To Jim Lyttle
November 21, 1999 (Sunday, 6:50 PM JST)
Thanks for your e-mail. If you can't find my book at the University of
Toronto library, please let me know. Maybe there's something we can do about
So, you're doing research into the persuasive effects of humor, if I can
put it that way. A good, solid topic, I think.
You wrote, in part: "Whatever humor is (the trigger), it seems to elicit a
response (when it works) that has been characterized as amusement (by those
with a cognitive perspective) or mirth (by those who favor an emotional
one). Why should this response (a positive affect, in my view) enhance
persuasion?" This way of putting things suggests - to me at least - that the
essential nature of humor, that which defines it as against other phenomena,
is the stimulus. That is to say, there is a stimulus-type, if only we can
identify it - it might be ambiguity, or non-threatening incongruity, or
resolvable incongruity, or "something mechanical encrusted on the living,"
or so on - such that if it occurs in a particular case, then humor occurs,
and if not, then not. You might call this the stimulus-side approach. Now as
a matter of fact, it has, of course, proved very difficult to identify the
stimulus-type in question. General agreement as to what it might be eludes
us. This has led some humor theorists - the anthropologists Gabriella
Eichinger Ferro-Luzzi and Mahadev Apte, for instance - to conclude that
humor has no essential nature. On this view there is, say, ambiguity humor,
and incongruity humor, and mechanical humor, and so on indefinitely, but
these are distinct phenomena which have nothing in common in virtue of which
they count as a single thing, humor. This is the anti-essentialist approach.
There is, however, a third possibility, which I present and advocate in my
book. (I've never seen mention of it elsewhere - if you have, please let me
know.) You might call it the response-side approach. As against the
anti-essentialist approach, it posits that humor is a single phenomenon at
bottom, that it does have an essential nature, and, as against the
stimulus-side approach, it posits that this essential nature does not lie in
the stimulus, but rather in the response. That is to say, there is a fairly
complex pattern of response, a response-type if you will, such that if it
occurs, humor occurs, and if not, then not, and the stimulus in a particular
case might be this, that, or the other. (According to my particular
response-side theory, however, incongruity plays only a very minor role in
humor and none worthy of special mention.)
My suggestion, then, is that perhaps you ought to take all three of these
possibilities into account.
I look forward to hearing from you again.