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A Theory of the Comic as Insight Author(s): Kenneth Lash Reviewed work(s): Source: The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 45, No. 5 (Feb. 26, 1948), pp. 113-121 Published by: Journal of Philosophy, Inc. Stable URL: . Accessed: 13/01/2012 11:26
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1946.trans.and the living.forif the comicis to be semperidem an animadversionupon mechanism. Society. in turn. moreover. In a world withoutideas. a questionof value arises. automatism in contrast with free activity. "ideas " or " relational concepts. Brereton and F.the mosaic of thoughtpatterns and instinctsthat go to make up our social norms. by C. But there is a special field of ideas upon which the comic flourishes. December 23.2 he laughsat. laughter does not exist outside the boundaries of the human. in contrast with the supple. absentmindednessin contrast with attention. Therefore. Dallas. 2 Henri Bergson.attemptsto systematize For Bergson. a social comment-indeed. laughter ceases to be an aimless pleasure and becomes. the ready-made. since it is used by societyto keep individuals in harmonywith social norms. No.more weapon than comment. Comic.hardlyable to distinguish friendfromfoe. 130. Texas. for. It lays about lustily. Lautghter. such are the defects that laughter singles out and would fain correct. the mechanical. Henri Bergson.the appeal of the comicis to the mind. instead. It is.forin hislaughter yOUcantella manbythethings The word that pricksthe ears is "correct.VOLUME XLV." At once.being a comment-a comment on living-it must have to do with what we call " hence knowledge. the ever-changing.with no line of demarcation drawn betweenthat mechanicalbehavior which is beneficialto society and that which is harmful. The core of Bergson's theorycan be found in the followingquotation fromLaughter: The rigid. Every laugh is a comment. 1928).the enemyof automatismis humor. humorcan not coexist with emotion.a comment upon living. Macmillan. namely. an organism. And. must remain fluid and flexibleto survive. Rothwell (New York. its greatestenemy is automatism. there would be no humor. 113 . as Bergson pointed out.humor is not discreet. in a word.conscious or unconscious. Such being the case. 5 FEBRUARY26. An Essay on the Meaning of the and validate the comic as comment. As a weapon. 1948 THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY A THEORY OF THE COMIC AS INSIGHT 1 is reflected the mental companyhe Laughter.then the validity of the comic as 1 Read at the Southwestern Philosophical Conference. p.

F. S. 1946). It is at this point that I would dismountfromthe Bergsonian merry-go-round. but we may also. Parker. therefore.pointingout. an accepted system. Parker then goes on to removeBergson's restriction of the comicto the mechanical. The Principles of Aesthetics (New York. It results fromperceptionof incongruity between the norm or preconceivedidea.Bergson admitsthis. Parker. laugh at the standard. the word "evil" is applied looselyto any person or action whichis out of line with preconceivedstandards. DeWitt is evil.namely. within which the object pretends but fails to fit.a mechanism. Crofts & Co. 94.of course. In this sense Mr. I quote: The problem of evil in aesthetics may finallybe solved by the use of the comic. and the actual.which does not "fit.the brass ring that binds the comicto comment. Whereas satire has eyes only for rebuke. and with reference to which. is evil. in that sectiondealing withthe comicin his book The Principles of Aesthetics. in the broadest disease.remarking that laughter. sympathetic insight.laugh at the extreme. then.the capriciousmomentary abandonmentof standards and the tensionsthey create-this is the other side of the Bergsonian coin. by identifying ourselveswith the normal.. leads us to the higher functionof comedy. He thus assigns the validityor "justice" of the comicto the law of averages.3 Mr. In the last few pages of his essay.sees the comic as morallydiscriminative. gives back to the comic its eyes. however.") Mr. Parker. by removingthe qualifying word "social" from the Bergsonian "social evil. Immediately the comicis withdrawn fromthe zone of moral reflection. In order for an object to be comical there must be a standard or norm. trulyenough. the mischievous. by identifying ourselves with the rebellious. handed over to a kind of social instinct.and becomes. Parker is agreeing with Bergson's thesisthat the comiccould not exist in a world withoutideas. . he states. never made any demands upon them: if instead of judging them by our preconceived ideas. If we never had any definiteexpectations with reference to things. p.rightfully I believe. For in comedy we take pleasure in an object which.114 THE JOURNAL OP PHILOSOPHY commentis thrownto the hounds of chance. The rebellious. . . but he is enlargingthe fieldof the comic. We can. carryingwith me. oftenstrikesdown the innocentand spares the guilty. humor has a 3 DeWitt H. we took them just as they came and changed our ideas to meet them-there would be nothing comical. . rather than to the watchdogof knowledge.that the spontaneous is an equal source of humor. This latter course." (In both cases.

