Date of Award

Spring 2019

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Luft, Sebastian

Second Advisor

Tobin, Theresa

Third Advisor

Monahan, Michael


The aim of this dissertation is to offer a new theory of humor that takes seriously both the universality and power of humor in culture. In the first chapter, I summarize historical and contemporary theories, and show how each either 1) fails to give any definition of humor, 2) fails as a theory of humor, and/or 3) underappreciates, dismisses, or does not consider the power of humor in experience. The second chapter explains the failures of prior theories by understanding the problem in terms of Ernst Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms. These forms of culture are perspectives through which we express and understand our world, and each presents its own unique perspectives through which we can understand ourselves and the world. In the third chapter, I argue that humor is one of these necessary and universal symbolic forms of culture. I argue that confusions in the philosophy of humor stem from approaches to humor that understand it as part of some other symbolic form rather than as a form itself. In the fourth chapter, I argue for the function of humor as that which reveals and exposes epistemic vices –laziness, arrogance, and closed-minded thinking about ourselves and the world. I support this argument by showing not only that all previous theories of humor have within them epistemic revelation as a consistent commonality, but also by showing that this revelation is necessary to the form of humor while it is, at best, accidental to other forms. In my final chapter, I suggest that we ought to approach humor objectively, and that the normativity of the symbolic forms guides us toward such an approach. I offer two objective questions to ask about a given instance of humor: 1) does the humor idealize a liberated end? and 2) does the humor fulfil the cultural function of the symbolic form it represents by disrupting epistemically vicious thinking? If the answer to both of these questions is affirmative, then it is likely that the humor in question is morally praiseworthy. I conclude by offering suggestions for further study.

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