On February 28th, I participated in an author meets critics session at the Central Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association, in Chicago. This is the text of my presentation:
Author Meets Critics: Philosophy, Humor, and the Human Condition: Taking Ridicule Seriously, by Lydia Amir (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).
Critic: John Marmysz
In Philosophy, Humor, and the Human Condition: Taking Ridicule Seriously, Lydia Amir argues in favor of a worldview that she calls Homo risibilis; a perspective portraying humans as “ridiculous” animals. She characterizes the human condition as “ridiculous” in order to highlight our hopeless entanglement in the enduring incongruities and contradictions of life; incongruities between our ultimate desires and the impossibility of their final fulfillment. Humans, for instance, desire Truth, and yet our intellectual capacities are finite and unable to fully grasp the absolute Truth. We desire Goodness, Justice, Beauty, etc. and yet we are incapable of actualizing these ideals. Human life, in its essence, involves vain and endless striving for things that are impossible to actualize. So long as we live, we are trapped by the irresolvable contradictions between our aspirational desires and our reasonable capacities; and there is nothing that we can do to resolve and settle these contradictions. They are simply part of the human condition. Human life is ridiculous in this sense.
Traditionally, this condition has been interpreted as tragic. In tragedy, darkness and sadness color our interpretations of the world, encouraging us to view our ridiculous condition as painful and dissatisfying. And yet, argues Amir, there is another option open to us. The ridiculous incongruities of life can also be interpreted through the lens of comedy, a perspective that sees the world as a joyful and happy place where everything is just as it should be. It is possible to make the shift from a tragic to a comic perspective on life, argues Amir, because both tragic and comic perspectives represent responses to incongruity. And it is preferable to view the world through a comic lens, she argues, because of the joyfulness and happiness that such a perspective brings.
The benefits of shifting to a comic perspective, according to Amir, are powerful. Instead of feeling crushed and stressed by life, the comic perspective helps relieve the tension generated by the absurdity of our existence, allowing us to become reconciled to, and satisfied with, our condition. This aids us in transcending the unhappiness we often feel about our lives. With humor and comedy, we can embrace our ridiculous condition, become liberated from our dissatisfaction, overcome our alienation, and embrace life for what it really is: an amusing, ongoing and never ending navigation through a world filled with contradictions and incongruities.
In the first chapter of her book, Amir makes a distinction between tragedy as an art-form and “the tragic vision” of life (p. 2). As a literary art-form, tragedy is derived from a prior, more fundamental vision of life that sees the world as torn between conflicting forces. This vision has been articulated in at least three ways, according to Amir: First, there is the “absurd” vision, championed by Camus (p. 11), which identifies a conflict between the human desire for meaning and the impossibility of satisfying that desire. Second, there is the Sartrean view that characterizes human beings as caught between the contradictory demands of the self and others [“Hell is other people”] (p. 12). Finally, there is the Kantian perspective that claims while humans are naturally drawn toward addressing metaphysical questions (Does God exist? Does the universe have a beginning? Is the soul immortal?) they nevertheless lack the capacity to answer these ultimate questions using reason (p. 13). In all of these cases, there is a disconnect between what humans desire and what they can ultimately achieve. We desire meaning, but it eludes us. We desire both to be individuals and to be part of a community, but these desires contradict one another. We desire answers to our ultimate questions about the universe, but our reason is incapable of answering these most important questions.
This all sounds very depressing and frustrating, and so it is no wonder that traditionally these reflections have contributed to a dark and tragic vision of life. If you accept these ideas, then our condition is one in which the most deeply held human desires must go unfulfilled. The tragic vision is one attempt to impart a dark sort of affirmation and meaning to this condition. But there is also another very common reaction in which thinkers rebel against the contradictions implied by the human condition, treating our shared human situation as a “problem” and thus as something that needs to be solved. In rejecting the tragic interpretation of life, many thinkers instead turn toward philosophy and religion to solve the “problem” of life.
Philosophy and religion have long offered various solutions to the incongruity between human desire and those things that humans reasonably can attain in life. If the inconsistency between desire and reason could somehow be dissolved, then all of our problems would be over. According to Amir this leads to three common “solutions.” First, there is the approach advocated by systems like Buddhism, Hinduism, Epicureanism, Pyrrohnism, and by such modern philosophers as Schopenhauer and Russell. In this approach, it is suggested that we renounce our unreasonable desires in order to reconcile ourselves with the way the world actually presents itself to us in reality (pp. 49 – 52). The second approach is one advocated by various Western religions and by Nietzsche and the German Idealists. In this approach, it is reason that is renounced so that desire can be partially or wholly satisfied (pp. 52 – 54). Finally, there are various forms of mysticism – such as Taoism – that denigrate both desire and reason, encouraging humans to transcend the apparent contradiction between what we want and what we can reasonably attain (pp. 54 – 55). What all three of these approaches share in common is that they view the human condition as a problem; as something to be solved and overcome. As such, according to Amir, their goal is to dehumanize us; to make us into something other than human. Amir’s contention, thus, is that none of these “solutions” are really desirable. Instead, she argues that we should strive to become reconciled to the inherently contradictory nature of the human condition.
