Humor Reference Guide:

A Comprehensive Classification and Analysis

by Warren Shibles





Warren Shibles

Philosophy professor at

University of Wisconsin-Whitewater & Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen, Germany

Philosophical Counselor/Practitioner



Dedicated to Barbara




Philosophy-the discovery that English is a foreign language.

Applied philosophy involves focusing philosophical analysis and

deliberation on issues of societal and individual import.

(Louis Katzner 1979:98)

We are still without an adequate general theory of laughter. (Morreall 1987:128)

Laughter is one of the unsolved problems of philosophy. (Monro 1963:13)

To explain the nature of laughter…is to account for the condition of human life.

(Hazlitt in Morreall 1987:65)

Humor is philosophy. (Baughman 1974)

The truth I do not dare to know I muffle with a jest. (Emily Dickinson 1979:#1715)

To be playful and serious at the same time is possible, in fact it defines the ideal mental condition. (John Dewey, How We Think, p. 218)

My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense. (Wittgenstein 1968:133, #464)

Humor is the last frontier to be crossed in the complete understanding of a culture.

(Robert Solomon, Philosophy, University of Texas.)

What is your aim in philosophy? To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle. (Wittgenstein 1968:103)

The man of greatest humor is he who has the most curious, observant and reflecting mind, who has a mind richly stored with experiences, whose mind is capable of…alertness of movement, springing from point to point.

(Menon 1931:225)

True humor…is love. The essence of humor is sensibility;

warm, tender fellow-feeling with all forms of existence.

(Carlyle in Douglas 1915:980)

Men of humor are always in some degree men of genius.

(Coleridge in Douglas 1915:980. Aristotle agrees.)

One can learn humor as one can learn typing. Unfortunately it is not taught in the schools, but rather suppressed. (Trans. from Höfner & Schachtner 1995:55)

It is important to educate ourselves in humor because it does not tolerate anger, hopelessness, and helplessness. (Trans. by author from Höfner & Schachtner 1995:56)

Humor is estimated to comprise almost one-half of the total nature of human life. (Koller 1988:17)

Humor is a complete mystery. E. B. White 1977:252)

No aspect of one's existence is to be elevated beyond the requirements of humour, including one's existence itself. (Hyers 1974:193)

The philosopher, John Dewey wrote, To be playful and serious at the same time is possible and defines the ideal mental condition.



Humor is by far the most significant activity of the human brain. (De Bono in Andrews 1993:430)

To explain the nature of laughter…is to account for the condition of human life.

(Hazlitt in Morreall 1987:65)

Humor is philosophy. (Baughman 1974)

At present there is no textbook or reference book on humor as there is on other subjects such as ethics or botany. Some books present some of the historical theories and most present an individual theory. The historically oriented books are mainly light surveys of humor, bibliographies, or collections of jokes with arbitrary popular classifications. Goldstein & McGhee (1983:vol. I, v-vi) wrote, "There is still no agreement on how humor should be defined. Nor is there agreement on how appreciation or comprehension should be determined." The same is true today. LaFollett & Shanks (1993) wrote, "Humor is a pervasive feature of human life...yet its nature is elusive. It has generated little theoretical interest." Rucki (1993) wrote, "Philosophical literature on humor is both minimal and entrenched in a logical space and language inadequate to the scope and complexities of the subject." No accounts have yet given the breath and depth needed to analyze, understand, or classify humor, especially in terms of the contemporary theories of emotion, philosophical psychology, and language (including rhetoric and metaphor), etc.

There are special reasons why humor research has been inadequate. 1. Researchers have been captivated by a single model (paradigm or metaphor). They have seen it only from the perspective of one theory or discipline, e.g. a sociological or psychological analysis of humor, as being only based on aggression, or as an incongruity. 2. They fail or are unable to define humor. Definition also requires an analysis of definition itself. aaathis is virtually never done. Without first defining humor, experiments concerning humor are unscientific. and statements about humor are both empty. We cannot say what causes humor, what it does, or humor is beneficial if we do not first clearly know what humor is. Thus, much of humor research is invalidated. 3. Once humor is defined we still have the problem that it is defined in terms which are vague, thereby committing the fallacy of abstractionism (essentialism or platonism). For example, if humor is incongruity, we must concretely and by paradigm define incongruity. We see that "incongruity" means different things to different theorists. 4. If humor is an emotion, we must also have a valid and well-founded theory of emotion. Ruch (1998:203-228), for example, believes that humor is an emotion. Such a theory is provided in this book.

