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Chapter 1

The Problem of Defining Humor

1.     [page 41] Humor-and-laughter a still unsolved problem of psychology.

2.     Baffling complexity of its structure, function and signification.

3.     Essential to distinguish between humor and laughter.

4.     Insufficiency of behaviorist approaches even when refined into a “multi-operationalism.” Laughter remains the best index of humor.

5.     Even the social and symbolic distortions of the laughter-reflex shed valuable light upon the psychology of humor and should not be bracketed aside.

6.     Laughter under non-amused conditions of fear, embarrassment, disgust, or as a means of releasing tension, etc., is nevertheless relevant for arriving at a full understanding of the structure of humor.

7.     Personal knowledge, which may remain unspecifiable, coupled with empirical control is the necessary foundation for a viable humor-theory.

8.     “Psychology of humor-and-laughter” in Indian tradition is not empirically derivable but “personal” in Polanyi’s sense. There is an implicit theory of humor-and-laughter that has to be reconstructed from its treatment in apparently unconnected domains like aesthetics, myth, cult, classificatory systems, social attitudes, etc.

9.     A valid theory must not only distinguish humor from laughter but also account for their generalized confusion by revealing the precise nature of their intimate relation. Instead of a theory of humor opposed to one of laughter, we opt for a theory of humor-and-laughter.

[42] If we propose here to undertake to define the nature of so trivial and familiar a phenomenon as humor and laughter, this is not only because we believe that its proper understanding and formulation will have far-reaching implications in domains outside of aesthetics proper but first of all because this deceptive familiarity obscures the fact that even the experts are baffled as to its essential nature and function. “No all embracing theory of humor and/or laughter has yet gained wide-spread acceptance and possibly no general theory will ever be successfully applied to the human race as a whole when its members exhibit such vast individual differences with respect to their humor responsiveness. The paradox associated with humor is almost certainly a function of its being incorrectly viewed as unitary process. Humor plays a myriad of roles and serves a number of quite different functions. As Zigler, Levine and Gould (1966) have pointed out, the understanding of humor is far more complex than has generally been acknowledged. Most theories of humor and laughter are concerned with the situations under which laughter is regularly elicited rather than with an analysis of its nature or functions. The theories are, in the main, explanations of laughter which occurs fairly reliably under specific sets of circumstances but ‘theories of humor’ may be something of a misnomer in the sense that not all those situations would always be described as humorous by those who laugh. Much [42] has been said about the problems of definition and the difficulties encountered in developing theory. There is no doubt that researchers are still a long way from formulating any general theoretical framework which will account for all aspects of humor and laughter, assuming this is even feasible.”1 Naturally, this inability to arrive at a total and universal theory of humor and laughter is translated into the terminological confusion that is both the result and further cause of conceptual confusion. “In general theorists are divided over the causes, mechanisms and functions of laughter and there has been little consensus of terminology in the literature as a whole, although in psychoanalytic writings terms like ‘humor,’ ‘wit,’ and ‘comic’ have clearly defined meanings and are never interchanged” (Humor and Laughter, p.2). But even in domains like the latter, it has been questioned whether the terminological distinctions correspond to reality and, supposing they do, whether these real distinctions are relevant or significant ones.

This is a clear enough avowal, in the Introduction to a most recent compilation of research papers (describing incompatible experimental models) on the subject, of the impotence of the [44] empirical methods of behavioral psychology when it comes to providing an essential definition of humor, especially one that will satisfactorily account for its aesthetic dimension in literature and drama and its peculiar role in myth and ritual context. Personal experience compels us to make a distinction between humor and laughter: “Although the words ‘humor’ and ‘laughter’ have sometimes been used synonymously in discussions of theory. Dewey (1894),2  Potter (1954)3 and others have argued that laughter can be irrelevant to the study of humor and vice-versa, because each can be experienced independently of the other…. Strictly speaking, therefore, a distinction can (and indeed should) be drawn between theories of humor and theories of laughter, and clearly theories of laughter need to take into account the numerous types of non-humorous as well as humorous situations which can cause laughter. Undoubtedly, in this context, one of the most difficult problems, for empiricists and theorists alike is to determine precisely what causes laughter in a given situation” (Humor and Laughter, p.4).

