‘Pataphysics goes back to the 1900s and the work of the absurdist playwright Alfred Jarry. Like the movements of surrealism and Dadaism that came after, Jarry was poking fun at systems. He wanted to mock the idea that the world could be summarized in only one or a few answers. Late modern philosophy was defined by “great systems” thinking — this is when philosophers like Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel were trying to provide an all-encompassing “theory of everything.” It was an era when the preeminent thinkers of the day believed the Universe and everything in it could be explained and understood in a single book.

Make no mistake about it: ‘Pataphysics pataphysicises itself through the ‘Pataphysics of pataphysical modes.  

Le Collège de ’Pataphysique

Jarry thought this was absurd. It was so absurd that he used absurdity to point out how absurd it was. Which sounds, of course, absurd. If all these philosophers and scholars thought everything could be easily put into boxes, then Jarry was here to provide some seriously outside-of-the-box ideas. ‘Pataphysics is a meta-metaphysics, in that it suggests that everything — both physical and metaphysical — is a kind of imagined fiction.

“Pataphysics will be, above all, the science of the particular, despite the common opinion that the only science is that of the general,” Jarry wrote. “Pataphysics will examine the laws governing exceptions, and will explain the universe supplementary to this one; or, less ambitiously, will describe a universe which can be — and perhaps should be — envisaged in the place of the traditional one.”

Contradicting non-contradiction

One ancient example of this kind of “the world must be like this” thinking goes back to Aristotle’s logic. Aristotle gave us three axioms or laws of logic that have, in the main, been assumed by everyone. These include the Law of Identity (I am me, you are you, and A = A), the Law of Excluded Middle (everything is either something or not that something), and the Law of Non-Contradiction (you cannot both be something and not something at the same time; you cannot be both true and false).

Almost all intelligent discussions and academic arguments hinge upon our accepting these laws. ‘Pataphysics does not. In ‘pataphysical logic, not only are contradictions possible, but they are also encouraged and always true. I am both me and not me; an object is both a circle and a square; everything is both true and false. ‘Pataphysics is about turning over every assumption. It’s an annoying student who just says, “I don’t agree,” to everything. It’s a kind of trivialism.

This isn’t quite the same thing as saying everything is nonsensical, but rather that almost everything is not that important. If you are to be a ‘pataphysicist, then you have to also face life with insouciance. After all, if you recognize that all facts are contradictions and that everyone is, basically, making everything up, it’s hard not to treat everything with a light bit of mockery. ‘Pataphysicists will constantly wear a sardonic smile.

Beware of purple prose

Of course, ‘pataphysics is victim to its own absurdity. Like the world it’s looking to mock, it too is open to mockery. ‘Pataphysics is a joker’s kaleidoscope of paradox, contradiction, and nonsense. One effort in trying to collate all known ‘pataphysicists and their ideas together managed to work from around 120 definitions of what pataphysics even is. An anti-system system can’t easily be defined.

But there are two pieces of wisdom found in ‘pataphysics’ weird circus of practitioners. The first is to beware of the pretentious, purple prose of academia. As Einstein once said, and Richard Feynman repeated, “If you cannot explain something in simple terms, you don’t understand it.”

It’s easy to appear deeply profound if you hide behind breathlessly long and convoluted sentences. It’s easy to appear intelligent if you depend on antiquated words and Latin idioms. ‘Pataphysics knows, though, that nonsense is, sometimes, nothing more than nonsense.

To understand pataphysics is to fail to understand pataphysics.

Andrew Hugill

The second wisdom is to be suspicious of simple answers and of claims that there is one true way of understanding the world. All the collective wisdom of all human understanding will only ever be a tiny perspective, limited to brains that have evolved to adapt to a very specific environment. The best and most intelligent people recognize that, and ‘pataphysics is a surreal, amusing attempt to underline the point.

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy at Oxford. He runs a popular account called Mini Philosophy and his first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.