For perhaps the best resource on humor research see:

Humor can only be adequately analyzed if treated as part, instead of isolated from, our whole emotional, perceptual and intellectual lives. Humor is not a separate category. Rather, it is inseparable from our total life experience. Wittgenstein (1980:78) wrote,

Humor is not a feeling but a philosophy of life.

(Humor ist keine Stimmung, sondern eine Weltanschauung.)

Peter Winch translated Weltagnschauung too literally here as a "way of looking at the world." I have given a more broad translation as a "philosophy of life" where language has primacy (cf. Hallett 1977:217-218). Andrews (1993:431) gives the version, "Humor is a way of life." Stimmung also means "mood."

Synonyms of Weltanschauung are: fundamental principle, ideology, perspective, viewpoint, vision, world outlook, philosophy of life. Wahrig Deutsches Wörterbuch (1984) defines Weltanschauung as: Art und Weise, wie jemand die Welt und ihren Sinn sowie sein Dasein in ihr betrachtet und beurteilt ("Manner in which one views and evaluates one's meaning or significance, as well as one's existence in the world."). In short, humor may be seen here as involving all of our emotion, thought and action-a fundamental principle, world outlook, vision, joie de vivre, and philosophy of life. In Wittgenstein' terms, humor may be regarded as a "form of life." "Cheerful' is translated as lebenslustig (full of the joy of life).

Humor may be seen as an aesthetic emotion or form of beauty. The aesthetic as an emotion and how art expresses emotions has been analyzed in the book, Emotion in Aesthetics (Shibles1995b). Aesthetic humor may similarly be analyzed. Just as we may speak of humanistic art, we may speak of humanistic, aesthetic humor. (See also Metaphor Humor.) Humor, like poetry, transforms the world. We can thereby express what we could not otherwise express.

It has been useful to stress certain writers here, especially Ludwig Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, and Lewis Carroll, but this was merely illustrative. Other writers, speakers, and areas of knowledge could have been chosen because they are all subject to and reveal something about humor. Whatever the material used, when one has a holistic view and complete control, the reader can almost see the words dance and hear the laughter in the sentences. But in the off-chance that such theater does not occur: Sentences in bold are used to guide the reader through the text. Having published a number of articles and taught a number of university seminars on humor as well as emotion, and lectured on these subjects throughout the U. S. and overseas: Berlin to Brazil, California to China, Germany to Glasgow, Harvard to Hong Kong, Leiden to London, Marburg to Munich, Oxford to Århus, Princeton to Paris, Tübingen to Texas, and Ulster to Utrecht, the need for a Humor Reference Guide: A Comprehensive Classification and Analysis became evident. We need more humor in the world, it needs to be better, and we need to understand its uses and abuses in order to improve our lives.

The examples of humor used throughout the book are representative of diverse tastes rather than merely my own. The stress on presenting the actual humor used in everyday life as well as in the literature is called here Realhumor. (Realhumor is a cognate or pun combining English "real humor" with the German Realhumor. Both the English and German meanings of this word are intended, the latter referring to the concrete, practical and actual humor people do and can produce rather than merely abstract theories about it. This is close to Wittgenstein's ordinary-language approach and also to John Dewey's pragmatism.) In fact, there are many types of humor here which are known only to a very few people. But the more understanding one has of humor and the more types of humor one is familiar with, the better one will be able to choose the types of humor one wishes to cultivate. It will also be seen that one can learn to develop an appreciation of new types of humor which one never knew existed before. A philosopher, for example, will often find things humorous which the uncritical person takes very seriously. The analysis in this book will hopefully reveal that my own preference is for aesthetic, insight and humanistic humor.

