Wednesday, January 20, 2010


In our initial foray into the theories and philosophy behind humor, I found one theme that resounded quite a bit: humor and laughter comes from expectations that are not met. To begin, I will say that I was expecting Plato, Hobbes, Kant and Kierkegaard to have positive things to say about humor. (When I think of humor, I often think positive thoughts—who doesn’t like to laugh?) Yet at first, I was met with a decidedly opposite sort of opinion.

Plato, in his fictional dialogue between Socrates and Protarchus, argues that laughter is indeed a negative thing because it is a dangerous mix of both pleasure and pain. When we laugh at what is ridiculous in our friends we find pleasure in the laughter but pain in the ridiculous situation. This kind of “contradiction” as Kierkegaard would most likely label it, is an example of our expectations being subverted: we should normally expect or wish good and reasonable situations for our loved ones; when we are faced with a ridiculous situation instead, we laugh because we might not know what else to do.

Hobbes takes on the consideration of the ridiculous in one’s expectations further when he defines laughter as the manifestation of the “sudden glory” that is realized when one recognizes something new in his or herself or when one recognizes his or her superiority to another. It makes sense that such a revelation would cause laughter: the surprise in the realization—the way our expectations are not met by being proven wrong, but in the best possible way (which is a "contradiction" in and of itself)—is what we find so humorous. Hobbes is also sure to mention that its unexpected quality is key: he essentially writes that the same realization “gets old” after a while and when that happens, is no longer funny.

Kant is the thinker who outlines this theory explicitly: “Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.” (47) While Plato and Hobbes might say that expectations are changed (such as finding oneself to be better at something than one originally imagined), I find it interesting that Kant specifically uses the word “nothing.” This word implies that the previous expectations are now completely worthless, that they no longer hold any meaning, and perhaps should be disregarded and thrown away. Kant says that this is a moment of relaxation for the brain, which is manifested in the body’s laughter and which ultimately leads to better health. Being deceived and then trying again with all the information, Kant argues, is an exercise that can strengthen both mind and body. (48) In this way, Kant seems to take a much more positive position on the role of laughter than does Plato or Hobbes.

Finally, Kierkegaard contributes to this discussion by distinguishing between the tragic and the comic: the tragic being “the suffering contradiction” while the comic being “the painless contradiction.” It seems that he is taking his stand on the same side of the line as Kant: while he finds laughter in contradictions, or expectations that are not met, he views this laughter as positive because it is not painful. To Kant and Kierkegaard, it seems, the humorous is good because it is found in unexpected or reversed situations whereas to Plato and Hobbes, laughter is evil because it is made manifest at the unexpected misfortunes of another.

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