Based on the readings of Plato, Kant, Hobbes, and Kierkegaard, I conclude that out of all four only Kierkegaard came close to fully defining what humor is. The main problem with their analysis is the assumption that all humor is conscious and that humans are always bringing the full cause of their mirth to the forefront of their cognition.
Taking Kant’s analysis that laughter comes from the idea that an expectation which has been created at the start of a joke is suddenly turned to nothing, we see a major flaw in his reasoning. Kant assumes that the understanding of the mind, the reasoning faculty of a person, is negatively affected by the sudden failure of an expectation to be fulfilled and that the source of mirth comes from “the oscillation of organs which gives a feeling a health, causing laughter.” This latter point can be ruled out; I for one am never aware of my organs flip-flopping in my body, and furthermore it is possible to laugh so hard that it physically causes pain. Whether moving organs constitutes health or not is irrelevant as such sensations are not part of conscious thought when a humorous situation arises. Instead, the understanding itself is confronted with something that it did not initially assume to be true and as a result laughter and mirth are created. As for the vast majority of “jokes” that Kant supplies: I simply do not find them humorous! Call me uneducated, but I feel that I am equipped to handle most intricacies of wit and fail to find the “hilarity” that Kant claims is inherent in his examples.
Hobbes and Plato’s analyses are similar in that both base humor in the absurdity or misfortune of others and our own ability to see ourselves as above it, invoking feelings of malice and superiority; Plato goes so far as to explicitly attach a negative value to humor due to the reasoning that all malice is evil (a point to which he makes a valid argument). Again, the question of consciousness arises. When I watch the Three Stooges or Charlie Chaplin shorts, humorous mediums rich with physical humor, I do not find myself consciously (or even subconsciously upon reflection) laughing at my superiority to their bumbling, idiotic antics, but rather at the absurdity of the situation. There is a total lack of malice which both Hobbes and Plato claim is prevalent in humor.
Of Kierkegaard the idea that the “comical” comes from contradiction and that laughter and mirth are manifestations of contradiction, this idea is the one that I feel best describes humor. This does not limit humor to irony, but also takes into account notions that the aforementioned thinkers touched upon. Kant’s belief that the understanding suffers from an unfulfilled expectation becomes an understanding that finds joy in that reversal. Hobbes and Plato also made excellent points that some, but not all, forms of humor involve a sense of superiority; to say that this is the basis for all humor is “pushing the envelope.” Even though Kierkegaard makes this point I do not believe that humor is sufficiently defined by it, though for a starting point I believe Kierkegaard is headed in the right direction.