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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 73/August 1908/The Nature, Origin and Function of Humor


I. Introduction

NO stimulus, perhaps, more mercifully and effectually breaks the surface tension of consciousness, thereby conditioning the mind for a stronger forward movement, than that of humor. It is the one universal dispensary for human kind: a medicine for the poor, a tonic for the rich, a recreation for the fatigued and a beneficent check to the strenuous. It acts as a shield to the reformer, as an entering wedge to the recluse and as a decoy for barter and trade. A German writer observes that it is a parachute to the balloon of life. To change the figure, it is a switch on the highway of life to prevent human collisions. Zenophon reckons that the man who makes an audience laugh has done a lesser service than the one who moves it to tears. But the comedian Philippos, when Socrates asked him of what he was proud, declared, "I believe that I ought to be as proud of my right to the gift of arousing laughter, as Kallipides, the tragedian, of his art in causing tears."[1]

Darwin points out that the causes of laughter are legion and exceedingly complex.[2] Humor may often be a cause, in which case it is the mental aspect of a psychophysical fact. The mental aspect, only, forms the subject matter of this paper. It offers problems for investigation similar to any other concrete mental fact. I propose to show that the character of its stimuli, the conditions of its origin in the race and in the individual, its nature and function as a mental process, are discoverable, describable and susceptible of explanation.[3]


II. The Nature of the Stimulus

(a) Non-humorous Stimuli

The immensity of space, the infinitude of time, the motion of the heavenly bodies and all cosmic rhythms are void of humor. The same thing is apparent of all physical, chemical and mathematical laws, and likewise of all macroscopic things of earth such as the waters, the tidal movements, the cataracts, the mountains, the forests, the deserts and the plains. Swift rhythmic movements of organic life in the large, and the orderly expression of life processes, as the heart-beat, the mystery of sleep, birth and death, may inspire awe and dread, but never humor.

There is a large group of objects and actions which incite feelings of contempt, disgust and loathing, such as parasites, creeping and slimy things, filth, skin and eye diseases, all forms of tyranny, treachery, poltroonery, ingratitude and, according to Bain, "the entire catalogue of the vanities given by Solomon."

All common and customary activities and events and objects of familiar notice constitute, so far as the pleasure-pain field is concerned, an indifferent zone.

By this eliminating process it appears that the conditions averse to humor are: (1) The macroscopic things of the world, including her laws, order, harmony and rhythm, (2) those things which are inimical to life and freedom, (3) those things, largely of the social order, that have become habituated, regular in occurrence and necessary to human comfort.


(b) Humorous Stimuli

There remain for consideration: (1) Animals and their actions, (2) man, (3) his actions, (4) clothes, (5) customs and manners, (6) words, language and thought.

1. Animals.—The statements that "There is no comic outside of what is properly human," and that the lower life and inanimate objects provoke humor only when endowed with human qualities, are perhaps true and the many exceptions pimply prove the rule. Small animals, like small people, are more likely to provoke humor than large ones. The bantams and games, are the clowns and Don Quixotes of poultrydom, while the Plymouth Rocks and Shanghais are the prosaic members. The poodles, terriers and spaniels are the fun-makers of the kennel; the St. Bernards, great Danes and bulldogs command our serious respect and sometimes more. When an animal of one class does the task common to an animal of quite a different class, it is apt to provoke humor. An ox in shafts drawing a top buggy, mules, asses or buffalos running a race, an elephant drawing a chariot are examples. But if the animal is set to doing a human task the humor is intensified. The inimitable Æsop, endowing animals with human craft and qualities, made this style of humor classical for all time. It appears in modern humor in the stunts of Johnny Bear, in the clever tricks of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox and in the county fairs, charity balls, political conventions, clinics for appendicitis and the like conducted by divers species humanly socialized.

2. Man.—Man may provoke humor by his size, especially if extremes meet. The undersized is likely to amuse—especially in his pretensions and passions. Unusual features, types of ugliness, odd shapes, Falstaff proportions, contain humorous elements.

