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The Rationality of Laughter: Who laughs

Spinoza argues that the rational man is the man that wants good (freedom, rationality) for others. It is an ethical stance that long have philosophers have tried to forward, but none have succeeded in necessarily establishing, and indeed many dispute the foundation of Spinoza’s assertion. Spinoza’s primary tack is that all virtuous actions are self-serving, yet nothing is more useful to man than man. His contention is that the more empowered we make others, the more use they can be to us. This certainly is core to many Idealistic political movements, that the more we help others, the more corporate they will become, that is, part of our useful whole. But how rational is this? Does this follow from a rational understanding of ourselves and the world. In which way is what benefits me, that which benefits you?

It has been pointed out by some authors (Deleuze, Negri, etc.) that despite the coolness of Spinoza’s more geometrico, Spinoza’s philosophy is a philosophy of joy and affirmation. These words stand though like emblems of abstract positivity, as if only against their abstract opposite sadness and denial. In many ways this move to the conceptual, away from the body, is exactly what Spinoza worked against, for, if the abstract was not connected viscerally to actual experiences, actual emotions, what is felt, it is dead�it is a kind of denial. If we are to take Spinoza’s as a philosophy of Joy, then in joy itself there must be the foundation of the rational itself.

It is customary to take Spinoza’s rationality, indeed all rationality, as a kind of analyticality, a pure, affectless, mathematics of reason, something against emotional or imaginary constructions, but Spinoza seeks to take-up the imaginary and the emotional, within the power of thought itself. If we are to take him seriously, and ask: Is there a rational reason why is what benefits me, that which benefits you? The answer perhaps lies within the primary and most physical example of what Joy is, laughter.

When I laugh, is it rational or irrational that I would want you to laugh as well?. It seems to me that there is a rationality here, a coherence of parts, that defies the cold-clean reduction of rationality to its propositional form, for it seems altogether rational (in a broader, more encompassing sense) that I would want you to laugh. It is something that puts us in consonance.

Now we have of course the most obvious examples of laughter that seem to contradict this, for example when I laugh at someone else, cruelly, taking them as my object of derision. There is present the implied invitation for others to join me in this laughter, all of us pointing our proverbial fingers (one wonders what kind of laughter would not contain at least some of this instinct to be joined in the humor), but the laughter itself seems predicated on someone else (the victim) not laughing. Yet, upon closer inspection, the victim seems not to be imaginatively, or actually, utterly cut off from the humor, for something of this laughter seems to turn upon the conception that the victim “gets it” in some fundamental way (if only as a measure of shame, real or imagined) but does not think it funny.

It is here that Spinoza’s philosophy would suggest that the laughter would somehow be better, would be fundamentally better, would be rationally better, if the victim not only “got it”, but was able to laugh at it as well. We see this “rationality” of course when ethnic comedians make fun of their largely “non-ethnic” audience, which is then able to laugh at itself, and join the laugh. But of course because of the political factors of oppression and hegemony, those with the power are not threatened by such laughter, one might say, they are “free” to laugh. I am not sure, but its seems that there are those in the audience who may very well be teetering between laughter and offense, and a Spinozist might say that in such a predicament, in being able to laugh, they are made freer. Further, if the ratios and realities were reversed, if the victim of the laughter is also a victim in society, does not the laughter change if the victim is still able to laugh, at both himself and the situation? Is there not something unfunny, a limit in the co-joined laughter, if the victim is ultimately unable to laugh? Has not laughter met its horizon?

If we take the most extreme example, for instance a group of Nazi soldiers or KKK members laughing at a brutalized Jew or a Black (one must test the more acute historical examples if one is to understand the “reality” of this thought), there seems a limit here that the victim cannot cross. The victim cannot laugh. But this horizon I believe is exactly the limit of passivity which Spinoza is pointing to; for the Nazis or the KKK, Spinoza would say, even though are laughing, they are not laughing completely, or even, they are laughing sadly. They are acting passively, they are acting against laughter.

This can be seen theoretically if one imagines that the victimized Jew or the Black suddenly began to laugh (perhaps how Tomasso Campanella had begun to chuckle to himself after his torture). Of course such a laughter might be taken as an offense, and lead to “You think this is funny, you think you are one of us, we’ll show you.”, much as a white audience member might refrain from laughter at a black comedian. The subversive question becomes: Is the victim laughing at us? At the situation? Or himself? Yet, it cannot be denied, that at the very first eruption of the laughter, a possibility is opened up, what Spinoza would say is a rational possibility, that for the very second of it, “We” are laughing.

I think here, in the phenomena of laughter, in the pure absurdity of it (for nothing else has a higher reputation for irrationality as laughter does), one finds the rationality of Spinoza, the freedom of affect spread between others. There are no propositional rules for the joke, yet it operates with the power to join. The laugh comes unanticipated, yet invites the benefit of others, and in fact seems dependent upon that possibility. I would say that even in its cruelest aspects, those seemingly dependent upon the diminishment and even destruction of others, its contains the rationality of a possible inclusion, and a kind of compass-setting which directs not only the victim, but also those laughing, towards a greater freedom. Is it not in laughter that we see the rational basis for Spinoza’s belief that what benefits me is that which benefits you?

