A Philosopher Looks at The Sense of Humor by Richard C. Richards

A Philosopher Looks at The Sense of Humor by Richard C. Richards

Letter to Richard Richards regarding A Philosopher Looks At The Sense of Humor 

from Lowell Herr, Cal State Pomona Philosophy Department

Many times your book would have me bust out with laughter (especially the end notes), or a quiet chuckle.  I know you intended to both explain your incongruity theory of humor and to exemplify it at every opportunity.  One of my favorite riffs is your concern that cows might contract Mad Christian Disease.

A polished sense of humor, and great timing, has been your forte as a teacher over the many years.  As I’ve told you many times, it was my enjoyment of your Ancient Philosophy class that prompted me to sign on as a philosophy major.  I still remember the way you infused humor into your discussion of the pre-Socratics.  It was priceless.  That was the hallmark of your class.

Love the clarity of your book and the uncluttered nature of your prose.  The definitions that you offer early on ­ of amusement, entertainment, comedy and so forth ­ seem to me to illustrate analytic philosophy put to good work.  That part of the book brought to mind being in your Philosophy of Art class.

You offer in chapter 1 a set of stipulative definitions of various key terms for the benefit of those people who want to think clearly about the difference between laughter and humor, and about the nature of the sense of humor.  Unlike the prolix writings of the philosophers of art circa 1970, you proceeded to give very useful definitions in very precise and orderly fashion.  You classified humor as a type of play, play as spontaneous pleasurable behavior.  I liked how you discuss child development through natural playful activities, and how play continues to be very important for our happiness throughout life. Next was amusement,  the pleasant passing of time, and entertainment, the effort to amuse others, and comedy, the attempt to provoke laughter in others.  You were cornering in on your quarry, humor and the sense of humor.
If good analytic philosophy requires clear definition of terms and insightful analysis, I would say you succeed brilliantly being a good analytic philosopher.

Your book is written so clearly and is so easy to read, that people might overlook the depth of your accomplishment. It is a clear read for any capable undergraduate student yet at the same
time, opening up a vital area of human experience that is not well understood and is actually rarely discussed.

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Review by A fellow philosopher of A Philosopher Looks At The Sense of Humor presented at the 7th Annual Lighthearted Philosophers’ Society Conference

by Steve Gimbel, Chairperson/Edwin T. Johnson and Cynthia Shearer Johnson Distinguished Professor in the Humanities, Philosophy at Gettysburg College

Richard’s new book is a wonderful addition to the growing literature of the field and its focus on the sense of humor and not jokes, laughter, or humor writ large gives his work the sort of rigor and focus that we need to be taken seriously as a subfield. His informal style coupled with his clarity, make this readable for everyone from intro-level undergrads to serious scholars of the philosophy of humor. It is a great book. It is insightful, engaging and accessible to the non-technician. It is a must-read for any serious scholar of the philosophy of humor and even better for those who are not so serious.

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Review – A Philosopher Looks at the Sense of Humor

by Camille Atkinson, Ph.D., Bend, OR

Metapsychology Online Reviews, May 13th 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 20)

Not only is Richards’s book delightful, inspiring and intellectually stimulating, it’s fun to read. Besides providing further food for thought, Richards gives a concise and cogent definition of “the sense of humor,” describing how it’s related to happiness but is distinct from comedy, laughter and aesthetic pleasure in general. He also includes a few jokes and witticisms of his own. This book is not just for philosophers, but for anyone with a sense of humor who can’t imagine life without the unique kind of pleasure it affords.

Among Richards’s most important contributions is the way he distinguishes humor from laughter and comedy. More often than not, all three are conflated and have been since the 16th century — if not longer. This confusion occurs not only in everyday conversation but among philosophers, academics and other so-called experts. However, Richards shows that laughter is an observable (or audible), typically involuntary “physical behavior,” while humor represents “a conscious realization” that is not always empirically verifiable. (9-10) In addition, just as human behavior is complex and manifold, so too is laughter — for there are many things at which we laugh and many kinds of laughter. There is the laughter of derision or scorn, of delight or joy, of anxiety or fear. We laugh to relieve nervous energy, express grief or simply because laughing is, “the only response we have left.” (112) On the other hand, “all senses of humor share the essential characteristic of the sense of humor” making it a one-of-a-kind phenomenon. (7, my italics)

Because of these different causes of laughter, many theoreticians have concluded there must be distinct types of humor and Richards briefly considers two of the most common: Humor as “relief” — the view usually attributed to Freud or Spencer. And, the “superiority theory” that is typically associated with Hobbes or Plato. However, neither of these necessarily involves “the playful appreciation of incongruities” which is how Richards defines “the sense of humor.” (30) In other words, although we laugh for various reasons, humor is singular and can exist with or without laughter. Again, laughing is generally “involuntary and immediate” — assuming, of course, that it is sincere or genuine. (14) On the other hand, humor must be cultivated and requires the conscious effort of “putting things in a different perspective.” (116) Richards credits Provine’s empirical studies as having proved the former claim, then bases his own analysis of humor on that foundation.  (Robert R. Provine,Laughter: A Scientific Investigation (New York: Viking, 2000)) At this point, I too am convinced that most laughs have nothing to do with humor. I also now find it remarkable that so many “highly intelligent and talented human beings have confused the behavior of laughter with the phenomenon of humor” (18). (See Henri Bergson,Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, trans. by Brereton and Rothwell (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 1999) And, much to my own embarrassment, I too must plead “guilty” having made precisely this mistake in my own work — see “What’s So Funny? Or, Why Humor Should Matter to Philosophers”, Philosophy Today, Volume 50:5, 2006, pp. 437-43.)