If we then provisionally accept that humor is distinct from laughter, this distinction can be expressed, within the limits of the behaviorist model, in the following terms: “The best known humor theorists (viz. Freud, Hobbes, Eastman, Bergson et al.) consistent with each other (and with most laymen), confound humor [45] with laughter… Laughter seems to be a desirable scientific construct in that it is so ‘operational’. But as humor is synonymous with amusement, we must now ask: Is laughter synonymous with amusement? Clearly amusement is a mental experience (i.e., organismic variable or O) in a Stimulus-Organism-Response (S-O-R) model—unlike laughter, which is a response (R). Stearns4 observes: ‘Laughing is essentially a parasympathetic efferent reaction.’ Obviously then, amusement and laughter are not identical. They would be equivalent if amusement were both a necessary and sufficient condition of laughter. On the contrary, a person apparently may laugh under any of the following conditions of non-amusement: when literally tickled, embarrassed, afraid, releasing tension, or pretending to have grasped the point of a ‘joke’ which oversailed his head. Children have been found to laugh at ‘jokes’ which they did not understand.5 Reynolds6 reminds us the human neurological disorders can precipitate laughter unaccompanied by amusement, and Stearns (1972, pp.25-30) provides numerous examples…. But is amusement a sufficient condition of laughter? An amused person may avoid laughing to keep from embarrassing the butt of the joke, to remain unnoticed, or to appear sophisticated. Dott7 also relates that ‘at least one case involving [46] damage to the ventral hypothalamus has been reported in which laughter could not occur even though the appropriate emotion was present! Stearns (1972, p.19) adds that weeping can result from extreme hilarity. In other words, amusement is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition of laughter.”8

But if humor is a mental experience whereas laughter is a physiological response, and if there is no essential relationship between the two, it becomes impossible to study the former through strictly empirical methods. The best that the experimental methods of behaviorism can do is study the physiological expression of humor in laughter—the operational index par excellence of humor—which is the only aspect of it that can be measured in terms of bodily responses and relate these measurements to the controls exercised over the stimuli. But in order thereby to gain valuable insights into the intangible mental experience of humor, it is necessary to begin with everyman’s notion of the intimate relationship and general concomitance between humor and laughter, and then proceed to introduce the relevant distinctions and reservations to account for well-known anomalous instances where this concomitance seems to break down. In a sense this would be more ‘empirical’ procedure than to jump outright to the conclusion that laughter be rejected as an operational index of humor, or even more so, that laughter in situations of ‘non-amusement’ is [47] irrelevant to a true or better understanding of humor. After all, if most laymen and the best-known theorists alike confound the two with such persistence, there must be something in the nature of the phenomenon itself that favors this identification strongly. For, “we who lack extrasensory perception cannot read other minds directly and, therefore must infer, from some operational indices (i.e., from responses), whether these others are amused. However, as we have seen, neither laughter nor its absence is necessarily a valid indicator of amusement per se; sometimes smiling operationally defines amusement; sometimes the statement ‘That’s funny’ defines it; sometimes applause etc. It appears then that humor research and theory must move in the direction of what Webb, Campbell, Schwartz and Sechrest9 refer to as multi-operationalism, and Sherif (personal communication) describes as validity cross-checks” (La Fave et al., Humor and Laughter, p.80). Though we have nothing against the ‘multi-operationalism’ and ‘validity cross-checks’ recommended by the above authors to get over the difficulties, rather the veritable impasse, inherent in an exclusively empirical approach, they only beg the question. For if we correlate multiple indices in order to determine the presence or absence of humor, we merely complicate the problem by substituting mere laughter with a range of possible responses, but we cannot justify our subsuming all these varying instances under the common head of instances of humor, without tacitly admitting that we are already able to distinguish in and for ourselves a humorous situation from a non-humorous one. How [48] indeed can we know that all these manifestations are of the same inner mental state, unless we knew it before in ourselves and seen ourselves responding to it in diverse ways?

