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Definition-Difficulties of forming one of Humour.
C OME of the considerations towards the D end of the last chapter may have led us to conclude that our sense* of the ludicrous is not a variety of emotions, but only one; and the possibility of our forming a definition of it depends, not only upon its unity, but upon our being able to trace some common attributes in the circumstances which awaken it. But in one of the leading periodicals of the day, I lately read the observation—made by a writer whose views should not be lightly regarded—that “all the most profound philosophers have pronounced a definition of humour to be hopelessly impracticable.” I think that such an important and fundamental statement as this may be suitably taken into consideration in commencing our examination of the question. As a matter of history, we shall find that it is erroneous, for several great philosophers have given us definitions of the sense of the ludicrous, and few have thought * This term seems the nearest, though not quite accurate. Nature of Definition.
it indefinable. But those who took the former course might be charged with wandering into the province of literature; while the views of those who adopted the latter might be thought incorrect with regard to definition, or unwarranted with regard to humour. To suppose that a definition of humour would be of any great value, would be to think that it would unfold the nature of things, instead of merely giving the meaning of a term; nor is it correct to conclude that by employing a string of words we can reach the precise signification of one, any more than we can hit the mark by striking at each side of it. If the number and variety of our words and thoughts were increased, we could approximate more nearly ; but as we know neither the boundaries of our conceptions, nor the natural limits of things, definition can never be perfect or final. Various standards have been sought for it—the common usage of society being generally adopted —but it must always to a certain extent vary, according to the knowledge and approval of the definer.
Scientific definitions are not intended to be complete, except for the study immediately in view. Who ever saw that ghostly line which is length without breadth-and how absurd it is to require of us to draw it! And would
not a country-bumpkin feel as much insulted, if we told him he was a “carnivorous ape," or a “mammiferous two-handed animal,” as the French soldier did when his officer called him a biped? If we give man his old prerogative, a “rational animal,” how many would refuse the title to pretty women and spendthrift sons, while others would most willingly bestow it upon their poodles ?
Definition cannot be formed without analysis and comparison, and as few people indulge much in either, they accomplish it very roughly, but it answers their purpose, and they are contented until they find themselves wrong. Hence we commonly consider that nearly everything can be defined. We may then call the ludicrous “an element in things which tends to create laughter.” This may be considered a fair definition, and although it is quite untrue, and founded on a superficial view of the ludi. crous, it may give us the characteristics which men had in view in originally giving the name at a time when they had little consideration or experience. But if we require more, and ask for a definition which will stand the test of philosophical examination, we must reply that such only can be given as is dependent upon the satisfaction of the inquirer. Progressive minds will find it difficult to circumscribe the
Is Humour a simple Feeling ?
meaning of words, especially on matters with which they are well acquainted.
Brown, in his “ Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind,” observes that the ludicrous is a compound feeling of gladness and astonishment; not a very comprehensive view, for according to it, if a man were informed that he had been left a sum of money, he would regard his good fortune as highly absurd.
Beattie maintains, on the contrary, that the ludicrous is a simple feeling, and therefore indefinable, a statement in which the premise seems more correct than the conclusion. The opinion that it is simple and primary, although not admitting of proof, has some probability in its favour. It arose from a conviction that we had no means of reaching it, of taking it to pieces, and was derived from the unsatisfactory character of such attempts as that of Brown, or from analogy with some other emotions, or with physical substances whose essence we cannot ascertain. If we can connect the ludicrous with certain acts of judgment, we cannot tell how far the emotion is modified by them, and even if we seem to have detected some elements in it, we were not conscious of them at the moment of our being amused. If they exist, they are then undiscernible.
As when we regard a work of art, we are
not sensible of pleasure until all the several elements of beauty are blended together, so if the ludicrous be a compound, there is some power within us that fuses the several emotions into one, and evolves out of them a completely new and distinct feeling. The product has a different nature from its component parts, just as the union of the blue, yellow and red give the simple sensation of whiteness. Regard the elements as separate and the feeling vanishes.
It has probably been owing to reflections of the above kind that some philosophers have stated that the ludicrous is a simple feeling, awakened by certain means, and not a compound or acquired feeling formed of certain elements. But although it is more comfortable to have questions settled and at rest, it is often safer to leave them open, especially where we have neither sufficient knowledge nor power of investigation to bring our inquiries to an issue. It is not, however, correct to say that because feelings are primary or single they cannot be defined. As we cannot take them to pieces or analyse them, we are ignorant with regard to their real nature, and of some we cannot form any definition whatever, the only account we can give of them being to enumerate every object in which they appear; but in the case of others, we are enabled to form a definition