3. Actions.—Mimicry and all actions of a pretentious and useless sort and in false time and space relations may provoke humor. All mimicry is humorous, whether in the form of the puppet show, the pantomime, the burlesque or the comedy. Hazlitt calls attention to a large group of humorous acts as seen in the "pursuit of uncertain pleasure or idle gallantry." Professor James refers to the same subject in describing our desire for recognition: "We are crazy to get a visiting list which shall be large, to be able to say when any one is mentioned, 'Oh! I know him well'. . . there is a whole race of beings to-day whose passion is to keep their names in the newspaper, no matter under what heading; 'arrivals and departures,' gossip, even scandal will suit them if nothing better is to be had." Useless actions of the ideomotor and absent-minded type are the causes of many of the comedies of errors in every-day life. A young lady who had partially disrobed to make a toilet at the noon hour, wound up by "saying her prayers," that being the usual next step in the evening. A college girl stopped at her own room and knocked vigorously for admission. Forgetfulness, too, is often a source of humor. Here belong the host of stories of the forgetful and absent-minded professor, from which we select one. A certain professor asked the lady of his choice for her hand, in total disregard of the fact that he had made the same request with the happiest result on the day preceding. The wrong use of objects, tools and machinery often makes an act humorous; for instance, posting letters in a neighbor's private letter box, an Indian taking his family to church in a hearse purchased for a carriage, sharpening a hand saw by grinding the teeth out of it. Awkwardness is a common type of action naturally humorous. Any action inherently serious may become humorous by occurring out of time or out of place. Singing ahead of time or out of tune, applauding alone, answering questions at the wrong time at a marriage service, an unmindful deacon removing his small coat with his overcoat and sitting down in his shirt sleeves in church, are cases in point. Hazlitt remarks, "In Jocular history everybody is at angles to real life; people do precisely what they ought not to do, say what they ought not to say, are found where they ought not to be found."

4. Clothes.—Clowns and professional fools supplement their wit, humor and mimicry by their well-known forms of dress. Johnny Bull, Uncle Sam and Santa Claus are always received good-naturedly partly on account of their dress. Hallowe'en, masked balls, the Mardi Gras and Carnivals ancient and modern owe much of their charming good humor to dress. It is well known that we laugh at the dress of foreigners, and they at ours. "Three chimney sweeps meeting three Chinese in Lincoln's-inn-fields, they laughed at one another till they were ready to drop down. . . . Any one dressed in the height of fashion or quite out of it is equally an object of ridicule." Doubtless if the centuries could rise up and view each other en masse, their first act would be mutual laughter at each other's clothes.

5. Customs and Manners.—As stimulants of humor customs and manners have, perhaps, no equal. They excite it alike in the vulgar and the cultured, in the illiterate and the learned. They appear in excesses and exaggerations and in violating time and space relations, either as innovations or as lingering too long. To appear in excess or out of time and place implies some age and stability in human institutions. Norms and standards of fashions must be formed, regularity in activities must freeze into custom and the free spirit of good-fellowship and of social intercourse must become habituated to the plane of manners before the spirit of satire, wit and humor can react for or against them. The gentle old countryman whose habit it had been to exchange the courtesies of life with his fellow travelers along the country highway, awakened a ripple of humor when he graciously shook hands with all the occupants of a city street car. Mark Twain in his "Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court," gives us a charming glimpse of the humor of manners and customs out of time. Fielding observes of even so playful a dramatist as Sheridan that he attacks affectation, false sentiments, hollow forms and empty words in life and literature.

6. Words, Language and Thought.—This is the favorite tramping ground for both the humorist and his critic. The most delicate, subtle and refined specimens occur here. It is also here that an attempt to give an adequate treatment resembles trying to bottle a fog or lasso a cloud. To make some headway, however, we are under the necessity of drawing a few distinctions. All words, language and thought, not humorous to the speaker but so interpreted by the observer, may be termed unconscious humor (following the lead of common usage). The humorous interpretation of unconscious humor may be called passive humor. All deliberate manipulation of words, language and thoughts by the subject for humorous effects may be considered active humor. In what follows the text will show which sort is meant.[4] Concerning words, it appears that their misspelling, mispronunciation, misinterpretation, forced usage and misusage, punning, repetition, localisms and foreign accents endow them with a certain degree of humor. Many of the humorous classics use one or more of these methods. The writings of "Artemus Ward" and "Josh Billings" about exhaust the possibilities of misspelling. Negro, Irish and foreign dialects now occupy much of the field of mispronunciation and misinterpretation. Dickens displays the worth of forced usage in the inimitable Pickwick. Sheridan creates Mrs. Malaprop largely by these methods. Shakespeare had the courage to pun to his own satisfaction. Dickens has used repetition to a fine effect in several of his characters. We recall Mr. Totts', "of no consequence," and Joey Bagstock who is "devilishly sly." Provincialisms and foreign accents enter into the humor of daily life rather than that of literature.

