Philosophy Phridays – Philosophy of Humor

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Philosophy Phridays is a series where each Friday, I go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, click on “random entry,” and then write about whatever comes up. This week’s random entry is Philosophy of Humor.

Finally, one of these random entries is on a topic I’m legitimately interested in. I’ve actually read a good chunk of the pieces in the bibliography. I’m lacking a little with the anthropology of humor, but I feel like I’m on pretty solid ground.

The article starts with the sad truth that humor isn’t something that philosophers have spent much time with over the centuries. It’s a glaring hole in the literature. Humor is such a vital part of our everyday lives from the time we’re infants until we die that you would think it would have been analyzed to death. Sadly, that’s not the case.

A good guess as to why it has been largely ignored is that, up until the 18th century, the philosophers who did talk about humor mostly presented it in a bad light. Like a lot of things, we can blame Plato for that. Plato wanted humor to be strictly regulated for two basic reasons. One is that laughter can lead to a loss of control. It causes an imbalance in the soul by supplanting rationality. The other is that a lot of humor is based on feelings of superiority (I’ll talk more about this later). This is what we call making fun of someone or something. Plato viewed it as a type of attack, and therefore a vice.

The Christian scholars took these ideas and ran with them (Aquinas was a notable exception. He saw value in humor.), making laughter sinful. I guess it matches with the worldview that was common for thousands of years that anything pleasurable is sinful. It must have been miserable living in medieval Europe, though. Finally, in the eighteenth century, some other views of humor started to emerge. This has continued until we, in the modern world, tend to view humor as a positive.

There are four basic theories of humor in the literature: The Superiority Theory, The Relief Theory, The Incongruity Theory, and Humor as Play. The superiority theory goes back to at least Plato. From the article, “Simply put, our laughter expresses feelings of superiority over other people or over a former state of ourselves.” In other words, we laugh at those that we see as foolish or ridiculous. It’s a way of looking down on others or ourselves. Some laughter obviously does fit this theory. I think everyone can remember a time when they have been a victim of this kind of humor. And most of us can also remember a time when we’ve made fun of others. Unlike Plato, I don’t think this is necessarily bad. There’s a long tradition of people bonding through putting each other down. And some people deserve to be taken down. But, it’s also not the highest form of humor. It’s surprising that the superiority theory was dominate for so long because there are obviously other types of humor.

The relief theory came from Lord Shaftesbury’s essay “An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humor” (This is also the first written example of the word humor being used in the modern sense). Freud elaborated on it and gave what is probably its most influential treatment. The relief theory basically says that laughter is like a release valve for pent up nervous energy. Freud said it was a way of dealing with repressed feelings. Again, on one level, the relief theory is obviously true. We all have laughed when nervous or stressed. At the same time, it misses a lot of things that we find humorous.

The incongruity theory is the most popular among modern philosophers. It says that what we find funny is when something is incongruous. When it goes against our expectations or normal patters. This does cover a lot of humor, from wordplay to stand-up comedy to satire and farce. Look at one of the oldest jokes in the book, “Take my wife. Please!” The set up creates expectations, that the joke teller is going to tell a story about his wife. Then, the punch line goes in a different direction and forces the listener to reevaluate what was meant by the set up. In this case, he wasn’t setting up a story about his wife, he was ordering the audience to take his wife. It’s when you understand the thwarted expectation and grasp the new meaning that you “get” a joke. It’s almost like solving a puzzle. As I said, this does cover a lot of what we think of as humorous. But, I think, it clearly leaves stuff out. There are tons of “inside” jokes among friends and families where the punchline actually reinforces the expectations. If there is a friend in your group who hates change, you can probably get a laugh when a change happens by asking, “What does Jane think of it?” and having someone answer, “She hates it.”

The last major theory is humor as play. This idea has been pushed by the people looking for evolutionary reasons for humor. And, again, in some forms of humor it is obviously true. The idea is that humor comes from the same kind of impulses that get us to play games and sports. It’s a way for us to develop skills and experiment with our capabilities in a safe manner. Riddles might be the clearest example of humor as play. We frequently turn riddles into a game. However, like the other theories, this leaves out important aspects of humor. A lot of satire is far too serious to be called play.

This brings me to something that has always bothered me about the philosophy of humor, and the idea of general theories. Supporters of each of these theories of humor act like they can, and should, be able to explain everything about humor. That has always struck me as absurd. As I’ve pointed out talking about each of the theories, they are true in some cases, but not in others. We laugh for many, many different reasons. There’s no good reason to think all of them can be covered by any one theory.

The article ends with a discussion of the similarities between comedy and philosophy. It points out that both philosophers and comedians pay close attention to language, that they both look for the unexpected in ordinary life, and things like that. There’s a quote from Wittgenstein that, “A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.” I’m surprised the article didn’t use that quote, but that’s the main point of the end section.

So, that’s a bit about the philosophy of humor. It’s a fascinating subject. I hope more philosophers take it up. I, for one, would be happy to read their ideas.

Morreall, John, “Philosophy of Humor”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/humor/>.

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