7 Ways of Reading Philosophy: #6 Reading for laughs

When we moved the Looking for Wisdom HQ up to Scotland a year ago, we packed away all our philosophy books into boxes. There were a lot of boxes. So on the outside, with a big fat marker pen, we wrote the words: “Philosophy Books (warning: extremely heavy).” As jokes go, it was a pretty feeble one. But it kept us entertained through the stresses of the move.

This idea that philosophy is inherently and necessarily heavy is one that has a broad currency. The first recourse for the unimaginative philosophy publisher, looking for something to stick on a book cover or a website, is Rodin’s Le Penseur. That furrowed brow! That muscular male torso? That dark, brooding glint of bronze! The heroism! The seriousness! The sheer heft and heaviness of it all!

And this, we are often encouraged to believe, is what philosophy is all about. But what if it isn’t? Or not, necessarily? What if seriousness is not always a virtue, or if there are other virtues that might be set alongside the virtue of seriousness—equally persuasive, and equally revealing?

In the mood

Another way of putting this is that many people assume that philosophy requires not just a certain way of thinking, but also a certain way of attuning yourself to the world in which you find yourself. It requires a certain mood. And the mood it requires is a sombre one.

But what is a mood? And why should it matter to how we do philosophy? When you start to think about it, mood is a more complex and puzzling thing than it first seems. Moods are somehow nebulous. On the one hand, they are obvious and all-pervasive. We are in a particular mood, and our current mood seems to colour everything. But at the same time, moods are hard to grab hold of or to pin down.

For philosopher Martin Heidegger, mood (Stimmung) is fundamental to our relationship with the world. Mood is about our attunement (Befindlichkeit) to the world. Moods assail us, take us over, elevate us, lay us low… but we are always in some kind of mood or other. Even the apparent absence of mood (what Heidegger calls “The often persistent, smooth, and pallid lack of mood”) is itself a kind of mood, and is, Heidegger writes, “far from being nothing” [1]

For Heidegger, mood discloses the world to us. Think about how, if you are in a bad mood, the world seems hostile. People on the bus are more annoying than usual. Even inanimate objects like door handles are suddenly out to get you, snagging on your new jumper as you pass. Now imagine that you are skipping home from a successful first date. The world is kissed by sunshine and joy. Everyone smiles. The traffic lights change just when you need them to. The world is overflowing with kindness.

This makes the mastery of our moods one of the challenges of human life. But we can never master our modes by driving them out. We can’t free ourselves from mood altogether. Instead, the best we can do is by finding our way towards a counter-mood. Heidegger writes,

When we see the “world” in an unsteady and wavering way in accordance with our moods, what is at hand shows itself in its specific worldliness, which is never the same on any given day. [2]

You might think that a purely theoretical perspective — the dispassionate gaze of the philosopher in their ivory tower — could somehow escape this wavering flux of mood. But Heidegger says no. Even the purest theōria, or disinterested contemplation, he says, does not abandon all moods. Because ultimately, “Every understand­ing has its mood,” and, “Every attunement understands.” [3]

The Spirit of Gravity

If moods disclose particular kinds of worlds, and give rise to particular kinds of understanding, this forces us to ask what is disclosed by the default mood of high seriousness in which we habitually read philosophy. Of course, heavy philosophy, and weightiness in general, may have their virtues. But when you want to move house — after lugging all those boxes up to your new third-floor apartment, which doesn’t even have an elevator — weight seems far less appealing, less of a virtue, than it once did. So are there things that we simply don’t see, or can’t see, when we are hunched up like Rodin’s sculpture, our brows furrowed, our bodies heavy, having weighty thoughts?

One philosopher who was fed up with all this weight was Friedrich Nietzsche. The trouble with weight, for Nietzsche, is that it stops us being able to dance. It makes us less light on our feet, less aware of our bodies, less alive. Nietzsche had a name for this obsession with weight and seriousness: he called it the “Spirit of Gravity.” In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he wrote,

I would only believe in a god who knew how to dance.

And when I saw my devil, there I found him earnest, thorough, deep, sombre: it was the Spirit of Gravity – through him all things fall. [4]

The antidote to the Spirit of Gravity is the ability to laugh. Nietzsche, always solicitous of our digestive processes, counsels us as follows: “Ten times you must laugh by day and be cheerful, or else your stomach will bother you at night, this father of gloom” [5]. Because if there is anything at all that can rid us of this spirit of gravity, it is laughter: “Not by wrath does one kill,” Nietzsche says, “but by laughing. Up, let us kill the spirit of gravity!” [6]

Nietzsche for laughs

Nietzsche’s book is full of laughter. He writes about mocking laughter and about laughter that flutters like a colourful cloud. He discusses the laughter of malice and the laughter of love. He writes about the laughter of children, of gods, and even of lions. He writes about laughter at oneself and at others. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a bundle of laughs. And to the extent that Nietzsche has a method for doing philosophy, laughter is close as anything to being this method.

But it is also clear — from even a cursory glance at Thus Spoke Zarathustra — that for Nietzsche, laughter is not a single thing. It is complicated. It spills out over the sides. It is unruly. It resists orderly classification and definition. It doesn’t necessarily know what it is doing. Ha! Ha! Ha! Nevertheless, even when we read Nietzsche, we tend to miss the laughter. Instead, we succumb to the very Spirit of Gravity that Nietzsche has tried so hard to kill off.

What do those philosophers who write about Nietzsche spend their time doing? They write serious papers, engage in minute arguments, talk about Nietzsche as if they are speaking the most weighty truths about the most weighty aspects of human life. And it is hard not to see this heaviness as something close to a betrayal.

