St. Olaf College | News

Pondering the philosophy of humor

Allison Lonigro ’16 (right) is working with Professor of Philosophy Charles Taliaferro to research the underpinnings of humor.

For Allison Lonigro ‘16, the idea for researching the philosophy of humor originated from a conversation she had with a fellow St. Olaf College student.

“His dog had recently died. Mine had, too, so I said, ‘I’m sorry, I know that can be rough.’ And he just started laughing,” she says.

This conversation turned into a proposal for an independent research course in the Philosophy Department titled Philosophy of Humor.

Lonigro is now researching humor with Professor of Philosophy Charles Taliaferro. They are exploring how jokes set up outsiders and insiders, how humor displays seniority, the differences between improvisation and telling jokes, and the ethics of humor.

As part of their research, Taliaferro and Lonigro hope to attend a conference hosted by the Lighthearted Philosophers’ Society. This society focuses on the philosophy of humor and the same questions that Taliaferro and Lonigro are interested in.

“I hope to get one or two publications from our research,” Taliaferro says.

Humor goes back to ancient times. In medieval times, it served as a way for unhappy peasants to release their disappointment with material culture. For the peasants, a good laugh involved the incongruity of expectations.

Other kinds of humor — such as skeptic humor, satire, irony, and sarcasm — have since developed. “Humor can be an excellent tool in helping us step back from our circumstances, stepping back even from the human condition itself, to challenge our vanity, apathy, and everyday vices,” Taliaferro says.

Humor can be used to unite and divide. Jokes create insiders and outsiders — who laughs and who does not. Humor is also used to make fun of situations and people.

“We want to get a working definition of humor and to investigate if there is an objective definition of humor,” says Lonigro, who is also president of the St. Olaf improv group Scared Scriptless.

Lonigro has benefited from this research experience. “I have wholeheartedly enjoyed this research opportunity as a chance to explore a topic in philosophy that I am very passionate about,” says Lonigro, who is majoring in Latin and philosophy at St. Olaf.

“There is nothing more valuable than being able to bounce ideas off an esteemed member of your prospective field and be validated and challenged at the same time.”