Take My Course, Please! The Philosophy of Humor
01: The Universality of Humor
Starting with the first “joke” most of us experience (“peek-a-boo!”), explore the underlying nature of humor in different cultures and at different times in our lives. Consider whether or not humor is culture-dependent, and how societies view humor as both an expression of life and a mark of vice.
02: The Objectivity of Humor
Most people would say that humor is subjective, but this claim is entirely false. In this lecture, Professor Gimbel explores the objectivity of humor by first considering what philosophers mean by “objectivity,” then by drawing several important distinctions between the subjective and objective notions of laughter, funniness, and humor.
03: The Science of Laughter
Consider some thought-provoking questions about laughter and its relationship with humor. What happens in the brain to trigger laughter? What environmental factors make it more likely for us to laugh at something? Why do human beings develop the ability to laugh? What social functions are served by our laughter?
04: Truth and Humor
Jokes aren’t intended to be statements conveying new information about the world—and yet they can be true. Start building a clear definition of humor by examining the relationship between truth and humor, rooted in the four main philosophical accounts of truth: correspondence theory, coherence theory, pragmatism, and subjectivity.
05: Comedy and Tragedy
We’re told that “comedy equals tragedy plus time.” Here, probe the fascinating relationship between comedy and tragedy. Central to this lecture is Aristotle’s Poetics (in which tragedy and comedy are distinct forms) and the ideas of Arthur Asa Berger (who sees comedy as a reaction to a tragic world).
06: Irony and Truth
Perhaps the place where humor and philosophy most strongly overlap is with the notion of irony, and, in fact, a lot of humor employs irony. From the ancient Greeks to the ironic humor of the present day, consider how irony can make humor not just silly—but profound.
07: Satires, Parodies, and Spoofs
Visit a corner of the world of humor that takes itself very seriously: satire. Topics include ancient Greek satyr plays; the philosophies of satire put forth by Horace and Juvenal; Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (one of the most famous modern works of satire); and the relationship between satire, parody, and spoofs.
08: Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One: Jokes
Most of the work involved in the philosophy of humor centers around jokes: speech acts whose structure and mechanisms are easy to see. Professor Gimbel guides you through some of the many logical mechanisms used to generate verbal humor, including accidents, burlesque, facetiousness, stereotypes, and more.
09: Theories of Humor
Begin your search for a theory of humor with an introduction to the philosophical methodology best suited for the task: analytic philosophy. This methodology, as you’ll learn, seeks rigorous and clean accounts of what we mean by the words we use—so we can tell which questions are real questions.
10: Superiority Theory
When we tell a joke, we’re making fun of someone or something. In this lecture, investigate superiority theory: the view that humor is the expression of one’s superiority over another. Consider ideas put forth by thinkers like Plato and Hobbes, as well as possible arguments against this theory.
11: Inferiority Theory
Inferiority theory, which is the inverse of superiority theory, posits that we find humor funny because we’re bringing ourselves down mentally to the level of the butt of the joke. Is this idea successful as a humor theory? Is it necessary—or sufficient? Find out in this lecture.
12: Play Theory
What makes play theory unique among humor theories is that humor is not in the joke (or the reaction to the joke) but in the relationship between joker and audience. Humor, as you’ll learn, can be seen as a sort of play that makes for a well-lived human life.
13: Relief Theory
Turn now to relief theory (or release theory), a purely response-side theory of humor that focuses on how humor affects the mind of the listener. Thinkers you’ll turn to for a better understanding of this include the Reverend Francis Hutcheson, Sigmund Freud, and contemporary philosopher Robert Latta.
14: Incongruity Theory
Take a poll of contemporary philosophers of humor and they’ll overwhelmingly say they support the incongruity theory. Learn how this particular theory takes as its central concept the incongruity of two things that don’t connect with one another, and how it helps us understand how verbal jokes work.
15: Cleverness Theory
Here, analyze Professor Gimbel’s own theory of humor, called the cleverness theory. According to this theory, humor is a conspicuous act of playful cleverness in which there’s no necessary connection between humor and laughter, and jokes can be used to make yourself attractive, to distract from the truth, and more.
16: Humor Theory Revisited
Take a more holistic view of the six different approaches to humor theory you examined in earlier lectures. Using a joke that introduces the lecture, Professor Gimbel walks you through how each humor theory would account for the humor of that particular joke to arrive at a possibly synthetic idea of humor theory.
17: Humor Ethics: Boundaries and Limitations
Is there a moral responsibility to think about when we tell a joke? Are there rules to joking? Are there only jokes certain people can tell, or times and places where joking is wrong? Can joking be a morally good act? These and other questions are the subject of this lecture.
18: Who Can Tell Ethnic Jokes?
In this lecture, take into philosophical consideration ethnic jokes, or jokes that have as their butt an entire group. Are they always impermissible? Are they just jokes? Are they only sometimes allowed? Work through the arguments for several versions of each possible stance, making the best case for each.
19: Comic Moralism
Some philosophers argue the morality of telling a joke depends on how funny it is. Others believe the funniness of a joke depends on its morality. Explore the quandary of comic moralism with a close look at three types of positions: comic moralists, comic immoralists, and comic amoralists.
20: Situational Ethics and Humor
Investigate three ways in which the situation may be relevant to the morality of joke-telling. You’ll consider the ideas of a comedic “waiting period” for a joke, the ethics of places where jokes are morally forbidden (like funerals), and topics that some philosophers consider to be ethically off-limits.
21: The Necessity of Humor
Ponder the notion of whether humor is not just good but necessary to human life. Using the work of thinkers like Kierkegaard, examine whether we’re wired for humor, and how the necessity of humor depends upon the picture we have of the human soul—or the human mind.
22: Comedian Ethics
Professor Gimbel offers possible answers to these questions about comedy as an art form: What are the moral differences when a joke is told by someone hired to entertain us? Should we hold comedians to higher moral standards, or do they get a longer moral leash because of their profession?
23: Socially Progressive Comedy
Another way to look at humor is as a (possibly skewed) instrument of change, a tool of liberation, and a means of progressive activism. Study the history of American humor as a way confront oppression and to humorously expose the inequities of society.
24: Ridiculousness and the Human Condition
Is it true that laughter is the best medicine? Conclude the course with the relationship between humor and living a good life. Using insight you’ve gained from previous lectures, consider how to think of humor as a medication allowing you to live your life to the fullest as a biological being.