If You Have To Explain It, It Isn’t Funny – Laughing Immediately With Merleau-Ponty, Part 1 (Adam Blair)

This is the first section in a two-part series.

The three predominant theories of humor within the Western canon — relief, incongruity, and superiority— reveal something about why we laugh when we do. There is a central insight to each of the three theories, regarding the psychological, conceptual, and social forces at play in our experience of the comic (or, in the comic of our experience).

However, what these theories are missing is where this experience of the comic is located (in the subject herself, or the object of humor, or their relation?), and how we respond within these three dimensions in the first place. In this paper, rather than digging into why we find such-and-such joke or situation funny (as with relief, incongruity, and superiority), I will investigate what it means that something appears as comic in the first place. Using the method of phenomenology, and specifically the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, I will show that while these three theories have useful insights when thinking through our reasons for laughing in retrospect or reflection, they are insufficient to account for the first-person experience of the comic. As I will argue, the main reason for this insufficiency is that my laughter is always an immediate response.

To begin, I will seek to uncover why the question of humor is a question of aesthetics. If we can place the comic within a particular realm of human experience, then we can better understand our relationship to it. I will begin by arguing for a particular form of aesthetic viewing, using Merleau-Ponty’s late essay “Eye and Mind.” This stance, we will see, is one in which the spectator engages the work of art with their body rather than mediating representations through abstract concepts of mind. Because we laugh immediately, our experience of humor is not abstract, but a bodily engagement. We cannot think before laughing, but a laugh is an immediate, unreflective response. If you have to explain the joke, then it isn’t funny.

After arguing for this aesthetic stance and the comic’s place within it, I will turn to Merleau-Ponty’s concept of a living or existential body from Phenomenology of Perception, in order to understand how this immediacy is lived through the body. Merleau-Ponty’s “body” is not the physical, objective body of inert material as Descartes conceives of it, but is the reciprocal expression of one’s existence, and therefore is always already giving sense to its world. Giving particular attention to the chapter on “The Body As Sexed Being,” we will see that the body is not merely an object among objects within a causal sequence of sense-data reception, but is always already (and immediately) within an affective world composed of inexhaustible existential dimensions.

We will see that focusing on the embodiment of aesthetic experience will reveal how the body itself is always already also concerned with questions of psychology, language, intersubjectivity, etc., due to the fundamental intermodality of the existential body. These facets of the lived body will help us to make sense of how the relief, incongruity, and superiority theories of humor are rendered possible in the first place.

In the final section, having situated laughter as an embodied phenomenon of the aesthetic domain, we will attempt to differentiate the comic from other forms of the aesthetic, in order to see what laughing has to offer us beyond enjoyment (as if we needed anything more). Using Bergson’s Laughter, we will find that while all forms of aesthetic experience may be found within the mode of immediacy, the stance before the work of art is a cultivated and voluntary openness to being struck immediately, while the comic is always an involuntary rupture from without. The result, as Bergson writes, is that the comic “is closer to life” than more “serious” art. I will conclude by gesturing toward what the comic, as that which strikes our living body in its everyday, living attitude, can teach philosophy, as well as what each individual laugh has to teach a life.

The Aesthetic Stance

Merleau-Ponty [1] begins “Eye & Mind” by remarking that his foil—the usual suspect of Descartes, in Dioptrics—calls the work of art a “text to be read,” and this reading is performed by thought and not by the body, upholding a strict dualism between the mental and the physical. [2] Since Descartes holds an artwork to be a sign (that is, the active half of a one-way, sign-signification relation), he takes colorless line drawings to be typical, as they present the most minimal form required for thought to produce an idea.

For Descartes, the mind (that is, the intellect, or thinking substance) deals in images of things, and therefore art is the production of icons and signs. The aesthetic stance for Descartes is a species of thinking, a disembodied activity of the mind which works over representations mediated through the passive sensory capacities of the body.

The painter, for Merleau-Ponty, does not so much re-present an image from the world of ideas as she presents a way of seeing. The painter is not bound to a mediating model, and therefore their project is not an intellectual activity, but a bodily one. It is my eyes that see and investigate the painting, not a disembodied mind before a representation. Similarly, it is not the painter’s mind working over the landscape, but it is the painter’s gaze which wanders among things to uncover how they are seen. The gaze is tied to bodily activity and not the intellect, for “we cannot imagine how a mind could paint. It is by lending his body to the world that the artist changes the world into paintings.” [3]

