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What's Laughter got to do with it? The Case for a Humorous Philosophy of
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Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain

Annual Conference
New College, Oxford
30 March – 1 April 2012

What's Laughter got to do with it? The Case for a


Humorous Philosophy of Education
Dr Mordechai Gordon

Quinnipiac University
mordechai.gordon@quinnipiac.edu
What’s Laughter got to do with it? The Case for a Humorous Philosophy of
Education

A survey of the history of Western philosophy suggests that relatively little has been

written about humor, laughter and amusement. While many philosophers, including Plato and

Aristotle, touched on humor in their writings, they generally did not address this topic in depth or

attempt to create a general theory of humor. Writing in the 1980‘s, humor theorist John Morreall

noted that ―until a few years ago, the study of laughter was treated in academic circles as

frivolous.‖1 Morreall attributed this neglect to the misguided belief that since laughter is not a

serious activity, it is neither possible nor desirable to investigate this phenomenon seriously.

Moreover, since laughing has rarely been considered a capacity that is uniquely human, it never

received the kind of attention and serious investigation that was dedicated to thinking and

speaking.

Aside from a general tendency to neglect humor, Morreall argues in several works

including The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor and Comic Relief that throughout most of the

history of Western philosophy, the assessment of humor has not been kind.2 Indeed, not only

Plato and Aristotle but also Descartes and Hobbes generally viewed humor with scorn and

tended to focus on the negative rather than positive aspects of humor. Plato argues in The

Republic that the guardians ―must not be too fond of laughter. For usually when one indulges

violent laughter, such a thing is apt to bring in oneself a violent upset of feeling.‖3 In addition, he

claimed in the dialogue Philebus (48-50) that laughter is usually prompted by negative feelings

such as malice and the enjoyment of seeing other people making fools of themselves.

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Many philosophers from Plato to Hobbes subscribed to what we refer today as the

Superiority Theory, which considered laughter as an expression of our delight in the

shortcomings of others or of our own previous failings. Summarizing this theory, Hobbes noted

that: ―the passion of laughter is nothing else but the sudden glory arising from some sudden

conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with

our own formerly.‖4 According to this view, people laugh when they discover that they are

superior to others in some important way or to how they used to be in the past. Today, the

Superiority Theory survives in the works of thinkers like Roger Scruton who writes that ―if

people dislike being laughed at it is surely because laughter de-values its object in the subject‘s

eyes.‖5

Fortunately, since the mid 18th century the Superiority Theory has come under attacks by

various philosophers and thinkers who realized that not only are there many cases in which

people feel superior but do not laugh, but also that laughter often arises when there are no

feelings of eminency. These critiques led eventually to the development of two additional

theories of humor, namely, the Relief and the Incongruity Theories. Briefly, the former maintains

that laughter functions to release nervous energy (Spencer and Freud); whereas the latter

suggests that laughter arises when we perceive something as incongruous (Kant and

Schopenhauer). Contemporary humor theorists such as Michael Clark, Mike Martin and John

Morreall have constructed more comprehensive views of the Incongruity theory. Still, despite the

attempts of various modern philosophers to address humor in a more positive light, Morreall

claims that it wasn‘t until well into the twentieth century that this issue gained even a semblance

of respect among philosophers and thinkers in general.

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The general tendency among philosophers to overlook or marginalize humor is probably

even more prevalent when one examines the relationship between philosophy of education and

humor. In fact, a review of the literature of this topic indicates that very few articles in

philosophy of education journals have been published or presentations delivered in the last

couple of decades that even mention humor let alone attempt to explore this topic in adequate

depth. Two notable exceptions that address humor or laughter are Cris Mayo‘s essay ―Being in

on the Joke: Pedagogy, Race, Humor‖ and a recent article entitled ―The Educational Meaning of

Communal Laughter.‖6 Yet these rare exceptions only serve to illustrate the point that

educational theorists have yet to take a serious look at some of the relationships between

philosophy of education and humor.

