Henri Bergson’s theory of laughter

Explaining laughter

“What does laughter mean?” Henri Bergson begins his work on Laughter with this simple and general question. His intention is to analyze the things that make us laugh in order to find out how it is that they make us laugh.

Almost immediately Bergson limits his scope with three observations about comedy and laughter:

  1. Comedy is necessarily human: we laugh at people or the things they do
  2. Laughter is purely cerebral: being able to laugh seems to require a detached attitude, an emotional distance to the object of laughter
  3. Laughter has a social function

These observations are perhaps controversial, but they help us understand at least what kind of laughter and what kind of comedy Bergson is talking about. The third observation is particularly interesting philosophically:

those definitions which tend to make the comic into an abstract relation between ideas: “an intellectual contrast,” “a palpable absurdity,” etc.,—definitions which, even were they really suitable to every form of the comic, would not in the least explain why the comic makes us laugh. How, indeed, should it come about that this particular logical relation, as soon as it is perceived, contracts, expands and shakes our limbs, whilst all other relations leave the body unaffected? It is not from this point of view that we shall approach the problem. To understand laughter, we must put it back into its natural environment, which is society, and above all must we determine the utility of its function, which is a social one. Such, let us say at once, will be the leading idea of all our investigations. Laughter must answer to certain requirements of life in common. It must have a social signification.

Logical relations do not make us laugh in themselves, and we need a description of the process that starts with observing an absurdity and ends up with laughing. Unlike some others (for example Freud in his Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious), Bergson does not want to give a psychological explanation of laughter. Instead he explains laughter in functionalist terms: laughter is a “social gesture”, a function with a specific utility in society. In the final chapter he makes a remark that, although about drama instead of comedy, helps to illustrate the idea:

As contrary electricities attract each other and accumulate between the two plates of the condenser from which the spark will presently flash, so, by simply bringing people together, strong attractions and repulsions take place, followed by an utter loss of balance, in a word, by that electrification of the soul known as passion. Were man to give way to the impulse of his natural feelings, were there neither social nor moral law, these outbursts of violent feeling would be the ordinary rule in life. But utility demands that these outbursts should be foreseen and averted. Man must live in society, and consequently submit to rules. And what interest advises, reason commands: duty calls, and we have to obey the summons. Under this dual influence has perforce been formed an outward layer of feelings and ideas which make for permanence, aim at becoming common to all men, and cover, when they are not strong enough to extinguish it, the inner fire of individual passions. The slow progress of mankind in the direction of an increasingly peaceful social life has gradually consolidated this layer, just as the life of our planet itself has been one long effort to cover over with a cool and solid crust the fiery mass of seething metals. But volcanic eruptions occur. And if the earth were a living being, as mythology has feigned, most likely when in repose it would take delight in dreaming of these sudden explosions, whereby it suddenly resumes possession of its innermost nature. Such is just the kind of pleasure that is provided for us by drama.

Society is a product of a kind of evolution: for one reason or another, the history of humankind seems to lead towards an increasingly peaceful social life by controlling our antisocial urges. The point of drama is to let us have a glimpse inside of ourselves, of what we would be if it wasn’t for society, of our hidden nature or nature in hiding. Comedy, on the other hand, serves society by pointing out our antisocial tendencies and inviting us to laugh at them, thus encouraging us to correct them.

Describing the comic

“[…] something mechanical in something living; in fact, something comic.” This is how Bergson in effect defines his concept of the comic. This “something living”—or in short, life—in turn “presents itself to us as evolution in time and complexity in space”. This is the main thesis of the work in a compact and abstract form. The argument is difficult to summarize, but I will try to make the idea a bit clearer.

As I said, the idea is that laughter serves as a corrective. It is one of the institutions that have evolved to make it possible for people to live in society and for the society to work well. There are many different kinds of antisocial traits and behavior, and we only laugh at some of them. We laugh at people when they behave in a way that gives the appearance of a simple mechanism. Ordinarily we expect people to observe what is happening around them and to adapt their behavior accordingly. When someone is lacking in the ability to do this, we laugh at him. The way laughter works as a corrective is obvious: “Its function is to intimidate by humiliating.”

Comic authors use different devices in writing comedy. I am not sure if his list is meant to be exhaustive, but Bergson gives three examples—repetition, inversion and reciprocal interference of series—and traces them all back to children’s toys and games—the jack-in-the-box, the marionette and the snowball. The idea is that “there can be no break in continuity between the child’s delight in games and that of the grown-up person”. The difference between a toymaker and a comic playwright is therefore minimal: both are in the business of making arrangements that give us “in a single combination, the illusion of life and the distinct impression of a mechanical arrangement”. For example, a child plays with an actual jack-in-the-box, whereas in a comedy a character behaves a lot like a jack-in-the-box, that is, mechanically. And we laugh.

