Simon Critchley (2002) On Humour.

London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-25120-6 (hbk), 0-415-25121-4 (pbk)

Is Physiognomy Humorous?

Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius

We are not at all short of theories of humour and laughter, coming as they do from a breadth of disciplines: philosophy and linguistics, physiology and psychology, anthropology and literature. And yet all these theories usually start by warning their readers that ‘the joke explained is the joke misunderstood’;[1] though, of course, the explanation of an ‘intended meaning’ of the joke would not be singled out as a primary objective of these works. Although Freud did not shy away from translating the paradigmatic puzzles of his German and Jewish jokes into accessible syntagmatic pronouncements, it was the technique of the ‘joke-work’ that he was researching in the first place. A trivial question of ‘what the joke means’ is likely to be avoided in scholarly literature, as potentially insulting both the author and the receiver, and, moreover, as damaging the enigma of the joke itself. Thus, you either get it or you don’t, which is another way of saying that you are either included or excluded, be it socially, culturally or intellectually. Unexplained and taken out of their context – like editorial cartoons out of newspaper pages – jokes are more willingly discussed in terms of the ‘how’ of their meaning rather than the more coercive ‘what’.

Perhaps it is precisely the exclusivity and sheer unexplainability of humour, its unbending resistance towards elucidation and translation, that constitutes one of its defining, and desired, features. This indeed appears to be the point of departure for Simon Critchley’s lucid philosophical foray into the riddle of humour. The welcoming compactness of his book – nota bene a requirement of the Routledge series Thinking in action, which has been launched and edited by the author himself in collaboration with Richard Kearney – responds admirably to the Shakespearean and Freudian identification of the wit with brevity. Quoting Theodor Lipps, Freud asserted: ‘A joke says what it has to say, not always in few words, but in too few words . . . It may even actually say what it has to say by not saying it’ (Freud, 1991: 44). Opening his investigation by acknowledging ‘the audacity or arrogance’ of the attempt to explain ‘what might make one laugh’, and thus contending that ‘humour is a nicely impossible object for a philosopher’, Critchley hastens to avow that ‘herein lies its irresistible attraction’ (2). What follows is a stimulating introduction to, and reinterpretation of, the past and current theories in the field, stretching from Plato and Aristotle, Hobbes and Decartes, Kant and Shaftesbury, to Freud and Bergson at the dawn of the twentieth century and to Helmuth Plessner, Mary Douglas and Peter Berger at the end of it. This is complemented by Critchley’s own interpretation of the redeeming potential of humour, of humour as consolation rather than aggression, and, last but not least, of humour as philosophy, enabling a ‘profoundly cognitive relation to oneself and to the world.’

Critchley’s brief rehearsal of the classification of the three dominant philosophical theories of humour as proposed earlier by Victor Raskin and John Morreal – namely the incongruity theory, the relief theory and the superiority theory — is of great help to the reader. It was the latter theory, identifying wit as a malicious weapon invariably directed at the presumed inferiority of others, which dominated the philosophical tradition from the antiquity until the eighteenth century, and which still retains its validity vis-à-vis ethnic, gender or sexual minorities-related humour. This rigidly negative ethical evaluation of humour has been partly bypassed by the ‘hydraulic’, or relief, theory proposed in the nineteenth century by Herbert Spencer and subsequently elaborated by Freud, who explained wit, the comic and humour as a discharge of energy used otherwise to repress the forbidden wishes. Far from discrediting humour and the pleasures it gives in absolutising moral terms, while at the same time not indifferent towards the jokes which are targeted against ‘inferior and powerless people’, Freud defended the aggressively tendentious jokes on account of their ‘rebellion against the authority, a liberation from its pressures.. . . We laugh at them even if they are unsuccessful simply because we count rebellion against authority as a merit’. Moreover, identifying distinct categories of tendentious jokes, Freud distinguished a separate class of ‘sceptical’ jokes, which attack ‘not a person or institution but the certainty of our knowledge itself’ (Freud, 1991: 149,161).

