Thursday, October 16, 2008

Bergson and Relation to Humor

Henri Bergson (1859-1941) was one of the most influential French philosophers of his time. Bergson was born into a rich Polish Jewish family in Paris, France and was the second of seven children. His mother was of English Irish descent and after he was born his family moved to and lived in London for a few years where he became familiar with the English language. His family then moved back to Paris before he was nine years old. In Paris Bergson received his early education at the Lycée(highschool) Condorcet. From 1878 to 1881 he studied at the École Normale Supérieure (Brittanica). Here Bergson comfortably read the Greek and Latin classics. These he would use in beginning his career in philosophy and were helpful for Bergson to understand the science of his time. He began his teaching career at a lycée outside of Paris in Angers. He taught there for three years and then at a lycée at Clermont-Ferrand where he received his inspiration for his first philosophical book.

Philosophical Concepts:


Henri Bergson's first piece of writing, Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience, was published in 1889 and translates to Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness (Stanford). In this work Bergson wanted to display his notion of Duration or lived time "as opposed to what Bergson viewed as the spatialized conception of time, measured by a clock, that is employed by science" (Brittanica). His theory of Duration is seen by some as a direct response to one of his influences Immanuel Kant. "Kant believed freewill could only exist outside of time and space, that we could therefore not know whether or not it exists, and that it is nothing but a pragmatic faith" (Stanford). Bergson did not believe this and wanted to show both Kant and other philosophers that they were wrong and confused time with its spatial representation.

Time was mobile and the moment one tried to measure time it was gone. When something happens at time T all that really means is that there are simultaneous T's one after the other. This never changes. However, for an individual person time can slow down or speed up. Therefore, to explore and understand this time that science ignores Bergson decided to explore the inner life of man, which is Duration. Duration is neither a unit or a multiplicity (Brittanica) therefore the only way to understand it is through images. This, however, still cannot reveal the complete picture. It only gives an understanding of the Duration. Bergson explains Duration in his book An Introduction to Metaphysics where he presents three images to the reader to try and depict Duration. Each image is incomplete but all together the three images reveal parts of the Duration. "The three images illustrate that the Duration is qualitative, unextended, a multiplicity yet a unity, mobile and continuously interpenetrating itself" (Stanford). However, even this does not represent the Duration itself and in order to completely understand Duration one must put themselves in the Duration by using intuition and reversing the normal mode of thought.


"Henri Bergson defined intuition as a simple, indivisible experience of sympathy through which one is moved into the inner being of an object to grasp what is unique and ineffable within it" (Stanford). Intuition is needed to understand the science of metaphysics because it is the science that reverses the habitual modes of thought and needs its own method. This method Bergson identified as intuition.

The main objective of intuition is to knowing and understanding things themselves. Therefore, in order to understand intuition one must first place themselves within the Duration. Once inside this Duration one could begin to look at the other Durations within it and start to look at the bigger Duration. Once this is done that individual can start to notice the differences in the extremes within the Duration. Therefore, now the individual has an understanding and can differentiate between the different parts of the Duration that make up the whole. This person has used Intuition to develop this understanding and Intuition and Duration are directly connected. Bergson wanted people to "think outside of the box" where as Kant believed that we only know the world as it appears to us. Bergson did not believe this and thought we should use analysis to understand the world and this was through the Duration by using Intuition.

Élan Vital:

The Élan Vital was Bergson's third concept and was used in explaining evolution. It is translated as meaning "vital impetus" or more commonly "vital force". Élan Vital was talked about in Bergson's 1907 book Creative Evolution and it is a hypothetical explanation for the development of organisms and evolution. He believed that this was linked closely with the consciousness and "it was the existence of this vital force, which made people at that time believe that they were not able to synthesize organic molecules" (Stanford). People at the time believed that this vital force could be harvested and embedded in an inanimate object and brought to life with electricity. This was the thinking of the time and Bergson thought that he could get a better understanding of this concept. However, many biologists at the time thought that Bergson's hypothetical theory wasn't justifiable and disregarded the élan vital.

Bergson on Laughter:

Bergson wrote "Laughter": An Essay on the Meaning of Comic" in 1911. Bergson wants to analyze and understand the things that make us laugh in order to find out how they make us laugh. "What does laughter mean?" (Bergson 1). This main question drives Bergson to understand laughter. This includes why we laugh and what makes us laugh? Bergson helps us to understand these questions by giving some rules of laughter.

