Heard the one about the three theories of humour? Jokes are about humiliation, the release of inhibitions, or absurdity. The end of the world itself has the logical form of a joke. Geddit?by Jim Holt / October 25, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
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Hobbes, Freud, and Kant walk into a bar. The bartender says, “Hey, which of you guys can tell me why humans laugh?”
Let me back up a bit. There are three classic theories of humour. The “superiority” theory—that’s Hobbes (also Plato, Bergson)—locates the essence of humour in the “sudden glory” we feel at the humiliation of others. It suits jokes about cuckolds, racist jokes and put-downs, like:
Angry guy walks into a bar, says to the bartender, “All agents are assholes.”
The guy sitting at the end of the bar says, “Just a minute, I resent that.”
“Why? You an agent?”
“No. I’m an asshole.”
The “relief” theory of humour—that’s Freud (also Spencer)—says that humour allows us to get around our inhibitions. The set-up fools our inner censor, and the punchline liberates repressed impulses. It suits naughty jokes—like this one, told to me by one of my students at a Catholic girls’ school. “Mr Holt, what’s better than roses on a piano? Tulips on an organ.”
And the “incongruity” theory—that’s Kant (also Pascal, Schopenhauer)—says humour is a matter of the logical abruptly dissolving into the absurd. “Do you believe in clubs for children?” WC Fields was asked. “Only when kindness fails,” he said.
A theory of humour must also account for laughter—a very weird thing. As Arthur Koestler said, “Humour is the only domain of creative activity where a stimulus on a high level of complexity [a joke] produces a… sharply defined response on the level of physiological reflexes.” Why the spasmodic chest-heaving, the strangulated respiratory gasps; so pleasant when issuing from oneself, so annoying when coming from the next table?
The superiority theory doesn’t really answer this question. The relief theory at…