PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Friday, May 10, 2019

Sense of humour

Sense of humour

We have discussed Humour in the past but not sense of humour. So what is the difference between humour and sense of humour, and more precisely for us, what is sense of humour?

It should be obvious that sense of humour is not about humour but our ability and skill to interpret and convey opinions or observations about real time events that will make people laugh. And, of course, our appreciation of the sense of humour of others. Sense of humour is more about seeing the funny side of things.

Sense of humour, as I said is not the ability to be funny, or tell jokes, or behave in a comic way. The “sense” part should tell us that it is a mental ability to identify, interpret and convey an original thought in the confines of a context; a context that’s usually time dependent. For a speech act of sense of humour it must be made within a fraction of a second. Time defuses the element or kernel of the retort and many times a delayed act of sense of humour can backfire and become an act to be ridiculed about.

So, if sense of humour is a skill and ability, can we learn this skill, or can we teach sense of humour? Furthermore, can we devise a model or an algorithm to enable others to learn, practice and develop a sense of humour. There is no doubt we can analyse the structure and identify the conditions for sense of humour but I doubt we can devise an algorithm for teaching purposes. In any case, why would we want to teach sense of humour to humans? Surely sense of humour is an innate skill?

A quick internet search of humour or humor will lead to an untold number of references. The more philosophical references highlight the issue that humour is not a common subject in philosophy. And one of the reasons is that for many centuries humour was frowned upon by religion and “polite” sections of society. Today comedy and humour are big business, but even today humour is not something we can use in all aspects of life. Unlike, for example, politeness, small talk, the weather and salutation: why is it unacceptable to turn up at a function with the president of a country and instead of greeting them with the usual diplomatic protocol pleasantries we start by telling them a joke? In effect humour can be more of a faux pas in society than say walking bare chestted in the middle of a city centre.

In defence of the traditional norms, maybe it is not the humour itself that is objectionable but the fact that good humour will always lead to heart felt laughter; and laughter as a sound can easily be offensive to the point of disapproval.

A question we can ask is this: for an act to be an act of sense of humour is it a necessary condition that someone will laugh at the act as expected by the speech actor? This issue is even more difficult than the classical sound of a tree falling in the forest test: if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? The problem is that just because someone intends a speech act to be an instance of sense of humour it does not follow that it is humour. Indeed, some sense of humour or just humour can be humorous precisely for not being humorous.

We can validly argue that after all is said and done, sense of humour is a matter of culture. In effect, in some cultures people like and participate in acts of sense of humour but not in other cultures.

As I have already suggested, the suppression of humour in society is not new, so it is not a surprise to suggest that humour can be a cultural taboo. But would it be enough to include a cultural factor in our algorithm of sense of humour? The problem with this question is that one needs to really know a culture to decide how relevant cultural taboo is in the context of sense of humour. Besides, many acts of sense of humour do not refer to culture at all.

But there is another element that makes sense of humour difficult to model, not to mention more difficult for non members of the culture, and that factor is language. Language is a more effective barrier against outsiders than the Great Wall of China. And this is a real issue for learners of a second language: humour is already a complex subject in teaching a language and maybe sense of humour is at the extreme end.

A function of language is to convey emotional sensations and feelings. And sense of humour is a very efficient language game that excels at emotions. We can identify various forms of sense of humour to express emotions and forms of speech for example: naïve sense of humour, cynical, sarcastic, dry, dark, black humour, cringing, quips, puns, innocent, romantic and many more.

It is not that learners of a second language do not understand the language and syntactical structure of the sense of humour act, but they just don’t get it. Language culture and historical culture might be a relevant factor here. Humour is very commonly associated with culture, for example: very few learners of British English, if any, would understand an act of sense of humour that would include the name of Screaming Lord Sutch. But this difficulty is not limited to culture a relevant factor is recent history within a society as my Screaming Lord Sutch element demonstrates. By the way, Lord Sutch (David Edward Sutch) was a British musician who failed to be elected to the British parliament 40 times. So we might not “get” an act of sense of humour simply because we lack some context that would give meaning to the speech act.

An act of sense of humour need not be a language act, for example gestures, facial expressions, body language, mimicking can also be used in the context of being sense of humour. However, we must be clear that sense of humour is not mocking others, or insulting people, or belittling people. Indeed, mocking people has always been a preoccupation of philosophers and religious people that created a barrier to accept humour as a respectable activity in society.

A relevant debate on humour, and by implication sense of humour, is the evolutionary function of humour. Because historically humour was thought to be an effort to humiliate and mock others a Superiority theory was often suggested, but it is unlikely that humour is a form of superiority over others.

In my opinion we have to look at the physiological effect of laughter: whatever laughter is, it certainly creates two effects in us. Firstly, we relax our guard when we laugh and secondly we feel good after a laugh. In effect, I would argue, when we laugh at someone’s act of sense of humour we give the message that we trust them because we are prepared to relax our guard to participate in the laughter. A police officer in a serious situation would never laugh at funny comments or acts of sense of humour. In other contexts they will join in the act of sense of humour precisely to diffuse a potential tense situation. Making others feel good is a power controlling strategy to manipulate or influence their behaviour.

As an intentional act, sense of humour must have an element of character trait deeply imbedded in our psyche either to win others or maybe even to deal with difficult inter personal relations to signal we are harmless or we can be trusted. In a social context sense of humour might be a barometer of the psychological state of mind of a person: are they insecure if they don’t participate in the act of sense of humour? Have they got limited language and intellectual skills? Are they sick so they cannot participate in such culture games?

Finally, we can also observe that not everyone is good at delivering scripted humour or tell a joke. Some might be able to write humour but not perform comic acts. Some might not even be able to laugh at obvious jokes. But can we say that everyone can spontaneously perform an act of sense of humour in the right circumstances?

 Best Lawrence

Norma on Humour (in Spanish)
Reír, Crear y Reflexionar Con Las Distintas Modalidades Literarias Del Humor
Norma Sturniolo

Máscara del humor / Norma Sturniolo

Sense of humour

Sense of humour by Ruel

Sense of humour by Lawrence JC Baron

Past links on Humour:

The Humorous Human by Ruel Pepa

Does humour make us human? By Lawrence JC Baron

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