This essay is designed to initiate a conversation among philosophers of education about

humor and laughter by focusing on some interesting connections between humor and philosophy.

In what follows, I first examine some of the historical tensions between traditional education and

humor and laughter. I then proceed to lay out some important, though often neglected,

similarities and links between humor and philosophy. In the final part of this essay, I attempt to

respond to the question: what does a study of humor and laughter bring to philosophy of

education?

Conflict between Education and Humor

Historically speaking, the problem was not only that philosophers generally viewed

humor and laughter with suspicion and scorn, but that many thinkers also believed that humor

and laughter were incompatible with good education and culture. It is well known that Plato

wanted to severely restrict the performance of comedy. For instance, in the Laws (816e) he

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argued that a citizen shall ―command slaves and hired strangers to imitate such things

[comedies], but he should never take any serious interest in them himself, nor should any

freeman or freewoman be discovered taking pains to learn them.‖7 According to this view,

comedy and jest were acceptable for slaves but not for the educated citizens of Athens. The

implication of Plato‘s characterization of comedy is that it is incompatible with the kind of

education that citizens deserve and leads to virtue.

In addition to Plato, Christianity was very vocal in its insistence that sternness and

discipline were those qualities that Christians needed to adopt, while associating laughter and

humor with the loss of self-control and the breaking of social rules. For instance, John

Chrysostom, an early Christian thinker, wrote that

Laughter often gives birth to foul discourse, and foul discourse to actions still
more foul. Often from words and laughter proceed railing and insult; and from
railing and insult, blows and wounds; and from blows and wounds, slaughter and
murder.8

In this view, laughter is bad because it can lead to uncontrollable behavior, aggression and even

violence. Other thinkers from the monastic tradition and the Puritans were also very critical of

laughter and humor and argued that they were incompatible with the good Christian life based on

moderation of speech and action.

Such negative views on the educational impact of laughter were prevalent well into the

19th century. For instance, George Vasey‘s book The Philosophy of Laughter and Smiling (1877)

offers many of the traditional objections to laughter. In this book, Vasey argues that laughter is

an unnatural and crude response that children would not acquire if they were not tickled and

stimulated by their misguided caretakers. Vasey writes that ―it is very questionable that children

would ever begin to laugh if they were not stimulated and prompted, but were let alone, and

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treated naturally and rationally.‖9 For Vasey, laughter is not only often physically and

psychologically dangerous, but can also lead to irrational and irresponsible behavior.

More recently, in his study of the history of the American public schooling system from

the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries, Clinton Allison claims that the aims of education

have been largely conservative:

The politically powerful in America have promoted conservative purposes for


public education. Both social control and maintaining the social structure have
been among their aims for schools. Based on the premise that public order is
better obtained by citizens who have internalized values leading to proper
behavior than by having a police state…, the privileged have advocated teaching
traditional values as a means of keeping people behaving in prescribed ways.10

The point is that such conservative aims for schools—whether one is talking about social control,

religious and cultural transmission or maintaining economic stability—were largely incompatible

with the existence of humor and laughter in classrooms. On the contrary, these goals can best be

promoted in an educational environment that is serious, stern and rests on an authoritative notion

of discipline.

This very brief historical survey suggests that for centuries there was considerable tension

between education on the one hand and humor and laughter on the other. Education was

traditionally associated not only with rigorous learning and stern discipline but also with rational

behavior and the pursuit of virtue. In contrast, humor and laughter were considered frivolous

activities and were viewed, for the most part, as inconsistent with the kind of behavior and

disposition that were expected of an educated person. Only in the twentieth century did

philosophers and other theorists begin to fully appreciate the value of laugher and humor for

human existence. Based on the insights of thinkers such as Dewey, Freud and Wittgenstein we

now know that humor can not only be consistent with good education but also with sound

philosophical discourse.11

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Philosophy and Humor

Ironically, despite the historical conflict between education and humor and the negative

views about laughter maintained by many of the great philosophers of Western thought, there are

quite a few similarities between philosophy and humor. Here, I will briefly outline only four of

the qualities that philosophy and humor share though it is likely that the two have many more

features in common.12 To begin with, is the notion that much of philosophy and many instances

of humor are reflections on human existence. Philosophers from Plato to contemporary thinkers

have written volumes about the meaning of phenomena such as love, friendship, injustice, and

death. Indeed, such human phenomena have been popular topics of discussion for thinkers from

a wide range of philosophical traditions from Ancient philosophy through Existentialism.

