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Philosophy of Humor

Although most people value humor, philosophers have said little about it, and what they have said is largely critical. Three traditional theories of laughter and humor are examined, along with the theory that humor evolved from mock-aggressive play in apes. Understanding humor as play helps counter the traditional objections to it and reveals some of its benefits, including those it shares with philosophy itself.

1. Humor’s Bad Reputation

2. the superiority theory, 3. the relief theory, 4. the incongruity theory, 5. humor as play, laughter as play signal, other internet resources, related entries.

When people are asked what’s important in their lives, they often mention humor. Couples listing the traits they prize in their spouses usually put “sense of humor” at or near the top. Philosophers are concerned with what is important in life, so two things are surprising about what they have said about humor.

The first is how little they have said. From ancient times to the 20 th century, the most that any notable philosopher wrote about laughter or humor was an essay, and only a few lesser-known thinkers such as Frances Hutcheson and James Beattie wrote that much. The word humor was not used in its current sense of funniness until the 18 th century, we should note, and so traditional discussions were about laughter or comedy. The most that major philosophers like Plato, Hobbes, and Kant wrote about laughter or humor was a few paragraphs within a discussion of another topic. Henri Bergson’s 1900 Laughter was the first book by a notable philosopher on humor. Martian anthropologists comparing the amount of philosophical writing on humor with what has been written on, say, justice, or even on Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance, might well conclude that humor could be left out of human life without much loss.

The second surprising thing is how negative most philosophers have been in their assessments of humor. From ancient Greece until the 20 th century, the vast majority of philosophical comments on laughter and humor focused on scornful or mocking laughter, or on laughter that overpowers people, rather than on comedy, wit, or joking. Plato, the most influential critic of laughter, treated laughter as an emotion that overrides rational self-control. In the Republic ( 388e), he says that the Guardians of the state should avoid laughter, “for ordinarily when one abandons himself to violent laughter, his condition provokes a violent reaction.” Especially disturbing to Plato were the passages in the Iliad and the Odyssey where Mount Olympus was said to ring with the laughter of the gods. He protested that “if anyone represents men of worth as overpowered by laughter we must not accept it, much less if gods.”

Another of Plato’s objections to laughter is that it is malicious. In Philebus (48–50), he analyzes the enjoyment of comedy as a form of scorn. “Taken generally,” he says, “the ridiculous is a certain kind of evil, specifically a vice.” That vice is self-ignorance: the people we laugh at imagine themselves to be wealthier, better looking, or more virtuous than they really are. In laughing at them, we take delight in something evil—their self-ignorance—and that malice is morally objectionable.

Because of these objections to laughter and humor, Plato says that in the ideal state, comedy should be tightly controlled. “We shall enjoin that such representations be left to slaves or hired aliens, and that they receive no serious consideration whatsoever. No free person, whether woman or man, shall be found taking lessons in them.” “No composer of comedy, iambic or lyric verse shall be permitted to hold any citizen up to laughter, by word or gesture, with passion or otherwise” ( Laws , 7: 816e; 11: 935e).

Greek thinkers after Plato had similarly negative comments about laughter and humor. Though Aristotle considered wit a valuable part of conversation ( Nicomachean Ethics 4, 8), he agreed with Plato that laughter expresses scorn. Wit, he says in the Rhetoric (2, 12), is educated insolence. In the Nicomachean Ethics (4, 8) he warns that “Most people enjoy amusement and jesting more than they should … a jest is a kind of mockery, and lawgivers forbid some kinds of mockery—perhaps they ought to have forbidden some kinds of jesting.” The Stoics, with their emphasis on self-control, agreed with Plato that laughter diminishes self-control. Epictetus’s Enchiridion (33) advises “Let not your laughter be loud, frequent, or unrestrained.” His followers said that he never laughed at all.

These objections to laughter and humor influenced early Christian thinkers, and through them later European culture. They were reinforced by negative representations of laughter and humor in the Bible, the vast majority of which are linked to hostility. The only way God is described as laughing in the Bible is with hostility:

The kings of the earth stand ready, and the rulers conspire together against the Lord and his anointed king… . The Lord who sits enthroned in heaven laughs them to scorn; then he rebukes them in anger, he threatens them in his wrath (Psalm 2:2–5).

God’s spokesmen in the Bible are the Prophets, and for them, too, laughter expresses hostility. In the contest between God’s prophet Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal, for example, Elijah ridicules them for their god’s powerlessness, and then has them slain (1 Kings 18:21–27). In the Bible, mockery is so offensive that it may deserve death, as when a group of children laugh at the prophet Elisha for his baldness:

He went up from there to Bethel and, as he was on his way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Get along with you, bald head, get along.” He turned round and looked at them and he cursed then in the name of the Lord; and two she-bears came out of a wood and mauled forty-two of them (2 Kings 2:23).

Bringing together negative assessments of laughter from the Bible with criticisms from Greek philosophy, early Christian leaders such as Ambrose, Jerome, Basil, Ephraim, and John Chrysostom warned against either excessive laughter or laughter generally. Sometimes what they criticized was laughter in which the person loses self-control. In his Long Rules , for instance, Basil the Great wrote that “raucous laughter and uncontrollable shaking of the body are not indications of a well-regulated soul, or of personal dignity, or self-mastery” (in Wagner 1962, 271). Other times they linked laughter with idleness, irresponsibility, lust, or anger. John Chrysostom, for example, warned 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. If, then, you would take good counsel for yourself, avoid not merely foul words and foul deeds, or blows and wounds and murders, but unseasonable laughter itself (in Schaff 1889, 442).

Not surprisingly, the Christian institution that most emphasized self-control—the monastery—was harsh in condemning laughter. One of the earliest monastic orders, of Pachom of Egypt, forbade joking (Adkin 1985, 151–152). The Rule of St. Benedict, the most influential monastic code, advised monks to “prefer moderation in speech and speak no foolish chatter, nothing just to provoke laughter; do not love immoderate or boisterous laughter.” In Benedict’s Ladder of Humility, Step Ten is a restraint against laughter, and Step Eleven a warning against joking (Gilhus 1997, 65). The monastery of St. Columbanus Hibernus had these punishments: “He who smiles in the service … six strokes; if he breaks out in the noise of laughter, a special fast unless it has happened pardonably” (Resnick 1987, 95).

The Christian European rejection of laughter and humor continued through the Middle Ages, and whatever the Reformers reformed, it did not include the traditional assessment of humor. Among the strongest condemnations came from the Puritans, who wrote tracts against laughter and comedy. One by William Prynne (1633) was over 1100 pages long and purported to show that comedies “are sinfull, heathenish, lewde, ungodly spectacles, and most pernicious corruptions; condemned in all ages, as intolerable mischiefes to churches, to republickes, to the manners, mindes, and soules of men.” It encouraged Christians to live sober, serious lives, and not to be “immoderately tickled with mere lascivious vanities, or … lash out in excessive cachinnations in the public view of dissolute graceless persons.” When the Puritans came to rule England in the mid-17 th century, they outlawed comedies.

At this time, too, the philosophical case against laughter was strengthened by Thomas Hobbes and René Descartes. Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651 [1982]) describes human beings as naturally individualistic and competitive. That makes us alert to signs that we are winning or losing. The former make us feel good and the latter bad. If our perception of some sign that we are superior comes over us quickly, our good feelings are likely to issue in laughter. In Part I, ch. 6, he writes that

Sudden glory, is the passion which makes those grimaces called laughter; and is caused either by some sudden act of their own, that pleases them; or by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves. And it is incident most to them, that are conscious of the fewest abilities in themselves; who are forced to keep themselves in their own favor by observing the imperfections of other men. And therefore much laughter at the defects of others, is a sign of pusillanimity. For of great minds, one of the proper works is, to help and free others from scorn; and to compare themselves only with the most able.

A similar explanation of laughter from the same time is found in Descartes’ Passions of the Soul . He says that laughter accompanies three of the six basic emotions—wonder, love, (mild) hatred, desire, joy, and sadness. Although admitting that there are other causes of laughter than hatred, in Part 3 of this book, “Of Particular Passions,” he considers laughter only as an expression of scorn and ridicule.

Derision or scorn is a sort of joy mingled with hatred, which proceeds from our perceiving some small evil in a person whom we consider to be deserving of it; we have hatred for this evil, we have joy in seeing it in him who is deserving of it; and when that comes upon us unexpectedly, the surprise of wonder is the cause of our bursting into laughter… And we notice that people with very obvious defects such as those who are lame, blind of an eye, hunched-backed, or who have received some public insult, are specially given to mockery; for, desiring to see all others held in as low estimation as themselves, they are truly rejoiced at the evils that befall them, and they hold them deserving of these (art. 178–179).

With these comments of Hobbes and Descartes, we have a sketchy psychological theory articulating the view of laughter that started in Plato and the Bible and dominated Western thinking about laughter for two millennia. In the 20 th century, this idea was called the Superiority Theory. Simply put, our laughter expresses feelings of superiority over other people or over a former state of ourselves. A contemporary proponent of this theory is Roger Scruton, who analyses amusement as an “attentive demolition” of a person or something connected with a person. “If people dislike being laughed at,” Scruton says, “it is surely because laughter devalues its object in the subject’s eyes” (in Morreall 1987, 168).

In the 18 th century, the dominance of the Superiority Theory began to weaken when Francis Hutcheson (1750) wrote a critique of Hobbes’ account of laughter. Feelings of superiority, Hutcheson argued, are neither necessary nor sufficient for laughter. In laughing, we may not be comparing ourselves with anyone, as when we laugh at odd figures of speech like those in this poem about a sunrise:

The sun, long since, had in the lap Of Thetis taken out his nap; And like a lobster boil’d, the morn From black to red began to turn.

If self-comparison and sudden glory are not necessary for laughter, neither are they sufficient for laughter. Hutcheson says that we can feel superior to lower animals without laughing, and that “some ingenuity in dogs and monkeys, which comes near to some of our own arts, very often makes us merry; whereas their duller actions in which they are much below us, are no matter of jest at all.” He also cites cases of pity. A gentleman riding in a coach who sees ragged beggars in the street, for example, will feel that he is better off than they, but such feelings are unlikely to amuse him. In such situations, “we are in greater danger of weeping than laughing.”

To these counterexamples to the Superiority Theory we could add more. Sometimes we laugh when a comic character shows surprising skills that we lack. In the silent movies of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton, the hero is often trapped in a situation where he looks doomed. But then he escapes with a clever acrobatic stunt that we would not have thought of, much less been able to perform. Laughing at such scenes does not seem to require that we compare ourselves with the hero; and if we do make such a comparison, we do not find ourselves superior.

At least some people, too, laugh at themselves—not a former state of themselves, but what is happening now. If I search high and low for my eyeglasses only to find them on my head, the Superiority Theory seems unable to explain my laughter at myself.

While these examples involve persons with whom we might compare ourselves, there are other cases of laughter where no personal comparisons seem involved. In experiments by Lambert Deckers (1993), subjects were asked to lift a series of apparently identical weights. The first several weights turned out to be identical, and that strengthened the expectation that the remaining weights would be the same. But then subjects picked up a weight that was much heavier or lighter than the others. Most laughed, but apparently not out of Hobbesian “sudden glory,” and apparently without comparing themselves with anyone.

Further weakening the dominance of the Superiority Theory in the 18 th century were two new accounts of laughter which are now called the Relief Theory and the Incongruity Theory. Neither even mentions feelings of superiority.

The Relief Theory is an hydraulic explanation in which laughter does in the nervous system what a pressure-relief valve does in a steam boiler. The theory was sketched in Lord Shaftesbury’s 1709 essay “An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humor,” the first publication in which humor is used in its modern sense of funniness. Scientists at the time knew that nerves connect the brain with the sense organs and muscles, but they thought that nerves carried “animal spirits”—gases and liquids such as air and blood. John Locke (1690, Book 3, ch. 9, para.16), for instance, describes animal spirits as “fluid and subtile Matter, passing through the Conduits of the Nerves.”

Shaftesbury’s explanation of laughter is that it releases animal spirits that have built up pressure inside the nerves.

The natural free spirits of ingenious men, if imprisoned or controlled, will find out other ways of motion to relieve themselves in their constraint; and whether it be in burlesque, mimicry, or buffoonery, they will be glad at any rate to vent themselves, and be revenged upon their constrainers.

Over the next two centuries, as the nervous system came to be better understood, thinkers such as Herbert Spencer and Sigmund Freud revised the biology behind the Relief Theory but kept the idea that laughter relieves pent-up nervous energy.

Spencer’s explanation in his essay “On the Physiology of Laughter” (1911) is based on the idea that emotions take the physical form of nervous energy. Nervous energy, he says, “always tends to beget muscular motion, and when it rises to a certain intensity, always does beget it” (299). “Feeling passing a certain pitch habitually vents itself in bodily action” (302). When we are angry, for example, nervous energy produces small aggressive movements such as clenching our fists; and if the energy reaches a certain level, we attack the offending person. In fear, the energy produces small-scale movements in preparation for fleeing; and if the fear gets strong enough, we flee. The movements associated with emotions, then, discharge or release the built-up nervous energy.

Laughter releases nervous energy, too, Spencer says, but with this important difference: the muscular movements in laughter are not the early stages of larger practical actions such as attacking or fleeing. Unlike emotions, laughter does not involve the motivation to do anything. The movements of laughter, Spencer says, “have no object” (303): they are merely a release of nervous energy.

The nervous energy relieved through laughter, according to Spencer, is the energy of emotions that have been found to be inappropriate. Consider this poem entitled “Waste” by Harry Graham (2009):

I had written to Aunt Maud Who was on a trip abroad When I heard she’d died of cramp, Just too late to save the stamp.

Reading the first three lines, we might feel pity for the bereaved nephew writing the poem. But the last line makes us reinterpret those lines. Far from being a loving nephew in mourning, he turns out to be an insensitive cheapskate. So the nervous energy of our pity, now superfluous, is released in laughter. That discharge occurs, Spencer says, first through the muscles “which feeling most habitually stimulates,” the muscles of the vocal tract. If still more energy needs to be relieved, it spills over to the muscles connected with breathing, and if the movements of those muscles do not release all the energy, the remainder moves the arms, legs, and other muscle groups (304).

In the 20 th century, John Dewey (1894: 558–559) had a similar version of the Relief Theory. Laughter, he said, “marks the ending … of a period of suspense, or expectation.” It is a “sudden relaxation of strain, so far as occurring through the medium of the breathing and vocal apparatus… The laugh is thus a phenomenon of the same general kind as the sigh of relief.”

Better known than the versions of the Relief Theory of Shaftesbury, Spencer, and Dewey is that of Sigmund Freud. In his Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905 [1974]), Freud analyzes three laughter situations: der Witz (often translated “jokes” or “joking”), “the comic,” and “humor.” In all three, laughter releases nervous energy that was summoned for a psychological task, but then became superfluous as that task was abandoned. In der Witz , that superfluous energy is energy used to repress feelings; in the comic it is energy used to think, and in humor it is the energy of feeling emotions. (In this article, we are not using humor in Freud’s narrow sense, but in the general sense that includes joking, wit, the comic, etc.)

Der Witz includes telling prepared fictional jokes, making spontaneous witty comments, and repartee. In der Witz , Freud says, the psychic energy released is the energy that would have repressed the emotions that are being expressed as the person laughs. (Most summaries of Freud’s theory of joking mistakenly describe laughter as a release of repressed emotions themselves.) According to Freud, the emotions which are most repressed are sexual desire and hostility, and so most jokes and witty remarks are about sex, hostility, or both. In telling a sexual joke or listening to one, we bypass our internal censor and give vent to our libido. In telling or listening to a joke that puts down an individual or group we dislike, similarly, we let out the hostility we usually repress. In both cases, the psychic energy normally used to do the repressing becomes superfluous, and is released in laughter.

Freud’s second laughter situation, “the comic,” involves a similar release of energy that is summoned but is then found unnecessary. Here it is the energy normally devoted to thinking. An example is laughter at the clumsy actions of a clown. As we watch the clown stumble through actions that we would perform smoothly and efficiently, there is a saving of the energy that we would normally expend to understand the clown’s movements. Here Freud appeals to a theory of “mimetic representation” in which we expend a large packet of energy to understand something large and a small packet of energy to understand something small. Our mental representation of the clown’s clumsy movements, Freud says, calls for more energy than the energy we would expend to mentally represent our own smooth, efficient movements in performing the same task. Our laughter at the clown is our venting of that surplus energy.

These two possibilities in my imagination amount to a comparison between the observed movement and my own. If the other person’s movement is exaggerated and inexpedient, my increased expenditure in order to understand it is inhibited in statu nascendi , as it were in the act of being mobilized; it is declared superfluous and is free for use elsewhere or perhaps for discharge by laughter (Freud 1905 [1974], 254).

Freud analyzes the third laughter situation, which he calls “humor,” much as Spencer analyzed laughter in general. Humor occurs “if there is a situation in which, according to our usual habits, we should be tempted to release a distressing affect and if motives then operate upon us which suppress that affect in statu nascendi [in the process of being born]… . The pleasure of humor … comes about … at the cost of a release of affect that does not occur: it arise from an economy in the expenditure of affect ” (293). His example is a story told by Mark Twain in which his brother was building a road when a charge of dynamite went off prematurely, blowing him high into the sky. When the poor man came down far from the work site, he was docked half a day’s pay for being “absent from his place of employment.” Freud’s explanation of our laughter at this story is like the explanation above at Graham’s poem about the cheapskate nephew. In laughing at this story, he says, we are releasing the psychic energy that we had summoned to feel pity for Twain’s brother, but that became superfluous when we heard the fantastic last part. “As a result of this understanding, the expenditure on the pity, which was already prepared, becomes unutilizable and we laugh it off” (295).

Having sketched several versions of the Relief Theory, we can note that today almost no scholar in philosophy or psychology explains laughter or humor as a process of releasing pent-up nervous energy. There is, of course, a connection between laughter and the expenditure of energy. Hearty laughter involves many muscle groups and several areas of the nervous system. Laughing hard gives our lungs a workout, too, as we take in far more oxygen than usual. But few contemporary scholars defend the claims of Spencer and Freud that the energy expended in laughter is the energy of feeling emotions, the energy of repressing emotions, or the energy of thinking, which have built up and require venting.

Funny things and situations may evoke emotions, but many seem not to. Consider P. G. Wodehouse’s line “If it’s feasible, let’s fease it.” Or the shortest poem in the English language, by Strickland Gillilan (1927), “Lines on the Antiquity of Microbes”:

Adam Had’em.

These do not seem to vent emotions that had built up before we read them, and they do not seem to summon emotions and then render them superfluous. So whatever energy is expended in laughing at them does not seem to be superfluous energy being vented. In fact, the whole hydraulic model of the nervous system on which the Relief Theory is based seems outdated.

To that hydraulic model, Freud adds several questionable claims derived from his general psychoanalytic theory of the mind. He says that the creation of der Witz —jokes and witty comments—is an unconscious process of letting repressed thoughts and feelings into the conscious mind. This claim seems falsified by professional humorists who approach the creation of jokes and cartoons with conscious strategies. Freud’s account of how psychic energy is vented in joke-telling is also questionable, especially his claim that packets of psychic energy are summoned to repress thoughts and feelings, but in statu nascendi (in the process of being born) are rendered superfluous. If Freud is right that the energy released in laughing at a joke is the energy normally used to repress hostile and sexual feelings, then it seems that those who laugh hardest at aggressive and sexual jokes should be people who usually repress such feelings. But studies about joke preferences by Hans Jürgen Eysenck (1972, xvi) have shown that the people who enjoy aggressive and sexual humor the most are not those who usually repress hostile and sexual feelings, but those who express them.

Freud’s account of “the comic” faces still more problems, particularly his ideas about “mimetic representation.” The psychic energy saved, he says, is energy summoned for understanding something, such as the antics of a clown. We summon a large packet of energy to understand the clown’s large movements, but as we are summoning it, we compare it with the small packet of energy required to understand our own smaller movements in doing the same thing. The difference between the two packets is surplus energy discharged in laughter. Freud’s account of thinking here is idiosyncratic and has strange implications, such as that thinking about swimming the English Channel takes far more energy than thinking about licking a stamp. With all these difficulties, it is not surprising that philosophers and psychologists studying humor today do not appeal to Freud’s theory to explain laughter or humor. More generally, the Relief Theory is seldom used as a general explanation of laughter or humor.

The second account of humor that arose in the 18 th century to challenge the Superiority Theory was the Incongruity Theory. While the Superiority Theory says that the cause of laughter is feelings of superiority, and the Relief Theory says that it is the release of nervous energy, the Incongruity Theory says that it is the perception of something incongruous—something that violates our mental patterns and expectations. This approach was taken by James Beattie, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, Søren Kierkegaard, and many later philosophers and psychologists. It is now the dominant theory of humor in philosophy and psychology.

Although Aristotle did not use the term incongruity , he hints that it is the basis for at least some humor. In the Rhetoric (3, 2), a handbook for speakers, he says that one way for a speaker to get a laugh is to create an expectation in the audience and then violate it. As an example, he cites this line from a comedy, “And as he walked, beneath his feet were—chilblains [sores on the feet].” Jokes that depend on a change of spelling or word play, he notes, can have the same effect. Cicero, in On the Orator (ch. 63), says that “The most common kind of joke is that in which we expect one thing and another is said; here our own disappointed expectation makes us laugh.”

This approach to joking is similar to techniques of stand-up comedians today. They speak of the set-up and the punch (line). The set-up is the first part of the joke: it creates the expectation. The punch (line) is the last part that violates that expectation. In the language of the Incongruity Theory, the joke’s ending is incongruous with the beginning.

The first philosopher to use the word incongruous to analyze humor was James Beattie (1779). When we see something funny, he says, our laughter “always proceeds from a sentiment or emotion, excited in the mind, in consequence of certain objects or ideas being presented to it” (304). Our laughter “seems to arise from the view of things incongruous united in the same assemblage” (318). The cause of humorous laughter is “two or more inconsistent, unsuitable, or incongruous parts or circumstances, considered as united in one complex object or assemblage, as acquiring a sort of mutual relation from the peculiar manner in which the mind takes notice of them” (320).

Immanuel Kant (1790 [1911], First Part, sec. 54), a contemporary of Beattie’s, did not used the term incongruous but had an explanation of laughter at jokes and wit that involves incongruity.

In everything that is to excite a lively convulsive laugh there must be something absurd (in which the understanding, therefore, can find no satisfaction). Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing. This transformation, which is certainly not enjoyable to the understanding, yet indirectly gives it very active enjoyment for a moment. Therefore its cause must consist in the influence of the representation upon the body, and the reflex effect of this upon the mind.

Kant illustrates with this story:

An Indian at the table of an Englishman in Surat, when he saw a bottle of ale opened and all the beer turned into froth and overflowing, testified his great astonishment with many exclamations. When the Englishman asked him, “What is there in this to astonish you so much?” he answered, “I am not at all astonished that it should flow out, but I do wonder how you ever got it in.”

