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(Un)just Kidding: Philosophical Issues in Humour, Comedy and Joking



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Walker, Zoe 


In this thesis, my project is to develop an understanding of the sense of humour as a sensibility, with emotional, evaluative, motivational and attentional aspects, that is shaped by engagement with comedic representations. This picture reveals new ways that humour can harm and new responsibilities that people have for how they engage with comedy, and demonstrates that when one jokes, one is rarely, if ever, just kidding.

In Chapter One, I ask: what does it say about you if you enjoy sexist humour? I start by discussing two existing views on this question, and argue that neither can explain the feeling of unwilling complicity we sometimes get when we enjoy immoral humour. To remedy this, I go on to propose a new understanding of the sense of humour as a matter of taste habituated via engagement with comedic representations, which I develop through a perhaps surprising analogy with erotic taste.

In Chapter Two, I build on this account of the sense of humour by contending that as well as its emotional, evaluative and motivational aspects, the sensibility of humour also has an attentional aspect, whereby one attends in a particular way to the subjects of that humour, noticing certain features of them and ignoring others. I then show that some dispositions to think according to a particular perspective can harm the subjects of that perspective, by activating stereotypes about those subjects for the thinker, objectifying the subjects, or obscuring the thinker’s understanding of them.

In Chapter Three, I turn to the question of responsibility for the sense of humour, given that it can be harmful. I argue that we are not justified in blaming people for having harmful senses of humour, at least in the typical case. Rather, I argue that the best way to think about responsibility for the sense of humour is as a forward-looking responsibility that falls collectively on a society, rather than on particular individuals. Then, in the last two chapters, I think about jokes as a form of comedic representation that shapes the sense of humour, and why we tend to think that if you are joking, your words cannot have serious effects; or at any rate if they do, you are not accountable for them.

In Chapter Four, I show how jokers can exploit an ambiguity in ‘serious’ to sincerely communicate, whilst being able to plausibly deny that they have seriously communicated – and how this results in a gradual shift in the standards for an utterance to count as sincere.

In Chapter Five, I discuss another sort of joke, where a joke-teller’s explicit assertion is insincere, but they sincerely do other things with their words. In particular, I show first that an insincere joking assertion can nonetheless sincerely presuppose, which can change how hearers think and feel, for better or for worse. I then show that an insincere joking assertion can also sincerely derogate, which can in some cases demean the subjects of the joke, and embolden speakers to act on the ideology evoked by the joke.





Langton, Rae
Holton, Richard


aesthetics, comedy, ethics of humour, joking, philosophy of humour, taste


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
AHRC (2092620)
Arts and Humanities Research Council (2092620)