Interestingly, the same human phenomena have provided many of the most successful

comedians with a vast resource of jokes and humor in general. For instance, George Carlin has a

brilliant stand-up routine in which he makes fun of some of people‘s most absurd beliefs about

death (like the notion that our loved ones who die are ―looking out for us from up there‖ or

―smiling down on us from heaven‖). Another example is Woody Allen‘s 1975 film ―Love and

Death,‖ which includes the following reflection on love:

To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering one must not love. But then one suffers
from not loving. Therefore to love is to suffer, not to love is to suffer. To suffer is
to suffer. To be happy is to love. To be happy then is to suffer. But suffering
makes one unhappy. Therefore, to be unhappy one must love, or love to suffer, or
suffer from too much happiness.

Although the tone of this musing on love is obviously meant to be light and funny, it

nevertheless provides us a great deal of food for thought.

Second, both philosophers and humorists enjoy analyzing ambiguities and incongruities

of language and meaning. Philosophers of language such as Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein and

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Quine have attempted to make sense of how meaning and truth are situated in the concrete

practices of linguistic communication. These philosophers have provided us with great insights

on questions like ―where meaning comes from, in what it consists, and how the many

incompletenesses and flexibilities in linguistic meaning are overcome and exploited in fixing

what speakers mean by their words on particular occasions.‖13 Learning from philosophers of

language we now recognize that words such as ‗know,‘ ‗true,‘ ‗good‘ and ‗free‘ can vary

considerably and derive their meaning from the context in which they appear, their usage, and

the terms to which they refer to.

Much like philosophers of language, comedians are attracted to words and expressions

and to the way in which they are used by politicians, celebrities and people in general. Former

President George W. Bush was a favorite target of many comedians such as Will Farrell and Jon

Stewart who made fun of his choice of words and use, or rather misuse, of the English language.

Many jokes consist of a play on words, saying something that is incongruous or exploiting the

ambiguities of language. The following jokes are examples of ones that include a play on words

or language incongruities:

What do Alexander the Great and Winnie the Pooh have in Common?
They have the same middle name.

A College is a fountain of knowledge…and the students are there to drink.

An eighty-five-year-old says to some of his pals, “You know, I have sex almost
every night.”
“Really?”asks one of them.
“Yes,” replies the man, “for instance this week I had it almost on Monday, almost
on Tuesday, almost on Wednesday…,”14

Third, is the fact that both philosophers and comedians often adopt a detached mental

perspective in their work. Philosophers typically explore questions that arise from everyday

experience in a removed and impartial way. They have inquired about the nature of justice,

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democracy or freedom and attempted to construct comprehensive theories of these concepts. In

investigating such concepts, philosophers employ tools such as logical analysis, rational

argumentation and dialectic in order to make sense of the phenomena that they are studying.

Historically speaking, many philosophers tried to detach themselves from practical and

emotional concerns in order to investigate their topics from perspectives that are ―purely‖

intellectual.

In a similar way to philosophy, humor involves the temporary suspension of practical

concerns in order to feel pleasure and be amused. In fact, when we are preoccupied with work or

other practical matters, we typically do not find the humorous words or deeds of others amusing

or funny. Much like philosophy, the enjoyment of humor presupposes a kind of distancing or

emotional detachment from practical concerns and immediate threats. However, the term

emotional detachment can be misleading since people who are watching a comedic performance

are actually deeply engaged with the performance. The detachment felt by people who are

engaged in laughter or humor is a distancing from our everyday duties and responsibilities for

the sake of being engrossed in the comedic experience itself.

