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Theories of humor are attempts to explain what causes people to perceive humor in things, events or texts. A closely related topic is the theories of laughter.


Superiority theory

The superiority theory of humor traces back to Plato and Aristotle, and Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan. This theory explains that a person laughs about misfortunes of others, because these misfortunes assert the person's superiority on the background of shortcomings of others. [1]

For Aristotle, we laugh at inferior or ugly individuals, because we feel a joy at being superior to them.[2] Socrates was reported by Plato as saying that the ridiculous was characterized by a display of self-ignorance.[3]


The incongruity theory states that humor is perceived at the moment of realization of incongruity between a concept involved in a certain situation and the real objects thought to be in some relation to the concept.[1]

Since the main point of the theory is not the incongruity per se, but its realization and resolution (i.e, putting the objects in question into the real relation), it is often called the incongruity-resolution theory.[1]

Francis Hutcheson expressed in Thoughts on Laughter (1725) what became a key concept in the evolving theory of the comic: laughter as a response to the perception of incongruity.[4] Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that the perceived incongruity is between a concept and the real object it represents. Hegel shared almost exactly the same view, but saw the concept as an "appearance" and believed that laughter then totally negates that appearance. For Sigmund Freud, laughter is an "economical phenomenon" whose function is to release "psychic energy" that had been wrongly mobilized by incorrect or false expectations.

The first full formulation of the incongruity theory is attributed to Immanuel Kant. [1]

General Theory of Verbal Humor

The General Theory of Verbal Humor (GTVH) proposed by Victor Raskin and Salvatore Attardo (and known for some time under the name of semantic script theory of humour, SSTH) identifies a semantic model capable of expressing incongruities between semantic scripts in verbal humor; this has been seen as an important recent development in the theory of laughter. [5]

Ontic-Epistemic Theory of Humor

The Ontic-Epistemic Theory of Humor (OETC) proposed by P. Marteinson (2006) asserts that laughter is a reaction to a cognitive impasse, a momentary epistemological difficulty, in which the subject perceives that Social Being itself suddenly appears no longer to be real in any factual or normative sense. When this occurs material reality, which is always factually true, is the only percept remaining in the mind at such a moment of comic perception. This theory posits, as in Bergson, that human beings accept as real both normative immaterial percepts, such as social identity, and noological factual percepts, but also that the individual subject normally blends the two together in perception in order to live by the assumption they are equally real. The comic results from the perception that they are not. This same result arises in a number of paradigmatic cases: factual reality can be seen to conflict with and disprove social reality, which Marteinson calls Deculturation; alternatively, social reality can appear to contradict other elements of social reality, which he calls Relativisation. Laughter, according to Marteinson, serves to reset and re-boot the faculty of social perception, which has been rendered non-functional by the comic situation: it anaesthetises the mind with its euphoria, and permits the forgetting of the comic stimulus, as well as the well-known function of communicating the humorous reaction to other members of society. [6]

Sexual selection

Evolutionary psychologist, Geoffrey Miller contends that, from an evolutionary perspective, humor would have had no survival value to early humans living in the savannas of Africa. He proposes, that cultural aspects like humor, evolved by sexual selection. He argues that humor emerged as an indicator of other traits that were of survival value, such as human intelligence. [7]


  1. ^ a b c d M.P. Mulder, A. Nijholt (2002) "Humour Research: State of the Art"
  2. ^ Poetics, 1449a, p. 34-35.
  3. ^ Plato, Philebus 49b ff.
  4. ^ Peter Ludwig Berger Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience (1997) p.22
  5. ^ Salvatore Attardo
    • (1994) Linguistic Theories of Humor, Walter de Gruyter, ISBN 3110142554
    • (2001) Humorous Texts: A Semantic and Pragmatic Analysis, Walter de Gruyter, ISBN 311017068X
      • In this book Attardo finalizes the general theory of verbal humour suggested by him and Victor Raskin in 1991: Salvatore Attardo and Victor Raskin. Script theory revis(it)ed: joke similarity and joke representation model. Humor, 4(3):293-347, 1991
  6. ^ P. Marteinson (2006) On the Problem of the Comic, Legas Press, Ottawa, ISBN 9781894508919
  7. ^ 2001, The Mating Mind, by Geoffrey Miller


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