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What is the cause & purpose of humour?

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This is something I've been thinking about for a while. Most emotions have a cause that is easily defined rationally, happyness/achievment of life-values and life, sadness/betrayal of life-values and loss of things conductive to life, fear/threats to life, etc. These applied are used as quick indicators of what is right and wrong and so on when they are based on a rational sense of life... but where does humor fit into that process? So far I've seen the cause of humor to vary widely, puns, satire, parody, stories, and the only common attribute I can find among them is that they are "funny". Since what is "funny" are things that cause laughter, you can see how the definiton goes in circles. I know there HAS to be some rational explanation of humor, but I cannot seem to find it.

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I know there HAS to be some rational explanation of humor, but I cannot seem to find it.

I think this is an issue more for psychology than for philosophy, but Miss Rand did have some words on the subject:

Humor is not an unconditional virtue; its moral character depends on its object. To laugh at the contemptible, is a virtue; to laugh at the good, is a hideous vice. Too often, humor is used as the camouflage of moral cowardice.

You might also look up the topic "Humor" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon as it contains an excerpt from one of Miss Rand's Q & A periods on the subject of humor.

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Before I got into objectivism I was fascinated by Valentine Michael Smith's (a human raised by Martians in Robert Heinlein's novel Stranger in a Strange Land) realization on humor:

"I've found out why people laugh. They laugh because it hurts so much… because it's the only thing that'll make it stop hurting."

I think most of the things we laugh at are some sorts of injustice. I think laughing agree with Rand that laughing can be moral cowardess. It's been awhile since I've read Atlas Shrugged, but to understand Rand's point of view better it would be good to see what John Galt laughed at.

I also agree that laughter has a lot to do with psychology, if I had to guess at it's purpose I'd say laughter fights pain. Empathy should have something to do with it, empathy makes us sensitive to the pain of other people but it would be impractical to have to deal with all of that yourself, laughing could be a way to deal with pain originating from empathy.

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I have long been a fan of C.S Lewis' The Screwtape Letters. In the Letters, Screwtape, an high level "temptor" in Hell gives advice to his young nephew, Wormwood, a junior temptor learning the ropes of stealing souls from God (referred to as "the Enemy"). The letters are full of insights about human nature, good and evil. C.S. Lewis was a Christian and his work shows a religious influence, but even so, The Screwtape Letters is a joy to read and contains some points that are spot on.

One of my favorite letters is number 11- on humor. I especially like the paragraph on flippancy. The letters are written from the point of view of Lewis' version of Evil, so keep that in mind.

MY DEAR WORMWOOD,

Everything is clearly going very well. Am specially glad to hear that the two new friends have now made him acquainted with their whole set. All these, as I find from the record office, are thoroughly reliable people; steady, consistent scoffers and worldlings who without any spectacular crimes are progressing quietly and comfortably towards our Father's house. You speak of their being great laughers. I trust this does not mean that you are under the impression that laughter as such is always in our favour. The point is worth some attention.

I divide the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy. You will see the first among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided, but the facility with which the smallest witticisms produce laughter at such a time shows that they are not the real cause. What that real cause is we do not know. Something like it is expressed in much of that detestable art which the humans call Music, and something like it occurs in Heaven—a meaningless acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience, quite opaque to us. Laughter of this kind does us no good and should always be discouraged. Besides, the phenomenon is of itself disgusting and a direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of Hell.

Fun is closely related to Joy—a sort of emotional froth arising from the play instinct. It is very little use to us. It can sometimes be used, of course, to divert humans from something else which the Enemy would like them to be feeling or doing: but in itself it has wholly undesirable tendencies; it promotes charity, courage, contentment, and many other evils.

The Joke Proper, which turns on sudden perception of incongruity, is a much more promising field. I am not thinking primarily of indecent or bawdy humour, which, though much relied upon by second-rate tempters, is often disappointing in its results. The truth is that humans are pretty clearly divided on this matter into two classes. There are some to whom "no passion is as serious as lust" and for whom an indecent story ceases to produce lasciviousness precisely in so far as it becomes funny: there are others in whom laughter and lust are excited at the same moment and by the same things. The first sort joke about sex because it gives rise to many incongruities: the second cultivate incongruities because they afford a pretext for talking about sex. If your man is of the first type, bawdy humour will not help you—I shall never forget the hours which I wasted (hours to me of unbearable tedium) with one of my early patients in bars and smoking-rooms before I learned this rule. Find out which group the patient belongs to—and see that he does not find out.

