Emily Herring is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Ghent in Belgium. She is the co-editor of The Past, Present, and Future of Integrated History and Philosophy of Science (2019).
A Catholic nun and a young Hispanic immigrant in Central Park, New York, 1976. Photo by Richard Kalvar/Magnum
For philosopher Henri Bergson, laughter solves a serious human conundrum: how to keep our minds and social lives elastic
In a Monty Python sketch from 1970, a cheesy game show host (John Cleese) asks an ill-tempered, racist, uncooperative old lady contestant (Terry Jones) a ludicrously challenging question. The exchange unfolds as follows:
Cleese: What great opponent of Cartesian dualism resists the reduction of psychological phenomena to physical states?
Jones: I don’t know that!
Cleese: Well, have a guess.
Jones: Henri Bergson.
Cleese: Is the correct answer!
Jones: Ooh, that was lucky. I never even heard of him!
The Pythons were well-versed in the history of philosophy (and in the drinking habits of Western philosophers). It therefore didn’t escape them that this particular French philosopher was also the author of a popular essay that focused on a phenomenon all comedians take very seriously: laughter.
Before Bergson, few philosophers had given laughter much thought. The pre-Socratic thinker Democritus was nicknamed the ‘laughing philosopher’ for espousing cheerfulness as a way of life. However, we know more about his thoughts on atomism than on laughter. Similarly, the section of Aristotle’s Poetics that dealt with comedy hasn’t come down to us. Other major thinkers who have offered passing, often humourless, reflections about humour include Thomas Hobbes and René Descartes, who believed that we laugh because we feel superior; Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer who argued that comedy stems from a sense of incongruity; and Herbert Spencer and Sigmund Freud who suggested that comedians provide a form of much-needed relief (from, respectively, ‘nervous energy’ and repressed emotions). Bergson was unconvinced by these accounts. He believed that the problem of laughter deserved more than a few well-worded digressions. Although his theory retained elements of the incongruity and superiority theories of humour, it also opened entirely new perspectives on the problem.
The Monty Pythons could safely assume that Bergson’s name would come across as particularly obscure to an anglophone audience – the sketch plays on the incongruity of the old lady plucking this unfamiliar name from the air. However, when Bergson’s Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic(1900) was published, his philosophy was discussed in most intellectual circles and, a few years later, he would become one of the most famousthinkers in the world. Why did a philosopher of such renown deviate from his more traditional and serious philosophical obsessions – the nature of time, memory, perception, free will and the mind-body problem – to focus on the apparently frivolous case-studies of slapstick, vaudeville and word play? And what was there to be gained from such analysis? The topic was a ticklish one. Laughter, wrote Bergson, had ‘a knack of baffling every effort, of slipping away and escaping only to bob up again, a pert challenge flung at philosophic speculation’. It was almost as though there was something unnatural about subjecting one of the most pleasurable and ubiquitous human experiences to dry philosophical speculation. Anyone who has ever had to explain their own joke knows that comedy cannot survive that sort of analysis. As the American authors E B White and Katharine S White put it in 1941:
Humour can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.
While his book on laughter is hardly a rib-tickling read, Bergson didn’t wish to adopt the attitude of an anatomist observing a frog’s dead insides. He believed that laughter should be studied as ‘a living thing’ and treated ‘with the respect due to life’. His investigation was therefore more like that of a field zoologist observing frogs in the wild:
we shall not aim at imprisoning the comic spirit within a definition … We shall confine ourselves to watching it grow and expand.
Like all good metaphorical field zoologists, Bergson started his study by familiarising himself with his metaphorical frog’s natural habitat: in other words, the conditions under which laughter is most likely to appear and thrive. Following this method, Bergson arrived at three general observations.[…]