The analysis also shows the following: 1. Humor is one of the most important things in our lives. For example, the undesirability of having wealth and love without humor would seem to make them secondary to the value of humor. 2. Humor may be used as a powerful method of inquiry. 3. Humor is a significant form of therapy. 4. Humor is an aesthetic form. 5. Humor may be used to humanize.

A semi-comprehensive bibliography on humor is included here because of the excellent ones recently made available by Professor Don Nilsen, perhaps the foremost authority on the teaching and research on humor: Humor in American Literature: A Selected Annotated Bibliography(1992), Humor Scholarship: A Research Bibliography (1993), Humor in Irish Literature: A Reference Guide (1996), Humor in British Literature: A Reference Guide (1997), Humor in Contemporary British Literature: A Reference Guide (2000), and the proceedings of the international humor conferences of the International Society for Humor Studies, published in the series WHIMSEY (See bibliography). Much of Professor Don Nilsen's work was done in collaboration with his wife Ailleen. Ailleen and Don Nilsen,have also produced an Encyclopedia of Humor and Comedy (2000) which serves as a comprehensive reference source and was used as the primary reading in one of their university courses on humor.

Also available now is the journal: Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, whose articles it has been my honor to referee on a number of occasions, and Dr. Joel Goodman's Laughing Matters. For a more complete directory of humor magazines and organizations see Ellbogen (1989). A who's who in humor is available by Muster (1992). The bibliography in the present book is, however, valuable as including a selection of the most important works relevant to the theory of humor. Classical and historical works on humor are included in the texts and bibliographies, but often not separately cited in this bibliography. It is in this sense that the bibliography is comprehensive and complete.

It is hoped that this Humor Reference Guide will also serve as a basis for further research as well as provide a source for education regarding humor. What the situation was according to Quintilian is still virtually the case today: "We are also confronted by the additional difficulty that there are no specific exercises for the development of humor, nor professors to teach it" (Instituto Oratoria VI.iii.14).


Ex omnibus argumentorum locis eadem occasio est.

All forms of argument afford equal opportunity for jests.

(Quintilian Institutio Oratoria VI.iii.65)


We can analyze humor through the meaning or paradigm of any term or concept. For example, humor has been analyzed in terms of the following terms: ambiguity, an argument, aggression, creativity, the impossible, incongruity, nonsense, paradox, socialization, a strategy, surprise, superiority, etc. There are hundreds of such theories, but humor may be seen through any terms at all, even a grammatical symbol such as !. (cf. Humor as surprise, exhilaration.) Anything may serve as a paradigm or model of humor (or any other term/concept). LaFollett & Shanks (1993) construe humor to be a "flickering between different, but related belief sets." The concept of death has been analyzed in terms of the various concepts of the I Ching in a similar way (Shibles 1999c). The following categories from the I Ching appear to be quite appropriate in understanding humor:




Calculated Waiting


Collective Force




Cosmic Order (Unorthodox Solutions)

Creative Power



Difficult Beginnings

Encouraging (Joy)





Limitations. (to avoid negative emotions)

Meditation (keeping still and calmness)

Penetrating Influence (the gentle. small acts) By gentleness one can holistically combine the rational, ethical, and aesthetic.)

Repair (Decay)


Reuniting (Dispersion)




Zenith (abundance) You must adjust to the loss of life, the most precious thing you have. But do not grieve over necessary losses.

Humor may similarly be analyzed in these terms or the terms of any word in any language. It is in this sense that we are not looking for the theory of humor, but rather interesting and useful theories. One could say, then, that there is no theory of humor as such.


