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L3M65 eb ddc: Page iii. L3M65 Preface It is a curious fact that although thousands of books and articles have appeared in our century dealing with human emotions and related phenomena, by far the greater number of these have been concerned with such things as fear and anger and anxiety.
Relatively little has been said about more positive phenomena like laughter. If we consider the close connection between psychology and the treatment of mental problems, perhaps this imbalance should not surprise us.
Nonetheless, we cannot hope to have anything like a complete picture of human life until we pay attention to such things as laughter. But until a few years ago, the study of laughter was treated in academic circles as frivolous. Because laughter is not a serious activity, the unstated argument seemed to run, it is not possible to take a serious interest in it; and so anyone proclaiming an interest in studying laughter probably just wants to goof off.
This argument is invalid, of course. The fact that laughter and humor involve a nonserious attitude does not imply that we cannot adopt a serious attitude toward examining them. Nor does the nonserious attitude in laughter and humor render them somehow unimportant as features of human life, and therefore unworthy of our attention. The last few years have seen, at least in psychology, a changed, more positive attitude toward the study of laughter.
But for all the empirical research which has been done, there have been very few attempts to construct a comprehensive theory of laughter and humor. And the recent theories that have been formulated have in most cases suffered from the same lack of rigor which made traditional theories unacceptable. What is needed most urgently at this point in the investigation is not more piecemeal studies on various small aspects of laughter and humor, but a general account of laughter and humor and how they fit into human life.
This account must be formulated in terms specific enough to give the theory some explanatory power; but must not, as past theories have done, simply take one kind of laughter and claim that all cases of laughter are really of that kind. What is needed, in short, is a philosophical examinationphilosophical in the narrower sense that it will be theoretical, and rigorously so, and philosophical in the wider sense that it will locate laughter in the human experience.
It is such an examination that I hope to provide in this book. I am grateful to the editor of the Journal of Aesthetic Education for permission to use parts of my article "Humor and Aesthetic Education," which appeared in Vol. Lastly, I am grateful to Kathleen Gefell Centola, who gave me encouragement and help, to Dave and Pete Huse, who first got me wondering what laughter is, and to Lillian Morreall, who has always been there to laugh at my stuff.
Page 1. In the first century the Roman Quintilian complained that no one had yet explained what laughter is, though many had tried. The major difficulty here is that we laugh in such diverse situations that it seems difficult, if not impossible, to come up with a single formula that will cover all cases of laughter. What could all of the following casesand this is a relatively short listhave in common?
Now this list could certainly be shortened by grouping some of the items under more general headings. We might lump joke telling and practical jokes together as jokes, for example, or we might make up a more general heading which covers both winning a contest and solving a puzzle. But is there some heading under which we might accommodate such diverse cases as winning a contest and being tickled? Part of the difficulty in finding the "essence" of laughter, if indeed there is such a thing, is that it is not at all clear how to even categorize laughter among human emotions and behavior.
When we look at the psychological and philosophical literature on fear or love, we find different approaches, of course, but there is agreement over the basics. Fear, for example, is an emotion connected with perceived imminent harmtheorists have agreed on at least that much since Aristotle. And they also agree that fear is connected with our actions inasmuch as it is connected with the impulse to flee.
Ethologists like Konrad Lorenz have studied how fear is related to "fight or flight" mechanisms in animals, and much of this research yields insights that help us understand fear in humans. Further, we can study the physiology of the fearful state along with its ethology to gain some understanding of how fear has had survival value for other species and for our own, and thus how it has fit into evolution. When we look at theories of laughter, on the other hand, we find no such agreement on the basics.
Some have classified laughter as an emotion, while others have insisted that laughter is incompatible with emotion. Somehow laughter is connected with emotionswe laugh with glee, with scorn, with giddiness, etc. But just what is this connection? There are difficulties, too, in trying to relate laughter to human action. Fear leads to flight, but there seems to be no action that laughter leads to. And studying animal emotion and behavior does not help here, for only a very few animals exhibit behavior that is even roughly similar to human laughter, and then it is only in reaction to such simple stimuli as tickling.
If we ask about the survival value of laughter and how it might have evolved, we also run into problems. Indeed, many have suggested that laughter does not have survival value and that it could only be disadvantageous to a species in which it evolved. Laughter often involves major physiological disturbances. There is an interruption of breathing and the loss of muscle tone; in heavy laughter there may be a loss of muscle controlthe person's legs may buckle, he may involuntarily urinate, etc.
If the traits that are preserved in a species are those which have survival value, how could something like laughter have been preserved in our species? As we set out to understand laughter, then, we stand forewarned not only of the great diversity of situations in which it occurs, but of the anomalous character of the behavior itself.
We will start our examination by considering the three traditional theories of laughter. Each lacks comprehensiveness, as we shall see, but each is valuable in calling our attention to a kind of laughter which must be accounted for when we try to construct a comprehensive theory. Page 4. This theory goes back at least as far as Plato, for whom the proper object of laughter is human evil and folly. The laughable person is the one who thinks of himself as wealthier, better looking, more virtuous, or wiser than he really is.
In laughing, furthermore, our attention is focused on vice. We should not cultivate laughter, he argues, lest some of what we are laughing at rub off on us. In heavy laughter, too, we lose rational control of ourselves, and so become less than fully human. Plato was especially opposed to conventionalized laughter as in comedies; indeed, he claims that it is harmful even to portray people as laughing in literature.
