Differenza Kierkegaard Schopenhauer Essays
Søren Kierkegaard's philosophy has been a major influence in the development of 20th-century philosophy, especially existentialism and postmodernism. Kierkegaard was a 19th-century Danish philosopher who has been called the "Father of Existentialism". His philosophy also influenced the development of existential psychology.
Kierkegaard criticized aspects of the philosophical systems that were brought on by philosophers such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel before him and the Danish Hegelians. He was also indirectly influenced by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. He measured himself against the model of philosophy which he found in Socrates, which aims to draw one's attention not to explanatory systems, but rather to the issue of how one exists.
One of Kierkegaard's recurrent themes is the importance of subjectivity, which has to do with the way people relate themselves to (objective) truths. In Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, he argues that "subjectivity is truth" and "truth is subjectivity." What he means by this is that most essentially, truth is not just a matter of discovering objective facts. While objective facts are important, there is a second and more crucial element of truth, which involves how one relates oneself to those matters of fact. Since how one acts is, from the ethical perspective, more important than any matter of fact, truth is to be found in subjectivity rather than objectivity.
Note on pseudonyms
See also: Indirect Communication and Pseudonymous Authorship
Many of Kierkegaard's earlier writings from 1843 to 1846 were written pseudonymously. In the non-pseudonymous The Point of View of My Work as an Author, he explained that the pseudonymous works are written from perspectives which are not his own: while Kierkegaard himself was a religious author, the pseudonymous authors wrote from points of view that were aesthetic or speculative. One exception to this is Anti-Climacus, a pseudonymous author developed after the writing of The Point of View: Anti-Climacus is a religious author who writes from a Christian perspective so ideal that Kierkegaard did not wish it to be attributed to himself.
Because the pseudonymous authors write from perspectives which are not Kierkegaard's own, some of the philosophy mentioned in this article may or may not necessarily reflect Kierkegaard's own beliefs. Just as other philosophers bring up viewpoints in their essays to discuss and criticize them, Kierkegaard assigns pseudonyms to explore a particular viewpoint in-depth, which may take up a whole book or two in some instances, and Kierkegaard, or another pseudonym, critiques that position. For example, the author, Johannes Climacus is not a Christian and he argues from a non-Christian viewpoint. Anti-Climacus, as mentioned earlier, is a Christian to a high degree and he argues from a devout Christian viewpoint. Kierkegaard places his beliefs in-between these two authors.
Most of Kierkegaard's later philosophical and religious writings from 1846 to 1855 were written and authored by himself, and he assigned no pseudonyms to these works. Subsequently, these works are considered by most scholars to reflect Kierkegaard's own beliefs. Where appropriate, this article will mention the respective author, pseudonymous or not.
Themes in his philosophy
Alienation is a term philosophers apply to a wide variety of phenomena, including any feeling of separation from, and discontent with, society; feeling that there is a moral breakdown in society; feelings of powerlessness in the face of the solidity of social institutions; the impersonal, dehumanised nature of large-scale and bureaucratic social organisations. Kierkegaard recognizes and accepts the notion of alienation, although he phrases it and understands it in his own distinctly original terms. For Kierkegaard, the present age is a reflective age—one that values objectivity and thought over action, lip-service to ideals rather than action, discussion over action, publicity and advertising over reality, and fantasy over the real world. For Kierkegaard, the meaning of values has been removed from life, by lack of finding any true and legitimate authority. Instead of falling into any claimed authority, any "literal" sacred book or any other great and lasting voice, self-aware humans must confront an existential uncertainty.
Humanity has lost meaning because the accepted criterion of reality and truth is ambiguous and subjective thought—that which cannot be proven with logic, historical research, or scientific analysis. Humans cannot think out choices in life, we must live them; and even those choices that we often think about become different once life itself enters into the picture. For Kierkegaard, the type of objectivity that a scientist or historian might use misses the point—humans are not motivated and do not find meaning in life through pure objectivity. Instead, they find it through passion, desire, and moral and religious commitment. These phenomena are not objectively provable—nor do they come about through any form of analysis of the external world; they come about through a direct relationship between one and the external world. Here Kierkegaard's emphasis is on relationship rather than analysis. This relationship is a way of looking at one’s life that evades objective scrutiny.
Kierkegaard's analysis of the present age uses terms that resemble but are not exactly coincident with Hegel and Marx's theory of alienation. However Kierkegaard expressly means that human beings are alienated from God because they are living too much in the world. Individuals need to gain their souls from the world because it actually belongs to God. Kierkegaard has no interest in external battles as Karl Marx does. His concern is about the inner fight for faith.
Let us speak further about the wish and thereby about sufferings. Discussion of sufferings can always be beneficial if it addresses not only the self-willfulness of the sorrow but, if possible, addresses the sorrowing person for his upbuilding. It is a legitimate and sympathetic act to dwell properly on the suffering, lest the suffering person become impatient over our superficial discussion in which he does not recognize his suffering, lest he for that reason impatiently thrust aside consolation and be strengthened in double-mindedness. It certainly is one thing to go out into life with the wish when what is wished becomes the deed and the task; it is something else to go out into life away from the wish.
Abraham had to leave his ancestral home an emigrate to an alien nation, where nothing reminded him of what he loved – indeed, sometimes it is no doubt a consolation that nothing calls to mind what one wishes to forget, but it is a bitter consolation for the person who is full of longing. Thus a person can also have a wish that for him contains everything, so that in the hour of the separation, when the pilgrimage begins, it is as if he were emigrating to a foreign country where nothing but the contrast reminds him, by the loss, of what he wished; it can seem to him as if he were emigrating to a foreign country even if he remains at home perhaps in the same locality – by losing the wish just as among strangers, so that to take leave of the wish seems to him harder and more crucial than to take leave of his senses.
Apart from this wish, even if he still does not move from the spot, his life’s troublesome way is perhaps spent in useless sufferings, for we are speaking of those who suffer essentially, not of those who have the consolation that their sufferings are for the benefit of a good cause, for the benefit of others. It was bound to be thus – the journey to the foreign country was not long; in one moment he was there, there in that strange country where the suffering ones meet, but not those who have ceased to grieve, not those whose tears eternity cannot wipe away, for as an old devotional book so simply and movingly says, “How can God dry your tears in the next world if you have not wept?” Perhaps someone else comes in a different way, but to the same place.
- Søren Kierkegaard, Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits, Hong 1993 p. 102-103
Albert Camus wrote about the idea of being a stranger in the world but reversed Kierkegaard's meaning. A stranger for Camus was someone living in the world who is forced to exist in a Christian way even though the individual does not want to be a Christian. But Kierkegaard was discussing the Christian who wants to be a Christian living in a world that has abandoned Christianity. Both Camus and Kierkegaard had in common an equal distaste for a Christian Democracy where all are forced to take a positive part in Christianity because freedom of choice would be lacking and in a non-Christian Democracy where none are allowed to take an active part in Christianity. Kierkegaard was against voting about Christianity, for him, Christ was the only authority. Camus called "the existential attitude philosophical suicide." This is how he put it in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Writings
Now, it is admitted that the absurd is the contrary of hope, it is seen that existential thought for Chestov (Lev Shestov 1866-1938) presupposes the absurd but proves it only to dispel it. Such subtlety of thought is a conjuror’s emotional trick. When Chestov elsewhere sets his absurd in opposition to current morality and reason, he calls it truth and redemption. Hence, there is basically in that definition of the absurd an approbation that Chestov grants it. What is perceptible in Leo Chestov will be perhaps even more so in Kierkegaard. To be sure, it is hard to outline clear propositions in so elusive a writer. But, despite apparently opposed writings, beyond the pseudonyms, the tricks, and the smiles, can be felt throughout that work, as it were, the presentiment (at the same time as the apprehension) of a truth which eventually bursts forth in the last works: Kierkegaard likewise takes the leap. Kierkegaard’s view that despair is not a fact but a state: the very state of sin. For sin is what alienates from God. The absurd, which is the metaphysical state of the consciousness of man, does not lead to God. Perhaps this notion will become clearer if I risk this shocking statement: the absurd is sin without God. It is a matter of living in that state of the absurd. I am taking the liberty at this point of calling the existential attitude philosophical suicide. But this does not imply a judgment. It is a convenient way of indicating the movement by which a thought negates itself and tends to transcend itself in its very negation. For the existential negation is their God. To be precise, that god is maintained only through the negation of human reason. (Let me assert again: it is not the affirmation of God that is questioned here, but rather the logic leading to that affirmation.) Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and other essays p. 26-32 Vintage books 1955 Alfred A Knopf
Kierkegaard put it this way in Three Edifying Discourses 1843 and Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846).
The love which covers a multitude of sins in never deceived. When the heart is niggardly, when one gives with one eye and with seven eyes looks to see what one will get in return, then one easily discovers a multitude of sins. But when the heart is filled with love, then the eye is never deceived; for love when it gives, does not scrutinize the gift, but its eye is fixed on the Lord. When the heart is filled with envy, then the eye has power to call forth uncleanness even in the pure; but when love dwells in the heart, then the eye has the power to foster the good in the unclean; but this eye does not see the evil but the pure, which it loves and encourages it by loving it. Certainly there is a power in this world which by its words turns good into evil, put there is a power above which turns the evil into good; that power is the love which covers a multitude of sins.
Getting the majority vote on one’s side and one’s God-relationship transformed into a speculative enterprise on the basis of probability and partnership and fellow shareholders is the first step toward becoming objective.
- Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Hong p. 66
When hate dwells in the heart, then sin lies at a man’s door, and its manifold desires exist in him; but when love dwells in the heart, then sin flees far away, and he sees it no more. When disputes, malice, wrath, quarrels, dissensions, factions fill the heart, does one then need to go far in order to discover the multitudinousness of sin, or does a man need to love very long to produce these outside of himself! But when joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance dwell in the heart, what wonder, then, that a man, even if he were surrounded by a multitude of sins, remains an alien, a stranger, who understands only a very little about the customs of the country, even if these were explained to him? Would not this, then, be a covering of the multitude of sins?
- Soren Kierkegaard Three Edifying Discourses 1843, Swenson translation 1943 p. 69
Love does not seek its own. Love does not seek its own, for there are no mine and yours in love. But “mine” and “yours” are only relational specifications of “one’s own”; thus, if there are no mine and yours, there is no “one’s own” either. But if there is no “one’s own” at all, then it is of course impossible to seek one’s own. Justice is identified by its giving each his own, just as it also in turn claims its own. This means that justice pleads the cause of its own, divides and assigns, determines what each can lawfully call his own, judges and punishes if anyone refuses to make any distinction between mine and yours. The individual has the right to so as he pleases with this contentious and yet legally entitled mine; and if he seeks his own in no other way than that which justice allows, justice has nothing with which to reproach him and has no right to upbraid him for anything. As soon as someone is defrauded of his own, or as soon as someone defrauds another of his own, justice intervenes, because it safeguards the common security in which everyone has his own, which he rightfully has.-But sometimes a change intrudes, a revolution, a war, an earthquake, or some such terrible misfortune, and everything is confused. Justice tries in vain to secure for each person his own; it cannot maintain the distinction between mine and yours; in the confusion it cannot keep the balance and therefore throws away the scales-it despairs! Terrible spectacle! Yet does not love in a certain sense, even if in the most blissful way, produce the same confusion? But love, it too is an event, the greatest of all, yet also the happiest. Love is a change, the most remarkable of all, but the most desirable-in fact we say in a very good sense that someone who is gripped by love is changed or becomes changed. Love is a revolution, the most profound of all, but the most blessed!
- Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, 1847, Hong 1995 264-265
An element of Kierkegaard's critique of modernity in his socio-political work, Two Ages, is the mention of money — which he calls an abstraction. An abstraction is something that only has a reality in an ersatz reality. It is not tangible, and only has meaning within an artificial context, which ultimately serves devious and deceptive purposes. It is a figment of thought that has no concrete reality, neither now nor in the future.
How is money an abstraction? Money gives the illusion that it has a direct relationship to the work that is done. That is, the work one does is worth so much, equals so much money. In reality, however, the work one does is an expression of who one is as a person; it expresses one's goals in life and associated meaning. As a person, the work one performs is supposed to be an external realization of one's relationship to others and to the world. It is one's way of making the world a better place for oneself and for others. What reducing work to a monetary value does is to replace the concrete reality of one's everyday struggles with the world —to give it shape, form and meaning— with an abstraction. Kierkegaard lamented that "a young man today would scarcely envy another his capacities or skill or the love of a beautiful girl or his fame, no, but he would envy him his money. Give me money, the young man will say, and I will be all right." But Kierkegaard thinks this emphasis on money leads to a denial of the gifts of the spirit to those who are poor and in misery.
Do not forget to do good and to share – Hebrews 13.16 - But do not forget either that this incessant talk by worldliness about beneficence and benevolence and generosity and charitable donations and gift upon gift is almost merciless. Ah, let the newspaper writers and tax collectors and parish beadles talk about generosity and count and count; but let us never ignore that Christianity speaks essentially of mercifulness, that Christianity would least of all be guilty of mercilessness, as if poverty and misery not only needed money etc. but also were excluded from the highest, from being able to be generous, beneficent, benevolent. But people prattle and prate ecclesiastically-worldly and worldly-ecclesiastically about generosity, beneficence-but forget, even in the sermon, mercifulness. Preaching should indeed be solely and only about mercifulness. If you know how to speak effectually about this, then generosity will follow of itself and come by itself accordingly as the individual is capable of it. But bear in mind, that if a person raised money, money, money by speaking about generosity-bear this in mind, that by being silent about mercifulness he would be acting mercilessly toward the poor and miserable person for whom he procured relief by means of the money of wealthy generosity. Bear this I mind, that if poverty and misery disturb us with their pleas, we can of course manage to get help for them through generosity; but bear this in mind, that it would be much more appalling if we constrained poverty and misery “to hinder our prayers,” as Scripture says (1 Peter 3:7), by grumbling against us to God-because we were atrociously unfair to poverty and misery by not telling that they are able to practice mercifulness. We shall now adhere to this point in this discourse about mercifulness and guard ourselves against confusing mercifulness with what is linked to external conditions, that is, what love as such does not have in its power, whereas it truly has mercifulness in its power just as surely as it has a heart in its bosom. It does not follow that because a person has a heart in his bosom he has money in his pocket, but the first is still more important and certainly is decisive with regard to mercifulness. Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love Hong 1995 p. 315-316
Below are three quotes concerning Kierkegaard's idea of abstraction which cannot be thought about without thinking about concretion. He moves from the world historical, the general, to the single individual, the specific. The first from the esthete and the second from the ethicist in Either/Or and the third from the book that explained all his previous works; Concluding Unscientific Postscript.
