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.