Chapter III. Can Humor Be Defined?

I do not think that anybody can give an adequate explanation.

Quintilian Institutio Oratoria VI.iii.7)

There is no single definition of humor acceptable to all investigators in the area.

(Goldstein & McGhee 1983:xxi)


Apte (1985:265) says, "I do not believe that a global anthropological theory of humor and laughter is possible. Psychological and philosophical theories are supposedly not able to deal with institutionalized, cultural, and anthropological humor. But Apte admits, "I have offered no comprehensive, global theory of humor." Schaeffer (1981:86) says that it is impossible to define humor. Escarpit (1963) devotes Chapter I "On the Impossibility of Defining Humor." Lefcourt (2001:27) in regard to humor speaks of "explanatory despair." "There is no general to what humour is." (O'Neill in Pratt 1993:61) McGhee & Goldstein (1983, I:v) "There is still no agreement on how humor should be defined. Nor is there agreement on how appreciation or comprehension should be determined." E. B. White (1977:525) says, "To interpret humor is as futile as explaining a spider's web in terms of geometry." Croce also says that humor is definable. (1903:228) Richard Norman 1995:23) wrote, "The existence of laughter is not something which can be explained further. It cannot be derived from any other features of human behaviour and attempts to explain it in that way have always been ludicrously inadequate."


Very little is known about…humor. (Attardo 1994:144)

To understand humor we must understand the nature of definition. It is a mistake to say that there are terms which cannot be defined. All terms can be defined. The question is as to the nature of definition. As Plato discovered, especially in his early dialogues, there is no single descriptive definition for a term. There are stipulative definitions, but such definitions are neither universal nor absolute. "What is the definition of humor?" is a many-question fallacy because it assumes that there is a single definition which applies to all times, places, and contexts whatsoever. There is no such thing. Plato sought such a fixed, permanent reality of pure forms, natures or essences. Scientists seek a similar sort of definition when they speak of facts, or truth, or laws. But facts are only well-confirmed hypotheses applicable to certain situations and contexts. Nothing is true in itself or absolutely true. To see this we may ask what we could substitute for "X" to make the following statement true: "Humor is X." The one thing we can substitute is "humor," to yield, "Humor is humor." This statement is true, but only in the sense that it is circular. In one sense it is absurd to say a circular statement is true. It is merely a repetition of a term. "Humor is humor" is true, but the statement does not say anything. If we substitute something noncircular for "X" the statement will state something, but will not necessarily be true, e.g., "Humor is saved energy." (A Freudian view criticized in the chapter on the theories of humor.)

Because there can be no literal or single definition of humor, virtually all definitions may be thought to be metaphors, models, or perspectives. To define is to take a model or metaphor. By thinking of definitions in this way we will not erroneously think that there is only a single definition or way of thinking about a term, and so will not take our definitions literally and commit the "metaphor-to-myth fallacy." It is a mistake (and so also a joke) to think there is a single definition of humor, or any other term, which will apply to all types, in all contexts, places and times. There is virtually no fixed of absolute definition of anything. All we can give is perspectives, useful or useless models and metaphors. My own analysis and presentation here is itself a model or metaphor. To take oneself seriously is sometimes to be able to see oneself in only one perspective. Humor allows us to accept or deny reality better, and to see ourselves in diverse, different, extraordinary and curious perspectives.

Synonyms or terms related to definition and metaphor are: diagram, schema, picture, map, formula, hypothesis, theory, model, paradigm, etc. One reason for thinking of a definition as a metaphor is that neither definition nor metaphor says anything unless it is expanded and developed. A metaphor can be interpreted in many ways, but not in a single or unique way. It needs expansion. Thus, to say that humor has no definition, is false. It has as many definitions as we wish to establish. And to say there is no single definition of humor, would be obvious. Our task then is not to look for a literal or single absolute definition of humor. The task is rather to find the most useful and adequate models and metaphors available. (For an additional explication of definition see the spoof entitled "Philosophy is an Orange" under "Expansion of Metaphor Humor.") The theory presented in this book is not a theory in the sense that all humor may be represented by a single statement, feeling or action. Rather, the theory shows that humor is the result of many kinds of statements, feelings, and situations.