As has already been noted above, all classic productions stand equally high, because each one stands infinitely high. If, despite this fact, one were to attempt to introduce an order of rank into the classic procession, one would evidently have to choose as a basis for such a distinction, something that was not essential; for if the basis were essential, the difference itself would become an essential difference; from that it would again follow that the word “classic” was wrongly predicated of the group as a whole. The more abstract the idea is, the smaller the probability of a numerous representation. But how does the idea become concrete? By being permeated with the historicalconsciousness. The more concrete the idea, the greater the probability. The more abstract the medium, the smaller the probability; the more concrete, the greater. But what does it mean to say that the medium is concrete, other than to say it is language, or is seen in approximation to language; for language is the most concrete of all media. The idea, for example, which comes to expression in sculpture is wholly abstract, and bears no relation to the historical; the medium through which it is expressed is likewise abstract, consequently there is a great probability that the section of the classic works which includes sculpture will contain only a few. In this I have the testimony of time and experience on my side. If, on the other hand, I take a concrete idea and a concrete medium, then it seems otherwise. Homer is indeed a classic poet, but just because the epic idea is a concrete idea, and because the medium is language, it so happens that in the section of the classics which contains the epic, there are many epics conceivable, which are all equally classic, because history constantly furnishes us with new epic material. In this too, I have the testimony of history and the assent of experience. Either/Or Part I, Swenson p. 49, 53
The two positions touched on here could be regarded as attempts to actualize an ethical life-view. The reason that they do not succeed is that the individual has chosen himself in his isolation or has chosen himself abstractly. To say it in other words, the individual has not chosen himself ethically. He therefore has no connection with actuality, and when that is the case no ethical way of life can be put into practice. But the person who chooses himself ethically chooses himself concretely as this specific individual, and he achieves this concretion because this choice is identical with the repentance, which ratifies the choice. The individual with these capacities, these inclinations, these drives, these passions, influenced by this specific social milieu, as this specific product of a specific environment. But as he becomes aware of all this, he takes upon himself responsibility for all of it. He does not hesitate over whether he will take this particular thing or not, for he knows that if he does not do it something much more important will be lost. In the moment of choice, he is in complete isolation, for he withdraws from his social milieu, and yet at the same moment he is in absolute continuity, for he chooses himself as a product. And this choice is freedom’s choice in such a way that in choosing himself as product he can just as well be said to produce himself. At the moment of choice, he is at the point of consummation, for his personality is consummating itself, and yet at the same moment he is at the very beginning, because he is choosing himself according to his freedom. Either/Or Part II, Hong p. 251
When in pure thinking mention is made of an immediate unity of reflection-in-itself and reflection-in-the-other and of the annulment of this immediate unity, then something must indeed come between the elements of the immediate unity. What is this? Yes, it is time. But time cannot be assigned a place within pure thinking. What, then, do annulment and transition and a new unity signify? What, if anything, does it mean to think in such a way that one always merely makes a show of it because everything that is said is absolutely revoked? And what does it mean not to admit that one thinks this way but then continually to proclaim from the housetops the positive truth of this pure thinking? Just as existence has joined thinking and existing, inasmuch as an existing person is a thinking person, so are there two media: the medium of abstraction and the medium of actuality. But pure thinking is yet a third medium, very recently invented. It begins, it is said, after the most exhaustive abstraction. Pure thinking is-what shall I say-piously or thoughtlessly unaware of the relation that abstraction still continually has to that from which it abstracts. Here in this pure thinking there is rest for every doubt; here is the eternal positive truth and whatever one cares to say. This means that pure thinking is a phantom. And if Hegelian philosophy is free from all postulates, it has attained this with one insane postulate: the beginning of pure thinking. For the existing person, existing is for him his highest interest, and his interestedness in existing in his actuality. What actuality is cannot be rendered in the language of abstraction. Actuality is an inter-esse [between being] between thinking and being in the hypothetical unity of abstraction. Abstraction deals with possibility and actuality, but its conception of actuality is a false rendition, since the medium is not actuality but possibility. Only by annulling actuality can abstraction grasp it, but to annul it is precisely to change it into possibility. Within abstraction everything that is said about actuality in the language of abstraction is said within possibility. That is, in the language of actuality all abstraction is related to actuality as a possibility, not to an actuality within abstraction and possibility. Actuality, existence, is the dialectical element in a trilogy, the beginning and end of which cannot be for an existing person, who qua existing is in the dialectical element. Abstraction merges the trilogy. Quite right. But how does it do it? Is abstraction a something that does it, or is it not the act of the abstractor? But the abstractor is, after all, an existing person, and as an existing person is consequently in the dialectical element, which he cannot mediate or merge, least of all absolutely, as long as he is existing. If he does do it, then this must be related as a possibility to actuality, to the existence which he himself is. He must explain how he goes about it-that is, how he as an existing person goes about it, or whether he ceases to be an existing person, and whether an existing person has a right to do that. As soon as we begin to ask such questions, we are asking ethically and are maintaining the claim of the ethical upon the existing person, which cannot be that he is supposed to abstract from existence, but that he is supposed to exist, which is also the existing person’s highest interest.
- Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Vol 1, p. 314-315 Hong translation
Death is inevitable and temporally unpredictable. Kierkegaard believed that individuals needed to sincerely and intensely come to realize the truth of that fact in order to live passionately. Kierkegaard accuses society of being in death-denial. Even though people see death all around them and grasp as an objective fact that everyone dies, few people truly understand, subjectively and inwardly, that they will die someday. For example, in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard notes that people never think to say, "I shall certainly attend your party, but I must make an exception for the contingency that a roof tile happens to blow down and kill me; for in that case, I cannot attend." This is jest as far as Kierkegaard is concerned. But there is also earnestness involved in the thought of death. Kierkegaard said the following about death in his Three Upbuilding Discourses, 1844.
We shall not decide which life fights the good fight most easily, but we all agree that every human being ought to fight the good fight, from which no one is shut out, and yet this is so glorious that if it were granted only once to a past generation under exceptional circumstances-yes, what a description envy and discouragement would then know how to give! The difference is about the same as that in connection with the thought of death. As soon as a human being is born, he begins to die. But the difference is that there are some people for whom the thought of death comes into existence with birth and is present to them in the quiet peacefulness of childhood and the buoyancy of youth; whereas others have a period in which this thought is not present to them until, when the years run out, the years of vigor and vitality, the thought of death meets them on their way. Who, now, is going to decide which life was easier, whether it was the life of those who continually lived with a certain reserve because the thought of death was present to them or the life of those who so abandoned themselves to life that they almost forgot the existence of death?
Dread or anxiety
For Kierkegaard's author, Vigilius Haufniensis, anxiety/dread/angst (depending on the translation and context) is unfocused fear. Haufniensis uses the example of a man standing on the edge of a tall building or cliff. From this height he can see all the possibilities of life. He's reflecting on what he could become if he only threw himself into the power of his own choice. As long as he stands there he stands at the crossroads of life, unable to make a decision and live within its boundaries. The mere fact that one has the possibility and freedom to do something, even the most terrifying of possibilities, triggers immense feelings of dread. Haufniensis called this our "dizziness of freedom."
Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down. Hence, anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into its own possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself. Freedom succumbs to dizziness. Further than this, psychology cannot and will not go. In that very moment everything is changed, and freedom, when it again rises, sees that it is guilty. Between these two moments lies the leap, which no science has explained and which no science can explain. He who becomes guilty in anxiety becomes as ambiguously guilty as it is possible to become. Vigilius Haufniensis, The Concept of Anxiety p. 61
In The Concept of Anxiety, Haufniensis focuses on the first anxiety experienced by man: Adam's choice to eat from God's forbidden tree of knowledge or not. Since the concepts of good and evil did not come into existence before Adam ate the fruit, which is now dubbed original sin, Adam had no concept of good and evil, and did not know that eating from the tree was evil. What he did know was that God told him not to eat from the tree. The anxiety comes from the fact that God's prohibition itself implies that Adam is free and that he could choose to obey God or not. After Adam ate from the tree, sin was born. So, according to Kierkegaard, anxiety precedes sin, and it is anxiety that leads Adam to sin. Haufniensis mentions that anxiety is the presupposition for hereditary sin.
However, Haufniensis mentions that anxiety is a way for humanity to be saved as well. Anxiety informs us of our choices, our self-awareness and personal responsibility, and brings us from a state of un-self-conscious immediacy to self-conscious reflection. (Jean-Paul Sartre calls these terms pre-reflexive consciousness and reflexive consciousness.) An individual becomes truly aware of their potential through the experience of dread. So, anxiety may be a possibility for sin, but anxiety can also be a recognition or realization of one's true identity and freedoms.
Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate. … Anxiety is freedom’s possibility, and only such anxiety is through faith absolutely educative, because it consumes all finite ends and discovers all their deceptiveness. And no Grand Inquisitor has such dreadful torments in readiness as anxiety has, and no secret agent knows as cunningly as anxiety to attack his suspect in his weakest moment or to make alluring the trap in which he will be caught, and no discerning judge understands how to interrogate and examine the accused as does anxiety, which never lets the accused escape, neither through amusement, nor by noise, nor during work, neither by day nor by night.
— Vigilius Haufniensis, The Concept of Anxiety p. 155-156
Is despair a merit or a defect? Purely dialectically it is both. If one were to think of despair only in the abstract, without reference to some particular despairer, one would have to say it is an enormous merit. The possibility of this sickness is man’s advantage over the beast, and it is an advantage which characterizes him quite otherwise than the upright posture, for it bespeaks the infinite erectness or loftiness of his being spirit. The possibility of this sickness is man’s advantage over the beast; to be aware of this sickness is the Christian’s advantage over natural man; to be cured of this sickness is the Christian’s blessedness.
— Anti-Climacus, The Sickness Unto Death p. 45
Most emphatically in The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard's author argues that the human self is a composition of various aspects that must be brought into conscious balance: the finite, the infinite, a consciousness of the "relationship of the two to itself," and a consciousness of "the power that posited" the self. The finite (limitations such as those imposed by one's body or one's concrete circumstances) and the infinite (those capacities that free us from limitations such as imagination) always exist in a state of tension. That tension between two aspects of the "self" that must be brought into balance. When the self is out of balance, i.e., has the wrong understanding of who it is because it conceives itself too much in terms of its own limiting circumstances (and thus fails to recognize its own freedom to determine what it will be) or too much in terms of what it would like to be, (thus ignoring its own circumstances), the person is in a state of despair. Notably, Anti-Climacus says one can be in despair even if one feels perfectly happy. Despair is not just an emotion, in a deeper sense it is the loss of self, i.e., it describes the state when one has the wrong conception of oneself. In Either/Or, A and Judge William each has one epistolary novel in two volumes. The A is an aesthete well aware that he can use the power of interpretation to define who he is and what he takes to be valuable. He knows he can shape and reshape his own self-identity. Nothing binds him to his relationships. Nothing binds him to his past actions. In the end though, he also knows he lacks a consistent understanding of who he is. He lacks a self that resists his own power of reinterpretation. His older friend Judge William, argues that a deeper concept of selfhood is discovered as one commits to one's actions, and takes ownership of the past and present. A concept of oneself, as this particular human being, begins to take form in one's own consciousness. Another perspective, one in which an individual can find some measure of freedom from despair, is available for the person with religious "faith." This attunes the individual so that he or she can recognize what has always been there: a self to be realized within the circumstances it finds itself right now, i.e., this inner attunement brings about a sort of synthesis between the infinite and the finite. In Fear and Trembling, Johannes de Silentio argues that the choice of Abraham to obey the private, unethical, commandment of God to sacrifice his son reveals what faith entails: he directs his consciousness absolutely toward "the absolute" rather than the merely ethical, i.e., he practices an inner spirituality that seeks to be "before god" rather than seeking to understand himself as an ethically upright person. His God requires more than being good, he demands that he seek out an inner commitment to him. If Abraham were to blithely obey, his actions would have no meaning. It is only when he acts with fear and trembling that he demonstrates a full awareness that murdering a son is absolutely wrong, ethically speaking.
Despair has several specific levels that a person can find themselves, each one further in despair than the last as laid out in The Sickness Unto Death.
The first level is "The despair that is ignorant of being despair or the despairing ignorance of having a self and an eternal self." Essentially this level is one which has the wrong conception of what a self is, i.e., is ignorant of how to realize the self one already potentially is. In this sense, the person does not recognize his own despair because he often measures the success of his life based on whether he himself judges himself to be happy. Regardless of whether you know you are in despair or not, Kierkegaard asserts, you can still be in that state. He notes that this is the most common in the world.
The next level of despair is "The despair that is conscious of being despair and therefore is conscious of having a self in which there is something eternal and then either in despair does not will to be itself or in despair wills to be itself." This becomes further subdivided into three categories: the despair not to will or want to be oneself, the despair not to will to be a self, and lowest, the despair to wish for a new self. These three divisions are mostly the self-worth the person has and the amount to which they understand their own despair. The despair to not be oneself is pretty straightforward. A person sees themself as unworthy and as such does not see themself as worthy before something they do not understand. The despair not to be a self is deeper, because to not wish to be a self is to wish to not have a relation to God or at the very least see one's relation to God as unworthy, and thus shrink from it. The lowest form of this group, however, is the desire to be a new self. This is logically the deepest form as it assumes the deepest understanding of one's despair. Once in despair, without a complete relation to God one will always be in despair, so to be in this level one understands the permanence of the despair. The despair in this group arises from the nature of sensate things and physical desires. These three sub groups are also grouped under the heading "Despair over the earthly."