Finally, both philosophers and comedians value critical thinking. Both encourage us to

question the ―wisdom‖ of authority and reject the tendency to accept pat answers and

conventional ways of looking at the world. Morreall points out that:

A standard procedure in both comedy and philosophy is to bring up a widely


accepted idea and ask the three C questions: Is it clear – what exactly are those
who believe this saying? Is it coherent – do its parts fit with each other and with
other ideas of the people who hold it? And is it credible – do we have good
reasons to accept it?15

Philosophy and comedy thrive on critically examining these questions while often coming up

with negative responses to them. Morreall is correct when he notes that such critical examination

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helps both philosophers and comedians discover some important confusions, fallacies and

incongruities in the way that people speak, think and write.

To be sure, my intention is not to overstate those qualities that philosophy and humor

have in common. Obviously, there are some important differences between the two, not least of

which is that philosophy generally involves taking a serious outlook on the world and human

existence whereas humor entails a perspective that is amusing and comical. Another significant

difference is that humor is fundamentally a social experience while philosophizing is, for the

most part, an endeavor that people engage in by themselves and does not depend on the presence

of an audience. Still, in highlighting those qualities that humor shares with philosophy, my intent

is simply to counter the traditional negative view of humor and lay the groundwork for the final

section of this essay on how humor can assist philosophers of education.

Humor and Philosophy of Education

In light of the noteworthy similarities between philosophy and humor outlined above, one

might legitimately wonder: what does a study of humor and laughter bring to philosophy of

education? First, humor can provide a light and amusing mood that can balance the more serious

tone of much of the scholarly work that philosophers of education do. In other words, humor

offers a kind of comic relief to the rigorous, analytical research done by educational theorists.

This light and amusing spirit is critical given the current emphasis on standards, testing and

accountability in education, which among other things has resulted in the devaluation and

marginalization of philosophy and the humanities in general. In an era which seems obsessed

with increasing test scores and measuring success, any discourse that can‘t be accurately

assessed is considered suspect or irrelevant.

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The responses to the devaluation and marginalization of the humanities in general and

philosophy of education in particular can vary widely. One possible reaction that we can imagine

is to stick to our guns, insist that we are engaged in essential research and practice, and defend

our turf at all costs (let‘s call this the ―defensive stance‖). In this view, philosophers have a key

role to play in this era of increased testing and measurement since they have deconstructed

notions like accountability and higher standards, explained how these notions have been

appropriated for private gain and described how they are used to limit rather than enhance the

possibilities of students. In short, a defensive stance insists that the perspective of philosophers

is unique and needs to be taken into account in educational debates.

An alternative response to the devaluation of philosophy of education is to retreat inward,

seeking solace among our close colleagues in the field while adopting an attitude of gloom, self-

pity and despair (I refer to this as attitude as the ―depressive stance‖). According to this

perspective, if professional educators and policy makers can‘t recognize the value of adopting a

philosophical approach to address the deep-seeded problems that plague education, well, ―the

hell with them.‖ We philosophers are better served anyway when we debate with each other on

purely theoretical questions such as the meaning of democracy and social justice. Granted that

my characterization of the defensive and depressive stances is very sketchy and lighthearted, I do

believe that they represent two possible ways of responding to the marginalization of the

humanities and philosophy of education.16

While I have nothing personal against the defensive and the depressive stances, I doubt

that, by themselves, they are particularly helpful and healthy attitudes in the face of the efforts to

diminish philosophy of education. The problem is that both the defensive and the depressive

stances tend to offer cynical and negative rather than constructive responses to the

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marginalization of our field. Granted that these stances may help shield philosophy of education

from those that would rather eliminate this field altogether. However, they are not very effective

in forging connections and initiating conversations with educators and policymakers who have

very different takes on what‘s wrong with education in the United States in the 21st century.

