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Episode #146 ... Bergson on Laughter pt. 2 - Vitalism

2020-10-20 | 🔗

Today we continue our discussion on the work of Henri Bergson. 

This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
Hello, everyone, I'm Stephen West. This is philosophies this. Thank you to the listeners that support the show on Patreon and thank you to all the people that go through the contribute. What you think it's worth method on the website. Today's episode is part two of what we started last time on Henry Bergson. I hope you love the show today so in response to all the different theories about what makes us laugh that have been laid out. Historically, Henry Bergson presents his famous hybrid theory and his work released in the year. One thousand nine hundred, understandably titled laughter now by the end of our explanation here today, we're going to ultimately conclude with the idea that Bergson believes laughter at its core is ultimately a message to other people, but to understand what he means by that we're going to need to have a deeper understanding of why he thinks we laugh when we witness the mechanical encrusted upon the living. but to understand that we're gonna need some more till about one of the key ideas. It helps them ground. His entire world view process philosophy and get started doing that we gotta go
The way back to episode, one of the show to a pre, socratic philosopher, born in the year five, thirty five bc. A man by the name of Heraclitus, so because it was seven years ago, if Heraclitus was gonna, make a bumper sticker of the simplest way to put his biggest idea? It would be that he thought the universe is always in a state of flux or constant change. We can also think of flux. terms of the universe being ever flowing flowing between dueling polarities day and night good and evil chaos in order existence flows between things that seem to be opposites that are, in fact, two sides of the same coin to Heraclea, two different states of a larger overall process that is constantly in flux. Now, thinking of flux as being similar to flowing is actually very helpful when trying to understand Heraclitus in particular, because
as you might remember his most famous metaphor from one of his fragments is about a river. He says quote: no man ever steps in the same river, twice for. It's not the same river and he's not the same man quote picture yourself, standing on the bank of a river you step into the river for a second you get out for a minute, you step back into the river. What the metaphor is saying is that when you step back in that river, you are not stepping into the same river, because the river, the water that you stepped into before, is now somewhere about a mile downstream. Now, seeing as how Heraclitus is not a kayaking instructor, it seems like a pretty weird point from to be making. So what what's a larger point? He was too, to make here. Well, one of the points put in a more modern context. It'll help us understand, process philosophy today is that so often We stand on the bank of the river and we see that river as a free standing separate static into
This is the Nile River Land, surveyor might say in fact, all throughout history to Bergson. Scientists and philosophers have tried to do this with things much bigger than a river. They sometimes had to do it with the entire universe, but Heraclitus a saying that the universe is not made up of a bunch of static, separate, distinct objects Can be cataloged and compared up next to each other to be able to understand them. There is something more fundamental about the universe that seems to him to be more like the flow of a river. More than that to Heraclitus, though it seems to him that it's not just the universe that is flowing as observers, we seem to be flowing as well was similar to the river example, is the more modern popular example of the sandy picture, sand dune on a windy day and for whatever reason assigned Two sides are going to try to empirically quantify what exactly that sand dune is like we talked about a couple episodes ago,
there's a sense in which, by the time you get done, making your first measurement of one little piece of that sand dune The sand dune has shifted its morphed and turned into something else. It can seem impossible to take an accurate snapshot of what sand Dune is in any single moment see, but to Bergson. Even this is, already making a mistaken thinking to even think of the sand. Dune in this way is to think of the sand dune and what it is in terms of what can be spatially, measured and quantified in this moment, but is the sand dune? ever really defined by this moment when you are, You look at the sand dune. It starts to look less, like a bunch of distinct parts that someone can measure and quantify that.
later be assembled next to each other like building blocks, and we can eventually recreate something we call a sand do know a sand. Doom starts to look more like a continuous fluid process, a process of parts that interpenetrate each other parts that need each other parts that cannot be broken down or separated, or else we are looking at the full sand dune at all. What I'm saying is that the sand dune never truly exists in a single moment that can be cordoned off quantified and recorded by a scientist or a philosopher this tendency. We have, though, to look at things in terms of what they are in this particular moment is why Bergson thought it was so important to explain, process philosophy through the example of time, Burke's and use the word time the same way we all do in a casual everyday since he completely stood that we need clocks, we need seconds minutes and ours to be able to function well in social
life. We need to know when it's time to go pick up the kids from school. We gotta know when the bus is going to show to the bus stop, but outside of this, he thought our understanding of time was yet another example of us projecting our thousand of years of spatially, biased thinking onto a universe that can't be fully understood, spatially there's, probably no better example of this than the common idea of a timeline, so imagine you're, watching a video and there's the bar underneath that allows you to click to any point in the video. This video represents the. world as we're living in it, and the timeline underneath represents the way we commonly perceive time Thinking is that there's a line of events that have occurred that can be subdivided into these tiny increments, and these increments, lay side by side on this timeline, allowing us to go back to any single snapshot in that time line and see it, as distinct from all the rest for it.
