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
- 6. Comedy
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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 20th 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 18th 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 20th 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 [ … ]