To Andre Descheneaux
December 3, 1999 (5:10 PM JT)
You wrote: "Could it be that humor is a sense? A real sense. Like seeing
or smelling or touch or hearing. Humor is perceived either by what we see or
hear or touch or smell or even taste."
I like questions of this sort, so let me make a few comments. Don't take
them too seriously, though: they come off the top of my head!
If humor is a form of sense perception, like vision or audition, then, I
think, you ought to be able to specify the organ it involves. Do you have in
mind all the organs of sense: eyes, ears, and so on? If so, then how is it
that humor constitutes a single sense? (I don't mean to say that it can't.
If I recall correctly, what counts as taste in folk psychology involves both
olfaction and gustation.) Or is it that humor constitutes a number of
On the other hand, one might take the position that humor is a form of
perception in a broad sense of the term that includes sense perception but
isn't restricted to it. What do you think of this idea?
To suggest that humor is a form of perception is, I suppose, to suggest
that at bottom it's a matter of registration. We register objects and events
through vision and audition, chemical properties through olfaction and
gustation, temperature through a cutaneous sense, and so on, to give just a
few examples. If, then, humor is a form of perception, the question arises
what it is that we register through it. Ambiguity, perhaps? But we can
register ambiguity without resorting to humor, and similarly for many other
qualities that one might mention.
To take a different tack, is it laughability that we register through
humor? But what is laughability? Can you give an illuminating answer?
Whatever it is that humor, as a form of perception, registers, the further
question arises what advantage there might be, in evolutionary terms, in
having a special form of perception that registers that. Does humor,
assuming that it's a form of perception through which we register something
X, carry survival value?
The fact that one sees a funny scene or hears a joke, or so on, imposes
few if any constraints on the nature of humor. For all that one sees a funny
scene or hears a joke, humor might be any or almost any event, state, or
process in the human organism (to leave chimpanzees and Martians out of the
picture) that involves sense perception in one way or another. It might be
something quite other than a form of perception. (According to my theory, it
You wrote further: "If [humor is a sense] why is it so underestimated and
Perhaps humor is underused, but if it's an important, fundamental
adaptation, as I think, then perhaps it's doubtful that it's grossly
Anyway, good luck with your research!