What is at stake in Russell’s argument is well known: do meaning and value derive from the self-contained systems of cultures, each of which is the only possible source of judgment about such meanings and values? Or is there some overarching logic to history-for instance, ‘progress’ or ‘human nature’— which makes judgment across the boundaries of cultures possible? Clearly, insofar as humour and comedy are concerned Russell is on the anti-relativist side: the apparent permanence of jokes about cuckolds and meanness suggests the validity of anti-relativism. But the theme of a joke is only one of its dimensions: the occasion on which it is told and the identity of the teller and the audience constitute another dimension, and in this instance it would seem as though there is a significant difference between ancient Rome and our times. Now the argument about universalism and relativism in culture is not one to be settled in a few words, nor even in a single book; but it will become clear in the course of this essay that neither of the traditional answers make much
sense in the light of what we can learn from the study of humour and comedy. We will return to the implications in the Conclusion, but we can already see that distinguishing between different dimensions of a joke is one way of going beyond the simple either/or of relativism and universalism: perhaps there are universal joke themes; or even if there are no universal themes perhaps there is a single psychological or semiotic mechanism to be found everywhere, in all humour and comedy. But regardless of whether this is true or not, the occasions on which particular types of joking are appropriate may well vary considerably between different societies. We will see that there are several such considerations.