Expectation Heightened, Suddenly Disappears Into Nothing: A Joke.


Justin E. H. Smith has a new post on “gelastics” – “a neologism coined by Mary Beard from the Greek ‘gelan’: ‘to laugh’” – my favorite section is on Kant:

Kant is generally held to have offered the most disappointing account of music in the history of philosophy, one that cordons it off to the margins of human society and human experience, while failing to charge it with that mysterian force that Plato gave it in arguing that it is something too powerful to be allowed to be permitted, unregulated, into the Republic. Certainly, the feature of Kant’s philosophy of music that disappoints the most is that, while for us music is supposed to be serious, for him it is of a pair with jokes. But those who are gravely serious about music should bear in mind that, even if he ranked the figurative arts higher than the aural, he does not seem to have known much, or cared much, about either. Kant was likely the greatest thinker ever to tackle the philosophy of art in the absence of any critical sensibility whatsoever for the object of his theorising.

His sense of humour was equally underdeveloped, as we’ll see. Yet, I want to argue, it is Kant who has given the strongest theoretical account ever offered of the structure and nature of jokes.  Kant is the most prominent representative of what has come to be known as the “incongruity theory of humour,” according to which instances of humour are generated out of the temporal experience of a mixing of incongruous conceptual categories, a mixing that, as he elegantly puts it, gives rise to “the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing [die plötzliche Verwandlung einer gespannten Erwartung in nichts].” Kant explains: “[W]e laugh, and it gives us a hearty pleasure: not because we find ourselves cleverer than this ignorant person, or because of any other pleasing thing that the understanding allows us to note here, but because our expectation was heightened and suddenly disappeared into nothing.”

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