Why We Laugh
The psychology and philosophy of laughter.
Posted Aug 19, 2020
When looking for romance on dating sites and apps, people often ask for, or promise to offer, a good sense of humour (GSOH).
Today, we tend to think of laughter as a good thing, but historically, this has not always been the case. Laughter seldom features in Plato’s dialogues, and, when it does, it is usually in the mouths of sophists and fools. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates advises that, to set a good example, heroes in myths and stories should never be portrayed as being overcome with laughter.
Later, the Stoics also frowned upon laughter, as did, for centuries, the monasteries. Even the mild Rule of St. Benedict—the most commonly adopted monastic rule—condemns laughter in the strongest terms, for example, in Chapter VI, Of Silence: "Coarse jests, and idle words or speech provoking laughter, we condemn everywhere to eternal exclusion."
The notion that laughter can overcome reason or corrupt moral character finds an echo in the superiority theory of laughter, according to which laughter is a way of putting oneself up by putting others down. The superiority theory is most closely associated with the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (d. 1679), who conceived of laughter as "a sudden glory arising from sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly."
When we think of mediaeval mobs jeering at people in stocks, or, in our time, Candid Camera, we can see that Hobbes had at least half a point. But the superiority theory is unable to account for all cases of laughter, such as laughter arising from joy, surprise, or relief.
According to the relief theory of laughter, most often associated with Sigmund Freud (d. 1939), laughter represents a release of pent-up nervous energy. Like dreams, jokes are able to bypass our inner censor, enabling a repressed emotion such as xenophobia (or, at least, the nervous energy associated with the repression) to surface—explaining why, at times, we can be embarrassed by our own laughter. By the same token, a comedian might raise a laugh by conjuring some costly emotion, such as admiration or indignation, and then suddenly killing it.
More flexible than the superiority theory, the relief theory is able to account for how we might use laughter as a form of release, or to tell or reveal an uncomfortable truth. But, arguably, not all laughter arises from a release of pent-up energy—not, for example, laughter at a pun or word play—and those who laugh the hardest at offensive jokes are not generally the most decorous or repressed of people.
Much more popular today is a third theory, the incongruity theory of laughter, associated with the likes of Immanuel Kant (d. 1804) and Søren Kierkegaard (d. 1855), according to which the comedian raises a laugh, not by conjuring an emotion and then killing it, but by creating an expectation and then contradicting it—a technique first advocated, in fact, by Aristotle in the Rhetoric.
For the story, both Kant and Kierkegaard were terrible at telling jokes. Here is Kant in the Critique of Judgement, telling a joke to illustrate his theory of laughter:
A merchant returning from India to Europe with all his wealth in merchandise was forced to throw it overboard in a heavy storm, and grieved thereat so much that his wig turned grey the same night!
In the Poetics, Aristotle states that ‘the ridiculous may be defined as a mistake or deformity not productive of pain or harm to others…’ Leaning on Aristotle, Kierkegaard highlights that the violation of an expectation is the core not only of comedy but also of tragedy—the difference being that, in tragedy, the violation leads to pain or harm.
Possibly, it is not the incongruity itself that we enjoy, but the light that it sheds, in particular, on the difference between what lies inside and outside our heads. Kant compares the pleasure of laughter, the free play of thought, to the pleasure of music, the free play of sound, and the pleasure of gambling, the free play of fortune. Perhaps the only difference between the comedian, the psychologist, and the philosopher is that you can’t pretend to be a comedian.
The incongruity theory is arguably more basic than the relief and superiority theories. When someone laughs, our inclination is to search for an incongruity; and though we may laugh for superiority or relief, even then, it helps if we can pin our laughter on some real or imagined incongruity. At times we laugh with the truth, at others against it.
In Umberto Eco’s novel, The Name of the Rose, the monk Jorge de Burgos commits a string of murders to prevent the sole surviving copy of Aristotle’s treatise on comedy (the lost second book of the Poetics), hidden in the abbey’s labyrinthine library, from ever coming to light. For Jorge, the book is dangerous, because laughter, once understood, could undermine the very foundations of religion and society.
After Aristotle, the first major philosopher to write a book specifically on laughter was Henri Bergson.