The unconscious distortion of words by the illiterate, the naive and the pretentious adds to the quality of this sort of humor. In fact, whether the distortions are "made" or are unconscious, their humor depends on our apprehending them as such. A farmer who made daily business trips to Richmond assured his neighbor that he always dined at a "first-class reservoir." A colored servant in my own home asked for a half holiday in order to go on a "railroad squashin" (excursion). (What irony in the light of recent events!)

Language much more than custom and manners requires a civilization of some age and stability in order to furnish both the conditions and material for humor. George Meredith[5] has urged that it requires a society of cultivated men and women, wherein ideas are current and of some duration and perceptions quick, that the humorist may be furnished with matter and an audience. "The semibarbarism of merely giddy communities and feverish emotional periods" creates no humor.

Quaintness in language as in other things possesses a tinge of humor. A description of the table manners of a nun or a lady of culture in modern language would be sorry business, but when Chaucer says of the nun

At mete wel y-taught was she with-alle;
She leet no morsel from hir lippes falle,
Ne wette hir fingres in hir sauce depe.

He stimulates our sense of humor. Here too belong the grave and serious in connection with trivial and prosaic matters, for example the records of colonial legislative enactments and the minutes of their town meetings. Many of the failures of language to fit the thought yield humor; a common type is verbosity. In this connection I give the following:


Mt. Sterling (Ky.) Reporter. (Colored)

Dear Editor: Please allow me a space in your momentous Gazette to reciprocate my gratitude to the indefatigably workers of the Evergreen Baptist Church. While sitting in my studio last Friday evening greatly obsorbed in the monotonous problem so-called Negro problem I were interposed by the anthem, "There shall be showers of blessing" which rendered me surprisal happy. . . . After a general parlance I were divinely impressed to descant on the altronistic spirit that should characterize the christiandom. A sumptuous repast followed and all present shaiated their gastronomic desire. Bro. Ben Mitchell distinguished himself by his implacable vorasity. May God bless the members of the Evergreen Baptist Church. Many thanks. F. B.—Pastor.

Opposed to the quaint is the ultra-slang, brusque catch-words and phrases of common life; witness the monologues of "Chimmie Faddin" and the writings of George Ade.

The speech of the excited, the irritated and the fatigued often becomes humorous by inversions. A prospective bridegroom at the church door in consultation with his minister inquires excitedly, "Is it kistomary to cuss the bride?' 5 Grumio answers his master. "Ah, sir, they be ready; the oats have eaten the horses" (see "The Taming of the Shrew," Act III., Scene 2).

What a man thinks and feels, although serious to him, may be just as much an object of humor as a situation, an awkward movement or a form of speech. The unconscious maker of humor in thought is your next neighbor. Every one is a contributor on occasions to this type. Certain classes, however, are much more productive than others; among them may be mentioned the ignorant, the illiterate, the inexperienced, the credulous, the skeptic, the superstitious, the over-serious, the vain and the prosaic. Their humor appears in their attempt to deal with situations and problems somewhat beyond their ken. The ignorant and illiterate amuse by their literalisms, pretensions, evasions and superstitions. In looking over some papers written by students of Plato's Republic I noticed that they usually began the story of the Lydian shepherd, Gyges, and his magic ring, in somewhat this fashion: "A shepherd lad was tending his flock on a mountain side when suddenly a violent storm arose. The rain fell in torrents, the ground was rent asunder by an earthquake and a yawning gulf opened in the very midst of the flock. Inspired by curiosity, he descended into the gulf and among the marvelous objects he saw a hollow brazen horse," etc. One paper ran thuswise: "A, shepherd one day noticed a large horse standing in a hole in the ground. He climbed inside," etc. Dickens employs pretensions in.the interests of humor, as Joe Gargery's deceptive attempts at reading for Pip's benefit. Thackeray's Capt. Pawdon Crawley is a fine specimen of stupid ignorance. I am persuaded that many superstitions are kept alive by their humorous vein. To turn back is bad luck, the "spell" may be broken by making a cross in the path with the big toe and then spitting in it. A negro boy taught us this when children. We did not believe it, but practised it for fun. Inexperience is the lot of childhood, and the condition of its humor, which is expressed in the questions, in the wonderings and in the explanations of child thought. This is abundantly verified in the writings of the "pot-hunters" of childlore. The humor of the credulous appears in a condensed form in their responses to the yarn-spinner and the prank-player. The faith and works of the inventor are often ahead of his time and are therefore sometimes the butt of the common mind. Cervantes made Don Quixote the humorous peer of all time among the over-serious, and Malvolio of Twelfth Night typifies the humor of vanity among individuals of small parts. Putting great force into small matters, exercising much thought over petty questions, exalting trifles into the plane of the magnificent form perennial sources of humor.