THEORY OF THE COMIC AS INSIGHT 115 heart as well. Mr.are singled out and exaggerated by the comic in a process which results in a clearer understandingof the object's essential nature. insightnot only into value and valueand scientific but into the essentialdisharmony relationships. 589-598). G. The otheraspect. 1946. Parker. Mr.both sympathetic in approach.he [the caricaturist] selects certain aspects from the total complexity of a phenomenon and shows how they work when isolated from the rest. then.. like the man of the approach of caricature in which prominent traits. 98. hence more esthetic.whichcan have no patternbut that dictatedby chance. . the normsand the conduct. partly overlapping. 4 Ibid. One of these we have already noticed: the unmaskingaspect of the comic. or that the two sympathiesneed be mutually exclusive. hence more esthetic. pp.whereby throughcontrastis illuminatedthe discrepancybetweeni the pretended and the actual. Mr. A. Aside fromthe insightimplied in sympathy.oftenobscured by the whole. and unites us.tychisticevents the essence of which is best understoodand reflected by the comic. In any case. Parker says: Following the method of the experimentalist. The satiristsympathizes with the individual who is harmedby the willfuland the false. but that sympathywith norms can not be as high a functionas sympathywith individuals. with the object of our laughter. Parker presumablyfeels that sympathywith people is a higher value than sympathywith norms. Fuller suggests that reality is unintelligible.4 Mr. It is more likely that the difa semi-fixed ferencein "sympathy" betweenhumorand satire is one of awareness and degreeratherthan of in fact a mass of spontaneous. to compare the theoryof Bergson and Parker It is interesting with that containedin B. Parker notes two explicit functionsof the comic as insight. p. sees the comic as insight. Parker's theoryis a hypothesisof the comic as one strand of the "bond that binds us to our fellows" as opposed to Bergson's assumptionof it as a bond that binds our fellowsto us. throughsympathy.mustimplyeventuallythe shelvingof even social or value system. Mr. because we can accept his results as at least partially or approximately true. Humor is more contemplative.than satire we should have to agree. implicit in Mr. Fuller's article "Is Reality Really Comic?" (this JOURNAL. he provides insight into the normal.for is not satire of the kind he mentionsmerely that other point of view by which we identifyourselves with standards? That humor is more contemplative. Vol. XLII. of existence. certainlyopen to question. For continued identification with the spontaneous.

. .of humor. . since we have found humorto result fromthe between preconceivedideas and actuality.the quantum theory.and that an elementof chaos does exist as at least a part of reality. that case . disappear. Fuller goes on to state that determinism. In this respect. I would agree with Mr. . hence. Implied in any acceptance of the theory of a universe completelydominatedby chance is.the patternless pattern.that knowable reality is somewhatuncertain. formal. seems to me that pushing Mr. therefore. It is not my part in this paper to enterthe determinism versus chance argument except insofaras it bears directlyupon the comic.uncaused. and part of the pleasure we derivefromit is pleasure of the realiza- . Not one to stop short of his full conclusions. I am forced to take exception immediatelybecause surprise. of necessity. I In not the only one. the comic incongruity would. of course. in its triple form and finalcausation. thoughit may be one factor in humor. And betweenevents. Since this chaotic elementis reflected in the comic.however. therefore. Mr. the comicvalue is morerepresentative of its essence than any otherhuman evaluation of its nature.any fixityor semi-fixity of expectationwould be nonexistent. the correlated acceptance of the designlessdesign.who laughs with us at the chance and accidentwhich continuallyupset both the cosmicand earthlyapplecarts. . actually "peppers universe. In such a universe.Mr. .has been takingsomesevere of efficient.unmotivated. then to that extent the comic does partake of reality. but rather its incongruousrelationship with the moreor less static patternit interrupts. Fuller goes a non-omnipotent on to formulate God with a sense of humor.and . It is not the swrprise of the spontaneous that makes us laugh.116 THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY He begins with the premisethat the comicis incompatiblewith an orderlyand intelligibleuniverse.hitherto and salts its entire surface with a constant occurrenceof sponand purposelessevents . . the "principle of uncertainty. body blows of late. the sense of humor is perhaps the most clairvoyantof our reactionsto its " conduct. Fuller's theorytoo far would result eventuallyin total eliminationof the comic.for to understandwhy a thing occurs deprivesit of the elementof surpriseand. of the referredonly to initial cause. nor is surprise in itself humorous." Freud has shown that the rational organizationof the mind has no roots in the mental subsoil.Hume had denied any necessaryconnection that the ultimate irrationality Is it not possible. not only has the real all the makings of the comic value.for. . Fuller. however. in short. but . Science is abandoning formal causation for the theory of relativity.

