Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Risible animals


Just for laughs, one more brief post on the philosophy of humor.  (Two recent previous posts on the subject can be found here and here.)  Let’s talk about the relationship between rationality and our capacity to find things amusing.

First, an important technicality.  (And not exactly a funny one, but what are you gonna do?)   Recall the distinction within Scholastic metaphysics between the essence of a thing and its properties or “proper accidents” (where the terms “essence” and “property” are used by Scholastics in a way that is very different from the way contemporary analytic metaphysicians use them).  A property or collection of properties of a thing is not to be confused with the thing’s essence or even any part of its essence.  Rather, properties flow or follow from a thing’s essence.  For example, being four-legged is not the essence of a cat or even part of its essence, but it does follow from that essence and is thus a property of cats; yellowness and malleability are not the essence or even part of the essence of gold, but they flow from that essence and are thus properties of gold; and so forth.  A property is a kind of consequence or byproduct of a thing’s essence, which is why it can easily be confused with a thing’s essence or with part of that essence.  But because it is not in fact the same as the essence, it can sometimes fail to manifest if the manifestation is somehow blocked, as injury or genetic defect might result in some particular cat’s having fewer than four legs.  (See pp. 230-35 of Scholastic Metaphysics for more detailed discussion.)

Now, a stock Scholastic example of a property or proper accident is risibility or the capacity for laughter, which is a property of human beings insofar as it flows from rational animality, which is our essence.  (Note that the capacity in question here is not merely the capacity to make a certain laughter-like noise, as a hyena might.  Rather, it is the capacity to react with that noise to something regarded as funny.)

Again, it is not our essence or nature to be risible.  Rather, our essence is to be rational animals.  Still, we exhibit risibility because we are rational.  Risibility is a consequence or byproduct of our rational animality.  Hence it is because man is a rational animal that he is also a risible animal.  The fact that humor does not exist in other, non-rational animals lends credence to this judgment.

Suppose we accept this standard Scholastic view (which is expressed by thinkers like Aquinas).  It naturally raises the question of why risibility follows upon rationality.  What exactly is the connection between them?

Here it seems to me that the incongruity theory of humor has an advantage over its rivals, additional to the other advantages which (as I indicted in the earlier posts) I think speak in its favor.  The basic idea of the incongruity theory, you’ll recall, is that we find something funny when we detect in it some kind of anomalous juxtaposition or combination of incompatible elements (though as I’ve also noted, this idea requires various qualifications). 

Now, notice that, in order to detect such an incongruity, you need to be able to grasp concepts.  For example, to see the humor in something like (to take a pretty random example) the “Gandhi II” sequence in the otherwise forgettable “Weird Al” Yankovic movie UHF, you have to grasp the concept of nonviolence, its association with Gandhi, the concept of an action movie, the concept of a movie sequel, etc., and the anomalousness of these being combined in just the way they are in that sequence.  But the grasp of concepts is the core of distinctively intellectual or rational capacities.  (See this article, reprinted here.)  So, the incongruity theory explains the link between rationality and risibility. 

Other theories of humor arguably fail in this regard.  For example, the release theory of humor holds that finding something funny involves the release of tension or pent-up feelings.  But non-rational animals can experience a kind of tension -- think of a trapped horse panicking in the face of danger, or a frustrated dog trying to get to some food or to the mailman’s leg -- yet exhibit no risibility upon its release.

Or consider the play theory.  I suggested in one of the earlier posts that, rightly understood, the play theory should be regarded as an account of the psychological function humor plays in human life, rather than as an account of why we take things to be funny.  But suppose we interpreted it in the latter way -- as a claim to the effect that we find things funny when they afford some pleasure or relaxation.  One problem with such a proposal is that some animals exhibit playful behavior, but without exhibiting anything like a sense of humor about it. 

It might seem that the superiority theory of humor can also account for the relationship between rationality and risibility.  It holds that finding something funny involves a feeling of superiority over and contempt for others.  And surely only a rational animal can feel superiority or contempt?

But there are a couple of problems with this suggestion. First, as some critics of the theory have pointed out, it isn’t clear that the laughter associated with contempt really involves finding anything funny.  Just as we can cry with sadness but also with joy, so too it seems that laughter can be associated with very different psychological states. 

