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Divine Comedies: Humour, Subjectivity, Transcendence

Research project
Active research
Project period
2010 - 2021
Project owner
Department of Literature, History of Ideas, and Religion

Short description

The project ”Divine Comedies” is an inquiry in philosophical theology into what kind of being a human being must be in order to be able to find something funny. The result is a three-volume work that offers both historical and constructive treatments of the question. The first two volumes examine the question historically, one treating material from Antiquity to the Renaissance, the other German Romanticism. The third volume puts the philosophical and theological question of the essence of a human being who finds something funny. Its conclusion is that we human beings are creatures of the threshold who are most genuinely ourselves when we are beyond ourselves. Insight regarding the existential significance of humour in this threshold existence enables a critical analysis of humour as a concrete phenomenon in all its instrumental uses.

Divine Comedies: Humour, Subjectivity, Transcendence is an inquiry in philosophical theology into what kind of being a human being must be in order to be able to find something funny. The results of the inquiry are published in three volumes. The first volume treats the development of the idea of humour between Antiquity and the Renaissance, and the second examines understandings of humour that arose out of German Romanticism. The purpose of these first two volumes is to explain in some detail how historical thinkers actually understood humour. In contrast to historical work that assembles anecdotal collections of statements, the first volume aims to show how the Christian tradition and its emphasis on the intertwining of the sublime and the ordinary transforms the idea of humour and makes it more existentially relevant, in contrast to a more instrumental understanding of humour that characterized antiquity. The second volume focuses on German Romanticism (a movement comprised of thinkers like Schiller, Kant, Hamann, Schlegel, Solger, Jean Paul, Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche) because this movement contains particularly intensive reflections on the relation between humour, subjectivity, and transcendence.

The historical narrative of the first two volumes is intended to lay the foundations for the third volume, entitled ”Critique of Existential Humour”,  which offers a constructive and systematic interpretation of humour with the help of philosophical anthropology, psychoanalysis, and theology. This third volume consists of three parts. The first part examines three concrete functions of humour: antagonism, sympathy and therapy. This examination of humour as function leads to a discussion of humour as existence, in which I argue that humour corresponds not to a discrete set of human actions, but rather to a mode in which human beings relate to their existence as a whole.  The second part of the volume then treats humour and subjectivity in more depth and describes how human beings are involved in humour through examination of both the playful, ticklish, and porous self, and the social context of humour and the structure of the joke itself. This entire part ends in a discussion of humour as reflexivity. The third part treats humor as an experience of transcendence in terms of incarnation and affirmation.

The conclusion of the study is that human beings who can experience something as funny are creatures of the threshold. They have the ability to give up control over themselves and to exist outside of themselves in a more primary availability or ability to receive something as an external address. Such an understanding of the human relation to humour makes a critique of humour as a concrete phenomenon possible at the same time as it also offers insight into the existential conditions of humanity: to become oneself precisely through an act of self-transcendence.