Incongruity Theory in the Philosophy of Humor
In this paper, I will first explain Platonism and its relation to mathematics and reconstruct arguments against it to show how mathematical objects ultimately cannot exist. I will then explore logicism and formalism in order to critically evaluate how they create truth for mathematical propositions and the problems that they have that could or should prevent mainstream philosophical adoption. Finally, I will explain Benacerraf’s structuralism and why I think it is the best Anti-Platonist explanation for the philosophical foundation of mathematics.
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I believe that Incongruity Theory is the best way to explain different types of humor. I agree with Kant’s idea of the freeplay of emotions, however I do not believe that the expectation dissolves into nothing thus causing the incongruity. Instead, I imagine the initial expectation as the starting tension of a rubber band. The further distance the punchline is from the initial expectation, the harder the rubber band is pulled. The discrepancy between the two points causes the boomeranging of the mind to try to make sense of what just happened, which is the freeplay of emotions. I call this Expectation Mismatch, and the further away the initial expectation is from the actual experience, the more mismatch and the more laughter that ensues. I don’t subscribe to Superiority Theory as a good model of explaining humor, but I think the ideas about empathy and human connection in regards to laughter are important.
With an interpretation of Bergeson’s “human element” as relatability/personal connection as opposed to anthropomorphizing, you can show why we don’t laugh at some things, even though the incongruous conditions are there. If people have some kind of connection to the topic, I think that it can override the freeplay of emotions to make someone feel sad or guilty about a joke. The operative word is can, because many people can feel guilty and still laugh at the joke, or be very close to the topic of the joke but still laugh. This is similar to Hobbes’ in-group idea where if a person or topic is close to you, you wouldn’t laugh about it. This would explain the mixed bag of reactions when it comes to “Dark Humor” jokes.
If the premise of the joke, that is to say the incongruity or the connection that the joke is based on, is understood, then the joke can be said to be recognized. If the joke is recognized and is relatable, and it does not cause any pain within the listener, a freeplay of emotions will ensue. In an effort to relieve this freeplay, laughter will be created. If the joke is recognized and is “too close to home” then the user will not joke instead the freeplay of emotions will be more painful, a series of feelings of not knowing how to react. If the joke is not recognized, it will result in confusion, and neither freeplay nor laughter will occur. If any laughter does occur, it is a type of awkward laughs that are used as social lubricant.
Meta-humor like the “Baby-Car Cross” joke is all about subverting a well-established joke template. The expectation of something clever combined with the juxtaposition of the actual resulting punchline like a dead baby makes these “Dark Humor” anti-jokes funny. I think another example of a joke subverting its template is, “Two guys walk into a bar. They both say Ow!” This joke is funny because the way the word “bar” is normally applied in the joke as a gathering place for people, so the expectation is subverted by utilizing a different definition of the word bar. Any time a joke template is subverted well, it should be novel enough to incite a bit of laughter. Joke templates lend themselves to be formulaic so that the listener has reasonable expectations of what might happen and how they should respond to participate in the joke. The moment the template is subverted, these expectations are turned on their head. I believe that the “Harold the Veterinarian” joke is funny because the set-up lends itself to thinking of Harold sleeping with a human patient, instead of him actually sleeping with an animal patient. This is funny in a normal incongruous sense because a person isn’t expecting that Harold slept with an animal. However, I also believe that it is funny because it is incongruous with the normal social fabric, a violation of social norms. If a character in a joke does something that is out of the ordinary of everyday life it jars a person, which adds to the already swinging rubber band of emotions that was caused by the expectation mismatch. Bestiality is not something that is typically accepted in society, so that makes Harold’s transgression ever more surprising, which further adds to the freeplay of emotions inside someone.
I think that Incongruity Theory does a great job in bringing in other dimensions of what makes something funny. Sometimes it’s less the joke that is funny, but the person who is telling it or how they are telling it is more funny. Superiority Theory doesn’t account for all kinds of humor and takes a mean-spirited diagnosis of human nature. I think Relief Theory has a lot of important things to say about laughter, but with that being said, I think it focuses more on explaining laughter than it does about humor. This is why I think Incongruity Theory is the best way to try to explain humor, but that is not to say that it is without some criticism
A major problem within the framework of Incongruity Theory is that of explaining why people can laugh the same joke twice or more times. This is founded on the idea that expectation mismatch relies on surprise. This is a correct assumption, however it discounts other reasons which would still incite a freeplay of emotions. When a person laughs at the joke for the second time, they could be remembering their initial expectation mismatch which can re-ignite a freeplay of emotions albeit probably more muted than the first time. There are some diminishing returns in jokes where eventually the humor of the joke will subside over time, which this account explains for. Also, if the joke is about a violation of a social norm all the elements are still there, the incongruity doesn’t rely on a set of expectations that change after you hear the joke.
A related problem is when you expect something to happen, but when it happens, you still laugh. I think that this happens because there is still a difference between your expectations, what you think is going to happen, and then what you actually experience. I think that this difference is what allows us to laugh at something, even if we expect it. So then why don’t we laugh at everything, if there’s always a divorce between expectation and experience? The freeplay of emotions won’t always resolve as laughter and there has to be some kind of threshold for the freeplay of emotions to result in laughter. I believe this is what makes up the difference between a smile, a short exhale of air from your noise, a giggle, and a laugh to be. They are just increasingly large clearances of this threshold to laughter.
While Incongruity Theory cannot account for every single aspect of humor, I believe that it is the most complete explanation. With the freeplay of emotions, expectation mismatch, empathy, the difference between expectation/imagination and actual experience, and the threshold to the freeplay of emotions, a lot of issues with explaining humor can be dealt with.