Moreover, the empirical critique, wholly engrossed with laughter, seems to shed its rigor when it clutches at other operational indices like smiling. If smiling is to be an alternative index to laughter, then it must first of all be empirically proven that smiling is different from laughter. But experimental research, on the contrary, confirms the Indian classification of the smile (smitam) as being merely the mildest form of laughter or incipient laughter: “Despite the richness of individual variations of laughter and smiling, and the equally rich vocabulary which describes them, the basic muscular and respiratory processes which characterize laughter are specific and uniform. They have been described and analyzed by Darwin, Sully, Duchenne de Boulogne, Raulin, and others.”10 Similarly, the shedding of tears (weeping), adduced to prove the absence of laughter during extreme hilarity, is an integral element of the Indian description of excessive laughter (atihâsa): “It is only when laughter grows immoderate that there is a marked addition of other features, viz.: the strong contraction of the muscles about the eyes leading to frowning, and the shedding of tears. How closely connected are smiling and moderate laughing may be seen by the tendency we experience when we reach the broad smile and the fully open mouth to start the respirator movements of laughter. As Darwin and others have [49] pointed out, there is a series of gradations from the faintest and most decorous smile up to the full explosion of the laugh. One may perhaps go farther and say that the series of gradations here indicated is gone through, more or less rapidly, in an ordinary laugh…. The recognition of this identity of the two actions is evidenced by the usages of speech. We see in the classical languages a tendency to employ the same word for the two…. This is particularly clear in the case of the Latin ridere, which means to smile as well as to laugh, the form subridere being rare (Italian, rídere and sorrídere; French rire and sourire; German lachen and lächeln).”11 Thus smiling and tears, far from eliminating laughter, enhance its value as an operational index of humor. “Humor is the only domain of creative activity where a stimulus on a high level of complexity produces a massive and sharply defined response on the level of physiological reflexes. This paradox enables us to use the response as an indicator for the presence of that elusive quality, the comic, which we are seeking to define” (Koestler, Act of Creation, p.31; emphasis by the author).12

And why should applause or the statement “That’s funny” not be subject to the same disqualification as laughter? If [50] laughter may serve to give the impression of having grasped a joke that has oversailed one’s head or, on the contrary, be restrained in order not embarrass the butt or to appear sophisticated though the joke has been truly appreciated, there is all reason to believe that applause etc. too are responses subject to the same constraints. Moreover, such voluntary interference with the otherwise spontaneous laughter response, in order to preserve the butt from embarrassment or to appear cultured, necessarily implies that laughter has become a sign, apparently based on a causal relationship, viz. an index. If laughter embarrasses, this must be due to its association with a feeling of superiority in the laugher, and its suppression, far from proving that laughter is irrelevant to the study of humor, tends to provide confirmation of the superiority theory of humor. For the empiricist will otherwise have to explain how laughter has come to acquire this well-known signification, outside of its relation to humor. Its manipulation as a sign having diverse, sometimes contradictory, significations may well reflect back on aspects of the psychology of humor that would otherwise have passed unnoticed.

Finally, since humor is a mental experience, is it not presumptuous on the part of an ‘empiricist’ to assume that laughter arising from embarrassment, fear, or releasing tension ipso facto indicates a state of ‘non-amusement’? Or to be more precise and cautious: even if we accept that the absence of amusement (= humor) in such instances, can we assume that the generation of laughter here is irrelevant for a proper understanding of the [51] nature of humor which too often expresses itself in laughter (and especially smiling)? Such a conclusion presupposes that humor is incompatible with negative emotions like fear, anger or sorrow, whereas this should itself be the first element of experimental demonstration by the empiricist. Faced with this protean capacity of laughter to merge into the most diverse emotions and physical sensations, Ribot at the end of the last century in his Psychologie des Sentiments, summed up the position with an admission of defeat: “To conclude, laughter manifests itself in such varied and heterogeneous conditions—bodily sensations, pleasure, contrast, surprise, oddness, strangeness, baseness, etc.—that the reduction of all these causes to a single one remains a very problematic undertaking. After so much work spent on such a trivial phenomenon, the problem is still far from being completely explained” (cited in Koestler, Insight and Outlook, p.4 = Act of Creation, p.32). Our empiricists, not to be defeated, persist in trying to eliminate all such instances from the category of humorous laughter, instead of seeking to provide a theory of humorous laughter that will incorporate as much of these elements as possible or at least explain why these elements, which do not seem to be invariable components of humor, can yet produce laughter under specific conditions. The argument actually rests on a natural enough—but unforgivable in an ‘empiricist’—conception of humor as a unitary process, for the empiricist has unconsciously sought to understand it on the model of the other ‘simple’ emotions which always retain their distinctiveness even where they enter mutual transformations or combinations. There is an unwarranted [52] non-empirical opposition between humor and the other emotions.

