Friday, 16 September 2011


Welcome to the White Rock Philosophers' Weblog!

The blog gives participants and followers of the White Rock Philosophers' Cafe an opportunity to continue the discussions we hold at our monthly meetings. Our rationale is that often we take away from the meetings a sense of non-completion. There always seems to be more about the topic we would like to explore and do so with others. The main feature is a summary essay that I post a few days after each meeting. As a follower, please feel to post comments on any of the essays, and I will do my best to acknowledge and respond to all of them. Others, of course, may join in the debate to the benefit, hopefully, of all in our quest for clarity and truth.  From time to time I will post essays on other topics.  All are fair game for critical discussion.

You can read my most recent post, "Philosophy, Laughter, and Humor" below.

Charles Marxer
White Rock Philosophers' Cafe

When philosophy looks at joking, the jokes fall asleep.  -  Anonymous

     Although  most philosophizing is rather dry and humourless, we proved this modern proverb wrong at our meeting on September 14.  Participants demonstrated no tendency toward drowsiness during the evening’s proceedings, politely laughing at the presenter’s jokes and adding their own humorous stories and bon mots.  A considerable knowledge of the role laughter and humor play in our everyday lives was in evidence, along with additional facts from recent research.
     The claim that only humans laugh was challenged by some on the basis of observations of chimpanzees and some other species during play activities.  That animals play is undeniable, but we have slim evidence that even our closest relatives, chimpanzees, actually laugh.  They are incapable of the guffaws we express during laughter, and the famous “face-grin” is now thought to be a gesture of submission, not amusement.  Moreover, language seems to be a requisite condition for almost all humor, and we have a virtual monopoly on that.  Koko the  Gorilla, who has mastered some hundreds of signs for communicating with her trainer, has signed a few playful or prankish messages, but she doesn’t laugh, and it is unclear whether they are expressions of amusement.
     The distinction between laughter and amusement is important.  Before the 17th century, there was no word in European languages for amusement or humor, only for laughter.  In earlier times the “humors” were thought to be the four fundamental fluids of the human body that determine a person’s physical and mental qualities, e.g. blood for the sanguine personality, phlegm for the phlegmatic.  With the emergence of a systematic philosophy of mind, it became apparent that laughter is the physical expression of an internal sensation of enjoyment we now refer to as “amusement.”  It is a state of consciousness, not of the body.  “Humor” is sometimes a synonym for “amusement,” but it is also used to refer to the amusement-causing quality of comedy and jokes.  I will use the term to mean any human experience that causes us amusement and inclines us to laugh - I say "inclines" because we don't always laugh even when we are amused.
      How might laughter and humor be of interest to a philosopher?  Many thinkers through the ages have written about laughter but not extensively until modern times.  Some philosophers (Plato, Hobbes) have disapproved of laughter or found something sinister in it.  Others, like Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas,  thought that a few chuckles now and then do no harm and may help to reduce stress.  Several more detailed theories have been proposed in modern times on the nature of humor and the role it plays in human life.  These have been well examined in recent decades (see list of resources below) and have coalesced into something of a consensus or at least a framework for a comprehensive philosophy of humor.  What are the main questions in a philosophical investigation of humor?
     The first part of the title of our meeting  - “Is this a joke?” is taken from the following story:

     A blind man, a lesbian, and a frog walk into a tavern.  The barkeep looks at them and says,
     "Is this a joke?"

Now you may not see any philosophy in this joke, but let’s take a closer look.  One thing we might notice is that it is a joke about jokes.  That seems possible only for beings that have acquired a high level of self-consciousness - we can think about our thinking, even humorous thinking.  So there is one philosophical hook.  Another has to do with the image called up by the joke.  It's funny, too, and that leads us to ask why certain visual situations make us laugh. When we do this kind of thing, we will not be explaining what particular jokes mean, which is always a dismal, spoil-sport kind of thing.  Our interests lean toward answers to deeper questions:
  • Why does joking exist?  Why does humor in general exist?
  • What is it in jokes that makes us laugh?  Is there a common feature?
  • What happens to us when we are in the state of amusement?
  • Obviously we love humor.  What are its benefits?  Are there ever any negative effects?
  • Are laughter and humor ever immoral?
Why does humor exist?