We say things all the time like. I met this person at this second on this hour of this day. In other words, we have GPS coordinates for moments in time. We think time spatially, not only in terms of locating specific moments in time, but we even think of the instruments of time like seconds as though there these things that are distinct from each other and quantifiable. as though this second stands alone from the second, the king, before or after it bursts and things. What we typically call seconds are not distinct separate moments at all these moments. If you can want to call him that interpenetrate each other their interconnected and cannot exist without each other, in fact, Berks and wants to get away from the name time altogether. The technical term he uses is duration and duration is a holistic connected and continuous process, not unlike the sand dune.
to even try to quantify it in any single moment, would be missing the point of what it is you're, even trying to measure and understand in the first place and here's the big point. Whenever we try to spatially quantify anything that is more fundamentally a continuous process, we only end up distorting the phenomena that we're trying to study. Now we don't just do this with sand dunes and clocks. We do this with all kinds of things. We do this with consciousness. We try to break down the different parts of consciousness, to be able to understand it better. We do this with identity. The pieces of our identity work together, like this unique set of puzzle, pieces that fit together. We do this with human behavior. We do this with what drives life at all, which brings me to Bergson's next big point here: mechanism members idea that we laugh with
and we witness the mechanical encrusted upon the living. Well, we're actually talking about what he means when he says mechanical by mechanical he's, referencing a way of viewing the universe popular in the late nineteenth century. The idea that everything can be explained by looking to material and mechanical principles to be able to explain it. We break things down into their component parts. We try to understand each part and how it works, and then we try to understand the thing by seeing how those parts all work together almost like gears and a machine point is these machines are multiplicity? Is there a bunch of different things, well together, to make something else. Bergson, of course, wants to look at processes which are, by contrast, singular continuous with their parts not being distinct from each other. This is gonna, be ok,
distinction he uses when laying out his theory of why we laugh at things process, verses mechanism, but the more technical way to put that in the case of Bergson would be vital. Ism verses mechanism, let me explain, because this brings me to the last piece of the puzzle. Little allow us to stand his theory of laughter, and that is to look at one of the answers. Bergson gave to the big questions that face the thinkers of his time. Once again, persons living during the late nineteenth early twentieth centuries, the theory of Evolution is at the forefront of people's minds now for people like Bergson, who believe that evolution was a scientific fact. What was more, on his mind, I was finding ways to not only justify the theory, but also to explain little scientific loose ends that people believed at the time. That didn't seem to be fully understood yet know whether we're talking about life as a process or we're talking about
evolution as just a theory to explain what's going on. One thing you eventually have to recognise is that whatever this thing is, it seems to be changing and at times to Bergson it seems to be changing creatively, which is a pretty curious spot to be, and if you're a thinker during this time, how do you account for this change? What is directing this change? If anything, and if there is some creative element of that change, What is the source of all this new stuff that it's creating? You can imagine why bergs and thought this was an important question worth answering. Consider the two dominant theories trying to account for the change of evolution during his time. The mechanistic and the teleological If some thinkers thought that we could understand the inner workings of life and nature, almost as though it's a machine with a bunch of different parts working together again, the popular mechanistic view Berks and thought this was wrong because that explanation could never fully account for new things being created.
Out of evolution. Reason being is that life is emerging and it resembles something like a machine. The nothing new. Really come out of it, because everything new would have to be born out of the existing finite set of cogs in gears that it has whatever those are now. On the other hand, there are people of his time that accounted for this change by pointing to final causes or various forms of final is the idea that human beings are an end point for evolution.
a squirrel is an endpoint. A moose is an end point. Not only does this not account for the creative evolution that bergs and saw, he thought it completely ignores a lot of the discontinuity between species and even how some species have very different characteristics in one location, as opposed to another birds and solution to this problem was his famous concept of Alan Vital, loosely translated to vital impulse or an impulse rooted at the origin of life that accounts for the creation of all the species to explain the discontinuity of all the species. He offers up two primary factors that he calls instinct and intelligence. This is where we can understand the contrast he marks between the traditional mechanistic view of things, and what would we become known as Bergson's vitalism, hence the vital impulse see if the mechanistic view says that nature is like a machine, then vitalism isn't going to say that life is actually a process, a process that has
own rules and norms and that the laws of things like physics and chemistry cannot adequately describe or for all that goes on in this life process, the idea was that both physics and chemistry, our scientific approaches towards understanding how the material world operates life, is not wholly material and to try to use our understanding of matter to make sweeping claims. about our understanding of life would just be too far reaching Bergson, not to mention this goes back The fact that Bergson believe these human methods of analysis, like physics and chemistry, were incapable of studying these sorts of processes without distorting what they were trying to study. These sorts of mechanical spatial approach is being applied to the process of life me you could almost say this would be like the mechanic being encrusted upon the living. Now it doesn't really matter whether or not bergson crack the code of evolution here and his lengthy explanation.