Humor has the potential to help us do this. Although it is rooted in the same source as tragedy, humor, according to Amir, addresses the incongruities of life from a different perspective than does the tragic vision. A sense of humor finds amusement in incongruities, interpreting them as comedic rather than tragic, and thus derives joy and happiness from what might otherwise cause suffering and pain. Humor does this by being tolerant of multiple, but conflicting, perspectives. This tolerance derives from humor’s tendency to detach us from our emotions and from our own egoistic desires. Whereas the tragic vision is preoccupied with the suffering of the ego, the humorous attitude relinquishes egoistic desires, allowing us to look at ourselves and at the world objectively in terms of its incongruous nature.
Just as artistic tragedy grows out of the tragic vision of life, so too does the worldview of Homo risibilis grow out of a humorous attitude toward life. This worldview consists of the recognition that human life is rife with incongruities, and that one of the key incongruities characterizing our world is that between tragedy and comedy. Life is both tragic and comic, and instead of trying to resolve one of these interpretations into the other, Homo risibilis instead accepts the truth of this conflict and derives joy from the ongoing repetition of its contemplation. According to Amir, this worldview offers a complete affirmation of the world, sublating all lower level incongruities into an all-encompassing meta-perspective that neither claims to offer a final understanding of reality, nor that abandons the passionate engagement with life. Homo risibilis overcomes individual alienation by recognizing and accepting the world for what it is: a place of irresolvable contradictions and incongruities that are at once tragic and comic. And in doing this, it reaches a paradoxical conclusion: “The incongruity that gives rise to the tragic and the comic will not be perceived as incongruous anymore” (p. 155). Through the perspective of Homo risibilis, the human condition is understood, paradoxically, to be congruous in its incongruity:
“The worldview I propose here amounts to a harmonious congruence with myself, others and the world, a situation that all philosophies seek to establish in their attempts to overcome alienation. [This worldview considers] conflicts as normal because they are constitutive of the complex being that I am and of the complicated relations I entertain with a world I do not fully understand” (p. 238).
Amir argues that Homo risibilis is the best alternative to the religions and philosophies that it competes with. Religions, in general, are inadequate, she claims, because they rest on something other than reason, and so are “lax” in their approach to understanding. They also, like many philosophies, rest on questionable metaphysical assumptions that must be accepted uncritically. Homo risibilis, on the other hand, is not dependent on any such beliefs, remaining open to new discoveries and skeptical of taken-for-granted assumptions about reality. In this, it is epistemologically skeptical (which Amir thinks is a benefit) and it presents an ethical picture of humankind as sharing a common condition, thus promoting compassion among humans while also encouraging joy and happiness in individuals.
Philosophy, Humor, and the Human Condition: Taking Ridicule Seriously is thoroughly researched, and draws from a comprehensive body of both classical and contemporary scholarship in the philosophy of humor. Amir does an impressive job of synthesizing this literature and harnessing it in support of her own original argument in favor of Homo risibilis.
I do have a few criticisms, questions and comments concerning two related issues in Amir’s book. First, I will address Amir’s claim for the uniqueness of her proposal concerning Homo risibilis. Second, I will call into question Amir’s conclusions regarding what she characterizes as the necessarily affirmative psychological effects of the worldview that she proposes.
Amir compares her conception of Homo risibilis to the contemporary theories of Cohen, Critchley, and Marmysz (pp. 151 – 154), acknowledging that all of these theories present the humorous perspective as a manner of responding to the incongruities of the world while steering away from tragedy and encouraging the affirmation and embrace of reality. However, Amir insists that her perspective is even “more radical” than these other proposals insofar as it “enables a celebration of humanity, allowing the individual to accept finitude and grace his folly” (p. 152 – 153). My question in this regard has to do with the precise manner in which the proposal of Homo risibilis is “more radical” than these other theories.
It seems to me the most obvious way that Amir’s proposal might be considered more radical than other theories advocating humor’s affirmative power has to do with the ultimate meta-perspective that Homo risibilis carries us to, as described in Chapter 6 of her book. It is here that Amir suggests that a joyful state of mind emerges for the individual who reaches this epiphany. In this epiphanic state of mind, perception of the world’s incongruity seems to be dissolved when Homo risibilis comes to understand that the incongruity between tragedy and comedy is not incongruous at all, but a completely congruent aspect of a larger reality. To quote: “The incongruity that gives rise to the tragic and the comic will not be perceived as incongruous anymore” (p. 155). In the end, it sounds as if Amir is gesturing toward a perspective in which there is a monistic sublation of the world’s contradictions in the thought of Homo risibilis. In other words, despite its contradictory and incongruent appearance, the world as a whole is not contradictory or incongruent with itself. It is a single, “harmonious” whole that is more than the sum total of the parts.