It is this distinctively Freudian line of positive thinking about humour as liberation which dominates Critchley’s mode of inquiry. Although reminding the reader incessantly that most humour is reactionary, Critchley is determined to abstract and purify humour as a demonstration of both socially grounded and, ideally, interventionist, and yet philosophically detached, thinking. ‘If humour tells you something about who you are, then it might be a reminder that you are perhaps not the person you would like to be’ (75). What constitutes the core of Critchley’s investigation is thus not the Nietzschean ‘stupidity of moral indignation’ at ‘the powerful laughing at the powerless’, but the aporias of humour seen as incongruity, as a sudden perception of incompatibility ‘between what we expect and what actually takes place in the joke’. He illustrates it rather convincingly: ‘Did you see me at Princess Diana’s funeral? I was the one who started the Mexican wave’ (3). It is on the grounds of the incongruity theory, elaborated by Kant, Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard, that Critchley theorises jokes and humour as meaningful and paradoxical social practices, implying on the one hand a necessary congruence between joke structure and social structure, the sensus communis of the world, and, on the other hand, presenting them as liberating or critical practices which can explode the sheer arbitrariness of the social rites ‘through its miniature strategies of defamiliarisation’, swinging into action as the subversive tools of some dissensus communis of the world. This duality of ritual and subversion, of reproduction and revolution, imbricated upon each other and coexisting within the humorous structures, is singled out by Critchley as the leading argument of his book. ‘I want to defend a two-fold claim. . . Humour both reveals the situation, and indicates how that situation might be changed’ (16). Moreover, as a form of ‘practically enacted theory’, inviting us ‘to become philosophical spectators upon our lives’ and indicating how our lives might be transformed or perfected, ‘laughter has a certain redemptive, or messianic power’ (16).

In the following chapters Critchley identifies and condenses some other major topics in the philosophical and anthropological discussions on humour, including the issue of the constant overstepping of the boundary between the human and the animal in humour; the exploitation of the gap between being a body and having a body (i.e. the distinction between the vulgarity and the bodily dimension of laughter and the disembodied sophistication of the purely mental humour); the affinity between humour and philosophy – both concerned with the expression of an abstract relation to the world; the (un)translatability of jokes and humour, as well as the aforementioned troubling issue of the structural identity of reactionary and revolutionary dimensions of humour. ‘How many men does it take to tile a bathroom? I don’t know. It depends how thinly you slice them.’ The final chapter is a reflection on Freud’s late essay ‘Humour’ (1927), elaborating the kinship between humour and melancholy, both generated by the narcissistically split ego, divided between the ego and the super-ego.[2] It ends with Critchley’s own theory of the pure laughter, of the risus purus, of the ability to laugh at oneself, as demonstrated by the Freudian joke about the criminal who, looking up to the sky on the morning of the execution, was able to remark ‘Well, the week’s beginning nicely’. Humour, concludes Critchley, ‘is essentially a self-mocking ridicule’, the ability to laugh at oneself — rather than at others, to smile melancholically at one’s folly and pain, under the consoling gaze of the super-ego, which has turned from the prohibiting parent of the melancholic disposition to the comforting one of the humorous attitude, philosophically abstracted and self-deriding.

It is this articulated belief in purity and disembodiment, taken as conditions of self-criticism and ‘the essence of humour’, which I would approach with some scepticism, if only for the implied contingency between the ‘highest’ and the purest: in other words, because of the absolutisation of purity as axiomatic. Moreover, considering that Critchley’s risus purus theory is deeply embedded within the mechanisms of self-criticism, he stops short of returning to Freud, as one might have expected, namely to the paradoxical category of Jewish self-critical jokes. Those quoted by Freud explore the relation between rich and poor Jews, such as the one about Schnorrer (the beggar), who, when advised against visiting the Baron (the rich man obliged to alms-giving by law) on the day on which he is not giving anybody more than a florin, says: ‘I’ll go up all the same. Why should I give him a florin? Does he give me anything?'(Freud, 1991: 157-9). The liberating potential of self-critical jokes, in which the narrator of the joke identifies himself with the object of the joke, has been taken on by Homi Bhabha who, in his foreword to an anthology on ‘rewriting the Shoah’, developed it into a ‘mode of minority utterance’, a strategic tool of cultural resistance deployable by minority communities in general, not only by the Jewish diaspora. By appropriating the conditions of exclusion into their jokes, the minorities are capable of re-working the patterns of othering mechanisms into narratives of their self-critical self-recognition. Thus, looking from the margins, the highest laugh, ‘deriding the having and the not having’, could be described in terms of hybridity and exchange, rather than purity and abstraction.