In fact, these difficulties remain insoluble only for the ‘empiricist’: if we did not know humor in our own experience and were incapable of recognizing it therein, we would never be able to recognize its existence in others. The “empiricist” hence uses the cues of his own personal knowledge, while all the time suppressing this fact behind and “objectivist” frame of reference. Thus our authors’ article, on empirical grounds, “criticizes well-known humor theories, and draws some counter-intuitive conclusions regarding such matters as whether anyone possesses a sense of humor, whether anyone has ever been amused at his own expense, and whether jokes exist” (Humor and Laughter, p. 63), and, by the same logic, denies the existence of beauty and/in works of art (p.85), and yet, for all that, is itself unconsciously based on the “intuitive,” though as we shall see erroneous, presupposition that the humor-stimulus should be exclusive of the stimuli of other emotions. Why not seek the specificity of humor in the structural organization of the stimulus and the corresponding mental response, rather than seek to isolate it in their content? We know that the aesthetic experience in the artist cannot be established by purely empirical means; we recognize this experience in his work of art by reliving it in ourselves even if only imperfectly. To that extent we rely on our own claim to the skill of connoisseurship, in order to acknowledge the presence of aesthetic sensibility in the poet or musician. This does not mean that our articulate definition of an essentially tacit act of knowing would necessarily do justice to the experience itself [53] though we necessarily rely on the latter for our formulation. But our reliance on our personal experience is undeniable, and a correct formulation of this experience into a theory of aesthetics accounting at the same time for all the empirically determined features of the aesthetic process will necessarily depend on a correct and adequate insight into this complex experience as a unified whole, before seeking to isolate and define its elements and articulate their mode of integration.13 But of course, the best connoisseurs may not necessarily give the best definition, for their knowledge is primarily tacit and hence unspecifiable.14 Yet this tacit skill is the basis, especially when coupled with personal experimentation using external controls, for any adequate [54] aesthetic theory, though this should be subject to subsequent empirical verification as well.15 Now, if humor is conceived as a particular variety of the aesthetic experience, as we shall show to be the case in Indian aesthetics, the objections raised above and the alternative approach outlined instead, apply with at least equal, if not greater, force to it also. In short, by insisting on an ‘objectivist’ approach to the problem of humor, the ‘empiricist’ seeks certainty in his conclusions, by avoiding any semblance of accrediting himself with the capacity to evoke, recognize and enjoy humor. Yet the very experiments he conceives and devises are a tacit, though not eloquent, affirmation of this capacity, for he generally borrows his initial models (as working–hypotheses) from the partial insight of same famous philosopher or other,16 instead of appealing directly to the unreduced [55] complexity of personal daily experience.

Freud, who has left us a fine collection of jokes on the analyses of which he elaborates his various categories of the comic, etc., also relied basically on this unspecifiable feeling that signals the presence of the comic, and speaks of his discomfiture when faced with genres, like the analogy, which, though seemingly possessing the specifiable character common to jokes, nevertheless fail to produce or imperfectly produce the unspecifiable convulsion that satisfies us of its presence. “There is a feeling—and this is probably true of a large number of other people under the same conditions—which tells me ‘this is a joke, I can pronounce this to be a joke’ even before the hidden essential nature of jokes has been discovered. This feeling leaves me in the lurch most often in the case of joking analogies. If to begin with I unhesitatingly pronounce an analogy to be a joke, a moment later I seem to notice that the enjoyment it gives me is of a quality different from what I am accustomed to derive from a joke. And the circumstance that joking analogies are very seldom able to provoke the explosive laugh which signalizes a good joke makes it impossible for me to resolve the doubt in my usual way—by limiting myself to the best and most effective examples of a species.”17 From this personal observation, Freud comes to the valid deduction that the “joking comparison” must be automatic and not the result of conscious deliberation as in the case of the “joking analogy.” It may be admitted that due to [56] the insufficiency of empirical control and an exaggerated psychoanalytic bias, Freud has sometimes overlooked essential elements of the comic stimulus and of his own reactions, and likewise over-exaggerated or inflected other elements, in the course of justifying his nevertheless valid personal judgments. And indeed, our “behaviorists” have nothing but scorn for him in this regard.18 But the fact remains that this personal “feeling” is the starting-point for all his humor-theorizing and, rather than laugh away Freud’s “humorous theory,” it would be more fruitful to try and determine, as we have done, the inner logic that obliges Freud to sometimes misinterpret his own acute perceptions.

