Rene Descartes on Humour and Laughter

Rene Descartes on Humour and Laughter

Rene Descartes wrote extensively on humour and laughter.

He was a prominent supporter of the superiority theory of humour and linked the idea of superiority to the use of humour as a way of positively correcting abnormal behaviour.

Descartes was interested in the explosive physiology of laughter and how humour is an interaction between body and mind.

The emotions associated with humour and laughter were also considered by Descartes, in particular: wonder joy and hatred.

Anyone interested in humour theory will need to explore Rene Descartes on Humour and Laughter.

Who Was Rene Descartes?

Rene Descartes was a French philosopher, mathematician and scientist who lived between 1596-1650.

He was one of the most notable intellectual figures of the Dutch Golden Age and is widely regarded as one of the founders of modern philosophy.

He is also well-known for inventing analytic geometry which linking the previously separate fields of geometry and algebra.

Descartes: The Superiority Theory of Humour

Although Descartes wrote extensively on the relationship between humour and superiority theory, his attention was more focused towards laughter, rather than humour per se.

His ideas were explored in his last published work, ‘The Passions of the Soul’ in 1649, where he makes the first reference to the superiority theory of humour.

Superiority theory of humour

His notion of humour and feelings of superiority were considered in associated with his identification that the explosive physiological mechanism of laughter is fundamentally aggressive and hostile.

He identified three emotions that he believed were most closely associated to humour: wonder, joy and hatred.

Descartes proposed that joy alone was not able to produce laughter and that it needed to be coupled with either wonder of hatred to create laughter.

In the case of joy and hatred, this would come in the form of ridicule where the hatred is associated with the hostile intent to cause harm to another person and the joy is associated with the pleasure that is experienced in doing so.

However, where Descartes differs from other supporters of superiority theory is that he also considers the positive aspects of this theory.

Firstly, he also considers joy coupled with wonder as being two emotions which have the ability to produce laughter, not just the negative emotion of hatred.

Descartes also believed that superiority theory could have a wider social benefit.

He proposed that using humour to ridicule others was a socially responsible act as it identified the inferior behaviours of others and provided them with an opportunity to correct their behaviour.

Although this interpretation of the use of humour is more positively framed it still places the comic in a superior position with those being mocked in an inferior position.

Descartes: Using Humour to Correct Abnormal Behaviour

Unlike other superiority theorists who adopted a fully negative view on humour and laughter, such as Thomas Hobbes, Descartes did identify what he believed to be a potential benefit of the superiority theory of humour.

Using ridicule in a more personable way, such as when jesting with the friend, it is possible to expose the vices of that friend allowing them the opportunity to correct their abnormal behaviour.

By making someone the butt of the joke, the comic is able to highlight the factors they are being ridiculed for as factors that need to be corrected.

Descartes views the comic as being socially responsible in their approach to mocking another person as it supports a process of continuous development for others.

There is a clear link again here with the superiority theory of humour as it positions the comic as superior to the friend who is the butt of the joke.

The comic is superior as they are correcting the inferior behaviour of the friend.

Descartes: The Explosive Physiology of Laughter

Descartes makes reference to the air from the lungs passing through the windpipe during laughter causing an ‘inarticulate and explosive utterance.’

Descartes’ summary of the physiological mechanisms of laughter are now considered to be outdated but the attention he gave to the explosive nature of laughter is of particular interest when considering the hostile nature of many philosophical interpretations of the superiority theory of humour.

The characteristics of a sudden expansion of the lungs and the interruption of a normal breathing pattern by a violent and explosive outburst of laughter can be considered consistent with characteristics of aggression and hostility.

Descartes’ interpretation of the explosive physiology of laughter enables us to differentiate between laughter and smiling, which is consistent with many of the contemporary philosophers that followed. 

Descartes: Humour as an Interaction of Body and Mind

Descartes believed that there is an interaction between body and mind when someone experiences humour and laughter.

He proposed that laughter occurs when someone experiences joyful wonderment or surprise as this experience has the potential to stimulate the heart and inflate the lungs.

The physiological effects of laughter have been considered by many philosophers and theorists.

It cannot be disputed that laughter creates a physiological response which is correlated with the extend of the laughter taking place.

The fact that excessive laughter has the ability to cause a serve loss of self-control seems to be of no evolutionary benefit to the individual.

In addition, the involuntary physiological reactions to excessive laughter have been viewed throughout history as being detrimental to an individual’s ability to function thus offering further to support to the concept of humour being negatively framed in the way superiority theory proposes.

Descartes: Humorous Emotions: Wonder, Joy and Hatred

In his writings in The Passion of the Soul, Descartes explores his interest in the relationship between humour and emotions.

He considers the specific emotions associated with humour and laughter, what causes them to be more prominent during humorous episodes and why they are significant to humour.

Descartes focuses his attention on three main emotions which he believes to be most closely related to humour and laughter:

  1. Wonder
  2. Joy
  3. Hatred

He explores wonder and joy as possible causes of humour but turns his attention mostly to the emotion of hatred.

Hatred is considered to be a negative emotion (compared to wonder and joy) and its relationship with ridicule, mocking and scorn are particularly interesting in reference to the superiority theory of humour.

It is proposed that joy alone is not capable of producing laughter and that joy needs to be coupled with either wonder or hatred in order to produce humour and laughter.

The hatred comes in the form of ridiculing another person in a hostile way to cause harm and the joy comes from the pleasure experienced in doing so.

Neither hatred nor joy alone can create laughter but when combined in this way laughter can be produced.

Author: Jonathan Sandling