In On Laughter (1900), Bergson begins by making three observations:
- Laughter is a human preserve. "Many philosophers have defined man ‘a laughing animal’, but they could also have said a ‘laughable animal’—for if another animal can make us laugh, this is only insofar as it reminds us of man."
- More than that, laughter is a social activity. Even when we laugh alone, it is because we have conjured up a social context, a gathering of ghosts—"for laughter implies a certain complicity with others, whether real or imaginary."
- Emotion is the enemy of laughter, inasmuch as laughter presupposes a certain distance, a certain indifference, even if it is only momentary—and, in fact, creating this distance can be one of the purposes of humour.
These, then, are the conditions for laughter: a human dimension, a social aspect, and a detached attitude. But what is laughter, all laughter, actually about? It is, replies Bergson, about a kind of mechanical rigidity, either in body or mind.
Nature is full of vital energy and never exactly repeats itself, but we human beings tend to fall short, to fall into patterns and habits, to ossify, to lose ourselves to ourselves—and laughter is how we point this out to one another, how we up our collective game.
For example, we may laugh at one who falls into a hole through absentmindedness, or at one who constantly repeats the same gesture or phrase. More subtly, we may laugh at a pun or a literal interpretation of a figure of speech; or at a misunderstanding that arises from a scene so formulaic that it is able to belong at the same time to two completely independent series of events (in French, a qui pro quo).
I would add that we may also laugh at, or from, an unusual or unexpected lack of rigidity, as, for instance, when we break a habit or have an original idea—although this kind of divine laughter, as I call it, may only arise out of contrast with our usual rigidity.
Ultimately, says Bergson, we are laughable to the extent that we are a machine or an object, to the extent that we lack self-awareness, that we are invisible to ourselves while being visible to everyone else.
Thus, the laughter of others usually draws attention to our unconscious processes, to our modes or patterns of self-deception, and to the gap, or gulf, between our fiction and the reality. This gap is narrowest in poets and artists, who have to transcend themselves if they are to be worthy of the name.
In the end, Jorge de Burgos accidentally burns down the entire abbey, destroying not only the last copy of the second book of the Poetics, but also every other manuscript in the library. Jorge de Burgos is the antithesis of a poet, a destroyer of the arts, a fanatic who might have been cured by the laughter that he scorned.
Another way to understand laughter is to look at it like a biologist or anthropologist might. Human infants are able to laugh long before they can speak. Laughter involves parts of the brain that evolved long before the language centres, and that we share with other animals. Primates in particular produce laughing sounds when playfighting, play-chasing, or tickling. As with human children, it seems that their laughter functions as a signal that the danger is not for real—which may be why characters such as Batman’s Joker, who send a misleading signal, are so unsettling (I discuss the Joker at much greater length in this post).
While laughter may not be a human preserve, Bergson was surely right in highlighting its social dimension. Most laughter, even today, is not directed at jokes, but at creating and maintaining social bonds. Humour is a social lubricant, a signal of acceptance and belonging. More than that, it is a way of communicating, of making a point emphatically, or conveying a sensitive message without incurring the usual social costs. At the same, humour can also be a weapon, a sublimed form of aggression, serving, like antlers or plumes, to pull rank or attract a mate. The subtlety and ambiguity involved is in itself a form of play, and we know that laughter is associated with stress reduction and other health benefits.
If laughter began as a signal of play, it has, in human beings, evolved a number of other functions, none of which are mutually incompatible. Humour is shaped by culture and education, and, if people laugh differently in Berlin, imagine how differently they must have laughed in Ancient Greece or Ancient India. Kant must have thought his joke funny, but in the age of TikTok we have come to expect something more, or different.
Zen masters teach that it is much easier to laugh at ourselves once we have transcended our ego. At the highest level, laughter is the sound of the shattering of the ego. It is a means of gaining (and revealing) perspective, of rising beyond ourselves and our lives, of achieving a kind of immortality, a kind of divinity.
Upon awakening on her deathbed to see her entire family around her, Nancy Astor quipped, "Am I dying, or is this my birthday?"
Today, laughter gives us a bit of what religion once did.