The second level of conscious despair under the heading "Despair over the eternal." Someone in this level views themself in light of their own weakness. Unlike in the upper level, this weakness is understood and as such, instead of turning to faith and humbling oneself before God, they despair in their own weakness and unworthiness. In this sense, they despair over the eternal and refuse to be comforted by the light of God.
The last and lowest form of despair is the desire "In despair to will to be oneself." This last form of despair is also referred to by Kierkegaard as "demonic despair" (Note that the term demonic is used in the Classical Greek Sense, not the modern sense). In this form of despair, the individual finds him or herself in despair, understands they are in despair, seeks some way to alleviate it, and yet no help is forthcoming. As a result, the self becomes hardened against any form of help and "Even if God in heaven and all the angels offered him aid, he would not want it." At this level of despair the individual revels in their own despair and sees their own pain as lifting them up above the base nature of other humans who do not find themselves in this state. This is the least common form of despair and Kierkegaard claims it is mostly found in true poets. This despair can also be called the despair of defiance, as it is the despair that strikes out against all that is eternal. One last note is that as one travels further down the forms of despair, the number of people in each group becomes fewer.
Many philosophers who initially read Kierkegaard, especially Kierkegaard's (written under the pseudonym of Johannes de Silentio) Fear and Trembling, often come to the conclusion that Kierkegaard supports a divine command law of ethics. The divine command theory is a metaethical theory which claims moral values are whatever is commanded by a god or gods. However, Kierkegaard is not arguing that morality is created by God; instead, he would argue that a divine command from God transcends ethics. This distinction means that God does not necessarily create human morality: it is up to us as individuals to create our own morals and values. But any religious person must be prepared for the event of a divine command from God that would take precedence over all moral and rational obligations. Kierkegaard called this event the teleological suspension of the ethical. Abraham, the knight of faith, chose to obey God unconditionally, and was rewarded with his son, his faith, and the title of Father of Faith. Abraham transcended ethics and leaped into faith.
But there is no valid logical argument one can make to claim that morality ought to be or can be suspended in any given circumstance, or ever. Thus, Silentio believes ethics and faith are separate stages of consciousness. The choice to obey God unconditionally is a true existential 'either/or' decision faced by the individual. Either one chooses to live in faith (the religious stage) or to live ethically (the ethical stage).
In Either/Or, Kierkegaard insists that the single individual has ethical responsibility of his life. However, everyone wants to enjoy themselves and ethics gets in the way of a person's enjoyment of life if taken to extremes. This results in a battle between those who want to live for pleasure and those who demand an ethical existence. But Kierkegaard always points toward the religious goal, an "eternal happiness", or the salvation of the soul as the highest good. He says, be whatever you want, but remember that your soul belongs to God, not to the world.
By now you have easily seen that in his life the ethical individual goes through stages we previously set forth as separate stages. He is going to develop in his life the personal, the civic, the religious virtues, and his life advances through his continually translating himself from one stage to another. As soon as a person thinks that one of these stages is adequate and that he dares to concentrate on it one-sidedly, he has not chosen himself ethically but has failed to see the significance of either isolation or continuity and above all has not grasped that the truth lies in the identity of the two. The person who has ethically chosen and found himself possess himself defined in his entire concretion. He then possesses himself as an individual who has these capacities, these passions, these inclinations, these habits, who is subject to these external influences, who is influenced in one direction thus and in another thus. Here he then possesses himself as a task in such a way that it is chiefly to order, shape, temper, inflame, control-in short, to produce an evenness in the soul, a harmony, which is the fruit of the personal virtues. Either/Or Part 2, Hong p. 262
Resignation has made the individual face or has seen to it that he face toward an eternal happiness as the τέλος ("end", "purpose", or "goal"). This τέλος is not an element among other elements. Thus the both-and of mediation is not much better, even though less naïve, than the previously described jovial chatter that includes everything. At the moment of resignation, of collecting oneself, of choice the individual is allowed to salute the absolute τέλος-but then, then comes the mediation. So, too, a dog can be taught to walk on two legs for a moment but then, then comes the mediation, and the dog walks on four legs – mediation also does that. Spiritually understood, a human being’s upright walk is his absolute respect for the absolute τέλος, otherwise he walks on all fours. When it is a matter of relative elements mediation has its significance (that they are all equal before mediation), but when it is a matter of the absolute end or goal, mediation means that the absolute τέλος is reduced to a relative τέλος. It is not true, either, that the absolute τέλος becomes concrete in the relative ends, because resignation’s absolute distinction will at every moment safeguard the absolute τέλος against all fraternizing. It is true that the individual oriented toward the absolute τέλος, is in the relative ends, but he is not in them in such a way that the absolute τέλος is exhausted in them. It is true that before God and before the absolute τέλος we are all equal, but it is not true that God or the absolute τέλος is equal with everything else for me or for a particular individual. It may be very commendable for a particular individual to be a councilor of justice, a good worker in the office, no.1 lover in the society, almost a virtuoso on the flute, captain of the popinjay shooting club, superintendent of the orphanage, a noble and respected father-in short, a devil of a fellow who can both-and has time for everything. But let the councilor take care that he does not become too much a devil of a fellow and proceed to do both all this and have time to direct his life toward the absolute τέλος. In other words, this both-and means that the absolute τέλος is on the same level with everything else. But the absolute τέλος has the remarkable quality of wanting to be the absolute τέλος at every moment. If, then, at the moment of resignation, of collecting oneself, of choice, an individual has understood this, it surely cannot mean that he is supposed to have forgotten it the next moment. Therefore, as I said before, resignation remains in the individual and the task is so far from getting the absolute τέλος mediated into all sorts of both-and that, on the contrary, it is to aim at the form of existence that permanently has the pathos of the great moment. Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Hong, p. 400-401
In Works of Love and Purity of Heart, Kierkegaard skillfully examines Christian ethics and the maxim, Love Thy Neighbour. Kierkegaard stressed that it was Christianity that "discovered the neighbor".
Test it, place as the middle term between the lover and the beloved the neighbor, whom one shall love, place as a middle term between two friends the neighbor, whom one shall love, and you will immediately see jealousy. Yet the neighbor is self-denial’s middle term that steps in between self-love’s I and I, but also between erotic love’s and friendship’s I and the other I. .... Love for the neighbor is therefore the eternal equality in loving. Equality is simply not to make distinctions and eternal equality is unconditionally not to make the slightest distinction, unqualifiedly not to make the slightest distinction. The essential Christian is itself too weighty, in its movements too earnest to scurry about, dancing, in the frivolity of such facile talk about the higher, highest, and the supremely highest. Think of the most cultured person, one of whom we all admiringly say, “He is so cultured!” Then think of Christianity, which says to him, “You shall love the neighbor!” of course, a certain social courtesy, a politeness toward all people, a friendly condescension toward inferiors, a boldly confident attitude before the mighty, a beautifully controlled freedom of spirit, yes, this is culture – do you believe that it is also loving the neighbor? With the neighbor you have the equality of a human being before God. God is the middle term. Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, 1847, Hong p. 44-61
For Kierkegaard, true individuality is called selfhood. Becoming aware of our true self is our true task and endeavor in life—it is an ethical imperative, as well as preparatory to a true religious understanding. Individuals can exist at a level that is less than true selfhood. We can live, for example, simply in terms of our pleasures—our immediate satisfaction of desires, propensities, or distractions. In this way, we glide through life without direction or purpose. To have a direction, we must have a purpose that defines for us the meaning of our lives. Kierkegaard puts it this way in Either/Or,
Here, then, I have your view of life, and, believe me, much of your life will become clear to you if you will consider it along with me as thought-despair. You are a hater of activity in life-quite appropriately, because if there is to be meaning in it life must have continuity, and this your life does not have. You keep busy with your studies, to be sure; you are even diligent; but it is only for your sake, and it is done with as little teleology as possible. Moreover, you are unoccupied; like the laborers in the Gospel standing idle in the marketplace, you stick your hands in your pocket and contemplate life. Now you rest in despair. Nothing concerns you; you step aside for nothing; “If someone threw a roof tile down I would still not step aside.” You are like a dying person. You die daily, not in the profound, earnest sense in which one usually understands these words, but life has lost its reality and you “Always count the days of your life from one termination-notice to the next.” You let everything pass you by; nothing makes any impact. But then something suddenly comes along that grips you, an idea, a situation, a young girl’s smile, and now you are “involved,” for just on certain occasions you are not “involved,” so at other times you are “at your service” in every way. Wherever there is something going on you join in. You behave in life as you usually do in a crowd. “You work yourself into the tightest group, see to it, if possible, to get yourself shoved up over the others so that you come to be above them, and as soon as you are up there you make yourself as comfortable as possible, and in this way you let yourself be carried through life.” But when the crowd is gone, when the event is over, you again stand on the street corner and look at the world. Either/Or Part II p. 195-196, 272ff
In Sickness Unto Death specifically Kierkegaard deals with the self as a product of relations. In this sense, a human results from a relation between the Infinite (Noumena, spirit, eternal) and Finite (Phenomena, body, temporal). This does not create a true self, as a human can live without a "self" as he defines it. Instead, the Self or ability for the self to be created from a relation to the Absolute or God (the Self can only be realized through a relation to God) arises as a relation between the relation of the Finite and Infinite relating back to the human. This would be a positive relation.
An individual person, for Kierkegaard, is a particular that no abstract formula or definition can ever capture. Including the individual in "the public" (or "the crowd" or "the herd") or subsuming a human being as simply a member of a species is a reduction of the true meaning of life for individuals. What philosophy or politics try to do is to categorize and pigeonhole individuals by group characteristics, each with their own individual differences. In Four Upbuilding Discourses, 1843 Kierkegaard says the differences aren't important, the likeness with God is what brings equality.
In the hallowed places, in every upbuilding view of life, the thought arises in a person’s soul that help him to fight the good fight with flesh and blood, with principalities and powers, and in the fight to free himself for equality before God, whether this battle is more a war of aggression against the differences that want to encumber him with worldly favoritism or a defensive war against the differences that want to make him anxious in worldly perdition. Only in this way is equality the divine law, only in this way is the struggle the truth, only in this way does the victory have validity- only when the single individual fights for himself with himself within himself and does not unseasonably presume to help the whole world to obtain external equality, which is of very little benefit, all the less so because it never existed, if for no other reason than that everyone would come to thank him and become unequal before him, only in this way is equality the divine law. Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, by Soren Kiekegaard Hong, p. 143
Kierkegaard's critique of the modern age, therefore, is about the loss of what it means to be an individual. Modern society contributes to this dissolution of what it means to be an individual. Through its production of the false idol of "the public", it diverts attention away from individuals to a mass public that loses itself in abstractions, communal dreams, and fantasies. It is helped in this task by the media and the mass production of products to keep it distracted. Even the fight for temporal equality is a distraction. In Works of Love he writes,
To bring about similarity among people in the world, to apportion to people, if possible equally, the conditions of temporality, is indeed something that preoccupies worldliness to a high degree. But even what we may call the well-intentioned worldly effort in this regard never comes to an understanding with Christianity. Well-intentioned worldliness remains piously, if you will, convinced that there must be one temporal condition, one earthly dissimilarity – found by means of calculations and surveys or in whatever other way – that is equality. Works of Love, by Søren Kierkegaard, 1847, Hong 1995 p. 71-72 see p. 61-90
Although Kierkegaard attacked "the public", he is supportive of communities:
In community, the individual is, crucial as the prior condition for forming a community. … Every individual in the community guarantees the community; the public is a chimera, numerality is everything…
— Søren Kierkegaard, Journals
For Kierkegaard, in order to apprehend the absolute, the mind must radically empty itself of objective content. What supports this radical emptying, however, is the desire for the absolute. Kierkegaard names this desire Passion.
In line with this philosophy, some scholars have drawn similarities between the Stoics concept of Apatheia and Subjective Truth as the highest form of Wisdom. For the Stoics, Pathos (Passion) is a Perturbation which man has to overcome in a similar manner to Kierkegaard's concept of Objective Truth. 
According to Kierkegaard, the human self desires that which is beyond reason. Desire itself appears to be a desire for the infinite, as Plato once wrote. Even the desire to propagate, according to Plato, is a kind of desire for immortality—that is, we wish to live on in time through our children and their children. Erotic love itself appears as an example of this desire for something beyond the purely finite. It is a taste of what could be, if only it could continue beyond the boundaries of time and space. As the analogy implies, humans seek something beyond the here and now. The question remains, however, why is it that human pathos or passion is the most precious thing? In some ways, it might have to do with our status as existential beings. It is not thought that gets us through life—it is action; and what motivates and sustains action is passion, the desire to overcome hardships, pain, and suffering. It is also passion that enables us to die for ideals in the name of a higher reality. While a scientist might see this as plain emotion or simple animal desire, Kierkegaard sees it as that which binds to the source of life itself. The desire to live, and to live in the right way, for the right reasons, and with the right desires, is a holy and sacred force. For Kierkegaard all Christian action should have its ground in love, which is a passion.
If anyone is unwilling to learn from Christianity to love himself in the right way, he cannot love the neighbor either. He can perhaps hold together with another or a few other persons, “through thick and thin,” as it is called, but this is by no means loving the neighbor. To love yourself in the right way and to love the neighbor correspond perfectly to one another, fundamentally they are one and the same thing. When the Law’s as yourself has wrested from you the self-love that Christianity sadly enough must presuppose to be in every human being, then you actually have learned to love yourself. The Law is therefore: you shall love yourself in the same way as you love your neighbor when you love him as yourself.
Whoever has any knowledge of people will certainly admit that just as he has often wished to be able to move them to relinquish self-love, he has also had to wish that it were possible to teach them to love themselves. When the bustler wastes his time and powers in the service of the futile, inconsequential pursuits, is that not because he has not learned rightly to love himself? When the light-minded person throws himself almost like a nonentity into the folly of the moment and makes nothing of it, is this not because he does not know how to love himself rightly?
When the depressed person desires to be rid of life, indeed of himself, is this not because he is unwilling to learn earnestly and rigorously to love himself? When someone surrenders to despair because the world or another person has faithlessly left him betrayed, what then is his fault (his innocent suffering is not referred to here) except not loving himself in the right way? When someone self-tormentingly thinks to do God a service by torturing himself, what is his sin except not willing to love himself in the right way? And if, alas, a person presumptuously lays violent hands upon himself, is not his sin precisely this, that he does not rightly love himself in the sense in which a person ought to love himself?
