Daniel Dennett: “Reverse Engineering the Funny Bone”

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John Morreall: “It’s a Funny Thing, Humor”

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Thomas Brommage: “An Inferential Analysis of Offensive Humor”

Last summer, comedian Daniel Tosh was widely criticized for telling an inopportune rape joke targeting a female heckler in the audience. Offensive humor – whether ‘blue’ material, Friars’ Club roasts, or racial and ethnic humor – is significantly different than jokes of a ‘cleaner’ variety, and requires a unique analysis. Surely. Tosh’s joke elicited a quite different reaction than a similar joke which may (for example) be delivered by Sarah Silverman. So it’s clearly not due to he intrinsic properties of the joke, or thaty the subject matter itself is inappropriate for jest. Additionally, a subjectivist point of view (the fact that the listener “didn’t think the joke was funny’) doesn’t help us understand the difference between offensive jokes and merely bad jokes. But nonetheless I feel that offensive humor does play an important social role in exposing biases and stereotypes and can be used to address taboo topics.

In this paper, I wish to sketch a theory of offensive humor, which will allow such jokes to be better understood. I begin by laying down an inferentialist account of the pragmatics of jokes. Jokes are speech acts; but while many may be issued in the form of declarative or interrogative sentences, they are not reducible to conventional analysis of questions or statements. Following this,, I turn to offensive humor in particular, describing some of the conditions relevant to their uptake. I will argue that there is a degree of entitlement to certain jokes (relative to the speaker’s authority), and set of commitments that follow from a given joke – both of which allow one to understand the difference between when a joke is offensive and when one is funny. I hope (time permitting) to apply my analysis also to racial and ethnic humor, and discuss some of the positive and negative consequences of these types of jokes.

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Martin Donougho: “Comedic System – Or why ‘the philosopher’ seems ridiculous”

“It is equally fatal…to have a system and to have none: one must therefore embrace both.” (Fr. Schlegel)

I propose a paper on how comedic art distinguishes itself from—hence relates to—its matter (comic events, situations, characters).  I draw on three sources: Hegel, Bergson, and Niklas Luhmann.

An earlier paper on “Hegelian Comedy” presented the paradox whereby Hegel says next to nothing on what is for his theory the ultimate art—an art moreover ending in self-dissolution (it emerges from only to merge with reality).  Here I expand on the paradox, comparing it with epic implicature.  Late in his study titled Laughter (1900) Bergson turns from the comic element to its artistic treatment: unlike other arts, comedy lives between art and life; while author/spectator distance themselves from the ridiculed “type” it is to restore social order (for Bergson, not conformism but elastic individuality).  The sociologist Luhmann contends that the art system 1) employs a mechanism of self-distinction to establish both itself and the autonomous artwork, 2) initiates a modern “autopoiesis” (self-observation) in a continual effort to take account of the blind spot constitutive of any social position.  Luhmann (1995/2000) has occasional remarks on Romantic “humor,” “irony” and “wit,” if not on comedy proper.  But comedy exemplifies this double logic of artistic distinction/relation—just what my paper aims to track.

The Menandrine tradition of assumed social superiority, hegemonic in practice and theory from Aristotle to Frye (Hokenson 2006), was challenged by an inclusive 18C “humor,” the Romantics’ return to Aristophanes, and Bakhtin’s late populist reaction.  I agree with John Bruns (Loopholes 2009) that “comedy is sovereign,”—if it’s anything.  Comedy takes a non-exclusionary approach to the world, willing ultimately to forgo knowledge even of its own blind spots (Bergson’s “distraction”).

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Christopher Gontar: “The Falsity of Hurley’s False-Belief Theory of Humor”

Matthew Hurley has advanced the most extensive global “false belief” theory of humor. He attempts to put this kind of humor theory on firm ground and gives the appearance of diligent self-criticism. Yet the basis or stimulus of humor is not ordinary and unmotivated error, but a vicious kind, and the source of our amusement is never in the moment of our own discovery of anything, qua discovery. Hurley’s theory of “covert entry” of belief is also plainly false. A plausible model of humor’s essence is the intuitive response to vicious delusion, with the response (amused laughter) being, arguably, an involuntary imitation of this condition.

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Whitley Kaufman: “Does Evolution Have A Sense of Humor?”

Hurley, Dennett, and Adams in their new book Inside Jokes present a theory of humor based on evolutionary psychology, claiming to finally reveal the underlying structure of all humor.  They propose that humor is an evolutionary device for “debugging” our cognitive systems, that is, for detecting and eliminating false beliefs: humor, at least in its original evolutionary form, identifies inconsistencies in our beliefs that, left intact, could result in cognitive crisis.  The authors however admit that the use of humor may have long since been hijacked for all sorts of other purposes, and become a form of evolutionary “cheesecake”: greatly enjoyed but long separated from its original adaptive function.

The theory is not easy to refute, given that it does not in fact purport (as it claims) to be a theory of all humor, but rather only of the original function of humor.  Thus any counterexamples can be dismissed as results of the cultural hijacking of the true role of humor, and the theory is difficult to assess since we cannot observe original “true” humor in its original environment.  Nonetheless, a careful analysis of the theory reveals that it is almost certainly not a successful explanation of humor.  The theory’s intellectualist, cognitivist account is unable to explain far too many of the basic elements and types of humor, including slapstick and the two most popular forms of jokes (dirty and ethnic).  A far more plausible account of humor is one grounded in the sense of comic relief provided when confronted with the incongruities of human nature.