But even if there is some connection between the laughter involved with contempt and the finding of something to be funny, there is another problem with the suggestion that superiority is the key to our finding things funny (as opposed to something merely occasionally and contingently associated with finding something funny).  Or at least it is a problem if we accept certain other aspects of the Aristotelian-Thomistic conception of human nature.  Man is not only a risible animal, but also a social animal.  We are not atomistic individuals of the sort described by Hobbes (who was, as it happens, an advocate of the superiority theory of humor).  Our natural relationship to others is not one of seeking advantage, either via domination or contract.  But it seems that risibility considered as a manifestation of superiority or contempt could be a proper accident or property of human beings only if they did have this Hobbesian nature.  Hence the idea that risibility is a proper accident tells against the superiority theory. 

24 comments:

Mr. Green said...

But non-rational animals can experience a kind of tension -- think of a trapped horse panicking in the face of danger

A man panicking in the face of danger is not amused, so perhaps humour applies only to certain kinds of release, such as might have an intellectual context.

Of course, I’m not sure how that would be fleshed out other than as releasing the tension between conceptual incongruities, which is just to make the “release theory” a synonym of the incongruity theory….


I was previously pondering a unitive theory of humour, in which the juxtaposition need not be anomalous. (The reconciliatory theory is a subset of this, and incongruity theory a (rather large) subset of that.) Of course, the important detail either way is that the juxtaposition needs to be conceptual — a geographical contiguity (e.g. a chap named Victor standing next to a vector (how does one stand next to a vector? I guess a blackboard bearing suitable mathematical symbols would do the job)) doesn’t cut it (you need to understand what they are called to get the joke).

Actually, perhaps that is incongruity: not of the concepts against each other, but against our expectations. (Incongruous concepts are just a particularly obvious way to violate our expectations.) And that illustrates the intellectual nature: to have an expectation in this sense is to understand some pattern, a pattern which is not extended in the direction we anticipate, but turns out to be some other pattern. And to hold a pattern in one’s mind is precisely the function of intellect. The patterns — one that is expected, and one that is actually followed — are incongruous with each other. Victor’s vector is incongruous insofar as we don’t expect rhyming or poetical patterns in ordinary, situationally dramatic, conversational speech. But at the same time it is congruent — it follows a pattern precisely insofar as it is a poetical pattern.

There is a surely a contrast to be made here with beauty. Beauty consists in following a pattern well, in achieving proportionality. Humour is to some degree improportional, and yet being too ugly is just ugly: humour must possess some internal sense of proportion — a caricature must be exaggerated, but in a pleasing way.
(Which is why absurdist humour isn’t... [much]. One can get a bit of mileage out of violating the expectation that there is going to be some pattern (even if it’s a humorously unexpected one), so following no pattern at all is funny. But it cannot be pushed very far before becoming unfunny, because (a) the audience has stopped expecting proper jokes, so there is no longer a [“meta”] expectation to violate; and (b) because all instances are really the same joke (violating the expectation of a joke here is the same as violating the expectation of a joke there — since the details of what was expected are specifically irrelevant, because we’re ignoring it!). And simply repeating the same joke doesn’t add any more humour. (Unless, of course, you do it in a way that follows a new pattern, but then you’re back to normal pattern-following humour, and not absurdist humour.))

Sandymount said...

Your last paragraph may have the correct conclusion but not due to its reasoning which seems based on the unsupported assertion in the first sentence?

'Our natural relationship to others is not one of seeking advantage, either via domination or contract. But it seems that risibility considered as a manifestation of superiority or contempt could be a proper accident or property of human beings only if they did have this Hobbesian nature. Hence the idea that risibility is a proper accident tells against the superiority theory. '

Anonymous said...

UHF forgettable?! Feser, I'm done with you! Your rational capacity for detecting and responding to incongruities is deeply suspect. Clearly your metaphysics must also now be held suspect. For shame!

Ian said...

When a baby giggles at something, is he grasping concepts?

Irenist said...

@Ian:

The baby is probably mostly expressing contentment, like a cat purring. But to the extent he does have some elementary concepts (babies in psych tests indicate by attention patterns that they can distinguish between helpful and bullying behavior in cartoon characters or puppets, e.g., and have an expectation of object persistence), maybe there is some elementary rationality, and hence risibility. Why do you ask?

Anonymous said...

The main problem with Hobbes' social contract certainly lies in the lack of a sanity clause.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G_Sy6oiJbEk

JohnD said...

