“All the world’s a stage”: incongruity humour revisited

  • Anton Nijholt
Open Access


Eighteenth and nineteenth century philosophers took interest in humour and, in particular, humorous incongruities. Humour was not necessarily their main interest; however, observations on humour could support their more general philosophical theories. Spontaneous and unintentional humour such as anecdotes, witty remarks and absurd events were the styles of humour that they analysed and made part of their theories. Prepared humour such as verbal jokes were rarely included in their observations, likely dismissed as too vulgar and not requiring intellectual effort. Humour, as analysed by several eighteenth and nineteenth century philosophers, was seen as part of daily life or life simulated on stage. In the twentieth century, Freud emphasized a possible ‘relief’ function of ‘prepared’ humour such as jokes. Additionally, linguists began developing theories to analyse jokes. A joke has a particular structure that is constructed with the aim of achieving a humorous effect. This structure makes jokes suitable for linguistic analysis. In the present-day humour research, jokes have become a main topic of research. This linguistically oriented joke research neglects many other forms of humour: spontaneous humour, non-verbal humour, physical humour, and many forms of unintentional humour that appear in real life. We want to survey and re-evaluate the contributions to the humour research of these eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth century philosophers and clarify that their more general contributions to the humour research have been neglected in favour of the very restricted form of prepared humour and linguistically expressed and analysed humour as it appears in jokes. We hope that the views expressed in this paper will help to steer the humour research away from joke research and help to integrate humour in the design of human-computer interfaces and smart environments. That is, rather than considering only verbal jokes, we should aim at generating smart environments that understand, facilitate or create humour that goes beyond jokes.


Philosophy of humour Incongruity humour Humour theories Human-computer interaction Human-robot interaction Computational humour Smart environments 

Mathematics Subject Classification (2010)

01-02 68T01 68T50 91C99 



I’m grateful to the referees for pointing out some errors in an earlier version of the paper and for their suggestions to improve it. In this paper there are many citations taken from books that were published centuries ago. For that reason spelling and grammatical structure can sometimes differ from modern English. I’m grateful to Google for making many of these old texts available in the public domain.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of TwenteEnschedeThe Netherlands

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