We laugh at this story, Kant says, “not because we deem ourselves cleverer than this ignorant man, or because of anything in it that we note as satisfactory to the understanding, but because our expectation was strained (for a time) and then was suddenly dissipated into nothing.”

“We must note well,” Kant insists, that it [our expectation] does not transform itself into the positive opposite of an expected object… but it must be transformed into nothing.“ He illustrates with two more jokes:

The heir of a rich relative wished to arrange for an imposing funeral, but he lamented that he could not properly succeed; ‘for’ (said he) ‘the more money I give my mourners to look sad, the more cheerful they look!’ [A] merchant returning from India to Europe with all his wealth in merchandise … was forced to throw it overboard in a heavy storm and … grieved thereat so much that his wig turned gray the same night.”

A joke amuses us by evoking, shifting, and dissipating our thoughts, but we do not learn anything through these mental gymnastics. In humor generally, according to Kant, our reason finds nothing of worth. The jostling of ideas, however, produces a physical jostling of our internal organs and we enjoy that physical stimulation.

For if we admit that with all our thoughts is harmonically combined a movement in the organs of the body, we will easily comprehend how to this sudden transposition of the mind, now to one now to another standpoint in order to contemplate its object, may correspond an alternating tension and relaxation of the elastic portions of our intestines which communicates itself to the diaphragm (like that which ticklish people feel). In connection with this the lungs expel the air at rapidly succeeding intervals, and thus bring about a movement beneficial to health; which alone, and not what precedes it in the mind, is the proper cause of the gratification in a thought that at bottom represents nothing.

On this point, Kant compares the enjoyment of joking and wit to the enjoyment of games of chance and the enjoyment of music. In all three the pleasure is in a “changing free play of sensations,” which is caused by shifting ideas in the mind. In games of chance, “the play of fortune” causes bodily excitation; in music, it is “the play of tone,” and in joking, it is “the play of thought.” In a lively game of chance, “the affections of hope, fear, joy, wrath, scorn, are put in play … alternating every moment; and they are so vivid that by them, as by a kind of internal motion, all the vital processes of the body seem to be promoted.” In music and humor, similarly, what we enjoy are bodily changes caused by rapidly shifting ideas.

Music and that which excites laughter are two different kinds of play with aesthetical ideas, or of representations of the understanding through which ultimately nothing is thought, which can give lively gratification merely by their changes. Thus we recognize pretty clearly that the animation in both cases is merely bodily, although it is excited by ideas of the mind; and that the feeling of health produced by a motion of the intestines corresponding to the play in question makes up that whole gratification of a gay party.

A version of the Incongruity Theory that gave it more philosophical significance than Kant’s version is that of Arthur Schopenhauer (1818/1844 [1907]). While Kant located the lack of fit in humor between our expectations and our experience, Schopenhauer locates it between our sense perceptions of things and our abstract rational knowledge of those same things. We perceive unique individual things with many properties. But when we group our sense perceptions under abstract concepts, we focus on just one or a few properties of any individual thing. Thus we lump quite different things under one concept and one word. Think, for example, of a Chihuahua and a St. Bernard categorized under dog . For Schopenhauer, humor arises when we suddenly notice the incongruity between a concept and a perception that are supposed to be of the same thing.

Many human actions can only be performed by the help of reason and deliberation, and yet there are some which are better performed without its assistance. This very incongruity of sensuous and abstract knowledge, on account of which the latter always merely approximates to the former, as mosaic approximates to painting, is the cause of a very remarkable phenomenon which, like reason itself, is peculiar to human nature, and of which the explanations that have ever anew been attempted, as insufficient: I mean laughter… . The cause of laughter in every case is simply the sudden perception of the incongruity between a concept and the real objects which have been thought through it in some relation, and laughter itself is just the expression of this incongruity (1818/1844 [1907], Book I, sec. 13).

As an example, Schopenhauer tells of the prison guards who allowed a convict to play cards with them, but when they caught him cheating, they kicked him out. He comments, “They let themselves be led by the general conception, ‘Bad companions are turned out,’ and forget that he is also a prisoner, i. e., one whom they ought to hold fast” (Supplement to Book I: Ch. 8). He also comments on an Austrian joke (the equivalent of a Polish joke in the U.S. a few decades ago):

When someone had declared that he was fond of walking alone, an Austrian said to him: “You like walking alone; so do I: therefore we can go together.” He starts from the conception, “A pleasure which two love they can enjoy in common,” and subsumes under it the very case which excludes community.

Creating jokes like these requires the ability to think of an abstract idea under which very different things can be subsumed. Wit, Schopenhauer says, “consists entirely in a facility for finding for every object that appears a conception under which it certainly can be thought, though it is very different from all the other objects which come under this conception” (Supplement to Book I, Ch. 8).

With this theory of humor as based on the discrepancy between abstract ideas and real things, Schopenhauer explains the offensiveness of being laughed at, the kind of laughter at the heart of the Superiority Theory.

That the laughter of others at what we do or say seriously offends us so keenly depends on the fact that it asserts that there is a great incongruity between our conceptions and the objective realities. For the same reason, the predicate “ludicrous” or “absurd” is insulting. The laugh of scorn announces with triumph to the baffled adversary how incongruous were the conceptions he cherished with the reality which is now revealing itself to him (Supplement to Book I, Ch. 8).

With his theory, too, Schopenhauer explains the pleasure of humor.

In every suddenly appearing conflict between what is perceived and what is thought, what is perceived is always unquestionably right; for it is not subject to error at all, requires no confirmation from without, but answers for itself. … The victory of knowledge of perception over thought affords us pleasure. For perception is the original kind of knowledge inseparable from animal nature, in which everything that gives direct satisfaction to the will presents itself. It is the medium of the present, of enjoyment and gaiety; moreover it is attended with no exertion. With thinking the opposite is the case: it is the second power of knowledge, the exercise of which always demands some, and often considerable exertion. Besides, it is the conceptions of thought that often oppose the gratification of our immediate desires, for, as the medium of the past, the future, and of seriousness, they are the vehicles of our fears, our repentance, and all our cares. It must therefore be diverting to us to see this strict, untiring, troublesome governess, the reason, for once convicted of insufficiency. On this account then the mien or appearance of laughter is very closely related to that of joy (Supplement to Book I, Ch. 8).

Like Schopenhauer, Søren Kierkegaard saw humor as based on incongruity and as philosophically significant. In his discussion of the “three spheres of existence,” (the three existential stages of life—the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious), he discusses humor and its close relative, irony. Irony marks the boundary between the aesthetic and the ethical spheres, while humor marks the boundary between the ethical and religious spheres. “Humor is the last stage of existential awareness before faith” (1846 [1941], 448, 259). The person with a religious view of life is likely to cultivate humor, he says, and Christianity is the most humorous view of life in world history ([JP], Entries 1681–1682).

Kierkegaard (1846 [1941], 459–468) locates the essence of humor, which he calls “the comical,” in a disparity between what is expected and what is experienced, though instead of calling it “incongruity” he calls it “contradiction.” For example, “Errors are comical, and are all to be explained by the contradiction involved.” He cites the story of the baker who said to the begging woman, “No, mother, I cannot give you anything. There was another here recently whom I had to send away without giving anything, too: we cannot give to everybody.”

The violation of our expectations is at the heart of the tragic as well as the comic, Kierkegaard says. To contrast the two, he appeals to Aristotle’s definition of the comic in Chapter 5 of The Poetics : “The ridiculous is a mistake or unseemliness that is not painful or destructive.”

The tragic and the comic are the same, in so far as both are based on contradiction; but the tragic is the suffering contradiction, the comical, the painless contradiction… . The comic apprehension evokes the contradiction or makes it manifest by having in mind the way out, which is why the contradiction is painless. The tragic apprehension sees the contradiction and despairs of a way out.

A few decades earlier, William Hazlitt contrasted the tragic and comic this way in his essay “On Wit and Humor”:

Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps: for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be. We weep at what thwarts or exceeds our desires in serious matters; we laugh at what only disappoints our expectations in trifles… . To explain the nature of laughter and tears, is to account for the condition of human life; for it is in a manner compounded of the two! It is a tragedy or a comedy—sad or merry, as it happens… . Tears may be considered as the natural and involuntary resource of the mind overcome by some sudden and violent emotion, before it has had time to reconcile its feelings to the change of circumstances: while laughter may be defined to be the same sort of convulsive and involuntary movement, occasioned by mere surprise or contrast (in the absence of any more serious emotion), before it has time to reconcile its belief to contrary appearances (Hazlitt 1819 [1907], 1).

The core meaning of “incongruity” in various versions of the Incongruity Theory, then, is that some thing or event we perceive or think about violates our standard mental patterns and normal expectations. (If we are listening to a joke for the second time, of course, there is a sense in which we expect the incongruous punch line, but it still violates our ordinary expectations.) Beyond that core meaning, various thinkers have added different details, many of which are incompatible with each other. In contemporary psychology, for example, theorists such as Thomas Schultz (1976) and Jerry Suls (1972, 1983) have claimed that what we enjoy in humor is not incongruity itself, but the resolution of incongruity. After age seven, Schultz says, we require the fitting of the apparently anomalous element into some conceptual schema. That is what happens when we “get” a joke. Indeed, Schultz does not even call unresolvable incongruity “humor”—he calls it “nonsense.” The examples of humor cited by these theorists are typically jokes in which the punch line is momentarily confusing, but then the hearer reinterprets the first part so that it makes a kind of sense. When, for instance, Mae West said, “Marriage is a great institution, but I’m not ready for an institution,” the shift in meanings of “institution” is the incongruity, but it takes a moment to follow that shift, and the pleasure is in figuring out that the word has two meanings. Amusement, according to this understanding of humor, is akin to puzzle-solving. Other theorists insist that incongruity-resolution figures in only some humor, and that the pleasure of amusement is not like puzzle-solving.

As philosophers and psychologists refined the Incongruity Theory in the late 20 th century, one flaw in several older versions came to light: they said, or more often implied, that the perception of incongruity is sufficient for humor. That is clearly false, since when our mental patterns and expectations are violated, we may well feel fear, disgust, or anger and not amusement. James Beattie, the first philosopher to analyze humor as a response to incongruity, was careful to point out that laughter is only one such response. Our perception of incongruity will not excite the “risible emotion,” he said, when that perception is “attended with some other emotion of greater authority” such as fear, pity, moral disapprobation, indignation, or disgust (1779, 420).

One way to correct this flaw is to say that humorous amusement is not just any response to incongruity, but a way of enjoying incongruity. Michael Clark, for example, offers these three features as necessary and sufficient for humor:

  • A person perceives (thinks, imagines) an object as being incongruous.
  • The person enjoys perceiving (thinking, imagining) the object.
  • The person enjoys the perceived (thought, imagined) incongruity at least partly for itself, rather than solely for some ulterior reason (in Morreall 1987, 139–155).

This version of the Incongruity Theory is an improvement on theories which describe amusement as the perception of incongruity, but it still seems not specific enough. Amusement is one way of enjoying incongruity, but not the only way. Mike W. Martin offers several examples from the arts (in Morreall, 1987, 176). Sophocles’ Oedipus the King has many lines in which Oedipus vows to do whatever it takes to bring King Laius’ killer to justice. We in the audience, knowing that Oedipus is himself that killer, may enjoy the incongruity of a king threatening himself, but that enjoyment need not be humorous amusement. John Morreall (1987, 204–205) argues that a number of aesthetic categories— the grotesque, the macabre, the horrible, the bizarre, and the fantastic—involve a non-humorous enjoyment of some violation of our mental patterns and expectations.

Whatever refinements the Incongruity Theory might require, it seems better able to account for laughter and humor than the scientifically obsolete Relief Theory. It also seems more comprehensive than the Superiority Theory since it can account for kinds of humor that do not seem based on superiority, such as puns and other wordplay.

While the Incongruity Theory made humor look less objectionable than the Superiority Theory did, it has not improved philosophers’ opinions of humor much in the last two centuries, at least judging from what they have published. Part of the continued bad reputation of humor comes from a new objection triggered by the Incongruity Theory: If humor is enjoying the violation of our mental patterns and expectations, then it is irrational. This Irrationality Objection is almost as old as the Incongruity Theory, and is implicit in Kant’s claim that the pleasure in laughter is only physical and not intellectual. “How could a delusive expectation gratify?” he asks. According to Kant, humor feels good in spite of, not because of, the way it frustrates our desire to understand. George Santayana (1896, 248) agreed, arguing that incongruity itself could not be enjoyed.

We have a prosaic background of common sense and everyday reality; upon this background an unexpected idea suddenly impinges. But the thing is a futility. The comic accident falsifies the nature before us, starts a wrong analogy in the mind, a suggestion that cannot be carried out. In a word, we are in the presence of an absurdity, and man, being a rational animal, can like absurdity no better than he can like hunger or cold.

If the widespread contemporary appreciation of humor is defensible, then this Irrationality Objection needs to be addressed. To do that seems to require an explanation of how our higher mental functions can operate in a beneficial way that is different from theoretical and practical reasoning. One way to construct that explanation is to analyze humor as a kind of play, and explain how such play can be beneficial.

Remarkably few philosophers have even mentioned that humor is a kind of play, much less seen benefits in such play. Kant spoke of joking as “the play of thought,” though he saw no value in it beyond laughter’s stimulation of the internal organs. One of the few to classify humor as play and see value in the mental side of humor was Thomas Aquinas. He followed the lead of Aristotle, who said in the Nicomachean Ethics (Ch. 8) that “Life includes rest as well as activity, and in this is included leisure and amusement.” Some people carry amusement to excess—“vulgar buffoons,” Aristotle calls them—but just as bad are “those who can neither make a joke themselves nor put up with those who do,” whom he calls “boorish and unpolished.” Between buffoonery and boorishness there is a happy medium—engaging in humor at the right time and place, and to the right degree. This virtue Aristotle calls eutrapelia, ready-wittedness, from the Greek for “turning well.” In his Summa Theologiae (2a2ae, Q. 168) Aquinas extends Aristotle’s ideas in three articles: “Whether there can be virtue in actions done in play,” “The sin of playing too much,” and “The sin of playing too little.” He agrees with Aristotle that humor and other forms of play provide occasional rest:

As bodily tiredness is eased by resting the body, so psychological tiredness is eased by resting the soul. As we have explained in discussing the feelings, pleasure is rest for the soul. And therefore the remedy for weariness of soul lies in slackening the tension of mental study and taking some pleasure… . Those words and deeds in which nothing is sought beyond the soul’s pleasure are called playful or humorous, and it is necessary to make use of them at times for solace of soul (2a2ae, Q. 168, Art. 2).

Beyond providing rest for the soul, Aquinas suggests that humor has social benefits. Extending the meaning of Aristotle’s eutrapelia , he talks about “a eutrapelos , a pleasant person with a happy cast of mind who gives his words and deeds a cheerful turn.” The person who is never playful or humorous, Aquinas says, is acting “against reason” and so is guilty of a vice.

Anything conflicting with reason in human action is vicious. It is against reason for a man to be burdensome to others, by never showing himself agreeable to others or being a kill-joy or wet blanket on their enjoyment. And so Seneca says, “Bear yourself with wit, lest you be regarded as sour or despised as dull.” Now those who lack playfulness are sinful, those who never say anything to make you smile, or are grumpy with those who do (2a2ae, Q. 168, Art. 4).

In the last century an early play theory of humor was developed by Max Eastman (1936), who found parallels to humor in the play of animals, particularly in the laughter of chimps during tickling. He argues that “we come into the world endowed with an instinctive tendency to laugh and have this feeling in response to pains presented playfully” (45). In humor and play generally, according to Eastman, we take a disinterested attitude toward something that could instead be treated seriously.

In the late 20 th century Ted Cohen (1999) wrote about the social benefits of joke-telling, and many psychologists confirmed Aquinas’ assessment of humor as virtuous. A chapter in the American Psychological Association’s Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification , under “Strengths of Transcendence,” is “Humor [Playfulness].” Engaging in humor can foster a tolerance for ambiguity and diversity, and promote creative problem-solving. It can serve as a social lubricant, engendering trust and reducing conflict. In communications that tend to evoke negative emotions--announcing bad news, apologizing, complaining, warning, criticizing, commanding, evaluating--humor can provide delight that reduces or even blocks negative emotions. Consider this paragraph from a debt-collection letter:

We appreciate your business, but, please, give us a break. Your account is overdue ten months. That means we’ve carried you longer than your mother did (Morreall 2009, 117).

Play activities such as humor are not usually pursued in order to achieve such benefits, of course; they are pursued, as Aquinas said, for pleasure. A parallel with humor here is music, which we typically play and listen to for pleasure, but which can boost our manual dexterity and even mathematical abilities, reduce stress, and strengthen our social bonds.

Ethologists (students of animal, including human, behavior) point out that in play activities, young animals learn important skills they will need later on. Young lions, for example, play by going through actions that will be part of hunting. Humans have hunted with rocks and spears for tens of thousands of years, and so boys often play by throwing projectiles at targets. Marek Spinka (2001) observes that in playing, young animals move in exaggerated ways. Young monkeys leap not just from branch to branch, but from trees into rivers. Children not only run, but skip and do cartwheels. Spinka suggests that in play young animals are testing the limits of their speed, balance, and coordination. In doing so, they learn to cope with unexpected situations such as being chased by a new kind of predator.

This account of the value of play in children and young animals does not automatically explain why humor is important to adult humans, but for us as for children and young animals, the play activities that seem the most fun are those in which we exercise our abilities in unusual and extreme ways, yet in a safe setting. Sports is an example. So is humor.

In humor the abilities we exercise in unusual and extreme ways in a safe setting are related to thinking and interacting with other people. What is enjoyed is incongruity, the violation of our mental patterns and expectations. In joking with friends, for example, we break rules of conversation such as these formulated by H. P. Grice (1975):

  • Do not say what you believe to be false.
  • Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.
  • Avoid obscurity of expression.
  • Avoid ambiguity.

We break Rule 1 when for a laugh we exaggerate wildly, say the opposite of what we think, or “pull someone’s leg.” We break Rule 2 when we present funny fantasies as if they were facts. Rule 3 is broken to create humor when we reply to an embarrassing question with an obviously vague or confusing answer. We violate Rule 4 in telling most prepared jokes, as Victor Raskin (1984) has shown. A comment or story starts off with an assumed interpretation for a phrase, but then at the punch line, switches to a second, usually opposed interpretation. Consider the line “I love cats. They taste a lot like chicken.” Rule 5 is broken when we turn an ordinary complaint into a comic rant like those of Roseanne Barr and Lewis Black.

Humor, like other play, sometimes takes the form of activity that would not be mistaken for serious activity. Wearing a red clown nose and making up nonsense syllables are examples. More often, however, as in the conversational moves above, humor and play are modeled on serious activities. When in conversation we switch from serious discussion to making funny comments, for example, we keep the same vocabulary and grammar, and our sentences transcribed to paper might look like bona-fide assertions, questions, etc. This similarity between non-serious and serious language and actions calls for ways that participants can distinguish between the two. Ethologists call these ways “play signals.”

The oldest play signals in humans are smiling and laughing. According to ethologists, these evolved from similar play signals in pre-human apes. The apes that evolved into Homo sapiens split off from the apes that evolved into chimpanzees and gorillas about six million years ago. In chimps and gorillas, as in other mammals, play usually takes the form of mock-aggression such as chasing, wrestling, biting, and tickling. According to many ethologists, mock-aggression was the earliest form of play, from which all other play developed (Aldis 1975, 139; Panksepp 1993, 150). In mock-aggressive play, it is critical that all participants are aware that the activity is not real aggression. Without a way to distinguish between being chased or bitten playfully and being attacked in earnest, an animal might respond with deadly force. In the anthropoid apes, play signals are visual and auditory. Jan van Hooff (1972, 212–213) and others speculate that the first play signals in humans evolved from two facial displays in an ancestor of both humans and the great apes that are still found in gorillas and chimps. One was the “grin face” or “social grimace”: the corners of the mouth and the lips are retracted to expose the gums, the jaws are closed, there is no vocalization, body movement is inhibited, and the eyes are directed toward an interacting partner. This “silent bared-teeth display,” according to van Hooff (1972, 217), evolved into the human social smile of appeasement.

In the other facial display, the lips are relaxed and the mouth open, and breathing is shallow and staccato, like panting. This vocalization in chimpanzees is on the in-breath: “Ahh ahh ahh.” According to van Hooff, this “relaxed open-mouth display” or “play face” evolved into human laughter. The relaxed mouth in laughter contrasts with the mouth in real aggression that is tense and prepared to bite hard. That difference, combined with the distinctive shallow, staccato breathing pattern, allows laughter to serve as a play signal, announcing that “This is just for fun; it’s not real fighting.” Chimps and gorillas show that face and vocalization during rough-and-tumble play, and it can be elicited in them by the playful grabbing and poking we call tickling (Andrew 1963).

As early hominin species began walking upright and the front limbs were no longer used for locomotion, the muscles in the chest no longer had to synchronize breathing with locomotion. The larynx moved to a lower position in the throat, and the pharynx developed, allowing early humans to modulate their breathing and vocalize in complex ways (Harris 1989, 77). Eventually they would speak, but before that they came to laugh in our human way: “ha ha ha” on the out-breath instead of “ahh ahh ahh” on the in-breath.

In the last decade, thinkers in evolutionary psychology have extended van Hooff’s work, relating humor to such things as sexual selection (Greengross 2008; Li et al. 2009). In the competition for women to mate with, early men may have engaged in humor to show their intelligence, cleverness, adaptability, and desire to please others.

The hypothesis that laughter evolved as a play signal is appealing in several ways. Unlike the Superiority and Incongruity Theories, it explains the link between humor and the facial expression, body language, and sound of laughter. It also explains why laughter is overwhelmingly a social experience, as those theories do not. According to one estimate, we are thirty times more likely to laugh with other people than when we are alone (Provine 2000, 45). Tracing laughter to a play signal in early humans also accords with the fact that young children today laugh during the same activities—chasing, wrestling, and tickling—in which chimps and gorillas show their play face and laugh-like vocalizations. The idea that laughter and humor evolved from mock-aggression, furthermore, helps explain why so much humor today, especially in males, is playfully aggressive.