Imagine a conference of Nietzsche scholars, and what comes to mind? Do you picture a boisterous group of light-footed and joyful human creatures, exploding uncontrollably into heady, intoxicating laughter, leaping to their feet every so often to dance? Or do you picture a serious group of thinkers, seated in a room that smells of stale coffee, hunched like Rodin’s statue, oppressed by the weight of everything as they ask what it could all possibly mean?

And here’s the question: if you picture the latter, you have to ask: are these philosophers (whether real or imagined) really talking about Nietzsche at all?

Missing the laughter

The trouble with the Spirit of Gravity is not just that it gets in the way of our urge to dance (although dancing may be a Good Thing). It also risks getting in the way of making sense of what Nietzsche is saying. Can we really understand Nietzsche if we don’t laugh along with him (or if we don’t dance along with him)? What are we missing, what do we misconstrue, if we come to Nietzsche in this mood of high seriousness?

This is not just a problem with reading Nietzsche. It holds for reading other works of philosophy as well. When we are in the grip of the Spirit of Gravity, our reading of philosophy becomes unnecessarily restricted. We start to miss things. Above all, we miss the fact that philosophy is written by human beings, with a full range of human moods. If mood really does disclose a “specific worldliness”, as Heidegger puts it, then restricting ourselves to a single philosophical mood is going to narrow our vision. When seriousness reigns, what kinds of specific worldliness are we at risk of forgetting?

Freeing ourselves from the Spirit of Gravity offers us a route back to more interesting ways of reading philosophy. If we no longer feel the obligation to imagine that every word is heavy with serious intent, we can start to remind ourselves that philosophers are, after all, human beings. And what we know about human beings is that they are by turns serious and silly, trivial and profound, focussed and distracted, insightful and clueless. Even when they are writing philosophy. Often, when we start reading, we forget this fact. We shuffle into the shadow of the Spirit of Gravity, furrow our brows, and get unbearably serious. But this leads us to miss the sheer human complexity of what we are reading.

Worse than this, we risk lapsing into a kind of high-mindedness that leads to us making stuff up, simply because we can’t believe our ancestors were anything other than rigorously serious and incontestably great. In this way, a passing joke buried in an obscure corner of a text becomes elevated to the status of a profound metaphysical puzzle. A slip of the pen, or an inadvertent aside, becomes the fodder for endless commentary, giving rise to a thousand PhD theses. A bad argument is refashioned over the centuries until, in the light of endless commentary, it becomes seen as a deeply subtle insight. And so it goes on.

Reading differently

On the other hand, when we start to recognise that the mood of high seriousness is not the only option, that there are other ways of both writing and reading philosophy, we can begin to free ourselves from the Spirit of Gravity.

And then what? How do we then read philosophy? One possibility is that we can start to reimagine the art of reading philosophy as the art of struggling to attune ourselves to the changing moods of the text we are reading. This is not easy. For one thing, we already know that moods are hard to pin down, difficult to put into words. For another thing, gulfs in time, space, language, and culture can make moods difficult to translate. Not only this, but moods can be changeable, from one paragraph to the next, even from one sentence to the next. We cannot assume that a single text has a single mood.

Nevertheless, this is a good start. Reading with the knowledge that mood matters, and that it is never straightforward, allows us to discover things that we would not otherwise discover.

But there are other ways of reading philosophy too. If there is a virtue in reading philosophy while being attentive to what we imagine the mood of the text may be, there is also virtue in reading texts against the grain. What if we deliberately read in a different mood, to see what that discloses?

This can be tricky too, because philosophers can suck you into the particular mood or climate of their writing. Mood, after all, is contagious. We are in a bad mood, the people around us catch the same mood. Even the cat ends up grumpy. But when a cheerful friend comes to knock on the door, everybody (including the cat) suddenly cheers up. The same is true for philosophy. The mood of any particular thinker or text can be highly contagious. It draws us in, allowing us to see certain things, but blinding us to other things.

Fortunately, there’s no obligation to read philosophy in the mood in which we think, imagine, or suspect it was written, or was intended to be read. We are free to choose to read it differently, in a different mood, in the hope that we can spot different things.

Philosophy, and the proper care of the stomach

This aspiration to read philosophy differently is, in the end, why Nietzsche’s celebration of laughter is worth taking seriously, or at least laughing along with. Because if the overwhelming mood of a lot of philosophy seems top be presided over by the Spirit of Gravity, there is a profound liberation to be found in reading for laughs. When we are freed from the obligation to always be serious, or from the oppressive fantasy that our ancestors were themselves monsters of seriousness, chinks start to open up. And through these chinks, we can see the light of new possibilities, new understandings, or at the very least, newly creative misunderstandings.

This may seem a risky route to take. It may be that reading philosophy for laughs will lead your philosopher friends to shun you. So what? Laugh it off! It may be that all this laughter will lead you up a blind alley. What a hoot! Just retrace your steps, dancing as you go, and seek out another path!

Because at the very least — as Nietzsche reminds us — reading philosophy for laughs will aid your digestion. And your stomach will not bother you at night.

Read the whole series on seven ways of reading philosophy…

  1. Reading Napoleonically
  2. Reading haphazardly
  3. Reading self-interestedly
  4. Reading out loud
  5. Reading drunkenly
  6. Reading for laughs
  7. Reading with others (forthcoming!)


[1] Martin Heidegger, trans. Joan Stambaugh, Being and Time: A Translation of Sein und Zeit, SUNY Press (1996), p. 126

[2] ibid. p. 130

[3] ibid. p. 309

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, trans. Adrian Del Caro, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Cambridge University Press (2006), p. 29

[5] ibid. p. 28

[6] ibid. p. 29

Image: Carl Bloch, Two Laughing Girls (1865), Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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