Saturday, 5 September 2015

On Schopenhauer's Expectation-Violation Theory of Humor

 "From a scientific point of view, optimism and pessimism are alike objectionable: optimism assumes, or attempts to prove, that the universe exists to please us, and pessimism that it exists to displease us. Scientifically, there is no evidence that is concerned with us either one way or the other."
                Bertrand Russell
                A History of Western Philosophy

Arthur Schopenhauer (pictured above looking happier than ever) is a German philosophy mainly remembered for his (1818) book, The World As Will and Idea. It's a rather dreary document, a precursor to 20th century Existentialism, written as a slow quasi-mystical, sentimental rant about how much better it is not to exist than it is to exist. This is an ancient idea of course: Sophocles could already allude to its long history, writing in his [c. 400 BCE] play Oedipus at Colonus "Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say". Schopie (as a German colleague of mine likes to call him) was allegedly not as miserable as his philosophy makes him sound: he enjoyed eating out at restaurants, having love affairs, and arguing.

My own interest in Schopie stems entirely from an unexpected interlude in The World As Will and Idea on the nature of humor. In that interlude Schopie suggests that “The cause of laughter in every case is simply the sudden perception of the incongruity between a concept and the real objects which have been thought through it in some relation”. The most common theory of humor when Schopie was writing was that incongruity itself was humourous, an idea alluded to by Aristotle (as what wasn't?) but generally attributed to Francis Hutcheson’s (1725) essays Reflections on Laughter. Many critics pointed out the obvious problem with this idea: some incongruities are not funny at all. The psychologist Alexander Bain wrote a great paragraph about this in his (1865) book The Emotions and Will:  

“There are many incongruities that may produce anything but a laugh. A decrepit man under a heavy burden, fives loaves and two fishes among a multitude, and all unfitness and gross disproportion; an instrument out of tune, a fly in ointment, snow in May, Archimedes studying geometry in a siege, and all discordant things; a wolf in sheep's clothing, a breach of bargain, and falsehood in general; the multitude taking the law into their own hands, and everything of the nature of disorder; a corpse at a feast, parental cruelty, filial ingratitude, and whatever is unnatural; the entire catalogue of vanities given by Solomon,— are all incongruous, but they cause feelings of pain, anger, sadness, loathing, rather than mirth.”
Schopie's proposal is that it is not incongruity itself that is funny, but only incongruity between an event in the world and a pre-existing idea or expectation about that event. In particular, he proposed two forms of humor that (only partially following his own terminology) we can call conceptual bifurcation and conceptual subsumption. Humorous bifurcation occurs when an idea that was believed to be from one category turns out to belong to two categories. A pun is a good example. Humorous subsumption is pretty much the opposite: it occurs when two ideas believed to be belong to distinct categories actually belong to the same category, as in the many jokes that ask how one thing is like or unlike another.

Schopie went on to suggest that what he called "the ludicrous effect" (degree of funniness) was related to the size of the relevant incongruity. Though he made no attempt to quantify this idea by controlling the size of the incongruity, I have recently done some work with some colleagues that tries to do exactly it is currently under review, I will leave a discussion of it for a later post. We can get a vague feel for Schopie's claim by comparing frequent and infrequent word pairs that violate our expectations. For example, I find the phrase ghost llama (which has 753,000 occurrences on Google) funnier (more humorous) than the phrase ghost cat (19,300,000 occurrences), even though I do find ghost cat a little funny. It is hard to extend the idea systematically to real jokes, since they are often incongruous in complex ways that do not admit of easy quantification.

[Image adapted from: Zimmern, H. (1876) Arthur Schopenhauer: His Life and His Philosophy. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.]

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