You may find it funny Ed, that we are on the edge of our seats waiting for a post on your NEW NATURAL THEOLOGY BOOK, but I do NOT find this humorous. Please tell us more soon :) (if you're allowed to, with publisher rules and such).

PS - Come back to NJ/NY some time to give a lecture! Your Princeton adventure was too short.

Ian said...

Hi Irenist,

Thanks for the response. I asked because I was trying to figure out how a baby giggling computed with the idea that risibility requires the grasping of concepts, since presumably, a baby has not developed to the point where he can grasp concepts yet.

But the thought occurred to me after posting my comment that perhaps when a baby giggles, he is expressing something else other than risibility. Like you wrote, perhaps he is expressing contentment. Or perhaps he does indeed have some elementary ability to grasp concepts as you suggest.

Mr. Green said...

More thoughts: Re babies laughing at concepts… it’s hard to tell with babies, seeing as they lack the mastery of language that would be necessary to tell us what they’re thinking. But as Ed notes in the article, play or relief can trigger the physiological response of laughter with or without actually experiencing humour. Of course, most things are unexpected to an infant, and as human beings, they certainly have the raw capability for rational thought, and it has to start somewhere, so it seems plausible that some of their laughter might qualify.

Relatedly, the unexpected can also trigger laugh-like responses even when it’s not funny per se — such as “nervous” laughter when we are shocked. Humour lies in the intellectual appreciation of formal patterns, while laughter is the psychosomatic expression thereof in hylomorphic humans. And it’s why cheap comics rely on dirty jokes to get a shock-response that sounds funny (or funnier) than an attempted gag would otherwise elicit.

Aquinas says play and humour are necessary to rest the soul. I guess it would not be the rest of ceasing to act, but stretching, just as physical stretching can relax or refresh the body. Instead of being stuck reasoning through work, comedy is an opportunity to flex our understanding in unusual directions. But it still has to be an act of understanding… a sort of illogical logic. And perhaps that’s why humour can’t be too profound: then it’s just logic, not illogical logic!
(A joke can be very clever in itself, but that cleverness cannot extend wholly outside the context of the joke because then it would not be an out-of-proportion proportion — it must be somehow out of proportion with the larger outside (or real) world, which limits its possible profundity. In the company of other factors, it can however be a single ingredient in a rhetorical dish that is profound overall.)


In a previous thread, Glenn pointed out that angels might have a sense of humour — obviously they can understand that something is funny, and why, but since they [non-discursively] don’t have expectations as we do, I wonder if they wouldn’t experience it as funny. It might be like an adult's understanding how and why a young child thinks something is funny without finding it funny himself. On the other hand — while expectation is clearly important in explaining why jokes are not as funny as the first time — we can and do appreciate jokes that we already know. So maybe angels could too. Or are we reliving memories of the first time we heard the joke, or imagining it from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know? That strikes me as a factor in how someone appreciates the cleverness of a known joke, or a joke that he is composing….

F15eMav said...

I find this comment risible: "the otherwise forgettable “Weird Al” Yankovic movie UHF"

Edward Feser said...

Anon and F15eMav,

OK, I guess I should re-state that: Apart from the Gandhi II scene (and a couple of other things) I've forgotten what was in UHF (which I saw when it came out back in '89).

(But if it shows up on Netflix, I'll take another look...!)

Anonymous said...

Ed,

Does that mean UHF has the real property of being forgettable? Or is this one of those fancy Cambridge properties?

Anonymous said...

I'm somewhat confused. I thought that even rationality and animality are proper accidents. They seem to be as capable of impediment as anything else.

How do we know essences, and what are they, properly-speaking?

Scott said...

Ed:

Apart from the Gandhi II scene (and a couple of other things) I've forgotten what was in UHF[.]

So your original statement wasn't wrong, only imprecise; the film is actually "otherwise forgettable-by-Ed." Fair enough.

I've never seen it (apart from the Gandhi II clip), so it's not forgettable-by-me; it's not possible to "forget" what one has never known in the first place.

Anon:

As it stands, that's a relational property. But it's also a very complex "compound" property, some components of which depend only on Ed and would change if he were to change. So I'd say the "compound" property "forgettable-by-Ed" will turn out on analysis to include some Cambridge properties.

Where the heck else can a body have this much fun with ontology?

