A review of the book Inside Jokes: Using Humor To Reverse Engineer The Mind by Matthew Hurley, Dan Dennett, and Reg Adams.

In the middle of 2011 a new theory of humor popped onto the science blogs — this was Peter McGraw’s Benign Violation Theory of Humor. I mention it because it provides a helpful contrast to the subject of Inside Jokes. I was pretty interested in the Benign Violation Theory when I heard about it, and upon further investigation, it sounded pretty reasonable to me. Later hearing that the brilliant Daniel Dennett had endorsed a new and different theory of humor, I had to check it out. This theory of humor and its entire presentation redefined for me the standard of what a theory of humor needs to be.

Reading Inside Humor, I could see that the BVT was pretty weak in many areas. It may be true enough that it describes what humor is (see McGraw’s TED talk called "What Makes Things Funny") however, it didn’t seem to say anything about why. This omission only became obvious when Inside Jokes argued that "why" was really the interesting question and that they had answered it. I also think that the Benign Violation Theory has a danger of being somewhat circular — humor results from a "violation" but could a violation be defined as something that, when benign, was funny?

Again, I mention this competing theory to demonstrate how much more comprehensive the theory of Inside Jokes is. It is a functional theory that would inform someone who wanted to design a synthetic brain capable of humor. I felt this theory’s attention to the big picture was far more complete than any other theory I’d heard. It made me feel like other theories of humor were merely "observations" of humor.

In classic philosopher style, Daniel Dennett keeps the theory on track by very explicitly avoiding circular thinking, incomplete theories, and other easy-to-make thought errors (which he enumerates). He puts forth a list of hard questions that a proper theory of humor must be able to answer and then makes sure they get answered. I felt that the scrutiny of the questions was a valuable contribution to the topic by itself and the idea (Hurley’s apparently) of how to answer them was kind of a bonus.

To me it seemed like this work was in a different league than the BVT and theories put forth by other philosophers through history. It seemed like this idea also provided insight into how the mind works and why humor is essential to our brains functioning the way that they do.

If you’re interested in humor or how the mind works, this is an excellent and powerful book. It is extremely well-thought out, well-written, well-researched, and, given it’s subject matter, pretty entertaining.

This well-written theory of humor makes other theories look pretty weak.

UPDATE 2012-01-29

This review prompted Matthew Hurley to contact me personally and point out that he felt I attributed too much writing credit to Dennett. I’ll just let that fact stand on its own.

I will say that the way Amazon is listing the authors seems uncharitable.

"Matthew M. Hurley (Author), Daniel C. Dennett (Author), & 1 more"

I think Reg may be getting shortchanged!