Understanding Humor Based on the Incongruity Theory and the Cooperative Principle

By Zhan, Lili | Studies in Literature and Language, March 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Understanding Humor Based on the Incongruity Theory and the Cooperative Principle


Zhan, Lili, Studies in Literature and Language


Abstract

Humor plays a crucial role in social interactions; sometimes it is even named as social coping mechanism. People have been working on humor since Plato and Aristotle times and different theories have thus come into being, among which the incongruity theory is considered most influential. This article combines the incongruity theory and a pragmatic principle - the Cooperative Principle (CP) set by H. P. Grice, to explain how humor is generated and perceived in certain context. The analysis shows that people produce humor not just for humor's sake. Mostly, they want to express an additional message or implicature in Grice's term. Following Grice's particularized conversational implicatures generated when conversational maxims of the CP are flouted by participants to convey extra information, the paper terms humor out of exploiting maxims as particularized conversational humor. Detailed analyses of examples of humor have been conducted to elucidate how humor is generated through flouting conversational maxims of the CP and what implicature is put across.

Key words: Humor; Cooperative principle; Incongruity theory

INTRODUCTION

The term "humor" has its origin in the Latin word which means fluid or moisture. According to Renaissance physiology, there are four basic humors or fluids in human body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. The proportion between these four humors is assumed to play a major role in determining a person's temperament. A person with the four humors in balance is regarded as good humor whereas a person with any kind of imbalance is considered as out of humor (McGhee, 1979). For centuries, the term "humor" has been referring to one's mood or state of mind in a general sense. In the sixteenth century, Ben Jonson introduced the term "humor" into the field of art to refer to a person's peculiarity, absurdity and folly. Not until the eighteenth century, did "humor" become an aesthetic term that was invested with the present meaning, that is, to reflect something aesthetic in a ridiculous way.

Humor can bring about marvelous amusement. In social interactions, humor is treated as a lubricant since it can help ease social tensions, convey friendly intent, and strengthen social bonds. This article approaches humor by combining the Cooperative Principle (CP) in pragmatics and the incongruity theory in philosophy to investigate how humor is generated and try to explain the mechanism behind. The paper will first explain what humor is, then introduce the CP and the incongruity theory, and on the basis of those two theories humor has been explored through examples.

1. EXPLORATIONS OF HUMOR

1.1 What is Humor?

Though we may realize humor when we meet it, it is not easy to define it. Innumerable definitions of humor have been advanced since Plato times, but no agreement has been reached. McGhee (1979) believes that humor does not exist in the real world but only exists in one's mind and it is only measurable in terms of one's assessment. He defines humor as "a form of intellectual play" (McGhee, 1979, p.42). Some people identify humor with joking. However, the two are quite different in that the former makes humor a medium to serve the speaker's purpose, such as reflecting social reality or getting the hearer perform certain actions while the latter is merely recreational. In this paper, humor is tentatively defined as one's evaluation of events or utterances as ridiculous and witty.

Humor is constituted of humorist, stimulus, recipient, and reaction. Originally people who possessed too much of one of the four humors were objects of laughter and ridicule and referred to as humorists. Once the connection is made, the term extends to anyone who is highly skilled at producing ridiculous, amusing or absurd ideas and events. The humorist may identify with the speaker. But when a humorous event is told in the third person, the humorist and the speaker will become two distinct entities. …

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