Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The French-Jewish philosopher Henri Bergson, who was active in the late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, turned to the subject of “the comic” in an effort to understand an important relationship between the expression and social dimensions of emotion. Bergson focused on laughter because he understood it as unique to human beings. Laughter did not depend on a complex intellectual or rational process, Bergson believed; rather, laughter was an instinctual reaction that humans expressed in regard to other humans. The conviction that laughter stemmed from instinct, as well as Bergson’s training in classical philosophy, led him away from psychological explanations that addressed acquired or learned behavior. The work appeared in French (La rire) in 1900 and in English in 1911.
In analyzing the relationship between laughter and emotion, Bergson separated the two. In order to laugh, he maintained, people had to set aside their emotions. A situation that might evoke pity, for example, could be seen as comic once that distancing was established. In emphasizing the social nature of laughter, Bergson emphasized comedy as a concept that draws people together. He saw participating in a shared joke as representing community membership and laughter as something that is directed against outsiders. This interpretation was in accord with contemporary sociological emphasis on shared values, as promoted by Emile Durkheim.
The comic represents a mechanism of adjustment that contributes to the overall achievement of balance in society. The ongoing adjustment between the forces that Bergson identified as “tension” and “elasticity” is characteristic of social interaction. Human beings strive not to upset this balance and instead to achieve harmony in their lives. The release of tension, as the individual ego looks for that harmony, occurs through “reciprocal adaptation.” Laughter places a key role in those continuous, micro-level processes of adjustment. Through laughing at eccentrics and outsiders, people affirm their understanding of the values that bring them into conformity with other insiders.
Bergson contextualizes his philosophical study by identifying numerous influential comic forms and evaluating the role of comedies as various types within the larger sphere of art forms. While these are primarily theatrical, he also addresses idiosyncratic uses of laughter in everyday social life.