There is a general prejudice that humor is not important and is even frivolous. Until recently it has not been thought of as a serious academic subject. I would argue that it is, on the contrary, one of the most important subjects, along with emotion, ethics and critical thinking, one can be informed about. It is still the case that among the general populace none of these subjects is a part of their basic education. At the university level there are still only a very few courses on philosophy and critical thinking being taught in the world, and practically none on humor. Some of the uses and techniques of humor are the following:

1. Uses: (See also Chapter 5 on the uses of humor.)

aesthetic enjoyment

an argument. Humor is a form of argumentation and logic.

coping strategy

change negative emotions into positive ones. (cf. Devorkin & Efran 1967)

create rapport

ease tension

get attention, e.g. to one's arguments (e.g. as used by Greenpeace)

give new perspectives

help one become accepted

help one remember arguments

make a point


reduce defensiveness

reveal the kind of person one is

social acceptance

survival in high stress situations

2. Communication Techniques

better handle complaints

as style, and communicative device

enhance communication

improve morale, open up topics for discussion, deal with taboo topics, reduce or avoid defensiveness.

permit communication. With humor one can say whatever one wants as long as it is said positively with humor.

to persuade. It is an acceptable way to criticize, say no, apologize. (cf. Lyttle 2001)

3. Physical Benefit:

Health enhancing, lessen stress, improve immune system, etc.

4. Techniques of Humor:


of reality
of oneself (laugh at oneself, self-deprecation humor)

by a social group

of others

adjustment to unbearable situations

avoidance, inaction, withdrawal to hide feelings, avoid telling a lie.

conflict resolution

controlling situations, people and conversations

creating friendships, closeness, love relationships (Fraley 1999)

creating life goals

creating meaningfulness in life (a world view or Weltanschauung)

a major requirement for selecting a partner

a major ingredient of happiness

part of joie de vivre

an antidote to criticize and satirize anti-humanistic and supernaturalistic life goals (e.g. religion, cultural practices, military goals, etc.)

creatively criticizing thinking and arguments

criticism of: ideas, society, culture, the military, religion, ethnic, radical antipatriarchal feminism (Women's Studies), punishment rather than correction and therapy in the prison system, etc.

Use of satire, allegory, irony, analogy, insight humor, etc.

deviating from society, beliefs, etc.

scientific discovery in the natural and social sciences as part of he scientific method

distancing oneself from: reality, a painful situation, death, dying, etc. (cf. aesthetic distance. "It is not so bad if I can laugh about it.")

encouraging good behavior

escaping, to cover fault, minimize a danger, etc.

exposing injustice, error, false beliefs

gaining acceptance and favor

leadership technique

management (in the workplace and personal life)

opposing narrow or traditional thinking (dogma)


power (political, etc.)

preventing and eliminating stress

puts things into question

reframe or reinterpreting thinking from:

negative to positive view

negative to positive emotions

nonadjustive to adjustive behavior

irrational to rational (Or the reverse. The average person laughs at critical thinkers and supports supernatural and harmful cultural practices and vice.)

saying things which one could not say otherwise. (Also a characteristic of metaphor)

showing that one's opponent has committed a fallacy (informal logical fallacies will be seen to be forms of humor because they are illogical)

solving problems

technique in teaching and education.

Humor may also be used to teach sensitive subjects, e.g. education about sex, death, aging, grieving, suicide, danger. As we need to learn about emotion in the schools, we need to learn how humor works and its techniques. One can learn humor as one can learn typing. Unfortunately it is not taught in the schools, but rather suppressed. (Trans . from Höfner & Schachtner 1995:55)

The antonym of humor is basically ridicule. The antonyms of humorist are: butt of a joke, clown (in negative sense), buffoon, fool, laughing stock. It will be made clear that ridicule and its synonyms is not humor.

Lack or loss of humor (may be seen as a sign of abuse, anger, depression, lack of education about humor, low intelligence, negative emotions, over-strict environment, personality deficit, psychological disordertrauma, stress.


The following chart gives some of the meanings of humor by the comparison of its synonyms and antonyms.


