Nineteenth Century Philosophy


What did Henri Bergson have to say about laughter and the human sense of humor?

Bergson wrote a 1900 analysis of laughter, which shows he was pretty interested in the concept of humor. He thought that the comical is a part of life that cannot be fully understood by reason alone. Laughter requires a state of indifference, according to Bergson, “for laughter has no greater foe than emotion.” He went on to say that “the comic demands something like a momentary anesthesia of the heart…. [I]t’s appeal is to intelligence pure and simple.”

To be comical, something must be rigid, like a facial grimace or a mechanical walk. Our perception of this rigidity is broken up by our laughter. Ordinary language bears Bergson out on this because we talk about being “cracked up,” or “broken up” when something is funny. Anything that switches our attention from the soul or moral realm to the body can be comical, said Bergson: for example, a speaker sneezing at a dramatic moment in his presentation. Bergson saw the overall purpose of comedy as a reassertion of life in an age of machines.


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