Because humor is an emotion, what applies for the theory of emotions presented earlier, applies for humor. If we know about emotion we already know a great amount about humor even before examining it in concrete detail: Emotion is assessments (language-use plus imagery) which cause bodily feeling and action. Therefore, humor is statements which cause feeling and action in a certain context. (My use of the words "thought" and "cognition" would always only refer to language-use plus some imagery.) It also follows from the theory of emotion that: Humor is not just a bodily feeling or internal state; humor can be changed by changing our valuations; humor words partly describe each of the following: assessments (language-use), feelings, action, context; we can never have exactly the same humor experience twice because of variations of the factors mentioned above; humor may be distinguished from other emotions by the different appraisals, feelings, actions, and contexts involved in it; laughter as it just involves bodily feeling and action is not the criterion of humor. Thus, we arrive at the definition of humor mentioned at the beginning of this book: Humor is produced by the appraisal that there is a mistake, but one which is not bad or harmful. This, then, produces laughter and good bodily feelings. This definition will now be expanded and tested by a discussion of seriousness and the grotesque. The vast number of diverse and dissimilar humor terms, antonyms and synonyms, will be seen to be reduced to and clarified by the above definition.

C. Seriousness, the Grotesque, and Humor

Humor is too important to be taken seriously.

I'd say seriousness diverts us from the humorous.

Three people injured, none of them serious.

"What does it mean to take a joke seriously?" It means to take it as being fearful or bad. Anything which deviates from a serious person's goals, or research, may be regarded as being bad. Such a person will not then easily respond to humor. This indicates that if people who usually respond to humor, fail to respond, they are possibly worried, fearful, upset, or distracted. If the person almost never responds to humor, it suggests a possible psychological disturbance. One test for the presence of emotional problems is conducted by seeing how much humor a person will allow. A sense of humor is an important factor in judging whether or not psychiatric patients are well adjusted enough to leave the hospital. It was found by one psychologist that those who could not give free expression to humor, could express other emotions even less. Starer (1961) found that schizophrenic and neurotic people were more vulnerable to disturbing cartoons than are normal subjects. Grotjahn (1957:81) wrote, "A sense of humor signifies emotional maturity." It may also simply be that some individuals never learned to appreciate or create humor to any extent. It would be impossible, however, to find someone who never has any humor at all. This is because it is the nature of language use to sometimes create humorous juxtapositions, ironies, satires, etc. of some type. To be generally humorless is to be brain dead or an extremely negative person.

Some can appreciate humor, but not create it, and vice versa. To take something seriously is often to take it literally, and not be able to see the double or deviant meaning, or larger perspectives. Narrow thinking misses intended ambiguity humor. In dealing with humor one needs something like poetic license. With poetic license one need not talk as people usually do. Poets are allowed to say strange things. They "talk funny." They speak in metaphors. They are, nevertheless, often accepted as poets and allowed to be such in spite of the fact that some regard poets as being mad.

Similarly, the humorist needs what we may here coin as a "humor license," a license which allows one to create humor without being condemned for it. People say one only "indulges" in humor, as if it were a waste of time. The license is especially necessary for humor, because humor does not work if one is too serious, or does not accept it. Before telling a joke it is important to know if you have a "humor license." To "Do you want to hear something humorous?" the witty reply may come, "No, I don't." We lose our humor license. It was as if a police officer had given one a ticket for telling a joke.

Laughter is not a criterion of humor. Sometimes we do not laugh because of the fact that we are serious. At other times we do laugh because of the situation. This is the nervous laugh encountered in social situations. We are uneasy. There is nothing humorous present or imagined. We are just uncomfortable, and perhaps fear rejection. So we do the natural hypocritical thing. We pretend to laugh. We fake laughter to look as if we are at ease and having a good time. We might even say, "What fun," at the dullest moment. This kind of laughter is not humor. The valuation is based on the situation being bad or fearful. To be serious is to be severe. Humor need not involve laughter and laughter need not involve humor. Actors may laugh. It's a matter of adjusting one's mouth in a certain way. Pilots laugh when cities are being bombed. This is not a sign of humor. Hebephrenics smile all the time. Salespeople, waiters, and perhaps most people are trained to smile and laugh for social purposes, not because there is humor present. On the other hand, something may be seen as humorous, yet induce no smile or laughter. Laughter and smiling are not necessary criteria for the presence of humor. The appraisal that there is something like an acceptable mistake is essential to the presence of humor.