The next requisite is the given factor.any emotionotherthan one expressive of pleasure will obviate laughter. What typeof insightis conveyedin the play of humor? To which componentof reality does the comic have reference? Perhaps if we can synthesize the source of the comic. To perceivethe comic element at any givenmoment.THEORY OF THE COMIC AS INSIGHT 117 tion of this kind of knowledge. it may be best observation to bow somewhatto the letter and restatemy position as follows: on the part of the observer. need not concernus here." To obviate the noconnotations often given to the word tional and hyper-subjective "ideas. the clown's pratfalls can be painful. related psychologically to his urge toward pleasure. to of behavior. in short. But what the meaning of a word." preferto employas terminology These norms may have referenceto the nature of the real.any concept which has been reaffirmed to evolve as archein its original formby experiencesufficiently typal. it is to be observed that. He sees the comic only as the spontaneousand the tychistic-the breaker of norms-and never as the establisher of newer and more adequate standards. his terriblystrenuousefforts to arouse laughter. is the pointI should like to dwell upon. Of course. The aspect of the comicas insightand as a vehicleof knowledge.laughing is in itselfthe expressionof an emotion. A minor misfortune is not funnyuntil its effects are dissipated. to understandthe existenceof a requirement is not necessarily to understandhow it is met.I "norms" and "standards. Fuller fails to take into account is that side of the comic which gives insufficiently sight into norms. The physiologicalsource of the comic. .we may be in a betterpositionto answerthese questions. Such norms may be personal-that is. adopted by us as moreor less "good" or "true"-or theymay be merelyknowledge in whichcase we are aware of their existenceand of their content. made indiscriminate by Bergson." and to emphasizethe desired importof the archetypal. to the proper consistency bubble gum-to.omnipresent in us all: a set of semi-crystallized formrealizations. We have seen thus far that active emotiontowards the comic object precludes laughter.piteous. While this does not alter the spiritof this argument. It is this latter function of the comicwithwhichI am mostconcernedin this paper. for the laugher.and half-stated by Fuller. If viewed sympathetically. towardsthe comicobject emotional neutrality is demanded. In any case.pattern concepts. connectedwith our requirementsfor tensionrelease. We have seen these termed"preconceived ideas.until timehas detachedus fromour angry emotionalreactionsto the incident. bound tightlyto sympathyby Parker.