It is important for Merleau-Ponty that the painter’s gaze be im-mediately delivered to the canvas, since he doesn’t want any representation at play—if the painter’s gaze merely received visual data to pass through a Cartesian mind before generating a volition to move one’s hands, then it would no longer be the body’s vision on the canvas, but that of thought. Thought “assimilates” and “transforms” all that it comes into contact with, as it must place things in nets of association and categories of concept to make them intelligible. But the body is “caught up in things,” and doesn’t need to transform them into a new language or apparatus. [4] Indeed, the movement of the hand holding the brush and the gaze implicated in the visual field are grounded in the same body caught up within its world, so no mediation is necessary to have these two capacities open onto one another. Merleau-Ponty argues that “my movement is not of a different kind from [vision], but is a ‘natural sequel’ or ‘maturation’ of vision.” [5]

It is not the painter’s mind which discerns surface texture, or imposes color, or perceives depth. Instead, because her body sees things (not representations) and is among them, its vision and subsequent movement are already in its own native language. [6] Similarly, as a viewer in the gallery, I do not attend to the painting as a representation or abstraction which thought and concept would fix in place; rather, “my gaze wanders within [the painting]… Rather than seeing it, I see according to, or with it.” [7] Because I am a body and am receptive to the same world as the painter, my gaze can investigate the painting, which is itself the investigation performed by the painter.

If the painter is open to the world such that her body can take up the world in different ways, vision is not passive. [8] Instead, there are an indefinite number of possible ways of seeing. There is not raw sense-data striking my eye, but, instead, my eye is my power of reaching into the visible world—and always reaching in a certain way, which is why we have so many diverse artistic styles. Whereas Descartes and the empiricist argue for the passivity of vision as the one-way reception of sense-data—what we might deem the objective, or scientific, stance as opposed to the aesthetic—Merleau-Ponty writes that: “The eye is an instrument that moves itself, a means which invents it own ends…” [9]

The passivity of Descartes’ vision means that how I see, according to him, is predetermined by the functioning of the eye-as-tool. But Merleau-Ponty’s insertion of an intentional gaze allows for an open-ended participation of the body within its world—possible since my existence is not several steps removed from the world (connected back up through animal spirits and the pineal gland) but is already of the very same world it lives within. The scientific stance is to dissect according to predetermined frameworks, while the aesthetic stance is to put our frameworks on hold to dive into the world. The world is not a statement to be understood by thought, but is an open question to be engaged by the body.

Through this brief summary of “Eye & Mind,” we can understand the aesthetic for Merleau-Ponty as that region of experience wherein the body is engaged with its world, rather than a mind encountering a representation as mediated through thought or abstract category. Of course, I can reflect upon the initial, bodily aesthetic experience in order to then pick it apart according to categories, but the experience itself is the body engaging its world, rather than my mind thinking with a representation. The analytic, reflective stance of science comes to an experience with a set of theoretical tools it uses to tease apart the experience as it occurs. Science only sees what it is looking for, and therefore acts upon the world as a surgeon on a patient, only according to the uses of its (conceptual or literal) toolbox. Science doesn’t encounter the world, but instead finds an application for the measures and principles it already has beforehand.

To be within the aesthetic attitude, in contrast, is to be struck by the world from without, through a bodily engagement. The aesthetic stance recognizes that both the world and spectator are simultaneously passive and active—I investigate the world with my body, but the world also strikes me, as I have not yet generated the categories with which I am looking. Whereas the scientist always sees according to her own premises and therefore must mediate her observations through these principles, the artist’s vision “forgets its premises,” and therefore can be struck from without, immediately.

Merleau-Ponty understands this aesthetic stance through the medium of vision and painting, but the basic, essential structure can be generalized beyond the visual arts. We can also understand this form of engagement as present within our experience of the comic, for one simple reason: when I hear a joke or witness something comical, I laugh right away; that is, I laugh immediately. If you have to explain it—abstract, conceptualize, mediate, reflect—then it isn’t funny. One may need to take time to understand a joke, but the moment when a laugh bursts forth—the moment of getting it—is never itself a stage in a reflective causal sequence, but is a rupturing of thought, an immediate and unreflective act, felt in the body at the very moment when it occurs. I cannot decide to laugh (what I can decide is to focus on something I think I’ll find funny and open myself up to it: in this instance, intending has more to do with suspension than direct engagement.

If we accept Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological description of the aesthetic stance, then just as Cézanne doesn’t receive sense-data of the tree, form its mental representation, and then paint it, I do not hear the joke, consider it, and then laugh. Cézanne paints the tree as he sees it—the tree’s presentation to him is bound up simultaneously in his eye’s engagement and his body’s movement. Similarly, the comical statement or situation is not taken up, judged according to some abstract principle of humor, and then laughed at. I may reflect upon a situation I found humorous and then derive my reasons for having laughed, but the present, first-person experience of laughing is experienced as a bodily response. I hear the joke or see the humorous situation, and before I know it, my mouth smiles while my breathing changes, my heart speeds up, etc.; I never consciously intend to laugh. Just as one cannot imagine how a mind could paint, [10] one cannot imagine how a mind could laugh.

