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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 [], 1.

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 and Jerry Suls , 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.

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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. 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.

Philosophy of Humor (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Michael Clark, for example, offers these three features as necessary and sufficient for humor:. 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, , 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 , — 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. 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.

According to Kant, humor feels good in spite of, not because of, the way it frustrates our desire to understand.


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George Santayana , 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.


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  7. 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.

    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. 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…. Beyond providing rest for the soul, Aquinas suggests that humor has social benefits.

    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. In the last century an early play theory of humor was developed by Max Eastman , who found parallels to humor in the play of animals, particularly in the laughter of chimps during tickling.

    In humor and play generally, according to Eastman, we take a disinterested attitude toward something that could instead be treated seriously. 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. 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.

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    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 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.

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    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.

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    In joking with friends, for example, we break rules of conversation such as these formulated by H. Grice :. Rule 3 is broken to create humor when we reply to an embarrassing questions with an obviously vague or confusing answer.

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    We violate Rule 4 in telling most prepared jokes, as Victor Raskin 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.


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    5. 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. 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 , ; Panksepp , 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 , — 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.