19 May 2011

Bergson and Humor

I enjoyed the recent article in SLATE outlining five theories of humor, and why none explains the field. The point, apparently, is to introduce and justify a sixth theory, one based on evolutionary biology and advocated by Matthew Hurley at al.

But I do think author Nina Shen Rastogi misunderstood one of the five, specifically the "mechanical theory." In her account, this is the view of philosopher Henri Bergson, who "believed that it is inadaptability or rigidity -- the repetitive nature of our personalities -- that is the source of humor."

Rastogi thinks this is wrong, because many examples of rigidity aren't funny at all, and because puns aren't mechanical, but ARE funny. Her example of a non-mechanism witticism comes from Douglas Hofstadter, "Email is the happy medium between male and female."

Aside from the fact that the email pun doesn't quite manage to split my sides, Rastogi is off base here. Bergson's view was that humor arises from the juxtaposition of the vital and the mechanical, the living and the routine.

Consider slapstick physical comedy. A man slips on a banana peel. He starts wheeling his arms around to try to restore his balance. That's funny. Why? Because he began the scene as a human being, a vital purposive creature, and ended it as a system of off-balance levers.

Puns are another example of Bergson's point (not a counter-example)! After all, what is more vital than language? What more mechanical than the classification of words by their mere sound, regardless of their actual meaning?

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.