Active Thought Humor.—This type of thought humor is as complex and infinite in variety as thought itself. Cicero was the first to have extensively considered it, and even he apologized for his number of headings. He says, "I have divided these matters into too many headings already." He includes: deceiving expectation, satirizing the tempers of others, playing humorously upon our own, comparing a thing with something worse (Bain's degradation theory), dissembling, uttering apparent absurdities, pretended misunderstandings, wishing the impossible, uniting discordant particulars (Krapelin's theory of the comic), concealed suspicion of ridicule. He illustrates the latter by "the Sicilian who, when a friend of his made lamentations to him, saying that his wife had hanged herself upon a fig tree, said, I beseech you give me some shoots of that tree, that I may plant them."

Cicero's[6] list has been considerably increased by later writers without contributing anything essentially new. I shall not attempt to increase the list. I wish here to emphasize some of the more common ways by which active thought uses the material, already detailed, in the interest of humor. Some of the simpler uses are seen in childhood in their "fooling" and playful deception. The vigorous use that the child makes of "April fool" is an example. The child employs the recognition process for humorous effects in his mimicry, drawings and riddles. To draw an object with doubtful resemblance and require an adult to identify it affords him pleasure. Constructive imagination is put to the service of humor by the various forms of roguery. A negro boy asked my brother of twelve if he had seen a stray cow. "Did she wear a small bell?" asked my brother. "Yeah, dat's de cow." "Did she have a short tail?" "Yeah, dat's de veay cow." "Then I haven't seen her." The essential principle in cartooning is to display an association formed either by evident or obscure resemblances. Both wit and humor of the highest type depend upon the power of perceiving unusual, exaggerated and remote relationships. Mark Twain stands alone in this country in the use of exaggerated relationships. Groos[7] has marshaled considerable evidence to show that the higher mental processes may be used in the service of play. Kant pointed out that play and humor are closely related, if not actually crossing each other. This suggests the notion that every process exerted in the service of play may at the same time, or under slightly different conditions, be used for purposes of humor. The making and solving of conundrums and riddles, impromptu and otherwise, are practised no less for their humor than for their play value. I hardly need mention the coarse type of active thought humor which makes a liberal use of profanity and other vulgarisms.


III. The Nature and Origin of Humor as a Mental Process

Schuetze, in 1817, and Hazlitt, in 1819, summarized the various opinions as to the nature of humor up to their time. The former cites some fifteen different authorities and views. Schopenhauer, in 1819, made a decided contribution in that he attempted an exact description of the mental processes involved. Since then the nature of the mental process and its physiological basis have been the main points of discussion. Schuetze, Hoeffding and Sully call attention to the sense of freedom involved. Penjon, in 1893, described at some length the relation of this sense to humor.

I have already pointed out that the appreciation of law, of order, of harmony and of those things that are inimical to life and freedom begets a sober mental attitude, the intensity of which varies with the weightiness of the matter and the issues involved. Now if, when dealing with such matters, the thinking process continues organized and controlled and progresses towards an end, it is termed rational. But if the mental tension exceeds the capacity for controlled thinking, brought on by the sudden triumph of wrong and evil values, disruption of the thinking process at once ensues, accompanied by an unpleasant emotion ranging from mild disappointment to the tragic; if, on the contrary, the disruption is caused by the sudden triumph of good values, a pleasant emotion results. In either case organized and rational processes give way to those of an uncontrolled and emotional sort. The mental stream has had its banks torn away and its forward movement stopped, voluntary movements are replaced by hereditary. In the more intense forms a reversion to primitive conditions may occur; for we then do and say things that may shame us in our sober moments. Now the humor process occurs in just such a disrupted consciousness induced by the triumph of good and pleasurable values preceded by a mental tension similar, but not always equal, to that preceding emotions. The common and quiet forms of humor usually occur in a consciousness that has been running at its usual strength and depth, sufficiently organized to command the situation, assume a definite form and take on a certain strength of surface tension. (The term surface tension simply extends the water metaphors of psychology in a logical direction. I use it to indicate the impervious condition of consciousness formed in any attentive state, the strength of the surface tension being in direct proportion to the intensity of attention.) The function of the humor stimulus consists in cutting the surface tension, in taking the hide off of consciousness as it were, and in breaking up in part only its organization, which is at once followed by the humor feeling—the next link in the conscious chain. The principal elements in the humor process consist (1) of the perception of the stimulus, (2) the sense of freedom, (3) its recognition. These elements are each suffused by a pleasurable tone and produce by their total synthesis the unique humor tone. The uniqueness of the tone is the crux of the matter. The mental tension preceding the humor process, although an essential condition thereto, is not a differentium, for it precedes any and all emotional states.

