Jonathan Lear’s case for irony






A Lost Conception of Irony

January 4, 2012 Print This Post


by admin


Crow Indians, photograph by David F. Barry, c.1878

by Jonathan Lear

On the face of it, a conception does not seem the sort of thing it is easy to lose. If we think of our life with concepts in terms of our ways of going on, categorizing and thinking about the phenomena in the world, including ourselves, then it makes sense that certain concepts might lose their viability for us, and thus fall out of use. For example, we do not use the concept of phlogiston anymore except as a philosophical example of a concept we no longer use. But in this case we have not lost the concept, we just care very little about it because we no longer think it picks out anything in the universe, and that was what it was originally designed to do. We no longer have a use for the concept, but we retain a pretty good idea of how it used to function. Indeed, you can look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, a book that purports to give us the history of our use of English words, and thus the history of our use of concepts insofar as they have been thought and expressed in English.

But when I talk of a lost conception of irony, I am concerned with a use that does not show up in the list of entries under irony in the OED:

1.  A figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used; usually taking the form of sarcasm or ridicule in which laudatory expressions are used to imply condemnation or contempt.

2.  fig. A condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what was, or might naturally be, expected; a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things. (In French ironie du sort.)

3. In etymological sense: Dissimulation, pretence; esp. in reference to the dissimulation of ignorance practised by Socrates as a means of confuting an adversary (Socratic irony).

Could it be that historians of the language have simply overlooked one of our uses of the word?  In which case, we could just add it to the list, but the story is not that simple. The analogy is rough, and to insist upon it would be overblown, but it is worth thinking about why Cantor’s diagonal number never shows up on any list of rational numbers. The diagonal number is constructed, as it were, by ‘disrupting’ any such list. The OED gives us a list of the history of our routines with words, including “irony”, but what if what we are trying to capture is a disrupter of our routines? What if the phenomenon is, intellectually speaking, tricky to capture; what if it describes a phenomenon that can be sufficiently unpleasant that we are somewhat motivated to turn away from it, and what if we are given plenty of other things to do? The third entry on the list seems to give us the ‘philosophical’ meaning of irony: was Socrates a deceiver or was he not?!  It would seem as though nothing is missing, but there does not seem even to be room for the claim that what makes irony philosophically significant is not on the list, and in a social world in which philosophy has become a profession, one in which getting a job, getting promoted and getting tenure depends on procuring a list of publications, there is plenty to keep us busy in trying to decide whether Socrates said what he meant. And, as is well known, there is a massive literature on the subject. But notice, in participating in this professional form of life, we ourselves fall into a routine. We are not highly motivated to look for a phenomenon that, in the search for it, may disrupt our lives in somewhat unpleasant and unfamiliar ways. [i] This is the theme of my new book, A Case for Irony.

In the spring of 1884, the Crow Indians (and they do want to be called Indians) moved on to the reservation; and from that day until the present there has been confusion and anxiety amongst the tribe about what it any longer means to be Crow. The situation is heart-rending in part because it is sufficiently difficult to describe that it can be easy to overlook the loss they have had to endure.  The Crows were allies of the US Government, and thus they never suffered military defeat, at least, in any straightforward sense of that term: the men were not killed in battle, people were not physically harmed, and in Aristotle’s sense of the voluntary, they voluntarily moved onto the reservation. And yet, in a stroke, their traditional nomadic way of life was wiped out. Their final and formal causes, a nomadic life of hunting, in conditions that allowed for warrior glory, within a spiritual context that endorsed just such a life, suffered a catastrophic blow. As a result, they were forced to confront a deeply upsetting (in the literal sense of that term) and weirdly enigmatic practical question: what does it any longer mean to be Crow? In my book, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, I tried to think through what Plenty Coups, the last great Chief of the Crow, might have meant when he said of the move onto the reservation, “After this, nothing happened”. [ii] In the course of writing that book, and its aftermath, I made a number of close friends among the Crow, we now have a Crow student at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, and indeed I now have a Crow brother. I can report that 127 years later, that is, about six generations, the Crow still face this painful practical question, what does it any longer mean to be Crow? Though members of the dominant culture have some sense of the plight of Native Americans, for the most part the culture is blind to the kind of devastation that has been inflicted upon them.

Let us consider the question:

Among all the Crow is there a Crow?