Laughter itself is bodily, and since it is prereflective, the body laughs according to its own means and ends rather than transcendental laws, just as the painter’s gaze is never predetermined through abstract concept. I may explain after the fact that I laughed due to an incongruity, but my laughter is never experienced as a result of incongruity, but by the situation itself. I don’t laugh at a mismatch between my expectations, but I laugh at the clown who slips on the banana peel. We need to understand, then, how it is that incongruity can be present for us simply and immediately, and according to our own terms rather than those imposed from the outside.

The Cartesian mind functions fundamentally according to the mediation of concept and category, and since laughter is an immediate response to a situation, it cannot be located within such an immaterial substance. Indeed, Descartes in Passions of the Soul agrees that laughter is an immediate, bodily response and isn’t found within the soul. For him, however, the body that responds is a mechanistically determined, objective body—a body that should not be able laugh at incongruity, as its world is merely physical, and incongruity for Descartes would be a mental judgment. This is the crux of why Descartes’ objective body can never live up to the wealth of our lived lives: all of the sense and meaning we find would have to come from the mind and be layered onto mere representations.

As we will see in the next section, the body that laughs, therefore, is not merely material, but is the lived body. Humor operates on many dimensions of our being—linguistic, social, cognitive, affective, aesthetic, etc.—and Descartes’ objective body cannot respond to these nonphysical layers of life, and we cannot resort to casting these back into the mind as mental mediations, due to the phenomenon of laughter itself. We will now dive into how we can make sense of a laughing lived body which is capable of meaningful response in many existential registers, and situate the three principal theories of humor in terms of this lived body, before concluding with what laughter has to teach us as a particular mode of the aesthetic.

The Laughing Body

It seems uncontroversial to say that I laugh “right away,” as this is borne out by experience. But it seems strange, perhaps, to argue that all laughter is a response by the body. After all, it would seem that word puns or jokes grounded upon social stereotypes would require some form of mediation above and beyond the body itself. However, through understanding Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the lived body as opposed to Descartes’ objective body, we will come to understand how all forms of humor can strike our body without first passing through a purely mental act.

Merleau-Ponty’s magnum opus Phenomenology of Perception can be read as a critique of empiricism and rationalism, resolving the contradictions of these two opposing philosophical viewpoints by positing a third terms. Both approaches share in the same fundamental mistake, according to Merleau-Ponty: separating subject and object, detaching experience from its world. Merleau-Ponty’s insight, coming out of Husserl’s phenomenological project, is that neither the individual nor the world are wholly active or passive, but are in a constant movement between one another. We are always already within the world from the outset, not a disembodied mind before the world (rationalism), nor an epiphenomenal consciousness emerging after the fact  (empiricism); our mind is never disembodied, but our body is never mere mechanism, either.

Rather than casting the body as an instinctual response system governed by transcendent physical laws or an otherworldly soul, Merleau-Ponty shows that it is not my mind controlling my body, nor my body passively responding to stimuli, but my body is actively engaged in projects within its equally active world. My body is not inert matter which I inhabit, but I am my living body.

Objective thought (rationalism and empiricism) goes wrong when it assumes that I am something other than my body, be it a soul or epiphenomenal consciousness; the problem appears when it has to try to work the two back into one another again (as in Descartes’ famous letter to Princess Elizabeth). While contemporary materialists solve the problem of dualism by rejecting immateriality altogether, phenomenology recognizes that we can stop the bifurcation of material/immaterial from arising in the first place by setting out from a philosophical reflection upon the lived body.

My body need not have external laws and pressures governing it from without—whether they be physical laws or a soul situated in the pineal gland—for the body as it is lived firsthand can be immanently engaged within its own world, rather than being a mere cog in a machine or puppet for a soul. And, as we will see, my laughter is therefore neither the mere outcome of an atomic domino effect nor a mental decision: it is an existential, expressive capacity. We will attempt to understand laughter within this living body by reading the immediacy of the relief theory, the incongruity theory, and the superiority theory.