Oh, there is a lot of talk in the world about treachery, and faithlessness, and, God help us, it is unfortunately all too true, but still let us never because of this forget that the most dangerous traitor of all is the one every person has within himself. This treachery whether it consists in selfishly loving oneself or consists in selfishly not willing to love oneself in the right way – this treachery is admittedly a secret. No cry is raised as it usually is in the case of treachery and faithlessness. But is it not therefore all the more important that Christianity’s doctrine should be brought to mind again and again, that a person shall love his neighbor as himself, that is as he ought to love himself? … You shall love – this, then is the word of the royal Law. Works of Love, Hong p. 22-24
One can also look at this from the perspective of what the meaning of our existence is. Why suffer what humans have suffered, the pain and despair—what meaning can all of this have? For Kierkegaard, there is no meaning unless passion, the emotions and will of humans, has a divine source.
Passion is closely aligned with faith in Kierkegaard's thought. Faith as a passion is what drives humans to seek reality and truth in a transcendent world, even though everything we can know intellectually speaks against it. To live and die for a belief, to stake everything one has and is in the belief in something that has a higher meaning than anything in the world—this is belief and passion at their highest.
Kierkegaard wrote of the subjective thinker's task in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Intellectual reason had been deified by Hegel in his theology and Kierkegaard felt this would lead to the objectification of religion.
There is an old proverb: oratio, tentatio, meditatio, faciunt theologum [prayer, trial, meditation, make a theologian]. Similarly, for a subjective thinker, imagination, feeling and dialectics in impassioned existence-inwardness are required. But first and last, passion, because for an existing person it is impossible to think about existence without becoming passionate, inasmuch as existing is a prodigious contradiction from which the subjective thinker is not to abstract, for then it is easy, but in which he is to remain. In a world-historical dialectic, individuals fade away into humankind; in a dialectic such as that it is impossible to discover you and me, an individual existing human being, even if new magnifying glasses for the concrete are invented. The subjective thinker is a dialectician oriented to the existential; he has the intellectual passion to hold firm the qualitative disjunction. But, on the other hand, if the qualitative disjunction is used flatly and simply, if it is applied altogether abstractly to the individualhumanbeing, then one can run the ludicrous risk of saying something infinitely decisive, and of being right in what one says, and still not say the least thing. Therefore, in the psychological sense it is really remarkable to see the absolute disjunction deceitfully used simply for evasion. When the death penalty is placed on every crime, the result is that no crimes at all are punished. It is the same with the absolute disjunction when applied flatly and simply; it is just like a silent letter-it cannot be pronounced or, if it can be pronounced, it says nothing. The subjectivethinker, therefore, has with intellectual passion the absolute disjunction as belonging to existence, but he has it as the final decision that prevents everything from ending in a quantifying. Thus he has it readily available, but not in such a way that by abstractly recurring to it, he just frustrates existence. The subjective thinker, therefore, has also esthetic passion and ethical passion, whereby concretion is gained. All existence-issues are passionate, because existence, if one becomes conscious of it, involves passion. To think about them so as to leave out passion is not to think about them at all, is to forget the point that one indeed is oneself and existing person. Yet the subjective thinker is not a poet even if he is also a poet, not an ethicist even if he is also an ethicist, but is also a dialectician and is himself essentially existing, whereas the poet’s existence is inessential in relation to the poem, and likewise the ethicist’s in relation to the teaching, and the dialectician’s in relation to the thought. The subjective thinker is not a scientist-scholar; he is an artist. To exist is an art. The subjective thinker is esthetic enough for his life to have esthetic content, ethical enough to regulate it, dialectical enough in thinking to master it. The subjective thinker’s task is to understand himself in existence. p. 350-351
Johannes Climacus, in Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, writes the following cryptic line: "Subjectivity is Truth". To understand Climacus's concept of the individual, it is important to look at what he says regarding subjectivity. What is subjectivity? In very rough terms, subjectivity refers to what is personal to the individual—what makes the individual who he is in distinction from others. It is what is inside—what the individual can see, feel, think, imagine, dream, etc. It is often opposed to objectivity—that which is outside the individual, which the individual and others around can feel, see, measure, and think about. Another way to interpret subjectivity is the unique relationship between the subject and object.
Johann Fichte wrote similarly about subjectivity in his 1799 book The Vocation of Man.
I must, however, remind my reader that the "I" who speaks in the book is not the author himself, but it is his earnest wish that the reader should himself assume this character, and that he should not rest contented with a mere historical apprehension of what is here said, but really and truly, during reading, hold converse with himself, deliberate, draw conclusions, and form resolutions, like his representative in the book, and, by his own labour and reflection, developed out of his own soul, and build up within himself, that mode of thought the mere picture of which is laid before him in the work. Preface
Scientists and historians, for example, study the objective world, hoping to elicit the truth of nature—or perhaps the truth of history. In this way, they hope to predict how the future will unfold in accordance with these laws. In terms of history, by studying the past, the individual can perhaps elicit the laws that determine how events will unfold—in this way the individual can predict the future with more exactness and perhaps take control of events that in the past appeared to fall outside the control of humans.
In most respects, Climacus did not have problems with science or the scientific endeavor. He would not disregard the importance of objective knowledge. Where the scientist or historian finds certainty, however, Climacus noted very accurately that results in science change as the tools of observation change. But Climacus's special interest was in history. His most vehement attacks came against those who believed that they had understood history and its laws—and by doing so could ascertain what a human’s true self is. That is, the assumption is that by studying history someone can come to know who he really is as a person. Kierkegaard especially accused Hegel's philosophy of falling prey to this assumption. He explained this in, Concluding Unscientific Postscript:
It is the existing spirit who asks about truth, presumably because he wants to exist in it, but in any case the questioner is conscious of being an existing individual human being. In this way I believe I am able to make myself understandable to every Greek and to every rational human being. If a German philosopher follows his inclination to put on an act and first transforms himself into a superrational something, just as alchemists and sorcerers bedizen themselves fantastically, in order to answer the question about truth in an extremely satisfying way, this is of no more concern to me than his satisfying answer, which no doubt is extremely satisfying-if one is fantastically dressed up. But whether a German philosopher is or is not doing this can easily be ascertained by anyone who with enthusiasm concentrates his soul on willing to allow himself to be guided by a sage of that kind, and uncritically just uses his guidance compliantly by willing to form his existence according to it. When a person as a learner enthusiastically relates in this way to such a German professor, he accomplishes the most superb epigram upon him, because a speculator of that sort is anything but served by a learner’s honest and enthusiastic zeal for expressing and accomplishing, for existentially appropriating his wisdom, since this wisdom is something that the Herr Professor himself has imagined and has written books about but has never attempted himself. It has not even occurred to him that it should be done. Like the customers clerk who, in the belief that his business was merely to write, wrote what he himself could not read, so there are speculative thinkers who merely write, and write that which, if it is to be read with the aid of action, if I may put it that way, proves to be nonsense, unless it is perhaps intended only for fantastical beings. P. 191
Hegel wanted to philosophize about Christianity but had no intention to ever become a Christian. For Climacus, the individual comes to know who he is by an intensely personal and passionate pursuit of what will give meaning to his life. As an existing individual, who must come to terms with everyday life, overcome its obstacles and setbacks, who must live and die, the single individual has a life that no one else will ever live. In dealing with what life brings his way, the individual must encounter them with all his psycho-physical resources.
Subjectivity is that which the individual—and no one else—has. But what does it mean to have something like this? It cannot be understood in the same way as having a car or a bank account. It means to be someone who is becoming someone—it means being a person with a past, a present, and a future. No one can have an individual's past, present or future. Different people experience these in various ways—these experiences are unique, not anyone else's. Having a past, present, and future means that a person is an existing individual—that a person can find meaning in time and by existing. Individuals do not think themselves into existence, they are born. But once born and past a certain age, the individual begins to make choices in life; now those choices can be his, his parents', society’s, etc. The important point is that to exist, the individual must make choices—the individual must decide what to do the next moment and on into the future. What the individual chooses and how he chooses will define who and what he is—to himself and to others. Kierkegaard put it this way in Works of Love, 1847:
We are truly reluctant to make a young person arrogant prematurely and teach him to get busy judging the world. God forbid that anything we say should be able to contribute to developing this malady in a person. Indeed, we think we ought to make his life so strenuously inwardly that from the very beginning he has something else to think about, because it no doubt is a morbid hatred of the world that, perhaps without having considered the enormous responsibility, wants to be persecuted. But on the other hand we are also truly reluctant to deceive a young person by suppressing the difficulty and by suppressing it at the very moment we endeavor to recommend Christianity, inasmuch as that is the very moment we speak. We put our confidence in boldly daring to praise Christianity, also with the addition that in the world its reward, to put it mildly, is ingratitude. We regard it as our duty continually to speak about it in advance, so that we do not sometimes praise Christianity with an omission of what is essentially difficult, and at other times, perhaps on the occasion of a particular text, hit upon a few grounds of comfort for the person tried and tested in life. No, just when Christianity is being praised most strongly, the difficulty must simultaneously be emphasized. (….) Christianly the world’s opposition stands in an essential relationship to the inwardness of Christianity. Moreover, the person who chooses Christianity should at that very moment have an impression of its difficulty so that he can know what it is that he is choosing. Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, Hong 1995, p. 193-194
The goal of life, according to Socrates, is to know thyself. Knowing oneself means being aware of who one is, what one can be and what one cannot be. Kierkegaard uses the same idea that Socrates used in his own writings. He asks the one who wants to be a single individual the following questions in his 1847 book, Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits
Everyone must make an accounting to God as an individual; the king must make an accounting to God as an individual, and the most wretched beggar must make an accounting to God as an individual – lest anyone be arrogant by being more than an individual, lest anyone despondently think that he is not an individual, perhaps because in the busyness of the world he does not even have a name but is designated only by a number. What else, indeed, is the accounting of eternity than that the voice of conscience is installed eternally in its eternal right to be the only voice! .... Are you now living in such a way that you are aware of being a single individual and thereby aware of your eternal responsibility before God; are you living in such a way that this awareness can acquire the time and stillness and liberty to withdraw from life, from an honorable occupation, from a happy domestic life – on the contrary, that awareness will support and transfigure and illuminate your conduct in the relationships of life. You are not to withdraw and sit brooding over your eternal accounting, whereby you only take on a new responsibility. You will find more and more time for your duties and tasks, while concern for your eternal responsibility will keep you from being busy and from busily taking part in everything possible – an activity that can best be called a waste of time. .... Have you made up your mind about how you want to perform your work, or are you continually of two minds because you want to be in agreement with the crowd? Do you stick to your bid, not defiantly, not despondently, but eternally concerned; do you, unchanged, continue to bid on the same thing and want to buy only the same thing while the terms are variously being changed? .... Are you hiding nothing suspicious in your soul, so that you would still wish things were different, so that you would dare robber-like to seize the reward for yourself, would dare to parade it, would dare to point to it; so that you would wish the adversity did not exist because it constrains in you the selfishness that, although suppressed, yet foolishly deludes you into thinking that if you were lucky you would do something for the good that would be worth talking about, deludes you into forgetting that the devout wise person wishes no adversity away when it befalls him because he obviously cannot know whether it might not indeed be a good for him, into forgetting that the devout wise person wins his most beautiful victory when the powerful one who persecuted him wants, as they say, to spare him, and the wise one replies: I cannot unconditionally wish it, because I cannot definitely know whether the persecution might not indeed be a good for me. Are you doing good only out of the fear of punishment, so that you scowl even when you will the good, so that in your dreams at night you wish the punishment away and to that extent also the good, and in your daydreams delude yourself into thinking that one can serve the good with a slavish mind?
- Soren Kierkegaard, Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits, 1847, Hong p. 127-140
Subjectivity comes with consciousness of myself as a self. It encompasses the emotional and intellectual resources that the individual is born with. Subjectivity is what the individual is as a human being. Now the problem of subjectivity is to decide how to choose—what rules or models is the individual going to use to make the right choices? What are the right choices? Who defines right? To be truly an individual, to be true to himself, his actions should in some way be expressed so that they describe who and what he is to himself and to others. The problem, according to Kierkegaard, is that we must choose who and what we will be based on subjective interests—the individual must make choices that will mean something to him as a reasoning, feeling being.
Kierkegaard decided to step up to the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil for himself, replacing Adam, and make his choice in the presence of God, where no one was there to accuse or judge him but his Creator. This is what he had Abraham do in Fear and Trembling. This is how Kierkegaard thought learning about oneself takes place. Here is where the single individual learns about guilt and innocence. His book, The Concept of Anxiety, makes clear that Adam did have knowledge when he made his choice and that was the knowledge of freedom. The prohibition was there but so was freedom and Eve and Adam decided to use it.
In Kierkegaard's meaning, purely theological assertions are subjective truths and they cannot be either verified or invalidated by science, i.e. through objective knowledge. For him, choosing if one is for or against a certain subjective truth is a purely arbitrary choice. He calls the jump from objective knowledge to religious faith a leap of faith, since it means subjectively accepting statements which cannot be rationally justified. For him the Christian faith is the result of the trajectory initiated by such choices, which don't have and cannot have a rational ground (meaning that reason is neither for or against making such choices). Objectively regarded, purely theological assertions are neither true nor false.
Three stages of life
Early American Kierkegaard scholars tried to reduce the complexity of Kierkegaard's authorship by focusing on three levels of individual existence, which are named in passing by one of Kierkegaard's pseudonyms, Johannes Climacus, who wrote Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Though the stages represent only one way of interpreting Kierkegaard's thought, it has become a popular way of introducing his authorship.[
1. Humor’s Bad Reputation
When people are asked what’s important in their lives, they often mention humor. Couples listing the traits they prize in their spouses usually put “sense of humor” at or near the top. Philosophers are concerned with what is important in life, so two things are surprising about what they have said about humor.