The playful aggression found in much humor has been widely misunderstood by philosophers, especially in discussions of the ethics of humor. Starting with Plato, most philosophers have treated humor that represents people in a negative light as if it were real aggression toward those people. Jokes in which blondes or Poles are extraordinarily stupid, blacks extraordinarily lazy, Italians extraordinarily cowardly, lawyers extraordinarily self-centered, women extraordinarily unmathematical, etc. have usually been analyzed as if they were bona fide assertions that blondes or Poles are extraordinarily stupid, blacks extraordinarily lazy, etc. This approach is announced in the title of Michael Philips’ “Racist Acts and Racist Humor”(1984). Philips classifies Polish jokes as racist, for example, but anyone who understands their popularity in the 1960s, knows that they did not involve hostility toward Polish people, who had long been assimilated into North American society. Consider the joke about the Polish astronaut calling a press conference to announce that he was going to fly a rocket to the sun. When asked how he would deal with the sun’s intense heat, he said, “Don’t worry, I’ll go at night.” To enjoy this joke, it is not necessary to have racist beliefs or attitudes towards Poles, any more than it is necessary to believe that Poland has a space program. This is a fantasy enjoyed for its clever depiction of unbelievable stupidity.

While playing with negative stereotypes in jokes does not require endorsement of those stereotypes, however, it still keeps them in circulation, and that can be harmful in a racist or sexist culture where stereotypes support prejudice and injustice. Jokes can be morally objectionable for perpetuating stereotypes that need to be eliminated. More generally, humor can be morally objectionable when it treats as a subject for play something that should be taken seriously. (Morreall 2009, ch. 5). Here humor often blocks compassion and responsible action. An egregious example is the cover of the July 1974 National Lampoon magazine, titled the “Dessert Issue.” A few years earlier George Harrison and other musicians had organized a charity concert to benefit the victims of a famine in Bangladesh. From it they produced the record album Concert for Bangladesh . The album cover featured a photograph of a starving child with a begging bowl. The photo on the cover of National Lampoon ’s “Dessert Issue” was virtually the same, only it was of a chocolate sculpture of a starving child, with part of the head bitten off.

Having sketched an account of humor as play with words and ideas, we need to go further in order to counter the Irrationality Objection, especially since that play is based on violating mental patterns and expectations. What must be added is an explanation of how playfully violating mental patterns and expectations could foster rationality rather than undermine it.

Part of rationality is thinking abstractly—in a way that is not tied to one’s immediate experience and individual perspective. If at a dinner party I spill a blob of ketchup on my shirt that looks like a bullet hole, I could be locked into a Here/Now/Me/Practical mode in which I think only about myself and my soiled shirt. Or I could think about embarrassing moments like this as experienced by millions of people over the centuries. More abstract still would be to think, as the Buddha did, about how human life is full of problems.

In the lower animals, mental processing is not abstract but tied to present experience, needs, and opportunities. It is about nearby predators, food, mates, etc. When something violates their expectations, especially something involving a potential or actual loss, their typical reaction is fear, anger, disgust, or sadness. These emotions evolved in mammals and were useful for millions of years because they motivate adaptive behavior such as fighting, fleeing, avoiding noxious substances, withdrawing from activity, and avoiding similar situations in the future.

Fear, anger, disgust, and sadness are still sometimes adaptive in humans: A snarling dog scares us, for example, and we move away quickly, avoiding a nasty bite. We scream and poke the eyes of a mugger, and he runs off. But if human mental development had not gone beyond such emotions, with their Here/Now/Me/Practical focus, we would not have become rational animals. What early humans needed was a way to react to the violation of their expectations that transcended their immediate experience and their individual perspective. Humorous amusement provided that. In the humorous frame of mind, we experience, think about, or even create something that violates our understanding of how things are supposed to be. But we suspend the personal, practical concerns that lead to negative emotions, and enjoy the oddness of what is occurring. If the incongruous situation is our own failure or mistake, we view it in the way we view the failures and mistakes of other people. This perspective is more abstract, objective, and rational than an emotional perspective. As the theme song of the old Candid Camera television program used to say, we “see ourselves as other people do.” Instead of tensing up and preparing to run away or attack, we relax and laugh. In laughter, as Wallace Chafe said in The Importance of Not Being Earnest (2007), not only do we not do anything, but we are disabled as we lose muscle control in our torsos, arms, and legs. In extremely heavy laughter, we fall on the floor and wet our pants.

The nonpractical attitude in humor would not be beneficial, of course, if I were in imminent danger. If instead of ketchup, I spilled sulfuric acid on my shirt, the Here/Now/Me/Practical narrow focus of fear would be preferable to the disengaged, playful attitude of humor. When immediate action is called for, humor is no substitute. But in many situations where our expectations are violated, no action would help. In the Poetics (5, 1449a) Aristotle said that what is funny is “a mistake or unseemliness that is not painful or destructive.” But people have joked about problems as grave as their own impending death. As he approached the gallows, Thomas More asked the executioner, “Could you help me up. I’ll be able to get down by myself.” On his deathbed, the story goes, Oscar Wilde said: “This wallpaper is atrocious. One of us has to go.”

Not only does such joking foster rationality and provide pleasure, but it reduces or eliminates the combination of fear and/or anger called “stress,” which is at epidemic levels in the industrialized world. In fear and anger, chemicals such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol are released into the blood, causing an increase in muscle tension, heart rate, and blood pressure, and a suppression of the immune system. Those physiological changes evolved in earlier mammals as a way to energize them to fight or flee, and in early humans, they were usually responses to physical dangers such as predators or enemies. Today, however, our bodies and brains react in the same way to problems that are not physically threatening, such as overbearing bosses and work deadlines. The increased muscle tension, the spike in blood pressure, and other changes in stress not only do not help us with such problems, but cause new ones such as headaches, heart attacks, and cancer. When in potentially stressful situations we shift to the play mode of humor, our heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension decrease, as do levels of epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. Laughter also increases pain tolerance and boosts the activity of the immune system, which stress suppresses (Morreall 1997, ch. 4; Morreall 2016, ch. 5–6).

A century ago, when psychologists still talked like philosophers, an editorial in the American Journal of Psychology (October 1907) said of humor that “Perhaps its largest function is to detach us from our world of good and evil, of loss and gain, and to enable us to see it in proper perspective. It frees us from vanity, on the one hand, and from pessimism, on the other, by keeping us larger than what we do, and greater than what can happen to us.”

While there is only speculation about how humor developed in early humans, we know that by the late 6 th century BCE the Greeks had institutionalized it in the ritual known as comedy, and that it was performed with a contrasting dramatic form known as tragedy. Both were based on the violation of mental patterns and expectations, and in both the world is a tangle of conflicting systems where humans live in the shadow of failure, folly, and death. Like tragedy, comedy represents life as full of tension, danger, and struggle, with success or failure often depending on chance factors. Where they differ is in the responses of the lead characters to life’s incongruities. Identifying with these characters, audiences at comedies and tragedies have contrasting responses to events in the dramas. And because these responses carry over to similar situations in life, comedy and tragedy embody contrasting responses to the incongruities in life. (Morreall 1999, ch. 1–4).

Tragedy valorizes serious, emotional engagement with life’s problems, even struggle to the death. Along with epic, it is part of the Western heroic tradition that extols ideals, the willingness to fight for them, and honor. The tragic ethos is linked to patriarchy and militarism—many of its heroes are kings and conquerors—and it valorizes what Conrad Hyers (1996) calls Warrior Virtues—blind obedience, the willingness to kill or die on command, unquestioning loyalty, single-mindedness, resoluteness of purpose, and pride.

Comedy, by contrast, embodies an anti-heroic, pragmatic attitude toward life’s incongruities. From Aristophanes’ Lysistrata to Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 , comedy has mocked the irrationality of militarism and blind respect for authority. Its own methods of handling conflict include deal-making, trickery, getting an enemy drunk, and running away. As the Irish saying goes, you’re only a coward for a moment, but you’re dead for the rest of your life. In place of Warrior Virtues, it extols critical thinking, cleverness, adaptability, and an appreciation of physical pleasures like eating, drinking, and sex.

Along with the idealism of tragedy goes elitism. The people who matter are kings, queens, and generals. In comedy there are more characters and more kinds of characters, women are more prominent, and many protagonists come from lower classes. Everybody counts for one. That shows in the language of comedy, which, unlike the elevated language of tragedy, is common speech. The basic unit in tragedy is the individual, in comedy it is the family, group of friends, or bunch of co-workers.

While tragic heroes are emotionally engaged with their problems, comic protagonists show emotional disengagement. They think, rather than feel, their way through difficulties. By presenting such characters as role models, comedy has implicitly valorized the benefits of humor that are now being empirically verified, such as that it is psychologically and physically healthy, it fosters mental flexibility, and it serves as a social lubricant. With a few exceptions like Aquinas, philosophers have ignored these benefits.

If philosophers wanted to undo the traditional prejudices against humor, they might consider the affinities between one contemporary genre of comedy—standup comedy—and philosophy itself. There are at least seven. (Morreall 2009, ch. 7). First, standup comedy and philosophy are conversational: like the dialogue format that started with Plato, standup routines are interactive. Second, both reflect on familiar experiences, especially puzzling ones. We wake from a vivid dream, for example, not sure what has happened and what is happening. Third, like philosophers, standup comics often approach puzzling experiences with questions. “If I thought that dream was real, how do I know that I’m not dreaming right now?” The most basic starting point in both philosophy and standup comedy is “X—what’s up with that ?” Fourth, as they think about familiar experiences, both philosophers and comics step back emotionally from them. Henri Bergson (1900 [1911]) spoke of the “momentary anesthesia of the heart” in laughter. Emotional disengagement long ago became a meaning of “philosophical”—“rational, sensibly composed, calm, as in a difficult situation.” Fifth, philosophers and standup comics think critically. They ask whether familiar ideas make sense, and they refuse to defer to authority and tradition. It was for his critical thinking that Socrates was executed. So were cabaret comics in Germany who mocked the Third Reich. Sixth, in thinking critically, philosophers and standup comics pay careful attention to language. Attacking sloppy and illogical uses of words is standard in both, and so is finding exactly the right words to express an idea. Seventh, the pleasure of standup comedy is often like the pleasure of doing philosophy. In both we relish new ways of looking at things and delight in surprising thoughts. Cleverness is prized. William James (1911 [1979], 11) said that philosophy “sees the familiar as if it were strange, and the strange as if it were familiar.” The same is true of standup comedy. Simon Critchley has written that both ask us to “look at things as if you had just landed from another planet” (2002, 1).

One recent philosopher attuned to the affinity between comedy and philosophy was Bertrand Russell. “The point of philosophy,” he said, “is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it” (1918, 53). In the middle of an argument, he once observed, “This seems plainly absurd: but whoever wishes to become a philosopher must learn not to be frightened by absurdities” (2008 [1912], 17).

Often writing for popular audiences, Russell had many quips that would fit nicely into a comedy routine:

  • The fundamental cause of trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt“ (1998, 28).
  • Most people would die sooner than think—in fact they do so” (1925a, 166).
  • Man is a rational animal—so at least I have been told. Throughout a long life, I have looked diligently for evidence in favor of this statement, but so far I have not had the good fortune to come across it, though I have searched in many countries spread over three continents“ (1950, 71).
  • Mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true” (1925b, 75).

For more examples of the affinities between comedy and philosophy, there is a series of books on philosophy and popular culture from Open Court Publishing that includes: Seinfeld and Philosophy (2002), The Simpsons and Philosophy (2001), Woody Allen and Philosophy (2004), and Monty Python and Philosophy (2006). Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein have written Plato and a Platypus Walked into a Bar … : Understanding Philosophy through Jokes (2008), and Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates: Using Philosophy (and Jokes!) to Explore Life, Death, the Afterlife, and Everything in Between (2009). In philosophy of mind, Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett, and Reginald Adams (2011) have used humor to explain the development of the human mind. In aesthetics, Noël Carroll (1999, 2003, 2007, 2013) has written about philosophical implications of comedy and humor, and about their relationships with the genre of horror. The journals Philosophy East and West (1989), the Monist (2005), and Educational Philosophy and Theory (2014) have published special issues on humor. The ancient prejudices against humor that started with Plato are finally starting to crumble.

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How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up topics and thinkers related to this entry at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.
  • Humor , article in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy .
  • Noël Carroll on humor , in Philosophy Bites .
  • Philosophical Humour , links on Philosophy Now website.
  • The Philosophy of Laughter and Smiling , by George Vasey, 1875; a Victorian attack on laughter. (There are also links to William Hazlitt’s “On Wit and Humour” (1818) and Benjamin Franklin’s Fart Proudly (1781).).

Aquinas, Thomas | Aristotle | Descartes, René | -->Freud, Sigmund --> | Grice, Paul | Hobbes, Thomas | Kant, Immanuel | Kierkegaard, Søren | Plato | Santayana, George | Schopenhauer, Arthur | Scottish Philosophy: in the 18th Century | Shaftesbury, Lord [Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of] | Spencer, Herbert

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Library of Congress Catalog Data: ISSN 1095-5054

philosophical essays on humor

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The philosophical study of humor has been focused on the development of a satisfactory definition of humor, which until recently has been treated as roughly co-extensive with laughter. The main task is to develop an adequate theory of just what humor is.

According to the standard analysis, humor theories can be classified into three neatly identifiable groups: incongruity , superiority , and relief theories. Incongruity theory is the leading approach and includes historical figures such as Immanuel Kant , Søren Kierkegaard , and perhaps has its origins in comments made by Aristotle in the Rhetoric . Primarily focusing on the object of humor, this school sees humor as a response to an incongruity, a term broadly used to include ambiguity, logical impossibility, irrelevance, and inappropriateness. The paradigmatic Superiority theorist is Thomas Hobbes , who said that humor arises from a “sudden glory” felt when we recognize our supremacy over others. Plato and Aristotle are generally considered superiority theorists, who emphasize the aggressive feelings that fuel humor. The third group, Relief theory, is typically associated with Sigmund Freud and Herbert Spencer , who saw humor as fundamentally a way to release or save energy generated by repression. In addition, this article will explore a fourth group of theories of humor: play theory . Play theorists are not so much listing necessary conditions for something’s counting as humor, as they are asking us to look at humor as an extension of animal play.

While the task of defining humor is a seemingly simple one, it has proven quite difficult. Each theory attempts to provide a characterization of what is at least at the core of humor. However, these theories are not necessarily competing; they may be seen as simply focusing on different aspects of humor, treating certain aspects as more fundamental than others.

Table of Contents

  • Humor, Laughter, and the Holy Grail
  • Problems Classifying Theorists
  • Superiority Theory
  • Relief Theory
  • Incongruity Theory
  • Play Theory
  • Summary of Humor Theories
  • Reference and Further Reading

1. What is Humor?

Almost every major figure in the history of philosophy has proposed a theory, but after 2500 years of discussion there has been little consensus about what constitutes humor. Despite the number of thinkers who have participated in the debate, the topic of humor is currently understudied in the discipline of philosophy. There are only a few philosophers currently focused on humor-related research, which is most likely due to two factors: the problems in the field have proved incredibly difficult, inviting repeated failures, and the subject is erroneously dismissed as an insignificant concern. Nevertheless, scope and significance of the study of humor is reflected in the interdisciplinary nature of the filed, which draws insights from philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology, film, and literature. It is rare to find a philosophical topic that bares such direct relevance to our daily lives, our social interactions, and our nature as humans.

a. Humor, Laughter, Comedy, and the Holy Grail

The majority of the work on humor has been occupied with the following foundational question: What is humor? The word “humor” itself is of relatively recent origin. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it arose during the 17th century out of psycho-physiological scientific speculation on the effects of various humors that might affect a person’s temperament. Much of the earlier humor research is riddled with equivocations between humor and laughter, and the problem continues into recent discussions. John Dewey states one reason to make the distinction: “The laugh is by no means to be viewed from the standpoint of humor; its connection with humor is only secondary. It marks the ending [. . .] of a period of suspense, or expectation, all ending which is sharp and secondary” (John Dewey, 558). We laugh for a variety of reasons—hearing a funny joke, inhaling laughing gas, being tickled—not all of which result from what we think of as humor. Attempting to offer a general theory of laughter and humor, John Morreall (manuscript) makes a finer distinction: laughter results from a pleasant psychological shift, whereas, humor arises from a pleasant cognitive shift. Noting the predominance of non-humorous laughter, researcher Robert Provine (2000) argues that laughter is most often found in non-humorous social interactions, deployed as some sort of tension relief mechanism. If humor is not a necessary condition of laughter, then we might ask if it is sufficient. Often humor will produce laughter, but sometimes it results in only a smile. Obviously, these relatively distinct phenomena are intimately connected in some manner, but to understand the relationship we need clearer notions of both laugher and humor.

Laughter is a fairly well described physiological process that results in a limited range of characteristic vocal patterns that are only physiologically possible, as Provine suggests, for bi-pedal creatures with breath control. If we describe humorous laughter as laughter in response to humor, then we must answer the question, What is humor? This topic will be explored in the next few sections, but for starters, we can say that humor or amusement is widely regarded as a response to a certain kind of stimulus. The comic, on the other hand, is best described as a professionally produced source of humor, a generic element of various artforms. In distinguishing between humorous and non-humorous laughter we presuppose a working definition of humor, based partly on the character of our response and partly on the properties of humorous objects. This is not necessarily to beg the question about what is humor, but to enter into the real world process of correctively developing a definition. The first goal of a humor theory is to look for the basis of our practical ability to identify humor.

Most definitions of humor are essentialist in that they try to list the necessary and sufficient conditions something must meet in order to be counted as humor. Some theories isolate a common element supposedly found in all humor, but hold back from making claims about the sufficient conditions. Many theorists seem to confuse offering the necessary conditions for a response to count as humor with explaining why we find one thing funny rather than another. This second question, what would be sufficient for an object to be found funny, is the Holy Grail of humor studies, and must be kept distinct from the goals of a definition of the humor response. The Holy Grail is often confused with a question regarding the sufficient conditions for our response to count as humorous amusement, but a crucial distinction needs to be made: identifying the conditions of a response is different from the isolating the features something must possess in order to provoke such a response. The first task is much different from suggesting what features are sufficient to provoke a response of humorous amusement. What amounts to a humor response is different from what makes something humorous. The noun (humor) and adjectival (humorous) senses of the term are difficult to keep distinct due to the imprecision of our language in this area. Much of the dissatisfaction with traditional humor theories can be traced back to an equivocation between these two senses of the term.

b. Problems Classifying Theorists

The standard analysis, developed by D. H. Monro, that classifies humor theories into superiority, incongruity, and relief theories sets up a false expectation of genuine competition between the views. Rarely do any of the historical theorists in any of these schools state their theories as listing necessary of sufficient conditions for something to count as humor, much less put their views in competition with others. A further problem concerns just what the something is that might be called humor. Some theories address the object of humor, whereas others are concerned primarily with the characteristics of the response, and other theories discuss both.

The popular reduction of humor theories into three groups—Incongruity, Relief, and Superiority theories—is an over simplification. Several scholars have identified over 100 types of humor theories, and Patricia Keith-Spiegel’s classification of humor theories into 8 major types (biological, superiority, incongruity, surprise, ambivalence, release, configuration, and psychoanalytic theories) has been fairly influential. Jim Lyttle suggests that, based on the question they are primarily addressing humor, theories can be classified into 3 different groups. He argues that, depending on their focus, humor theories can be grouped under these categories: functional, stimuli, and response theories. (1) Functional theories of humor ask what purpose humor has in human life. (2) Stimuli theories ask what makes a particular thing funny. (3) Response theorists ask why we find things funny. A better way to phrase this concern is to say that response theorists ask what is particular about feelings of humor.

A little probing shows that Lyttle’s grouping is strained, since many of the humor theories address more than one of these questions, and an answer to one often involves an answer to the other questions. For instance, though focused on the function of humor, relief theories often have something to say about all three questions: humor serves as a tension release mechanism, the content often concerns the subject of repressed desires, and finding these funny involves a feeling of relief.

Regardless of the classificatory scheme, when analyzing the tradition of humor theories we need to consider how each of the traditionally defined schools answers the major questions that occupy the bulk of the discussion. The primary questions of humor theory include:

1. Humor question: What is humor?

(An answer to this question often entails answers to questions regarding the object and the response. This is the central question of any humor theory.)

2. Object Feature Questions:

  • Are there any features frequently found in what is found funny?
  • Are there any features necessary for something to have in order to be found funny?
  • Are there any features that by themselves or considered jointly are sufficient for something to be found funny? (Answering this question affirmatively would amount to discovering the holy grail of humor theory.)

3. Response Question: Is there anything psychologically or cognitively distinctive or characteristic about finding something funny?

4. Laughter Question: How is humor related to laughter?

Given this list, we may ask what would a theory of humor amount to? To count as a humor theory and not just an approach to humor, a theory must attempt an answer to Question 1—What is humor? Like the relief theories, most humor theorists do not attempt to answer this question head on, but discuss some important or necessary characteristics of humor. Since the various theories of humor are addressing different sets of questions within this cluster as well as related question in the general study of humor, it is often difficult to put them in competition with each other. Accepting this limitation, we can proceed to explore a few of the major humor theories listed in the widely influential standard analysis.

2. Theories of Humor

A. superiority theory.

We can give two forms to the claims of the superiority theory of humor: (1) the strong claim holds that all humor involves a feeling of superiority, and (2) the weak claim suggests that feelings of superiority are frequently found in many cases of humor. It is not clear that many superiority theorists would hold to the strong claim if pressed, but we will evaluate as a necessary condition nonetheless.

Neither Plato nor Aristotle makes clear pronouncements about the essence of humor, though their comments are preoccupied with the role of feelings of superiority in our finding something funny. In the “Philebus,” Plato tries to expose the “mixture of pleasure and pain that lies in the malice of amusement.” He argues that ignorance is a misfortune that when found in the weak is considered ridiculous. In comedy, we take malicious pleasure from the ridiculous, mixing pleasure with a pain of the soul. Some of Aristotle’s brief comments in the Poetics corroborate Plato’s view of the pleasure had from comedy. Tragedy deals with subjects who are average or better than average; however, in comedy we look down upon the characters, since it presents subjects of lesser virtue than, or “who are inferior to,” the audience. The “ludicrous,” according to Aristotle, is “that is a failing or a piece of ugliness which causes no pain of destruction” ( Poetics , sections 3 and 7). Going beyond the subject of comedy, in the Rhetoric (II, 12) Aristotle defines wit as “educated insolence,” and in the Nicomachean Ethics (IV, 8) he describes jokes as “a kind of abuse” which should ideally be told without producing pain. Rather than clearly offering a superiority theory of humor, Plato and Aristotle focus on this common comic feature, bringing it to our attention for ethical considerations.

Thomas Hobbes developed the most well known version of the Superiority theory. Giving emphatic expression to the idea, Hobbes says “that the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly” ( Human Nature , ch. 8). Motivated by the literary conceit of the laugh of triumph, Hobbes’s expression the superiority theory looks like more of a theory of laughter than a theory of humor. Charles Baudelaire (1956) offers an interesting variation on Hobbes’ superiority theory, mixing it with mortal inferiority. He argues that that “laughter is satanic”—an expression of dominance over animals and a frustrated complaint against our being merely mortal.

