Take My Course, Please! The Philosophy of Humor

Take My Course, Please! The Philosophy of Humor
Course Trailer
The Universality of Humor
1: The Universality of Humor

Starting with the first “joke” most of us experience (“peek-a-boo!”), explore the underlying nature of humor in different cultures and at different times in our lives. Consider whether or not humor is culture-dependent, and how societies view humor as both an expression of life and a mark of vice.

35 min
The Objectivity of Humor
2: The Objectivity of Humor

Most people would say that humor is subjective, but this claim is entirely false. In this lecture, Professor Gimbel explores the objectivity of humor by first considering what philosophers mean by “objectivity,” then by drawing several important distinctions between the subjective and objective notions of laughter, funniness, and humor.

31 min
The Science of Laughter
3: The Science of Laughter

Consider some thought-provoking questions about laughter and its relationship with humor. What happens in the brain to trigger laughter? What environmental factors make it more likely for us to laugh at something? Why do human beings develop the ability to laugh? What social functions are served by our laughter?

29 min
Truth and Humor
4: Truth and Humor

Jokes aren’t intended to be statements conveying new information about the world—and yet they can be true. Start building a clear definition of humor by examining the relationship between truth and humor, rooted in the four main philosophical accounts of truth: correspondence theory, coherence theory, pragmatism, and subjectivity.

30 min
Comedy and Tragedy
5: Comedy and Tragedy

We’re told that “comedy equals tragedy plus time.” Here, probe the fascinating relationship between comedy and tragedy. Central to this lecture is Aristotle’s Poetics (in which tragedy and comedy are distinct forms) and the ideas of Arthur Asa Berger (who sees comedy as a reaction to a tragic world).

26 min
Irony and Truth
6: Irony and Truth

Perhaps the place where humor and philosophy most strongly overlap is with the notion of irony, and, in fact, a lot of humor employs irony. From the ancient Greeks to the ironic humor of the present day, consider how irony can make humor not just silly—but profound.

27 min
Satires, Parodies, and Spoofs
7: Satires, Parodies, and Spoofs

Visit a corner of the world of humor that takes itself very seriously: satire. Topics include ancient Greek satyr plays; the philosophies of satire put forth by Horace and Juvenal; Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (one of the most famous modern works of satire); and the relationship between satire, parody, and spoofs.

29 min
Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One: Jokes
8: Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One: Jokes

Most of the work involved in the philosophy of humor centers around jokes: speech acts whose structure and mechanisms are easy to see. Professor Gimbel guides you through some of the many logical mechanisms used to generate verbal humor, including accidents, burlesque, facetiousness, stereotypes, and more.

27 min
Theories of Humor
9: Theories of Humor

Begin your search for a theory of humor with an introduction to the philosophical methodology best suited for the task: analytic philosophy. This methodology, as you’ll learn, seeks rigorous and clean accounts of what we mean by the words we use—so we can tell which questions are real questions.

28 min
Superiority Theory
10: Superiority Theory

When we tell a joke, we’re making fun of someone or something. In this lecture, investigate superiority theory: the view that humor is the expression of one’s superiority over another. Consider ideas put forth by thinkers like Plato and Hobbes, as well as possible arguments against this theory.

28 min
Inferiority Theory
11: Inferiority Theory

Inferiority theory, which is the inverse of superiority theory, posits that we find humor funny because we’re bringing ourselves down mentally to the level of the butt of the joke. Is this idea successful as a humor theory? Is it necessary—or sufficient? Find out in this lecture.

28 min
Play Theory
12: Play Theory

What makes play theory unique among humor theories is that humor is not in the joke (or the reaction to the joke) but in the relationship between joker and audience. Humor, as you’ll learn, can be seen as a sort of play that makes for a well-lived human life.

30 min
Relief Theory
13: Relief Theory

Turn now to relief theory (or release theory), a purely response-side theory of humor that focuses on how humor affects the mind of the listener. Thinkers you’ll turn to for a better understanding of this include the Reverend Francis Hutcheson, Sigmund Freud, and contemporary philosopher Robert Latta.

30 min
Incongruity Theory
14: Incongruity Theory

Take a poll of contemporary philosophers of humor and they’ll overwhelmingly say they support the incongruity theory. Learn how this particular theory takes as its central concept the incongruity of two things that don’t connect with one another, and how it helps us understand how verbal jokes work.