The first is how little they have said. From ancient times to the 20th century, the most that any notable philosopher wrote about laughter or humor was an essay, and only a few lesser-known thinkers such as Frances Hutcheson and James Beattie wrote that much. The word humor was not used in its current sense of funniness until the 18th century, we should note, and so traditional discussions were about laughter or comedy. The most that major philosophers like Plato, Hobbes, and Kant wrote about laughter or humor was a few paragraphs within a discussion of another topic. Henri Bergson’s 1900 Laughter was the first book by a notable philosopher on humor. Martian anthropologists comparing the amount of philosophical writing on humor with what has been written on, say, justice, or even on Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance, might well conclude that humor could be left out of human life without much loss.
The second surprising thing is how negative most philosophers have been in their assessments of humor. From ancient Greece until the 20th century, the vast majority of philosophical comments on laughter and humor focused on scornful or mocking laughter, or on laughter that overpowers people, rather than on comedy, wit, or joking. Plato, the most influential critic of laughter, treated it as an emotion that overrides rational self-control. In the Republic (388e), he says that the Guardians of the state should avoid laughter, “for ordinarily when one abandons himself to violent laughter, his condition provokes a violent reaction.” Especially disturbing to Plato were the passages in the Iliad and the Odyssey where Mount Olympus was said to ring with the laughter of the gods. He protested that “if anyone represents men of worth as overpowered by laughter we must not accept it, much less if gods.”
Another of Plato’s objections to laughter is that it is malicious. In Philebus (48–50), he analyzes the enjoyment of comedy as a form of scorn. “Taken generally,” he says, “the ridiculous is a certain kind of evil, specifically a vice.” That vice is self-ignorance: the people we laugh at imagine themselves to be wealthier, better looking, or more virtuous than they really are. In laughing at them, we take delight in something evil—their self-ignorance—and that malice is morally objectionable.
Because of these objections to laughter and humor, Plato says that in the ideal state, comedy should be tightly controlled. “We shall enjoin that such representations be left to slaves or hired aliens, and that they receive no serious consideration whatsoever. No free person, whether woman or man, shall be found taking lessons in them.” “No composer of comedy, iambic or lyric verse shall be permitted to hold any citizen up to laughter, by word or gesture, with passion or otherwise” (Laws, 7: 816e; 11: 935e).
Greek thinkers after Plato had similarly negative comments about laughter and humor. Though Aristotle considered wit a valuable part of conversation (Nicomachean Ethics 4, 8), he agreed with Plato that laughter expresses scorn. Wit, he says in the Rhetoric (2, 12), is educated insolence. In the Nicomachean Ethics (4, 8) he warns that “Most people enjoy amusement and jesting more than they should … a jest is a kind of mockery, and lawgivers forbid some kinds of mockery—perhaps they ought to have forbidden some kinds of jesting.” The Stoics, with their emphasis on self-control, agreed with Plato that laughter diminishes self-control. Epictetus’s Enchiridion (33) advises “Let not your laughter be loud, frequent, or unrestrained.” His followers said that he never laughed at all.
These objections to laughter and humor influenced early Christian thinkers, and through them later European culture. They were reinforced by negative representations of laughter and humor in the Bible, the vast majority of which are linked to hostility. The only way God is described as laughing in the Bible is with hostility:
The kings of the earth stand ready, and the rulers conspire together against the Lord and his anointed king… . The Lord who sits enthroned in heaven laughs them to scorn; then he rebukes them in anger, he threatens them in his wrath (Psalm 2:2–5).
God’s spokesmen in the Bible are the Prophets, and for them, too, laughter expresses hostility. In the contest between God’s prophet Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal, for example, Elijah ridicules them for their god’s powerlessness, and then has them slain (1 Kings 18:21–27). In the Bible, mockery is so offensive that it may deserve death, as when a group of children laugh at the prophet Elisha for his baldness:
He went up from there to Bethel and, as he was on his way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Get along with you, bald head, get along.” He turned round and looked at them and he cursed then in the name of the Lord; and two she-bears came out of a wood and mauled forty-two of them (2 Kings 2:23).”
Bringing together negative assessments of laughter from the Bible with criticisms from Greek philosophy, early Christian leaders such as Ambrose, Jerome, Basil, Ephraim, and John Chrysostom warned against either excessive laughter or laughter generally. Sometimes what they criticized was laughter in which the person loses self-control. In his Long Rules, for instance, Basil the Great wrote that “raucous laughter and uncontrollable shaking of the body are not indications of a well-regulated soul, or of personal dignity, or self-mastery” (in Wagner 1962, 271). Other times they linked laughter with idleness, irresponsibility, lust, or anger. John Chrysostom, for example, warned that
Laughter often gives birth to foul discourse, and foul discourse to actions still more foul. Often from words and laughter proceed railing and insult; and from railing and insult, blows and wounds; and from blows and wounds, slaughter and murder. If, then, you would take good counsel for yourself, avoid not merely foul words and foul deeds, or blows and wounds and murders, but unseasonable laughter itself (in Schaff 1889, 442).
Not surprisingly, the Christian institution that most emphasized self-control—the monastery—was harsh in condemning laughter. One of the earliest monastic orders, of Pachom of Egypt, forbade joking (Adkin 1985, 151–152). The Rule of St. Benedict, the most influential monastic code, advised monks to “prefer moderation in speech and speak no foolish chatter, nothing just to provoke laughter; do not love immoderate or boisterous laughter.” In Benedict’s Ladder of Humility, Step Ten is a restraint against laughter, and Step Eleven a warning against joking (Gilhus 1997, 65). The monastery of St. Columbanus Hibernus had these punishments: “He who smiles in the service … six strokes; if he breaks out in the noise of laughter, a special fast unless it has happened pardonably” (Resnick 1987, 95).
The Christian European rejection of laughter and humor continued through the Middle Ages, and whatever the Reformers reformed, it did not include the traditional assessment of humor. Among the strongest condemnations came from the Puritans, who wrote tracts against laughter and comedy. One by William Prynne (1633) encouraged Christians to live sober, serious lives. Christians should not be “immoderately tickled with mere lascivious vanities,” Prynne wrote, or “lash out in excessive cachinnations in the public view of dissolute graceless persons.” When the Puritans came to rule England in the mid-17th century, they outlawed comedies.
At this time, too, the philosophical case against laughter was strengthened by Thomas Hobbes and René Descartes. Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651 ) describes human beings as naturally individualistic and competitive. That makes us alert to signs that we are winning or losing. The former make us feel good and the latter bad. If our perception of some sign that we are superior comes over us quickly, our good feelings are likely to issue in laughter. In Part I, ch. 6, he writes that
Sudden glory, is the passion which makes those grimaces called laughter; and is caused either by some sudden act of their own, that pleases them; or by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves. And it is incident most to them, that are conscious of the fewest abilities in themselves; who are forced to keep themselves in their own favor by observing the imperfections of other men. And therefore much laughter at the defects of others, is a sign of pusillanimity. For of great minds, one of the proper works is, to help and free others from scorn; and to compare themselves only with the most able.
A similar explanation of laughter from the same time is found in Descartes’ Passions of the Soul. He says that laughter accompanies three of the six basic emotions—wonder, love, (mild) hatred, desire, joy, and sadness. Although admitting that there are other causes of laughter than hatred, in Part 3 of this book, “Of Particular Passions,” he considers laughter only as an expression of scorn and ridicule.
Derision or scorn is a sort of joy mingled with hatred, which proceeds from our perceiving some small evil in a person whom we consider to be deserving of it; we have hatred for this evil, we have joy in seeing it in him who is deserving of it; and when that comes upon us unexpectedly, the surprise of wonder is the cause of our bursting into laughter… And we notice that people with very obvious defects such as those who are lame, blind of an eye, hunched-backed, or who have received some public insult, are specially given to mockery; for, desiring to see all others held in as low estimation as themselves, they are truly rejoiced at the evils that befall them, and they hold them deserving of these (art. 178–179).
2. The Superiority Theory
With these comments of Hobbes and Descartes, we have a sketchy psychological theory articulating the view of laughter that started in Plato and the Bible and dominated Western thinking about laughter for two millennia. In the 20th century, this idea was called the Superiority Theory. Simply put, our laughter expresses feelings of superiority over other people or over a former state of ourselves. A contemporary proponent of this theory is Roger Scruton, who analyses amusement as an “attentive demolition” of a person or something connected with a person. “If people dislike being laughed at,” Scruton says, “it is surely because laughter devalues its object in the subject’s eyes” (in Morreall 1987, 168).
In the 18th century, the dominance of the Superiority Theory began to weaken when Francis Hutcheson (1750) wrote a critique of Hobbes’ account of laughter. Feelings of superiority, Hutcheson argued, are neither necessary nor sufficient for laughter. In laughing, we may not be comparing ourselves with anyone, as when we laugh at odd figures of speech like those in this poem about a sunrise:
The sun, long since, had in the lap
Of Thetis taken out his nap;
And like a lobster boil’d, the morn
From black to red began to turn.
If self-comparison and sudden glory are not necessary for laughter, neither are they sufficient for laughter. Hutcheson says that we can feel superior to lower animals without laughing, and that “some ingenuity in dogs and monkeys, which comes near to some of our own arts, very often makes us merry; whereas their duller actions in which they are much below us, are no matter of jest at all.” He also cites cases of pity. A gentleman riding in a coach who sees ragged beggars in the street, for example, will feel that he is better off than they, but such feelings are unlikely to amuse him. In such situations, “we are in greater danger of weeping than laughing.”
To these counterexamples to the Superiority Theory we could add more. Sometimes we laugh when a comic character shows surprising skills that we lack. In the silent movies of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton, the hero is often trapped in a situation where he looks doomed. But then he escapes with a clever acrobatic stunt that we would not have thought of, much less been able to perform. Laughing at such scenes does not seem to require that we compare ourselves with the hero; and if we do make such a comparison, we do not find ourselves superior.
At least some people, too, laugh at themselves—not a former state of themselves, but what is happening now. If I search high and low for my eyeglasses only to find them on my head, the Superiority Theory seems unable to explain my laughter at myself.
While these examples involve persons with whom we might compare ourselves, there are other cases of laughter where no personal comparisons seem involved. In experiments by Lambert Deckers (1993), subjects were asked to lift a series of apparently identical weights. The first several weights turned out to be identical, and that strengthened the expectation that the remaining weights would be the same. But then subjects picked up a weight that was much heavier or lighter than the others. Most laughed, but apparently not out of Hobbesian “sudden glory,” and apparently without comparing themselves with anyone.
3. The Relief Theory
Further weakening the dominance of the Superiority Theory in the 18th century were two new accounts of laughter which are now called the Relief Theory and the Incongruity Theory. Neither even mentions feelings of superiority.
The Relief Theory is an hydraulic explanation in which laughter does in the nervous system what a pressure-relief valve does in a steam boiler. The theory was sketched in Lord Shaftesbury’s 1709 essay “An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humor,” the first publication in which humor is used in its modern sense of funniness. Scientists at the time knew that nerves connect the brain with the sense organs and muscles, but they thought that nerves carried “animal spirits”—gases and liquids such as air and blood. John Locke (1690, Book 3, ch. 9, para.16), for instance, describes animal spirits as “fluid and subtile Matter, passing through the Conduits of the Nerves.”
Shaftesbury’s explanation of laughter is that it releases animal spirits that have built up pressure inside the nerves.
The natural free spirits of ingenious men, if imprisoned or controlled, will find out other ways of motion to relieve themselves in their constraint; and whether it be in burlesque, mimicry, or buffoonery, they will be glad at any rate to vent themselves, and be revenged upon their constrainers.
Over the next two centuries, as the nervous system came to be better understood, thinkers such as Herbert Spencer and Sigmund Freud revised the biology behind the Relief Theory but kept the idea that laughter relieves pent-up nervous energy.
Spencer’s explanation in his essay “On the Physiology of Laughter” (1911) is based on the idea that emotions take the physical form of nervous energy. Nervous energy, he says, “always tends to beget muscular motion, and when it rises to a certain intensity, always does beget it” (299). “Feeling passing a certain pitch habitually vents itself in bodily action” (302). When we are angry, for example, nervous energy produces small aggressive movements such as clenching our fists; and if the energy reaches a certain level, we attack the offending person. In fear, the energy produces small-scale movements in preparation for fleeing; and if the fear gets strong enough, we flee. The movements associated with emotions, then, discharge or release the built-up nervous energy.
Laughter releases nervous energy, too, Spencer says, but with this important difference: the muscular movements in laughter are not the early stages of larger practical actions such as attacking or fleeing. Unlike emotions, laughter does not involve the motivation to do anything. The movements of laughter, Spencer says, “have no object” (303): they are merely a release of nervous energy.
The nervous energy relieved through laughter, according to Spencer, is the energy of emotions that have been found to be inappropriate. Consider this poem entitled “Waste” by Harry Graham (2009):
I had written to Aunt Maud
Who was on a trip abroad
When I heard she’d died of cramp,
Just too late to save the stamp.
Reading the first three lines, we might feel pity for the bereaved nephew writing the poem. But the last line makes us reinterpret those lines. Far from being a loving nephew in mourning, he turns out to be an insensitive cheapskate. So the nervous energy of our pity, now superfluous, is released in laughter. That discharge occurs, Spencer says, first through the muscles “which feeling most habitually stimulates,” the muscles of the vocal tract. If still more energy needs to be relieved, it spills over to the muscles connected with breathing, and if the movements of those muscles do not release all the energy, the remainder moves the arms, legs, and other muscle groups (304).
In the 20th century, John Dewey (1894: 558–559) had a similar version of the Relief Theory. Laughter, he said, “marks the ending … of a period of suspense, or expectation.” It is a “sudden relaxation of strain, so far as occurring through the medium of the breathing and vocal apparatus… The laugh is thus a phenomenon of the same general kind as the sigh of relief.”
Better known than the versions of the Relief Theory of Shaftesbury, Spencer, and Dewey is that of Sigmund Freud. In his Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905 ), Freud analyzes three laughter situations: der Witz (often translated “jokes” or “joking”), “the comic,” and “humor.” In all three, laughter releases nervous energy that was summoned for a psychological task, but then became superfluous as that task was abandoned. In der Witz, that superfluous energy is energy used to repress feelings; in the comic it is energy used to think, and in humor it is the energy of feeling emotions. (In this article, we are not using humor in Freud’s narrow sense, but in the general sense that includes joking, wit, the comic, etc.)
