Laughter; the best medicine 

 

I’m more a man for observational humour than for jokes; but perhaps the joke has been on me…

British humour tends to the downbeat. Ironic, sarcastic and even cynical – there’s always the risk of us talking everything down. With my new optimistic élan, I’m doing my best to avoid all that. 

But if you can’t ‘bitch and moan’, where are the laughs at work? Our place is dead clever, but also dead earnest. I realised the other day I hadn’t laughed all week…

Thank goodness Philosophy Now spurred me into action with their humour edition!

Two strong explanations of humour are the ‘Superiority’ and the ‘Incongruity’ theories.

Anya Steinbeck explains the first:

“The so-called superiority theory is prominent among explanations of humour. In fact, so prominent that it has been championed by philosophical heavyweights such as Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes and Bergson

Thomas Hobbes’ formulation of the superiority theory is this: “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.” 

If Hobbes is right, humour becomes a tool for making ourselves feel better by thinking of others or our own past selves as inferior. So if Ted is a terrible golfer he can overcome the pain of this truth by making fun of Fred who is an even worse golfer. 

Plato believes this kind of humour to be damaging: “Taken generally the ridiculous is a certain kind of evil, specifically a vice.” It counts as a vice because it is symptomatic of a lack of critical self-awareness as we ridicule others. 

I would suggest that the two most serious problems with hierarchical jokes are these: 

1) Firstly, as Plato says, the aesthetic form of a joke form is just so attractive and appealing that we may not pay enough critical attention to the moral content. 

2) Secondly, far from having a dialogue function, jokes can be conversation stoppers. As Theodor Adorno says: “He who has laughter on his side has no need of proof.” 

In other words, humour is, next to its wonderful properties, also a great potential tool for manipulation. Dress them up as a joke and you can get away with outrageous statements. 

So what of the ‘Incongruity’ theory? The Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy gives us this:

“The first philosopher to use the word incongruous to analyze humor was James Beattie (1779). Our laughter “seems to arise from the view of things incongruous united in the same assemblage.” 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.”

Beattie may be right but he’s not exactly got us rolling in the aisles with that description.

And it gets worse… Given his well deserved reputation for seriousness, perhaps not surprising that Kant is stronger on theory than gags…

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“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.”

Following that cracker he serves up another:

“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!’”

Whilst I wouldn’t recommend he gives up his day job, I’m with Kant. When it comes to making people laugh, I like incongruity. 

Superiority all too easily leads to the worst type of humour – arrogance, trashing others and talking people down. Now I know what I’m looking for, I realise I’ve seen plenty of ‘superiority’ humour about. It’s not pretty. 

Keep it incongruous I say. As my boy did with his little joke in the car this morning; it made me laugh out loud:

“What did one rebel sausage say to the other?”

“May the fork be in you!”

 

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