"Serious" sometimes means "fearful, grave, grim, worried," and sometimes it means "objective," and "diligent." The uses become confused, as when a student feels he or she must look serious (worried) in order to be serious (objective and diligent). One can be an extremely intelligent researcher and still be humorous and use humor. It is, in fact, a sign that one is a creative and critical thinker. We need not look as if we just ate a lemon in order to be diligent and attentive. Laughter is sometimes a sign that behavior is not to be taken seriously. We sometimes hear, "Simile when you say that." It suggests that if one smiles, what one says is not really true. It is to wink as you make a statement. It is a kind of irony. It is to say something and take it back at the same time.

Another sense of seriousness is the serious joke. The serious joke does involve humor and gives new knowledge or insight at the same time. It is like satire, loaded humor, or insight humor. A statement taken seriously (sternly, or as being bad) cannot yield humor. But humor itself can be taken seriously (critically, intelligently) as insight or satire, and still be humor. The opposite of one sense of "serious" is trivial. It is, then, erroneously thought that humor is trivial. The opposite of unenlightened seriousness can be vital insight humor. What one laughs at tells us what one is, and what one is not, serious about. Some people regard sex and religion humor as taboo. They are offended by it. Others may reject "loaded humor," or humor which is critical of them (such as of a government). This shows that these people are fearful about certain subjects. It raises the question of whether or not there are things one cannot joke about.

The point here is that humor delimits the boundary lines of our fears, seriousness, and nonacceptance. The protest is heard, "Is nothing sacred?" And some humor is called "sick" or "black." (See black humor in section on value deviation humor.) And this is one of the most "serious" difficulties regarding humor. One never knows for certain when one will offend, when someone will take a joke too seriously, when one will go too far. People are often not kind with roughly seventy-five percent of their emotions being negative. To joke with people is to take a risk. One must expect the possibility of the joke "falling flat," or the audience being offended. People play games here. Some purposely refuse to laugh at a joke in order to give themselves power over another. Others purposely embarrass by going along with humor, then in the middle of the diversion suddenly become serious and take offense. Some are anxious about humor generally because they fear that it will harm others or themselves. (On feminist humor see Chapter 9)

Humor lies in not taking things seriously (severely). With humor we ignore the hunt, give up our goals, disregard consequences, let all be possible, admit contradiction, and let illogic prevail. It lets us escape. It allows us to transcend the oppression of reality, reason and rules. We are delighted to see people act magnificently lighthearted. Computer books bear titles like, The Mac for Dummies. This book could have been called Humor for Dummies. An elegant, conservative schoolteacher sped down a hill in her auto and cried out, "Wheee!" This is to say that humor involves acceptance. To respond to humor is to accept. It is a general attitude one can take. To approach the world humorously, to laugh at life, is to say, "All the mistakes of life are undeniable and certain," or "The mistakes do not matter. Forget your problems." The humorous attitude is the incontestable acceptance of life as it is and with all its mistakes. One must accept what one cannot do anything to change. One cannot deny reality as it is. It must be accepted. And there is something beautiful about accepting one who makes a mistake. A humanistic physician rewarded his son who received only average grades. It may seem bizarre, but after one does what is possible to help, acceptance can be a generous stance to take. Humor is a form of generosity.

Seriousness and anger are based on rejection. Humor is based on acceptance. We often laugh at a friend's joke even when it is not very funny. We laugh because we accept the person and what he or she says. We may laugh with a lover, not because there is much humor, but because there is much acceptance. Defenses are down and we let the other person in. "He laughs with everything she says." He lets himself go. Humor is therefore a type of intimacy in the sense that it requires one's acceptance. The more the humor is tolerated, the more the intimacy. On the other hand, we may laugh at nothing an unliked person says. A lively, humorous person is often found attractive. There is friendliness as well as the pleasure of the humor itself. This gives support to Carlyle's (1901:18) view: "True humor…is love." He states, "The essence of humor is sensibility; warm, tender fellow feeling with all the forms of existence." Thackeray likewise states, that humor is love. In a similar instance, we must know someone well in order to tease the person, that is, in order to insult, yet not be taken to mean it. The person must know that the insults are pretended. We can accept them from a friend. (On verbal abuse and the German concept of Schimpfen or scolding-insult humor, see Shibles 1992b.)