Der Witz includes telling prepared fictional jokes, making spontaneous witty comments, and repartee. In der Witz, Freud says, the psychic energy released is the energy that would have repressed the emotions that are being expressed as the person laughs. (Most summaries of Freud’s theory mistakenly describe laughter as a release of repressed emotions themselves.) According to Freud, the emotions which are most repressed are sexual desire and hostility, and so most jokes and witty remarks are about sex, hostility, or both. In telling a sexual joke or listening to one, we bypass our internal censor and give vent to our libido. In telling or listening to a joke that puts down an individual or group we dislike, similarly, we let out the hostility we usually repress. In both cases, the psychic energy normally used to do the repressing becomes superfluous, and is released in laughter.
Freud’s second laughter situation, “the comic,” involves a similar release of energy that is summoned but is then found unnecessary. Here it is the energy normally devoted to thinking. An example is laughter at the clumsy actions of a clown. As we watch the clown stumble through actions that we would perform smoothly and efficiently, there is a saving of the energy that we would normally expend to understand the clown’s movements. Here Freud appeals to a theory of “mimetic representation” in which we expend a large packet of energy to understand something large and a small packet of energy to understand something small. Our mental representation of the clown’s clumsy movements, Freud says, calls for more energy than the energy we would expend to mentally represent our own smooth, efficient movements in performing the same task. Our laughter at the clown is our venting of that surplus energy.
These two possibilities in my imagination amount to a comparison between the observed movement and my own. If the other person’s movement is exaggerated and inexpedient, my increased expenditure in order to understand it is inhibited in statu nascendi, as it were in the act of being mobilized; it is declared superfluous and is free for use elsewhere or perhaps for discharge by laughter (Freud 1905 , 254).
Freud analyzes the third laughter situation, which he calls “humor,” much as Spencer analyzed laughter in general. Humor occurs “if there is a situation in which, according to our usual habits, we should be tempted to release a distressing affect and if motives then operate upon us which suppress that affect in statu nascendi [in the process of being born]… . The pleasure of humor … comes about … at the cost of a release of affect that does not occur: it arise from an economy in the expenditure of affect” (293). His example is a story told by Mark Twain in which his brother was building a road when a charge of dynamite went off prematurely, blowing him high into the sky. When the poor man came down far from the work site, he was docked half a day’s pay for being “absent from his place of employment.” Freud’s explanation of our laughter at this story is like the explanation above at Graham’s poem about the cheapskate nephew. In laughing at this story, he says, we are releasing the psychic energy that we had summoned to feel pity for Twain’s brother, but that became superfluous when we heard the fantastic last part. “As a result of this understanding, the expenditure on the pity, which was already prepared, becomes unutilizable and we laugh it off” (295).
Having sketched several versions of the Relief Theory, we can note that today almost no scholar in philosophy or psychology explains laughter or humor as a process of releasing pent-up nervous energy. There is, of course, a connection between laughter and the expenditure of energy. Hearty laughter involves many muscle groups and several areas of the nervous system. Laughing hard gives our lungs a workout, too, as we take in far more oxygen than usual. But few contemporary scholars defend the claims of Spencer and Freud that the energy expended in laughter is the energy of feeling emotions, the energy of repressing emotions, or the energy of thinking, which have built up and require venting.
Funny things and situations may evoke emotions, but many seem not to. Consider P. G. Wodehouse’s line “If it’s feasible, let’s fease it.” Or the shortest poem in the English language, by Strickland Gillilan (1927), “Lines on the Antiquity of Microbes”:
These do not seem to vent emotions that had built up before we read them, and they do not seem to evoke emotions and then render them superfluous. So whatever energy is expended in laughing at them does not seem to be superfluous energy being vented. In fact, the whole hydraulic model of the nervous system on which the Relief Theory is based seems outdated.
To that hydraulic model, Freud adds several questionable claims derived from his general psychoanalytic theory of the mind. He says that the creation of der Witz—jokes and witty comments—is an unconscious process of letting repressed thoughts and feelings into the conscious mind. This claim seems falsified by professional humorists who approach the creation of jokes and cartoons with conscious strategies. Freud’s account of how psychic energy is vented in joke-telling is also questionable, especially his claim that packets of psychic energy are summoned to repress thoughts and feelings, but in statu nascendi (in the process of being born) are rendered superfluous. If Freud is right that the energy released in laughing at a joke is the energy normally used to repress hostile and sexual feelings, then it seems that those who laugh hardest at aggressive and sexual jokes should be people who usually repress such feelings. But studies about joke preferences by Hans Jurgen Eysenck (1972, xvi) have shown that the people who enjoy aggressive and sexual humor the most are not those who usually repress hostile and sexual feelings, but those who express them.
Freud’s account of “the comic” faces still more problems, particularly his ideas about “mimetic representation.” The psychic energy saved, he says, is energy summoned for understanding something, such as the antics of a clown. We summon a large packet of energy to understand the clown’s large movements, but as we are summoning it, we compare it with the small packet of energy required to understand our own smaller movements in doing the same thing. The difference between the two packets is surplus energy discharged in laughter. Freud’s account of thinking here is idiosyncratic and has strange implications, such as that thinking about swimming the English Channel takes far more energy than thinking about licking a stamp. With all these difficulties, it is not surprising that philosophers and psychologists studying humor today do not appeal to Freud’s theory to explain laughter or humor. More generally, the Relief Theory is seldom used as a general explanation of laughter or humor.
4. The Incongruity Theory
The second account of humor that arose in the 18th century to challenge the Superiority Theory was the Incongruity Theory. While the Superiority Theory says that the cause of laughter is feelings of superiority, and the Relief Theory says that it is the release of nervous energy, the Incongruity Theory says that it is the perception of something incongruous—something that violates our mental patterns and expectations. This approach was taken by James Beattie, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, Søren Kierkegaard, and many later philosophers and psychologists. It is now the dominant theory of humor in philosophy and psychology.
Although Aristotle did not use the term incongruity, he hints that it is the basis for at least some humor. In the Rhetoric (3, 2), a handbook for speakers, he says that one way for a speaker to get a laugh is to create an expectation in the audience and then violate it. As an example, he cites this line from a comedy, “And as he walked, beneath his feet were—chilblains [sores on the feet].” Jokes that depend on a change of spelling or word play, he notes, can have the same effect. Cicero, in On the Orator (ch. 63), says that “The most common kind of joke is that in which we expect one thing and another is said; here our own disappointed expectation makes us laugh.”
This approach to joking is similar to techniques of stand-up comedians today. They speak of the set-up and the punch (line). The set-up is the first part of the joke: it creates the expectation. The punch (line) is the last part that violates that expectation. In the language of the Incongruity Theory, the joke’s ending is incongruous with the beginning.
The first philosopher to use the word incongruous to analyze humor was James Beattie (1779). When we see something funny, he says, our laughter “always proceeds from a sentiment or emotion, excited in the mind, in consequence of certain objects or ideas being presented to it” (304). Our laughter “seems to arise from the view of things incongruous united in the same assemblage” (318). The cause of humorous laughter is “two or more inconsistent, unsuitable, or incongruous parts or circumstances, considered as united in one complex object or assemblage, as acquiring a sort of mutual relation from the peculiar manner in which the mind takes notice of them” (320).
Immanuel Kant (1790 , First Part, sec. 54), a contemporary of Beattie’s, did not used the term incongruous but had an explanation of laughter at jokes and wit that involves incongruity.
In everything that is to excite a lively convulsive laugh there must be something absurd (in which the understanding, therefore, can find no satisfaction). Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing. This transformation, which is certainly not enjoyable to the understanding, yet indirectly gives it very active enjoyment for a moment. Therefore its cause must consist in the influence of the representation upon the body, and the reflex effect of this upon the mind.
Kant illustrates with this story:
An Indian at the table of an Englishman in Surat, when he saw a bottle of ale opened and all the beer turned into froth and overflowing, testified his great astonishment with many exclamations. When the Englishman asked him, “What is there in this to astonish you so much?” he answered, “I am not at all astonished that it should flow out, but I do wonder how you ever got it in.”
We laugh at this story, Kant says, “not because we deem ourselves cleverer than this ignorant man, or because of anything in it that we note as satisfactory to the understanding, but because our expectation was strained (for a time) and then was suddenly dissipated into nothing.”
“We must note well,” Kant insists, that it [our expectation] does not transform itself into the positive opposite of an expected object… but it must be transformed into nothing.” He illustrates with two more jokes:
The heir of a rich relative wished to arrange for an imposing funeral, but he lamented that he could not properly succeed; ‘for’ (said he) ‘the more money I give my mourners to look sad, the more cheerful they look!’
[A] merchant returning from India to Europe with all his wealth in merchandise … was forced to throw it overboard in a heavy storm and … grieved thereat so much that his wig turned gray the same night.”
A joke amuses us by evoking, shifting, and dissipating our thoughts, but we do not learn anything through these mental gymnastics. In humor generally, according to Kant, our reason finds nothing of worth. The jostling of ideas, however, produces a physical jostling of our internal organs and we enjoy that physical stimulation.
For if we admit that with all our thoughts is harmonically combined a movement in the organs of the body, we will easily comprehend how to this sudden transposition of the mind, now to one now to another standpoint in order to contemplate its object, may correspond an alternating tension and relaxation of the elastic portions of our intestines which communicates itself to the diaphragm (like that which ticklish people feel). In connection with this the lungs expel the air at rapidly succeeding intervals, and thus bring about a movement beneficial to health; which alone, and not what precedes it in the mind, is the proper cause of the gratification in a thought that at bottom represents nothing.
On this point, Kant compares the enjoyment of joking and wit to the enjoyment of games of chance and the enjoyment of music. In all three the pleasure is in a “changing free play of sensations,” which is caused by shifting ideas in the mind. In games of chance, “the play of fortune” causes bodily excitation; in music, it is “the play of tone,” and in joking, it is “the play of thought.” In a lively game of chance, “the affections of hope, fear, joy, wrath, scorn, are put in play … alternating every moment; and they are so vivid that by them, as by a kind of internal motion, all the vital processes of the body seem to be promoted.” In music and humor, similarly, what we enjoy are bodily changes caused by rapidly shifting ideas.
Music and that which excites laughter are two different kinds of play with aesthetical ideas, or of representations of the understanding through which ultimately nothing is thought, which can give lively gratification merely by their changes. Thus we recognize pretty clearly that the animation in both cases is merely bodily, although it is excited by ideas of the mind; and that the feeling of health produced by a motion of the intestines corresponding to the play in question makes up that whole gratification of a gay party.
A version of the Incongruity Theory that gave it more philosophical significance than Kant’s version is that of Arthur Schopenhauer (1818/1844 ). While Kant located the lack of fit in humor between our expectations and our experience, Schopenhauer locates it between our sense perceptions of things and our abstract rational knowledge of those same things. We perceive unique individual things with many properties. But when we group our sense perceptions under abstract concepts, we focus on just one or a few properties of any individual thing. Thus we lump quite different things under one concept and one word. Think, for example, of a Chihuahua and a St. Bernard categorized under dog. For Schopenhauer, humor arises when we suddenly notice the incongruity between a concept and a perception that are supposed to be of the same thing.
Many human actions can only be performed by the help of reason and deliberation, and yet there are some which are better performed without its assistance. This very incongruity of sensuous and abstract knowledge, on account of which the latter always merely approximates to the former, as mosaic approximates to painting, is the cause of a very remarkable phenomenon which, like reason itself, is peculiar to human nature, and of which the explanations that have ever anew been attempted, as insufficient: I mean laughter… . The cause of laughter in every case is simply the sudden perception of the incongruity between a concept and the real objects which have been thought through it in some relation, and laughter itself is just the expression of this incongruity (1818/1844 , Book I, sec. 13).
As an example, Schopenhauer tells of the prison guards who allowed a convict to play cards with them, but when they caught him cheating, they kicked him out. He comments, “They let themselves be led by the general conception, ‘Bad companions are turned out,’ and forget that he is also a prisoner, i. e., one whom they ought to hold fast” (Supplement to Book I: Ch. 8). He also comments on an Austrian joke (the equivalent of a Polish joke in the U.S. a few decades ago):
When someone had declared that he was fond of walking alone, an Austrian said to him: “You like walking alone; so do I: therefore we can go together.” He starts from the conception, “A pleasure which two love they can enjoy in common,” and subsumes under it the very case which excludes community.
Creating jokes like these requires the ability to think of an abstract idea under which very different things can be subsumed. Wit, Schopenhauer says, “consists entirely in a facility for finding for every object that appears a conception under which it certainly can be thought, though it is very different from all the other objects which come under this conception” (Supplement to Book I, Ch. 8).
With this theory of humor as based on the discrepancy between abstract ideas and real things, Schopenhauer explains the offensiveness of being laughed at, the kind of laughter at the heart of the Superiority Theory.
That the laughter of others at what we do or say seriously offends us so keenly depends on the fact that it asserts that there is a great incongruity between our conceptions and the objective realities. For the same reason, the predicate “ludicrous” or “absurd” is insulting. The laugh of scorn announces with triumph to the baffled adversary how incongruous were the conceptions he cherished with the reality which is now revealing itself to him (Supplement to Book I, Ch. 8).
With his theory, too, Schopenhauer explains the pleasure of humor.
In every suddenly appearing conflict between what is perceived and what is thought, what is perceived is always unquestionably right; for it is not subject to error at all, requires no confirmation from without, but answers for itself. … The victory of knowledge of perception over thought affords us pleasure. For perception is the original kind of knowledge inseparable from animal nature, in which everything that gives direct satisfaction to the will presents itself. It is the medium of the present, of enjoyment and gaiety; moreover it is attended with no exertion. With thinking the opposite is the case: it is the second power of knowledge, the exercise of which always demands some, and often considerable exertion. Besides, it is the conceptions of thought that often oppose the gratification of our immediate desires, for, as the medium of the past, the future, and of seriousness, they are the vehicles of our fears, our repentance, and all our cares. It must therefore be diverting to us to see this strict, untiring, troublesome governess, the reason, for once convicted of insufficiency. On this account then the mien or appearance of laughter is very closely related to that of joy (Supplement to Book I, Ch. 8).