The relief theory is typified by Sigmund Freud in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, where he argues that one laughs due to the “liberating pleasure” at alleviating that which has been repressed in the unconscious. [11] There is an internal struggle of which one is unaware, and when this repressive activity is solicited by a joke, there is the bodily response of laughter. Humor is the opportunity for the ego to relieve these unconscious pressures in a way that can keep the ego protected in its conscious awareness. Freud writes that “there is no doubt that the essence of humour is that one spares oneself the affects to which the situation would naturally give rise and dismisses the possibility of such expressions of emotion with a jest.” [12] Freud attributes this ignorance of the “natural” affective response to the situation to the “invulnerability of the ego,” which protects itself by displacing negative affect into the unconscious by consciously laughing instead. [13]

The funny situation or the joke causes can excess in the unconscious which can be relieved, through laughter, without the unconscious drama itself coming to the fore. An example of what may be repressed is a libidinal drive for pleasure through sexual satisfaction. [14] We see this for instance when Rowan Atkinson takes the stage and begins a roll call of equivocal names, such as “anus,” “clitoris,” and “enema,” the meaning of the pleasure from our laughter, for Freud, can be derived from the relief felt at exposing our libidinal drive in a socially
acceptable form. [15]

While Merleau-Ponty wouldn’t necessarily discount that pleasure can be experienced through such humor, he does argue against the notion of a Freudian unconscious, due to a reluctance to accept mediating concepts bearing upon experience from without. Laughter for Freud would be found at the end of a causal sequence—albeit a psychological one rather than a physical one. By having a phenomenal experience as the outcome of a causal chain, Freud falls prey to removing experience from the world, bifurcating the subject and that which acts upon them (or, even, within them). For Freud, I laugh when Atkinson says “genital” due to a chain of psychological dominoes, and, indeed, I do not laugh at Atkinson or “genital,” but at my libidinal drive consciously represented. However, this is not how I experience my laughter, which is immediate and at the spoken word “genital.” Turning to Merleau-Ponty’s lived body, we can understand relief without the need of positing an unconscious.

In Chapter Five of “The Body as Sexed Being,” Merleau-Ponty criticizes Freudian psychoanalysis by giving his own reading of a woman afflicted with aphonia. The woman with aphonia had an episode as a child, where she couldn’t speak after enduring an earthquake. She seemed to have shaken the affliction, but some years later when the young woman is forbidden from seeing the man she loves, her inability to speak returns to her in full force.

Merleau-Ponty writes that psychoanalysis would attribute aphonia to the oral stage of sexual development. A repressed memory from this stage of the young woman’s life initiated an internal, sexual drama of the unconscious which, given harsh enough external circumstances, such as an earthquake or a maternal prohibition, becomes externalized as an inability to speak. There is latent content within the unconscious which is literally re-presented through a bodily symptom. As we have seen, this doubleness is present in Freud’s relief theory, too. I do not find something funny on its own terms, but it is my unconscious that mediates without my awareness, and then delivers up a reaction for me to take up. My laughter is a bodily representation of the relief my ego experiences as it is made aware of a repressed fact of itself, clothed appropriately (in a joke, that is). To make sense of aphonia or laughter, psychoanalysis posits an unconscious drama which mediates our experience and causes a response.

Merleau-Ponty applauds Freud for recognizing that sexuality hovers throughout a life, like an atmosphere. The great achievement of psychoanalysis, he writes, was to reintegrate sexuality into human existence. [16] Whereas dualists like Descartes would have held sexuality at a distance as a mere object held as a bodily instinct or within one corner of thought, Freud revealed how it is bound up within the fabric of our very selves, without an unaffected cogito at the core of the psyche. However, as we have seen, Merleau-Ponty presses on claims of representation, to show that, with the proper conception of a body and a proper phenomenological understanding of our own  experience, we can understand such representations as simple presentations. The case of aphonia, and my relieving laughter, is here no different.

Adam Blair is a PhD student in the philosophy department at State University of New York, Stony Brook.  His areas of interest include phenomenology (especially Merleau-Ponty), aesthetics, philosophy of education and pedagogy, jazz and other music, feminism and post-colonial thought, and film.


[1] Parts of this section were written previously in a work of mine, Resounding Color: Exploring The Intermodal Body’s Auditory Gaze with Merleau-Ponty and Christopher Biggs’ Displaced. The general discussion of “Eye and Mind” was also pertinent for that project and therefore some of the research is used here.

[2] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Galen A. Johnson, and Michael B. Smith, The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 1993), 132.

[3] Ibid., 123.

[4] Ibid., 125.

[5] Ibid., 124.

[6] Ibid., 126.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 127.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 123.

[11] Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, trans. James Strachey, vol. VIII (London: The Hogarth Press, 1905), 134.

[12] Freud and A. A. Brill, “Humour,” in The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud. (New York: Modern Library, 1938), 162.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Freud, Jokes, 101.

[15] We will come back to this example later on, showing how other theories of humor come to bare upon it.

[16] Merleau-Ponty and Donald A. Landes, Phenomenology of Perception (Abingdon, Oxon New York: Routledge, 2012), 160.

, , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.