The clue lies in the nature of the humor stimulus, and the relation sustained to it by the individual. This is in line with Dr. Dewey's theory of the differentia among the several emotions themselves. He holds that each emotion is marked off from other emotions by the different reactions produced by the exciting fact. I have indicated that the humor stimulus belongs to an order of knowledge whose laws, uniformities, manners and customs have arisen since the human mind has attained its present estate. Contrast with the humorous stimuli the non-humorous, and it appears, humanly speaking, that the latter has always existed. The heavens, the laws of matter, cosmic forces of whatever sort, were in full swing when human consciousness dawned, their operation has participated in mind evolution and to that extent has impressed law and order upon it. Therefore, when we are engaged with these things, sober thinking, pleasant or unpleasant emotions, are the outcome, but never humor. But it will be noticed that the humorous stimuli consist of departures, of exaggerations, even of violations of the laws, uniformities, concepts and what not that have evolved out of man's experience. The significant fact for humor is that these departures, and exaggerations do not disturb the recognized values of good and evil. The mind maintains all the while a disinterested attitude toward the object of its activity. We seek neither to correct nor further to exaggerate the departure from the normal. It is time to feel and not to act. We enter into aesthetic rather than practical relations with the object of our humor; should we seek the practical, humor at once ceases, issuing perhaps, in bitterness or joy, sarcasm or flattery, indignation or admiration.[8] Penjon,[9] writing upon this point, says:

August, 1893.

I shall have to distinguish these varieties of the comic laugh, sometimes so near to tears and often so cruel. But if one separates, as must be done, the causes which too easily deform the comic and make of it an emotion of wickedness or bitterness, the comic emotion will appear purely disinterested. I mean by this that the object or the event which is the occasion of the comic excludes every idea of loss or of profit, that it makes us conceive neither hope nor fear and seems to us at the same time neither advantageous nor harmful to any one; it is worth in itself what it is worth without adding to our idea of it any consideration of end or ideal. The comic emotion is then essentially a play emotion.

The humor process then, like play, is its own end and justification. The kinship between humor and play already indicated not only suggests relationships between humor and freedom, which Penjon has so well worked out, and between humor and aesthetics, long ago indicated by Kant and recently by Lipps, but that mental activity so long interpreted as play should be credited to humor. I have already indicated the survival value of humor for superstitions. It doubtless performs a similar and larger function for play. Humor, then, is an end in itself. It is disinterested in its object. This fact constitutes it first differentium.

