Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What, Plato never heard a Knock Knock joke?

It seems to me, that humor, with all of its supposed contradictions and superior versus inferior complexes, is a grossly indefinable entity. Often times I will find myself in fits of laughter yet be unable to say what exactly it was that set off my funny-meter. Perhaps, according to Plato and Hobbes, I have suddenly been made aware of a certain superior ability or quality within my possession or have just noticed an unfortunate lacking in another. Or perhaps, as would also be quite pleasing to Kierkegaard, some ludicrous contradiction has caught my eye and I am unable to restrain myself. Or—last but not least—maybe my expectations have been thrown out the window and an unforeseen punch line has simply brought joy to my heart—or as Kant might say my intestines, weird.

All right, let’s back up. All of these philosophers seem to raise pretty logical points. I have heard jokes targeted at very specific groups of people or a singular person that aim to establish certain superiority in the speaker and listener, and an inferiority in the target. I have also seen and heard humor that highlights ridiculous contradictions. Lastly, I have even heard jokes that simply throw me for a loop and end with a completely unexpected punch line. I find all of these things funny. At some point or another each of these approaches has made me laugh.

So, I think that it is safe to say that neither Hobbes’ theory of superiority (with which Plato’s theory seems to agree), nor Kant’s theory of incongruity, nor Kierkegaard’s theory of contradictions is a singularly accurate analysis of humor. Although some aspects of each idea might find their way into what we as every day people (as to differentiate from certain philosophers) find funny that does not mean that any one theory is completely correct. How could we possibly try to define what people find funny? Humor is something that can transcend language and yet might also become indecipherable through cultural boundaries. It can simultaneously bring happy tears to one man’s eyes, while the man next to him looks on with a disapproving grimace.

The point is that none of the philosophers seem to be wholly right, yet they all have excellent ideas concerning the forms of humor. Laughter is the expression of emotion; it is the translation of something that cannot be otherwise translated, especially through words—which is what these men attempt to do. Humor can be defined just as easily as love or hatred can be defined. I don’t imply that it is wrong to attempt to define any of these things only that in such definitions certain things will be ignored and certain ideas will be argued (for or against). Dr. Ellis talked about a “working definition of humor” and I think that is exactly what we need, an idea that can morph and change as easily as we and our emotions do.

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