"But can any mistake at all, and every deviation be funny?" Yes. Nothing at all is funny in itself. It is only we who can see events as being humorous. Some writers think that some objects are in themselves funny, e.g., banana peels, long noses, etc. No object is in itself funny. It requires assessment to regard the object as being humorous. Humor is subjective. Nothing is a mistake or deviation in itself. There is only a deviation from one's own subjective perception, belief, etc. External things do not cause emotions. We cause our own emotions by our assessments. We make ourselves bored, angry, loving, etc. We bore ourselves and anger ourselves. We create and determine humor. We do not laugh at humor, we see things humorously.

Any deviation or mistake can be humorous if we accept it. The grotesque and tragicomedy are seen as humorous in some sense. Gross humor, blatant vice, taboo jokes, sick jokes are all funny if one can accept them. Concentration camps, a man swallowing a grenade about to go off, frying babies for supper (Jonathan Swift's example), and death itself can be humorous. Funerals in some cultures are just such festive occasions. "What does it mean to laugh at oneself on this view?" It means that we have shortcomings, hard to accept qualities or faults, or that we make mistakes of various sorts. We may take these qualities seriously and so reject ourselves, scorn ourselves, or hate ourselves. By learning to laugh at ourselves we are in effect saying, "I have these faults, but I cannot do anything about them, so it's necessary to have them," or "I'm not perfect, but that's required." To be able to laugh at oneself is to be able to accept oneself for what one is.

"But isn't humor opposed to strong feeling?" In discussing this view, Bergson held that laughter is incompatible with emotion. Intellectual humor supposedly requires absence of feeling - no sympathy. We must be detached. In opposition to this view, humor often does involve strong feeling. By "strong feeling" do we mean warmth, love and kindness? If so, then humor does not oppose strong feeling. Humor, the pleasure it gives, the communicative insight and intimacy it creates, are necessary ingredients of a full and close emotional relationship. Again, humor emphasizes acceptance, admission even of one's faults. It is a dramatic and aesthetic emotion at its best.

It may, however, seem that inasmuch as humor may involve grotesque things, that the grotesque and horrible are welcomed. This is not the case. One may reject the horrible aspects, but laugh at acceptable aspects of horrible situations. Ivan in Tolstoy's (1976) Death of Ivan Ilyich, ironically found his most intimate and tender feeling of friendship and meaning in life when, with his illness, his legs had to be held ludicrously in the air by his servant, Gerasim. We can laugh at the horrible and the grotesque if we separate things out. To laugh at the grotesque need not be unhumanistic. It is to observe the humorous and the grotesque or horrible together.

An alternate to the humor formula, "It's a mistake but it's OK," is "It's a mistake, but it is not a real or true one." It is not serious in the sense that it is not true. This applies to humor in plays or film. We know that the mistake or even the grotesque of a Frankenstein is only pretense. If we mistakenly take it seriously, that is, take it as true or literal, we may become anxious and terrorized. This is the wrong game to play. Will the monster come at us out of the television set or "virtual reality"? The comedian, Bill Cosby, suggested (in jest) spreading jello on the floor in front of the set in order to make such aggressive monsters slip and fall.

"Doesn't humor involve indifference and detachment?" One view of aesthetic appreciation is that detachment, or "psychic distance," is required in order to have an aesthetic experience. Bullough (1912) wrote that "psychical distance" disengages the phenomenon from our practical self. We must supposedly remove ourselves from practical considerations, purposes, and uses in order to appreciate phenomena such as form, color, and composition. This is a type of seeing-as. In our terminology, detachment means not rejecting, fearing, or being attracted by the usual or practical aspects of an object. We enjoy the rain falling on us even though it makes us wet. We may laugh at our silly situation when we break a leg skiing. This is detachment. It involves regarding the usually value-charged subject matter as neutral in order that we may appreciate it. Humor and art often deviate from customary purposes. Artists put fins, which serve no practical purpose whatsoever, on automobiles. The purpose is, perhaps, to be aesthetic. To laugh at a joke one must be able to distance oneself from the subject matter and from everyday values and prejudices. This takes us back to the original definition of humor: 1.) "Something is a mistake, but I am fearful and can not distance myself," leads to anger or negative emotion. 2.) "Something is a mistake, and I can distance myself," leads to humor or aesthetic appreciation.