Consider how different the question is when asked from a third-person as opposed to a first-person perspective. One reason the conception of irony I am trying to bring into focus so easily goes missing is that we tend to confuse a first-personal practical question with a third-person theoretical one. It is a fascinating fact, revealing something important about us, that although the question has the form of a tautology, we can immediately hear that a question is being asked. We do not hear it as only a tautology. We hear the first occurrence of the term “Crow” as picking out the social group, the current members of the Crow tribe; and we hear the second occurrence as picking out the essence or ideal of being a Crow, and we hear the question as asking whether any members of the current tribe instantiate or live up to that ideal.

But from the perspective of my Crow friends the question has a different aura. It makes them anxious; or rather it names their central anxiety. I mean anxiety in the literal sense of disruptive separation from the world and disorientation. It is easy for us to hear the question as though it were coming from the superego: a question of whether the Crow fail to live up to their ideals.  But from the perspective of my Crow friends, the ideal is every bit as much in question as they are. So it isn’t just a question of whether they live up to the ideal, it is a question of whether there is any longer an ideal to live up to or fail to live up to. For Freud, superego guilt or anxiety arise because civilization has got its hooks into me, and I experience myself, however unconsciously, as falling short of an established internalized ideal. But, for the Crow, the problem is that civilization cannot get its hooks into them because civilization has itself become unhooked. This is a very different kind of a problem, and for the Crow, the ironic question of whether or not there are Crow is not theoretical, but practical: it centrally concerns their sense of how to live. As the ideal itself becomes problematic, they are confronted with an anxious sense that they do not know how to go on.

The question is also uncanny in the sense of something familiar coming back to haunt us with its unfamiliarity. [iii] My Crow friends already take themselves to be Crow, it is for each of them the most distinctive aspect of their identity, and yet, when the question arises, there is something uncanny, unfamiliar and uncomfortable about the thought of whether they (or anyone else around them) really is Crow. The question is uncannily disruptive from the inside. Notice that the question has the structure of uncanniness: the first occurrence of the term, “Among all the Crow…”, has its usual familiar sense, but the second occurrence, “… is there a Crow?”, is the return of the same, now as unfamiliar and haunting.

Chief Plenty Coups, 1880

The question is also erotic in the Platonic sense: my friends not only are Crow, they long to be Crow; they long to move in the direction of an ideal, if only they knew what direction that could be. [iv] They are longing for direction, a direction that eludes them.

This may sound odd, but my Crow friends have taught me a lot about how to read Kierkegaard.  For Kierkegaard, the fundamental ironic question is:

In all of Christendom is there a Christian?


Among all Christians is there a Christian? [v]

It is so easy to hear this question in the familiar framework of a tame Sunday sermon. The preacher is asking his congregation whether they really live up to Christian ideals. It is also easy to hear it as humorous social critique: the all-too-clever Kierkegaard, in his detached way, is poking fun at his bourgeois neighbors. This is the way irony is normally understood in contemporary culture. But I think the ease with which we hear the question that way derives in part from the fact that we are looking on Kierkegaard and his times from a somewhat detached, third-person perspective.  Try to imagine Kierkegaard asking the question in such a way that he himself is implicated in the most important question of how and whom to be, as well as implicating his neighbors about whom he, as a Christian, is enjoined to love as himself. The voice of the question is no longer coming from the superego. It is no longer a voice simply about whether we fail to live up to an ideal. It becomes an anxious question that includes a query about what the ideal could possibly consist in. And it is a practical question: the proper response, from Kierkegaard’s perspective, is not to undertake a census of Christendom, but to figure out what one’s own next step will be. It is crucial to grasp what these words, “to figure out what one’s own next step will be”, mean in this ironic context. What they do not mean is that I take a step back in reflection, consider the Christian ideal and my commitment to it, and in the light of that reflection consider what to do in the current circumstances. The moment of ironic experience is not a moment of stepping back to consider, but a moment of anxious and uncanny disruption, in which the attempt to step back and consider only produces more vertigo. Because in the moment the issue is not simply how I am going to live my life in relation to an ideal; the ideal has become as enigmatic and unnerving to me as I have become to myself. And in the central case, where the question is striking me in the first person around my own sense of what is most important to me, or who I am, I am filled with a longing for direction, though I have lost a concrete sense of what that direction ought to be. I may retain a sense that, say, if I am to be a Christian, I must follow Jesus’ teaching or that I must love my neighbor as myself. The problem is that the anxious uncanniness that has infected by sense of being a Christian is contagious: it infects my sense of what it would be to follow Jesus teaching, what it would be to love, and who is my neighbor. In the experience of irony, instead of anchoring my sense of being a Christian, all of these qualifications lose their moorings. Or, rather, I lose my moorings in relation to them.