I have already indicated that the sense of freedom is a constituent element in the humor process. Its consideration is next in order. To that end I submit some of the evidence as it had formed in my own mind before meeting with Penjon's more extended account. The family and guests are seated about the fireside enjoying the moments of silence. The only light is that of the glowing embers. A smouldering bit of bark suddenly flashes up and a smile plays over the faces of the silent group. The stroke of a sweet-toned clock, or a sneeze, or the dropping and rolling of a sewing thimble or a ball of yarn produces under similar conditions the same effect. A group of boys are seated on the bank of a bathing pond apparently gazing at the water's glassy surface. Suddenly it is broken by a few drops of rain out of a cloudless sky. The boys smile. The humor in such cases is weak and simple. At such times consciousness is damped down to dreamy monotonous processes under lax attention, and the mild humor results from the sudden, delicate and harmless stimulus piercing its surface tension, disrupting its feeble structure, and permitting it to flow in a more free and spontaneous fashion. This simple type finds verification writ large in every-day life. Objects and actions of little or no inherent humor may become excruciatingly humorous under hard and tense conditions. "Snickerin' at nothin'" in the schoolroom, giggling before strangers and company, especially when at the table, the increasing intensity of the annoying return waves of humor on solemn occasions, are cases in point. Members of college glee clubs inform me that they see humor in everything while on their vacation musical tours. Darwin records that the German soldiers before the siege of Paris, after strong excitement from exposure to extreme danger, were particularly apt to burst into laughter at the smallest joke. I have received abundant reliable evidence that the sufferers of the San Francisco earthquake, while enduring intense mental strain, burst into laughter on the slightest provocation. This and like cases should not be confounded with hysteria, which may occur unaccompanied by mental strain. The history of humorous literature discloses the fact that it is most prolific in those crises and changes in human affairs at which the consciousness of freedom breaks out. The work of the cartoonist is most vigorous and poignant when official tyranny and high-handed abuses are laying heavy hands on the public. We recall the heroic work of Th. Nast[10] during the brazen days of the Tweed Ring. Martin[11] observes that the parody, was first introduced during the performance of Greek tragedies to relieve the audience from the intense mental strain. In the severe atmosphere of the king's court the court fool was an important adjunct. In reality his was the freest personality of the group, the king not excepted. A most striking example of this in literature is that of King Lear and his fool.

These considerations indicate an intimate kinship between the humor process and the sense of freedom. The real relation becomes apparent when the nature of the stimulus is taken into account. It has already been shown that the humor stimulus violates and breaks up the order and mechanism about us. It appears as the only objective fact in our experience that dares to defy the social order with impunity, that can violate ruthlessly, without pain and without apology, the human contrivances about us, and thereby not only remind us that freedom is an abiding reality, but that we may escape, temporarily at least, from the uniformities and mechanisms of life. We are rather chary of an over-scientific game, one in which luck and spontaneity are entirely supplanted by principles and rigid regulations. Speaking of a game or a contest as a "dead sure thing" is an implication that spontaneity and life are inoperative. Any instrument, therefore, that reveals freedom to us through the veil of mechanism and the social order will produce pleasure. Play, art and the humor stimulus are such instruments; play is largely for the young, art for the trained and educated, but the humor stimulus is for every one. The second differentium of the humor process, therefore, is the sense of freedom.

The failure to see that the sense of freedom is a constituent part of humor is doubtless responsible for the "superiority" (and its opposite statement "degradation") theory. The sense of power is pleasurable, but not humorous, for the reasons that (1) the sense of power contains an element of practical relationship and (2) the humor stimulus does not make us aware of power. Incongruity, descending or otherwise, all disorders of time and space relations in our actions, customs and language, deceived expectation, all disorders of mechanized living movements are only humorous when they excite the sense of freedom. Incongruities are not inherently humorous. They may become excitants of humor by revealing freedom behind human uniformities. It would appear then that the multiplicity of humor theories may be resolved into the freedom theory. The theories hitherto advanced have been more a classification of humorous stimuli than an explanation of humor as a mental process.

A cross section of our adult mental life shows three interrelated aspects: (1) an aspect composed of hereditary factors (unlearned reactions), (2) a well-defined aspect of acquired factors or mechanisms (learned reactions), composed of what the individual does for himself and what is done for him, and (3) an ill-defined aspect that permeates the other two and in addition occupies a separate existence of its own made up of unmechanized and elementary mental factors. The second aspect will be recognized as intelligence. Professor Boyce[12] calls it "docility." It might be termed mechanized mind in that it represents mind reduced to law and habit. Getting on in the world is dependent to a degree on a certain quantum of mechanized mind. Common speech employs such terms as habit, adjustment, education to designate such an equipment. Several processes are involved in its making, such as imitation, learning by "trial and error," by tradition and by "understanding." Of these ways, those that make the most of voluntary attention are the quickest in results and the most extravagant with mental energy; here it is that mental tension reaches its highest pitch. Relief comes in a variety of well-known ways, humor perhaps being the most unique of the lot, from the fact that it accomplishes its purpose with the least expenditure of mental energy and at a time, too, when the individual can ill afford to make sacrifices in the interest of recreation. Considering then the nature of humor as a mental process, and the nature of its stimulus, together with the conditions under which it appears, it seems highly probable that it emerged as a distinctive process from states of inattentive-freedom immediately preceded by states of necessary-attention.