Aesthetic appreciation, as with humor, also involves an acceptance. Some art, such as pop art, may be seen as serious or as humorous. The art of Magritte is humorous because the paintings violate natural laws, e.g., stones hover in the air, shadows fall in the wrong direction, etc. Other art is deviation which may induce negative emotions. With grotesque humor there is an acceptance of negative emotions. It is the experience: "That is a horrible scene or contrast of color, but I will let myself have the experience." It is acceptable horror. In this sense, humor and art are indifferent. They can involve acceptance of all mistakes and deviations. On the other hand, they can serve, by means of satire and insight humor, to oppose and criticize the unjust, or the imperfections of society and life. To appreciate humor one cannot be indifferent to the deviation or mistake which humor involves. Humor is not indifference, but alertness to behavior and events.

Nor is humor indifferent to horror. Humor is seeing the positive aspects of a situation. This does not mean one cannot also see the horrible aspects. Both are different and contradictory ways of viewing the situation. The grotesque comes close to seeing both at once in the object's contradictory aspects. It is an impossible harmony of different emotions. Seeing a situation as humorous is "seeing-as," a certain perspective. While having that perspective the horrible perspective is precluded. From this point of view one could say that horror is indifferent to and detached from the humorous. The pessimist is indifferent to optimism. The fearful are indifferent to joy.

Play is similar to aesthetic distance. Play is often nonpurposive, at least not like directed, difficult work. Play is nonserious with no harm or negative associations. If a child fears play we can say, for example, "She plays as if it were work." With play we can just pretend or make-believe without fear or worry. We can distance ourselves from problems and reality. We can be and do as we wish in a nonpurposive, nonserious world.

"Why are jokes in dreams rare?" Assuming that this is true, one reason would possibly be that dreams usually deal with one's fears and disturbances. Nightmares are sometimes due to overeating before sleeping. Fears block humor. We may look in dreams for the grotesque, a combination of humor with negative emotions. On the other hand, we can consciously program our dreams, such as when working to create good humor, and possibly find that in our dreams humor does appear.

D. Circular Definitions of Humor

Jean Paul Richter wrote that of all the definitions of the comic: their sole merit is to be themselves comic (Croce Aesthetic, in Cooper 1922:80.) Definitions and analyses given of humor are often circular. Several such definitions are:

"Something is humorous because it is funny." "Funny" is a synonym of "humorous" and so no advance of understanding is made.

"Jokes are funny." It would usually be a contradiction to say that jokes are not funny.

"To amuse is to please." These two words are synonyms.

"We react to humor." "Humor" already includes the reaction. By "humor" is meant assessment, bodily feeling, action, and context, thus the reaction, the action, includes the laughing. What we react to is not humor, but the assessment that there is a mistake.

"Humor is an experience." This is also the case with everything else.

"We feel humorous." This is a category-mistake because emotions are not just feelings. Emotion includes assessment as well. It is circular in the sense that by "humor" we partly mean bodily feeling. "We assess-feel humorous," would be more accurate, and so more circular.

"Humor is what we laugh at." This doesn't tell us what humor is. Furthermore, it is not always true. We may in ridicule, because we won a race, in revenge, or laugh at cruelty. Again, laughter is an insufficient criterion of humor.

"Humor is a state of happiness." "Happiness" is vague. A term is defined in terms of a less clear term. A person may be happy, but not experience humor. Humor involves specific kinds of assessments and without those there is no humor. In respect to the bodily feeling aspect, to attempt to condition one to dislike humor would be to condition him or her to dislike pleasure. By definition one cannot dislike pleasure. One can only learn to dislike in place of liking. We can learn to reject the valuations which cause the pleasurable bodily feelings of humor. In this case, one would not have pleasure from the humor. In sum, one cannot take the pleasure out of humor, but one can take the humor out of pleasure.

The question may be rephrased. Why do positive bodily feelings come with likes and things we find good? Why do we not have unpleasant feelings when we perceive things to go very well? Isn't this like asking why your favorite ice cream tastes good? It just does. That's the way the language-game of "I like ice cream," works. You may not be able to completely change your like of ice cream, but if you decide that it is too fattening for you, you may just be able to avoid it more easily. If you then say, "I hate ice cream," you might mean, "I like ice cream, but I like staying thin even more." A drug may physically alter one so that one's tastes change. A taste or a feeling is a bodily sensation. It is what humans have. That is why positive bodily feelings come with likes. If any such sensations can be altered, experiment and observation will determine how and how much. It may still not determine why.