Thus, I believe that at the very least philosophers of education must consider a third

alternative, one that is radically different from the defensive and depressive stances and is based

on laughter and humor. Learning from Thomas Nagel we know that humor and our capacity to

laugh at ourselves can help us cope with many of the challenges and absurdities of our

existence.17 Unlike being defensive or depressive, a humorous stance implies an openness to

evaluate some of our habitual ways of thinking or acting in light of different and more innovative

ways of being. Summarizing the value of the laughing spirit in countering our worn-out

conventions and an attitude of doom and gloom, Nietzsche wrote:

What gives asses wings, what milks lionesses—praised be this good intractable
spirit that comes like a cyclone to all today and to all the mob. What is averse to
thistle-heads and casuists‘ heads and to all the wilted leaves and weeds—praised
be this wild, good, free storm spirit that dances on swamps and on melancholy as
on meadows. What hates the mob‘s blether-cocks and all the bungled gloomy
brood—praised be this spirit of all free spirits, the laughing gale that blows dust
into the eyes of all the black-sighted, sore-blighted.18

For Nietzsche, the way to become liberated from our enslavement to various laws and

practices that have ceased to make sense is not by anger or despair but by relying on a spirit of

jest and light-heartedness. Our sense of humor and the capacity to laugh at ourselves are

beneficial in that they help us keep things in perspective so that we can focus our energies on the

most important matters of life. In the case of the fixation with testing and accountability

mentioned above, humor can assist philosophers of education not to get bogged down with

numbers, technical standards or measuring success. Since a humorous approach tends to be

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uplifting, it can help us maintain hope and avoid the ―gloomy brood‖ that Nietzsche despised,

thereby freeing us to respond creatively to some of the problems that threaten the field of

education.

Aside from providing a cheerful mood that can counter the more serious and critical tone

of philosophical discourse, humor can help philosophers of education develop a tolerance for

disorder, ambiguity and incongruity. Morreall notes insightfully that:

Comic heroes and heroines live in messy, potentially confusing worlds where
situations may need to be reinterpreted, perhaps more than once. We often laugh
at a situation in a comedy at the moment we understand it in a new way, just as
we laugh at the punch line of a joke as we switch to a new meaning for a word or
phrase.19

Morreall‘s point is that the appreciation we gain for disorder, ambiguity and incongruity from

being exposed to comedy and humor in general can carry over to other life situations, which are

often just as confusing. Developing such an appreciation, I believe, is essential for philosophers

of education given that the realm of education is one that is messy, complex and full of

contradictions.

Finally, humor can also be beneficial for philosophers of education when they need to

communicate inconvenient truths and painful facts to the broader educational community and the

public at large. Since Plato, philosophers of education have periodically expressed such truths,

yet were generally met with skepticism, indifference and antagonism. In contrast to a more

serious and confrontational style of discourse, humor can be very helpful in getting people to

listen to and comprehend the truth. Humor is a very effective way to convey the truth because it

permits frankness to be less threatening than a more confrontational style of discourse (e.g. Jon

Stewart and Michael Moore). As Sammy Basu argues, ―comedy can make palatable what is

otherwise hard to swallow.‖ 20

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The effectiveness of humor in conveying inconvenient truths suggests that it is time to

call into question the tradition of philosophy that equates intellectual work with seriousness and

absence of play. Acknowledging humor‘s value in speaking truth to power will hopefully move

us to reexamine the role that it can play in our intellectual lives as philosophers of education.

Perhaps we can find new and exciting ways to integrate humor with rigorous philosophical

discourse that build on and enhance the examples of John Morreall, Cris Mayo and others who

have already taken on this challenge. In this way, the insights of philosophers of education might

resonate louder and reach a broader audience.