Nation for why instinct and intelligence account for the differentiation between species really wouldn't be relevant to our discussion here today. So out of respect to your time, the important point we need to take from his work on creative evolution is that we live in a bit of a paradox as human beings between this instinct and intelligence see on one hand with the one species that wants to know about the complex inner workings of the process of life and how it operates, and yet because we always have to use our intelligence to be able to arrive at that knowledge. We are the only species that can't get intimate access to it see other animals have no problem accessing this vital impulses
and talks about live a much more intuitive existence than human beings. Do we, on the other hand, use mechanistic thinking, spatial thinking, scientific analysis to try to understand the process? While we already know how that worked out with the standard, we can't use intelligence to get access to a long, be tall because simply by virtue of imports, in any human created system of analysis, we are distorting the very phenomena were trying to study you. Probably Doubt see parallels between this sort of argument and things like the observer effect, but this places Bergson firmly in a tradition that was popular during the early twentieth century. That would come to be known as intuition ism. Now, That said, we can finally understand what he means when he says that we laugh when we witness the mechanical encrusted upon the living. The true nature of life of human behaviour And of human behavior within societies is driven by this vital impulse or vitalism. In other words, the mechanistic view is wrong.
Society is not a machine. Nature is not a machine and we are not the cogs and gears that make it up. Human behavior is a process. It is fluid flowing between different polarities, singular continuous and the parts that make it up are not distinct and separate. They're distances rely on each other. A person is not exactly who they are without the people on either side of them. That said, we can try all day long to use our intelligence to scientifically breakdown human behaviour in society, and we do this through psychology sociology, among other things, but as nightly useful, is that information will be too was practically. In this moment we are only too bergson distorting what we are trying to study and will never be able to have access to the overall process. That's going on or alone veto The only way we gain access to those things again is through intuition to Bergson. This explains why no
single philosophical or scientific theory has been able to explain why we laugh at things see when you and your friends are walking through the woods your friend in front is going on about their the rapes. Northern open up and they trip over them log and they ruthlessly attack a rhododendron with their face. What are you realize it, or not? Intuitively you are it's level assessing somebody who is a direct threat to the health and fluidity of society, see we recognize that some intuitive level, the true process oriented nature of life in human society. We intuitively have access to this vital impulse, whether we realize it or not. We know at some level these success or failure of our societies
and time spells the life or death of us as individuals. So when somebody engages in a behaviour that starts to resemble either mechanization death or robotic like atomism, we see that is something that could be a direct threat if it continues and laughter begins to serve as a corrective action in that effort. Laughter is a mediator between vital ism and mechanism to Bergson to be a functioning member of society in touch with this vital impulse that drives us takes a certain amount of flexibility. As a person point is the world can throw a lot of things your way as a citizen of a society, we need to keep our wits about us and Bergson thought. One of the worst things you can be is overly rigid. This is why you less dissidents are so important to Bergson thought it was so easy to fall into the trap of what he called the easy atomism of acquired
habits now the route word of automatism is automaton, and I want to give a definition on the show here today. So I asked one of the smartest people I've ever met. Her name is Miriam Webster. I know that's, usually the two last names crazy coincidence. She says automaton means a moving mechanical device made an imitation of a human being, an imitation of a human being see. This is burdens, big, when people start to resemble a Tom TOMS, more so than they resemble a vital functional member. Society we witness one key example of how the mechanical is often incrusted upon the living. So when your friend trips over the log in the woods, because they're so does acted in our hyper focused on some sort of plans. They have in that moment they resemble an automaton programme. To start a war
far more than they resemble a functioning member of the process of society, they can't be flexible to whatever society throws their way, because, quite frankly, they're too distracted to be paying attention to it. Birkin would call this a quote lack of elasticity due to absent, mindedness and quote. This is why we laughed at them because of everyone lived their life, so distracted all the time if they can even see the log sitting right in front of them, literally or figuratively then society wouldn't last very long at all, laughter becomes The way we communicate to this person that they need to lock in and get it together, pay attention to them locks now. Another example: Bergson gives us a type of person we might more commonly referred to as a conform, This is a member of society that two Bergson has fallen asleep at the wheel. They accept what ever narrative is thrown their way. They accept their position within that narrative. There told what to do and by golly they like it, because it's easy, the exempt