[written August 3, 2006]


Spinoza’s Degrees of Being: A History


Starting with Spinoza as the modern end, and working backwards so as to grasp the nature of at least the Spinozist panpsychist position, this is a rough delineation of a genealogy of panpsychism. Several important intermediate figures have been left out (Bruno and de Cusa for instance), for the focus is on fleshing out a significant aspect of this progression, the turn from Plotinus to Augustine. Any additions, or clarifications to the evolution are appreciated:

Starting with Spinoza as the modern end, and working backwards so as to grasp the nature of at least the Spinozist panpsychist position, this is a rough delineation of a genealogy of panpsychism. Several important intermediate figures have been left out (Bruno and de Cusa for instance), for the focus is on fleshing out a significant aspect of this progression, the turn from Plotinus to Augustine. Any additions, or clarifications to the evolution are appreciated:

Parmenides: A conception of Being which is equivalent to Thought: “…it is the same thing to think and to be” (fragment 3).

Plato: The Parmenides (second part): Being as an emanation of heirarchized distinctions: Proto-One; The One/many; The One and Many.

Stoics: Tripartite subjects of Philosophy: physics, logic, ethics; The soul partakes the soul (hegemonikon) partakes in the hegemonikon of the universe, Logos (a fiery rationality).

Poseidonius: God seen as a “fiery breath which thinks” expressed in degrees of Immanence. Influential commentary on the Timaeus, the Platonic, mythical account of the material world made through a Demiurge.

Gnosticism: A heirarchy of Being in specific degrees, mythologized: the Pleroma of Aeons, Sophia-Achamoth, the Demiurge and Matter, expressed in three worlds: the celestial, planetary and the terrestrial. So, in men predominate one principle: as such they are “pneumatic”, “psychic” or “hylie”.

Plotinus: Being viewed as gradated emanation from a Unity that exists beyond Being: The One (Hen), Mind (Nous), Soul (Psuche), Nature (Phusis), Matter (Hule), in which matter participates in direct contact with Mind, as non-being. Following from Paramenidean Thought = Being is the idea that Contemplation itself (theorein, “to view, behold”) is Making (poiein,”to produce, create”), to view is to make, turning knowing into productive action. This is something that Nature essentially does. This is a combinatory conception of Being, in which turns towards the higher emanative Unity, contemplative looking “with-light” (sunoran) in objects rather than by light at objects, result in greater Being. As such, the affective, personal experience of unity guides the rational grasp of greater and greater wholes, in which all things share, according to their degrees.

Augustine: Takes the 3 stoic categories of philosophy, and makes of them constituent of all things, as a trinity of effect: Being (esse), Knowing (nosse), Love/Willing (amare, volle), as a response to skepticism:

“It is without any phantasm or delusive representation of images that I am wholly certain that I exist, that I know this fact and love it” (City of God, Book XI, Chapter XXVI).

As a response to Dualism (Manicheaism) These are found in all things (persons, trees, stones) to the degrees of their capacity to persist (to be, to know, to love/will), understood as vector of power, and as marked by their perfection in God. Thus “evil” is understood as a deprivation in degree. These is consideration of Being as a gradation expressed as power and knowing is essentially a Plotinian understanding.


Campanella: Follows Augustine’s 3 ontological categories, calling them the Three Primalities: Power (potentia) [altered from Augustine’s “esse”], Knowing (sapientia, cognoscere) and Loving (amare). These “toticipate”. This is use of a Scotus-like “formal distinction” wherein a distinction can be made in mind which is not in the things themselves.

Knowing becomes a process of becoming what you are not in increasing degrees of power, hence his famous “to know is to be” (cognoscere est sum). And this is achieved through direct perception of oneself, as a being in power, knowing, and loving relations to one Unifying World.

Spinoza: Divides the world of Becoming along the 3 categories of Stoicism and Augustine, but in a unique way. He takes the original two (Being and Knowing) and makes them Attributes of God/Substance, Extension and Idea, things which are formally distinct expressions of one thing. The third, Loving/Willing, he makes a process which corresponds to the very essence of things, the striving (conatus) which is in all things to varying degrees of agency. This striving expresses itself in a psychology of affects, which are the experiences of joy and sadness, direct expressions of the adequacy of Ideas one has (epistemology), and the power one has to Be. Joy is placed in a differential of epistemic power, that has Real ontological results. The result is that the original Parmenidean conception of One real Totality in which Thought and Being are the same thing, becomes expressed as gradated ontology of affect and power, making ideas about the world and oneself value relations to be measured in their capacity to combine and become more active.

Behind this thread of development stand two issues, I suggest, that of skepticism and that of radical dualism. The panpsychism at issue works to undo each of these potential conceptual problems, turning knowing into an expressive act which can be measured as an index of power (and value), and making of the material and the mental two things which fundamentally are resolved in their union. Primary to such a resolution is the notion of Being as not a binary (to be or not to be), but a gradation which expresses itself through the capacity to act. In this way, knowing becomes something that we do, as an expression of what we are, the consequences ever integrated into the results of the act. It is the necessity to ever see our connection to the answer, and not merely the answer, that the web-strands of belief and materiality lead to the greatest meaningfulness and effect, as this tradition suggests.


[written April 4, 2008]