accept ridicule

acceptable laughable

acceptance derision

acceptance rejection

accepting mocking

easy going gravely serious

admission denial

admit reject

amuse bore

amused not amused

approval disapproval

caprice weird

charitable sardonic

cheerfulness cheerless

comedy tragedy

comfort discomfort

applaud jeer

admiring contemptuous

(constructive, gentle, amusing criticism) sarcasm

content discontent

control lack of control

creative thinking destructive thinking

deviant monotonous

easy uneasy

enjoying suffering

enjoyment boredom

esprit de corps bad morale

gay grim

good humor bad humor

good humored bad humored

happiness gloom

happy bitter

happy sad

helpful criticism negative criticism

helpful insight cutting or biting remarks

hopeful hopeless

humor serious

humorous ridiculous

imaginative unimaginative

interest disinterest

interesting bizarre

interesting grotesque

joy joyless

joy of life unhappiness

kindness hurtful

laugh cry

laugh with laugh at

leader victim

life death

like dislike

lively dull

love hatred

metaphorical literal

new sense nonsense

play work

please displease

pleasure pain

positive criticism negative criticism

positive emotion negative emotion

quick witted slow witted

reconstructed broken down

respect sneer

satisfaction dissatisfaction

smile frown

sympathetic scornful

sympathy opposition

rational ludicrous

understanding scoffing

witty dull


Of special interest is the expansion of the recent literature on the use of humor as a distinct technique to utilize in nursing, medicine, and therapy. Humor is employed to amelioriate physical pain, e.g. in dental work. Humor provides a technique for use in Provocative Therapy and Paradox Therapy. It is actively drawn on to create cognitive reframing and in therapeutic intervention Humor is brought into play as a technique for moving the client to insightful reactions. It is also used as an effective tool for coping with death. Recent literature in he area of social work has also appeared. Humor has also been discussed in the area of law. Humor has appeared dealing with each discipline, e.g. chemistry, computer science (and the new area of computational humor and humor on the internet), mathematics, medicine, persuasion in business (Lyttle 2001), philosophy, politics, science, sociology, statistics, women's studies, etc.


From the above we can see that not only does humor have significant uses, in the various disciplines and in our personal lives, but it also makes life worth living. The question is not to ask where humor plays a significant part in our lives, but rather where does it not do so? If we are attentive to our actual behavior, look and see what we actually value and experience, we will observe that humor is often the most important thing in our lives. If one had everything else one wanted, but no humor it would still be a dreary world. Imagine, for example, a marriage or a job without any humor. They would be intolerable and oppressive. Humor is almost a synonym of enjoyment. The chart above comparing the synonyms of humor with its antonyms shows that (good) humor can be an emotion consisting basically of adjustive acceptance and our most desirable positive emotions. Humor provides us with the quality of our lives. It is an ultimate aesthetic experience. Humor is seen to involve adjustment, happiness, hope, intelligence, joy, love, and life. To say, "I do not like humor is a contradiction." Humor is defined as liking. It is a circular statement. And if one does not like humor one does not like life. The antonym is grave.

G. PHILOSOPHICAL COUNSELING (or Philosophical Practice)

This work on humor also exemplifies and adds to the practical literature in the recent field of Philosophical Counseling (PC). Humor is an area in which philosophical counselors may do counseling. For example, see John Morreall, for example, who wrote numerous books on humor (see bibliography), gives humor seminars in the areas of education, business and management, health care, leadership, communication, philosophy and the workplace. He is an editor for International Journal for Humor and Health and book review editor for Humor: The International Journal of Humor Research. Although he does not claim to be a philosophical counselor, as such, his work is a contribution to this field. He approaches humor from the view of the incongruity theory of humor.

I have defined and delineated the area of philosophical counseling elsewhere (Shibles 1998b). Other books and articles by this author include: Humor, Death and Dying, Emotion, Lying, Ethics, Love, Blame, Forgiveness, etc. (See author’s publications in bibliography.) A definition of Philosophical Counseling depends on the definition of philosophy. One model of philosophy is: the clarification of concepts and methods in the various disciplines. On this view, PC would be rendered by the formula: "the philosophy of x" where x is a discipline, for example, philosophy of psychology, science, medicine, etc., but also the philosophy of therapy itself. That is, we would not do therapy, but the philosophy of therapy. Not psychology, but philosophical psychology. PC would not do therapy, but critique it. Thus, one would come to the PC to learn about the philosophy of x. A scientist could come to the philosopher to learn about the philosophy of science or critique a research project, and an architect could come to learn how to make a building more aesthetic. The PC could state the areas in which he or she has expertise. In this regard, one could also deal with the concept of humor. It has an important place in interpersonal relations. Some have no sense of humor or wish to develop one. Humor has a use in medicine to help improve the immune system; it can be used in persuasion and discovery (cf. insight humor). PC can also deal with the uses and misuses of humor. The chapter on the uses of humor suggests additional relevance to philosophical counseling.

