Why Do People Laugh: Henri Bergson’s Essay „Laughter“

Have you ever wondered why you find some things funny and other things don't even make you smile? Many psychologists, philosophers, and literary critics have dedicated years of research to determine what it actually means for a human to laugh. Henri Bergson was one of the many to discuss this topic.

Bergson’s name is rather famous, as he was an influential 20th century French philosopher. In 1900, Bergson wrote an interesting essay called Laughter (read online).

Bergson was one of the few philosophers who insisted on making philosophy appealing to as many people as possible. He was against using „big words“ in his writing, which others used too often, in order to sound smart and well-educated. So, Bergson’s texts are very diverting and useful, including his essay Laughter.

One of Bergson’s main theses in this essay revolves around the question of what a human being is, what is so special about him and what causes him to laugh. Bergson looks to Aristotle for a definition, saying that a human is an animal which laughs.

So, what are some things people can laugh at? Animals? Plants? Things? Other people? Bergson says it’s possible to laugh at all of these, but we will laugh at the first three only if we notice they have elements of human nature in themselves. Bergson concludes:


Comedy does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human. […]You may laugh at an animal, but only because you have detected in it some human attitude or expression.

However, the answer to why we laugh is far more complicated. The reasons are deeply rooted in the society in which we live, and laughter is connected to cultural norms, tradition, history, and many other factors that are difficult to understand. Some critics (such as the Russian Vladimir Prop) have even offered some insights as to how humor differs accordingly, among various races and people. Laughter is controlled through social norms, and its mechanisms work completely unconsiously:


Were man to give way to the impulse of his natural feelings, were there neither social nor moral law, these outbursts of violent feeling would be the ordinary rule in life. But utility demands that these outbursts should be foreseen and averted. Man must live in society, and consequently submit to rules.

Bergson points out one universal role of laughter, no matter what people, places, or time we’re talking about. When we discuss the phenomenon of laughter, we have to have in mind its main function, which is punishment, according to Bergson:

Laughter punishes certain failings as disease punishes certain forms of excess, striking down some who are innocent and sparing some who are guilty, aiming at a general result and incapable of dealing separately with each individual case.

Bergson is a bit exclusive here, given the fact not all types of laughter are meant to punish the object of laughing. That would mean that laughing is, in fact – a malicious act, with mockery in focus. Truth is, laughing is something that connects us all, and it can be completely harmless, even well-intentioned.

Bergson explains to a certain extent – what causes laughter.

It can be caused by an unpredictable turn of events or a coincidence. For example – we will start laughing if we see a person trip and fall down in the street, but we won’t laugh if that same person sits down in the street, voluntarily.

We always find absentmindedness funny. Showing the actions of people who only seem to be physically present, but in their minds are miles away – is a common way of causing laughter in movies. If we see a man put a flowerpot on his head instead of his hat – it will at least make us smile. Bergson says:

Absentmindedness is always comical. Indeed, the deeper the absentmindedness the higher the comedy. Systematic absentmindedness, like that of Don Quixote, is the most comical thing imaginable: it is comedy itself, drawn as nearly as possible from its very source.

Another thing that makes people laugh is every movement that resembles the mechanical. Someone’s posture, gestures, or movements that are too mechanical and far from natural, human behaviour – will cause laughter for sure, Bergson says.

Laughing will cetainly occur when our attention gets shifted from something that is connected to the soul or something that is sacred, to something completely of this earth and material. For example, if a minister is giving a sermon, and there is a fly that keeps bothering him – our attention will be caught by the minister’s hand trying to chase the fly away, and the whole little scene will be funny.

When it comes to intentionally causing laughter (i.e. telling jokes), Bergson says that the main issue here is building up tension and providing the audience an unexpected ending, and having a sense of right timing. But, it isn’t for everyone. In the end, a very true thought comes to us from Bergson:

There are many ways of being witty, almost as many as there are of being the reverse.

Make sure to read the whole book! It isn’t a voluminous book, but a short and rather amusing one.

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