Humor—Why Do We Laugh?

[Adapted from the Commentary on Humor in The Autonomist's Notebook.]

One of the unique characteristic of the human rational nature are the emotional expressions which are mostly involuntary. "Man is the only creature that blushes, or needs to," Mark Twain said. Man is also the only creature that smiles, frowns, laughs, and weeps. He is also the only creature that worries, hopes, hates, or experiences nostalgia, guilt and its cousin, regret, and pride. These latter emotions, however, do not have any particular expression associated with them, as do humor (smiling and laughter), pathos (weeping), shame and embarrassment (blushing).

While some animals, like primates and dogs, do seem to exhibit behavior indicating some emotional reactions we share, like fear, enthusiasm, and joy, all other emotional experiences are uniquely possible to man because he has a rational nature. The animals do not worry or hope, because they are unable to conceive of the future. They do not experience nostalgia or regret, because they cannot conceive of the past. They do not experience guilt, shame or pride because they have no concept of values. The irrational creatures neither laugh or weep because the concepts necessary for understanding irony and pathos are impossible to them.

Of all the human emotions and their expressions, probably the least well understood is our sense of humor. Why do we laugh? It is more or less obvious why we cry or blush, worry, and feel guilty, but why some things strike us as "funny" and frequently evoke an involuntary smile or laugh is not at all obvious.

For example:

"Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read."

---Groucho Marx

"Now suppose you are a Congressman, and suppose you are an idiot, but I repeat myself."

---Mark Twain

It is not only difficult to explain why some things seem, "funny," but even to explain what we mean by funny. Why should there be such an emotion at all? What purpose does humor serve?

Human Nature

The nature of humor cannot be understood except in the context of human nature itself. Everything about human nature, "fits," the kind of beings we are, and the essence of human nature is volition, which enables and requires both the ability to acquire knowledge (intellect) and the ability to think and reason (rationality). The question is, what part of that volitional-intellectual-rational nature does humor fit?

Since humor is one of the emotions, it must serve whatever purpose any of the emotions serve. But, what are the emotions and what are they for?


The emotions are our perception of the body's physiological reactions to the content of consciousness. That mouthful only means, at every moment we are conscious, there is a continuous and complex set of physiological, neurological, and hormonal reactions to whatever we are currently conscious of and thinking about. It is those physiological reactions we are conscious of we call our emotions.

While both what we are perceiving and what we are thinking effect the emotions, it is what we think that is the most important, and in most cases, even determines what emotional reaction we will have to what we perceive. For example, if someone sees a snake, and happens to think snakes are slimy, disguting, and dangerous, their emotional reaction will be one of fear or revulsion, but if they think snakes are generally harmless creatures that are both interesting and beautiful in their movements and markings, there emotional reaction will be curiosity, or even pleasure.

The physiological reactions we experience as emotions are involuntary. We can learn, however, what thoughts produce which emotions and can learn to control our emotions by controlling what we think. Generally, if one is otherwise healthy, our emotions correctly reflect the nature of our thoughts, values, and choices, and most attempts to "control" the emotions are really attempts to "hide" or avoid them, which is usually a mistake. The emotions have a very important function in human nature.

The unique characteristic of human consciousness we call volition, the necessity and ability to live and act by conscious choice, is the essence of life itself, for human beings. The whole of human life is a continuous process of thinking and choosing and evaluating what one is conscious of including our thoughts and judgements as well. The one thing we cannot be conscious of is consciousness itself. The one thing we cannot directly experience is the continuous process of thinking, judging, and choosing—though we think, and judge, and choose consciously, we do not directly perceive them; or at least would not be able to, if it were not for the emotions.

The emotions provide a direct perceptual experience of the content of consciousness. While we are conscious of our thoughts intellectually, the emotions provide a direct "visceral" experience corresponding to conceptual consciousness. Making plans for something good is accompanied by feelings of enthusiasm and anticipation; thinking or contemplating doing, or having done, something we think is wrong will be accompanied by feelings of guilt or regret; thinking about someone we admire, desire, and value highly is accompanied by feelings of love and affection; considering something vile and ugly is accompanied by feelings of disgust and revulsion.

In our actual experience, we do not usually distinguish between our thoughts and their accompanying emotional feelings and experience them as units. The feelings and the thoughts are integrated into objects of consciousness which turn abstract thoughts into concretes which are directly perceived.

Our emotions are the way our human consciousness enables us to directly enjoy or "physically" experience both direct perception and our conceptual identification and evaluation of things simultaneously.

The emotions are our nature's way of converting the abstract elements of conceptual consciousness, our concepts, values, and thoughts, into "physical" experiences. The emotions make our minds, as well as our bodies, sensuous.

[NOTE: Since it is our enjoyment of life that is its purpose, we suppose the purpose of the emotions are to enable us to enjoy our lives, not to make them miserable. When the emotions are not a source of joy, but the very opposite, it is an indication of something very wrong. The thing that is wrong can be physiological, but more frequently the thing that is wrong is the individual's view of life, their values, their thoughts, and their choices, and the thing that is wrong with them is that they are contrary to reality and dominated by unrealistic views and desires.]