The real use of Jokes or Humour is in quite a different direction, and it is specially promising among the English who take their "sense of humour" so seriously that a deficiency in this sense is almost the only deficiency at which they feel shame. Humour is for them the all-consoling and (mark this) the all-excusing, grace of life. Hence it is invaluable as a means of destroying shame. If a man simply lets others pay for him, he is "mean"; if he boasts of it in a jocular manner and twits his fellows with having been scored off, he is no longer "mean" but a comical fellow. Mere cowardice is shameful; cowardice boasted of with humorous exaggerations and grotesque gestures can passed off as funny. Cruelty is shameful—unless the cruel man can represent it as a practical joke. A thousand bawdy, or even blasphemous, jokes do not help towards a man's damnation so much as his discovery that almost anything he wants to do can be done, not only without the disapproval but with the admiration of his fellows, if only it can get itself treated as a Joke. And this temptation can be almost entirely hidden from your patient by that English seriousness about Humour. Any suggestion that there might be too much of it can be represented to him as "Puritanical" or as betraying a "lack of humour".

But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it,

Your affectionate uncle   

SCREWTAPE

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Betsy Speicher has written on this topic here. All very interesting and insightful.

Indeed, what little there is of it.

Mrs. Speicher, you participate in these forums, right? Do you ever plan to finish? I seem to recall reading that material years ago and there seems to have been no progress in all this time. I'd be very interested in the rest of the first three sections (through to the end of "What makes humor funny or unfunny") at least.

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Do you ever plan to finish?  I seem to recall reading that material years ago and there seems to have been no progress in all this time.  I'd be very interested in the rest of the first three sections (through to the end of "What makes humor funny or unfunny") at least.

I will, but I have no immediate plans. My life is just too full right now. I did do a Prodos radio show and led a two-hour IRC chat on the subject of humor and you might be able to find them on the Net somewhere.

Also feel free to ask me questions although I may not have much of a chance to answer until after my November CyberNet deadline.

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I will, but I have no immediate plans.  My life is just too full right now.  I did do a Prodos radio show and led a two-hour IRC chat on the subject of humor and you might be able to find them on the Net somewhere.

I know about Prodos and his site, so the radio show will be easy enough to track down. But I used Google and didn't see a chat transcript. I can try looking harder later when I have more time, but first I'd like to ask if anyone here already has a copy/link.

Also feel free to ask me questions although I may not have much of a chance to answer until after my November CyberNet deadline.

I'd be very interested in the rest of the "how-to" portions of your essay (the rest of the second, third and last sections). If there's anything we readers can do to speed you up, let us know... I'm sure I'm not the only one who would like to see more. :D

In the meantime, though, as far as questions go I'd be interested in what you have to say on sarcasm specifically.

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In the meantime, though, as far as questions go I'd be interested in what you have to say on sarcasm specifically.

Sarcasm is the type of humor in which the punchline is the OPPOSITE of the teller's actual conclusion and the audience has to identify the contradiction in order to reach the REAL conclusion and get the joke. Sarcasm in speech is usually set up by using a tone of voice that undercuts and contradicts the actual words.

Example: If I were to say "John F. Kerry is a brilliant moralist and statesman," it would be sarcastic and anyone who knew my real opinion would be able to tell. If his running-mate John Edwards made the same statement, it would not be sarcastic -- at least as far as Edwards was concerned.

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Hello!

Humor is a mental contrast between something that makes sense and something that does not. Three elements are needed: the nonsensical element, the corresponding "sensical" element, and the connection between the two.

Example 1:

Q. Why did the little boy throw the clock out the window?

A. He wanted to see time fly.

"Sensical" element: "Time fly" as a metaphor for the sense of time moving quickly.

Nonsensical element: "Time fly" in a literal sense, with "time" meaning a clock.

The connection between the two: two interpretations of the same phrase.

Example 2:

Q: Why did the farmer go to town?

A: Fireplace.

