Harald Høffding.

Outlines of psychology online

. (page 33 of 41)
Online LibraryHarald HøffdingOutlines of psychology → online text (page 33 of 41)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

{e.g. by wagging the tail).

{b) The feeling of pleasure, which is the simplest mental cause
of laughter, is from the nature of the case very often, and at a
primitive stage almost exclusively, produced by impressions which
satisfy the instinct of self-preservation and appeal to the love of
self Life is above all things a struggle for existence.

1 Darwin, Expression of E»!otions, pp. 132-135.


Strong and suddenly excited self-esteem easily breaks out in
laughter. With idiots of a somewhat higher class than those just
mentioned, personal vanity is the most frequent cause of laughter.
Here two conditions unite ; the sudden, unexpected, and the strong
self-esteem. This species of laughter is met with in characteristic
forms, principally where a hard and doubtful struggle has been
carried on and is suddenly crowned with victory, and that which
threatened life is now laid powerless and harmless. Hence the
exultant shouts to which the Homeric heroes gave voice over the
conquered foe. What here finds a vent is not merely a feeling of
salvation and deliverance. The image of the opponent in his full
strength and formidableness is suddenly succeeded by the image of
the same opponent as crushed and checked in his great designs.
The impulse to dwell on the nothingness and powerlessness of the
vanquished foe as compared with his previous aspect, often takes
the form of barbarous insults to the prisoner or the corpse. In
more or less brutal forms this species of the feeling of the ridiculous
always finds an occasion, so long as even in the human world
life is a struggle for existence. Thomas Plobbes therefore grasped
an essential aspect, when he explained laughter as a sudden
sense of superiority (sudden glory. Human Nature^ ix. 13). Hobbes,
with his doctrine of the state of nature as the struggle of all with
all, was naturally led to lay the stress on the feeling of self-esteem
or o{ power . The one-sidedness of his view lay in his not inquiring
whether the sense of power which breaks out in laughter does not
sustain essential changes and acquire a different character, accord-
ing to the nature of that which occasions it. Ever)-where, however,
where there is conflict in the service of anything cared for, an
clement of contempt will be found, in the way in which those
contending regard the plans and exertions of their opponents. Even
in religious poetry and religious polemic we meet with this
form of the feeling of the ridiculous. Thus, the second psalm
says, " The kings of the earth stand up, and the rulers take counsel
together, against the Lord and against his anointed."' " Let us
break their bonds asunder ; and cast away their cords from us."
" He that dwcUcth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn ; the Lord
shall have them in derision." And Pascal, in defending himself
against the complaints of the Jesuits that in his Proxnncial Letters
he had employed ridicule as a weapon, observes tliat as there are
two things to be found in religious truth — a divine beauty and a
divine majesty, so there are two things contained in religious error :


ungodliness which makes it terrible, and insolence which makes it
ridiculous ; and for this reason the saints entertained both hatred
and contempt of error, and showed their zeal, not only by forcibly
repelling the wickedness of the ungodly, but also by exposing their
error to ridicule, following in this the example of God himself
{Leitrcs e'cntes d tin Provincial, xi.).

The mere possibility of employing laughter as a weapon, shows
that it presupposes power. One man can laugh at another only
when the latter is the weaker. Of course it is not always real
superiority that finds a vent in this way. Actual distress and
perplexity may manifest themselves in smiles and constrained
laughter. Indeed, even the consciousness of complete powerless-
ness, when associated with the resolve not to yield, may find
expression in the same way. In Paludan-Miiller's ^ Fall of Lucifer,
Lucifer laughs for the first time, as " with trembling unparalleled,
but with unbending defiance " he takes possession of his kingdom.

