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What is humor? 4 theories about its function

What is humor? 4 theories about its function

July 19, 2024

Since the beginning of Western philosophy, humor has been one of the fundamental themes for different thinkers. However, the term "humor" was not used in the sense that we use it now.

Previously it formed part of the theories that explained the different personalities and character models and even the body fluids. It was until the eighteenth century, with the development of modern science, that the term "humor" changed its meaning and began to associate with the experimentation of the funny, or rather, began to indicate the quality of being funny or funny.

We'll see now some theories that have explained humor in philosophy and psychology over time.


  • Related article: "The use of irony and humor in psychotherapy"

Theories about what is humor

Surely when thinking about the word "humor", words such as "laughter", "comedy", "clowns", "theater", "joke", "smile" come to mind, among other concepts associated with fun.

If you ask us, what is humor? surely we could define this word as a state of mind ; a quality of joviality and grace; a willingness to do something (eg, "I'm not in the mood"); or, an attribute of personality ("has a sense of humor").

However, the latter has not always been the case. With the constant development of philosophy and science we have gone through different understandings about humor, which go from pejorative connotations to healing potentials . Next we will see 4 of the theories that have explained humor through time.


1. Humor as an obstacle to reason

One of the first to use the term "humor" in the context of fun, was Henri Bergson in 1890, in a book whose title was Laughter. However, studies of humor did not become very present in this same period. In fact, from classical philosophy to the early twentieth century, humor had been considered as something negative .

In line with the models of thought that gave predominance of reason over the body and emotions, classical and modern philosophy considered laughter, comedy, wit or joke as a way to annul self-control and rationality.

Frequently, humor was considered a quality that had to be avoided, so that the human being would not fall defeated and vitiated by laughter. Even both laughter and humor had been linked to the immoral, the malicious or the malevolent .


2. Humor as a sign of superiority

At the end of the 20th century, humor and laughter began to be signs of superiority, that is, they were considered ways of reflecting feelings of greatness on other people, or on an earlier state of ourselves. Roughly suggested that, to laugh at something or someone first we have to establish a comparison with that someone . Then, look for elements of humor that are a sign of inferiority of the other person or situation.

It is then when laughter is triggered to reaffirm this inferiority and, therefore, one's superiority. An example of this would be cases of bullying or verbal bullying based on a derogatory mood towards the other person. In other words, humor would have psychological components related to self-defense, self-competence, judgments, self-esteem, self-centeredness, among others.

3. The theory of incongruity

Given the rise of the theory of superiority, the theory of incongruity emerges. While one said that the cause of laughter were feelings of superiority, the other suggests that it is rather an effect of perceiving something incongruous . For example, something that goes against our values ​​or our mental schemes.

This theory theory of humor has generated later explanations on "the laughter of nerves" that is the one that appears in situations that seem unexpected, uncomfortable, absurd or even annoying, but that occur in a context where we can not express clearly these sensations . Through humor and laughter we let see the incongruity or discomfort that the situation generates.

Another example of this could be political humor. Once again, in the face of the incongruity of the attitudes, ideas or public behavior of people in positions of political representation, It is common to respond through humor, sarcasm, irony, ridicule, caricature . In this way, humor has an important political value: it allows us to express our disagreement in a socially valued way and that is easily shared and distributed among different people.

Four.Theories of humor as healing and well-being

One of the most representative theories of humor, both in philosophy and in psychology and even physiology, is the theory of well-being, relief or healing. Broadly suggests that humor (whose physical / muscular effect is clear laughter), has effects on the nervous system and allows different levels of tension to be discharged. Put another way, humor and laughter they have the potential to release accumulated nerve energy .

Faced with the theory of superiority, which spoke of little functional elements for coexistence; this theory that humor also has important components in adaptive terms.

Among other things, the latter has been very present in the development of different psychotherapeutic currents. Even laughter therapies have been generated whose uses and applications are very different.

Bibliographic references:

  • Kuiper, N., Grimshaw, M., Leite, C. and Kirsh, G. (2006). Humor is not always the best medicine: specific components of sense of humor and psychological well-being. International Journal of Humor Research, 17 (1-2): DOI: //doi.org/10.1515/humr.2004.002.
  • Monrreall, J. (2016). Philosophy of Humor Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved October 3, 2018. Available at //plato.stanford.edu/entries/humor/#IncThe.

What makes things funny | Peter McGraw | TEDxBoulder (July 2024).


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