Critically reversing the superiority theory, Robert Solomon (2002) offers an inferiority theory of humor. He thinks that self-recognition in the silly antics and self-deprecating behavior of the Three Stooges is characteristic of a source of humor based in inferiority or modesty. Rather than comparing our current with our former inferior selves, Solomon sees the ability to not take yourself seriously, or to see yourself as less than ideal, as a source of virtuous modesty and compassion. Solomon’s analysis of the Three Stooges is not a full-blown theory of humor, in that it does not make any pronouncements about the necessary or sufficient conditions of humor; however, it is a theory of humor in the sense that it suggests a possible source of humor or what humor can be and how it might function.

Solomon’s inferiority theory of humor raises a central objection against the Superiority theory, namely, that a feeling of superiority is not a necessary condition of humor. Morreall offers several examples, such as finding a bowling ball in his refrigerator, that could be found funny, but do not clearly involve superiority. If feelings of superiority are not necessary for humor, are they sufficient? Undoubtedly, this is not the case. As an 18th century critic of Hobbes, Francis Hutcheson, points out, we can feel superior to lots of things, dogs, cats, trees, etc, without being amused: “some ingenuity in dogs and monkeys, which comes near to some of our own arts, very often makes us merry; whereas their duller actions, in which the are much below us, are no matter of jest at all” (p. 29). However, if we evaluate the weaker version of the superiority theory—that humor is often fueled by feelings of superiority—then we have a fairly well supported empirical claim, easily confirmable by first hand observation.

b. Relief Theory

Relief theories attempt to describe humor along the lines of a tension-release model. Rather than defining humor, they discuss the essential structures and psychological processes that produce laughter. The two most prominent relief theorists are Herbert Spencer and Sigmund Freud. We can consider two version of the relief theory: (1) the strong version holds that all laughter results from a release of excessive energy; (2) the weak version claims that it is often the case that humorous laughter involves a release of tension or energy. Freud develops a more specific description of the energy transfer mechanism, but the process he describes is not essential to the basic claims of the relief theory of humor.

In “The Physiology of Laughter” (1860), Spencer develops a theory of laughter that is intimately related to his “hydraulic” theory of nervous energy, whereby excitement and mental agitation produces energy that “must expend itself in some way or another.” He argues that “nervous excitation always tends to beget muscular motion.” As a form of physical movement, laughter can serve as the expressive route of various forms of nervous energy. Spencer did not see his theory as a competitor to the incongruity theory of humor; rather, he tried to explain why it is that a certain mental agitation arising from a “descending incongruity” results in this characteristically purposeless physical movement. Spencer never satisfactorily answers this specific question, but he presents the basic idea that laughter serves to release pent up energy.

One criticism of Spencer’s theory of energy relief is that it does not seem to describe most cases of humor that occur quickly. Many instances of jokes, witticisms, and cartoons do not seem to involve a build up of energy that is then released. Perhaps Spencer thinks that the best explanation for laughter, an otherwise purposeless expenditure of energy, must be that it relieves energy produced from humor. However, since most of our experiences of humor do not seem to involve an energy build up, and humor does not seem forthcoming when we are generally agitated, a better explanation might be that laughter is not as purposeless as it seems or that all expenditures of energy, purposeful or not, need involve a build up.

Spencer might reply that everyone is continuously building up energy simply through the process of managing everyday stress. As such, most people have excess energy, a form of energy potential, waiting to be released by humor. For example, one often hears it said that humor allows one to “blow off steam” after a stressful day at work. The problem with this line of argument is that those who are most “stressed out” seem the least receptive to humor. Not only do attempts at humor frequently fall flat on the hurried, the amusement that results is typically minimal. Perhaps Spencer could argue that at a certain threshold the pent up energy jams the gates such that humor is unable to provide a release. This line of defense might be plausible, but the tension release theory starts to look a bit ad hoc when you have to posit things such as jammed energy release gates and the like.

In Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), Freud develops a more fine grained version of the relief theory of laughter, that amounts to a restatement of Spencer’s theory with the addition of a new process. He describes three different sources of laughter—joking, the comic, and humor—which all involve the saving of some psychic energy that is then discharged through laughter. In joking, the energy that would have been used to repress sexual and hostile feelings is saved and can be released in laughter. In the comic, cognitive energy to be used to solve an intellectual challenge is left over and can be released. The humorous involves a saving of emotional energy, since what might have been an emotion provoking situation turns out to be something we should treat non-seriously. The energy building up for the serious emotional reaction can then be released.

The details of Freud’s discussions of the process of energy saving, are widely regarded as problematic. His notion of energy saving is unclear, since it is not clear what sense it makes to say that energy which is never called upon is saved, rather than saying that no energy was expended. Take his theory of jokes, where the energy that otherwise would have been used to repress a desire is saved by joking which allows for aggression to be released. John Morreall and Noel Carroll make a similar criticism of this theory of energy management. We may have an idea of what it is like to express pent up energy, but we have no notion of what it would be to release energy that is used to repress a desire. Beyond the claim of queerness, this theory of joking does not result in the expected empirical observations. On Freud’s explanation, the most inhibited and repressed people would seem to enjoy joking the most, though the opposite is the case.

Relief theories of laughter do not furnish us a way to distinguish humorous from non-humorous laughter. Freud’s saved energy is perceptually indistinguishable with other forms of energy. As we saw with Spencer, Relief theories must be saddled to another theory of humor. Freud’s attempt to explain why we laugh is also an effort to explain why we find certain tendentious jokes especially funny, though it is not clear what he is getting at in his account of the saving of energy. He commits the fundamental mistake of relief theorists—they erroneously assume that since mental energy often finds release in physical movement, any physical movement must be explainable by an excess of nervous energy.

c. Incongruity Theory

The incongruity theory is the reigning theory of humor, since it seems to account for most cases of perceived funniness, which is partly because “incongruity” is something of an umbrella term. Most developments of the incongruity theory only try to list a necessary condition for humor—the perception of an incongruity—and they stop short of offering the sufficient conditions.

In the Rhetoric (III, 2), Aristotle presents the earliest glimmer of an incongruity theory of humor, finding that the best way to get an audience to laugh is to setup an expectation and deliver something “that gives a twist.” After discussing the power of metaphors to produce a surprise in the hearer, Aristotle says that “[t]he effect is produced even by jokes depending upon changes of the letters of a word; this too is a surprise. You find this in verse as well as in prose. The word which comes is not what the hearer imagined.” These remarks sound like a surprise theory of humor, similar to that later offered by René Descartes , but Aristotle continues to explain how the surprise must somehow “fit the facts,” or as we might put it today, the incongruity must be capable of a resolution.

In the Critique of Judgment , Immanuel Kant gives a clearer statement of the role of incongruity in humor: “In everything that is to excite a lively laugh there must be something absurd (in which the understanding, therefore, can find no satisfaction). Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing” (I, I, 54).

Arthur Schopenhauer offers a more specific version of the incongruity theory, arguing that humor arising from a failure of a concept to account for an object of thought. When the particular outstrips the general, we are faced with an incongruity. Schopenhauer also emphasizes the element of surprise, saying that “the greater and more unexpected [. . .] this incongruity is, the more violent will be his laughter” (1818, I, Sec. 13).

As stated by Kant and Schopenhauer, the incongruity theory of humor specifies a necessary condition of the object of humor. Focusing on the humorous object, leaves something out of the analysis of humor, since there are many kinds of things that are incongruous which do not produce amusement. A more robust statement of the incongruity theory would need to include the pleasurable response one has to humorous objects. John Morreall attempts to find sufficient conditions for identifying humor by focusing on our response. He defines humorous amusement as taking pleasure in a cognitive shift. The incongruity theory can be stated as a response focused theory, claiming that humor is a certain kind of reaction had to perceived incongruity.

Henri Bergson’s essay “Laughter” (1980) is perhaps the one of the most influential and sophisticated theories of humor. Bergson’s theory of humor is not easily classifiable, since it has elements of superiority and incongruity theories. In a famous phrase, Bergson argues that the source of humor is the “mechanical encrusted upon the living” (p. 84) According to Bergson “the comic does not exist outside of what is strictly human.” He thinks that humor involve an incongruous relationship between human intelligence and habitual or mechanical behaviors. As such, humor serves as a social corrective, helping people recognize behaviors that are inhospitable to human flourishing. A large source of the comic is in recognizing our superiority over the subhuman. Anything that threatens to reduce a person to an object—either animal or mechanical—is prime material for humor. No doubt, Bergson’s theory accounts for much of physical comedy and bodily humor, but he seems to over-estimate the necessity of mechanical encrustation. It is difficult to see how his theory can accommodate most jokes and sources of humor coming from wit.

Three major criticisms of the incongruity theory are that it is too broad to be very meaningful, it is insufficiently explanatory in that it does not distinguish between non-humorous incongruity and basic incongruity, and that revised versions still fail to explain why some things, rather than others, are funny. We have already addressed the third criticism: it confuses the object of humor with the response. What is at issue is the definition of humor, or how to identify humor, not how to create a humor-generating algorithm. The incongruity theorist has a response to this criticism as well, since they can claim that humor is pleasure in incongruity.

d. Play Theories

Describing play theories of humor as an independent school or approach might overstate their relative importance, although they do serve as a good representative of theories focused on the functional question. By looking at the contextual characteristic, play theories try to classify humor as a species of play. In this general categorization effort, the play theorists are not so much listing necessary conditions, as they are asking us to look at humor as an extension of animal play. They try to call our attention to the structural similarities between play contexts and humorous context, to suggest that what might be true of play, might be true of humor as well.

Play theorists often take an ethological approach to studying humor, tracing it back through evolutionary development. They look at laughter triggers like tickling, that are found in other species, to suggest that in humor ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. In The Enjoyment of Laughter (1936), Max Eastman develops a play theory of humor with an adaptive story. He thinks we can find analogies of humor in the behavior of animals, especially in the proto-laughter of chimps to tickling. He goes so far as to argue that the wagging tail of a happy dog is a form of humorous laughter, since Eastman wants to broaden the definition of laughter to encompass other rhythmic responses to pleasure. Speaking more specifically of humor, he argues that “we come into the world endowed with an instinctive tendency to laugh and have this feeling in response to pains presented playfully” (p. 45). On Eastman’s account, what is central to humor and play is that both require taking a disinterested attitude towards what might otherwise be seen as serious.

Eastman considers humor to be a form of play, because humor involves a disinterested stance, certain kinds of humor involve mock aggression and insults, and because some forms of play activities result in humorous amusement. Since Eastman defines play as the adoption of this disinterested attitude, humor would count as a form of play on his definition, but this seems both too restrictive and too vague to serve as an adequate definition of play. In Homo Ludens (1938), Johan Huizinga criticizes identifying play with laughter or the comic. Though both seem to involve “the opposite of seriousness,” there are crucial asymmetries. Laughter, he argues, is particular to humans, whereas, play is found in other mammals and birds. Also, if we allow for certain types of competitive play, then a non-serious attitude is not essential to play, as it seems to be for humor. Identifying the comic, or humor, with play is problematic, since “in itself play is not comical for either for the player or public” (1938, p. 6). Huizinga questions whether humor and play share any necessary conditions, a requirement of the relationship if humor is a subtype of play. This will, of course, depend on how we describe humor and play, two equally elusive notions.

Play theorists are primarily concerned with the problem of determining the function of humor in order to explain how it might have adaptive value, a task taken up by other biological theories of humor. They argue that similarities between play and humor suggest that the adaptive value of play might be similar to that of humor. Other researchers focused on the functional questions have described humor as having value in cognitive development, social skill learning, tension relief, empathy management, immune system benefits, stress relief, and social bonding. Though these questions are primarily addressed by psychologists, sociologist, anthropologists, and medical researchers, their studies rely on and contribute to an evolving notion of just what counts as humor. Though the functional question is foremost in these theories, play theory tries to give humor a genus by offering some differentiating characteristics, essential to humor.

e. Summary of Humor Theories

We discussed four different schools of humor theories and noted how each reveals aspects common, if not necessary, to humor. Presenting these theories as rivals is misleading since, as we have seen, theorists in each classification focus on different problems and may draw upon the answers to different questions from another school. For instance, while focusing on why we find something funny, Spencer offers a functional explanation and relies on the answer incongruity theorists give to the question of what we find funny. Relief theories and Play theories tend to focus on the function humor serves in human life, though the functional question cannot be separated from characterizing amusement, or the humor response. Superiority theorists tend to focus on what feelings are necessary for there to be humor, or why we find some things funny. Incongruity theories have the most to say about the object of humor, though variants identify humor with the way we respond to a perceived incongruity. Though the functional, stimuli, and response questions are not neatly separated, the differing schools tend to assume that one question is more basic than the others.

3. References and Further Reading

  • Audi, Robert (1994). “Dispositional Beliefs and Dispositions to Believe.” Nous 28 (4), pp. 419-434.
  • Bateson, Gregory (2000). Steps to an Ecology of Mind . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Baudelaire, Charles (1956). “The Essence of Laughter and More Especially of the Comic in Plastic Arts.” Trans. Gerald Hopkins. In The Essence of Laughter and other Essays, Journals, and Letters, ed. Peter Qeennell. New York: Meridian Books.
  • Bergson, Henri (1980). “Laughter.” Trans. Wylie Sypher, in Comedy , eds. Wylie Sypher. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Berman, Merrie (1986). “How Many Feminists Does It Take To Make A Joke? Sexist Humor and What’s Wrong With It.” Hypatia , vol. 1, no. 1, Spring, pp. 63-82.
  • Caplow, Theodore (1968). Two Against One: Coalitions in Triads . Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.
  • Carroll, Noel, ed. (2001a). Beyond Aesthetics: Philosophical Essays . New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Carroll, Noel (2001b). “Horror and Humor” in Carroll (2001a), pp. 235-253.
  • Carroll, Noel (2001c). “Moderate Moralism” in Carroll (2001a), pp. 293- 306.
  • Carroll, Noel (2001d). “On Jokes” in Carroll (2001), pp. 317-334.
  • Carroll, Noel (1996). “Notes on the Sight Gag” in Noel Carroll Theorizing the Moving Image . New York, Cambridge Univesrity Press.
  • Carroll, Noel (1997). “Words, Images, and Laughter.” Persistence of Vision , no. 14, pp. 42-52.
  • Chapman, A. J., & Foot, H. C., eds. (1976). Humour and laughter: Theory, research, and applications. London: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Cohen, Ted (1999). Jokes: Philosophical Perspectives on Laughing Matters . Chicago: Chicago Univesrity Press.
  • Critchley, Simon (2002). On Humour . New York: Routledge.
  • De Sousa, Ronald (1987). “When is it Wrong to Laugh?” Ch. 11 of The Rationality of Emotion . Cambridge, MIT.
  • Descartes, René. (1649/1987). Les Passions de L’ame. Paris. Excerpts in Morreall.
  • Dundes, Alan (1987). Cracking Jokes: Studies of Sick Humor Cycles and Stereotypes . Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
  • Dwyer, Tom (1991). “Humor, Power, and Change in organizations.” Human Relations , vol. 44, no. 1, pp. 1-19.
  • Eastman, Max (1936). Enjoyment of Laughter . New York: Halcyon House.
  • Eitzen, Dirk (2000). “Comedy and Classicism.” Film Theory and Philosophy . Eds. Richard Allen and Murray Smith. New York: Oxford Univesrity Press.
  • Freud, Sigmund (1928). “Humor.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 9, pp. 1-6.
  • Freud, Sigmund (1905/1960). Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. Trans. J. Strachey. New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1905).
  • Gaut, Berys (1998). “Just Joking: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Humor.” Philosophy and Literature , 22 (1), pp. 51-68.
  • Goldstein, J. H., & McGhee, P. E., eds. (1972). The Psychology of Humor: Theoretical Perspectives and Empirical Issues. New York: Academic Press.
  • Gregory, J. C. (1924). The Nature of Laughter . New York: HBC.
  • Handelman, Don (1990/1998). Models and Mirrors: towards and anthropology of public events . New York: Berghahn Books. (Originally published by Cambridge University Press in 1990.)
  • Hobbes, Thomas (1840). Human Nature , in The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, Volume IV, ed. William Molesworth, London: Bohn.
  • Horton, Andrew S. (1991). Comedy Cinema / Theory . Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Huizinga, Johan (1938/1971). Homo Ludens . Beacon Press. (Originally published in 1938).
  • Kant, Immanuel. (1951). Critique of Judgment. J. H. Bernard, Trans. New York: Hafner.
  • Keith-Spiegel, P. C. (1972). “Early Conceptions of Humor: Varieties and Issues.” In Goldstein & McGhee (1972).
  • Koestler, Arthur (1964). The Act of Creation: A Study of the Conscious and Unconscious Processes of Humor, Scientific Discovery and Art. London: Hutchison Press.
  • Layng, Anthony (1991). “Sexism and Classroom Humor.” College Teaching , vol. 39, no. 2, Spring, p. 43.
  • Ludovici. Anthony M. (1933). The Secret of Laughter . New York: Viking Press.
  • Lyttle, Jim (manuscript). The Effectiveness of Humor in Persuasion: The Case of Business Ethics Training . URL = <http://www.jimlyttle.com/Dissert/l>.
  • Mast, Gerald (1979). The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies. Chicago; Univesrity of Chicago Press. (First published in 1973.)
  • McGhee, P. E., & Goldstein, J. H., eds. (1983). Handbook of Humor Research: Basic Issues, Vol. 1. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  • McGinn, Colin (1997). Ethics, Evil, and Fiction . New York: Oxford.
  • Morreall, John. (1983). “Humor and emotion.” American Philosophical Quarterly , 20, pp. 297-304.
  • Morreall, John. (1989). “Enjoying incongruity.” HUMOR: International Journal of Humor Research , 2, pp. 1-18.
  • Morreall, John. (1987). The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor . New York, SUNY.
  • Morreall, John. (1983). Taking Laughter Seriously. New York: SUNY .
  • Nilsen, Alleen Pace & Don L. F. Nilsen (2000). Encyclopedia of 20th-Century American Humor. Phoenix: Oxry Press.
  • Philips, Michael (1984). “Racist Acts and Racist Humor.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy , vol. 14, no. 1, March, pp. 75-96.
  • Piaget, Jean (1962). Play, Dreams, and Imitation in Childhood . Trans. C. Gattegno and F. M Hodgson. New York: Norton and Company.
  • Plato. Philebus . In J. Morreall (1987).
  • Provine, R. R. (2000). “The Science of Laughter.” Psychology Today , 33 (6), pp. 58-62.
  • Roberts, Robert C. (1987). “Humor and the Virtues.” Inquiry , 31, pp. 127-49.
  • Roberts, Robert C. (1988). “Is Amusement and Emotion.’ American Philosophical Quartery , vol. 5, no. 3, July, pp. 269-273.
  • Rothenberg, Paula S, ed. (1988). Racism and Sexism : An Integrated Study. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  • Ryan, Kathryn M. & Jeanne Kanjorski (1998). “The Enjoyment of Sexist Humor, Rape Attitudes, and Relationship Aggression in College Students.” Sex Roles , vol. 38, no. 9/10, May, pp. 743-756.
  • Sankowski, Edward (1977). “Responsibility of persons for Their Emotions.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy vol. VIII, no. 4, December, pp. 829-840.
  • Schopenhauer, Arthur (1818). The World as Will and Representation .
  • Shultz, T. R. (1972). The role of incongruity and resolution in children’s appreciation of cartoon humor. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology , 13 (3), pp. 456-477.
  • Snyder, Mark (1998). “Self-Fulfilling Stereotypes.” In Rothenberg (1998), pp. 263-268.
  • Solomon, Robert (2002). “Are the Three Stooges Funny? Soitainly! (or When is it OK to Laugh?).” Ethics and Values in the Information Age, eds. Joel Rudinow and Anthony Graybosch. Wadsworth.
  • Spencer, Herbert. (1860). “The Physiology of Laughter.” Macmillan’s Magazine , 1, pp. 395-402.
  • Wiseman, Richard & the LaughLab (2002). The Scientific Quest for the World’s Funniest Joke. London: Arrow.

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Aaron Smuts Email: [email protected] University of Wisconsin-Madison U. s. A.

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The Philosophy of Humor: What Makes Something Funny?

Author: Chris A. Kramer Category: Historical Philosophy , Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art , Phenomenology and Existentialism , Ethics Word Count: 995

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People can laugh at almost anything. What’s the deal with that? What makes something funny?

This essay reviews some theories of what it is for something to be funny. Each theory offers insights into this question, but no single approach provides a comprehensive answer.

A banana peel.

1. The Superiority Theory of Humor

According to the superiority theory of humor , funniness results from feeling superior to another person, or at a former version of ourselves, and we laugh at them: “Ha! I’m better than you (or former me)!” We look down on the butt of the joke, and by comparison, smugly perceive how different we are from that person. [1]

Consider laughing at someone who slips on a banana peel. Maybe we laugh because we presume we’re better than them; after all, we have never slipped on pieces of fruit. [2]

However, I might feel superior to all sorts of things, such as oysters, [3] yet not laugh at them. Also, imagine Socrates, who is notoriously ugly, exclaiming to a group of people, “I’m the most attractive man here.” That’s funny, but there’s no obvious assertion of superiority. But imagine People magazine’s “World Sexiest Man” saying that: that’s straightforward superiority, and it isn’t very funny.

This reveals, for most scholars of humor, that the superiority theory misses the mark. After all, sometimes things are funny without resulting from superiority, and some feelings of superiority don’t make things funny. [4]  

2. The Relief Theory of Humor

Laughter feels good! Maybe this is because laughing releases pent-up pressure. According to the relief theory of humor , venting nervous energy is the primary function of laughter; it releases the energy or emotions or thoughts which are deemed inappropriate or unnecessary. [5]

Consider an example from Sigmund Freud [6] about a criminal who says, while being led to his execution on a Monday, “Well, this is a good beginning to the week.” [7] Here, tension is built up in the set-up: we feel apprehension or pity for the criminal. When we recognize he’s unconcerned about his state, that energy becomes “excess” and is released through laughter. The joking context offers cover to express ourselves about issues we might feel pressure to repress, like death or sex. Since we need not repress those urges here, the superfluous energy is released in laughter.

But sometimes humor doesn’t involve built-up energy at all. Consider this joke from Steven Wright: “On the other hand, you have different fingers.” [8] There is no time to induce any sort of mental energy based on the set-up of this joke. There’s no time to build up any energy that needs to be released. It’s funny independently of any pent-up feelings, so the relief theory of humor can’t account for this joke.

3. The Incongruity Theory of Humor

According to the incongruity theory of humor , humor results from the sudden recognition of dissonance or incongruence where our expectations had prepared us for something completely different. [9] The temporary confusion is replaced with humor when we reinterpret the setup and its relation to the punchline. Instead of confusion, there’s a kind of resolution, and our reward for getting it is humor. [10]

The element of surprise cannot be frightening or dangerous, since these create negative emotions that block feelings of amusement. Finding the severed head of your favorite horse in your bed is incongruous, yet few would laugh.