The fact that nobody likes to be made the object of ridicule,
is naturally explained by Hobbes's theory. Few take it as humor-
ously as Socrates, who got up during the representation of the
Clouds, that the caricature might be compared with the original.
The mere fact of anything having a ridiculous side to it, shows that
it does not represent absolute power. Precisely for this reason
is it on the other hand so tempting, wherever claim is made to
authority and absolute recognition, to discover something ridiculous.
Everything sublime, all reputation and all dignity have a dangerous
foe in ridicule. Laughter is here not so much an expression of
superior power, as an expression of deliverance. Even things
which would not seem ridiculous under ordinary circumstances,
become so in a situation of enforced seriousness. Boys can find
amusement in the smallest things during school hours. The bare
fact of anything occurring without the consent of the controlling
authority suffices to arouse the consciousness of freedom. Authori-
ties that have almost lost their power become the natural objects
of the feeling of the ridiculous. The appearance of comic poetry
(Aristophanes, Molierc, Holberg) always therefore denotes a crisis,
at which the consciousness of freedom breaks out.

{c) Scorn is not, however, a necessary element of the feeling of
the ridiculous. This feeling undergoes an essential change if it
has sympathy as its basis. When a close link unites the person
v/ho laughs with the object of his laughter, there arises a new and

1 A Danish poet.


special feeling. This is even the case when we laugh at something
which we have ourselves said or done at some earlier time ; we
expose ourselves to ridicule, although we of course take a different
view of our absurd behaviour from that of persons who sec it only as
outsiders or as antagonists. To laugh at some one with whom we
are in sympathy is the same thing as laughing at ourselves. Here
there is a duality of feeling ; the worth of the object is recognized
beneath its littleness. In one and the same instant a double
standard is applied. So with laughter at the helplessness and
groundless fear of a child or at its naivete. Here there is a
hidden bond of union between the person laughing and the object
of his laughter. The feeling is deprived of its sting. The feeling
of the ridiculous with a substratum of sympathy is what is called
humour. This may be more than a passing mood. It may be so
developed as to become the basis of a view of life which is, indeed,
keenly aware of the finitcness, pain, folly and discord of the world,
and sharply contrasts this with what is great and important, but
which has at the same time in its close fellow-feeling for all living
beings and in its firm faith in the forces ruling in nature and
in history, overcome all bitterness. The humorous view of life
is reconciled to the experience that even what is great and exalted
has its limitations, its finite side, and in its ridicule of the small
and finite does not forget that this may be the form of a valuable

Comic poetry depends not only on the consciousness of freedom,
but also on a more or less prominent humorous view of life. Only in
this is it different from the squib or satire, in which the egoistic or
at any rate the antipathetic "moment" is dominant, a single
definite person or thing being dealt with. Only with humour as a
basis does art become really free. The power to which the
humourist and the comic poet make appeal, is no longer their own
self as opposed to another self ; rather, by exposing meanness and
folly, they defend truth and reason. Here, then, the feeling of power
is not egoistic ; what is seen in its insignificance is only that which
in the object of ridicule contradicts the true and right. This is
why, after laughing at a person, we often feel the impulse to declare
that he is a good fellow after all.^

Rousseau (in the Lcttre t\ d'AUmbert) reproaches Molicrc with having in the
.l//i<i«//;ri)/^ described a worthy person .-IS ridiculous. Lessing with this in view drew
attention to the difference between laughing at and ridiculing. (Hnwhiirxiuhe Drama-
tiirgie. No. 28-29). Aristotle had already distinguished between satire and comedy.
(Poel. c. 4).


(c/) But whether the substratum is sympathetic or antipathetic,
everything ridiculous has this in common, that something weak
suddenly appears in all its insignificance through the contrast to
a superior power. The ridiculous presupposes that for a moment
we have let ourselves be duped, puzzled, deceived by an illusion or
excited by an expectation, and that the whole affair is all at once
changed into a mere nothing.^ The psychical element in tickling
is, as already observed, the expectation, excited but immediately
disappointed. A child laughs at every sudden movement, especially
if repeated in jerks, as when some one crouches in front of him and
then rises up, and repeats this bending and rising. Sudden
deliverance from painful and dangerous situations has the same
effect. All wit depends on exciting expectation, by propound-
ing a puzzle or asking the solution of a riddle — a puzzle or a
solution, the utter absurdity of which will presently be shown. All
comic effect is a species of effect of contrast. — In a farce performed
some years ago in the Bouffes Parisiens there was a character
who sat in a corner of the foreground perfectly still, quite unaffected
by the action of the piece. From time to time it was asked why
he sat there. At last some one proposed to address him, but was
prevented by another who said, " Don't speak to him ; he is deaf ! "
This gave an explanation of his passive attitude. But at the same
moment the character added with a melancholy countenance,
" and dumb." This excited roars of laughter.^ To the Emperor
Charles V. is ascribed the utterance as to his relation to Francis I.
of France (with whom he carried on constant wars, especially
about the possession of Milan) : " My brother Francis and I are-
quite agreed ; we both wish to have Milan." The point of agree-
ment was just the cause of strife ; but there is roused an expectation
to see the relation between the two Sovereigns in another light ;
and this expectation is in the next instant disappointed.