IV. The Functions of Humor

The psychical function of humor is to delicately cut the surface tension of consciousness and disarrange its structure to the end that it may begin again from a-new and strengthened base. It permits our mental forces to reform under cover, as it were, while the battle is still on. Then, too, it clarifies the field and reveals the strategic points, or, to change the figure, it pulls off the mask and exposes the real man. In fact, humor is an instrument to aid in the approach to the realities of life-—not metaphysical, but real, realities!

The physiological function is common knowledge. Its influence on adipose tissue has passed into a proverb, and Kant cherished the belief that laughter had a beneficent effect upon our entire vegetative life. Hecker advocated that it relieved the angemia of the brain induced by the tickle.

Its biological function in my judgment is far more unique in mental economy than its nature as a process. I have already referred to the unmechanized aspect of mind, a matter more readily believed than easily proved. To adduce adequate evidence of its existence and of the extent of its magnitude and importance over the mechanized and hereditary portions of mind would lead us too far afield. For a better appreciation of the problem, however, a few considerations on the point seem worth while. First, we register our belief in its existence by such expressions as "mind growth," naivété, self-activity, spontaneity, genius, "mental initiative," and by more remote terms like open mind, youthful mind, unprejudiced mind, simple mind. Second, many students of mind tacitly accept it and forthwith attempt its description. This is clone by Professor Royce in his "Outlines of Psychology." Professor Shaler expresses his conviction of its existence as follows:

One of the results of the marvelously swift, absolutely free development of man's spirit is that there has as yet been insufficient time for it to become organized as are the conditions of the body. Working in the instinctive manner in which the lower species do their complicated work through the fore-determined mental processes we term instincts, there are always gauges and standards for the endeavors in the mind as there are in the bodily frame. With us, however, all kinds of thinking are still a hurly burly, a confusion, to which time and culture may possibly bring something like the order it has in the lower life, but which probably is ever to remain in its present uncontrolled shape.[13]

Third, biologists are generally agreed that the human hand, the vocal organs and the cerebral cortex have developed possibilities far beyond present realization. Their possibilities are as yet unknown. The capacity of the cortex appears to be infinite with only a small portion reduced to law and order. If we can so confidently assert unlimited capacity of these physical structures, then any lesser conception of mind is, indeed, an untenable one. It does not yet appear what we shall be, but there is a general agreement that the immediate path of evolution will be spiritual rather than physical. And if spiritual, it can only go on in the free portion of mind, in those parts not yet harnessed to matter and frozen into laws and habits. Of course there is universal agreement that the mind should be mechanized to the extent of the needs of common life, of routine business, of the alphabets of learning and of the elements of culture, but anything beyond these points is inimical not only to individual development, but to racial evolution. While, on the other hand, influences that tend to check mechanization and to incline the mind to grapple with the ideal, the novel, the realities rather than the formalities of life prolong the possibilities of spiritual development. Humor and play are two such influences, with the honors in favor of humor. It stands guard at the dividing line between free and mechanized mind, and like play, it keeps the individual young, projects the best of youth into adult life, sets metes and bounds to "docility" and prevents the mental life of the race from hardening into instinctive and hereditary forms of action. It saves to the world its geniuses and saves the individual from the blighting influence of commercial and utilitarian ideals,

  1. Nick, Fr., "Narrenfeste," Bd. I., Zeit. 2, 1861.
  2. Darwin, Chas., "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals," p. 198.
  3. The physiological conditions of laughter have been treated at length by Ewald Hecker and Herbert Spencer; the latter's contribution still remains the classic on this subject.
  4. For a discussion of the forms of the comic see Th. Lipps, "Komik und Humor," pp. 78-102.
  5. Meredith, George, "An Essay on Comedy," p. 8, London, 1905.
  6. Cicero, "Oratory and Orators," p. 304, Bonn's edition.
  7. Groos, Karl, "The Play of Man," pp. 152-158.
  8. For subjective proof of this one may read Benjamin Franklin's "Polly Baker's Defense"; also Dickens's satire on American life in "Martin Chuzzlewit."
  9. Penjon, A., "Le Rire et la Liberty," Revue Philosophique, pp. 113-140,
  10. "Nast, Th., His Period and His Pictures," The Macmillan Company, 1904.
  11. "Martin, A. S., "Parody," p. 1.
  12. Royce, Josiah, "Outlines of Psychology," p. 38.
  13. Shaler, N. S., "The Measure of Greatness," Atlantic Monthly, December, 1900, p. 751.