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Intensive: Bergson on Laughter

Happy New Year, philosophers!  Our first "regular" meeting of 2013 happens January 15.  (I will try to coordinate with the SFDebate group which also meets on alternate Tuesdays.)  In addition, though, we are trying a special format meeting that is sort of a counterpoint to our usual far-ranging, somewhat breezy explorations:  here, we will go deep, rather than wide.

This "intensive" is a first-ever experiment in small-group study.  We could use a couple more people; however, I will be there even if there is only one other person who wants to participate.  I am becoming a firm believer that one must DO before one can understand.

In a nutshell, we will be taking a close look at the ideas in one seminal work, Henri Bergson's essay on laughter, and the comic in general.  For my own understanding, I had already prepared notes (in the form of a graph of concepts), which I will use to present the ideas.  We won't be reading the text:  I will lead a discussion (in classic Socratic fashion, I hope) that brings us to his ideas–just like you were explaining a favorite book to a friend.  For example, if I said such-and-such idea should be interpreted a certain way because Bergson in general believed X, then you should cry "foul," because then you just would have to take my word for it:  you wouldn't be able to explain to another person without using my testimony as hearsay.

Individuals are expected to benefit from this discussion in several ways:
* Theories of humor are quite uncommon, and this one is more fully developed.
* Exposure to concentrated thought provides a paradigm for our own thinking, particularly if we can achieve understanding through dialogue only.
* The small size, and focus, of the group means everybody will be "on the same page" which could be an eye-opening experience.
This work has been described as geared toward a more "popular" audience (though that meant something different in 1900), rather than scholars; nevertheless, it provides a "setting" for subsequent development of Bergson's Nobel-winning philosophy, whose "vitalist" characteristics should appeal to many in the group. 

I've included most of the original, longer write-up below.  I'm not going to bother with the optional roles unless we have more than 5 people, or someone really wants one of them.  We certainly can critique his ideas, as long as we make sure we hear and understand them first.  Please do try to answer the RSVP questions:  they are my gauge of whether people understand what we are and are not trying to do.

Thank you, in advance, to the intrepid among you!
Jeff

Perhaps unnecessarily theoretical exposition of the meeting format:
...In some ways, this format is the opposite of our regular meetings (let me dub them "extensives" for the purpose of comparison):• Whereas extensives are rather free and improvisational, intensives are guided and structured.  We are going to study, and it may feel like "work" (hence, I scheduled it on a weekend).
• In extensives we "perform"; in intensives we "practice."
• In an extensive, everyone is the same (or at least has equal opportunity), but an intensive involves specific roles.
• Extensives have only the content that we contribute; the sole content of an intensive comes from a text of a recognized author.  So you have something of a guarantee that you'll come away with something very likely to be new and useful to you.

It may turn out that this format appeals to people who are turned off by the lack of structure in our regular meetings, though it would be unfortunate if there were no overlap, because it is hoped that the intensive format will complement the other.  Rather than insert an essay here, I will point out that a running theme in 2012 was mastery:  Know-How, Play, Art, Work, School, Progress, and Incentives all touched on how we might learn more effectively.  The aim is that, after completing an Intensive, a person will understand the text deeply enough to be able to use the main ideas in it in his or her own conversation.

If you've made it this far, now you get to hear some unexpected good news:  this is to be accomplished WITHOUT any actual reading.  We are seeking oral competency in the topic of the text, so it seems plausible to accomplish that with conversation.  We will try to live up to the Socratic ideal:-)  I've no problem with taking notes, but hopefully you'll find it more useful to focus on the present moment rather than to believe that you might review your notes at "some later time."  (We know how that goes.)  Because the burden of preparation falls on the presenter, I will be referring to written notes, but if it becomes a lecture, then the meeting won't have succeeded.  My study of the text basically aimed to condense and translate it into fragments of modern conversational English, so I'll avoid quotations.  Reading to people prepares them only to recite, but here we want them to learn.  The learners will be urged to demonstrate what they've absorbed.