Now, if this is what Amir is claiming, then it seems to me that she may be very close to repeating a strategy that she criticizes in many other philosophies and religions. If incongruity is not a “problem” in the first place, then why does Homo risibilis feel a need to resolve the incongruity between the tragic and comedic elements of life into a “higher level” harmonious congurity at all? Recall that Amir suggests (in Chapter 2) that there are three “solutions” commonly offered to dissolve the troubling incongruities of the human condition: 1. Deny desire; 2. Deny reason; 3. Offer a way beyond both desire and reason. All of these “solutions” view the human condition as a “problem,” and are focused on eradicating the incongruities characterizing human existence in order to solve this problem. According to Amir, the denial of desire is common to many Eastern religions (like Buddhism), while the denial of reason is common to Western religions (like Christianity) and the transcendence of both desire and reason is common to mystical philosophies/religions (like Taoism).
Amir herself claims that humor helps us to be more “objective” and to distance ourselves from emotion. In this way, she characterizes humor as allied with reason (p. 180). So, in advocating an attitude of humor toward our condition, is she leaning in direction number 1: the denial of desire? Is Homo risibilis just another way of talking about a non-theistic religion of the sort that we find in Buddhism? In Buddhism, the goal is to accept the world as it is, independent of how we desire it to be. This is the point of nirvana, which to me sounds suspiciously similar to Amir’s suggestion that Homo risibilis allows the “individual to accept finitude” exorcising “hubris and egotism” (p. 153). It also sounds quite similar to non-dual Hinduism, in which the dichotomies of the world are transcended and all is understood to be a manifestation of one underlying and completely congruent, self-sufficient reality. In coming to understand tragedy and comedy to be completely congruent with one another, doesn’t the perspective of Homo risibilis execute a similar transcendence?
And this raises a further question for me. If humor is a reaction to incongruity, then once one attains the perspective of Homo risibilis, thus coming to understand the world as completely congruent in its incongruity, how can humor survive? Does Homo risibilis become a humorless perspective, something like a sublime form of mysticism?
The second issue that I’d like to address is Amir’s claim that the transition from a tragic to a comic perspective in Homo risibilis is necessarily accompanied by happiness, joy, and a compassionate, ethical attitude toward others. My thoughts on this issue started to materialize as I was watching the recent Academy Award winning film Joker. This film dramatizes precisely the perspectival transition that Amir describes in her book, with a central protagonist who inhabits a world of tragic pain and suffering but who then switches his perspective in order to view the absurdities of his world through the lens of comedy. The result, however, is not joy, happiness, or compassion, but rather psychosis, cynicism and brutality. The Joker becomes someone who treats the human condition as one big, sick joke. With the eradication of his own ego, he no longer cares if he lives, dies, or suffers. And he treats others with the same sort of detached cruelty that he treats himself.
Now, Joker is just a movie, but it does illustrate something that seems like a distinct possibility in the real world. Isn’t it possible that with the adoption of a comic perspective we might become so insensitive to the absurdity of the world that we could become less joyful, happy, and compassionate and instead become more insensitive, cruel, and cynical? Isn’t there a cruelty to laughter, humor, and comedy that is underestimated by Amir? After all, one of the oldest ways of explaining the power of humor and comedy, going all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, is in terms of superiority and dominance. According to this view, when we laugh at someone, we raise ourselves above the object of laughter, belittling and denigrating the target. We laugh down at people, making ourselves feel powerful at the expense of others. This suggests just the opposite of a compassionate stance in the humorist; one that potentially promotes a callous attitude toward the suffering of others. Is it possible that Homo risibilis could turn out to be more cruel than kind?
Overall, I find myself agreeing with most of what Amir argues in her book. I agree with her premise that the human condition is not a problem to be “solved” and that our reactions to life’s incongruities can take the forms of tragedy or comedy. I also agree that there are a number of affirmative aspects to the humorous, over the tragic, attitude toward life. However, I question whether it is desirable (or even possible) to adopt a final, meta-perspective that successfully and definitively synthesizes the comic and the tragic views of life.
Nonetheless, as with any worthwhile work of philosophy, it is the questions Lydia Amir’s book raises, rather than the answers that she provides, which make her efforts so interesting. The concept of Homo risibilis is one that I will continue to turn over in my mind for quite some time, and I look forward to further discussion of its precise contours, its meaning, it implications, as well as the methods by which it might be realized in thought.