Serious Thoughts About Humour

September 2017 Pulse

One of the most distinctive features of being human is the ability of this species to laugh, that is, its ability to create and enjoy humour. This is an ability that other animals – including the primates – do not possess, and any action or reaction that may resemble human laughter in these creatures is simply illusory.

The phenomenon of humour has exercised the minds of philosophers since time immemorial, resulting in the proliferation of different theories.

In Plato’s famous dialogue Philebus, Socrates – Plato’s teacher – takes a negative view of humour by arguing that the real object of laughter is the ‘ridiculous’. The ridiculous in this context is the ignoramus who thinks that he is wise. Thus, as Adrian Bardon puts it, for Socrates ‘laughter results from a feeling of pleasure at seeing others suffer the misfortune of being deluded about their own wisdom’.

This approach to humour – described rather pedestrianly as the superiority theory – is perpetuated by Plato’s student, Aristotle, who in Nicomachean Ethics jettisons all humour except the humour that exposes irrationality. The most celebrated modern proponent of this approach is Thomas Hobbes, who maintains that humour is our amused response to the inferiorities or absurdities of others.

The philosophers who reject this theory of humour – among them, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer and Søren Kierkegaard – argue that although humour indeed has to do with responding to absurdities, but not that of other people, especially the ignorant. Rather humour is the response to absurdities in ideas and in life experiences that frustrate our intellectual expectations.

Thus Kant could write that ‘laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing’. But perhaps it is Schopenhauer who expresses it best when he states that ‘the cause of laughter in every case is simply the sudden perception of the incongruity between a concept and the real objects which have been thought through it in some relation, and laughter itself is just the expression of this incongruity … All laughter then is occasioned by a paradox’.

Whichever theory we may find to be more convincing, what is clear is that only certain creatures, endowed with certain attributes and capabilities, have the capacity for humour. Only rational creatures that possess consciousness – however one may choose to define or describe it – that are aware not only of their environment, but are also self-aware, have the capacity for humour and the ability to laugh.

As Hugh LaFollette and Niall Shanks have pointed out, ‘Humour is possible only for agents whose belief systems manifest hierarchical cognitive richness’. This means that only the human being – made to image his Creator – that has the capacity to make sense of itself and of things around it, is capable of humour.

As LaFollette and Shanks explain (with a touch of humour – pun intended!): ‘We recognise that the dullest normal human can see humour which even the most talented bullfrog would miss. The human not only has more beliefs than the bullfrog (if the bullfrog has any beliefs at all); the nature and complexity of those beliefs differ’.

Any belief is complex because it is always embedded in an intricate web of other beliefs. As Donald Davidson explains: ‘I can believe a cloud is passing before the sun, but only because I believe there is a sun, that clouds are made of water vapour, that water can exist in liquid and gaseous form; and so on without end’.

Human beings not only have what philosophers call ‘first-order beliefs’ – beliefs about the world which they inhabit. Human beings also have beliefs about their first-order beliefs, that is, humans are capable of ‘higher-order’ beliefs that give them some predictive powers and the ability to assess the situation in which they find themselves.

Only such beings may be said to possess ‘a sense of humour’, that is, that ability to see their circumstances in a particular way that enables them (and others like them) to laugh at their predicament.

Or as the psychologist and philosopher Raymond Moody explains: ‘A person with a “good sense of humour” is one who can see himself and others in the world in a somewhat distant and detached way. He views life from an altered perspective in which he can laugh at, yet remain in contact with and emotionally involved with people and events in a positive way’.

The relationship between language, perception and humour is crucial. Not only is it impossible to severe humour from language (understood, of course, in the broadest possible sense), it in fact directly springs from it. This means that only that linguistic animal, the homo sapien, is capable of humour.

Because humour is dependent on perception and language, it is always relational and irreducibly so. Humour, write LaFolletter and Shanks ‘is inherently relational – no event, person or thing is intrinsically humorous … It depends upon the circumstances, the teller (if there is one), the current belief s of the listeners (or viewers), and the relationship (if any) between the teller and the listener’.

But this also means that humour is always context-dependant, and contingent upon the beliefs of the listener.

Although humour can be said to be an important aspect of our humanity and should therefore be valued, many philosophers have also pointed to its important uses. They argue that humour is often employed as a means of ‘liberation’ from threat and as a coping mechanism.

These philosophers see the value of humour in liberating us from certain pressures and vexations by poking fun and laughing at the very things that are normally viewed as threatening and constrictive. As Norman Holland explains: ‘we can state the disposition the other way around, calling the purpose of laughter not so much as glorifying of the self as the minimizing of the distresses menacing the self’.

In the psychoanalytic tradition, Sigmund Freud saw humour as a kind of defense strategy or coping mechanism. This has led others in the tradition to even describe humour as a ‘courage mechanism’, due to its ability to contend with the unpleasant aspects of reality without denying or ignoring the need to confront them (that is, by being escapist).

As the British philosopher Roger Scruton has put it so eloquently, ‘Laughter helps us to overcome our isolation and fortifies us against despair’.




Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.