Philosophy of Laughter

My friend has been asking me for a little while now if I would do a post on different types of laughter. I told him it that it was an interesting idea, and I still think it is, but it’s partially so interesting to me because I have no idea really what he had in mind or what I could about the topic.

So I’ll start as any good philosopher would and get some distinctions and terminology on the table. As I thought about the following, I realized that laughter is a rich and varied category.

There are such things as a chuckle, which is best described as a quick short laugh. It can be used to humor someone who isn’t funny, but it can be genuine as well. This is kind of a pleasant soft type of laughter and isn’t violent or explosive. The are also belly laughs which are deep and resounding, but also “knee-slapping” laughter which is characterized by shortness of breath and a sense of being overwhelmed.

There are also a variety of artificial laughs. One can give a short sarcastic blast, like a HEEH, or a more drawn out imitation of laugh, usually culminating in a sardonic “whew, that’s a good one.”There are also linguistic descriptions that perform the same role, such as when you say “that’s funny” but obviously cannot mean it since if you found it funny you would be laughing….or would you. I often wonder if humor is necessarily tied to laughter.

I mean, it seems like you could listen to a joke and say “that’s funny” in the way that you might say of a piece of art “that’s a great drawing,” though not linger on it because it doesn’t move you in any way. Could you do the same with laughter and say “that’s funny” but just not be moved to laughter. The possibility of this sort of judgment would be fascinating to me, because without laughter, how do you know something is funny? Do you merely think it would provoke laughter in someone else, or are you sensing certain features of the joke that you find appealing?

There are also MODES of laughter. Not types, but modes. What I mean is that you can start by just humoring someone with a little fake laugh, but then find yourself laughing at the fact that you’re humoring the person on this particular occasion. Sometimes just faking a laugh and giving yourself a crude approximation of the sensation of laughter brings real laughter along. Also, there is a big difference between sitting in a comedy club and expecting to laugh, and being struck by a friend’s out-of-blue comments. Expectations can be of course raised outside of formal comedy settings. Maybe you have a friend who you know tells funny stories and when he starts in, you immediately lock your attention, perhaps already chuckling “where is he going with this one…”

What does it mean that our internet lexicon developed a fairly subtle set of laughter words. You can say “haha,” “lol,” “jaja,” “hehe,” “RFLOL,” and many others. These correspond to some of the categories I’ve described above.

But there is an even deeper lesson about LOL, which is, WHY WOULD SUCH A WORD HAVE DEVELOPED IN THE FIRST PLACE? The answer is that “haha” began to be used as a throwaway word. At first, I guess people sensed that it was TOO EASY to be humored in cyber space with a written “haha,” just as one is not appeased when someone says “o that’s funny,” but does not laugh. But then why does LOL do any better. You can type those words without laughing just as much as you can type haha. And in fact LOL seems to be much more deceptive (which is why I don’t use it), because when you type LOL, you are describing something you are doing — laughing out loud — but when you type haha, you are not describing your laughter, you are expressing it. Compare what I just said with pain. If I say “I am in pain” this is much different than saying “OOWW!.” If you thought I was not in pain and I said “I am in pain” you could rightly say “that’s false,” but if you thought I was faking and I said “OOWW” you couldn’t say “that’s false.” You would have to say something like “don’t get melodramatic” or “don’t fake it.” Again, the reason is that LOL describes a state of the world and so can be true or false, while haha merely expresses our laughter and so MORE CLOSELY simulates real laughter.

But to return to LOL, I think it ‘s a very provoking little tidbit about our internet culture that we try to cling to the aural distinctiveness of laughter even when separated, and that the “out loud” or “social” aspect of laughing is trying to be preserved even over the silence of text communication.

The reason we may cling to humor’s out-loud characteristic so strongly is that humor was humankind’s first ANTI-VIRUS. What do I mean? Am I being dramatic? Yes of course. But listen, laughter, as we know, can spread, and it is CONTAGIOUS. If we take this metaphor seriously, then we can think of humor as the opposite of a disease — a kind of experience that grows in power the more we practice it and the more we use it with others. It’s a kind of jolliness disease.

I thought most of this up just in response to my friend’s probing question, so thanks Jesse.


3 Responses to “Philosophy of Laughter”

  1. 1 Paul
    March 30, 2011 at 5:43 pm

    It’s funny you’ve been thinking about laughter, because I’ve just started thinking about humor recently. The literature on the philosophy of humor is pretty scant, which is a shame, because the humorous is just as baffling as the “sublime” or the “good.” Coming up with either necessary or sufficient conditions for humor is just as difficulty as any other loaded philosophical concept.

    I had a moment a couple of weeks ago…I suddenly realized that I had no idea what properties I was responding to to when I laughed or found something humorous.

  2. June 27, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    Laughing is definitely an interesting topic but I think just summing up different ways to laugh doesn’t tell us much about it.

    Maybe we can try to view laughter as a speech act and then – meaning is use – reflect on different functions that it can perform.

    I think the most interesting thing about laughter is its ambiguity when used in conversation. Laughing can be a sort of approval and show mutual understanding but it can also be a subtle form of critique and even become a form of verbal aggression (e. g. when you laugh about someone and ridicule them).

    Laugher can promote social cooperation or make it impossible and the line here is very blurring. I think this ambiguity can be very problematic – especially when the stakes are high and the topics are very controversly debated e.g. religion.

    Any ideas or suggestions in that direction?

    • 3 questionbeggar
      June 27, 2012 at 4:09 pm

      Thanks for the comment. I don’t really think of laughter as a speech act because I don’t think it is an action. One does not choose to laugh. Instead, laughter is a reaction that is appropriate or not depending on the joke being made, just as indignation is a response/reaction that is appropriate or not depending on whether a wrong was done to your or someone else.

      Another reason to think of laughter as not a speech act is that I don’t think laughter has conceptual content. What I mean is that laughter itself does not represent something as funny, though it does signal that the laugher believes that something is funny (better would be: the laugher PERCEIVES something is funny, belief never really enters into humor.).

      I’m about to write a post today about humor actually, so take a look if you’re interested.

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