III. The Nature and Origin of Humor as a Mental Process
Schuetze, in 1817, and Hazlitt, in 1819, summarized the various opinions as to the nature of humor up to their time. The former cites some fifteen different authorities and views. Schopenhauer, in 1819, made a decided contribution in that he attempted an exact description of the mental processes involved. Since then the nature of the mental process and its physiological basis have been the main points of discussion. Schuetze, Hoeffding and Sully call attention to the sense of freedom involved. Penjon, in 1893, described at some length the relation of this sense to humor.
I have already pointed out that the appreciation of law, of order, of harmony and of those things that are inimical to life and freedom begets a sober mental attitude, the intensity of which varies with the weightiness of the matter and the issues involved. Now if, when dealing with such matters, the thinking process continues organized and controlled and progresses towards an end, it is termed rational. But if the mental tension exceeds the capacity for controlled thinking, brought on by the sudden triumph of wrong and evil values, disruption of the thinking process at once ensues, accompanied by an unpleasant emotion ranging from mild disappointment to the tragic; if, on the contrary, the disruption is caused by the sudden triumph of good values, a pleasant emotion results. In either case organized and rational processes give way to those of an uncontrolled and emotional sort. The mental stream has had its banks torn away and its forward movement stopped, voluntary movements are replaced by hereditary. In the more intense forms a reversion to primitive conditions may occur; for we then do and say things that may shame us in our sober moments. Now the humor process occurs in just such a disrupted consciousness induced by the triumph of good and pleasurable values preceded by a mental tension similar, but not always equal, to that preceding emotions. The common and quiet forms of humor usually occur in a consciousness that has been running at its usual strength and depth, sufficiently organized to command the situation, assume a definite form and take on a certain strength of surface tension. (The term surface tension simply extends the water metaphors of psychology in a logical direction. I use it to indicate the impervious condition of consciousness formed in any attentive state, the strength of the surface tension being in direct proportion to the intensity of attention.) The function of the humor stimulus consists in cutting the surface tension, in taking the hide off of consciousness as it were, and in breaking up in part only its organization, which is at once followed by the humor feeling—the next link in the conscious chain. The principal elements in the humor process consist (1) of the perception of the stimulus, (2) the sense of freedom, (3) its recognition. These elements are each suffused by a pleasurable tone and produce by their total synthesis the