Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol 16, No 2 (2020)

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Enlivening Society: Life as Elasticity in Henri Bergson's Le Rire

Adam Lovasz

Abstract


We seek to present a reading of Henri Bergson’s 1900 work, Le Rire (Laughter). The primary theme of this book is the comic phenomenon, as expressed through the bodily element of laughter. What interests Bergson is the evolutionary role of laughter in social regulation. As the vitalist philosopher sees things, society is perpetually threatened by the danger of rigidity. Society is always in danger of regressing into a machinic, static, rigid state. We laugh at living human beings who behave automatically and machinically. Hence, laughter is a form of punishment, designed to compel individuals to behave more organically. Subsequent authors on humor have extensively critiqued Bergson’s rather narrow equation of humor with punishment, drawing attention to the wide variety of comic types. What especially interests us is how Le Rire can be read as part of a broader vitalist concern with the maintenance of an organicity always under threat from its own tendencies. Finally, we also interpret Bergson’s works written during World War One in light of the author’s own commitment to social spontaneity. A close reading reveals an inner tension between the philosopher’s conformist patriotic commitment to the French war effort and the general vitalism and universalism of the Bergsonian philosophy.

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