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Eva Kort: “A Loving Life: ‘Humor’ and a Suggestion for an Ethics of Mirth”

In this paper, I look behind the scary mask that humor can wear to consider humor’s brighter side.    In doing so, I focus on mirth and its ethical implications.  The discussion proceeds as follows:  (1) I begin with a discussion of ‘humor’.  In this part of the paper, I address common theories of humor including Incongruity Theory, Social Signaling Theory, and Amusement Theory and work toward a suggestion for how mirth fits with humor.  (2) I continue the discussion to talk more specifically about the relation of mirth and humor to highlight certain features of mirth.  This section sets the stage for my discussion of Marc Chagall’s work in Part (3).  In Part (3), I consider some of Marc Chagall’s writings about his life and several of his paintings highlighting especially his use of color and representations of animals.  Chagall’s comments about his general approach to life and painting come across as expressions prompted by a depth of wisdom and a generosity of attitude—of lively good cheer, good-humoredness, or mirth.  In the course of my discussion, I suggest that he accepts a kind of ethics of mirth, and, then, consider the implication that mirth is good in an ethical sense.

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Christopher Lauer: “Laughter and Intimacy in the Evolution of Humor”

In The Concept of Irony, Kierkegaard places humor on the boundary (confinium) between ethical and religious life, one dialectical stage higher than irony, which stands on the boundary between aesthetic and ethical life.  Like irony, humor is for Kierkegaard only possible through the contradictions between subjective desire and communal fellowship.  Even when we only joke to ourselves, humor depends on a playful dismissal of our community just as irony creates and dissolves a community in a single gesture.  Yet what Kierkegaard fails to delineate in The Concept of Irony is the dialectical basis on which we can understand humor as a higher development of irony.  This is one of the primary purposes of my forthcoming book on intimacy.

In this essay, I will argue that much of the pleasure we derive from humor as well as the very impulse to laugh emerges from a drive for intimacy.  Evolutionary biologists have found analogues of human laughter in other primates and even rats, and in every case the cultivation of intimacy plays a key role.  One hypothesis holds that giggling in response to being tickled is a way of demonstrating that the tickler is indeed having an effect on its “victim” without risking serious harm.  Similarly, irony is cultivates intimacy by promising a meaning that only those involved in the conversation can understand, and humor brings people together because it promises fellowship even in the breakdown of higher ideals.  I can laugh with Mark Twain because he allows me to grasp that even though the absurdity of the U.S. policy toward the Sandwich Islands hints at the absurdity of life itself, he and I are in this together.  In each, laughter is a response to a promise of intimacy that is never quite fulfilled.


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Lauren Olin: “Comic Disagreement”

Comic judgments, like moral and epistemic judgments, are normative. While normative disagreement has received much attention in moral and epistemic domains, comic disagreement has been neglected. This paper argues that there exists substantial overlap between the human capacity for comic judgment and other human capacities for normative judgment. Normative capacities appear to be functionally independent, to be supported by many of the same cognitive systems, and to serve many of the same purposes in social coordination. Therefore, it is plausible to suppose that facts about comic disagreement are relevant to understanding normative disagreement more generally.

I first explain why the comic domain should be considered normative. I expand and improve on arguments for the view that there are significant points of analogy between moral and epistemic forms of normativity, and claim that normative domains in general cannot be well understood independently of one another. I then articulate and defend an account of comic disagreement, and argue that the account can be usefully extended to analyze disagreement in moral and epistemic domains. In conclusion, I contend that (1) prominent arguments from moral disagreement to metaethical relativism are overstated and (2) prominent arguments from scientific convergence to epistemic realism are overstated.

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Christelle Paré: “Francophone Comedy in Quebec: Tradition or Invasion”

The Province of Quebec is an interesting ground for research in humor and comedy. Historically, it has a long tradition in telling hilarious stories. Nowadays, it hosts not only the biggest comedy festival on the planet (Juste pout rire–Just for Laughs), but also four others on its territory. It harbours the only francophone comedy school in the world (École nationale de l’humour), recognizes players in this field annually with an awards gala, and is more lucrative than any other performing arts in the province.

Humor is simply everywhere: arts, business, marketing, news media, health care, etc. Since 1983, some observers of the francophone comedy industry have been consistently asking if there is too much comedy in Quebec society? On the other hand, the actors of this industry claim that hey are not being taken seriously as an active form of culture, they condemn the “elite” attitude towards them, even if they represent a productive economic force, and blame the provincial government for not supporting them as it supports other performing arts.

Using David Hesmondlaigh’s approach of the cultural industries (2007), our communication will take a look at the ideological role played by humor in the province of Quebec. We will explore the actors’ discourse (comedians and journalists) about this cultural field, based on several interviews conducted during our thesis research, a press corpus of articles published between 2008 and 2012, and different types of documents (conference papers, books, documentaries, etc.). We will try to take the pulse of a society that loves to laugh.

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