WHY DO WE LAUGH OR CRY?
(For Discussion Only, Not For Publication and Not for Quotation) To be read before the UP Labyrinth on January 19, 2005, during the Philosophy Week
As Heidegger expressed it, and sometimes also attributable to Gabriel Marcel, man has been “cast” or “thrown” into the world without his knowledge, will, or consent, and is removed from it again without his will or consent. Between these two events man has to go through much suffering. In order to explain the mysteries of that intervening event, man invents answers, first in the forms of myth and religion, later in that of philosophic systems.
Much of the theories about man have been contributed to our collection of theories not only by philosophy but also by science, the religions, and other systems of thought. We have some quite lucid discussion by David Hume in his Treatise of Human Nature, and lately, by Robert Nozick in his Philosophical Mediations and notably, too, Peter Singer’s best seller How Do We Live?
Hence, let’s look at a theory of laughter and crying.
There is a way by which we can philosophically analyze laughter and crying. In trying to answer the question, “Why do we laugh or cry?” there is no need to inquire into the psychological motives of people’s laughter and tears. The meaning of the question is: How can the psychological phenomena of laughing and crying be interpreted philosophically?” Are these typically human phenomena irrational?
Laughter can be interpreted as a value judgment, an instinctive, negative value judgment concerning a mortification (putting down) of a value or values. The judgment is not expressed in words, but in the inarticulate sounds we call laughter.
Laughter, however, is not only our reaction towards degradation of values. Sometimes it is also an action provoking a degradation of values, at least, trying to provoke it. When we laugh at a person, or a thing done by a person, although no value degradation can be found in them, we try to degrade their value. And often we survive.
There is a French saying, le ridicule tue, the ridiculous kills. Of course it does not kill physically, but it may kill morally, axiologically, it may kill values, and then laughter may have tragic consequences.
An example at this point, when we laugh at someone’s folly, misstep, or mispronunciation, the human personality, supposedly the source of all human values, spiritual perhaps, changes for a moment in to simple thing, into a physical object, subject to physical laws, and other defects, like all unintelligent passive objects of a nature exempt from values and hierarchies. By this change from an evaluating object into a value free object, the human person suffers a transitory degradation of his values, and the laughter he provokes by behaving like a dull, lifeless thing is an instinctive negative value judgment, criticizing and chastising that degradation of value.
Meanwhile, how do we analyze crying? We can observe that in the aftermath of a tragic event, an event that evoke sadness, seeing the suffering of another person or an animal, or the destruction or loss of something of value, or the death of someone, rather than laughter, many will cry. Tears in these or similar cases reveal the realization of loss of value. Every human life represents an ensemble of values, esthetic values, religious and social values. And in the specific cases of death and destruction, they mean loss of those specific values united in certain human persons. Not only a loss of value, but also the fact that they are threatened or unattainable may provoke tears.
In general we may confirm:
We laugh at degraded values, or in order to degrade values, but we weep about threatened, lost, and unattainable values. If the laughter about the comic is the instinctive expression of a negative value judgment concerning the degradation of values, weeping is an instinctive expression of a positive value judgment on threatened, unattainable, and...
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