Mere surprise is insufficient for humor. [11] Consider: “The unfaithful artist heard his wife coming up the stairs. He said to his lover, ‘Quick, take off your clothes!’” [12] On an immediate, superficial reading, we are befuddled by his unexpected and incongruous request. But, we can reinterpret the set-up so it clicks: he’s an artist “painting” her, and that sometimes happens in the nude, so the wife would suspect nothing. [13] Many simple and amusing riddles rely upon similar forms of ambiguity, such as this: “Why was 6 afraid of 7? Because, 7, 8, 9.” We easily shift between the meaning of ate and the phonetically identical numeral eight , and enjoy the alternating and incongruous frames of reference.  

With humor, we undergo a psychological and conceptual shift “from a serious state of perceiving and thinking about things that fit into our conceptual patterns, to a nonserious state of being amused by some incongruity.” [14] When we are serious, we are worried when the world is inconsistent with how we expect it to be. When we are playful, the incongruities are enjoyable. This analysis offers the groundwork for an empirically-based study into humor where the degree of incongruity can be tweaked within a laboratory setting, thereby increasing or decreasing the level of humor. [15]  

While most current theorists lean toward some version of the incongruity theory, it has limitations. [16] The theory best applies to instances of humor that are clearly verbal, where ambiguity, for example, is most easily constructed; but not all humor is verbal. Also, we sometimes enjoy re-experiencing instances of humor, like re-watching a sitcom, where our expectations are not violated; indeed we consciously anticipate the impending humor. Finally, the sense of “incongruity” is so broad, including dissonance, contradiction, outright absurdity, that it loses its meaning, making the theory difficult to falsify: the concept of “incongruity” is so elastic, that it can be expanded ad hoc to cover any instance of humor, even that which, on the face of it, does not appear to rely on incongruity as such. [17]

4. Conclusion: It’s Funny, None of These Theories Seem Adequate

Perhaps a combination of these theories can explain what makes something funny. There is little consensus regarding which theory is best, but, like most philosophical conundrums worth thinking about, this is not uncommon.

The philosophy of humor relies on many other philosophical areas, including logic, philosophy of language, aesthetics, and others. [18] And since humor and laughter are emotions and expressions present in every known society in every time period, it is no frivolous endeavor. Failure to find a complete account of what makes something funny might be because it’s in the early stages of study. Or maybe we just aren’t in on the joke.

[1] This view was considered by Plato (429?–347 B.C.E.) who worried that our uncontrollable laughter could lead to maliciousness, as one would be more likely to feel and think less of those inferior to them. See Plato’s (1989) Philebus , pp. 49–50. It was most famously championed by Thomas Hobbes: “Sudden glory, is the passion which makes those grimaces called laughter; and is caused either by some sudden act of their own, that pleases them; or by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves” (Hobbes 2002 [1651], Part 1 Ch 6).

[2] Indeed, the extensive use of this example seems disproportionate to its occurrence in reality. Even though this example is central for Henri Bergson (1859–1941) (cf. Bergson 1911), and makes it into just about every analysis of humor, including this one, this has probably not happened that often in the history of humanity, or in the ape-world, where bananas are notoriously appealing . (Note: what just happened there is called a pun, sometimes deemed the lowest form of humor. But some puns can be fruit ful, like that one, so, clearly, I disagree. Also, where’s the butt in puns? [Note on the note: if this note is funny, it is further evidence against the superiority theory of humor, since nothing in this note suggests any superiority on anyone’s part.])

[3] An example from Francis Hutcheson (1987) in response to Hobbes: “Strange!—that none of our Hobbists [nice] banish all canary birds and squirrels, and lap-dogs … out of their houses, and substitute in their place asses, and owls, and snails, and oysters to be merry upon. From these they might have higher joys of superiority” (p. 29). 

[4] Many humor theorists have sought both of these conditions to get at the essence of humor: “Traditionally, theories have taken an ‘essentialist’ approach … by searching for an essence that is necessarily present in all cases of amusement and the presence of which is sufficient for being a case of amusement” (Roberts 2019, 25). But not everyone thinks there is an essence of humor to be discovered: “I think the best we can do is to explain the ways ‘humor’ and ‘amusement’ have been used, and analyze paradigm cases that fit under most standard usages of these terms. A search for necessary and sufficient conditions would be futile” (Morreall 2009, 64).

[5] According to Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), our laughter is a physiological release of pent-up energy like in hydraulic systems (Spencer 1860). When there are few channels available, strong feelings of almost any sort lead to the discharge of energy, one being the uncontrollable paroxysms that is laughter. In this way, Jim Holt reminds us, borrowing a bit from the Marquis De Sade, “The objective of sexual congress is to elicit involuntary noisemaking from your partner–which is precisely the objective of humor” (Holt 2008, 66). We also release chemicals beneficial to pain and stress reduction through laughter (see Dunbar et. al. 2012), though Spencer would not have known this.

[6] Speaking of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), he continues the relief hypothesis, but introduces a “psychical” element to describe what is released in laughter, offering an account of humor not explicit in Spencer (Freud 1960). When we suppress thoughts about taboo issues like sex and bodily functions, mental energy is released by a well-crafted joke that would otherwise be needed to censor such inappropriate thoughts. This view is encapsulated by Cicero, though not a Relief theorist: “An indecency decently put is the thing we laugh at hardest.” Quoted in Holt, (Preface). This is also a nice entry into Steven Gimbel’s “cleverness” theory of humor (Gimbel 2017). Briefly, his view is that all humor is intentional, conspicuous, playful cleverness.

[7] Freud 1928, 1. Note, this might be humorous to you, yet fail to evoke any audible laughter (you might be tired, or just inclined to smile), revealing that the latter is not necessary to have the former. Also, one might laugh out of nervousness, laughing gas, or neurosurgeons stimulating a part of your brain forcing a guffaw, but none of these instances are caused by humor. Thus, laughter is also not sufficient for humor.

[8] Quoted in Huemer n.d. Really almost any placid, extraordinarily dry, joke from Wright might stand as a counter-example to the Relief  theory. For more on the Relief theory, see Morreall 1983, 20–37; Roberts 2019, 91–93, and Freud 1960. Roberts (2019, 92) and Hurley et. al. (2011, 44) point out the additional concern that “psychic” or “mental” energy is an outdated notion. But, “tension” and “arousal” might be useful in explaining some reactions to humor, they are simply not necessary for all instances, as the Wright example demonstrates.

[9] See almost anything from Monty Python n.d.

[10] When our expectations are violated in a non-threatening way, we often laugh. According to Arthur Schopenhauer, it is this recognition of dissonance that is necessary for humor: “Amusement, reveals that it is ‘delightful for us to see this strict, untiring, and most troublesome governess, our faculty of reason, for once convicted of inadequacy’ in its attempt to discern a perfectly reasonable universe” (Schopenhauer 1887, 279-80). For more on the mirth-as-reward for catching cognitive, linguistic, or logical errors, see Hurley et al. 2011).

[11] For an overview of this history see Morreall 1983, 1–59; Hurley et al. 2011, 37–56; Buckley 2005, 3–48, and for a defense of an incongruity theory against competing views such as Superiority and Relief/Release theories, see Oring 2003, 1–12; Marmysz 2003, 123–54. Other terms often used as synonyms to define/explain incongruity have been ludicrousness, ridiculousness, the unexpected, contradiction, paradox, absurdity, something inappropriate or inconsistent, logical fallacy, lack of harmony, ambiguity, having parts that do not fit together, etc. That is a lot! Perhaps too much, as we will see.

[12] Marmysz 2003, 136. He adds: “When we laugh at a joke, we do so because we recognize that an unanticipated outcome sensibly completes the story without contradicting our most general assumptions about what the world is like” (Marmysz 2003, 137). But not all incongruity in humor sustains our sense of what is real: “There were two muffins in an oven. First one says ‘Wow, it’s like a sauna in here.’ Second one says, “Oh my God! A talking muffin!’”

[13] Immanuel Kant has a version of this approach: “Whatever is to arouse lively, convulsive laughter must contain something absurd (that the understanding cannot like for its own sake). Laughter is an affect that arises if a tense expectation is transformed into nothing .” Kant, 1987, Part I, Division 1, Section 54. With Schopenhauer (1887), our reason is flustered by the surprising punchline in a joke, but we are not angered like we would be upon recognizing a lie, though there is often deception in jokes; instead, we are “gladdened” by the jesting, especially if/when there can be a resolution to the initial incongruity, something not clearly captured with Kant’s hypothesis. But Kant connects wit, a humorous attitude, with “the play of thought”, that cultivates enjoyment of incongruity rather than annoyance. This notion has been extended to connect some humor with philosophical thought experiment See Gooding (1998, 396), Morreall (2009), and Veale (2015). Thought experiment can be translated as Gedankenspiel , thought-play in German. There are many ways from here to study the intersections between intellect and emotion via analyses of humor, making this a fruitful area of study. There are links to the Play theory of humor from an evolutionary lens, in which our capacity to enjoy humor arose out of our inclination to play, as animals play-fight, in a non-threatening, and learning, situation (see Boyd 2004, 6-13 and Hurley et al. 2011, who present an error-detection model of the evolution of humor). Relatedly, there is Steven Gimbel’s (2017) Cleverness theory in which the degree of cleverness in the play of ideas is the necessary element of humor, and must be present whether there is relief, superiority, or incongruity.

[14] Morreall 1983, 38. But “nonserious” does not entail pure frivolity. One can be serious in their play, as with professional musicians and athletes, and one can be playful with serious ideas, as with philosophers and some subversive humorists (see Kramer 2020). John Morreall is largely responsible for making the philosophy of humor a significant field in its own right. Here is more on his brand of Incongruity theory: “1. We experience a cognitive shift —a rapid change in our perceptions or thoughts. 2. We are in a play mode rather than a serious mode, disengaged from conceptual and practical concerns. 3. Instead of responding to the cognitive shift with shock, confusion, puzzlement, fear, anger, or other negative emotions, we enjoy it. 4. Our pleasure at the cognitive shift is expressed in laughter , which signals to others that they can relax and play too” (Morreall 2009, 50).

[15] See McGraw and Warner (2014) for the Benign Violation Theory . If a rule (usually social/cultural) is flouted but in an innocuous fashion in which no one is harmed or seriously offended (a difficult line to find), the violation is said to be “benign”, and we laugh. If there is no violation, or too strong of one, there is less amusement or none. This is an attempt to test the conditions for humor in a laboratory setting by tweaking the degree of rule violations. This is no easy task, as replicating any findings gets harder each time you introduce new subjects into the study, and the same subject cannot be used for additional tellings of the same jokes.

[16] See Latta (1999), Hurley et al. (2011) and Gimbel (2017) for more limitations of Incongruity theories.

[17] Contrary to how this sounds, it is not necessarily a positive thing for any theory. At the very least, it renders it non-scientific, as there are no possible mechanisms for demonstrating under what conditions the theory would fail; the meaning of “incongruity” simply gets subtly reinterpreted in an ad hoc fashion in order to meet any challenge (see Gimbel 2017, 33–35 for a discussion on this point). This would be like trying to understand something like Freud’s Oedipal Complex, where all young boys pass through a phase in which they desire to kill their father and have sex with their mother. Anytime a boy who vehemently denies such feelings ever occurred to him, this putative counter-evidence is simply repurposed to support the theory: “That is exactly what a young man with the Oedipal Complex would say!”

[18] Despite its connection to philosophy more broadly, it was not until 2020 that the first journal devoted to this subject to emerge: The Philosophy of Humor Yearbook (Amir n.d.).

Amir, Lydia (Ed.). N.d. The Philosophy of Humor Yearbook . DeGruyter.

Bergson, Henri. 1911. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic , C. Brereton and F. Rothwell (trs.), London: Macmillan.

Boyd, Brian. 2004. “Laughter and Literature: A Play Theory of Humor,” Philosophy and Literature , 28: 1–23.

Buckley, Frank H. 2005. The Morality of Laughter: A Serious Look at the Meaning of Laughter . Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Dunbar, Robin et. al. 2012. “Social laughter is correlated with an elevated pain threshold” in  Proceedings of the Biological Sciences, 22:279 (1731):1161–7 .

Freud, Sigmund. 1928. “Humour” in International Journal of Psychoanalysis , Vol. 9: 1–6.

Freud, Sigmund. 1960. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. Trans. James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Gimbel, Steven. 2017. Isn’t that Clever: A Philosophical Account of Humor and Comedy. New York: Routledge.

Gooding, David. 1998. “Thought Experiments.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy , Vol. 9. Edited by Edward Craig, Taylor and Francis.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. 1651. The Project Gutenberg eBook, Release Date: July 2, 2002 [eBook #3207].

Holt, Tim. 2008. Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes. New York: Norton and Company.

Huemer, Michael. “Stephen Wright Jokes.” Accessed 19 November 2022. https://www.owl232.net/wright.htm

Hurley, Matthew, Daniel Dennett, and Reginald Adams Jr. 2011. Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind . Cambridge: MIT Press.

Hutcheson, Frances.1987. “Reflections Upon Laughter.” In The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor. Ed. John Morreall, New York: Suny. 26–40.

Kant, Immanuel. 1987. Critique of Judgment. Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co.

Kramer, Chris A. 2020. “Subversive Humor as Art and the Art of Subversive Humor.” In The Philosophy of Humor Yearbook, Ed. Lydia Amir, Vol. 1, No. 1: 153–179.

Latta, Robert. 1999. The Basic Humor Process: A Cognitive-Shift Theory and the Case Against Incongruity. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Marmysz, John. 2003. Laughing at Nothing: Humor as a Response to Nihilism . Albany: State University of New York Press.

McGraw, Peter and Warner, Joel. 2014. The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Monty Python. “Monty Python.” Accessed 19 November 2022. https://www.montypython.com/

Morreall, John. 2009. Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor. Malden MA: Wiley and Sons Ltd.

Morreall, John. 1983. Taking Laughter Seriously. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Oring, Elliot. 2003. Engaging Humor . Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Plato. 1989. The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns Eds. Bollingen Series LXXI, Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press .

Roberts, Alan. 2019. A Philosophy of Humour . London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. 1887. The World as Will and Idea: Volume II . Trans. R. B. Haldane and J. Kemp. Boston: Ticknor and Company.

Spencer, Herbert. 1860. The Physiology of Laughter . London: Macmillan.

Stone, Sophia. 2021. “Why You’re Not Worthy: The Superiority Theory of Humor.” In It’s Funny ‘Cause It’s True: The Lighthearted Philosophers’ Society’s Introduction to Philosophy through Humor , 31–37. Eds. Henrigillis, Jennifer Marra and Gimbel, Steven. Lighthearted Philosophers’ Society. 31–37.

Veale, Tony. 2015. “The Humour of Exceptional Cases: Jokes as Compressed Thought Experiments.” In Cognitive Linguistics and Humour Research , edited by Geert Brône, Kurt Feyearts, and Tony Veale, Berlin: De Gruyter, 69–90.

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Chris Kramer is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Santa Barbara City College. His interests intersect across the philosophy of humor, mind, religion, informal logic, existentialism and phenomenology, and oppression. He wrote his dissertation on “Subversive Humor,” half about humor, half about oppression. Readers will laugh and cry, but mostly cry, mostly because they are reading a Ph.D. dissertation: what has become of their lives? sbcc.academia.edu/ChrisKramer  

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philosophical essays on humor

A Philosophy of Humour

  • © 2019
  • Alan Roberts 0

Department of Philosophy, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK

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  • Lucidly provides a new and comprehensive theory of humour
  • Incorporates a wealth of interdisciplinary research from psychology, linguistics and neuroscience
  • Opens the field to those inquiring into this fast-growing area of philosophy

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Table of contents (6 chapters)

Front matter, introduction.

Alan Roberts

Amusement, Funniness and Humour

Early theories of amusement, the cognitive component of amusement, the affective component of amusement, a theory of amusement, back matter, about this book.

Humour is a funny thing - everyone knows it but no-one knows what it is. This book addresses the question 'What is humour?' by first untangling the definitions of humour, amusement and funniness before then providing a new theory of humour which draws upon recent research in philosophy, psychology, linguistics and neuroscience. The theory is built up without assuming any prior knowledge and illustrated through humorous examples which are both entertaining and educational for anyone curious about what makes things funny. The book is then an accessible illumination of joking matters from dinner tables to online platforms to comedy clubs.

Authors and Affiliations

About the author.

Alan Roberts has taught philosophy at the University of Sussex and University College London in the UK. His research on humour has been published in academic books, philosophy journals and online magazines.

Bibliographic Information

Book Title : A Philosophy of Humour

Authors : Alan Roberts

DOI : https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-14382-4

Publisher : Palgrave Pivot Cham

eBook Packages : Religion and Philosophy , Philosophy and Religion (R0)

Copyright Information : The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2019

Hardcover ISBN : 978-3-030-14381-7 Published: 26 April 2019

eBook ISBN : 978-3-030-14382-4 Published: 13 April 2019

Edition Number : 1

Number of Pages : IX, 133

Topics : Philosophy of Mind , Aesthetics

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philosophical essays on humor

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Humor in Philosophical Contexts: Socratic Irony

Tel-Aviv University, York University, Emeritus;

It is hard to say what the focus of the difficulty here is: the very idea of a sense of proportion or the idea that a sense of humor is an ideal vehicle for it. Both are puzzling. As having the one without the other is quite possible, this is only a feel that the two go well together.

About the author

Agassi, Joseph, and Abraham Meidan. 2008. Philosophy from a Skeptical Perspective.  New York: Cambridge University Press. Search in Google Scholar

Amir, Lydia. 2014. Humor and the Good Life in Modern Philosophy: Shaftesbury, Hamann, Kierkegaard. Albany: State University of New York Press. Search in Google Scholar

Cromwell, Oliver, and Thomas Carlyle. 1845. Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches: With Elucidations. Vol. 3. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. Search in Google Scholar

Freud, Sigmund. (1905) 1960. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. Translated and edited by James Strachey. New York: Norton. Search in Google Scholar

Frye, Northrop. 2002. Northrop Frye on Literature and Society, 1936 – 1989: Unpublished Papers. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Search in Google Scholar

Koestler, Arthur. 1964. The Act of Creation. London: Arkana. Search in Google Scholar

Plato. 1997. Complete Works. Translated by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett. Search in Google Scholar

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A Complete Analysis of Plato's Philosophy of Humor

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Related Papers

Andrea Capra

Introduction Andrea Capra Part I: Comedy in the Elenctic Dialogues i. Comedy and Laughter in Plato’s Early Dialogues Edith Hall ii. The Cook, the Relish-Maker, and the Philosopher Kathryn Morgan iii. Flatterers and Philosophers: On the ‘Pleasure Principle’ of the Protagoras William Strigel iv. The Mask of ‘Socrates’: Metatheatrical Comedy and Self-Knowledge in Hippias Major Sonja Tanner v. Platonicomic Business: Comedy and Platonic Theatre In Theages Sarah Miles Part II: Comedy in the Transitional Dialogues vi. Comedy in the Shadow of Death: Plato’s Menexenus Andrea Capra vii. The Deadly Play of Plato’s Euthydemus Gwenda-Lin Grewal viii. Plato and the Philosophical Art of Mockery Pierre Destrée Part III: Comedy in the ‘Middle’ Dialogues ix. Plato’s Use of Parody Franco V. Trivigno x. The Comic Worldview: Plato’s Symposium 189c ff. Anthony Hooper xi. Plato and the Discourse of Humour in Republic 10 Richard Hunter xii. Aristophanic Utopia s and Plato’s Kallipolis Michele Corradi xiii. The Last Laugh: Plato and the Comedy of Death Gabriele Cornelli

philosophical essays on humor

Mateo Duque

Sarah Ruth Jansen

In this paper I explore the ethics of laughing at people. I argue that for Plato laughter plays an important role in discourse. Through a new analysis of both the dialectic and drama of the dialogues (especially the Philebus), I argue that Plato distinguishes between specific forms of bad and good laughing at people; the former harms the soul and stifles human inquiry, whereas the latter benefits the soul and furthers human inquiry.

Lucia Prauscello

According to the anonymous Life of Aristophanes, when Dionysius the tyrant of Syracuse wanted to learn 'the ways of the Athenians' public life' (tn %qhna©wn polite©an), Plato answered by sending him Aristophanes' works and advising him to peruse them (t drmata aÉtoÓ skhqnta).  Anecdotal as this piece of evidence may be,  it is not an altogether unfitting reception of some of Plato's long-standing concerns, in his dialogues, with laughter, and especially comic laughter, as a powerful social and political medium.  In particular, Plato's uneasy relationship with comedy is one of the most intriguing aspects of what Monoson has called his 'democratic entanglements'.  In classical Athens comedy was a festival sponsored by the state and performed by citizens for the citizens themselves: with all its marked distortion of everyday reality, its appeal to 'free speech' (parrhs©a) and 'equality' («s»thv) nevertheless contributed My sincerest thanks to M. Schofield, G. Lloyd and the anonymous Cambridge referees for improving substantially an earlier version of this chapter. I alone am responsible for any mistakes and/or misunderstandings.  Ar. T  ll. - K-A (= Prolegom. de com. i, ia, xxviiii, ll. - Koster).  On its possible pro-Athenian origin, see Riginos : . Riginos dates the anecdote as 'no later than the sixth century ad'(: ).  The bibliography on the subject is endless; I quote here only what I found most relevant for my present argument. Comedy as a form of ritually institutionalized laughter: Halliwell : -, , aandb: -;Rosen: -. On Plato and laughter: McCabe ; Halliwell : - and : -;Rosen: -;Jouët-Pastré  and : -;Rowe; P. M. Steiner ; Mader  (esp. - on comedy). On Plato's engagement with comedy as a competing 'civic' discourse: Nightingale : -, -; on Plato's redeployment of comic tropes of speech, see Brock . On the alleged fondness of the historical Plato for Aristophanes, Epicharmus and Sophron, see Riginos : -.  Monoson . Plato's moral interpretation of comedy as a public, if not overtly political, vehicle of communication is, of course, determined by his own philosophical agenda. That is, Plato's response is only one of the possible audience responses to the complexities of Aristophanes' self-presentation as a 'civic voice' (see Silk a: ). I share here the moderate scepticism expressed by Heath  and now Olson  (esp. -) on the unambiguous seriousness of comic discourse qua political discourse (vs. Jeffrey Henderson  and ).

Laughter, Humor and Comedy in Ancient Philosophy, eds. P. Destrée and F. Trivigno

Franco Trivigno

Ed. P. Destreé and F. Trivigno

Departmental Papers

Ralph Rosen

HUMOR: The International Journal of Humor Research

Dialegesthai

Ida E . A . Soldini

Was Plato the comic poet the same person as Plato the philosopher? Since the Philosopher quoted the Comic poet in Alcibiades I, his joke should be taken very seriously. This paper proposes an assessment relying to the older chronological data much more than to Hellenistic and modern contempt of comic poetry.