Another troubling issue is a more general one and concerns the presumed transparency of images which, when approached by scholars occupied predominantly with the verbal, are seen as translucent vessels to convey meaning poured into them by the reader. For those who approach their studies of culture and its production of meaning from researching the opacity of the visual, and have been drawn to this book on noticing that a philosophical thesis on humour is illustrated with some striking images, the publication itself provides an interesting example of incongruity between what one expects and what one is given. If one hoped for some illuminating connections between the philosophy of humour and the imagery of humour,[3] or some novel insights into the interdependence between the verbal and visual joke-work (proposed in the analysis of caricatures and cartoons on the grounds of psychoanalytical theory),[4] then one’s expectations would ‘evaporate into nothing’, but not exactly in the Kantian understanding of the process. The book is kept almost exclusively within the domain of verbal humour, and although each of its seven chapters is mechanically preceded by an image from a set of the well-known physiognomic comparisons between human and animal heads, from an eagle to a monkey, no attempt has been made to justify their forceful presence in the book. It reminds me, rather uncannily, of those ‘lectures with slides’, during which unnamed transparencies are shot automatically in even pace by a pre-programmed carrousel, providing thus an allegedly self-explainable and harmless stage-set with props, vaguely coinciding with the argument of the lecturer. All the reproduced engravings are based on seventeenth-century drawings by Charles Le Brun, the commanding director of Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture who, attempting to bridge the gap between philosophy, natural sciences and art, codified the ways of representing human emotions in the visual arts. Apart from cursory captions, however, the prints are left without commentary in the text of the book and the reader is left to his or her own wit, to drive the incongruity home. The reader may consider connecting these images to the chapter which juxtaposes the ‘benign humanity of the animal and the disturbing animality of the human’ and this might stimulate some further reflections on the boundary between bestiality and humanity, but it would not clarify their use as a frontispiece to every chapter of the book.

The problem is that Le Brun’s comparisons of human and animal heads were not meant to be humorous. They were to serve as illustrations to his lecture on physiognomy (only known through summaries), which was intended as a supplement to his most celebrated and well publicised lecture on the visual aspects of pathognomics, a codification of the visual representation of human emotions (Montague). The latter, incidentally speaking, was based to a considerable extent on Decartes’ Passions of the Souland included an image of a smiling face, juxtaposed to those of joyful, sorrowful, weeping faces, as well as that of an angry face. It is incredibly tempting to think that Le Brun’s images of Laughter, Joy, Sorrow, Anger, etc. might have corresponded rather well to Critchley’s arguments on the affinity between laughter and agression, or between humour and melancholy. Le Brun’s own description of the ways of representing laughter reads:

. . . this movement is expressed in the eyebrows arched over the eyes but with the inner ends lowered, the eyes almost shut, the mouth open and showing teeth; the corners of the mouth will be drawn back and raised so that there are folds in the cheeks, which will appear swollen and almost hiding the eyes; the face will be red, the nostrils open, and the eyes may appear damp and weeping tears which, being very different from those of Sorrow, change nothing in the face unless they are caused by Suffering . . . (Montague, 1994: 137)

In contrast to the lecture on pathognomics which is concerned with the general rules of representing the states of mind which are common to all people, irrespective of gender, age, or social status, Le Brun’s lecture on physiognomy focuses on establishing differences between those who are subject to those states of mind. Physiognomy was the art of classifying and judging human character from facial characteristics, such as the slope of the eyes and mouth, allowing to distinguish between spiritually endowed persons and those of a ‘low’ character. It would also include the ancient comparisons of the heads of men and animals, stemming from the pseudo-Aristotelian theory, according to which the character of a man could be established on the basis of his resemblance to an animal. The characteristics of the latter have been fixed in advance by stereotypes propagated by popular wisdom. Thus men resembling lions were said to be courageous, those looking like monkeys or camels intelligent, while people resembling cats were considered obstinate and distrustful, as well as fearful. Physiognomy had regained currency in the late sixteenth-century, both in Giovanni Battista della Porta’s popular treatise De Humana Physiognomonia, 1593, illustrated with a series of woodcuts showing Lion-Man, Bull-Man, etc., and in the writings of Cureau de La Chambre. Le Brun’s drawings of human and animal heads formed only a part of his intended inquiry into the established visual codes of physiognomy and they are obviously derived from the images published by della Porta. Those reproduced by Critchley are not actually by Le Brun himself but come from a nineteenth-century publication which was the first attempt to reconstruct Le Brun’s unwritten lecture by the curator of prints in the Louvre, Morel d’Arleux, in 1806, and illustrated by André le Grand engravings after Le Brun sketches (Montague, 1994: 19-30; Pinault-Soerensen, 2000).