27 min
Cleverness Theory
15: Cleverness Theory

Here, analyze Professor Gimbel’s own theory of humor, called the cleverness theory. According to this theory, humor is a conspicuous act of playful cleverness in which there’s no necessary connection between humor and laughter, and jokes can be used to make yourself attractive, to distract from the truth, and more.

27 min
Humor Theory Revisited
16: Humor Theory Revisited

Take a more holistic view of the six different approaches to humor theory you examined in earlier lectures. Using a joke that introduces the lecture, Professor Gimbel walks you through how each humor theory would account for the humor of that particular joke to arrive at a possibly synthetic idea of humor theory.

28 min
Humor Ethics: Boundaries and Limitations
17: Humor Ethics: Boundaries and Limitations

Is there a moral responsibility to think about when we tell a joke? Are there rules to joking? Are there only jokes certain people can tell, or times and places where joking is wrong? Can joking be a morally good act? These and other questions are the subject of this lecture.

31 min
Who Can Tell Ethnic Jokes?
18: Who Can Tell Ethnic Jokes?

In this lecture, take into philosophical consideration ethnic jokes, or jokes that have as their butt an entire group. Are they always impermissible? Are they just jokes? Are they only sometimes allowed? Work through the arguments for several versions of each possible stance, making the best case for each.

30 min
Comic Moralism
19: Comic Moralism

Some philosophers argue the morality of telling a joke depends on how funny it is. Others believe the funniness of a joke depends on its morality. Explore the quandary of comic moralism with a close look at three types of positions: comic moralists, comic immoralists, and comic amoralists.

30 min
Situational Ethics and Humor
20: Situational Ethics and Humor

Investigate three ways in which the situation may be relevant to the morality of joke-telling. You’ll consider the ideas of a comedic “waiting period” for a joke, the ethics of places where jokes are morally forbidden (like funerals), and topics that some philosophers consider to be ethically off-limits.

31 min
The Necessity of Humor
21: The Necessity of Humor

Ponder the notion of whether humor is not just good but necessary to human life. Using the work of thinkers like Kierkegaard, examine whether we’re wired for humor, and how the necessity of humor depends upon the picture we have of the human soul—or the human mind.

32 min
Comedian Ethics
22: Comedian Ethics

Professor Gimbel offers possible answers to these questions about comedy as an art form: What are the moral differences when a joke is told by someone hired to entertain us? Should we hold comedians to higher moral standards, or do they get a longer moral leash because of their profession?

29 min
Socially Progressive Comedy
23: Socially Progressive Comedy

Another way to look at humor is as a (possibly skewed) instrument of change, a tool of liberation, and a means of progressive activism. Study the history of American humor as a way confront oppression and to humorously expose the inequities of society.

27 min
Ridiculousness and the Human Condition
24: Ridiculousness and the Human Condition

Is it true that laughter is the best medicine? Conclude the course with the relationship between humor and living a good life. Using insight you’ve gained from previous lectures, consider how to think of humor as a medication allowing you to live your life to the fullest as a biological being.

33 min
Steven Gimbel

Scientists give us new accounts of how the universe works, and philosophers unpack those theories to see what they tell us about what is real.

ALMA MATER

Johns Hopkins University

INSTITUTION

Gettysburg College

About Steven Gimbel

Professor Steven Gimbel holds the Edwin T. Johnson and Cynthia Shearer Johnson Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, where he also serves as Chair of the Philosophy Department. He received his bachelor's degree in Physics and Philosophy from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and his doctoral degree in Philosophy from the Johns Hopkins University, where he wrote his dissertation on interpretations and the philosophical ramifications of relativity theory. At Gettysburg, he has been honored with the Luther W. and Bernice L. Thompson Distinguished Teaching Award. Professor Gimbel's research focuses on the philosophy of science, particularly the nature of scientific reasoning and the ways that science and culture interact. He has published many scholarly articles and four books, including Einstein's Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion; and Einstein: His Space and Times. His books have been highly praised in periodicals such as The New York Review of Books, Physics Today, and The New York Times, which applauded his skill as "an engaging writer...[taking] readers on enlightening excursions...wherever his curiosity leads."

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