Turning the Conceivable Into the Perceivable

The emotions, by giving us an immediate visceral experience of our abstract conceptual consciousness, provide a kind immediate recognition of that which, without the emotions, we would not generally be aware. Many of the relationships we identify conceptually cannot be known at all by direct perception. We can directly perceive most spatial relationships between entities, as well as size relationships. We can perceive the relative difference in the weight of most smaller objects, differences in texture, temperature, and hardness, as well. But many relationships cannot be perceived at all, and without concepts, could not be known. Familial relationships, such as uncle and second cousin, cannot be perceived. Relationships that can only be known by science or history, cannot be perceived. The relationship of the chemical elements to each other, their relative components, the relationship of one component of atoms, electrons, to electricity, the relationships between heavenly bodies, and the relationship between biological functions all require concepts to be known.

When we respond emotionally to our concepts of relationships, we are directly conscious of them, just as though we could perceive them directly. We cringe when seeing a "close-call," such as when two vehicles seem about to collide, but manage to "just miss," each other, almost as though we "feel" the event that never actually happens. But that same feeling can be produced merely by thinking about such an event.

Shock, incredulity, or even anger might arise when someone tells us the price of a particular object we are considering buying. The relationship between the object and its price could never be perceived, but when a price is exaggerated, it is that exaggerated relationship we recognize conceptually that our emotional reaction enables us to experience directly.

Elements of Humor

Humor is that emotion or set of emotions that accompany the conceptual recognition of a specific kind of relationship. The kinds of relationships that are humorous have a specific nature determined by the following elements or characteristics:

  • Irony
  • Perspective
  • Surprise
  • Unusualness
  • Values

There is irony in all humor. All of the characteristics of humor expand and explain its ironic nature, which, in the end all turn on one's values.

Irony - Life is ironic. All value, all good, and all virtue are made possible by life. But death, loss, and grief are also made possible by life. When viewing the world as benevolent, the fact of evil in the world seems incongruous and contradictory. How can a benevolent world have so much evil in it?

It is the philosophical fact that evil is not a positive, but in fact only an empty and powerless negative that has no power of its own except that which the good makes possible to it, that humor makes it possible for a human being to experience. The irony with which humor provides this good emotion is the irony that in the face of the greatest evil, even the evil itself is turned by the human spirit into a virtue to be enjoyed.

Perspective - Humor is always a response to an unusual perspective, and that perspective is always one that is a kind of evaluation that either dismisses or cancels evil, or demonstrates unexpected benevolence.

The most common way humor does this is by providing the perspective on something that is evil, or harmful, or dangerous, or threatening, or only annoying, that demonstrates the sense of importance such things bear is false, and that, whatever is being "laughed at," is not important at all. It is the emotional equivalent of the philosophical evaluation of evil itself, that evil is a negative with no power of its own, except that which it derives from the good.

This is the key to why humor is required for our enjoyment. While we could intellectually make the same evaluation about evil, as we do philosophically, only by being able to experience the superiority of good and virtue over evil and vice, only by being directly conscious of this relationship that makes evil impotent in the face of virtue, can that evaluation be directly experienced and enjoyed. It is the immediate enjoyment of that which is possible only to man, the sense that one is adequate for living in the world, and all its threats and supposed dangers are no threat to one's ability to enjoy one's life and no danger to their success as a human being. Humor enables us to laugh at the world's empty threats and enjoy that sense of victory-over-evil that is human success.

Surprise - Sometimes the unexpected is humorous, just because it is unexpected, but that is not the characteristic meant here. The surprise that is meant here relates to the "unusualness" of that which is humorous. What is always unusual about that which is humorous is that the concept or concepts involved are always in some relationship that would not normally be expected.

A humorous thing is not funny just because it is unusual in the sense that it does not happen very often, but unusual in the sense that it would not be expected to happen at all.

Unusualness - The emotions provide instantaneous and continuous perceptual evaluation of the content of consciousness. For all common and usual thoughts and percepts, the common and usual emotional responses are sufficient. The humorous is that which requires a special evaluation because the regular, expected, and commonplace do not provide an immediate evaluation or comprehension of them emotionally.

The commonplace, the expected, the usual, and the normal are never humorous. Any of these might be either very good and benevolent or very bad and malevolent, but they are not humorous because there is nothing about them that requires any special evaluation that is not regular and apparent.

Values - while it is almost never made explicit (and doing so would in most cases destroy the humor), all humor depends on values. One's particular values determine what one will find, "funny," but more significantly, it is the fact that there are values, and therefore, things which are important and consequential that make humor possible.

Two Observations

First, humor requires a certain, "lightness," of mood. When our mood and thoughts are about very serious matters, even if the seriousness involves intense enjoyment, or any of those other kinds of seriousness, like great danger, demanding work or problems, intense emotional situations, or any situation demanding proper respect and honor, humor is seldom invoked and usually out of place. There is always in humor that suggestion, "this is not as important as it seems," which is not the emotion proper to those cases which really are important. If nothing were really important, there would be no false importance to laugh at.

Second, the sole purpose of humor is human enjoyment. It provides a means of enjoying situations, ideas, relationships, and events that we could always identify intellectually as having those characteristics we call humorous, but without the emotion of humor, we could never experience them. The emotion enables us not only to identify those ridiculous, absurd, or ironic false threats and annoyances of life, but to experience pleasure in being superior to them.

I do not, however, want to make of a humor a thing so serious its real purpose is missed. It is always a kind of defiance of evil, but it is not negative. Humor is the great positive emotion that fits the human rightness of being in this world and enjoying it, a celebration of life, an exhuberant expression of the fact that life is to be enjoyed enthusiastically, without fear, or guilt, or pain, gaily and laughingly. A laugh is a great, "yes! this is worth living for," expressed spontaneously. That is why we laugh.