----

On what somehow seems to be a marginally related subject, I attended my first RCIA session last night and mentioned the central role that Thomism had played in my preparation for the gift of faith. The leader turned to a seminarian (who's attending as part of his pastoral training)and said, "Well! I've never encountered that before. Jacob, have you ever encountered that before?" (Jacob: "No, I've never encountered that before!") "Well, it just goes to show that people arrive by many paths!"

:-)

Scott said...

(Next time I'm wearing the "ITE AD THOMAM" T-shirt I had my wife make for me.)

The Masked Chicken said...

"Other theories of humor arguably fail in this regard. For example, the release theory of humor holds that finding something funny involves the release of tension or pent-up feelings. But non-rational animals can experience a kind of tension -- think of a trapped horse panicking in the face of danger, or a frustrated dog trying to get to some food or to the mailman’s leg -- yet exhibit no risibility upon its release."

The release theory is not about the generic release of tension or pent-up feelings. It is about the release of tensions specifically created during the processing of the joke text. In the Critique of Judgment, Kant makes this plain when he says:

"In everything that is to excite a lively laugh there must be something absurd (in which the understanding, therefore, can find no satisfaction). Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing" (I, I, 54).

The strained expectation is the point of tension Kant has in mind. In Incongruity theory, finding a way out of the incongruity (the strain) is called the Resolution. Some people have postulated incongruity without resolution, but the neural pathways in the brain involved in the processing of humor argue against that, in that there is a connection between the Pre-frontal Cortex (where incongruity is processed) and the pleasure center (a complex group of structures including the cingulate cortex and amygdala). Resolving the incongruity is a pleasurable act, so the notions of incongruity and release are not at odds with each other.

One might, more properly, say that the release notion is more of a description of humor (or at least its response once triggered) than a theory, however, since the release, per se, is a non-cognitive process and can be triggered by other things, as pointed out.

The Chicken

Tony said...

The strained expectation is the point of tension Kant has in mind. In Incongruity theory, finding a way out of the incongruity (the strain) is called the Resolution. Some people have postulated incongruity without resolution, but the neural pathways in the brain involved in the processing of humor argue against that,

Like many things Kant said, I just don't find this all that plausible as a general principle. There are lots of things that are funny as a result of a built-up expectation that then turns - like the punchline of a joke. But then there are lots of things that are funny WITHOUT that, things that are funny even when there was no pent-up preparation. If I am telling a story about something that happened - not a joke, just something interesting - and all of a sudden I accidentally mix two completely different phrases in my head and it comes out all goofy, people will laugh not because of any preparation or "expectation" at which the understanding was "strained". Just not there. But it surely is humorous.

(One wonders whether Kant was one of those people who only ever laughed at "The Joke", told in careful, lugubrious manner, from a stage, with all others quiet and attentive. Never a spontaneous word play, never a slap-stick jolt from the blue sky, never an unplanned faux pas.)

Brandon said...

(One wonders whether Kant was one of those people who only ever laughed at "The Joke", told in careful, lugubrious manner, from a stage, with all others quiet and attentive. Never a spontaneous word play, never a slap-stick jolt from the blue sky, never an unplanned faux pas.)

Not from a stage, but in conversation at a dinner table. He didn't have a problem with spontaneous wordplay -- although he seems to have regarded it as something you mostly did so that the women wouldn't be bored -- but the prepared joke, specifically told because it was time to tell jokes, is something he actually does emphasize.

Chris Johnston said...

There's scientific support for incongruity theory: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/locating-the-brain-s-funny-bone/

Chris Johnston said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul Jansen said...

Dear Dr. Feser,

Thanks for your writings. I enjoy it very much. I have a question for you. Can you write something about the concept 'first and second naïvité' by Paul Ricoeur. It's about reading the bible and I'm very interested in your opinion about this subject. Link:
https://schriftman.wordpress.com/2013/04/27/paul-ricoeur-and-the-second-navet/

Kind regards from The Netherlands,
Paul

DavidM said...

Scott: I love the RCIA anecdote. All the best to you. I'd love to sit in on your classes.

Scott said...

Thank you, DavidM.

Justin said...

So, I've wondered lately, given that God has no potentiality, and is therefore purely actual, and has all possible perfections... does God have a sense of humor? It almost seems a bit sac religious to even ponder that, given the overwhelming seriousness of Christian faith, but still...