Philosophy 45 (171):20 - 32 (1970)
The question “What is humour?” has exercised in varying degrees such philosophers as Aristotle, Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer and Bergson and has traditionally been regarded as a philosophical question. And surely it must still be regarded as a philosophical question at least in so far as it is treated as a conceptual one. Traditionally the question has been regarded as a search for the essence of humour, whereas nowadays it has become almost a reflex response among some philosophers to dismiss the search for essences as misconceived. Humour, it will be said, is a family-resemblance concept: no one could hope to compile any short list of essential properties abstracted from all the many varieties of humour— human misfortune and clumsiness, obscenity, grotesqueness, veiled insult, nonsense, wordplay and puns, human misdemeanours and so on, as manifested in forms as varied as parody, satire, drama, clowning, music, farce and cartoons. Yet even if the search for the essence of humour seems at first sight unlikely to succeed, I do not see how we can be sure in advance of any conceptual investigation; and in any case we might do well to start with the old established theories purporting to give the essence of humour, for even if they are wrong they may be illuminatingly wrong and may help us to compile a list of typical characteristics
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