     The key historical event in the emergence of humor was language.  Prior to that, of course, we have no evidence at all to work with.  It is thought by some that pre-linguistic humans may have discovered laughter in certain "false-alarm" situations while hunting.  Many people would like to use the theory of evolution to explain humor, but that is a tall order.  The Standard Model of evolution by random genetic mutation and natural selection (Neo-Darwinism), despite its explanatory power, is more limited than people realize.  It cannot explain the origin of life nor - importantly for our purposes - the emergence of consciousness.  The Standard Model is a biological theory; it can tell us nothing directly about the origin or the evolution of sensation, perception, intelligence, self-consciousness, religion, or the arts.  Shall we look for a "humor gene" while we are searching for the "God gene?" Since humor is an item of consciousness, its study belongs to psychology and philosophy, not biology. 
     Another suggestion is that amusement and laughter are some kind of by-product.  There may be something in this view.  A by-product of what?  The best candidate is reason.  We know from studies of infants and young children that one's sense of humor develops right along with rationality.  Infants learn smiling from adults, later enjoy manipulating objects in amusing ways, and finally, with  the acquisition of language, are set up to enjoy and even create all the quirky things we do with language to amuse ourselves.  Rationality, then, appears to be a necessary condition for a sense of humor (not a sufficient condition, however - witness Mr. Spock of Star Trek.
     Laughing may be the strangest thing humans do and amusement the oddest thing we experience.  At present, although we have learned a lot about them, their existence remains utterly mysterious.  All we know for certain is that one of the phenomena this amazing universe produced is a species that one day discovered it could be overcome in certain situations by convulsive bodily movements and loud, staccato vocal noises, accompanied by sensations of intense enjoyment.  What kinds of situations lead to such weird behavior?  What is the nature of the comic?

What is it exactly that causes us to laugh?

     There have been several theories proposed by philosophers since the time of Plato - nicely summarized by Prof. John Morreall in his book Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor - but current thinking has largely coalesced around the Incongruity Theory, whose central tenet is that humor is the playful enjoyment of a cognitive disjunction or shift that inclines us to laughter.  The classic example is the two-step pattern of a stand-up comedian's joke.  Here is Woody Allen:

     Not only is there no God, but try to get a plumber on Sunday.

The juxtaposition in this joke of two normally unconnected ideas violates our expectations and makes us laugh.  In order to be amused by comic situations like this, we must be in Play Mode, which is characterized by relaxation and especially by practical disengagement, that is, a complete suspension of all concern with goals, practical action of any kind, any serious emotions, and cognitive preoccupations.  Comic disengagement allows us to see life from a cosmic, detached perspective and to appreciate the many absurdities life brings our way.  Joking and laughing free us, at least momentarily, from authorities, domineering spouses or bosses, cares of all kinds, from our own self-seriousness, and even from drab reason itself.
     There have been objections to the claim of a necessary connection between laughter and amusement.  Can we be sure that people who can't laugh - paralytics, brains in vats, gods and angels - are incapable of amusement?  What about someone who laughs at being informed that they have won the lottery?  Is that amusement or just joy?  How about a two-year old laughing while playing peek-a-boo?  The Incongruity Theory covers a lot of territory, but we may have to acknowledge that a search for a single concept of humor, a precise list of necessary and sufficient conditions, is futile.

     That's enough for this post.  In Part II, I will explore the ethics of humor and some similarities between philosophy and comedy.

Sources I used while researching this topic:
   Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic.
   Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Tavern.
   Ted Cohen, Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters.
   A.C. Grayling, "Laughter" in Thinking of Answers: Questions in the Philosophy of Everyday Life.
   John Morreall, Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor.


  1. The language prerequisite- I am not sure. What about the silent movies, that were predominantly slapstick humour? The cognitive disconnect still works, though, with visual humour, but language is redundant. We somehow bypass the language and the joke is more powerful.

  2. Right you are, Eleanor. Visual humor often requires no intervention of language. When I wrote that language was the "key historical event" in the history of humor, I meant only that when language appeared, the territory for humorous play was vastly enlarged in an entirely new dimension. The following sentence in the paragraph summarizes a popular speculation as to how humor may have emerged among pre-linguistic humans.

  3. “The most unfair thing about life is the way it ends. I mean, life is tough. It takes up a lot of your time. What do you get at the end of it? A Death! What's that, a bonus? I think the life cycle is all backwards. You should die first, get it out of the way. Then you live in an old age home. You get kicked out when you're too young, you get a gold watch, you go to work. You work forty years until you're young enough to enjoy your retirement. You do drugs, alcohol, you party, you get ready for high school. You go to grade school, you become a kid, you play, you have no responsibilities, you become a little baby, you go back into the womb, you spend your last nine months floating...

    ...and you finish off as an orgasm.”
    George Carlin quotes (American stand-up Comedian, Actor and Author. b.1937)

  4. The above quote illustrates for me a very important function for humour and that is a coping mechanism for the bad stuff in life. It turns the nasty upside down and makes us see it differently - gives us the means to diffuse the bad and see it in a ridiculous context.

  5. Yes, your point is echoed in all the sources I consulted on the subject. For another interesting viewpoint on the benefits of humor, check out "Humor and Freedom" at

  6. I've read that smiling when you're sad or angry, lifts the spirit and calms the beast, if only a little. It seems that, even in the absence of a feeling of amusement, flexing your smiling muscles cause hormonal activity that increases serotonin (or is it dopamine?), which among other things is implicated in causing a feeling of heightened awareness, feelings of benevolence, empathy with others, even joy. You can see the 'virtuous circle' in this, and the evolutionary advantage it could confer. Try it on yourself!