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Bergson on Laughter pt. 1 – History (Episode #145) | Philosophize This! with Stephen West

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Key Takeaways

  • “Once you can get people to laugh at something, they never take that thing as seriously ever again” – Paraphrased quote by Voltaire
  • Comedy and tragedy may seem like polar opposites at first, while they are actually very similar
    – They aim to offer a different perspective
    – In tragedy, the sacrifice of a hero can evoke a socio-political change in society
    – In comedy, the socio-political situation is ridiculed to cause a shift in the public consciousness
  • Theories of laughter
    • Superiority Theory
      • We laugh at things when we feel superior to some element of the joke or situation
    • The Relief Theory
      • Sees laughter as a psychological tool to help us release tension
    • The Incongruity Theory
      • Aristotle said that the easiest way to make an audience laugh is to set some expectations and then violate them
    • Henri Bergson’s Hybrid Theory
      • He synthesizes the strongest parts of the other theories and adds a social element of laughter
        • Laughter has the function to regulate our culture and community

Books Mentioned

  • Aristotle was the first to cite “The Incongruity Theory” of laughter in his work Rhetoric

Intro

  • Host: Stephen West (@iamstephenwest)
  • This is the first part of a series discussing an essay written by Henri Bergson called “Laughter
    • In this episode, Stephen sets the stage for Bergson’s essay by discussing the different theories of laughter proposed by different philosophers

Comedy and Tragedy

  • We often consider laughter as a marker of happiness
  • However, throughout history philosophers trying to understand laughter always found a negative connotation to it
  • Two central themes of theater in ancient Greece were comedy and tragedy
    • Comedy and tragedy may seem polar opposites at first, while they are actually very similar
      • In both, there is a problem that arises and a character steps up to offer a solution
      • Both aim to subvert the expectations of the viewer
        • They aim to offer a different perspective
      • In tragedy, the sacrifice of a hero can evoke a socio-political change in society
      • In comedy, the socio-political situation is ridiculed to cause a shift in the public consciousness
      • “Once you can get people to laugh at something, they never take that thing as seriously ever again” – Paraphrased quote by Voltaire

Historical Overview of Laughter

  • Philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, and Descartes viewed laughter through the “Superiority Theory”
    • We laugh at things when we feel superior to some element of the joke or situation
      • A common saying is that there’s always a victim in comedy
      • This explains why we laugh when people fall, or when comedians make fun of themselves
        • We feel superior to them
      • When we are laughed at, we feel inferior to the group
    • The Superiority Theory cannot explain why we often feel pity for people who are worse off than us
      • It would expect us to laugh
  • Later, people like Herbert Spencer and Sigmund Freud proposed “The Relief Theory”
    • This theory sees laughter as a psychological tool that helps us release tension in our bodies
    • However, we can all think of examples where laughter has nothing to do with releasing tension
  • The most popular view on laughter is known as “The Incongruity Theory”
    • Aristotle was the first to cite it, in his work Rhetoric
      • He said that the easiest way to make an audience laugh is to set some expectations in their heads and then violate them
    • This doesn’t mean that anything surprising is supposed to make us laugh
      • We don’t laugh at the incongruity itself, we laugh at the resolution of the incongruity within the context of our expectations
    • Again, also this theory doesn’t always hold
  • Maybe there is no formula for laughter, or maybe these formulas have been too fragmented in the past

Henri Bergson’s Hybrid Theory

  • He synthesizes the strongest parts of the other theories and adds a social element of laughter
    • Laughter has the function to regulate our culture and community
    • This is a debated issue to this day
      • Some people still hold that comedy is a tool to speak the truth to power
        • A way to create social change by pointing out what’s wrong with the World
      • But you can also see comedy as just a way to get people to laugh, with no other meaning, by simply saying totally ridiculous things
  • Both of these approaches are currently considered “Comedy”
    • Yet it’s difficult to understand why we laugh at things that are seemingly so different
    • This is what Henri Bergson tries to explain in his essay called “Laughter”
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Notes By Giorgio Parlato

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