Nonetheless, there is always the danger of comedy having a morally damaging effect, and so no citizen should spend much time watching or reading comediescertainly he should never act in a comedy. Even wit, he says, is really educated insolence.
But this value of laughter should not be overrated. Since in laughing we are concerned with what is base, Aristotle insists, too much laughter is incompatible with living a good life. He also says that the joking attitude can be harmful to a person's character inasmuch as it makes him nonserious about important things.
In the Nicomachean Ethics he discusses how the person who laughs too much strays from the ethically desirable mean. They try to be funny at any cost, and aim more at raising a laugh than at saying what is proper and at avoiding pain to the butt of their jokes. For Hobbes the human race is a collection of individuals in constant struggle with one another. It expresses, according to Hobbes, "a sudden glory arising from some conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.
Like Plato and Aristotle, Hobbes was concerned that laughter could be harmful to a person's character. There is something wrong, he felt, with the person who can feel good about himself only by looking down on others. He admits that a person can laugh not from any explicit comparison of himself with others, but merely from "a sudden conception of some ability in himself.
And therefore much laughter at the defects of others, is a signe of Pusillanimity. For of great minds, one of the proper workes is, to help and free others from scorn; and compare themselves onely with the most able. An interesting recent development is the attempt to understand laughter in an evolutionary way as arising from aggressive gestures found in early humans.
The ethologist Konrad Lorenz, for example, sees laughter as a controlled form of aggression,12 and many theorists have been ready with suggestions as to how the physical behavior of laughing shows that laughter evolved from aggressive gestures and still retains this hostile character.
In The Secret of Laughter, Anthony Ludovici gives an evolutionary version of Hobbes's theory of "sudden glory"; all laughter, he says, is an expression of a person's feeling of "superior adaptation" to some specific situation, or to his environment in general. This showing of the teeth in laughter, as in the aggressive behavior of dogs, is a way of asserting one's physical prowess.
In laughter, Ludovici says, it is our way of telling the enemy that we are strong and better adapted to the situation than he is.
We still feel threatened when someone laughs at us, much as when an animal bares its teeth at us, because the laugher is putting himself in the position of an enemy challenging our position. We can see this development in the race paralleled in the development of the individual today, according to Ludovici: the first thing that children laugh at is the physical maladaptations of others, while later they come to also laugh at mental and cultural maladaptations. And not only would the individual combatant who was victorious laugh in triumph, but if his kin were standing on the sidelines, they would join in the laughter too.
In this way, Rapp suggests, citing Donald Hayworth, laughter may have come to serve as "a vocal signal to other members of the group that they might relax with safety. Originally people laughed at the black eye and the broken arm of the defeated combatant, but later they came to laugh outside of combat situations at any mark of injury or even deformity because these suggested that the person had been defeated in combat, or perhaps, in the case of deformity, that he would be.
In this way we came to laugh at those who had not attacked us, but who had suffered some misfortune or who were deformed in some way. Frailty, deformity, and error, Rapp says, are "modern substitutes for the battered appearance of one's defeated opponent which once triggered triumph laughter.
Indeed, people have been killed for laughing at other people just as they have been for physically attacking them. In modern humor this element of ridicule is not always obvious, Rapp admits, but that is because we sometimes add to the ridicule an affectionate, benevolent attitude toward the person being laughed at.
In genial humor, the "laughter is ridicule tempered with love. When directed toward a Tom Sawyer or Falstaff it is still laughing at weakness, error, deformity, or predicament in a character toward whom you feel affection. The feeling of superiority is still present when you laugh at yourself, Rapp says; what you are ridiculing is a "picture of yourself in a certain predicament.
Rapp also sees the need for his superiority theory to account for such things as puns and witty nonsense, which evoke laughter but which do not seem to be based on ridicule. I will save a discussion of these, however, until I come to my criticisms of the superiority theory. But before offering my own criticisms, I should note one line of response that has been directed against the superiority theory at least since its formulation by Hobbes.
This response consists in simply denying that laughter can be derisive. Perhaps we feel that no one should do so, but we must not confuse normative questions with factual ones. In point of fact, people often laugh at the misfortunes of others, and seem to have done so throughout recorded history.
Surely the Romans who came to the Colosseum to enjoy watching Christians mauled by lions laughed precisely at the suffering and death of those in the arena. And although Christian civilization was supposed to make people more sensitive than pagans to the suffering of others, still public torture and executions were a popular source of amusement through the Middle Ages and into our own "enlightened" centuries.
There is a record from the late Middle Ages of the citizens of the town of Mons buying a condemned criminal from a neighboring town so that they could have the fun of quartering him themselves. World literature from its earliest days has made many references to the laugh of derision.
It is found several times in the Iliad, for example, and is almost the only kind of laughter found in the Bible.
In the First Book of Kings we are told that Elijah taunted the priests of Baal, ridiculing their gods as powerless compared with Yahweh.
Taking Laughter Seriously
That is still true. Morreall has done an admirable job of analyzing earlier theories. His discussions of humor as aesthetic experience, social lubricant, and valuable human feature are original and provocative. Goldstein, Professor of Psychology, Temple University. John Morreall , Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern University, has published numerous articles on philosophy and linguistics.
John Morreall, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern University, has published numerous articles on philosophy and linguistics. He is the author of Analogy and Talking about God. Taking Laughter Seriously. John Morreall. The Superiority Theory. The Incongruity Theory. The Relief Theory.