bergson gives is of a business person with their strict, rigid dress code, the rituals, the rigid decorum of behaviors, its expected of them, the power poses and tony Robins affirmations in the mere every morning you see I Did it right there? It so easy to start trying to laugh at this person's expense because of everybody blindly committed to some role that they just fell into one day, then we wouldn't have enough resistance against the current dominant narrative at any one time. in other words, if it were filled with conformists, would be less vital or healthy place for Bergson. One more type of person that lacks elasticity is somebody that goes too far in the other direction. Bergson calls this kind of person, somebody with separatists,
tendencies. This is somebody that goes against the glue that hold society together at such a level that, if left unchecked, might actually do some harm. Good example of this in committee is maybe a wacky sit com or movie character or picture standup comedian talking about some crazy things they do when they're out in public. This is the opposite of the conformist. This is somebody who refuses to conform and is we needed from the fluidity and social process because of it? Generally speaking, though, what's common among all these examples, is that all pushing the envelope of behaviour that will maintain a vital, healthy society, but Bergson would want to point out what's interesting. To consider here is that we have another group of people that often pushed the envelope of what's good for society. criminals and we have an obvious solution for criminals? We put them in jail, but these minor offences were people really aren't hurting anyone else. They just lack elasticity. We're not gonna put them in
jail for that, but society still need some manner of recourse. That is where laughter comes in for Bergson laughter is a self administered, antidote where people pay a minor social price for the sake of having the most vital society possible. So we can see now why Bergson's theory is considered more of a hybrid theory of laughter. You could make a case if you want to try hard enough that there are pieces to this that match the superiority theory. You could say that this is a variation of the incongruity theory and tons of other bits and pieces from hundreds of other theories out there. What's interesting, though, is that Bergson's theory seems to account for the discrepancy we talked about at the end of last episode, the question of why it is that we can laugh at both comedy that speaks truth to power, power and comedy. That's just completely absurd. When you
of laughter as a tool to promote social vitality and health. Then of course, of course, we'd laugh at people pointing out how people in power being ridiculous. We need our leaders to be in check to have a vital society and, of course, we laugh at somebody saying something totally absurd or over the top. Because, even if we know at some level, they dont mean any of it. Just imagining this being. A real member of society engages that part of us that vital impulse. But that said just a play, devils advocate here what about somebody that tells a joke simply for the sake of telling a joke near the kids. Do it? What do they do again? How do they say it wanna hear a joke, that's it. They say the other person says yes, and then they laugh and there's no correct action going on here, they're just telling jokes, maybe neither can offer some insight here is Aristotle. He has section in his work where he talks about the function of eyesight. So you can ask the question: what is the function of ice
in the same way, you can ask the question: what is the function of laughter? The same way you can say that we laugh because it serves a purpose. It maintain social vitality could say we see because it serves the purpose it allows us to see. Predators allows us to pick food worked together in groups etc, but Aristotle says how horrible would it be if the only time you ever got a user I cite was when it was doing something useful for your survival. What, if every time you weren't do something to immediately survive. You just went blind, wouldn't be fun, Aristotle says, and why? Because sometimes you just want to enjoy the view sometimes you just want to look out. The window and see things for the sake of seeing them Eris
eventually going to use this to talk about. Why philosophy is important people of his time love to say that the value of philosophy is that it gives us tons of useful benefits at the level of society, not unlike Bergson's view of laughter, but Aristotle is going to say that a true philosopher is capable of loving wisdom for the sake of wisdom. Sometimes there is no practical benefit to engaging in philosophy. Sometimes it's an activity worth doing for the fun of it. Some It's just something to do where you dont need wifi and five g in floppy describes and all that fancy computer stuff people have nowadays what, if it's equally possible to do this with laughter. What if laughter, undeniably provides us with social benefits, but it's also entirely possible to just laugh the sake of laughing and that we don't need some superiority. Theory or income groups the theory or all this over thinking to be able to explain it.
matter. Why you're laughing, though Aristotle has some advice for you, it say make sure you never find yourself to extreme on either side of humor. What he means is always make sure that you're, not that person that can't take a joke where everything needs to be a serious productive converse,
all should all the time, but equally make sure you're not that annoying person on the other side, laughing and joking about everything, no matter how serious it is world's the world's on fire. All around you laughter can definitely be a convenient distraction which reminds me with all this talk about laughter and joking. These past couple episodes this type of person. Aristotle's referencing reminds me of my favorite passages about humor and I'll leave you with it here today. Ironically, it's from Kirke Guard posted this on Twitter. Before Kirker Guard says this: a fire broke out backstage in a theater. The clown came out to warn the public. They thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it. The acclaim was even greater, I think that's just how the world will come to an end to general applause from wits, who believe it's a joke. Thank you for listening I'll talk to you next time
Transcript generated on 2020-10-21.