Philosophy of Humor: The Serious Side of Laughter

When philosophers look at humor, they attempt to explain its function, how it hinders or enhances human relations, and what makes something humorous. Traditionally, many philosophers have looked down upon humor, and Plato even referred to laughter as an emotion that interrupted one’s rational self-control. Plato called laughter malicious, and described enjoying comedy as being a type of scorn. In Plato’s ideal state, humor would be under tight control; the Guardian class would have to avoid laughing; and no “composer of comedy” would be allowed to make citizens laugh.

Plato’s objections to humor and laughter carried over to Christian thinkers and, later, to European philosophers. In the Bible, laughter is often referred to as a source of hostility, and in monasteries, laughter was condemned. As thought reformed in the Middle Ages, the view of humor remained the same. Puritans despised humor and laughter, and when they came to rule England in the seventeenth century, comedies were completely outlawed.


These ideas of comedy and laughter are also found in the work of Western philosophy. In Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, Hobbes calls humans competitive and individualistic, and says that by laughing, we are expressing superiority through grimaces. Similarly, in Descartes’s Passions of the Soul, laughter is considered to be an expression of ridicule and scorn. Here are some schools of thought about humor.

The Superiority Theory

From the work of Hobbes and Descartes comes the superiority theory. According to this theory, when one laughs, he is expressing feelings of superiority. These feelings can be expressed over others or even over one’s former state.

This philosophical theory was the dominant one until the eighteenth century, when philosopher Francis Hutcheson critiqued the ideas of Thomas Hobbes. Hutcheson claimed that feeling superior is neither a sufficient nor a necessary explanation of laughter and that there are cases when one laughs in which feelings of glory or self-comparison are simply not present. For example, one can laugh at a figure of speech that seems odd.

In other cases of humor, we see the points Hutcheson was making. When we watch Charlie Chaplin, we laugh at the incredibly clever stunts he performed. Laughing at these stunts does not require one to compare himself to Chaplin, and even if one does compare himself, he does not laugh because he believes himself to be superior.

People also have the ability to laugh at themselves without laughing at their former selves, which the superiority theory cannot explain. If one searches for his glasses only to discover that he has been wearing them the whole time, this is reason to laugh. However, this type of laughter does not fit with the model set forth by the superiority theory.

The Relief Theory

One theory that came about during the eighteenth century that weakens the superiority theory is known as the relief theory. The relief theory claims laughter behaves in the nervous system the way a pressure-relief valve works in a steam boiler.

The relief theory first appears in 1709 in Lord Shaftesbury’s An Essay on the Freedom and Wit of Humor, and it is notable for being the very first time humor is discussed as being a sense of funniness.

During this time period, scientists understood that the brain has nerves that connect it to muscles and sense organs. However, scientists also believed nerves carried liquids and gases, like blood and air, which they referred to as “animal spirits.” In An Essay on the Freedom and Wit of Humor, Shaftesbury claims these animal spirits build pressure within the nerves, and that laughter is responsible for releasing the animal spirits.

As science advanced and the biology of the nervous system became clearer, the relief theory adapted. According to philosopher Herbert Spencer, emotions actually take on a physical form within the body, and this is known as nervous energy. Spencer claimed that nervous energy leads to muscular motion. For example, the nervous energy from anger creates small movements (like clenching your fist), and as the anger increases, so too do the muscle movements (like throwing a punch). Thus, the nervous energy builds up and is then released.

According to Spencer, laughter also releases nervous energy. However, Spencer identifies one major difference between the release of nervous energy from laughter versus other emotions: The muscle movements caused by laughter are not the beginning stages of larger actions. Laughter, unlike emotions, does not revolve around having a motivation to do something. The bodily movements associated with laughter are simply a release of pent-up nervous energy.

Spencer then goes on to claim that the nervous energy that laughter releases is the energy of inappropriate emotions. For example, if you are reading a story that starts off by causing anger but then ends in a joke, the anger from the beginning needs to be re- evaluated. So that nervous energy, which is no longer applicable, is then released in the form of laughter.

Perhaps the most famous version of the relief theory is Sigmund Freud’s. He looked at three different types of situations that would result in laughter being the release of nervous energy from a psychological activity: “joking,” “the comic,” and “humor.” According to Freud, in joking (the telling of jokes and funny banter), the unnecessary energy represses feelings; in the comic (for example, laughing at a clown), the unnecessary energy is that energy devoted to thinking (a large amount of energy is required to understand the clumsy movements of the clown, while a small amount of energy is required for us to perform our own movements smoothly, thus creating a surplus of energy); and in humor, the release of energy is similar to the release described by Herbert Spencer (an emotion becomes prepared, then is never utilized and needs to be laughed off).

The Incongruity Theory

The second challenge to the superiority theory, which also came about during the eighteenth century, is the incongruity theory. According to this theory, laughter is caused by the perception of something that is incongruous, meaning it violates our expectations and our mental patterns. This is currently the dominant theory explaining humor; it has been backed by influential philosophers and psychologists, including Søren Kierkegaard, Immanuel Kant, and Arthur Schopenhauer (it was even hinted at by Aristotle).

James Beattie, the first philosopher to use the term incongruous when referencing the philosophy of humor, claimed that laughter is caused by the mind taking notice of two or more incongruous circumstances that unite in one complex assemblage. Kant, who never used the term incongruous, examined how jokes toy with one’s expectations. To Kant, jokes (for example, a setup followed by a punch line) evoke, shift, and then dissipate one’s thoughts. Kant notes that the thrust of ideas then creates a physical thrust of one’s internal organs, and this is, in turn, an enjoyable physical stimulation.

Following Kant’s work, Arthur Schopenhauer’s version of the incongruity theory claimed that the sources of humor are the abstract rational knowledge we have of something and the sense perceptions of those things. Schopenhauer claimed humor is the result of suddenly realizing the incongruity between a concept of something and the perception of something that should be the same.

As the theory of incongruity developed throughout the twentieth century, a flaw of older versions was discovered—the implication that, with regard to humor, the perception of incongruity is sufficient. This cannot be, because instead of amusement, one could theoretically experience anger, disgust, or fear, for example. Therefore, humorous amusement is not simply responding to incongruity; it is enjoying it.

Nervous Energy?

While there is a connection between laughter and muscles, almost no philosopher today explains humor as a release of pent-up nervous energy.

One of the most recent forms of incongruity, created by Michael Clark, states that first one perceives something to be incongruous; then one enjoys perceiving it; and then one enjoys the incongruity. The incongruity is enjoyed simply for itself (or at least some of it). This theory does a better job of explaining humor than the relief and the superiority theories, since it accounts for all types of humor.