Three Rules of Laughter:

1.) Comedy is necessarily human: we laugh at people or the things they do.

2.) Laughter is purely cerebral: being able to laugh seems to require a detached attitude, an emotional distance to the object of laughter.

3.) Laughter has a social function.

It is not Bergsons intent to give an explanation of laughter. He isn't using the Freudian approach like so many of his time. Instead Bergson says that laughter is a "social gesture" (Bergson) and that can be used in social situations to bring people together and give them something to relate to or talk about. Laughter has a specific purpose in society. That purpose is up for interpretation and many have interpreted it in their own way. Bergson views that laughter is always done in a social setting. "Our laughter is always the laughter of a group" (Bergson). By this Bergson must mean that people laugh when they are around others by either seeing something funny or someone else saying something funny that causes them to laugh. Other people make us laugh but not always do you have to be with others to laugh. You could be reading something funny and laugh or watching television or a movie and laugh. Therefore, laughter is social and can be performed in a group but doesn't necessarily only occur around others. But again this is another interpretation.

Laughter seems to help in situations where someone may feel uncomfortable. It can be a sort of "ice breaker" to loosen the mood or give two people something to talk about. It can used to help us control our antisocial urges (Bergson) and gives us something to laugh about. Bergson views laughter as a "self-policing" mechanism (Bergson) that tends to point our our antisocial tendencies and flaws. Since laughter points these out to us, we are then able to correct them. Laughter allows us to laugh at things we wouldn't normally be laughing about. However, when others are laughing it doesn't seem as bad. Laughter tends to ease the mood and can reduce the tension between people.

Bergson believes that it is human's intention to humiliate others (Bergson). "It's function is to intimidate by humiliating" (Bergson). If we humiliate others then we feel better about ourselves. Laughter allows us to not focus on ourselves. Instead it allows us to focus on either those people or the things we are laughing about. To Bergson laughter is all about helping us to ease our anti-social selves and to make others feel bad, at times, so we can feel better about ourselves.


Henri Bergson was awarded the Noble Prize for Literature in 1927 and had received some of the highest honors that France could offer him. Even though a Bergsonian school of philosophy didn't arise, Bergson's influence was and still is considerable. "His influence among philosophers has been greatest in France, but it has also been felt in the United States and Great Britain, especially in the work of William James; George Santayana; and Alfred North Whitehead, the other great process metaphysician of the 20th century" (Brittanica). Henri Bergson was definitely one of the most influential philosophers of the late 19th century and early 20th and his work continues to influence many others.

Works Cited:

"Henri Bergson." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford Encyclopedia, 2008. May 18, 2004; substantive revision Thu Jan 3, 2008.

"Henri Bergson." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 19 Oct. 2008

"Henri Bergson's Theory of Laughter." Timo Laine. 2004-2008 Timo Laine. April 9, 2006.

Bergson, Henri. "Laughter": An Essay on the Meaning of Comic.

Posted by: Chris Mechlem

1 comment:

Sarah said...

Thank you, Chris, for this posting. I like that you explain some of Bergson’s other theories that we didn’t discuss in class, and the ways in which his theories deal with general concepts of human consciousness. Thank you also for giving us a bit of Bergson’s background so we know out of which time/cultures his theories arose.

Your section on Bergson’s theory of laughter in particularly interesting—and I think you helped reveal the way in which humor “can be used in social situations to bring people together and give them something to relate to or talk about.” Even though Nancy Walker and Bergson were writing in different times and from different perspectives, they both seem indicate that humor ties cultures together—that it is revelatory of some part of the social process.

You write, “Laughter seems to help in situations where someone may feel uncomfortable. It can be a sort of "ice breaker" to loosen the mood or give two people something to talk about.” While I generally agree with this assessment, I think Bergson sees humor less as a helpful way to deal with awkward social situations and more as a way in which individuals within societies and communities “correct” one another. Laughter’s “function is to intimidate by humiliating.” In this respect laughter seems much more aggressive an act than an icebreaker. Laughter doesn’t reduce tension, per se, but uses the tension to self-police.

Some things for everyone to remember:

1. All quotes need signal phrases to introduce them. Don’t simply drop the quote in without attributing it or giving context/explanation.
2. While background is always necessary, especially when talking about a theorist, make sure the focus of your posting is on the Topic of our Topics course!
3. Even if you paraphrase, you need to cite! Anytime you’re using the word and ideas of another, cite, cite, cite. Better safe than sorry.

Overall, good work so far. Keep it up!