A lot of people have tried to capture laughter. The range of writing on the subject is “truly daunting”, writes classicist and historian Mary Beard in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Three main strands emerge among the stacks of theory.
There’s the “superiority theory”, which “argues that laughter is a form of derision or mockery: We laugh at the butt of our jokes or the object of our mirth, and in the process we assert our superiority over them”
In Hobbes’ coinage, laughter is “nothyng else but a suddaine Glory arising from some suddaine Conception of some Eminency in our selves, by Comparison with the Infirmityes of others”. Another theorist suggests laughter derives from “the roar of triumph in an ancient jungle duel”.
The “incongruity theory” considers laughter to be “a response to the illogical or the unexpected”.
And then there’s “relief theory”: “best known from the work of Freud but not invented by him. In its simplest, pre-Freudian form, this theory sees laughter as the physical sign of the release of nervous energy or repressed emotion” (Freud’s is a “considerably more complicated” variation.)
These theories are useful shorthand, says Beard, but the truth is “much messier”. Among numerous other mysteries – is all laughter essentially coming from the same place? do animals laugh? – is the crucial question of whether laughter is chiefly a product of nature or culture.
“Theories of laughter have always been ‘theories of theories’, a way of talking about laughter and ‘something else’,” writes Beard.
And alluring, too: “Confronted with the product of centuries of analysis and investigation, one is tempted to suggest that it is not so much laughter that defines the human species, as Aristotle is supposed to have claimed, but rather the drive to debate and theorise laughter.”