Like Schopenhauer, Søren Kierkegaard saw humor as based on incongruity and as philosophically significant. In his discussion of the “three spheres of existence,” (the three existential stages of life—the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious), he discusses humor and its close relative, irony. Irony marks the boundary between the aesthetic and the ethical spheres, while humor marks the boundary between the ethical and religious spheres. “Humor is the last stage of existential awareness before faith” (1846 , 448, 259). The person with a religious view of life is likely to cultivate humor, he says, and Christianity is the most humorous view of life in world history ([JP], Entries 1681–1682).
Kierkegaard (1846 , 459–468) locates the essence of humor, which he calls “the comical,” in a disparity between what is expected and what is experienced, though instead of calling it “incongruity” he calls it “contradiction.” For example, “Errors are comical, and are all to be explained by the contradiction involved.” He cites the story of the baker who said to the begging woman, “No, mother, I cannot give you anything. There was another here recently whom I had to send away without giving anything, too: we cannot give to everybody.”
The violation of our expectations is at the heart of the tragic as well as the comic, Kierkegaard says. To contrast the two, he appeals to Aristotle’s definition of the comic in Chapter 5 of The Poetics: “The ridiculous is a mistake or unseemliness that is not painful or destructive.”
The tragic and the comic are the same, in so far as both are based on contradiction; but the tragic is the suffering contradiction, the comical, the painless contradiction… . The comic apprehension evokes the contradiction or makes it manifest by having in mind the way out, which is why the contradiction is painless. The tragic apprehension sees the contradiction and despairs of a way out.
A few decades earlier, William Hazlitt contrasted the tragic and comic this way in his essay “On Wit and Humor”:
Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps: for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be. We weep at what thwarts or exceeds our desires in serious matters; we laugh at what only disappoints our expectations in trifles… . To explain the nature of laughter and tears, is to account for the condition of human life; for it is in a manner compounded of the two! It is a tragedy or a comedy—sad or merry, as it happens… . Tears may be considered as the natural and involuntary resource of the mind overcome by some sudden and violent emotion, before it has had time to reconcile its feelings to the change of circumstances: while laughter may be defined to be the same sort of convulsive and involuntary movement, occasioned by mere surprise or contrast (in the absence of any more serious emotion), before it has time to reconcile its belief to contrary appearances (Hazlitt 1819 , 1).
The core meaning of “incongruity” in various versions of the Incongruity Theory, then, is that some thing or event we perceive or think about violates our standard mental patterns and normal expectations. (If we are listening to a joke for the second time, of course, there is a sense in which we expect the incongruous punch line, but it still violates our ordinary expectations.) Beyond that core meaning, various thinkers have added different details, many of which are incompatible with each other. In contemporary psychology, for example, theorists such as Thomas Schultz (1976) and Jerry Suls (1972, 1983) have claimed that what we enjoy in humor is not incongruity itself, but the resolution of incongruity. After age seven, Schultz says, we require the fitting of the apparently anomalous element into some conceptual schema. That is what happens when we “get” a joke. Indeed, Schultz does not even call unresolvable incongruity “humor”—he calls it “nonsense.” The examples cited are typically jokes in which the punch line is momentarily confusing, but then the hearer reinterprets the first part so that it makes a kind of sense. When, for instance, Mae West said, “Marriage is a great institution, but I’m not ready for an institution,” the shift in meanings of “institution” is the incongruity, but it takes a moment to follow that shift, and the pleasure is in figuring out that the word has two meanings. Amusement, according to this understanding of humor, is akin to puzzle-solving. Other theorists insist that incongruity-resolution figures in only some humor, and that the pleasure of amusement is not like puzzle-solving.
As philosophers and psychologists refined the Incongruity Theory in the late 20th century, one flaw in several older versions came to light: they said, or more often implied, that the perception of incongruity is sufficient for humor. That is clearly false, since when our mental patterns and expectations are violated, we may well feel fear, disgust, or anger and not amusement. James Beattie, the first philosopher to analyze humor as a response to incongruity, was careful to point out that laughter is only one such response. Our perception of incongruity will not excite the “risible emotion,” he said, when that perception is “attended with some other emotion of greater authority” such as fear, pity, moral disapprobation, indignation, or disgust (1779, 420).
One way to correct this flaw is to say that humorous amusement is not just any response to incongruity, but a way of enjoying incongruity. Michael Clark, for example, offers these three features as necessary and sufficient for humor:
- A person perceives (thinks, imagines) an object as being incongruous.
- The person enjoys perceiving (thinking, imagining) the object.
- The person enjoys the perceived (thought, imagined) incongruity at least partly for itself, rather than solely for some ulterior reason (in Morreall 1987, 139–155).
This version of the Incongruity Theory is an improvement on theories which describe amusement as the perception of incongruity, but it still seems not specific enough. Amusement is one way of enjoying incongruity, but not the only way. Mike W. Martin offers several examples from the arts (in Morreall, 1987, 176). Sophocles’ Oedipus the King has many lines in which Oedipus vows to do whatever it takes to bring King Laius’ killer to justice. We in the audience, knowing that Oedipus is himself that killer, may enjoy the incongruity of a king threatening himself, but that enjoyment need not be humorous amusement. John Morreall (1987, 204–205) argues that a number of aesthetic categories— the grotesque, the macabre, the horrible, the bizarre, and the fantastic—involve a non-humorous enjoyment of some violation of our mental patterns and expectations.
Whatever refinements the Incongruity Theory might require, it seems better able to account for laughter and humor than the scientifically obsolete Relief Theory. It also seems more comprehensive than the Superiority Theory since it can account for kinds of humor that do not seem based on superiority, such as puns and other wordplay.
5. Humor as Play, Laughter as Play Signal
While the Incongruity Theory made humor look less objectionable than the Superiority Theory did, it has not improved philosophers’ opinions of humor much in the last two centuries, at least judging from what they have published. Part of the continued bad reputation of humor comes from a new objection triggered by the Incongruity Theory: If humor is enjoying the violation of our mental patterns and expectations, then it is irrational. This Irrationality Objection is almost as old as the Incongruity Theory, and is implicit in Kant’s claim that the pleasure in laughter is only physical and not intellectual. “How could a delusive expectation gratify?” he asks. According to Kant, humor feels good in spite of, not because of, the way it frustrates our desire to understand. George Santayana (1896, 248) agreed, arguing that incongruity itself could not be enjoyed.
We have a prosaic background of common sense and everyday reality; upon this background an unexpected idea suddenly impinges. But the thing is a futility. The comic accident falsifies the nature before us, starts a wrong analogy in the mind, a suggestion that cannot be carried out. In a word, we are in the presence of an absurdity, and man, being a rational animal, can like absurdity no better than he can like hunger or cold.
If the widespread contemporary appreciation of humor is defensible, then this Irrationality Objection needs to be addressed. To do that seems to require an explanation of how our higher mental functions can operate in a beneficial way that is different from theoretical and practical reasoning. One way to construct that explanation is to analyze humor as a kind of play, and explain how such play can be beneficial.
Remarkably few philosophers have even mentioned that humor is a kind of play, much less seen benefits in such play. Kant spoke of joking as “the play of thought,” though he saw no value in it beyond laughter’s stimulation of the internal organs. One of the few to classify humor as play and see value in the mental side of humor was Thomas Aquinas. He followed the lead of Aristotle, who said in the NicomacheanEthics (Ch. 8) that “Life includes rest as well as activity, and in this is included leisure and amusement.” Some people carry amusement to excess—“vulgar buffoons,” Aristotle calls them—but just as bad are “those who can neither make a joke themselves nor put up with those who do,” whom he calls “boorish and unpolished.” Between buffoonery and boorishness there is a happy medium—engaging in humor at the right time and place, and to the right degree. This virtue Aristotle calls eutrapelia, ready-wittedness, from the Greek for “turning well.” In his Summa Theologiae (2a2ae, Q. 168) Aquinas extends Aristotle’s ideas in three articles: “Whether there can be virtue in actions done in play,” “The sin of playing too much,” and “The sin of playing too little.” He agrees with Aristotle that humor and other forms of play provide occasional rest:
As bodily tiredness is eased by resting the body, so psychological tiredness is eased by resting the soul. As we have explained in discussing the feelings, pleasure is rest for the soul. And therefore the remedy for weariness of soul lies in slackening the tension of mental study and taking some pleasure… . Those words and deeds in which nothing is sought beyond the soul’s pleasure are called playful or humorous, and it is necessary to make use of them at times for solace of soul (2a2ae, Q. 168, Art. 2).
Beyond providing rest for the soul, Aquinas suggests that humor has social benefits. Extending the meaning of Aristotle’s eutrapelia, he talks about “a eutrapelos, a pleasant person with a happy cast of mind who gives his words and deeds a cheerful turn.” The person who is never playful or humorous, Aquinas says, is acting “against reason” and so is guilty of a vice.
Anything conflicting with reason in human action is vicious. It is against reason for a man to be burdensome to others, by never showing himself agreeable to others or being a kill-joy or wet blanket on their enjoyment. And so Seneca says, “Bear yourself with wit, lest you be regarded as sour or despised as dull.” Now those who lack playfulness are sinful, those who never say anything to make you smile, or are grumpy with those who do (2a2ae, Q. 168, Art. 4).
In the last century an early play theory of humor was developed by Max Eastman (1936), who found parallels to humor in the play of animals, particularly in the laughter of chimps during tickling. He argues that “we come into the world endowed with an instinctive tendency to laugh and have this feeling in response to pains presented playfully” (45). In humor and play generally, according to Eastman, we take a disinterested attitude toward something that could instead be treated seriously.
In the late 20th century Ted Cohen (1999) wrote about the social benefits of joke-telling, and many psychologists confirmed Aquinas’ assessment of humor as virtuous. A chapter in the American Psychological Association’s Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, under “Strengths of Transcendence,” is “Humor [Playfulness].” Engaging in humor can foster a tolerance for ambiguity and diversity, and promote creative problem-solving. It can serve as a social lubricant, engendering trust and reducing conflict. In communications that tend to evoke negative emotions--announcing bad news, apologizing, complaining, warning, criticizing, commanding, evaluating--humor can provide delight that reduces or even blocks negative emotions. Consider this paragraph from a debt-collection letter:
We appreciate your business, but, please, give us a break. Your account is overdue ten months. That means we’ve carried you longer than your mother did (Morreall 2009, 117).
Play activities such as humor are not usually pursued in order to achieve such benefits, of course; they are pursued, as Aquinas said, for pleasure. A parallel with humor here is music, which we typically play and listen to for pleasure, but which can boost our manual dexterity and even mathematical abilities, reduce stress, and strengthen our social bonds.
Ethologists (students of animal, including human, behavior) point out that in play activities, young animals learn important skills they will need later on. Young lions, for example, play by going through actions that will be part of hunting. Humans have hunted with rocks and spears for tens of thousands of years, and so boys often play by throwing projectiles at targets. Marek Spinka (2001) observes that in playing, young animals move in exaggerated ways. Young monkeys leap not just from branch to branch, but from trees into rivers. Children not only run, but skip and do cartwheels. Spinka suggests that in play young animals are testing the limits of their speed, balance, and coordination. In doing so, they learn to cope with unexpected situations such as being chased by a new kind of predator.
This account of the value of play in children and young animals does not automatically explain why humor is important to adult humans, but for us as for children and young animals, the play activities that seem the most fun are those in which we exercise our abilities in unusual and extreme ways, yet in a safe setting. Sports is an example. So is humor.
In humor the abilities we exercise in unusual and extreme ways in a safe setting are related to thinking and interacting with other people. What is enjoyed is incongruity, the violation of our mental patterns and expectations. In joking with friends, for example, we break rules of conversation such as these formulated by H. P. Grice (1975):
- Do not say what you believe to be false.
- Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.
- Avoid obscurity of expression.
- Avoid ambiguity.
- Be brief.
We break Rule 1 when for a laugh we exaggerate wildly, say the opposite of what we think, or “pull someone’s leg.” We break Rule 2 when we present funny fantasies as if they were facts. Rule 3 is broken to create humor when we reply to an embarrassing questions with an obviously vague or confusing answer. We violate Rule 4 in telling most prepared jokes, as Victor Raskin (1984) has shown. A comment or story starts off with an assumed interpretation for a phrase, but then at the punch line, switches to a second, usually opposed interpretation. Consider Mae West’s line “Marriage is a great institution—but I’m not ready for an institution.” Rule 5 is broken when we turn an ordinary complaint into a comic rant like those of Roseanne Barr and Lewis Black.
Humor, like other play, sometimes takes the form of activity that would not be mistaken for serious activity. Wearing a red clown nose and making up nonsense syllables are examples. More often, however, as in the conversational moves above, humor and play are modeled on serious activities. When in conversation we switch from serious discussion to making funny comments, for example, we keep the same vocabulary and grammar, and our sentences transcribed to paper might look like bona-fide assertions, questions, etc. This similarity between non-serious and serious language and actions calls for ways that participants can distinguish between the two. Ethologists call these ways “play signals.”
The oldest play signals in humans are smiling and laughing. According to ethologists, these evolved from similar play signals in pre-human apes. The apes that evolved into Homo sapiens split off from the apes that evolved into chimpanzees and gorillas about six million years ago. In chimps and gorillas, as in other mammals, play usually takes the form of mock-aggression such as chasing, wrestling, biting, and tickling. According to many ethologists, mock-aggression was the earliest form of play, from which all other play developed (Aldis 1975, 139; Panksepp 1993, 150). In mock-aggressive play, it is critical that all participants are aware that the activity is not real aggression. Without a way to distinguish between being chased or bitten playfully and being attacked in earnest, an animal might respond with deadly force. In the anthropoid apes, play signals are visual and auditory. Jan van Hooff (1972, 212–213) and others speculate that the first play signals in humans evolved from two facial displays in an ancestor of both humans and the great apes that are still found in gorillas and chimps. One was the “grin face” or “social grimace”: the corners of the mouth and the lips are retracted to expose the gums, the jaws are closed, there is no vocalization, body movement is inhibited, and the eyes are directed toward an interacting partner. This “silent bared-teeth display,” according to van Hooff (1972, 217), evolved into the human social smile of appeasement.