But is physiognomy humorous? Treated once as a serious academic discipline, it is likely to be seen today rather as a stage, hardly humorous, in the development of pseudo-scientific classification of human beings on the basis of their outward appearances, akin to racial typology. As such, however, it could be comparable to some types of ethnic humour, and its dependency on stereotypes. Indeed, the physiognomic drawings by della Porta are routinely listed in the accounts of the origins of caricature, and its licence to distort and to rebel against the canons of beauty, opening the way, like humour, to a reflection on the very rules of representation. After all, the images reproduced by Critchley, by virtue of their incongruous placement within the text, provide a punch-line, a hole opening the road to dissensus communis, which, using the words of the author, might ‘change the situation’, and even perhaps contribute to realigning the field of thinking about humour, laughter, philosophy, ritual and rebellion, not foreclosing the visual. Another book in the series could be on caricature.


1 For a bibliography on humour, see Verberckmoes, 1997.

2 Earlier on, when writing on the subjective determinants of the joke-work in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud linked the ability to produce a joke to neurotic disorders (Freud, 1991: 193-4).

3 The issue of the relation between humour and visual arts which would go beyond the level of the humorous subject matter, exploring the strategies and boundaries of representation and reception, constitutes a grossly undereresearched field. See West, 2000; also Holman & Kelly, 2001.

4 Gombrich and Kris, 1938; Kris, 1953; Gombrich, 1963.


Bhabha, H. K. (1998) ‘Foreword: Joking Aside: the Idea of a Self-Critical Community’, in B. Cheyette and L. Marcus (eds), Modernity, Culture and the Jew. Cambridge: Polity.

Freud, S. (1905/1991) Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. Trans. J. Strachey. The Penguin Freud Library 6. A. Richards (ed.). Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Gombrich, E. H. (1963) ‘The Cartoonist’s Armoury’, in E. H. Gombrich Meditations on a Hobby Horse and Other Essays on the Theory of Art. London: Phaidon.

Gombrich, E. H. and Kris, E. (1938) ‘The Principles of Architecture’, British Journal of Medical Psychology, 17, 319-42.

Holman, V. & Kelly, D. (2001) (eds) War in the Twentieth Century: the Functioning of Humour in Cultural RepresentationJournal of European Studies, xxxi (special issue).

Kris, E. (1953) Psychonalytical Explorations in Art. London: Allen & Unwin.

Montague, J. (1994) The Expression of the Passions: The Origin and Influence of Charles Le Brun’s ‘Conférence sur l’expresion générale et particuliére’. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Morreal, J. (ed.) (1987). The Philosophy of Laughter and Humour. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York.

Pinault-Sorensen, M. (ed.) (2000). De la Physionomie Humaine et Animale: Dessins de Charles Le Brun gravés pour la Chalcographie du Musée Napoléon en 1806. Paris: Éditions de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux.

Raskin, V. (1985) Semantic Mechanisms of Humour. Dordrecht/Boston/Lancaster: D. Reidel.

Verberckmoes, J. (1997) ‘Humour and History: A Research Bibliography’, in J. Bremmer and H. Roodenburg (eds), A Cultural History of Humour: From Antiquity to the Present Day. Cambridge: Polity Press.

West, S. (2000) Laughter in Eighteenth-Century English Visual Culture. Research seminar at University of East Anglia, School of World Studies and Musicology.

Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius, formerly Curator of Italian Paintings at the National Museum in Warsaw, teaches methodologies of art history at Birkbeck College, University of London, Faculty of Continuing Education, England. She has edited Borders in Art: Revisiting Kunstgeographie. Warsaw: Instytut Sztuki, 2000, and has published articles on visual culture of the Cold War, including ‘Socialist Realism’s Self-Reference? Cartoons on Art. c. 1950’, in S. E. Reid & D. Crowley (eds) (2000), Style and Socialism and ‘Paris from behind the Iron Curtain’, in S. Wilson et al (eds) (2002), Paris: Capital of the Arts 1900-1968. She is one of the founder editors of Blok: The International Journal of Stalinist and Post-Stalinist Culture (Bydgoszcz, Poland, 2002).