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philosophical essays on humor

Philosophy of Humor

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With so many branches, concepts, terms and ideas I'm here to help with a philosophy glossary

Philosophy of Humor: Exploring the Nature and Significance of Laughter

Definition: The Philosophy of Humor is a branch of philosophy concerned with the analysis, interpretation, and understanding of humor. It explores the nature of humor, its underlying mechanisms, its psychological and social implications, and its role in human life and culture.

Explanation: Philosophy of Humor delves into the complexities of what makes something funny and why we find certain things humorous. It examines humor from various perspectives, including philosophical, psychological, sociological, and linguistic viewpoints.

From a philosophical standpoint, questions arise about the essence of humor itself. Is humor a universal human experience, or is it culturally and contextually bound? Philosophers also ponder the moral implications of humor, exploring the boundaries of what is considered acceptable or offensive.

Psychologically, humor is studied as a mechanism for coping with stress, expressing emotions, and building social bonds. It serves as a tool for communication, allowing individuals to convey complex ideas in a lighthearted manner.

Sociologically, humor reflects societal norms, values, and power dynamics. It can challenge authority, subvert hierarchies, and critique social injustices. Understanding humor in its cultural context provides insights into the dynamics of power and resistance within a society.

Linguistically, humor involves wordplay, irony, satire, and other rhetorical devices. Philosophers analyze the linguistic mechanisms underlying humor and how they contribute to creating comedic effects.

Applications:

  • Philosophical Inquiry: Philosophy of Humor offers a framework for examining fundamental questions about the nature of laughter, amusement, and comedy. It encourages critical reflection on the role of humor in human existence and its relationship to other philosophical concepts such as ethics, aesthetics, and ontology.
  • Psychological Understanding: Understanding humor can aid in psychological well-being by promoting resilience, reducing stress, and fostering social connections. Therapists often incorporate humor into therapy as a coping mechanism and a means of building rapport with clients.
  • Cultural Analysis: Analyzing humor within different cultural contexts provides insights into the values, norms, and power structures of societies. It helps scholars and researchers understand how humor reflects and shapes cultural identity, social dynamics, and historical developments.
  • Social Commentary: Humor has long been used as a tool for social commentary and political satire. Through comedy, individuals and groups can critique authority, challenge norms, and advocate for social change. Satirical comedians, cartoonists, and writers often employ humor to highlight social injustices and provoke thought.
  • Communication and Persuasion: Humor is a powerful tool for communication and persuasion. In advertising, marketing, and public speaking, humor can capture attention, enhance memorability, and create positive associations with products, ideas, or messages.
  • Education and Learning: Humor can facilitate learning by making educational content more engaging and memorable. Teachers and educators often use humor to create a positive classroom atmosphere, alleviate tension, and enhance students’ comprehension and retention of material.

In conclusion , the Philosophy of Humor offers a rich and multidisciplinary approach to understanding one of the most universal and yet complex aspects of human experience. By exploring humor from philosophical, psychological, sociological, and linguistic perspectives, we gain insights into its nature, functions, and diverse applications in human life and culture.

Important to know (note from Steff): Throughout this blog, content within a white boarder, like the one above, may have been partially or solely generated by Sophi, Philosophical.Chat’s resident AI owlbot. Conversations with Sophi are also contained within a white boarder. I always curate the content, check it against my own (limited but growing) knowledge and/or other online sources for accuracy and edited it where necessary. I’m only human, so, if you find any inaccuracies, nonsenses, or silly mistakes, please let me know or comment below!

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The Philosophy of a Controversial Joke

Isadora mosch considers why we laugh at things that aren’t funny..

“Why can’t Helen Keller drive? Because she’s a woman.”

I admit that laughing out loud when I heard this joke about the famous blind and deaf writer was not my finest moment – as a woman or as a decent human being. As soon as I stopped laughing, I came to a rather disturbing conclusion: either I was sexist against my own sex, or something else was going on that I was not fully aware of. I chose to investigate the latter option before spiraling downward. As a person whose career is centered around overanalyzing the details of my underwhelming life, an analysis of this joke was bound to happen eventually.

Discovering all the nuances that make a joke funny yet cringe-worthy, perhaps even morally repulsive and offensive, or even just layered and self-critical, is an unfunny business. We run the risk of sucking the humor from a joke after exposing its true nature. But this is a risk any philosopher worth her salt simply must take. Philosophers have to find out what the wizard looks like behind the curtain. It’s who we are.

Hypnotized Into Stupidly Laughing

One reason the Helen Keller joke may (at least at first) seem funny, is because the punch line is unexpected. According to this ‘incongruity theory’, humor arises “from the intersection of two incompatible scripts or frameworks in a given text” (Dannagal G. Young, ‘The Privileged Role of the Late-Night Joke’, Media Psychology , Vol. 11). This means that in order to initially think a joke is funny rather than appalling, the brain must be engaged enough to expect one ending, but then be surprised by a different, absurd ending. But why doesn’t the offensive nature of the joke halt my laughter dead in its tracks? Because the context or tone gives a ‘discounting cue’ that tells us the message being communicated does not need to be seriously engaged. A humorous tone also encourages us to anticipate a lighthearted, funny ending, regardless of the content. In order to stay in the good mood the joke creates for us in the first place, we expect a positive pay-off, even before fully comprehending the joke. And as I am likely demonstrating, any attempt to critically process a joke threatens to decrease that initial good mood. So the motivation to critique a joke is simply missing. In a sense, I was hypnotized into stupidly laughing upon hearing the Helen Keller joke simply because of the context and tone, not to mention the unexpected (that is, unexpectedly offensive) ending. That is, I laughed not because it was offensive , but because of how incongruous and unexpected the offense was. And my laughter bewitched me into forgetting (at least for a second) to analyze why I was laughing.

Deadpan comedy is an interesting foil to this theory. Here, the tone isn’t always humorous-sounding, so there is no discounting cue – yet we still laugh. With deadpan humor, we must first analyze a statement to decipher it as funny , thereby bypassing the knee-jerk, thoughtless reaction to a funny tone and lighthearted context. In the TV show The Office , sensitive idiot Michael Scott (Steve Carell) turns seriously to the camera and says, “There are certain topics off-limits to comedians: JFK, AIDS, and the Holocaust. The Lincoln Assassination just recently became funny: ‘I need to see this play like I need a hole in the head’. And I hope to someday live in a world where a person could tell a hilarious AIDS joke. It’s one of my dreams.” Comedy, Michael is seriously theorizing, can make a tragedy funny once enough time has passed. He wishes quite seriously to soon be able to acceptably joke about AIDS, implying that he hopes AIDS will someday be a distant tragedy. The sentiment is serious, even decent, and the incongruity of the joke about Lincoln followed by the comment about AIDS encourages the audience to laugh because we are critically engaged with his words.

Joking about a topic that was previously off the table enables us to discuss a real life problem without whispering or sugar-coating it. The late Joan Rivers explained, “by making jokes about it, you brought it into a position where you could look at it and deal with it. It was no longer something that you couldn’t discuss and had to whisper about. When you whisper about something, it’s too big and you can’t get it under control and take control of it” (‘With Age, Joan Rivers Learned to Say Anything’ at npr.org). Her intention behind joking about controversial topics was to clear the path to talk about these issues more, rather than joking in a way that makes the audience merely accept the punchline without engaging with the joke’s content.

So comedy can reveal serious issues. But it can just as easily obscure them by rendering them trivial. For example, Daniel Tosh regularily requests that his viewers send him online clips for him to air on his TV show Tosh.O . After once requesting for his male viewers to film themselves touching women’s ‘rolls’ [of fat] on their stomachs, he warned, “But be careful! Because they like to pretend like they don’t love it” (at cc.com). The point of Tosh’s request seems to be to infantilize women and objectify their bodies, whilst claiming that those who do not enjoy the ramifications of this just do not get the joke. The tone and context of this joke does not invite the audience to critically engage with it. It’s analogous to slapstick comedy, only instead of featuring clumsy or self-embarrassing acts, this joke focuses on publicizing men’s physical harassment and humiliation of women (surprised, involuntary participants), and the women’s supposed ‘overreactions’ to such harassment, without inviting commentary on it. Rather, he explicitly encourages his audience to help him showcase the supposedly irrational reactions to something he deems trivial and simply amusing. In effect, by trivializing the harassment, the audience is discouraged from talking openly about the objectification and physical harassment of women. So rather than even simply acknowledging the problems of sexual and physical abuse, he is apparently encouraging an environment in which these problems can thrive.

Making Conversation

Other comedians illustrate a more responsible attitude. During one of her stand up routines Wanda Sykes says this about abortion:

“I’m pro-choice. But the thing is, when you say you’re pro-choice it’s almost like pro-lifers hear something totally different. It’s like they hear you’re pro-abortion, which is ridiculous. That’s the worst decision a woman is ever faced with. Nobody is out wanting to have an abortion. Nobody’s pro-abortion. It’s not like women are out having abortion parties or anything. ‘Girls, let’s do something crazy! You thinking what I’m thinking?’” ( Wanda Sykes: Sick and Tired DVD)

At first, Sykes seems to be doing something similar to Tosh – making light of an issue some people would refuse to talk about at all. But the difference is that rather than suppressing conversation she makes it a conversation by pointing out the absurdity of some peoples’ reactions to the issue.

Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele seem to have a similar discussion-oriented motive for their comedy routines. In one sketch, the world is taken over by zombies, and Key and Peele, both cast as black, are some of the only survivors. The zombies, all of whom are white, show no interest in eating them, and one zombie even rolls up the car window and locks the door as Key and Peele sneak by. It becomes apparent that the white zombies are racist. At first, they are outraged, but as they happen upon a group of black survivors having a fun-filled barbecue, they realize that this (importantly fictional) scenario is one in which racism actually works to their advantage (see ‘Racist Zombies’ at cc.com). Through this sketch they point out the absurdity in racism, rather than laughing at its victims’ ‘overreactions’.

Comedian Louis C.K. provokes his audience with borderline offensive slurs, but because of the context, tone, and his overall self-depreciation, the audience understands his comedy as self -loathing rather than hateful toward others: “I don’t stop eating when I’m full. The meal isn’t over when I’m full. It’s over when I hate myself” ( Louis C.K.: Chewed Up , DVD). His statements about rape, sexism, racism, and elitism, do not eclipse the issues by encouraging the audience to laugh at something without thinking about it. Instead, he encourages the audience to realize the insanity, injustice, and bigotry in various mindsets. His punchlines require those recognitions:

“The male courage, traditionally speaking, is that he has decided to ask [out a woman]… And if she says yes, that’s her courage. And the courage it takes for a woman to say yes is beyond anything I can imagine… How do women still go out with guys, when you consider the fact that there is no greater threat to women than men? We’re the number one threat to women! Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women…You know what [men’s] number one threat is? Heart disease” ( ibid ).

C.K. does not gloss over the fact that women should be afraid of men sometimes; rather, it is the focus of his joke. He is using comedy to highlight a cultural and historical inequality. As a white male, C.K. runs the risk of commenting on topics from a privileged perspective, creating a barrier between him and the marginalized. Instead, he uses his perspective as a white man to challenge other people to reflect on their own privileges and actions. This directly contrasts with how Tosh enacts his privilege by minimizing atrocities: to him sexism is funny not because it is absurd, but because women supposedly overreact to sexist behavior. This ‘hate comedy’, as I call it, comes from a perspective of superiority, where the humor comes at the expense of other people. In this way, the viewer is encouraged to identify with the position of superiority rather than with the oppressed. Other comedians, such as C.K., Key and Peele, and Sykes, encourage us to identify with the victim and recognize the inequality and injustice of the position of privilege. Rather than trivializing and minimizing the absurdity in an institution or an event, they point to it and magnify it, opening the door for discussion.

Change The World While Laughing

I would not say it’s a comedian’s responsibility to encourage people to talk about controversial issues. However, it is the comedian’s responsibility to recognize his or her enormous power in affecting peoples’ attitudes and beliefs. To use one’s platform as a comedian to maintain oppressive advantages is reckless at best and an abuse of power at worst. On the other hand, to open a dialogue about taboo topics is a laudable, even honorable use of a comedian’s power.

What about the audience? What is our responsibility? After reflecting on the power of comedy, we must ask ourselves, should we laugh at hate comedy, now that we recognize its truly oppressive form?

Now, you might be thinking, “Can’t you just leave me alone while I laugh at a joke?” You might not want to think about the political ramifications of a joke. The point of a joke, you might think, shouldn’t be to change the world. But to this I reply: what better way is there to change the world than to do it while laughing?

© Isadora Mosch 2015

Isadora Mosch attended law school for a semester before realizing that philosophy was her true love; and that true love cannot be denied. She is now a fifth year PhD student in Philosophy writing on the philosophy of grief and other emotions at the University of Georgia.

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Laughter, Humor, and Comedy in Ancient Philosophy

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Laughter, Humor, and Comedy in Ancient Philosophy

Introduction

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This introduction motivates the volume’s main themes by arguing that the seriousness with which ancient philosophers treated laughter, humor, and comedy is not, but ought to be, reflected in scholarly attention to these issues. In addition, ancient philosophers often wrote in ways that borrowed comedic devices and techniques from comic poetry and drama, and contemporary scholarship needs to be sensitive to these devices in order to understand their use by these figures. The volume is organized around three themes or set of questions. The first part of the book contains four chapters on the psychology of laughter . The second part contains three chapters on the ethical and social norms governing laughter and humor. The third part contains six chapters on the philosophical uses of humor and comedic technique .

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Laughter, Humor, and Comedy in Ancient Philosophy

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Pierre Destrée and Franco V. Trivigno (eds.), Laughter, Humor, and Comedy in Ancient Philosophy , Oxford University Press, 2019, 286pp., $85.00 (hbk), ISBN 9780190460549.

Reviewed by David Konstan, New York University

THIS IS NDPR'S LAST REVIEW FOR 2019.

WE WILL RESUME PUBLICATION ON JANUARY 12, 2020.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS AND A MERRY NEW YEAR TO ALL OUR READERS!

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Laughter and humor take various forms. The warm, inclusive mirth shared by family and friends is palpably different from mockery or a smirk at an enemy's discomfiture. Then there is the sympathetic, almost existential pleasure aroused by jokes at one's own expense, which provide relief from the poses that society demands. The ancient Greek and Roman philosophers were alert to these distinctions, and also to the ways in which the most innocuous kind of wit might conceal a certain malice. Of course, there are other ways to explain comedy. Some theories emphasize incongruity, others surprise, others still the violation of social codes or attention to the nether functions of the body. These aspects are noted in passing by the classical thinkers, but, as the contributors to this fine volume make clear, it was not their primary focus.

The introduction by the editors, Pierre Destrée and Franco V. Trivigno, explains the organization of the book in three sections, on the psychology of laughter, the norms that govern humor, and the way philosophers make use of humor in their works. In fact, there is no sharp division among the chapters, and, as is to be expected, a good deal of overlap. As the editors note (8), the primary type of humor turns out to be abrasive or polemical, and Plato's treatment of humor in relation to phthonos ("envy," "malice") is a theme that runs throughout. It is also the focus of the opening chapter, by Trivigno, who observes that "Plato's explicit theorizing about laughter and comedy is . . . focused on particular sorts of laughter that are presented as morally harmful" (13). Laughter poses a double danger: it threatens to become uncontrollable and overwhelms one's judgement, appealing as it does to the lower part of the soul. Furthermore, the pleasure it provides is mixed, as Plato argues in the Philebus , since the envious feel pain at the success of others even as they delight in the anticipation of their failure. In the Laws , however, Plato contemplates dividing "comedy into two kinds, according to whether it is playful [ paizein ] or not" (935D), the latter being free of animosity. When Socrates makes fun of his interlocutors, Trivigno suggests, his humor is not hostile but aims at their moral improvement. Whether this counts as playful is perhaps questionable.

Destrée notes that many of Aristotle's examples of jokes involve incongruity or surprise, and yet "one can hardly miss a certain mark of hostility, or animosity" (36). Even though, in the Poetics , Aristotle insists that what is laughable should not convey pain (1449a32-37), there is nevertheless an element of aggression in satirizing what is ugly or deformed. Destrée denies, however, that there is any specific emotion associated with humor. There is also a non-aggressive kind of humor, which Aristotle calls eutrapelia (NE 4.8; cf. Rhetoric 1389a-b). As Destrée remarks, "there is no reason to believe that comedians should aim at exercising eutrapelia . . . This is a virtue that should be cultivated in social gatherings, especially between friends" (48). We see again the division between antagonistic and benign humor that runs through ancient reflections on the topic.

R. J. Hankinson examines the medical tradition concerning laughter "as a diagnostic tool" (52), with special reference to Democritus' alleged tendency to find absolutely everything funny. The basic text here is the fictional correspondence between Hippocrates and the Abderites, who are worried about the possible dementia of their most notable citizen. Was Democritus suffering from melancholia , or was he rather the wisest of all, irrepressibly amused by the comedy of human life, even at its most tragic? The Hippocrates of the epistolary novel opts for the latter explanation, which Hankinson finds unsatisfactory, given Democritus' unstable behavior; one wonders, though, why the author concluded on this note. Hankinson observes that a common measure today of when a symptom such as laughter ought to be regarded as pathological is if it "seriously affects the patient's ability to lead a normal life" (76), and on this basis he entertains a doubt as to whether "Democritus" can be diagnosed as suffering a disease of the soul on this account.

Plato worried about laughter but his dialogues offer many instances of it. Plotinus, as Malcolm Heath shows, was far more sober, and "Porphyry preferred laughter that did not go beyond a smile. It may therefore be significant," Heath adds, that "there is one Plotinian smile" (81). Why so reticent? Heath suggests that Plotinus' habitual mildness was incompatible with aggressive humor. Even where he seems to be attacking Longinus (a contemporary critic whom Heath has elsewhere argued is in fact the author of On the Sublime ) by calling him a philologos rather than a philosophos , he is indulging in wordplay rather than nasty polemics. In Plato, by contrast, "laughter is plentiful, and often aggressive" (86), although in his more intimate dialogues, "good-humored laughter is common" (87). The account of laughter in the Philebus , Heath observes, cannot explain all the instances of humor in Plato's own writings. Over time, the negative view of laughter hardened. Aristotle had observed that among animals, only human beings laugh. For Iamblichus, this was precisely a sign of our mortal nature, whereas we ought to aspire to the divine. What, then, are we to make of the "unquenchable laughter" of the Homeric gods? Answer: it "signifies divine providence towards the phenomenal world" (96, citing Proclus, Commentary on Plato's Republic 127.9-11). It is not so much a guffaw as a sign of play.

Part II opens with Matthew D. Walker's chapter on Aristotle's notion of wittiness. Walker asks, reasonably enough, why wit should be treated as a virtue rather than simply a social skill. His answer is that "wittiness concerns a specific kind of non-rational desire, namely, epithumia for the pleasures of laughter" (107). A proper degree of wit, neither excessive nor deficient, is thus comparable to the virtue of self-control ( enkrateia ) or temperance ( s ōphrosun ē ) in relation to appetites for food, drink, and the like. Aristotle's view differs from the superiority theory of laughter; rather, the buffoon is disposed to find humor especially in bodily functions. The witty person is "capable of granting the appetite for laughter its appropriate -- necessary -- place in human life" (117). As a virtue, however, amusement should be serious, an apparent contradictio in adiecto ; but in fact, the exercise of this virtue is serious, save that, as a form of recreation, it does not involve the exercise of the full range of virtues. There is much to be said for Walker's interpretation, if we can grant that the desire for the pleasure of laughter is indeed comparable to that for food, drink, and sex.

Charles Guérin, in an elegant contribution, notes the two sides of humor that Cicero distinguishes, the one aggressive, and primarily public, as in his speeches, the other kindly, and deployed in private occasions and among friends. Yet both "friendly jokes and aggressive witticisms belong to a continuum" (123). One must take account especially of the purpose of humor: whether it is for enhancing human relations, enforcing communal norms, or promoting the ethical integrity of the individual. Cicero's letters, marked by a conversational tone ( sermo ), advance the first of these objectives. Cicero's speeches, on the contrary, deploy wit as a means of crushing an opponent. At the same time, however, they are a means of affirming ostensibly communal values and excluding those who are the object of criticism. But Cicero is also concerned, as Aristotle was, with decorum and the behavior proper to a free person ( liberalis ). In all its aspects, Guérin concludes, Cicero "always views laughter as a tool used to enhance the cohesion and strength of the community" (141).

Michael Trapp examines the role of humor in Dio Chrysostom and Plutarch, neither of whom, as he puts it, is usually thought of as "a barrel of laughs." In Dio too, laughter occurs "in two carefully differentiated forms" (147). There is the laughter of "natural ease and reciprocal affection," as in the hunter's home in the Euboean Oration ( Or . 7), but also the "superior, derisive laugh" of a prosecutor ridiculing his victim (150-51). So too in Plutarch, jests are "welcome in the right places" (155), and Plutarch disapproves of a wife who is reluctant to join in the merriment of her husband for fear of appearing wanton ( Praecepta Coniugalia 142A), even as he recognizes that "derisive laughter has its place in public life" (156). But uncontrolled laughter, as in Plato and Cicero, also poses a threat to both individual and collective well-being, and seemliness in laughter is a mark of ethical and social distinction.

Paul B. Woodruff's more speculative chapter on Socratic self-ridicule, which opens Part III, begins with the startling declaration, "Ridicule is the handmaid of reverence" (165). Woodruff explains that the modern world has no conception of reverence as the ancient Greeks understood it. Ridicule is necessary to cut us humans down to size, limiting the presumption that is an offence against the gods. If the elenchus that Socrates practices puts others to shame, his "genius is that he knows how to see himself as ridiculous" (167). The Hippias Major (a text that many doubt is by Plato) makes it clear that "Our human quest to live well is ridiculous: we have ambitions that we cannot satisfy" (176). Here too, then, there are two kinds of laughter, which (I suggest) are aligned, in a way, with public shaming and private amusement, though the private is here narrowed to self-mockery.

Mary Margaret McCabe, again looking at humor and ridicule in Plato, observes that "the experience of comedy" takes the form of "a pair of attitudes in tension with each other: enjoyment of the situation of the ridiculous object; and the pain or evil of indulging the malice" (187). I am not wholly persuaded that the pain of phthonos involves an ethical stance; it may be that envy (as we may render the Greek word) is unpleasant simply because we feel that others possess what we would like to have (and that they should not). In a series of subtle readings, McCabe shows how the narrative frame in the Protagoras , Charmides , and Euthydemus reflects a kind of physical slapstick reminiscent (not accidentally) of Old Comedy. It is just the mixture of pain and pleasure in the comic -- the inability to keep the two modes distinct -- that induces in the reader an unease, and "in the best of cases that discomfort prompts reassessment and reflection" (206).