In contrast, it must be realized from the beginning that the conception of humor in Indian aesthetics is not an empirically derived one, though it takes into account the empirical conditions associated with it and seeks to consciously exploit the latter in order to provoke humor in the aesthetic context. This 'theory of humor' is not so much explicitly elaborated in order to [57] construct a 'psychology' of the emotions for its own sake, but is rather to be deduced from the practical treatment of humor and laughter in drama and poetry, their place in classificatory systems like those of astrology, their utilization in the cult as integrated into ritual and spiritual discipline, and the peculiar signifying functions assigned to laughter and comic behavior in mythology. And in a truly traditional society all these aspects and dimensions of the phenomenon, despite their apparent contradictions, are closely related to each other and are susceptible of being reduced to a general theory that is never wholly explicit. Even where Bharata accurately defines the stimuli, accompanying transitory states, and manifestations associate with humor/laughter, this is only to facilitate their exploitation in drama, And wherever Abhinavagupta digresses into the “psychology of humor and laughter,” it is always in the context of the practical problems of aesthetics or the social functions of the drama or the bearing of the emotions on the ultimate spiritual goal of man. It is in such a context, while demonstrating how any emotion being depicted in the drama can, by being reduced to a mere semblance (âbhâsa) of itself, be transformed into humor (hâsya), that he clearly insists that the ancients introduced such distinctions as rasa (aesthetic emotion), which includes humor, and “the semblance of rasa,” into their expositions as a result of their intimate familiarity with and insight into the true nature of Consciousness [58] (samvit).19 Since the active use of the emotions with a view to Self-knowledge is found primarily in tantricism, it is not surprising that our master theoretician of aesthetics and humor is at the same time the greatest theoretician of tantric doctrine and praxis.

Our conclusions and the approach adopted will, therefore, differ from those of La Fave et al.: “The preceding argument permits some rather strong conclusions. One is that ‘humor’ theories by Freud, Hobbes, Bergson, Eastman and other well-known humor theorists are really not theories of humor at all but, at best, theories of laughter. Thus, since as it was just shown, humor and laughter are not synonymous, we have demolished all such ‘humor’ theories which equate laughter and humor” (Humor and Laughter, p.80). Though we would agree that these theorists have not been able to arrive at a satisfactorily comprehensive theory of humor because they have not sufficiently distinguished humor from laughter, we would nevertheless assert that they have given us some valuable, though partial and inadequate, insights into the nature of humor, precisely because they have treated humor and laughter together instead of independently of each other. Our authors themselves are prompt to clarify that “of course the above discussion is not [59] meant to imply that laughter is never a valid ‘operational’ indicator of amusement. For instance, when a comedian tells  a joke and audience laughter follows, it seems reasonable to suppose that amusement got itself involved. Nevertheless, the comedian errs when he assumes, as comedians often do, that the magnitude of the laughter is a direct, monotonic function of the magnitude of amusement. Part of the audience laughter in such a situation is probably a consequence of non-amused independent variables—such as embarrassment and conformity (Humor and Laughter, p.81). To oppose a theory of humor to one of laughter would, by eliminating or tending to eliminate those elements associated with non-amused laughter from the psychology of humor, lead us into equally serious errors as evidenced especially by the counter-intuitive conclusions of our authors. It is not enough to have claimed to prove that laughter is independent of humor, or that jokes non-exist, or that a sense of humor is an illusion; our alternative theory, however empirical, must necessarily explain at the same time why humanity, experts and laymen alike, has for so long and with such persistence believed otherwise. In conformity with the Indian approach, we propose instead a theory of humor-and-laughter that is careful to distinguish between the two but nevertheless reveals their intimate connection and thereby accounts for the inevitability of the generalized confusion between the two. In the process, it will be realized that this apparently “trivial emotion” is in fact the most deceptively complex of all.

[Chapter I of Abhinavagupta’s Conception of Humor is complete]