In the face of some people's naive enthusiasm about the benefits of humor, Victor Raskin (Is humor always good for you?, Oklahoma, 1997) has explored the question “Is humor always good for you?” Rod Martin (Psychological Bulletin 12: 504–519, 2001) has shown how some kinds of humor foster unhealthy attitudes. Avner Ziv (Humor research in education: Enthusiasm vs. data, 1995) has warned that some claims about humor's value in education are exaggerated. Elliott Oring (Engaging humor, University of Illinois Press, 2003: Ch. 4) has shown how humor can express ethnic hatred. All these caveats are useful in a culture where the prevailing attitude toward humor is positive. If we consider attitudes toward humor through most of history, however, they were mostly negative. In Western religion and philosophy, indeed, no other human trait has been associated with so many vices. This article helps explain the cultural shift from a generally negative to a generally positive evaluation of humor by examining the traditional moral objections to humor, and providing modern rebuttals to them. It then develops the idea that humor in which we transcend our personal perspectives can foster virtues such as openmindedness, patience, tolerance, graciousness, humility, perseverance, and courage.
According to Raskin's script-theory, five factors are necessary for verbal humor: 1) a switch from the bona fide mode of communication to the non-bona fide mode of joke-telling; 2) the text of an intended joke; 3) two (partially) overlapping scripts compatible with the text; 4) an oppositeness relation between the two scripts; and 5) a trigger, obvious or implied, realizing the oppositeness relation. I argue that although this theory works well with prepared fictional jokes, it does not explain all verbal humor. The reason is that prepared fictional jokes are a sophisticated kind of verbal humor with features which are not shared by other kinds of verbal humor. I illustrate with examples of semantic, phonetic, and pragmatic techniques for creating verbal humor without switching scripts and/or without switching to non-bona fide communication.
This article assesses three traditional theories of laughter and humor: the Superiority Theory, the Relief Theory, and the Incongruity Theory. Then, taking insights from those theories, it presents a new theory in which humor is play with cognitive shifts.
The oldest account of what we now call humor is the Superiority Theory. For Plato and Aristotle laughter is an emotion involving scorn for people thought of as inferior. Plato also objects that laughter involves a loss of self-control that can lead to violence. And so in the ideal state described in his Republic and Laws, Plato puts tight restrictions on the performance of comedy.
This negative assessment of laughter, humor, and comedy influenced early Christian thinkers, who derived from the Bible a similar understanding of laughter as hostile. The classic statement of the Superiority Theory is that of Thomas Hobbes, who describes laughter as an expression of »sudden glory«. Henri Bergson's account of laughter in Le Rire incorporates a version of the Superiority Theory.
For any version of the Superiority Theory to be correct, two things must be true when we laugh: we must compare ourselves with someone else or with our former selves, and in that comparison we must judge our current selves superior. But neither of these seems to be a necessary feature of laughter or humor. First, not all laughter is about persons, and so there need be no comparison of persons. In an experiment by Lambert Deckers, subjects were asked to lift a series of apparently identical weights. The first several weighed the same, but then the subjects picked up a weight that was much heavier or lighter. Most of them laughed, but not because they were comparing themselves with anyone. Even when what we are laughing about is a person, we need not compare ourselves with that person. We may be amused by a stage comedian doing a perfect impression of some movie star without comparing ourselves with that comedian or the movie star. And even if we do compare ourselves with persons about whom we are laughing, we need not judge ourselves superior to them. They may make us laugh by surprising us with unexpected skills that we lack.
After two millennia in which the Superiority Theory was the only widely accepted account of laughter, the Relief Theory and the Incongruity Theory emerged in the 18th century. According to the Relief Theory, laughter operates like a safety valve in a steam pipe, releasing built-up nervous energy. Herbert Spencer had a simple version of the theory in which a laughter stimulus evokes emotions but then shows them to be inappropriate. Sigmund Freud had a complex theory in which there are three laughter situations: jokes (der Witz), the comic, and humor. In jokes, laughter is a release of psychic energy normally used to repress emotions such as hatred and sexual desire. The psychic energy »saved« in the comic is energy used for thinking. And the energy »saved« in humor is the energy of feeling emotions that are suddenly rendered unnecessary.
The simple version of the Relief Theory in which laughter releases emotions that have been rendered superfluous faces several problems. Our enjoyment of simple wordplay – »If it's feasible, let's fease it« – does not seem to require emotions at all, much less their being rendered unnecessary. Some experiences of amusement, too, seem to depend merely on surprise, as in Deckers' experiment.
Freud's complex theory of jokes, the comic, and humor faces even bigger challenges. There is no systematic way to sort laughter situations into his three categories. That is why no important theorist of humor after Freud has tried to maintain this distinction. Freud's distinction between three kinds of psychic energy – of repression, of thinking, and of feeling – is also unworkable and does not figure in later theories of humor. Several claims in Freud's account of »the comic«, especially his account of the mechanics of »mimetic representation«, are also counterintuitive.
The Incongruity Theory is the third traditional account of humor. Immanuel Kant, David Hartley, James Beattie, William Hazlitt, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Søren Kierkegaard had versions of this theory, and in the 20th century it became the most widely accepted theory of humor. The core of this account is that humorous amusement is a reaction to something that violates our mental patterns and expectations. To this we need to add, as Michael Clark does, that in humor, we do not simply experience incongruity but enjoy it. Even that is not sufficient for humor, however, for we can enjoy incongruity in other ways than amusement, as in the grotesque, the macabre, the horrible, the bizarre, and the fantastic. There is also a more general problem at the heart of the Incongruity Theory: it makes humor look irrational, even psychologically perverse. Indeed, George Santayana and several contemporary psychologists have claimed that adults are not able to enjoy incongruity per se.
Before turning to my own theory of humor, I derive from the traditional theories four insights. First, humor is a cognitive phenomenon – it involves perceptions, thoughts, mental patterns, and expectations. Secondly, humor involves a change of cognitive state. Thirdly, that cognitive change is sudden. And fourthly, amusement is pleasurable. To these insights I add three of my own: 1) humor is a non-serious activity in which we suspend practical concern and concern about what is true, 2) humor is primarily a social experience, and 3) humor is a form of play in which laughter serves as a »play signal«. Coining the term shift for a sudden change, we can say that humor involves the enjoyment of cognitive shifts.
Putting all these ideas together, I present this theory of humorous amusement:
A)Someone experiences a cognitive shift.
B)They are in a play mode, disengaged from practical and noetic concerns.
C)Instead of reacting with puzzlement or negative emotions, they enjoy the cognitive shift.
D)Their playful disengagement and their pleasure are expressed in laughter, which signals to others that they can relax and enjoy the cognitive shift too.