Richard Bett examines the subversive quality of humor, above all in the skeptics. Bett begins by distinguishing two kinds of humor in Aristotle: wordplay and a critical sort that consists in making fun of others (the two may coincide, of course). Naturally, such a method will have commended itself to the skeptics, who found the entire enterprise of the dogmatic thinkers absurd, or reducible to absurdity. Bett examines the salvos of Timon of Phlius, the wit deployed by the skeptical Academy, and Sextus Empiricus' wry exposure of the dogmatists' contradictions. Thus, he shows that a "dog is fully the equal of humanity," which he marks as a kind of joke (his word is katapaizein , Outlines of Pyrrhonism 62) directed at the "demented and self-important dogmatists" (220). But systematic philosophers, even sober Stoics, make use of farce to expose their opponents, including those who think that to be a philosopher one need only mouth what one has read in books (Epictetus, Discourses 2.19).

In fact, Epicureans and Stoics alike deployed humor, as the following two chapters, by Geert Roskam and Margaret Graver, respectively, make clear. Epicurus affirmed that "One must philosophize and at the same time laugh" ( Vatican Saying 41, cited p. 228), a sentiment that suits a philosophy that prizes pleasure. Yet when laughter is mentioned, it is, as Roskam notes, almost always polemical in nature, and Epicurus enjoyed coining derisive nicknames for his opponents. Mockery is often more effective than painstaking argumentation, and opponents took the Epicureans to task for evading serious discussion. Roskam cites an intriguing essay on humor ("Die Ironie der Dinge") by the Austrian poet and playwright, Hugo von Hofsmannsthal, who affirms that comedy is best written after a great war, when things seem to have lost their everyday value. Roskam suggests that the laughter of Democritus and Epicurus may have been of this sort: not malicious pleasure taken in another's misfortune but an expression of the independence and self-sufficiency of the wise. Still, the Epicureans did not indulge in Socratic self-irony; rather, they "took themselves very seriously" (238), and there is very little trace -- hardly any, in fact -- of the purely joyous laughter we might have expected of them. At best, rather later in the tradition, their contentment "becomes evident in a quiet, mild smile" (243).

Seneca was no stranger to the corrosive wit of Horatian satire -- his humor can be caustic enough, as Graver puts it, "to make the modern reader squirm" (247). But it is also the case that in his writings "humor functions as a disciplinary mechanism for the preservation of generic decorum" (246-47). Because Seneca may also direct his wit against himself, however, "The policing function of invective humor then turns into self-policing" (250). Seneca certainly marks out Stoic territory against its opponents, though he'll happily steal a phrase from them when it suits his purpose. But his self-deprecatory style also serves to define the limits of his own discourse, and in so doing, I suggest, creates a space for a more genial relation to his readers, like the friendly space that Cicero identified with sermo .

The final chapter, by Inger N. I. Kuin, examines Lucian's philosophy of laughter. Lucian subscribed to no school, and so was free, like the skeptics, to lampoon them all -- including skepticism. Nor does he limit himself to a single kind of humor; he is first and foremost a humorist, after all. Nevertheless, Kuin notes, two types stand out. That of Demonax (known almost exclusively through Lucian's essay that bears his name) is "inclusive, discursive, and self-reflective," whereas that of Diogenes, as Lucian represents him, is "exclusive, premeditated, and self-immune" (266): he can mock but cannot be mocked. Even in afterlife, the disembodied Cynics laugh at the foibles of others, though how an incorporeal entity can laugh at all is Lucian's way, as Kuin notes, of putting their stance, too, under suspicion. Demonax does not concern himself with his appearance, unlike the counter-cultural posturing of Diogenes and his crowd, who were, despite their clever ripostes, a fairly solemn bunch. It is Demonax's easy-going, tolerant style that most closely corresponds to Lucian's own sensibility.

All in all, this is a valuable collection on an important and largely neglected topic. It avoids needless invective and polemic, and it is inclusive in the variety of approaches that are discussed. Modern theories come in for mention, but the primary focus is on the ancient texts and the complex engagement with wit, both cutting and convivial, that they exhibit.

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Donald Trump and Megan Mullally performing the Green Acres theme song at the Emmy Awards, Los Angeles, September 2005

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In the Warsaw Ghetto in October 1941 Mary Berg, then a teenager, wrote in her diary about the improbable persistence of laughter in that hellish place:

Every day at the Art Café on Leszno Street one can hear songs and satires on the police, the ambulance service, the rickshaws, and even the Gestapo, in a veiled fashion. The typhus epidemic itself is the subject of jokes. It is laughter through tears, but it is laughter. This is our only weapon in the ghetto—our people laugh at death and at the Nazi decrees. Humor is the only thing the Nazis cannot understand.

Berg here movingly expresses a common and comforting idea. Laughter is one of the few weapons that the weak have against the strong. Gallows humor is the one thing that cannot be taken away from those who are about to be hanged, the final death-defying assertion of human dignity and freedom. And the hangmen don’t get the jokes. Fascists don’t understand humor.

There is great consolation in these thoughts. Yet is it really true that fascists don’t get humor? Racist, misogynistic, antisemitic, xenophobic, antidisabled, and antiqueer jokes have always been used to dehumanize those who are being victimized. The ghetto humor that Berg recorded was a way of keeping self-pity at bay. But as Sigmund Freud pointed out, jokes can also be a way of shutting down pity itself by identifying those who are being laughed at as the ones not worthy of it: “A saving in pity is one of the most frequent sources of humorous pleasure.” Humor, as in Berg’s description, may be a way of telling us not to feel sorry for ourselves. But it is more often a way of telling us not to feel sorry for others. It creates an economy of compassion, limiting it to those who are laughing and excluding those who are being laughed at. It makes the polarization of humanity fun.

Around the time that Berg was writing her diary, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer were pointing to the relationship between Nazi rallies and this kind of comedy. The rally, they suggested, was an arena in which a release that was otherwise forbidden was officially permitted:

The anti-Semites gather to celebrate the moment when authority lifts the ban; that moment alone makes them a collective, constituting the community of kindred spirits. Their ranting is organized laughter. The more dreadful the accusations and threats, the greater the fury, the more withering is the scorn. Rage, mockery, and poisoned imitation are fundamentally the same thing.

Donald Trump is not a Nazi, and his followers are (mostly) not fascists. But it is not hard to see how this description resonates with his campaign appearances. Trump is America’s biggest comedian. His badinage is hardly Wildean, but his put-downs, honed to the sharpness of stilettos, are many people’s idea of fun. For them, he makes anger, fear, and resentment entertaining.

For anyone who questions how much talent and charisma this requires, there is a simple answer: Ron DeSantis. Why did DeSantis’s attempt to appeal to Republican voters as a straitlaced version of Trump fall so flat? Because Trumpism without the cruel laughter is nothing. It needs its creator’s fusion of rage, mockery, and poisoned imitation, whether of a reporter with a disability or (in a dumb show that Trump has been playing out in his speeches in recent months) of Joe Biden apparently unable to find his way off a stage. It demands the withering scorn for Sleepy Joe and Crooked Hillary, Crazy Liz and Ron DeSanctimonious, Cryin’ Chuck and Phoney Fani. It requires the lifting of taboos to create a community of kindred spirits. It depends on Trump’s ability to be pitiless in his ridicule of the targets of his contempt while allowing his audience to feel deeply sorry for itself. (If tragedy, as Aristotle claimed, involves terror and pity, Trump’s tragicomedy deals in terror and self-pity.)

Hard as it is to understand, especially for those of us who are too terrified to be amused, Trump’s ranting is organized laughter. To understand his continuing hold over his fans, we have to ask: Why is he funny?

This is not the 1930s or the 1940s, and we should not expect this toxic laughter to be organized quite as it was then. Trump functions in a culture supersaturated with knowingness and irony. In twentieth-century European fascism, the relationship between words and actions was clear: the end point of mockery was annihilation. Now, the joke is “only a joke.” Populist politics exploits the doubleness of comedy—the way that “only a joke” can so easily become “no joke”—to create a relationship of active connivance between the leader and his followers in which everything is permissible because nothing is serious.

This shift has happened in Europe, too. Think of Boris Johnson’s clown act, his deliberately ruffled hair, rumpled clothes, and ludicrous language. Or think of Giorgia Meloni, the first Italian prime minister from the far right since Benito Mussolini, posting on election day in September 2022 a TikTok video of herself holding two large melons ( meloni in Italian) in front of her breasts: fascism as adolescent snigger. It is impossible to think of previous far-right leaders engaging in such public self-mockery. Only in our time is it possible for a politician to create a sense of cultlike authority by using the collusiveness of comedy, the idea that the leader and his followers are united by being in on the joke.

Trump may be a narcissist, but he has a long history of this kind of self-caricature. When he did the Top Ten List on the David Letterman show in 2009, he seemed entirely comfortable delivering with a knowing smirk the top ten “financial tips” written for him, including “When nobody’s watching I go into a 7/11 and stick my head under a soda nozzle”; “Save money by styling your own hair” (pointing to his own improbable coiffure); “Sell North Dakota to the Chinese”; “If all else fails, steal someone’s identity”; and “The fastest way to get rich: marry and divorce me.” This performance, moreover, was the occasion for Trump’s entry into the world of social media. His first ever tweet was: “Be sure to tune in and watch Donald Trump on Late Night with David Letterman as he presents the Top Ten List tonight!”

At the 2005 Emmy Awards, Trump dressed in blue overalls and a straw hat and, brandishing a pitchfork, sang the theme song from the 1960s TV comedy Green Acres . Trump is a terrible singer and a worse actor, but he seemed completely unembarrassed on stage. He understood the joke: that Oliver, the fictional character he was impersonating, is a wealthy Manhattanite who moves to rustic Hooterville to run a farm, following his dream of the simple life—an alternative self that was amusing because it was, for Trump, unimaginable. But he may have sensed that there was also a deep cultural resonance. The Apprentice was “reality TV ,” a form in which the actual and the fictional are completely fused.

Green Acres , scenes from which played on a screen behind Trump as he was singing, pioneered this kind of metatelevision. Its debut episode set it up as a supposed documentary presented by a well-known former newscaster. Its characters regularly broke the fourth wall. When Oliver launched into rhapsodic speeches about American rural values, a fife rendition of “Yankee Doodle” would play on the soundtrack, and the other characters would move around in puzzlement trying to figure out where the musician was. Eva Gabor, playing Oliver’s pampered wife, admits on the show that her only real talent is doing impressions of Zsa Zsa Gabor, the actor’s more famous real-life sister.

The critic Armond White wrote in 1985 that “ Green Acres ’ surreal rationale is to capture the moment American gothic turns American comic.” Trump playing Oliver in 2005 may be the moment American comedy turned gothic again. Whoever had the idea of connecting Trump back to Green Acres clearly understood that “Donald Trump” had by then also become a metatelevision character, a real-life failed businessman who impersonated an ultrasuccessful mogul on The Apprentice . And Trump went along with the conceit because he instinctively understood that self-parody was not a threat to his image—it was his image. This connection to Green Acres was reestablished by Trump himself as president of the United States. In December 2018, as he was about to sign the Farm Bill into law, Trump tweeted, “Farm Bill signing in 15 minutes! #Emmys #TBT,” with a clip of himself in the Green Acres spoof. Hooterville and the White House were as one.

What is new in the development of antidemocratic politics is that Trump brings all this comic doubleness—the confusion of the real and the performative, of character and caricature—to bear on the authoritarian persona of the caudillo, the duce, the strongman savior. The prototype dictators of the far right may have looked absurd to their critics (“Hitler,” wrote Adorno and Horkheimer, “can gesticulate like a clown, Mussolini risk false notes like a provincial tenor”), but within the community of their followers and the shadow community of their intended victims, their histrionics had to be taken entirely seriously. Trump, on the other hand, retains all his self-aware absurdity even while creating a political persona of immense consequence.

This comic-authoritarian politics has some advantages over the older dictatorial style. It allows a threat to democracy to appear as at worst a tasteless prank: in the 2016 presidential campaign even liberal outlets like The New York Times took Hillary Clinton’s e-mails far more seriously than Trump’s open stirring of hatred against Mexicans and Muslims. Funny-autocratic functions better in a society like that of the US, where the boundaries of acceptable insult are still shifting and mainstream hate-mongering still has to be light on its feet. It allows racial insults and brazen lies to be issued, as it were, in inverted commas. If you don’t see those invisible quotation marks, you are not smart enough—or you are too deeply infected by the woke mind virus—to be in on the joke. You are not part of the laughing community. The importance of not being earnest is that it defines the boundaries of the tribe. The earnest are the enemy.

The extreme right in America was very quick to understand the potency of “only a joke” in the Internet age. In a 2001 study of three hate speech websites sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan, Michael Billig noted that each of them described itself on its home page as a humorous exercise. The largest, called “N…..jokes KKK ” (the ellipsis is mine) carried the disclaimers: “You agree by entering this site, that this type of joke is legal where you live, and you agree that you recognize this site is meant as a joke not to be taken seriously”; “And you agree that this site is a comedy site, not a real racist site”; “We ARE NOT real life racists.”

What does “real life” even mean when Klansmen are not really racist? The power of this “humorous” mode of discourse lies at least partly in the way it blurs the distinctions between the real and the symbolic, and between words and actions. Consider the example of some of the men tried for their alleged parts in a 2020 plot to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor of Michigan. One of them, Barry Croft, insisted at his trial in 2022 that he was joking most of the time when he posted on Facebook questions like “Which governor is going to end up being dragged off and hung for treason first?” Another, Brandon Caserta, was acquitted in 2022 in part because he successfully pleaded that violent statements he made on Facebook and in secretly recorded meetings of the group were not serious. These included claims that the Second Amendment sanctions the killing of “agents of the government when they become tyrannical.” “I may kill dozens of agents but eventually die in the process,” Caserta wrote on Facebook in May 2020. He later posted that he would beat government agents so hard they would “beg til they couldn’t beg any more because their mouth is so full of blood.”

At Croft’s trial, his defense attorney put it to an FBI witness that a meme Croft posted showing thirty bullets as “30 votes that count” was “A little tongue-in-cheek? A little bit funny?” On the second season of Jon Ronson’s superb podcast series for the BBC , Things Fell Apart , Caserta acknowledges that, on the secret recordings, he is heard to urge his fellow militia members that any lawyers advocating for the Covid vaccine be decapitated in their own homes, speaks of “wanting Zionist banker blood,” and advocates blowing up buildings where the vaccine is manufactured. He nonetheless insists to Ronson:

This isn’t something I’m dead serious about. This is nothing I ever planned. It’s funny, dude! It’s funny! It’s fun to blow stuff up. It’s fun to shoot guns. It’s fun to say ridiculous offensive shit. And if it offends you, so what? I don’t care about your feelings and how you feel about words. Sorry!

The twist of logic here is striking: Caserta equates blowing stuff up and shooting people with saying ridiculous offensive shit. Violent words and violent actions are all covered by the same disclaimer—one that Trump’s apologists use to blur the relationship between his words and his followers’ actions in the assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. In the Trumpian twilight zone where democracy is dying but not yet dead, the connection between words (“fight like hell”) and deeds (the armed invasion of the Capitol) must be both strong and weak, sufficiently “no joke” to be understood by the faithful yet sufficiently “only a joke” to be deniable to the infidels. The comic mode is what creates the plausible deniability that in turn allows what used to be mainstream Republicans (and some Democrats) to remain in denial about what Trumpism really means.

For those who love Trump, there is something carnivalesque in all of this. In his discussion of “mediaeval laughter” in Rabelais and His World , Mikhail Bakhtin wrote that “one might say that it builds its own world versus the official world, its own church versus the official church, its own state versus the official state.” Bakhtin suggested that the

festive liberation of laughter…was a temporary suspension of the entire official system with all its prohibitions and hierarchic barriers. For a short time life came out of its usual, legalized and consecrated furrows and entered the sphere of utopian freedom.

Trump and many of his followers have made this quite literal. They create their own America, their own republic, their own notions of legality, their own church of the leader’s cult, their own state versus what they see as the official state. In this way, extreme polarization becomes a sphere of utopian freedom.

This is the capacious zone in which Trump’s comedy operates, an arena that admits everyone who gets the joke, from those who fantasize about killing tyrants, decapitating lawyers, and torturing government agents to those who just like to blow off steam by listening to their hero saying stuff that riles the woke enemy. It is crucial that in Trump’s delivery there is no shift from mockery to seriousness, no line between entertainment and violence. His singsong tone is generous and flexible, serving equally well for vaudeville and vituperation. In his streams of consciousness, they flow together as complementary currents.

In the recent speeches in which he has upped the ante on openly fascist rhetoric by characterizing his opponents as “vermin” and accusing immigrants of “poisoning the blood of our country,” it is notable that his cadence is soft, almost lilting. There is no warning to his audience that these comments are of a different order. They are not even applause lines. By underplaying them, Trump leaves open the fundamental question: Is his mimicking of Hitler’s imagery just another impersonation, all of a piece with the way he does Biden and Haley in funny voices or even with the way he sings the theme song from Green Acres ?

Even when Trump actually goes the whole way and acknowledges that his rhetoric is indeed Hitlerian, as he did in a speech in Iowa after the alarmed reaction of liberals to his previous “poisoning the blood” speech, it is in a passage that jumbles together murderous intent, complaint about the media, and comic acting: “They are destroying the blood of our country. That’s what they’re doing…. They don’t like it when I said that. And I never read Mein Kampf .” But he makes the “Kampf” funny, puckering his lips and elongating the “pf” so it sounds like a rude noise. He continues: “They said ‘Oh, Hitler said that.’” Then he adds his defense: “in a much different way.” It is the stand-up comedian’s credo: it’s not the jokes, it’s the way you tell ’em. And this is, indeed, true—the difference is in the way he tells it, in a voice whose ambiguous pitch has been perfected over many years of performance.

The knowingness is all. In the speech in Conway, South Carolina, on February 10, in which he openly encouraged Russia to attack “delinquent” members of NATO , this startling statement, with potential world-historical consequences, was preceded by Trump’s metatheatrical riff on the idea of “fun.” What was fun, he told his followers, was the reaction he could provoke just by saying “Barack Hussein Obama”:

Every time I say it, anytime I want to have a little fun…even though the country is going to hell, we have to have a little bit of fun…. Remember Rush Limbaugh, he’d go “Barack Hooosaynn Obama”—I wonder what he was getting at.

He then segued into another commentary on his own well-honed send-up of Joe Biden: “I do the imitation where Biden can’t find his way off the stage…. So I do the imitation—is this fun?—I say this guy can’t put two sentences together…and then I go ‘Watch!’” (He said the word with a comic pout.) “I’ll imitate him. I go like this: ‘Haw!’” Trump hunches his shoulders and extends his arm, in a parody of Biden’s gestures. In this burlesque, Trump is not just mimicking his opponent; he is explicitly reenacting his own previous mocking impersonation, complete with commentary. He is simultaneously speaking, acting, and speaking about his acting.

It is within this “fun” frame that Trump proceeded to insinuate that there is something awry with Nikki Haley’s marriage: “Where’s her husband? Oh he’s away…. What happened to her husband? What happened to her husband! Where is he? He’s gone. He knew, he knew.” He and presumably many members of the audience were aware that Michael Haley is currently serving in Djibouti with the South Carolina National Guard. But as part of the show, with the funny voices and the exaggerated gestures, that lurid hint at some mysteriously unmentionable scandal (“He knew, he knew”) is somehow amusing. And then so is Trump’s story about telling an unnamed head of a “big” NATO country that the US would not defend it from invasion and—the punch line—that he would “encourage” Russia “to do whatever the hell they want.” Here Trump is acting in both senses, both ostentatiously performing and exerting a real influence on global politics—but which is which? How can we tell the dancer from the dance?

This shuffling in a typical Trump speech of different levels of seriousness—personal grudges beside grave geopolitics, savage venom mixed with knockabout farce, possible truths rubbing up against outrageous lies—creates a force field of incongruities. Between the looming solidity of Trump’s body and the airy, distracted quality of his words, in which weightless notions fly off before they are fully expressed, he seems at once immovable and in manic flux.

Incongruity has long been seen as one of the conditions of comedy. Francis Hutcheson in Reflections Upon Laughter (1725) noted that it is “this contrast or opposition of ideas of dignity and meanness which is the occasion of laughter.” The supposedly dignified idea of “greatness” is vital to Trump’s presence and rhetoric. But it is inextricably intertwined with the mean, the inconsequential, even the infantile. He is at one moment the grandiose man of destiny and the next a naughty child—an incongruity that can be contained only within an organized laughter in which the juxtaposition of incompatibilities is the essence of fun. This is why Trump’s lapses into pure gibberish—like telling a National Rifle Association gathering in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on February 9 that the Democrats are planning to “change the name of Pennsylvania” and that, in relation to the marble columns in the hall, it was “incredible how they could [have been built] years ago without the powerful tractors that you have today”—do not make his fans alarmed about his mental acuity. Cognitive dysfunction is not a worry with a man whose métier is cognitive dissonance.

Part of the dissonance is that Trump’s stand-up routine is completely dependent on the idea that he and his audience most despise: political correctness. Like much of the worst of contemporary comedy, Trump both amuses and thrills his audience by telling them that he is saying what he is not allowed to say. “Beautiful women,” he said at the rally in South Carolina after pointing to a group of female superfans in the audience. “You’re not allowed to say that anymore, but I’ll say it…. That usually is the end of a career, but I’ll say it.” There are so many layers to a moment like this: the idea that the woke mob is stopping manly men from complimenting attractive women, a sideways nod toward the “pussygate” tapes that should have ended Trump’s political career but didn’t, a dig at the Me Too movement, a reiteration of Trump’s right to categorize women as “my type” or “not my type,” the power of the leader to lift prohibitions—not just for himself but, in this carnivalesque arena of utopian freedom, for everyone in the audience.

Flirting with the unsayable has long been part of his shtick. If we go all the way back to May 1992 to watch Trump on Letterman’s show, there is a moment when Trump silently mouths the word “shit.” He does this in a way that must have been practiced rather than spontaneous—it takes some skill to form an unspoken word so clearly for a TV audience that everyone immediately understands it. Letterman plays his straight man: “You ain’t that rich, Don, you can’t come on here and say that.” But of course Trump did not “say” it. A sympathetic audience loves a moment like this because it is invited to do the transgressive part in its head. It gets the pleasure of filling in the blank.

Trump’s audiences, in other words, are not passive. This comedy is a joint enterprise of performer and listener. It gives those listeners the opportunity for consent and collusion. Consider a televised speech Trump gave at the Al Smith Dinner, hosted by the Catholic archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, in October 2016, near the end of the presidential campaign. The dinner, held to raise money for Catholic charities, is traditionally the last occasion on which the two main presidential candidates share a stage—Hillary Clinton was also present. Trump deadpanned that he knew he would have a receptive audience because “so many of you in the archdiocese already have a place in your heart for a guy who started out as a carpenter working for his father. I was a carpenter working for my father. True.”