goes wide of. comic. It is to the increased awareness of these normsthat the comic can. intentionmust be incongruous." This is accuwhichis commonly emerges for one's "view" of so-called objective reality is rate terminology. Though we may reduce a tual. And it is with regard to this point of view that he makes value judgments actuality. When this selection approximates a state of stability.and concept) that laughter springs. but the intellectperceivesthe discrepancybetweenthe posited and the acand laughs. As we In any case. situation. highlycolored by one's norm contextwhich provides. ally or unintentionally. of themselves." Norms. of these normsas standards we must assume the ex'istence however. It is obvious that these norms. One has but to strikethe flintof normson the roughedge of actualityto get the spark of humor. findsit incongruous. of man's being a good deal less prescientthan he usually is or ideally should be. a pattern called a "point of view. Where the failure is unintenthe humorderivesfromour view tional. This relationship in the sense that the comic object. are manifoldand multifarious.118 THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY but have not. deriving always fromthe sense. and does. Forms tend to become presentus with new fixed. One is aware of a greateror lesser but to his knowledgeand sensitivity. of value into whichwe have a greateror lesser insight. becomesomewhatpersonalizedboth by the individual's interpretation of them. overshoots.and towards which we feel a greater or lesser devotion. it is this point of view with which the comic concerning fails to square.he falls shortof our norm for .both objective and continuesto measure of experience and different alloys.but matter is always creating its own to speak. In a is ever the same.adopted them. to the basic ore of norms. In otherwords. the norms are not. have seen. contribute. eitherintentionalor unintentional.or in humorousnaivete believes that it does.then. himself consciously each of us.and by the relationshipshe sets up for them with othernormsin the processof building his point of view. to which the norm fitthe norm. object incongruously Now this failure of the comic object may be. use by others. The comic object pretendsto it has reference. of the the vantage point from which we view the manifestations "real.thoughtheyhave their basis in objectivity. or falls short of. it is ratherout of the incongruousrelationshipbetween a given norm and an object (let "object" include person. Either way. fractionof themin proportion unto takes or unconsciously. the incongruity discrepancybetweenthe archetypaland the aberrational.action. whether a certain number of more or less compatible norms for his own. as we have said. as in farcical blunderings. ourselves.

namely. manifestly implies a value scale. underside. too rich or too poor-in any case.or to mankindin general. But wherethe failureof the object to fitits archetype is intenthe incontional. though in a differentand. it constitutes. a value judgment. Yet the totality . is suggested.thoughoftendepicted in chiaroscuro. cuttingas the occasion demands eitherat twin-edged the standards or at the controverters. more interestingmanner. epistemologically supplant or to modify the original. the situationmastershim. It is our perceptionof the discrepancy betweenour ideal or "totality" normgoverning the nature of man (or a man) and the incomplete or "partial" aspects of him in the example set before us which gives rise here to the comic. Normstend to be static. Wit may often turn traditional norms but in so doing does it not turn up to our vision the topsy-turvy. every thesis has its antithesis. gruity is presented for the purpose of edificationthrough the agency of the imagination. sets up a kind of goal which.of a commonbody of norms. A new norm. Does this same conclusion hold true in that other situation. Where the deviation from the norm is unintentional. previouslypostulated. This sword of wit. per se. Hence. It may be because he is too mechanical or too the mannerof in the case of wit turninga value upside-down. but it does not follow that the othersare completely false. whetherapplied to ourselves. One of themmay seemmoretrue than others.that his normis "truer" than this isolated piece of actuality. This norm of the "total" man.thereexists a myriadof possible normsrangingin degree all the way fromthat traditionallyposited to its to exclude others. To selectone of a givennumberof relatednorms.too smart or too dumb.instead of masteringthe situationas befitsthis image of God twice-removed.too tall or too short. Some defectof mind or body betrayshim so that. too "something" and not enough "something else. a new point of view is invited. he is but a poor. which the deviation of the comic object fromthe norm is intentionalf I believe it others. the incongruity is perceivedby the intellectof the observer as affirming that point of view he already holds. is patentlydependentfor its very existenceupon a general knowledge.perhaps hitherto unseen or else forgotten ? If.THEORY OF THE COMIC AS INSIGHT 119 him. though it may seemthe truestor best. befuddled part of that whole whichwe conceiveman oughtto be. as is frequently held.then does not wit transmitknowledge? For any given situation." He may be unaware of his inadequacy or merelyhelpless in the face of it.and if he knows best who knowsboth. insofar as the comic is a comment upon man in relation to his goals. reality fluid.and/or acceptance.