The effect of contrast, on which the ridiculous depends, results
from the sudden conjunction of two thoughts or two impressions,
each of which excites a feeling, and the second of which razes
what the first erects. No closer logical basis can be given of the
effect thus produced any more than it can be logically explained
why two complementary colours call up one another. The ex-

1 Especial emphasis is laid on this by Kant, Kritik der Lfrtheilskraft. § 53 ; by
Zeising, ACstlietische Forschungen (" vlisthetic Inquiries "), (Frankfort, 1855, pp. 282-
290), and by Spencer (Physiology of Laughter, Essays, vol. i.).

■■' if I remember rightly, the piece was a parody of a diplomatic congress to settle the
affairs of the Greeks, and Greece was admitted lo the congress without being allowed to
take a part in the discussion.


planation of the ridiculous frequently given [among Danish
writers, especially by S. Kierkegaard in Uvnienskabeltg Efterskrift
("Unscientific Postscript") p. 394, •^^i'l as depending upon a
contradiction, is at once too abstract and too narrow. Even
though the conjunction which gives rise to the feeling of the
ridiculous may frequently be formulated as a logical contradiction
(as in the notion of a man being deaf and dumb and himself
announcing that fact), this does not give the real process, which
must consist essentially in a contrast of feeling. A certain intellec-
tual development is of course necessary to the apprehension of the
ridiculous, just as the power of the eye to apprehend each several
colour independently is a presupposition of the effect of contrast in
colours. The feeling of the ridiculous is in this respect related to
surprise and wonder, which also depend on opposition and contrast
{cf. 3). That the element of feeling is the essential thing in these
phenomena is evident from the fact that they scarcely stand re-
petition and custom. While cognition {e.g. insight into logical
contradictions) is practised and strengthened by repetition, feeling
becomes deadened {cf. 4). The ridiculous docs not bear too frequent

Even when we laugh at a logical contradiction, the (antipathetic
or sympathetic) feeling of power plays a part. We have, namely,
our own reason as the solid ground from which to pronounce judg-
ment, and we are more or less clearly conscious of it, when we
laugh at something absurd. Even if it is not our own victory that
we celebrate with laughter, it is at any rate the victory of reason.

{e) The feeling of the ridiculous, then, depends, like the feeling of
the sublime, on a contrast. But the two feelings stand, besides, in
a relation of contrast to one another. They both rest on one and
the same fundamental relation, on the relation between greatness
and insignificance, looked at from opposite sides. Probably this
was what Socrates had in mind, when (towards the end of the feast
described by Plato in the Symposium) he insisted that it is the
business of one and the same person to write tragedy and comedy.
This proposition is borne out even by the ancient Greek tragic
poets, who wrote satyr plays as well as tragedies ; but not till
Shakespeare's great example does its full truth appear. It has
been strikingly observed that Shakespeare's humour is a part of his
faith in the world. For man's real position is this, that he must
bring his force to bear on his surroundings, must overcome and
crush resistance, while at the same time he must feel his insig-


nificance in face of the great powers of nature and of history. Only
he who neither exuks nor fears has won complete victory over
himself and over the world. To laugh much, as Hobbes has said,
is the mark of a small mind which feels his power only in compari-
son with \yhat is beneath him, while it is the mark of a great mind
to help others and to compare himself with the greatest {^Leviathan,
chap. 6). In humour we feel great and small at the same time,
and sympathy makes laughter humorous, just as it changes fear
into reverence.