What is the joke here? That Trump is like Jesus Christ. Imagine if Clinton had attempted an equivalent gag. There would have been outrage and uproar: Clinton has insulted all Christians by making a blasphemous comparison between herself and the divine Savior. But the cameras cut to Dolan, a sycophantic supporter of Trump, and showed him laughing heartily. And if the cardinal found it funny, it was funny. It was thus an in-joke. If Clinton had made it, it would be the ultimate out-joke, proof of the Democrats’ contempt for people of faith.

But what is allowed as funny will sooner or later be proposed seriously. Many of those attending Trump rallies now wear T-shirts that proclaim “Jesus Is My Savior. Trump Is My President.” Some of them illustrate the slogan with a picture of an ethereal Christ laying both his hands on Trump’s shoulders. What begins as a risqué quip ends up as a religious icon. There is no line here between sacrilege and devotion, transgressive humor and religious veneration.

Just as Trump’s jokes can become literal, his ugly realities can be bathed in the soothing balm of laughter. Long before he ran for president, he was indulged on the late-night talk shows as the hilarious huckster. In 1987 Letterman tried repeatedly to get Trump to tell him how much money he had, and when he continually evaded the question, Letterman broke the tension with the laugh-line, “You act like you’re running for something.” In December 2005 Conan O’Brien asked him, “You also have an online school? Is that correct?” Trump replied, “Trump University—if you want to learn how to get rich.” The audience howled with laughter, presumably not because they thought he was kidding but because the very words “Trump University” are innately absurd. When he did that Top Ten List on Letterman in 2009, Trump’s comic financial advice included “For tip number four, simply send me $29.95.”

But these jokes came true. Trump wouldn’t say how much he was worth because his net worth was partly fictional. Trump did run for something. Trump University was an innately funny idea that people took seriously enough to enable Trump to rip them off. And Trump does want you to send him $29.95—the first thing you get on Trump’s official website is an insistent demand: “Donate Today.” This is the thing about Trump’s form of organized laughter, in which the idea of humor obscures the distinction between outlandish words and real-life actions. Sooner or later, the first becomes the second. The in-joke becomes the killer line.

March 21, 2024

Who Should Regulate Online Speech?

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A previous version of this article misstated the date of David Letterman’s 1987 interview with Donald Trump.

Fintan O’Toole is the Advising Editor at The New York Review and a columnist for The Irish Times. His most recent book, We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland , was published in the US in 2022. (May 2024)

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Plato’s Life and his Enduring Philosophical Legacy

This essay is about Plato, one of history’s most influential philosophers, who lived from around 427 to 347 BCE in ancient Greece. It describes his early life and how meeting Socrates shaped his dedication to philosophy. Witnessing the execution of Socrates left Plato disillusioned with Athenian democracy, pushing him to explore better governance through philosophy. After traveling and studying various intellectual traditions, he founded the Academy in Athens. Plato’s dialogues, notably “The Republic,” outline his vision of a just state ruled by philosopher-kings and illustrate his theory of forms. Despite criticism of some of his ideas, his work laid the foundation for Western metaphysics, political theory, and education, shaping how we think about justice, the soul, and knowledge.

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Plato, born around 427 BCE and dying in 347 BCE, was one of the most influential philosophers in Western history. His life unfolded in ancient Greece during a crucial period marked by political upheaval, conflict, and shifting cultural landscapes. Born into a wealthy, aristocratic family in Athens, Plato was poised to follow the traditional path of politics and public service. However, his encounter with Socrates, the legendary philosopher who roamed the streets questioning the wisdom of Athenian citizens, set him on an entirely different course.

Socrates left an indelible mark on Plato, captivating him with his method of inquiry and dedication to uncovering truths about virtue, knowledge, and the ideal way to live. Plato became a close follower of Socrates, learning firsthand the art of relentless questioning that would later define his own philosophical style. The trial and subsequent execution of Socrates in 399 BCE was a devastating blow to Plato, who saw it as a tragic miscarriage of justice and a reflection of Athens’ deep political flaws. Disillusioned with Athenian democracy and its vulnerability to mob rule, he sought answers in philosophy, determined to explore better forms of governance.

In the years following Socrates’ death, Plato traveled extensively across the Mediterranean, studying in places like Egypt and southern Italy. Here, he likely encountered Pythagorean thought and other intellectual traditions that broadened his understanding of philosophy and mathematics. Upon returning to Athens around 387 BCE, Plato founded the Academy, a pioneering institution that aimed to cultivate deep thinking and rigorous intellectual training. It would become one of the earliest centers of higher learning in Western civilization, attracting brilliant minds like Aristotle, who would go on to become a towering philosopher in his own right.

Plato’s writings, which are primarily in the form of dialogues, feature Socrates as a central character. These dialogues are more than literary devices; they’re intricately woven arguments that explore profound questions about existence, knowledge, politics, and ethics. Perhaps the best-known of these works is “The Republic,” which tackles the concept of justice and presents Plato’s vision of an ideal state. This state would be governed by philosopher-kings, rulers trained in philosophy who possess a deep understanding of the forms—the highest realities beyond our material world. In this ideal state, each citizen would play a role suited to their nature, working harmoniously toward the common good.

In “The Republic,” Plato also introduces the “Allegory of the Cave,” a vivid metaphor illustrating his theory of forms. It depicts prisoners chained in a cave, only able to see shadows cast on the wall by objects behind them. For Plato, this image represents the condition of humans who perceive only the fleeting and imperfect reflections of the true reality, the forms. The philosopher, having ascended to the world outside the cave, must return to free others from their illusions and guide them toward the light of truth.

Other notable works include “Phaedo,” which examines the nature and immortality of the soul, and “Symposium,” which explores the meaning of love through a series of speeches at a banquet. In “Phaedo,” Plato discusses the philosopher’s pursuit of wisdom as a preparation for death, arguing that the soul is immortal and that our earthly life is merely a temporary condition. “Symposium” provides a fascinating insight into the different perspectives on love, with each speaker presenting their understanding of Eros, the god of love and desire.

Plato’s philosophy is not confined to abstract metaphysics or political idealism; it is also deeply practical. His distrust of democracy was shaped by the tragic events surrounding Socrates’ execution and the political instability of Athens. Plato understood how easily the masses could be swayed by demagogues, and his vision of philosopher-kings was meant to counterbalance the irrational whims of popular rule. His belief that a ruler should be wise, just, and morally virtuous remains influential to this day.

Yet Plato’s legacy is not without its critics. Some argue that his ideas on governance were overly idealistic and out of touch with the realities of human nature. His views on art, which he felt could manipulate emotions and distort the truth, also drew criticism. Nevertheless, the enduring power of his thought is undeniable. His Academy established a model for institutions of higher learning that remains influential, while his dialogues continue to spark rigorous debate.

Plato’s theory of forms, while abstract and challenging, laid the groundwork for Western metaphysics, providing a framework for understanding the relationship between reality and perception. His exploration of justice, the soul, and the pursuit of knowledge remains central to philosophy, law, and political theory. Even today, scholars and thinkers are drawn to Plato’s writings, marveling at the clarity, depth, and relevance of his ideas.

In the end, Plato lived through an era of immense change, witnessing the rise and fall of Athens’ golden age. Through it all, he maintained an unflinching dedication to philosophy, convinced that the pursuit of truth could lead to a more just and harmonious society. He remains a testament to the transformative power of ideas, reminding us that, even in the face of uncertainty and turmoil, the search for wisdom can light the way forward.

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The Historic Trump Court Cases That We Cannot See

By Neal Katyal

A photo of Donald Trump pictured on the screen of a video camera.

Over the past month, in two courtrooms some two hundred and fifty miles apart, the government was hearing arguments in two of the most consequential court cases in American history. In New York, at the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse, a judge was presiding over the first criminal trial of a former U.S. President. Meanwhile, in Washington D.C., at the United States Supreme Court, the nine Justices were mulling over a grave question of constitutional law—whether a former President is immune from criminal prosecution.

The two courtrooms could hardly be more different, with the polished white marble of the U.S. Supreme Court contrasting with the more ramshackle wooden court furnishings in Manhattan. And yet both rooms are similarly opaque, with most Americans unable to see what’s happening inside of either one. Cameras are prohibited, and so the only way to observe the proceedings is to wait in line outside, in hopes of snagging one of the few seats reserved for members of the public. (The Supreme Court saves room for fifty public spectators; the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse has been able to accommodate around ten.) This is despite the fact that the American people pay for these courtrooms with their tax dollars, and the fact that prosecutions are brought in their name. The New York case is called the People v. Donald J. Trump.

Like grownups who abstain from tequila because of a bad experience with it in high school, the bans on cameras are the lingering effects of some early issues with courtroom photography. In 1935, Bruno Hauptmann was put on trial in New Jersey for kidnapping and murdering the nearly two-year-old son of the aviator Charles Lindbergh. At that trial, cameras were allowed under certain conditions: they could film during trial recesses but not while witnesses were testifying. And yet camera footage of the trial testimony leaked, and Hauptmann’s trial became a media circus. This defiance of court restrictions, paired with the bright flashes in the courtroom and the general mayhem caused by the cameramen, ultimately led the trial judge to ban photography for the rest of the proceedings. Many states followed suit.

Once television became ubiquitous, in the nineteen-fifties, the prohibitions on cameras began to seem antiquated. Some states rolled back their anti-camera legislation, and, today, most permit some form of audiovisual coverage in court, whether it be still photography during testimony, audio recordings, or live broadcasts on television. Federal appellate courts, too, permit live broadcasts, as does the International Criminal Court. But not so New York. In 1952, the state adopted a statute still in place today, banning all cameras in the courtroom—a law so broad that one court-reform organization, the Fund for Modern Courts, has called it “an extreme outlier among the states.” The U.S. Supreme Court, for its part, prohibits cameras but makes live audio of oral arguments available. That puts the Court in better audiovisual stead than New York, and yet there’s a lot that happens in court that cannot be captured by either audio or transcript.

As a member of the Supreme Court bar, I was able to sit at the front of the courtroom for the arguments in Trump v. United States, the Presidential-immunity case. I could see Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s face twist into an expression of utter incredulity as Trump’s lawyer D. John Sauer claimed that a President sending a Navy SEAL team to assassinate a political rival was not an indictable crime. I was able to watch Michael Dreeben, the lawyer for the special counsel Jack Smith, painstakingly describe the counts in one of the federal indictments against Trump, relating to his abuse of the Justice Department. Dreeben outlined how Trump tried to pressure top Justice Department officials into sending letters to state legislatures expressing doubt about the election counts, and how Trump threatened to fire those officials if they didn’t comply. After Dreeben relayed this information, almost two hours into the proceedings, I could see the Court dynamics shift. The Justices began to listen far more closely to him, sitting up in their chairs.

I’ve personally seen more than four hundred oral arguments at the Supreme Court. Why bother trudging all the way to One First Street when I could just listen to audio recordings or read a transcript? Because neither is any sort of substitute for watching the way in which these arguments are delivered, and for observing the dynamics on display in the courtroom. The Court itself isn’t satisfied with just reading a bunch of written words in briefs; it insists on seeing advocates deliver their arguments in person. More than fifty Americans should get that same basic opportunity.

The judiciary is the least democratic of the three branches of the government. Supreme Court Justices, who have lifetime tenure, are appointed, not elected. And so they are required to justify their decisions in ways that elected officials are not. President Joe Biden can sign an executive order without explaining his reasoning behind it. (It might cause a P.R. crisis, but it’s certainly within his power to do this.) By contrast, when the Justices overturn a longtime legal precedent, or when they create a new one, whether major or minor, they must issue written opinions explaining their decision-making process. This process might be as significant as the opinion itself. Oral arguments are, undoubtedly, a major part of that process, and yet most Americans are barely even aware that oral arguments are happening—let alone what arguments are being made—creating a situation in which the public receives a pile of controversial opinions, every June, with little context. One can imagine that if oral arguments were televised, Americans might spend the year doing what the Justices do: thinking through a bunch of complicated, nuanced questions before ultimately reaching their own conclusions.

The Court today is relying far too much on the idea that Americans are going to seek out audio feeds of oral arguments. This is unrealistic in an age of TV and Instagram. It’s not 1936, and Americans aren’t huddled around a radio in the family room. Without the visual component, it is unlikely that they are going to pay attention to the arguments in a Supreme Court case, even if the decision that’s eventually rendered may directly affect their lives. It would serve the Court well for Americans to be confronted with the same questions that are raised during oral arguments. It would also serve Americans well to see how the Court, which is increasingly seen as a politically motivated entity, is genuinely grappling with questions about governance, such as how to draw the line between an official Presidential act (like appointing a Cabinet member), and a private one (like taking a bribe from said Cabinet member).

The public is missing even more when it comes to Trump’s criminal trial in Manhattan, which, ironically, is all about whether Trump committed crimes in his efforts to keep information from the American people, in the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election. Last week, the adult-film actor Stormy Daniels went on the stand and told the full story of her relationship with Trump, from their initial sexual encounter, in 2006, to the hush-money agreement that she negotiated with Trump and his former lawyer Michael Cohen some ten years later. We were unable to watch her tell it, or to watch how she handled being cross-examined, in the same way that we were unable to watch Hope Hicks, a witness called by the government, tearfully testify about her old boss, or the former tabloid C.E.O. David Pecker speak to the dozens of stories that the National Enquirer has killed about Trump and other politicians over the years. We can read quotes published online, but it is much harder, from behind our computer screens, to read between the lines. Did Hope Hicks start crying because she felt bad about turning on Trump, or because she was overwhelmed by the trial, or because of something else? Different reporters have had different takes, but we’ve been denied the opportunity to watch her testimony and decide for ourselves. And, of course, we’ve been unable to observe the behavior of the defendant, Donald Trump: how he comports himself in the room, how he reacts to the testimony of witnesses, how he carries himself, and so much more. (Just imagine how different the O. J. Simpson “gloves don’t fit” testimony would have been, had it been reduced to a transcript—or even a highly descriptive newspaper article.) Journalists have done their best to describe what’s happening in the room, and yet even the most faithful retellings can be subjective, skewed by something as simple as where the writer was sitting in the courtroom, and what kind of view they may have had. Some reports, for example, say that Trump keeps falling asleep during the trial; others disagree.

On Monday, Cohen is on the stand—more important testimony that we will not see. There’s also a chance, albeit a small one, that Trump himself will eventually testify in the New York trial. If he does, the American people will not be able to witness some of the most significant trial testimony given in our lifetimes. And if he does not testify, cameras would be the only way for us to see Trump’s true reaction to the case being presented against him. Instead, the lack of cameras has catalyzed a lopsided spin cycle outside the courtroom. Trump leaves the courtroom each day, where the reporters waiting outside for him do have cameras, and he characterizes the proceedings in a gravely slanted way, which then gets broadcast on cable news. The lawyers for the prosecution cannot publicly grandstand like this; rules of prosecutorial ethics require them to make their arguments inside the courtroom, not outside of it. The result is a structural asymmetry, which isn’t just confined to the two sides of the court case. The characters appearing on the witness stand, from Daniels to Cohen, are all subject to innuendo and character attacks, with the public unable to fact-check how these individuals are portrayed by the media. The same goes for the Supreme Court. Don’t believe what I said about Justice Barrett’s facial expression during oral arguments? Tough luck, you can’t go back and check the video, because there isn’t one.

Even if one accepts these rules for a normal trial, you’d think that there’d be an exception for ones that are so clearly in the public interest. Trump is not just a former President but a candidate for President, and twenty-four per cent of Republicans say they would not vote for him if he were convicted of a felony by a jury. The immunity case, too, is of grave concern to the public, as the Justices are essentially deciding whether Trump’s other trials should move forward. The risk is of a double darkness—that a Supreme Court the American public cannot see will render a decision preventing Americans from even hearing the rest of evidence against Trump, by stopping his trials from taking place altogether.

What possible rationale can there be for having a courtroom placed out of view of the people who paid for it? To be sure, confidentiality is sometimes required, from the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to the modern-day jury room. But courtroom proceedings are, by their nature, meant to be transparent, centered on a fact-gathering and argumentation process. Expecting cameras in the courtroom is not unlike expecting body cameras to be worn by police officers, who, like judges, are sworn to uphold the rule of law.

Some fear that courtroom cameras will prompt witnesses to be intimidated and scared. I understand this concern; indeed, I once shared it. From 2020 to 2023, I was privileged to serve as special prosecutor in one of the most high-profile trials in modern history, the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd . Up until this case, Minnesota had never televised a criminal trial. As prosecutors in the case, and in accordance with Minnesota law and practice, we requested that cameras be forbidden. We feared, in particular, for the safety and comfort of a seventeen-year-old witness, who had taken the video of Floyd’s murder.

The judge, fortunately, overruled us. Americans were able to see, with their own eyes, what happened in that courtroom. They could see the evidence that both sides were able to muster, examine Chauvin’s demeanor in court, and assess the credibility of the on-the-scene witnesses and medical experts. The result was public confidence in the outcome of the trial. When Chauvin was ultimately convicted, there were no mass riots or protests, despite speculation beforehand that either outcome would result in unrest. The trial underscored the importance of courtroom cameras, just as the initial video of Floyd’s murder, recorded by that young witness, was critical in drawing public attention to the incident in the first place.

There have been concerns, too, that televised legal proceedings create perverse incentives for lawyers and judges, who may be tempted to play for the public, and distort the truth-seeking function of the court. That is a possibility, although the democratic benefits strongly outweigh that risk, just as they do for Congress (televised) and the President (extensively televised). And the reverse is more likely, as courtroom participants are incentivized to act with greater care when their actions will be viewable by millions. In 2017, I argued against President Trump’s Muslim ban in the federal appeals court in Seattle, and the oral argument was covered on live television. If anything, the cameras induced us attorneys to be even more conscious of keeping the proceedings solemn. Ultimately, cameras would allow Americans to see what I get to see when I am in court: a bunch of judges who are trying their hardest to resolve difficult cases in a straightforward and honest way. Judge Juan Merchan, who is presiding over Trump’s criminal trial in Manhattan, is a perfect example. Those in the courtroom describe an even-keeled and balanced judge, but Trump goes out every day blasting him as a biased accomplice of President Biden. Televised proceedings would empower Americans to make these judgments for themselves.

The mechanism to fix all of this is not difficult to implement. Changing the rules in New York would likely require the state legislature to lift its ban on cameras, although it is conceivable that a court may try to do so on its own, as Minnesota did in the Chauvin case. Televising Supreme Court arguments would not even require legislation; it could be done by mere Court rule. And, should the Court not act, legislation has been introduced by Senators Chuck Grassley and Dick Durbin to force them to do so. The bill, known as the Cameras in the Courtroom Act, would require the Supreme Court to permit television coverage of oral arguments and other open sessions. It’s accompanied by another bill, the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act, which extends to all open federal court proceedings. Both bills are pieces of bipartisan legislation; Grassley and Durbin don’t agree on much, but they agree on this. Even the Justices themselves have, in other contexts, recognized the importance of governmental transparency in a democracy. The person who famously said that sunlight is the best disinfectant was none other than Justice Louis Brandeis. ♦

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COMMENTS

  1. Philosophy of Humor (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

    Philosophy of Humor. First published Tue Nov 20, 2012; substantive revision Thu Aug 20, 2020. Although most people value humor, philosophers have said little about it, and what they have said is largely critical. Three traditional theories of laughter and humor are examined, along with the theory that humor evolved from mock-aggressive play in ...

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  5. The Philosophy of Humor: What Makes Something Funny?

    what makes something funny. There is little. consensus regarding which theory is best, but, like. most philosophical conundrums worth think ing. about, this is not uncommon. The philosophy of ...

  6. The Philosophy of Humor

    In Issue 25 of Philosophy Now back in 1999, Tim Madigan as Editor led a valiant foray into the topic of humor and its relationship to philosophy. Contributors looked at some similarities between humor and philosophy - how both point out foibles in our thinking and acting. Now, fifteen years on, the similarities are still there, the jokes are ...

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    We experience a cognitive shift—a rapid change in our perceptions or thoughts. 2. We are in a play mode rather than a serious mode, disengaged from conceptual and practical concerns. 3. Instead of responding to the cognitive shift with shock, confusion, puzzlement, fear, anger, or other negative emotions, we enjoy it. 4.

  8. A Philosophy of Humour

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  9. Understanding Humor: Four Conceptual Approaches to the Elusive Subject

    The Philosophy of Humor Yearbook 2: 1 - 26. 10.1515/phhumyb-2021-001 Search in Google Scholar. Hietalahti, Jarno. 2016. The Dynamic Concept of Humor. Erich Fromm and the Possibility of Humane Humor. ... Comic Laughter: A Philosophical Essay. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. Search in Google Scholar. Taylor, John. 1995.

  10. Philosophy of Humor

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  13. Humor in Philosophical Contexts: Socratic Irony

    Abstract. It is hard to say what the focus of the difficulty here is: the very idea of a sense of proportion or the idea that a sense of humor is an ideal vehicle for it. Both are puzzling. As having the one without the other is quite possible, this is only a feel that the two go well together. Keywords: Humor; sense of proportion; Socratic ...

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  16. 2 Aristotle on Why We Laugh at Jokes

    In contemporary studies on laughter and humor, it is quite striking that scholars very much tend to oppose the two main theories that have been defended from early Modern philosophy on: on the one hand, the so-called Superiority theory which Hobbes proposed, and the so-called Incongruity theory which, one century later, Hutcheson vigorously opposed to Hobbes. 1 Nowadays, almost everyone seems ...

  17. A Complete Analysis of Plato's Philosophy of Humor

    Download Free PDF. Thu Nhan Hoang. Download Free PDF. Jones 1 A Complete Analysis of Plato's Philosophy of Humor Jonathon D. Jones Plato: Phi 5410 April 15, 2005 13300 Village Park Drive Apt. 1070 Southgate, MI 48195 fJones 2 Introduction In this paper, I will answer four questions.

  18. Philosophy of Humor

    Philosophy of Humor: Exploring the Nature and Significance of Laughter. Definition: The Philosophy of Humor is a branch of philosophy concerned with the analysis, interpretation, and understanding of humor. It explores the nature of humor, its underlying mechanisms, its psychological and social implications, and its role in human life and culture.

  19. Special Issue on Humor, Laughter, and Philosophy of Education: Introduction

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  21. Introduction

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  22. Laughter, Humor, and Comedy in Ancient Philosophy

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  24. Laugh Riot

    And if the cardinal found it funny, it was funny. It was thus an in-joke. If Clinton had made it, it would be the ultimate out-joke, proof of the Democrats' contempt for people of faith. But what is allowed as funny will sooner or later be proposed seriously. Many of those attending Trump rallies now wear T-shirts that proclaim "Jesus Is My ...

  25. Plato's Life and his Enduring Philosophical Legacy

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