nor is laughteroftenthe source of highervalue when it is employedas an antidote to sympathy. when the laughing child invites you to and join him in his equally of maturity throwaside the conventions real it were. it mustbe in its veryessencean epistemological relationships. There is. The But the comicis contemplative. Even in its defects. This the discussion. point of view.on the that it is companionable. Parker has But the comic is more than contemplative. as an intrinsicfactorof experienceand allows no undue emphasis.120 THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY is greaterthan any of its parts! The actual is not so much determined by the incidence of agreementas it is by the sum total of or inconsistent. Having foundthe comicto be a comment mode. one may get angry or one may laugh. Faced useless. chaotic elementof reality often prostratesone's hopes and plans. and thereinlies its virtue. or distortedvalue systemcan and does Any knowledgedeficiency give rise to bitteror malicious laughter. Hence humor has the greater value from the esthetic. in attemptingto detecthis well as fromthe epistemological.whether comedian invitesyou to laugh at that pompous part of life which considersitself the whole. as Mr. however. This larger vision. One must exclude.whenthe wit invitesyou to lay aside your pet certainty you withthe claim and ponderthe antipodal. It is moral. Anger implies. once induced. to leak. this unhappy fellow. for has been tacitlyassumed throughout by the mechanicallaughterof nervous instance.though it be not yours. yet. Hence whenthe consistent historicalfact. accepts misfortune Humor. should this scale be higher than that of the person being laughed not each presenting of totalityupon its parts? Does nioteach one convey. of much the same manner that it gives rise to unfeelingor malevolentaction.causes categories rendersnormstemporarily with this. noted. being egocentricconceptof the uiliversewhereinone would scourge that part of life which can not be bent to one's will. an insightinto that sector of life which. is ? nevertheless Thus we findthe comicleading us to a keenerperceptionof the totalityof the actual.may be led to a greaterknowledge. It no othereffect us a greaterknowledgeof is in this mannerthat the comicproffers upon conceptual values. Also suspect is that condescending laughterwhichdoes not stop to questionits own scale of values. certain types of laughter. can have than to instill a desire for total understanding. A smile is always welcomebecause it clearlystates a willingnessto abandon personal . no insightconveyed defenseor by the laughterwhich springs solely froma feeling of joy and well being.the comic is connected with knowledge.

R. its worthas insightincreases in direct proportionto the value of the concept presentedand the keennessof its presentation. Philosophy in America by P. Philosophical Library. pushing through the personalityto a high and effective result. 1 I have written this reminiseencein lieu of a review of a most informative biography of William least momentarily.the comicis Everyman's art though. In a sense. that he was speaking of the Hegelian ImmanentDialectic. only time can tell."one must at least regard the statementwith are but claiming as your cousin the spewer of popcorn at the Chaplin the comic. by Kurt F. Said he.are knowing.and Dewey it demandsvery serious consideration. But when it is concurredin by Peircee. Appleton-Century . Smile as you will at the mostpointed epigram. Company. the Life of WiZliam Torrey Harris. Harris. H. Piseh. Leidecker.are realizing." Nobody could have dreamedat that time. movie. at least as to the impression his remarks left on my mind. Louis and this is my recollectionof what he said. Louis. He was addressing a group of students in the PolytechnicHigh School in St. HARRIS-PRAGMATic HEGELIAN1 When Nicholas Murray Butler makes a pronouncement like this: "I measure my words when I say that in my judgment Dr. D. 1946. for both failure and success will contributeto your fulfillment. xx+648 pp. New York. in whichwe will see the world in any or everypossible light. Harris speak.through UNIvLasITy Or NEw Mzxico KENNETH LASH BOOK REVIEW WILLIAM T.50. New York. 2 See page 471. Harris had the one truly great philosophicalmind which has yet [1929] appeared on the westerncontinent.BOOK REVIEW 121 for the sake of a communalviewpoint dogma. In fact it seems to require that Harris be re-appraised as a philosophical thinkerquite apart from his remarkable educational career and contributions. and you both. Royce. Even your failures have a significance in this effort. 1939.other than a few of the abler membersof the Philosophical Club of St. But there is humanity and there is knowledgein the purple cow drawn by the child. Yankee Teacher. "You must striveto bring out all the best that is in you and keep in mind that how much or how important that best is.2 It is morethan sixtyyears since the presentwriterfirst saw and heard Dr.James. $7. Anderson and all art.

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