Dr Rebecca Anne Barr is awarded the 2022-23 Crausaz Wordsworth Interdisciplinary Fellowship in Philosophy at CRASSH

The aim of the Fellowship is to enable scholars developing interests in philosophical study from an interdisciplinary perspective to spend additional time exploring these.  Dr Barr’s project is on ‘Philosophies of Laughter in Eighteenth-Century Women’s Fiction’.

Once designated the ‘Age of Reason’, the eighteenth century has been recast in recent work as the ‘Age of Ridicule’: an era driven by partisan hostilities, caustic humour, and unsparing incivilities. Following Thomas Hobbes’s influential formulation of laughter as a manifestation of malicious ‘superiority’ and egoism, Enlightenment philosophers scrutinized and theorized forms of mirth and humour in an attempt to parse the moral meaning and social praxis of laughter. Throughout the period, laughter provokes anxiety in empirical philosophy: its mixture of the bodily, the psychological, and the social posing problems for analytic reason. John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) conveys a typical early-eighteenth-century mistrust of laughter and humour. While advocates of gentlemanly humour such as Shaftesbury argued the utility of ridicule in short-circuiting erroneous opinion as a means of ‘testing truth’, conservative commentators such as Mary Astell cautioned against risibility as epistemology. Whether incongruity, superiority, relief or subversion, laughter was contentious: philosophy disputed both its origins and its diagnoses of human nature.

Dr Barr’s project for the Crausaz Wordsworth Fellowship will examine eighteenth-century women’s fiction, to show how women writers participated in the laughter debate by formulating fictions of humour, wit, and risibility. Writers such as Eliza Haywood, Sarah Fielding, Frances Sheridan, Frances Burney, and Elizabeth Hamilton do not merely engage with the philosophical terminology and moral preoccupations of the laughter debate, they also intervene in the ostensibly neutral discourse around the relative power dynamics of mirth. That is, while philosophers of laughter from Hobbes to Francis Hutcheson and Adam Smith baulk at the complications gender might pose to theory, literature by women picks up the same themes of selfishness, benevolence, power and pleasure to interrogate their gendered dynamics.
While recent scholarship has returned to the eighteenth-century philosophy of laughter it risks inadvertently replicating the period’s gendered assumptions. Simon Dickie’s seminal Cruelty and Laughter: Forgotten Comic Literature and the Unsentimental Eighteenth Century (Chicago, 2011) focusses almost exclusively on fiction and jestbooks written by men. In Ross Carroll’s excellent Uncivil Mirth: Ridicule in Enlightenment Britain (Princeton, 2021), the philosophy of laughter is almost an all-male affair, with Wollstonecraft produced as the sole practitioner of ridicule as part of her masculine political persona. Although eighteenth-century philosophers were silent on the subject of women’s laughter, we may hear that mirth elsewhere. Indeed, the number of strictures against women’s risibility suggests that its existence troubled both gender and class-based parameters, with one author admonishing that too ‘boisterous kind of Jollity’ ‘throweth a Woman into a lower Form, and degradeth her from the Rank of those who are more refined’.  Instead, the stakes of the eighteenth-century laughter debate were raised for women.
The project will read fiction as, and against, moral philosophy. It will begin with Sarah Fielding’s attempt to ‘laugh readers out of their absurdities’ in her experimental The Cry (1754) and conclude with Elizabeth Hamilton’s anti-Jacobin satire Memoirs of Modern Philosophers (1800). From Shaftesbury’s Sensus Communis: an Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humor (1709), working chronologically through Francis Hutcheson’s Reflections upon Laughter, and Remarks upon the Fable of the Bees (1725, reprinted 1750), to Henry Fielding’s Champion essays on laughter and good nature, and Adam Smith’s analysis of humour, the project will go some way to tracking the hitherto ignored connection between women’s fiction and philosophy of laughter. While the Scottish moral philosopher, James Beattie, insisted that the ‘freaks and foibles of the female world supply a rich fund of humorous entertainment’ (for men, presumably), women writers did not confine themselves to domestic femininity. Instead laughter afforded them a means of analysing the hypocrisies, cruelties and injustices of the world at large, while entertaining and educating a readership perhaps unwilling to be enlightened by novels. The project will ask how the philosophy of laughter might look differently if studied in novels by women, and how novels by women read differently when contextualised by philosophy.