The point is that our disposition for corrective laughter can be used by comic authors to make us laugh at things that are in no need of a behavioral correction. The jack-in-the-box is not expected to change his behavior no matter how much the child laughs. Even further, we laugh at the appearance of a mechanism in life in the most abstract sense. Continuing with the same example, we can be made to laugh not just at people who are repetitive but also repetition in general. We tend to think that life does not repeat itself, and therefore we laugh when we watch a play that gives a good enough impression of real life but also includes a surprising repetition of an event. In this way a model for comic scenes and events has been extracted or abstracted from the human disposition to react to certain kinds of events by laughing. From punishing the actual repetitive person by laughing at him, we have found ways to move to laughing at the principle of repetition.

Going even further, Bergson argues that the same applies to verbal comedy or “the comic created by language”. Certain kinds of word structures make us laugh because of their structural properties, not because they are used to describe a comic event. Here Bergson starts to get on shakier ground. First he tries to argue that wit (or jokes) and comedy are essentially similar: a joke is just the core of a yet undeveloped comic scene. In this way a witty saying is exactly like a comic scene, but on the “plane of words”. This puts Bergson in the position to claim that word comedy is made using the same three models as theatrical comedy.

In the final chapter Bergson writes about the comic in character. We need to recall the second observation from the beginning: laughter is incompatible with sympathy, and therefore the comic author must prevent the audience from feeling sympathy toward the characters. There are three things he does to achieve this. First the laughable trait is isolated so that the character is not overcome by it. The trait merely pops up in a specific situation. Second, the trait must be expressed in gestures instead of actions: actions flow from feelings toward which one can feel sympathy, but gestures simply reveal the existence of a trait. Third, and to sum up, the comic character behaves automatically, absent-mindedly. The fault in him is like a switch that the external circumstances can trigger. What, then, is the most laughable character trait? Vanity:

Probably there is not a single failing that is more superficial or more deep-rooted. The wounds it receives are never very serious, and yet they are seldom healed. The services rendered to it are the most unreal of all services, and yet they are the very ones that meet with lasting gratitude. It is scarcely a vice, and yet all the vices are drawn into its orbit and, in proportion as they become more refined and artificial, tend to be nothing more than a means of satisfying it. The outcome of social life, since it is an admiration of ourselves based on the admiration we think we are inspiring in others, it is even more natural, more universally innate than egoism; for egoism may be conquered by nature, whereas only by reflection do we get the better of vanity.

Society, a kind of machine itself, has ways of organizing people into categories, and for a person to be a member of a category means that he acquires characteristics that the membership entails. An important category is that of professions, and a professional person can easily be turned into a comic character by emphasizing the way he acts as a professional rather than a human being with common sense.

Common sense is what laughter serves above all. Therefore what is farthest from it should be its primary adversary. It is not just general madness or absurdity, but a specific kind. “Common sense represents the endeavour of a mind continually adapting itself anew and changing ideas when it changes objects.” In comedy, this is inverted in a definite way:

If there exists a madness that is laughable, it can only be one compatible with the general health of the mind,—a sane type of madness, one might say. Now, there is a sane state of the mind that resembles madness in every respect, in which we find the same associations of ideas as we do in lunacy, the same peculiar logic as in a fixed idea. This state is that of dreams. So either our analysis is incorrect, or it must be capable of being stated in the following theorem: Comic absurdity is of the same nature as that of dreams.

Living as common sense tells us, we observe reality and adapt our thoughts, our actions and ourselves to it. The most comic of characters, the dreamer, observes reality as well, but instead of adapting to it he makes his observations adapt to his dream. Don Quixote, looking at windmills, sees the windmills as giants through his dream, and this inability to wake up makes him comic.

Viewed from an ethical perspective, laughter is hardly innocent. The criteria it uses to choose its victims are not moral criteria. Laughter is “simply the result of a mechanism set up in us by nature or, what is almost the same thing, by our long acquaintance with social life. It goes off spontaneously and returns tit for tat. It has no time to look where it hits.” And sometimes the blows it deals are painful.

As a final note, our philosopher seems not to take himself too seriously: “it is a remarkable fact that the more questionable an art, science or occupation is, the more those who practise it are inclined to regard themselves as invested with a kind of priesthood and to claim that all should bow before its mysteries.” What was it that Plato has Socrates say? “Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils…”

See also

Originally posted: April 9, 2006.