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The Nature of Laughing at Ourselves

Mordechai Gordon takes ideas about not taking ourselves too seriously seriously.

To date, philosophers have concentrated much more on trying to account for what makes us laugh at others than on why we laugh at ourselves. Indeed, attempts to explain the phenomenon of laughing at others have been around for a long time, at least since Plato.

Plato & Hobbes

Plato subscribed to what we refer to today as the Superiority theory of humor, which maintains that laughter is an expression of one’s feeling of superiority over others. He argued in his dialogue Philebus that “we laugh at what is ridiculous in our friends” (48-50), and that what makes people laughable is their ignorance concerning their virtues (e.g. wealth, looks, and wisdom). According to Plato, we laugh at friends, acquaintances and other people when they make fools of themselves. Of course, Plato objected to this kind of laughter because he believed that it was often motivated by malice and nastiness. But the point is that he believed that people generally laugh at others’ foolishness.

Later, Thomas Hobbes presented a stronger version of the Superiority theory when he stated in Leviathan that laughter is “caused either by some sudden act of their own, that pleaseth them; or by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves” (1651, p.125). In this view, laughter is the expression of sudden glory, when we realize that we are superior in some ways to others, or that they are inferior to us. Thus, for both Plato and Hobbes, laughter involved a pleasurable feeling of having some kind of advantage over others who are deemed lesser than us. Although Hobbes did recognize that sometimes we laugh when we recall our own weaknesses, for Superiority theorists laughing at others is much more common than laughing at ourselves. This is because laughing at others tends to bring people pure pleasure, whereas laughing at ourselves can result in a broad range of emotions, from amusement to pain. Another reason that laughing at others is more widespread is that it is easier for most people to notice the mistakes and blemishes of others than their own faults.

Aside from the Superiority theory of humor, the theory that has received the most attention among philosophers is the Incongruity theory. This offers a completely different take on the reasons for this laughter than the one provided by Superiority theorists. John Morreall summarized the incongruity perspective quite well:

“We live in an orderly world, where we come to expect certain patterns among things, their properties, events, etc. We laugh when we experience something that doesn’t fit into these patterns. As Pascal put it, ‘Nothing produces laughter more than a surprising disproportion between that which one expects and that which one sees’.”
(Taking Laughter Seriously, pp.15-16, 1983).

On this view, we laugh at others not when we feel superior to them, but when we notice that they are speaking or acting in unexpected ways. For instance, we might laugh if a friend who we’ve always heard speaking English started speaking Chinese. Young children often make adults laugh when they engage in silly behavior or say something unexpected. In both instances, there are no feelings of superiority present but rather a mismatch between what was expected and what actually happened.

Nietzsche & Freud

Unlike the phenomenon of laughing at others, prior to the twentieth century, philosophers had been relatively quiet about laughing at ourselves. One noticeable exception is Friedrich Nietzsche. In the chapter in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1889) called ‘On the Higher Man’, Nietzsche mocked those who believe that laughing is our greatest sin. Summarizing the value of the laughing spirit against the dead weight of our culture and traditions, he wrote:

“What hates the mob’s blether – cocks and all the bungled gloomy brood – praised be this spirit of all free spirits, the laughing gale that blows dust into the eyes of all the black – sighted, sore – blighted” (p.407).

For Nietzsche, the way to become liberated from the melancholy teachings and gloomy morality of various religions is not by anger, but by relying on a spirit of jest and light-heartedness. Throughout this chapter, Nietzsche repeats that failure is good and calls on higher human beings to “learn to laugh at yourselves as one must laugh!” By learning to laugh at ourselves and to accept failure as an integral part of the human condition, we also begin to question the Spirit of Gravity – those morals that have been handed down to us by tradition, which we typically take for granted. Nietzsche recognized better than most philosophers that part of what makes our lives so burdensome and gloomy is our uncritical attachment to various conventions that we inherited from our parents, culture, or religion. Taking ourselves less seriously can help us relate to these conventions less rigidly, and perhaps even become open to the possibility of creating new values.

Not taking ourselves so seriously also has some psychological benefits, as Sigmund Freud recognized. In his essay Humor (1927), Freud distinguished between the super-ego that normally criticizes the ego and the non-hostile super-ego that seeks to console it. The latter situation Freud associated with humor, noting that, with humor, the super-ego “speaks such kindly words to comfort the intimidated ego.” In On Humor (2002), Simon Critchley points out that Freud interpreted humor as a maturation of the super-ego: “a maturity that comes from learning to laugh at oneself, from finding oneself ridiculous” (p.103). Critchley goes on to explain that humor helps the super-ego become a less severe master; it enables this aspect of our psyche to develop into a more gentle and flexible monitor. So humor, for Freud, is very beneficial, in that it promotes the development of a healthy relationship between the super-ego and the ego, based more on comforting and supporting than on scolding. Conversely, people who suffer from mental illnesses such as depression and paranoia typically have a very stern super-ego and are, therefore, not able to recognize and appreciate humor.