To say, "Humor is fun, sport, gaiety, amusing, mirth, jocularity, playfulness, ludicrous, entertainment, joy, comic, farcical, delight, wit, caprice, jest, gag, mirth," is to a large extent merely circular or redundant. It is not an explanation.

"Humor is what we find pleasurable." Humor involves pleasure. It produces a pleasant feeling. "Humor is an acceptable mistake which yields acceptable feelings." "Humor is pleasurable," means then, [( C > F) > F], that is, "An acceptable mistake (C) which yields acceptable feelings (F) which are able to produce acceptable feelings (F or pleasure)." It is contradictory to say, "I thought it humorous, but experienced no pleasure." But not all things which produce pleasure are humorous. They may be pleasurable feelings experienced in love. Not all positive emotions involve humor. Emotions which involve pleasure may be distinguished by the different thoughts which go with them. "Can anything be humorous yet not be enjoyable or pleasurable?" If by "humor" is meant assessment as well as the pleasurable bodily feeling it induces, then if something is humorous it must be pleasurable. It could be the case that something is humorous to others, but not to you. It is like saying, "I do not find this humor humorous."

"Must humor involve pleasure?" It must. It is a given language-game or, in Wittgenstein's terminology, it is a given "form of life." Certain pleasurable feelings go with certain valuations (language use) and imagery. Why do they accompany such thoughts? I don't know. That they do is certain and useful. We can learn how to produce such feelings and learn how to block these feelings.

"But can't we recondition ourselves so that unpleasurable feelings go with humor?" We can learn to dislike humor. We can learn to dislike love, joy and any positive emotion as well. Anger and vindictiveness kill humor. Developing fears of being criticized or embarrassed can block humor. Hebephrenia and other brain or nerve disorders or drug states can produce inappropriate laughter. What humor is to the various psychiatric patients would be difficult to determine, because it would require that we know what self-talk and bodily feelings are involved, and when the person laughs or seems to find something humorous.

One reason why "good feelings go with likes" is that the statement is circular. What we mean by "like" is "good feelings." What we mean by "I like ice cream," is the good feeling which ice cream produces. One use of "like" is simply to describe sensual bodily feeling. Confusion arises because "like" also refers to other things as well. Thus, one can say "I like ice cream" (as a taste), but not like ice cream (as fattening), or as an ethical or aesthetic value statement. We can change our likes in the second sense by changing our valuations. We can change our likes in the first sense as a sensed taste by means of medicine. One may also learn to accept and enjoy, in some sense or other, whatever state one is in. One may enjoy melancholy and even depression.

E. Myth of "A Sense of Humor"

"Must not one have a 'sense of humor' or 'talent' in order to create humor?" No. One need only make nonserious mistakes. Once there is an understanding of humor and the techniques involved, a mystical talent is unnecessary. Talent is only a given ability to create some types of humor without understanding humor. Talent is rather a disadvantage as compared with someone who has a full and adequate knowledge of humor, its techniques, and has practiced them. Talent is not a technique, it is not understanding, it is not an explanation. To say one has talent is to say one has some ability even if it is blind ability.

"Must not one have imagination in order to create humor?" No. There is no imagination as such. It is a mentalistic fallacy like mind and does not exist. We have no evidence for such a thing. On this view, to think there is an imagination is humorous.

"Sense of humor" is not an explanation. It is as if some are born with a "sense of humor" and some are not. Rather, humor is a technique and ability which one can develop. There is no mystical "sense of humor," there is only a better or less well-developed ability to create humor. Humor is not a fixed emotion. It can be learned and improved. Humor can be developed, just as anger can be eliminated. Neither emotion is a fixed or innate part of our personalities. It may now be seen that humor in animals cannot be the same as our humor. It is not the same because animals do not have our language, and language is an essential part of humor. Animals do not read this book. We do not know what thinking is like for animals. It is not clear that animals experience humor. Some seem to laugh, but what this signifies is controversial. There is evidence that animals "play," and have "pleasurable feelings," but these terms must remain in quotes.

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or continue to Chapter IV.