Monday, August 8, 2011

Two German Philosophers Walk Into a Bar...

Yesterday's post about Kant and the sublime would tend to advance the myth that Kant was an overly serious guy. Not so! At the end of the "Analytic of the Sublime" in the Critique of Judgment (1790), he explains in Kantian detail how jokes work, and provides a few examples from his personal arsenal:

"In the case of jokes (the art of which, just like music, should rather be reckoned as pleasant than beautiful), the play begins with the thoughts which together occupy the body, so far as they admit of sensible expression; and as the understanding stops suddenly short at this presentment, in which it does not find what it expected, we feel the effect of this slackening in the body by the oscillation of the organs, which promotes the restoration of equilibrium and has a favorable influence upon health.


Suppose this story to be told: 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." At this story we laugh, and it gives us hearty pleasure, 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 and then was suddenly dissipated into nothing. Again: 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!" When we hear this story we laugh loud, and the reason is that an expectation is suddenly transformed into nothing."