Wednesday, 22 January 2014

What is Risibility?

Just what is it that makes people burst out in laughter? There are many theories on risibility and each amongst these is valid on its particular plain of reference. The most ancient theories on risibility - at least those which are known to us - stem from Plato and Aristotle.

According to Plato, laughter is often caused by the delight we take in the misfortunes of others, be it their lack of intelligence, beauty, or means of sustenance. Hence it is hardly surprising that laughter was decried by the great philosopher:

"A composer of a comedy or of any iambic or lyric song shall be strictly forbidden to ridicule any of the citizens either by word or by mimicry, whether with or without passion; and if anyone disobeys, the Presidents of the Games shall on the same day banish [the culprit]" (Laws, 11, 935-6).

According to Aristotle, "that [which] excites laughter, is something ugly and distorted without causing pain" (Poetics, 1449A1, 5:30-40). The "distorted" is that which is in disconformity with what should be the natural course, e.g, a conclusion that does not follow from the premises is likely to induce laughter in us, especially if the conclusion is all too obvious. Other cases likely to be deemed risible are those of fallacious analogies, whether puns or when you pick up a hot iron to answer the phone.

If Aristotle is right in suggesting that risibility is a property unique to the human species, then this is something that we will have to learn to live with. Still, it would be a good idea to reflect on why you laugh, because there is always the possibility that you are laughing when you shouldn't. Indeed, why on earth do people laugh at videos of Indians living in extreme poverty or FSA fighters having their heads blown off? As for the anonymous world of the internet, the individual who concludes his contribution to a lost debate with a wretched "LOL" lays bare his ignorance as well as his lack of tact to all those who know better.