So, whether or not one laughs overtly, a person appreciating humor is having a distinct kind of aesthetic experience — one which, “requires a playful frame of mind, or playful orientation, regarding an incongruity.” (71) Notice that this involves not merely recognizing or being aware of incongruities, but enjoying or appreciating them in a specific way. To say that someone “has” this sense is to say not only that she is capable of noticing “the unexpected occurrences, surprises, ambiguities, inconsistencies, contradictions and paradoxes with which life confronts us,” but that she finds them pleasurable and/or “appreciates” their “worth.” (30 and 76, respectively) What is crucial is the ability to share in the enjoyment of humor or recognize its value — whether or not one has a talent for creating it. Again, one might laugh to show appreciation for humor but this is not a necessary condition for finding it enjoyable or worthwhile. On the other hand, someone might laugh scornfully, taking pleasure in a sarcastic or cutting remark, but this is an entirely different sort of activity. More specifically, while humor exists with or without laughter, comedy would be impossible without it.

Richards defines “comedy” as “a form of entertainment” that attempts “to provoke laughter in others.” (28) Certainly, professional comedians rely on getting laughs and depend on that to earn a living. On the other hand, “the goal of humor is playful appreciation of an incongruity.” (80) Though the line between these two isn’t always obvious, just watch what goes on in comedy clubs where it quickly becomes apparent that laughter is all that counts. In other words, the cause of the laughter is irrelevant. It makes no difference whether one is laughing at or with the performers, out of derision, discomfort or delight. In fact, many comedians have built lucrative careers on making the audience uncomfortable. Referring to Ricky Gervais, one journalist said, “The man is an absolute genius when it comes to making people cringe. (Chris Wright, “The Hemi Q & A: Ricky Gervais,” Hemispheres Magazine, October 2013, p. 70.) Since examples of cringe-inducing comedy are ubiquitous, there’s little need to provide specifics. In general, jokes that play on racial or gender stereotypes, make liberal use of profanity, poke-fun at death or drug use, etc. are likely to provoke laughs of anxiety, nervousness, even a sadistic sense of superiority — and this alone is sufficient for comedy. However, in no way does this imply that the comedian or his audience has a sense of humor. In other words, one might find an off-color or offensive joke “funny” but that doesn’t mean it’s humorous or playfully insightful.

Here’s where distinguishing between “the funny-ha-ha” and “the funny-peculiar” might help. Unlike the general concept of humor, “the funny” is a characteristic attributed to individuals — particular persons, jokes, experiences, etc. and Richards identifies two meanings: There is “funny-ha-ha” — namely, the sort that excites “positive laughter” and is “associated with pleasure.” And, there is “funny-peculiar” which may or may not provoke laughs but tends to generate a reaction of some sort — a grimace, expression of distaste, confusion and so forth. (35-36) “Funny” in this sense refers to situations in which we take note of something odd, discomforting or baffling. If one happens to laugh in this context, it’s most likely “nervous, confused or hysterical laughter” and “not as a consequence of pleasure.” (36, my italics) So, although laughter and “funny-ha-ha” may be pleasurable, it does not require an appreciation of incongruity. However, Richards is equally quick to point out that the incongruous per se is not humorous. Rather, it takes a sense of humor “to transform a simple incongruity into the stuff of humor” — or, at the very least, to find enjoyment and value in such transformations. (36) And herein lays the relationship between humor and happiness.

To be able to appreciate anything — cultural artifacts, natural wonders, friendship, even simple physical pleasures — takes experience and understanding. So, does a sense of humor: “A developed sense of humor is as uncommon as a developed sense of the aesthetic. Many of us are on the road to developing and improving both, but it takes years.” (109, my italics) Just as Aristotle argues that children are incapable of happiness, because they lack reason and haven’t had time to develop their characters, so too will a sense of humor remain elusive as long as one fails to cultivate an appreciation for incongruity. What makes this kind of cultivation difficult, besides the lack of time or opportunity, is that the incongruous alone is not a source of humor. In fact, “a given incongruity may be an annoyance or an object of apprehension.” (111) What is essential is the ability to “transform” or see incongruities in a new light. If others are doing the “reframing” and creating humor, it means having the capacity to enjoy or value their efforts.

In conclusion, I have only one minor reservation — the apparent circularity of Richards’s basic argument. Specifically, it takes a sense of humor to appreciate incongruities; and, the appreciation of incongruity is what defines the sense of humor. However, this is neither an unusual nor a catastrophic problem. Moreover, it’s analogous to one that plagues Aristotelian ethics — namely, that it takes a virtuous man to know what virtue is; and, one must habitually perform virtuous actions in order to become a man of virtue. Thus, it’s not surprising that Richards himself invokes Aristotle in this very context saying, “we should expect no more clarity than the subject matter will allow” (108). He also draws parallels between the sense of humor and “good taste” in art: “It takes developed judgment…in both cases.” (114) Ultimately, I agree with Richards that many such mysteries will remain. For instance, why do some folks appear to have a natural, ready-made aptitude for humor, while others never seem to acquire it? Is this question any less intractable than wondering why certain people are naturally inclined toward happiness? As human beings, we are nothing if not diverse and complex. So, instead of being haunted by such existential conundrums, why not just playfully appreciate them?

What I find most remarkable in this book is not only how edifying it is — regarding humor, laughter, comedy and happiness — but how much fun it is to return to again and again. Even more importantly, Richards reminds us that humor is one of life’s most inexpensive and least risky sources of pleasure. To fail to appreciate this is to do ourselves an enormous disservice!

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