F. — The Influeiice of Feeling on Cognition.

It has been shown in previous sections {B. and C.) how the con-
nection of ideas is of use to the feelings, and facilitates their
development. But deeper than the influence of ideation upon
feeling is the influence of feeling upon ideation. The funda-
mental union of the feeling element with the cognitive element
forms always the beginning of the general higher psychological
development ; but while it is being effected — consequently during
the psychological process described in sections B. and C. — the
feeling element is by no means absolutely passive.

I. In treating of the development of feeling by means of
cognition, we assumed that nothing enters to hinder the combina-
tion of ideas. But the feeling itself may have a hindering effect.
If the feeling a is very closely intergrown with the idea a, it will
hinder the natural union between a and a^^ a^ . . . and still more
that between a and d, — that is to say, the line of thought is not
brought to its full conclusion, because the feeling will not expand
beyond its original object. Here operates the inertia of feelings,
which in this way becomes a source of many inconsistencies in
history and in daily life. The fact that the Greeks could not ex-
tend their love of humanity to the barbarians, did not spring from
any purely intellectual narrowness (although their limited historical
experience had something to do with it), but full ethical consistency
was hindered by their patriotism. Christianity threw down these
barriers, not by intellectual superiority, but by the deep emotion
which it aroused. Within Christendom intolerance has erected
new barriers, and hindered the consistent development of the
religion of love. The result to which logical thought seems able
to lead instantaneously, demands therefore in history a long period ;


a revolution in the life of feeling is the product of the experiences
of long intervals of time. Consequently, historical criticism can
only with caution employ logical contradiction as a criterion ;
historical dcvcloi)mcnt would be impossible if no inconsistencies
were possible. Historical inquiry has, to try and find the actual
feelings which in special cases have helped to retard and hinder.
The measure of the intrepidity and energy of the thought may be
deduced from these barriers of feeling, in defiance of which the new
feelings have made their way.

But the step once taken, feeling is the faithful guardian of what
has been acquired. Then its inertia is of use to knowledge. IJythe
fusing of b with a through «, b takes deep root in the mind.
Knowledge gains in certainty and security, and becomes properly
a personal possession only when rooted in this way in feeling, in
the immediate state of the individual.

The fact that a certain idea, or set of ideas, has as a basis strong
interest or violent emotion, alters its relation to other ideas. It
becomes a stronger centre of association than it would otherwise
be. In all experiences regard is paid only to that which in some
way or other affects the idea supported and strengthened by the
interest. All the other elements in the world do not exist for con-
sciousness. Feeling effects here a qualitative choice. All ideas
which do not harmonize with the ruling feeling are suppressed, just
as forms of life disappear which are unable to adapt themselves to
their circumstances. Lotze has especially emphasized the fusing
of ideas with the given vital feeling. If the vital feehng is changed,
the road to the ideas connected with it is blocked ; even if new
experiences recall certain of these, the common bond of union still
fails. " It is in this way," says Lotze, " that I should attempt
to interpret the facts that, when we have recovered from severe
illness, we do not remember what we experienced while it lasted, or
while, before its outbreak, our general feeling was already changed ;
that when we are free from the paroxysm of fever, we do not re-
member sets of ideas which accompany it, and that in particular
cases the sets of ideas are carried on when the next paroxysm
occurs, owing to the return of the morbid general feeling.'' ^

2. Some psychologists have attributed to the several ideas an
impulse of self-preservation, through which they endeavour to
make themselves felt with a certain strength in consciousness,

' Drei Biicher dcr Metaphysik,T^. 600 (Eng. tr.ins. by Mr. Busanquct ; vol. ii. p. •515).
Cf. V. B.Tc.



and to suppress one another. The psychology of cognition has
proved the unsoundness of this view (V. B. 6). The strength of
each individual idea depends, in the first place, upon its relation to
the rest of the ideas in consciousness. The idea which can find
support in the greatest number of experiences and memories, will
have the greatest chance of becoming the dominant idea. In the
second place, the strength of the idea depends on its relation to
feeling. When there is strong tension or deep and enduring
interest, even ideas Avhich stand in connection with very wide and
oft repeated experiences, may be wholly thrust aside. The fetish-
worshipper lays more stress on the few cases in which he can
believe that he received help from his sacred stone, than on the
many in which such a belief is quite impossible. When we love
some one dearly, we do not see the unlovable traits. Such a case
is very charmingly and touchingly described by Prevost in his
Manon Lescaut. Love is blind— but only because it is wonderfully
keen-sighted in a single respect.