Conclusion

So what does the study of humor and laughter bring to philosophy of education? My

analysis suggests that humor and laugher can provide philosophers of education with a light and

amusing mood that can balance the more somber tone that characterizes their work. Such balance

is essential given our affinity for rigorous, philosophical discourse and our propensity to take

ourselves and our work too seriously. A humorous stance can also help philosophers of

education develop a tolerance for disorder, ambiguity and incongruity. In addition, humor can

assist them in communicating painful facts and inconvenient truths to the broader educational

community and the general public. These and much more are the promises of adopting an

attitude of humor and laughter in our work. Not a bad gift for philosophers of education, I

submit; and not a bad attitude for all educators who are trying to make a difference in the lives of

the students they teach.

13
Notes
1
John Morreall, Taking Laughter Seriously, (Albany: State University of New York, 1983), ix.
2
See his books The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor, ed. John Morreall, (Albany: SUNY Press, 1987); and
Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor, (Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).
3
The Republic (388E), in Great Dialogues of Plato, trans. by W. H. D. Rouse, (New York: Mentor Books, 1956),
185.
4
See Thomas Hobbes‘ Human Nature, Ch. 8, #13 in English Works, vol. 4, ed. William Molesworth, (London:
Bohn, 1840).
5
See Scruton‘s essay ―Laughter,‖ in The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor, ed. John Morreall, (Albany: SUNY
Press, 1987), 168.
6
Cris Mayo, ―Being in on the Joke: Pedagogy, Race, Humor,‖ Philosophy of Education 2008, (Urbana, IL:
Philosophy of Education Society, 2009), 244-252; Joris Vlieghe, Marten Simons and Jan Masschelen, ―The
Educational Meaning of Communal Laughter: On the Experience of Corporeal Democracy,‖ Educational Theory,
Vol. 60, n. 6 (2010), 719-734.
7
See Plato‘s Laws, trans. by Benjamin Jowett (New York: Prometheus Books, 2000), p. 172.
8
John Chrysostom, ―On the Priesthood: Ascetic Treatises; Select Homilies and Letters; Homilies on the Statues,‖
Vol. 9. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff, (New
York: Christian Literature Co., 1889), 442.
9
George Vasey, The Philosophy of Laughter and Smiling, (London: J. Burns, 1877), 30.
10
Clinton B. Allison, Present and Past: Essays for Teachers in the History of Education, (New York: Peter Lang,
1995), 19-20.
11
Dewey argued in Democracy and Education that ―it is the business of the school to set up an environment in
which play and work shall be conducted with reference to facilitating desirable mental and moral growth‖ (p. 196);
Freud noted in his essay ―Humor‖ that this capacity is very beneficial in that it promotes the development of a
healthy relationship between the super-ego and the ego; Wittgenstein famously remarked that ―a serious and good
philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes,‖ quoted in Norman Malcom's Ludwig Wittgenstein:
A Memoir, (Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 27-28.
12
For a more comprehensive account of these similarities see Morreall‘s book Comic Relief, pp. 126-129.
13
See the entry on the ―Philosophy of Language,‖ in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, by Mark Crimmins,
downloaded from http://www.rep.routledge.com/article/U017, p. 2.
14
These jokes were brought to my attention by Ted Cohen in his book Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking
Matters, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
15
John Morreall, Comic Relief, 128.
16
The defensive and depressive stances are not meant to be identified with any particular discourse in philosophy of
education such as post-modernism or liberalism. Instead, they represent two fairly common psychological responses
to the marginalization of philosophy of education.
17
Thomas Nagel, ―The Absurd,‖ The Journal of Philosophy, 68, no. 20, (1971), 716-727.
18
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra: Fourth Part, The Portable Nietzsche, trans. and intro. by Walter
Kaufmann, (New York: Penguin Books, 1968), 407.
19
Quoted from John Morreall‘s unpublished paper ―Humor, Philosophy and Education,‖ slated for a special issue of
Educational Philosophy and Theory, (anticipated publication date 2012).
20
Sammy Basu, ―Dialogic Ethics and the Virtue of Humor,‖ The Journal of Political Philosophy, 7, no. 4, (1999),
391.

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