Sunday, April 22, 2007

Ludicrous and Ridiculous

Some authors have treated of Ridicule, without marking the distinction between Ridiculous and Ludicrous ideas. But I presume the natural order of proceeding in this Inquiry, is to begin with ascertaining the nature of what is purely Ludicrous. Things ludicrous and things ridiculous have this in common, that both excite laughter; but the former excite pure laughter, the latter excite laughter mixed with disapprobation or contempt. My design is, to analyse and explain that quality in things or ideas, which makes them provoke pure Laughter , and entitles them to the name of Ludicrous or Laughable.

[James Beattie, An Essay on Laughter and Ludicrous Composition, p. 587.]

Beattie goes on to distinguish several types of laughter, noting that animal laughter, the sort called forth by tickling, is different from sentimental laughter, the sort called forth by reading good satire. After rejecting several theories for what is common to things that provoke sentimental laughter (Hobbes especially), he suggests his own view, which is that such laughter arises from "the view of things incongruous united in the same assemblage," or, more precisely, " the view of two or more inconsistent, unsuitable, or incongruous parts or circumstances, considered as united in one complex object or assemblage, or as acquiring a sort of mutual relation from the peculiar manner in which the mind takes notice of them," the idea being that sentimental laughter is provoked by a comparison between the suitable and the unsuitable. This is not, of course, a complete account, and Beattie insists on that point, saying that it is not an exact description, much less a definition, since there are so many different types of relations between the suitable and the unsuitable, some of which are not ludicrous at all. Trying to make it more precise, he suggests that the non-ludicrous relations are those that are customary and common or cause an intense emotion in the beholder, one that, in Beattie's terms, has "greater authority". Thus, people are not provoked to laughter by things they simply take for granted, even though someone else from a different culture might; and they don't find ludicrous things they find enraging, sad, or frightening. That does seem a promising first analysis of the ludicrous or (as we would call it) the comic, although obviously it does need some work and development. (Beattie is not wholly original; the account has precursors in Hutcheson and Gerard, although Beattie's development is superior.) And, in fact, cognitive science research into humor has tended to come back again and again to some variation of the line suggested by Beattie, as this old post from "Mixing Memory" shows.

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