In biographies of criminals are found numberless examples of
the dazzling power of feeling and of passion. The strong desire
for an object— whether a kingly crown or a silver watch— over-
powers thought, or rather concentrates all thought upon the object
and upon the means for obtaining it. Shakespeare has described
with masterly hand, in Macbeth, how the idea of the criminal
action may so dominate the mind, as to appear the only reality :

" My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man, that function
Is smother'd in surmise ; and nothing is
But what is not." (Act i., Scene 3.)

To this circumstance is to be attributed the often incredibly foolish
way in which crimes are committed. " In the greater number
of crimes," says the celebrated jurist, Anselm von Feuerbach,^
" it may be quite distinctly shown how the understanding of the
criminal is dazzled, clouded, taken prisoner by desire, limited
in the free use of its activity by the witchcraft of the impulses
which have become uncontrollable in him, and how this very
limitation has been a chief auxiliary in the execution of the act."
Such crimes come about by the claims, not only of conscience,
but also of prudence being deadened.

1 Aktenmassige Darstellung Merkwurdiser Verbrechen ("Official Account of Remark-
able Crimes"), ii., p. 342.— On the psychological problem contained in this is grounded
Dostojewski's novel, Kaskolnikom.


It is impossible to know beforehand whether, in any individual
case, the incentive of feeling or the connection of the ideas will
be the stronger. It is a question of a trial of strength. — Other
circumstances may make the matter yet more complicated. The
strongly tempting incentive of feeling may itself, through effect of
contrast, produce a vivid idea of the moral law and of the interest
we were about to violate ; on such effect of contrast rest some
of the most impressive manifestations of conscience. In other
cases the customary association of ideas may still call out images,
which are capable of checking the current of the dominant feeling.
When Lady Macbeth is about to lay hands on the old king, she
is held back by his likeness to her father : —

" Had he not resembled
My father as he slept, I had doiie't." (Act ii., Sc. 2.)

A shade more passion — and the law of similarity could not have
taken effect.

We are here on the bounds between feeling and will. For the
blindness and absolute dominance of passionate feeling seldom
arise through the purely involuntary play of feelings and ideas ;
strange as it sounds, a man can will to delude himself, can for the
sake of his passion repress sober reflection. If the indulgence of
the passion meets with resistance in the mind, he can set under-
standing and imagination to work to find grounds for deadening
the inner voice. The inner contradiction is unendurable, and must
be somehow set aside. The individual is then a sophist to himself.
In all passion some such sophistry may be shown. It is the same
thing in a milder form, when we hold fast to favourite opinions,
give them colour, and act upon them, very often for wholly in-
adequate reasons.

3. Originally a practical interest sets ideas in motion. The
problem for primitive cognition is to discover the means of satis-
fying the instinct. Only gradually is there evolved the impulse to
cognition for the sake of the thing cognized (see V. D. 4 ; \T. C 9).
And even the efforts of thought called out by contemplative
enthusiasm only emancipate themselves slowly and imperfectly
from the control of practical feeling, and hence bear as a rule the
impress of teleology. The resignation, with which feeling restrains
itself, in order to let the thoughts go their own way and follow their
own laws, is the outcome of severe struggles in the history both of
the individual and of the whole human race. Man desires to


know nature as it is ; but he also desires that his own ends may-
be ends of nature. All causal laws are to him in the last resort
means to the realization of the highest good. The tendency makes
its appearance both at the rudest stage of fetishism, and in the highly
developed thought of the idealistic philosophy. Content and value
of the feelings and ideas are most different at the different stages ;

Online LibraryHarald HøffdingOutlines of psychology → online text (page 33 of 41)