Buddha & Nagel

Beside the insights of Nietzsche and Freud, some of the most important lessons on the nature of laughing at ourselves come from Zen Buddhism. The Zen tradition that follows the ninth-century master Rinzai teaches us that in order to reach enlightenment we need to liberate ourselves from attachment. This is not merely our attachment to material things; they also want us to renounce our blind reverence for religion as creed or a set of rituals to follow. “And so in Zen there are no rituals, scripture, doctrines, or sacred figures – not even the Buddha – to whom the followers should become attached” (John Morreall, Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor, p.134, 2009). Moreover, Zen masters challenge the dominant Western way of understanding the world, through words, concepts, logic and rational thinking, because they believe that this has led us to try to conquer and control the world. On this view, we must continually question our conceptual systems and remind ourselves that they are merely lenses or tools that provide us an incomplete view of reality. Yet perhaps the most important kind of liberation that Zen masters advocate is the emancipation from our attachment to the mind as a separate entity. As Morreall writes, “In Zen the empirical ego is not the person and is not the independent substance. The enlightenment sought is an intuitive awareness of the nothingness of the separate ‘mind’ I normally think of as my self. In being liberated from that mistaken attachment to the self, I overcome the core of the problem of all attachment” (p.135).

The benefit of our liberation from the notion of an enduring, independent self is that it makes it much easier for us to laugh at ourselves. Once we begin to question the notion of an independent ego, we are likely to stop taking the ‘self’ so seriously. Such realization may lead one to be amused by the illusory nature of the self, and to regard oneself as a big joke and human existence as absurd. That is, once we are freed from our uncritical attachment to our egos and can regard ourselves with humor, it is easier for us to laugh at the other absurdities and incongruities we experience.

In his essay ‘The Absurd’ in The Journal of Philosophy 68, #20 (1971), philosopher Thomas Nagel echoes this notion that the absurdity inherent in human existence should be cause for humor not agony. Nagel first acknowledges that there are many absurd situations that people encounter daily, where there is a discrepancy between their pretensions or aspirations and reality. In those cases, people generally try to modify the absurd situation by changing their aspirations, by trying to align their reality with them, or by removing themselves from the situation. However, Nagel, following Albert Camus, points out that the philosophical sense of absurdity is that aspiration and reality inevitably clash for everybody. He accounts for this general notion of absurdity by “the collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perceptual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary, or open to doubt” (p.718). The problem is that neither the seriousness with which we approach our lives nor the arbitrariness of our beliefs and conventions ever really change even when we notice they clash. Nagel concludes that the defiance that some existentialists, such as Camus, adopted in response to the absurd nature of our existence, is not a particularly mature and healthy attitude. Rather, he believes that being aware of our own absurdity is one of the most human and interesting things about us, a fact that calls for laughter, irony and humor rather than gloom or despair. Being able to laugh at ourselves, then, is beneficial because it is one of the best ways of coping with the absurd nature of human existence.

It is important to emphasize that neither Nagel nor the other thinkers mentioned here believe that laughing at ourselves has to manifest in actual physical laughter. Rather, laughing at ourselves should be understood as a kind of metaphor for not taking oneself too seriously and being more self-critical. As John Ohliger notes in ‘Forum: You Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall Make you Laugh’, laughing at ourselves “can be seen as the mood where we’re conscious at the same time of our importance and of our insignificance” (Journal of Adult Education, 19, #1, p.32, 1990). To be sure, there are situations in which we laugh at ourselves when we make a foolish mistake or when others poke fun at us. However, there are also many instances when people are in a cheerful frame of mind and are amused by their own shortcomings. In either case, what is essential is embracing the spirit of lightheartedness that Nietzsche advocated, since it can liberate us from the weight of dead tradition and, even more importantly, from our own rigid and self-absorbed tendencies.

© Prof Mordechai Gordon 2015

Mordechai Gordon is a Professor of Education at Quinnipiac University’s School of Education. He is the author of Humor, Laughter and Human Flourishing: A Philosophical Exploration of the Laughing Animal (Springer Press, 2013).

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