It is in this sense that philosophy is therapy. It cures ignorance. Wittgenstein similarly regards philosophy as therapy. He wrote, "There is not a philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, like different therapies (Wittgenstein, 1968, op. cit., #133. The subtitle of Shibles' work, Emotion: The Method of Philosophical Therapy, also shows the stress on philosophy as therapy. James Peterman (1992) has written a book on Wittgenstein's philosophical therapy. But philosophy does not just do therapy anymore than it does science. It must be more critical and careful than therapy or science.

We can change the name and practice from Philosophical Counselor to Philosophy Educator and Advisor and do so with full justification. This is Practical Philosophy. People who have philosophical problems can go to the Philosophy Educator (PE). Few people have time to attend a full course in philosophy, but nevertheless have philosophical problems to resolve. In fact, every problem can be in some fundamental way a philosophical problem. As a Philosophy Educator one can also recommend texts, and assign homework (which is also done in Rational-Emotive And Behavioral Therapy (REBT). The Philosophy Educator does not claim to cure, only to educate. Whatever philosophy does the Philosophy Educator can claim to do. It should be made clear that when the PE deals with a topic, for example, suicide, sex, or killing, it is not done so as a therapist or health professional, but as a philosopher, as a Philosophy Educator and Advisor. This will help avoid lawsuits.


Permission is acknowledged for the use of quotations or poems from the following sources.

Joel Chandler Harris, Told By Uncle Remus: New Stories of the Old Plantation, Freeport, NY:Books for Libraries, 1905. Reprinted 1972. (Several quotations) (Reprinted from a copy in the Fisk University Library Collection.)

Warren Shibles. "Joie de vivre." Humoresques: L' Humor D'Expression Française, Nice: Z' éditions, 1990, pp. 63-69.

Warren Shibles. "Religious Doggerel" New Zealand Rationalist & Humanist, Dec. 1987, p. 9.

Warren Shibles. Poems: "On Waking" p. 126, "Programmed Meaning" p. 130, "Questions" p. 132. DeWitt Clinton, ed. Eleven Wisconsin Poets, 1st edition. 1987. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall-Hunt.

Warren Shibles. Poem: "You." Windfall (English Dept., University of Wisconsin-Whitewater) no. 9, Dec. 1987.

Permission to use the altered use of cartoons in the author's following books (omitting the German captions and with added color and other alterations):

Ethik für alle. Mainz: Lermann Verlag 1999.

Was ist Zeit? Mainz: Lermann Verlag 1997.

Unsere Gefüh1swelt: Eine kritische Analyse für jung und alt. Mainz: Lermann Verlag 1995.

The following articles or revised portions of articles by the author:

"Joie de vivre." American Society of Phenomenology, Aesthetics & the Fine Arts. Harvard University.1998. Analecta-Husserliana 1999.

Review of Neal Norrick. Conversational Joking." Studies in Language 20, no. 2 (1996) "465-472.

Review of Attardo Linguistic Theories of Humor 1994." Studies in Language 20 (1996) 465-472.

"Feminism and the Cognitive Theory of Emotion: Anger, Blame and Humor." Women and Health 17, no.1 (1991) 57-69. (Received 33 requests for reprints of this article.)

"The Myth of Patriarchy." Journal of Value Inquiry 25, no. 4 (1991) 305-318.

1990. "Joie de vivre." (In French) Actes du colloque international: L'humour d'expression française. Corhum et l'Université de Paris Vlll. Paris. Juin 1988, pp. 63-69.

"Radical Feminism, Humanism and Women's Studies." Innovative Higher Education 14, no.1 (1989) 35-47.

. "The Phonetics of Standard British Pronunciation: RP English-A Pseudo Concept?" RASK: Internationat tidsskrift for sprog og kommunikation 2, April (1995) 51-89.

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