There is an initial difficulty which merits acknowledgment at the outset of this inquiry. In philosophy, all categories are weighted toward reflection and away from spontaneity. It is hard to envision a philosophy of laughter, notwithstanding Bergson's familiar efforts to categorize the comic, or Nietzsche's provocations lauding caprice. Philosophical discourse has been solidly and traditionally anchored in eternal concerns far from the madding eruption of laughter--the sound of frolic signifying nothing. The characteristic philosophical disdain for, and obsession with escape from: the momentary, the pleasurable, the distraction of the body and temptations of the senses, the seduction of, and abandonment to the embrace of, emotion--all of this argues against any profitable inquiry into the domain of laughter .
Literature is a more promising resource for the expression and understanding of laughter. Even though its bias and signifying depth may be anchored to tragic drama, literature embraces affirmation in all its forms, including the diversities which laughter lends. Fiction takes into itself and makes its own whatever issues from the surrounding discourse of life. Literature, in this instance, and in this way, has an advantage over critical philosophy which has a traditional stake in the serious leverage of logic rather than in the license or allowance of levity. Philosophy may find it a useful exercise, for example, to outline those conditions under which laughter is inappropriate, in which sensibility or humanity is properly offended, and thus try to legislate the moral boundaries which laughter must observe. Although one can imagine philosophy producing an aesthetic or ethical commentary on the use and abuse of laughter, laughter remains an unlikely category for significant philosophical attention.
What might at first appear an exception to this is the occasional humor that finds a home in discourse--invariably a species of intellectual and didactic humor--which sustains a critical edge: in the irony of Socrates, the satire of Swift, the parodies of Voltaire, or more recently in Wittgenstein, where the lurking humor implicit in the play of grammatical jokes is designed to display the nonsense attending some misleading analogy at the heart of a philosophical thesis. But laughter is a different matter entirely. One can recall in Aristotle, and then in Epicurean and Stoic writing, a focused concern to counsel against the ugly contortions and bad form of the unbridled in all its manifestations, particularly in the indulgent exuberance and public display of laughter. Laughter in its unstructured freedom has seemed alien and antithetical to the studied discipline which constitutes philosophy.
Document Object Identifier (DOI)
Kimmel, L. (1998). Philosophy, Literature, and Laughter: Notes on an Ontology of the Moment. Analecta Husserliana, 56, 175-184.