Other roles are envisioned.  A reader would be the only one with a copy of the text itself, vested with the responsibility of verifying that what is being presented adheres to the text.  This should be doable because the study of the text follows it closely, a first stage of "digestion," if you will.  This role is necessitated by the fact that the stature of the presentation derives from the text.  An observer would listen not only to the presenter, but also to the learners' questions and demonstrations, monitoring the whole discussion to give feedback afterward or possibly during the meeting, but not "participating."  An auditor would someone brought in near the end of the meeting–a "blank slate"–to give learners an opportunity to show off what they learned.  These roles are optional, and with this format being very exploratory, subject to change.

Okay, so who is the famous dead guy whose work will be presented in this premiere Intensive?  Henri Bergson is one of few recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature who did not win for poetry or fiction (Bertrand Russell is the only other in that category I recognize).  I believe his approach to knowledge may resonate with the nature of our group, but whether it does or not is secondary to simply having a creditable text to absorb.  If I can get the book Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic in time, I will present its last chapter, "The Comic in Character"; otherwise, we will study "The Perception of Change," from The Creative Mind.  Either of these is a great introduction to his thought, or so they seem to me, in about thirty pages (but remember:  only one of you will have to look at them).  And yes, I purposely chose something no one has already read.

I've set the length of our session to 75 minutes, approximately the length of a classroom period, on the assumption that we will tire more easily than in our normal meetings.  I know I will, anyway.  We can always shift to regular conversation afterward (and yes, Humor is high on the list of upcoming themes).  The maximum size will be 7 or 8 attendees, and that many only if all the roles are manned.  I'll be surprised if we get through the whole text, but the concept map I created should help us concentrate on the essentials.  Keep in mind that this is just the first step in a new initiative:  we may improvise a lot on the format (but not the text!)

Take some time to answer the RSVP questions.  There's no point in doing this if we're not on the same page about the project.  Yes, this has been a long write-up, but if you want more, look at the new "On discussing philosophy in cafès" discussion thread.  I've tried to stick to the facts here, but I'm very excited to try this format out, and it will take motivated participants to work the kinks out.  To me, the point of having a group is to do things that can't be done alone.  Let's make this a shining example of what collaboration can be.

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  • Jeff G

    OMG After suggesting we look at a Nietzsche essay I encountered through The Partially-Examined Life podcast, I noticed that the program studied Bergson's On Laughter essay just 4 episodes prior. Haven't listened to it yet, but anyone who missed our discussion might want to check it out. Also look at my post in the Topic for a Meetup? thread.

    January 21, 2013

  • Jeff G

    Briefly put, I expect problems on the first outing of a format experiment–instead, it unfolded according to my fondest hopes! Of course, since I selected the text, I liked the content, but what really made me happy was that our perfectly-sized group took the text on its own terms and were able to "get" the main ideas to a degree that encouraged me that they may arise independently in other conversations (perhaps in Philosophy Cafe!) The resemblance to a lecture was minimal, thankfully, as all had opportunity to interact with my "impersonation" of Bergson. We extended the meeting time significantly by going beyond the text, as well. Thanks to all for making this debut a success!

    January 6, 2013

  • Jeff G

    Now that I've reviewed my notes on the essay, I feel confident that we can make this both fun and enlightening. It originally appeared as a magazine article, ambling through several topics, much like our meetings do. But now looking at it, I can see a progression that my notes, at least, did not capture. Bergson's use of repetition and variation, and the organization of my notes as a network of concepts, may lead to a mostly improvised conversation that follows a given contour–sort of like a jazz performance that follows a given harmony.

    January 5, 2013

  • Jeff G

    Just finished watching the romantic comedy The American President. Probably not the example Bergson was thinking about, but it didn't take long to see how it does fit into his theory. Perhaps it would be a fun exercise to pick out a movie or two BEFORE we talk about his views, then see if they fit!

    January 4, 2013

    • Jeff G

      Also, why not bring a question or two about the comic that we can share before diving in, then see if Bergson helps us answer it?

      January 5, 2013

  • Chance K

    Is this on?

    January 4, 2013

    • Jeff G

      Yes, it is!

      January 4, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Brand new concept to me and fascinating - as I have been trying to observe national politics & the economy specifically as to how people perceive what is heard is very much biased to interpretations based on their core beliefs that is set in their 20s.
    However I am illiterate on philosophical thinking as I have never taken a class or read a book on philosophy.
    Will try to rsvp & decide as the questions come up.

    December 30, 2012

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