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Philosophy Shorts

Philosophers on Laughter

by Matt Qvortrup

‘More songs about Buildings and Food’ was the title of a 1978 album by the rock band Talking Heads; about all the things rock stars normally don’t sing about. Pop songs are usually about variations on the theme of love. Tracks like George Harrison’s Taxman, written in response a marginal tax-rate of 96 percent introduced by Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the Sixties, are the exception.

Philosophers, likewise, tend to have a narrow focus on epistemology, metaphysics and trifles like the meaning of life. But occasionally great minds stray from their turf and write about other matters, for example buildings (Martin Heidegger), food (Hobbes), tomato juice (Robert Nozick), and the weather (Lucretius and Aristotle). This series of Shorts is about these unfamiliar themes; about the things philosophers also write about.

Why do we laugh? Philosophers, as is their wont, have disagreed about why we giggle and guffaw.

Henri Bergson (1859-1941), a rather serious Frenchman, devoted a rather humourless book to the subject, observing that “a landscape may be beautiful, charming and sublime, or insignificant or ugly; it will never be laughable.” For us, what is “comic does not exist outside the pale of the strictly human.” Hence, “you may laugh at an animal, but only because you have detected in it a human attitude” (Bergson Laughter 1924, 6).

Basically, there are three reasons for laughing: we laugh at others, when we encounter absurdities, and when we are faced with horrors that require the release of emotional energy. We can take them one-by-one.

For Thomas Hobbes (1585-1679) laughter was a way of showing superiority; “laughter is caused … by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves.” (Hobbes, Leviathan, 125)

Secondly, for Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), “laughter [was] innocent and quite different from the ridicule frequently turned on an opponent in serious disputes, where it can indeed become a fearful weapon.” (Hannah Arendt Life of the Mind, p.82). Thirdly, for Arendt it was also a way of getting relief from pain. She reportedly forced herself to laugh uncontrollably when she was researching Eichmann in Jerusalem, her famous book on the Holocaust. This is sometimes called the Relief Theory of Laughter. The seriousness of a thing depends on how much we can joke about it. It is for this reason that we sometimes make inappropriate jokes about the most gruesome and inappropriate things.

Lord Shaftesbury (1621-1683) – who was also the patron of the philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) – was the first to write about this view of laughter. In 1709 he mused that, “The natural free spirits of ingenious men [and women], if imprisoned or controlled, will find out other ways of motion to relieve themselves in their constraint” (An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour, 4).

Other writers have taken a different view. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is normally known for his dense and forbidding style. Yet he was unusually clear and to the point when he observed that, “In everything that is to excite a lively convulsive laugh there must be something absurd (in which the understanding, therefore, can find no satisfaction). Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing” (Critique of Judgement, 273). Those who like labels have called this the Incongruity Theory of Laughter.

So, maybe philosophy is a laughing matter after all. Plato (428-347 BC) certainly believed so, which is why he recommended that the guardians of his ideal state in The Republic should not be “too fond of laughter” (Republic 388e). Nietzsche took a different view, which seems altogether more inspiring, “every truth is called false, in which there was no laughter!” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 307). And that is no joke!

© Prof. Matt Qvortrup 2021

Matt Qvortrup is Professor of Political Science at Coventry University.

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