Why Do We Laugh? Theories of Humor in Philosophy and Psychology

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Since the beginning of Western Philosophy and the advent of Psychology, there have been several prominent theories on the meaning and function of humor in humans. Although we now understand that humor is a complex, varied reaction that can mean many different things, it is interesting and illuminating to examine theories of humor by great thinkers in Philosophy and psychology over the years.

The Superiority Theory

The first fully-formed theory on humor was a sparse concept called the Superiority Theory, which can be traced back to the philosopher, Plato. Plato saw humor as mostly a negative reaction and thought it to be a signifier of a person’s lack of self-control or a personal vice.

However, aside from a few mentions here and there, philosophers were relatively quiet on the subject of humor (and also, cheese).

It’s no coincidence that the most popular book during this time frame, the Bible, only ever showed laughter in a negative light, 

“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).”

It was until over a thousand years later in the 14th and 15th centuries that philosophers began to write again on the subject of humor, continuing to expand upon the superiority theory.

One of these philosophers was Descartes, who wrote:

“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.”

However, as philosophical thought broadened and the dark ages came to an end, this philosophical prejudice against humor began to be reevaluated. 

This led to the development of a new theory called The Relief Theory.

The Relief Theory

Sigmund Freud was one of the major proponents of this theory, which hypothesized that laughter was merely a mechanism to reduce psychological tension and not a display of superiority. 

Freud proposed that humor operated similarly to a release valve, allowing us to release nervous energy which had built up from repressing desires in order to meet sociocultural expectations. 

The philosopher Shaftesbury also supported this theory, and explained it succinctly by writing:

“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.”

The Incongruity Theory

Around this same time, a third explanation of humor emerged alongside this relief theory called This incongruity Theory.

This theory proposed that humor arises when something appears to be incongruous or conflicts with our expectations. 

Proponents of this theory were philosophers like as Emmanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, Francis Hutcheson, and Søren Kierkegaard.

On the incongruity theory, Kierkegaard writes:

“The matter is quite simple. The comical is present in every stage of life (only that the relative positions are different), for wherever there is life, there is contradiction, and wherever there is contradiction, the comical is present. 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.”

The ‘Humor as Play’ Theory

However, with the 20th century and the further development of psychology, there also came a new theory of humor that focused less on logic and specifics and more on the positive and functional aspects of it as a whole. 

This has been loosely called the ‘Humor as Play’ Theory.

The ‘humor as play’ theory saw laughter as a mechanism for play in humans by noticing similar behavior in the way that apes laugh and play with each other. The comparison showed us that although we have been socially conditioned not to ‘play’ as adults, humor is a method by which we bypass these cultural norms and still manage to play with one another intellectually. According to this theory, making one another laugh doesn’t have to have any negative or unconscious motivation as suggested by the other three theories, but can instead be an intimate, playful form of social connection. 

In 1907, the American Journal of Psychology wrote on the usefulness of humor: 

“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.”

All in all, there still seems to be a good deal of truth to all of these theories, however, laughter and humor, in general, can’t really be explained by any singular theory. Ultimately, humor really seems to just be another form of expression—one that has less to do with logic and more to do with emotional intelligence and one that has the potential to be harmful just as it has the potential to show kindness and bring us together. 


Further Reading

Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor by John Morreall

References: 

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