While the answer certainly is nonsensical, there is no corresponding "sensical" element, and therefore there is no perception of humor. Another way of looking at this: A typical sensical answer of "To buy groceries" has no connection to the given nonsensical element, and therefore the humor fails. If it indeed was such an attempt.

I presented a paper and a workshop on this topic at the Texas Objectivist Societies Conference in 1993 (?). I'd always wanted to give the topic a more scholarly polish; perhaps it's getting to be that time. =)

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This is something I've been thinking about for a while.  Most emotions have a cause that is easily defined rationally, happyness/achievment of life-values and life, sadness/betrayal of life-values and loss of things conductive to life, fear/threats to life, etc.  These applied are used as quick indicators of what is right and wrong and so on when they are based on a rational sense of life... but where does humor fit into that process?  So far I've seen the cause of humor to vary widely, puns, satire, parody, stories, and the only common attribute I can find among them is that they are "funny".  Since what is "funny" are things that cause laughter, you can see how the definiton goes in circles.  I know there HAS to be some rational explanation of humor, but I cannot seem to find it.

Is humor an emotion? Laughter is, but humor? I would think humor is a complex art designed to create laugther. Hence your apparant problem.

Laughter has direct beneficial effects. This is one possible rational cause: the conscient production of hormones that make you feel good . There actually is physiological proof laughter has a positive impact on physical processes.

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Hello!

Humor is a mental contrast between something that makes sense and something that does not.  Three elements are needed:  the nonsensical element, the corresponding "sensical" element, and the connection between the two.

I have a different explanation for humor.

I hold that humor always involves the same three structural elements:

1) The setup - that sets the context

2) The punch line - that leads quickly, and inevitably, to ...

3) The conclusion - a mental connection formed suddenly by the person hearing / seeing / etc. the funny thing.

My theory is explained in greater detail, with examples, at http://www.speicher.com/humor.htm, but let's see how it applies to the examples given here.

Example 1:

Q. Why did the little boy throw the clock out the window?

A. He wanted to see time fly.

"Sensical" element:  "Time fly" as a metaphor for the sense of time moving quickly.

Nonsensical element: "Time fly" in a literal sense, with "time" meaning a clock.

The connection between the two: two interpretations of the same phrase.

I see this as a "play on words" -- a kind of humor where forming the conclusion consists of identifying the TWO meanings of a word or phrase with a double meaning.

The setup is the question, the punch line is the answer, and the conclusion is identifying the two meanings of "time fly."

Example 2:

Q: Why did the farmer go to town?

A:  Fireplace.

While the answer certainly is nonsensical, there is no corresponding "sensical" element, and therefore there is no perception of humor.

I'd say it is not funny because there is NO CONCLUSION that can be formed from the question and answer. In fact, something like this is often called a "pointless joke" because jokes are supposed to have a point -- i.e., a conclusion.

I presented a paper and a workshop on this topic at the Texas Objectivist Societies Conference in 1993 (?).  I'd always wanted to give the topic a more scholarly polish; perhaps it's getting to be that time. =)

I remember reading your paper somewhere (Cantique?) and thinking I'd love to discuss humor with you.

This could be my big chance. :D

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Is humor an emotion? Laughter is, but humor? I would think humor is a complex art designed to create laugther.

That's how I see it -- as an activity designed to invoke a certain kind of pleasure in another person as an end in itself.

Observe that all pleasures have a life-affirming function. They reward and encourage choices and actions that further life.

Some pleasures are primarily physical, such as eating or exercising, and thry encourage us to take actions that enhance our physical well being. Some pleasures are primarily psychological, such as art which encourages and rewards our pursuit of values. Some (like sex!) are both.

Humor invokes the intense but short-lived pleasure that results from suddenly forming a conclusion. "Aha!" and "Ha Ha!" are very similar psychologically except that "Aha!" occurs while doing productive thinking and "Ha Ha!" is invoked as an end it itself. The pleasure of humor is experienced if and when someone "gets the joke" -- i.e., when he forms the conclusion that follows from the setup and punch line. Internally, it feels like "I figured it out. Good for me!"

The life-affirming pleasure of humor rewards and encourages that which human life depends on psycho-epistemologically. It rewards forming a new conclusion by identifying, integrating, and/or differentiating. Humor rewards and encourages THINKING.

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