In the other facial display, the lips are relaxed and the mouth open, and breathing is shallow and staccato, like panting. This vocalization in chimpanzees is on the in-breath: “Ahh ahh ahh.” According to van Hooff, this “relaxed open-mouth display” or “play face” evolved into human laughter. The relaxed mouth in laughter contrasts with the mouth in real aggression that is tense and prepared to bite hard. That difference, combined with the distinctive shallow, staccato breathing pattern, allows laughter to serve as a play signal, announcing that “This is just for fun; it’s not real fighting.” Chimps and gorillas show that face and vocalization during rough-and-tumble play, and it can be elicited in them by the playful grabbing and poking we call tickling (Andrew 1963).
As early hominin species began walking upright and the front limbs were no longer used for locomotion, the muscles in the chest no longer had to synchronize breathing with locomotion. The larynx moved to a lower position in the throat, and the pharynx developed, allowing early humans to modulate their breathing and vocalize in complex ways (Harris 1989, 77). Eventually they would speak, but before that they came to laugh in our human way: “ha ha ha” on the out-breath instead of “ahh ahh ahh” on the in-breath.
In the last decade, thinkers in evolutionary psychology have extended van Hooff’s work, relating humor to such things as sexual selection (Greengross 2008; Li et al. 2009). In the competition for women to mate with, early men may have engaged in humor to show their intelligence, cleverness, adaptability, and desire to please others.
The hypothesis that laughter evolved as a play signal is appealing in several ways. Unlike the Superiority and Incongruity Theories, it explains the link between humor and the facial expression, body language, and sound of laughter. It also explains why laughter is overwhelmingly a social experience, as those theories do not. According to one estimate, we are thirty times more likely to laugh with other people than when we are alone (Provine 2000, 45). Tracing laughter to a play signal in early humans also accords with the fact that young children today laugh during the same activities—chasing, wrestling, and tickling—in which chimps and gorillas show their play face and laugh-like vocalizations. The idea that laughter and humor evolved from mock-aggression, furthermore, helps explain why so much humor today, especially in males, is playfully aggressive.
The playful aggression found in much humor has been widely misunderstood by philosophers, especially in discussions of the ethics of humor. Starting with Plato, most philosophers have treated humor that represents people in a negative light as if it were real aggression toward those people. Jokes in which blondes or Poles are extraordinarily stupid, blacks extraordinarily lazy, Italians extraordinarily cowardly, lawyers extraordinarily self-centered, women extraordinarily unmathematical, etc. have usually been analyzed as if they were bona fide assertions that blondes or Poles are extraordinarily stupid, blacks extraordinarily lazy, etc. This approach is announced in the title of Michael Philips’ “Racist Acts and Racist Humor”(1984). Philips classifies Polish jokes as racist, for example, but anyone who understands their popularity in the 1960s, knows that they did not involve hostility toward Polish people, who had long been assimilated into North American society. Consider the joke about the Polish astronaut calling a press conference to announce that he was going to fly a rocket to the sun. When asked how he would handle the sun’s intense heat, he said, “Don’t worry, I’ll go at night.” To enjoy this joke, it is not necessary to have racist beliefs or attitudes towards Poles, any more than it is necessary to believe that Poland has a space program. This is a fantasy enjoyed for its clever depiction of unbelievable stupidity.
While playing with negative stereotypes in jokes does not require endorsement of those stereotypes, however, it still keeps them in circulation, and that can be harmful in a racist or sexist culture where stereotypes support prejudice and injustice. Jokes can be morally objectionable for perpetuating stereotypes that need to be eliminated. More generally, humor can be morally objectionable when it treats as a subject for play something that should be taken seriously. (Morreall 2009, ch. 5). Here humor often blocks compassion and responsible action. An egregious example is the cover of the July 1974 National Lampoon magazine, titled the “Dessert Issue.” A few years earlier George Harrison and other musicians had organized a charity concert to benefit the victims of a famine in Bangladesh. From it they produced the record album Concert for Bangladesh. The album cover featured a photograph of a starving child with a begging bowl. The photo on the cover of National Lampoon’s “Dessert Issue” was virtually the same, only it was of a chocolate sculpture of a starving child, with part of the head bitten off.
Having sketched an account of humor as play with words and ideas, we need to go further in order to counter the Irrationality Objection, especially since that play is based on violating mental patterns and expectations. What must be added is an explanation of how playfully violating mental patterns and expectations could foster rationality rather than undermine it.
Part of rationality is thinking abstractly—in a way that is not tied to one’s immediate experience and individual perspective. If at a dinner party I spill a blob of ketchup on my shirt that looks like a bullet hole, I could be locked into a Here/Now/Me/Practical mode in which I think only about myself and my soiled shirt. Or I could think about embarrassing moments like this as experienced by millions of people over the centuries. More abstract still would be to think, as the Buddha did, about how human life is full of problems.
In the lower animals, mental processing is not abstract but tied to present experience, needs, and opportunities. It is about nearby predators, food, mates, etc. When something violates their expectations, especially something involving a potential or actual loss, their typical reaction is fear, anger, or sadness. These emotions evolved in mammals and were useful for millions of years because they motivate adaptive behavior such as fighting, fleeing, withdrawing from activity, and avoiding similar situations in the future.
Fear, anger, and sadness are still sometimes adaptive in humans: A snarling dog scares us, for example, and we move away quickly, avoiding a nasty bite. But if human mental development had not gone beyond such emotions, with their Here/Now/Me/Practical focus, we would not have become rational animals. What early humans needed was a way to react to the violation of their expectations that transcended their immediate experience and their individual perspective. Humorous amusement provided that. In the humorous frame of mind, we experience, think about, or even create something that violates our understanding of how things are supposed to be. But we suspend the personal, practical concerns that lead to negative emotions, and enjoy the oddness of what is occurring. If the incongruous situation is our own failure or mistake, we view it in the way we view the failures and mistakes of other people. This perspective is more abstract, objective, and rational than an emotional perspective. As the theme song of the old Candid Camera television program used to say, we “see ourselves as other people do.” Instead of tensing up and preparing to run away or attack, we relax and laugh. In laughter, as Wallace Chafe said in The Importance of Not Being Earnest (2007), not only do we not do anything, but we are disabled as we lose muscle control in our torsos, arms, and legs. In extremely heavy laughter, we fall on the floor and wet our pants.
The nonpractical attitude in humor would not be beneficial, of course, if I were in imminent danger. If instead of ketchup, I spilled sulfuric acid on my shirt, the Here/Now/Me/Practical narrow focus of fear would be preferable to the disengaged, playful attitude of humor. When immediate action is called for, humor is no substitute. But in many situations where our expectations are violated, no action would help. In the Poetics (5, 1449a) Aristotle said that what is funny is “a mistake or unseemliness that is not painful or destructive.” But people have joked about problems as grave as their own impending death. As he approached the gallows, Thomas More asked the executioner, “Could you help me up. I’ll be able to get down by myself.” On his deathbed, the story goes, Oscar Wilde said: “This wallpaper is atrocious. One of us has to go.”
Not only does such joking foster rationality and provide pleasure, but it reduces or eliminates the combination of fear and/or anger called “stress,” which is at epidemic levels in the industrialized world. In fear and anger, chemicals such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol are released into the blood, causing an increase in muscle tension, heart rate, and blood pressure, and a suppression of the immune system. Those physiological changes evolved in earlier mammals as a way to energize them to fight or flee, and in early humans, they were usually responses to physical dangers such as predators or enemies. Today, however, our bodies and brains react in the same way to problems that are not physically threatening, such as overbearing bosses and work deadlines. The increased muscle tension, the spike in blood pressure, and other changes in stress not only do not help us with such problems, but cause new ones such as headaches and heart attacks. When in potentially stressful situations we shift to the play mode of humor, our heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension decrease, as do levels of epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. Laughter also increases pain tolerance and boosts the activity of the immune system, which stress suppresses (Morreall 1997, ch. 4; Morreall 2016, ch. 5-6).
A century ago, when psychologists still talked like philosophers, an editorial in the American Journal of Psychology (October 1907) said of humor that “Perhaps its largest function is to detach us from our world of good and evil, of loss and gain, and to enable us to see it in proper perspective. It frees us from vanity, on the one hand, and from pessimism, on the other, by keeping us larger than what we do, and greater than what can happen to us.”
While there is only speculation about how humor developed in early humans, we know that by the late 6th century BCE the Greeks had institutionalized it in the ritual known as comedy, and that it was performed with a contrasting dramatic form known as tragedy. Both were based on the violation of mental patterns and expectations, and in both the world is a tangle of conflicting systems where humans live in the shadow of failure, folly, and death. Like tragedy, comedy represents life as full of tension, danger, and struggle, with success or failure often depending on chance factors. Where they differ is in the responses of the lead characters to life’s incongruities. Identifying with these characters, audiences at comedies and tragedies have contrasting responses to events in the dramas. And because these responses carry over to similar situations in life, comedy and tragedy embody contrasting responses to the incongruities in life.
Tragedy valorizes serious, emotional engagement with life’s problems, even struggle to the death. Along with epic, it is part of the Western heroic tradition that extols ideals, the willingness to fight for them, and honor. The tragic ethos is linked to patriarchy and militarism—many of its heroes are kings and conquerors—and it valorizes what Conrad Hyers (1996) calls Warrior Virtues—blind obedience, the willingness to kill or die on command, unquestioning loyalty, single-mindedness, resoluteness of purpose, and pride.
Comedy, by contrast, embodies an anti-heroic, pragmatic attitude toward life’s incongruities. From Aristophanes’ Lysistrata to Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, comedy has mocked the irrationality of militarism and blind respect for authority. Its own methods of handling conflict include deal-making, trickery, getting an enemy drunk, and running away. As the Irish saying goes, you’re only a coward for a moment, but you’re dead for the rest of your life. In place of Warrior Virtues, it extols critical thinking, cleverness, adaptability, and an appreciation of physical pleasures like eating, drinking, and sex.
Along with the idealism of tragedy goes elitism. The people who matter are kings, queens, and generals. In comedy there are more characters and more kinds of characters, women are more prominent, and many protagonists come from lower classes. Everybody counts for one. That shows in the language of comedy, which, unlike the elevated language of tragedy, is common speech. The basic unit in tragedy is the individual, in comedy it is the family, group of friends, or bunch of co-workers.
While tragic heroes are emotionally engaged with their problems, comic protagonists show emotional disengagement. They think, rather than feel, their way through difficulties. By presenting such characters as role models, comedy has implicitly valorized the benefits of humor that are now being empirically verified, such as that it is psychologically and physically healthy, it fosters mental flexibility, and it serves as a social lubricant. With a few exceptions like Aquinas, philosophers have ignored these benefits.
If philosophers wanted to undo the traditional prejudices against humor, they might consider the affinities between one contemporary genre of comedy—standup comedy—and philosophy itself. There are at least seven. First, standup comedy and philosophy are conversational: like the dialogue format that started with Plato, standup routines are interactive. Second, both reflect on familiar experiences, especially puzzling ones. We wake from a vivid dream, for example, not sure what has happened and what is happening. Third, like philosophers, standup comics often approach puzzling experiences with questions. “If I thought that dream was real, how do I know that I’m not dreaming right now?” The most basic starting point in both philosophy and standup comedy is “X—what’s up with that?” Fourth, as they think about familiar experiences, both philosophers and comics step back emotionally from them. Henri Bergson (1900 ) spoke of the “momentary anaesthesia of the heart” in laughter. Emotional disengagement long ago became a meaning of “philosophical”—“rational, sensibly composed, calm, as in a difficult situation.” Fifth, philosophers and standup comics think critically. They ask whether familiar ideas make sense, and they refuse to defer to authority and tradition. It was for his critical thinking that Socrates was executed. So were cabaret comics in Germany who mocked the Third Reich. Sixth, in thinking critically, philosophers and standup comics pay careful attention to language. Attacking sloppy and illogical uses of words is standard in both, and so is finding exactly the right words to express an idea. Seventh, the pleasure of standup comedy is often like the pleasure of doing philosophy. In both we relish new ways of looking at things and delight in surprising thoughts. Cleverness is prized. William James (1911 , 11) said that philosophy “sees the familiar as if it were strange, and the strange as if it were familiar.” The same is true of standup comedy. Simon Critchley has written that both ask us to “look at things as if you had just landed from another planet” (2002, 1).
One recent philosopher attuned to the affinity between comedy and philosophy was Bertrand Russell. “The point of philosophy,” he said, “is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it” (1918, 53). In the middle of an argument, he once observed, “This seems plainly absurd: but whoever wishes to become a philosopher must learn not to be frightened by absurdities” (2008 , 17).
Often writing for popular audiences, Russell had many quips that would fit nicely into a comedy routine:
- The fundamental cause of trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt” (1998, 28).
- Most people would die sooner than think—in fact they do so” (1925a, 166).
- Man is a rational animal—so at least I have been told. Throughout a long life, I have looked diligently for evidence in favor of this statement, but so far I have not had the good fortune to come across it, though I have searched in many countries spread over three continents” (1950, 71).
- Mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true” (1925b, 75).
For more examples of the affinities between comedy and philosophy, there is a series of books on philosophy and popular culture from Open Court Publishing that includes: Seinfeld and Philosophy (2002), The Simpsons and Philosophy (2001), Woody Allen and Philosophy (2004), and Monty Python and Philosophy (2006). Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein have written Plato and Platypus Walked into a Bar … : Understanding Philosophy through Jokes (2008), and Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates: Using Philosophy (and Jokes!) to Explore Life, Death, the Afterlife, and Everything in Between (2009). In philosophy of mind, Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett, and Reginald Adams (2011) have used humor to explain the development of the human mind. In aesthetics, Noël Carroll (1999, 2003, 2007, 2013) has written about philosophical implications of comedy and humor, and about their relationships with the genre of horror. The journals Philosophy East and West (1989), the Monist (2005), and Educational Philosophy and Theory (2014) have published special issues on humor. The ancient prejudices against humor that started with Plato are finally starting to crumble.
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