It is important to see that the experience of irony does not depend upon the religious nature of Kierkegaard’s example. So let us take the category of doctor. Not long ago, at the University of Chicago I attended a day-long conference of medical doctors who were disgruntled with their profession, yet trying to find ways to re-commit themselves to the practice of doctoring.  Apparently, there is widespread discontent in the profession: doctors resent that their decisions are closely monitored (and sometimes dictated) by insurance companies and HMOs; they resent that sometimes procedures are required they think are unnecessary so as to avoid the possibility of a future lawsuit; and their own malpractice insurance requires them never to say they are sorry about anything, or that they wish some treatment could have gone better, for fear of creating liability to a suit. According to a recent survey, 26% of primary care physicians agree strongly or somewhat to the statement “If I had to do it over again, I would not choose medicine as a career”.  And 38% agree strongly or somewhat to the statement, “If I had to do it over again I would go into a different specialty”. [vi] Doctors are also demoralized by a paradigm shift in the profession. In this new paradigm, doctors are not supposed to see themselves as promoting health. That is too teleological. Rather, they are to see themselves as expert service providers, sort of like a tech guy who, instead of focusing on the hard drive of your computer focuses on the hard drive that happens to be your body. The new paradigm of the doctor-patient relation is the contract between the autonomous client — the person we used to call the patient — and the expert provider of a service. In a way, one can see this as society’s attempt to quash any experience of irony.  Ironically, it has led to its opposite: the creation of an enquiring group of doctors who spent the day asking each other the question, What does any of this have to do with medicine?!

The group had read my recent book, A case for irony, and thus they explicitly asked the question,

Among all the doctors is there a doctor?

It is important to see that this question is not on its own sufficient or even necessary for the experience of irony that I am trying to isolate. One can use such a question in a standard act of reflection in which one ‘steps back’ from day to day practices and considers how well or badly they fit with one’s long-term commitment to promoting health. This one might say is a standard superego moment. I am concerned with a different kind of moment, perhaps a moment when such standard reflection gets a bit out of hand. So imagine you are that doctor, frustrated after a day of filling out dreadful insurance forms, ordering tests you don’t believe in so you won’t be sued; and you begin to wonder, what does any of this have to do with being a doctor? For a while, you reflect on taking up the issue with your colleagues, perhaps organizing a conference about returning to medical values, about revisions you all might make, and so on. And then a moment of anxious disruption sets in. You are struck by the idea of health: what is it? You are struck by the very idea of one person promoting the health of another. It is a stunning idea, and here something striking happens. You are no longer ‘stepping back’ to reflect on the thought that it is a stunning idea; rather, you are stunned by the idea. This seems to me the experience Plato was trying to describe when he talked of us being struck by beauty.

According to Socrates in the Phaedrus, a person is struck by beauty here on earth and is driven out of his mind because he is reminded of the true beauty of the transcendent forms. This is the “greatest of goods,” Socrates tells us: “god-sent madness [that] is a finer thing than man-made sanity.” [vii] Leaving Platonic metaphysics to one side, and concentrating on the experience, Plato emphasizes the importance of the disruptive, disorienting experience as that from which philosophical activity emerges. [viii] Though Socrates is describing an intense moment of god-sent madness – and thus his language is dramatic – the structure of the experience fits the ironic uncanniness I have been trying to isolate. Those who are struck in this way “do not know what has happened to them for lack of clear perception.” (250ab) They are troubled by “the strangeness (atopia) of their condition” (251e), but they also show “contempt for all the accepted standards of propriety and good taste” – that is, for the norms of the social practice. Yet all along “they follow the scent from within themselves to the discovery of the nature of their own god” (252e-253a). If we de-mythologize this point and put it in the context of the example I have been developing, it looks like this: you have already taken on the practical identity as a doctor. You have internalized its values. This is the “scent from within”: precisely by following the values of your practical identity, reflection on its norms and on how well or badly you live up to them…  you are led to a breakdown in these normal goings-on. There is something uncanny about, of all things, doctoring. It seems as though there is something about doctoring that transcends (and may undermine) the norms of social practice of medicine. There is something about your practical identity that breaks your practical identity apart: it seems larger than, disruptive of, itself.

In the moment you are struck by the idea of promoting health in another, you lose confidence that you know what human health really consists in. You know that in promoting health we make people better, but what would it be to make people better? Maybe a medical education should consist in training in gymnastics and physical fitness, followed by a stint of organic farming, some time as a barnyard veterinarian, several years teaching kindergarten, and several years of studying poetry and philosophy — only then may a student look at a sick human being. Maybe “making people better” will partially consist in teaching them to read those poems, or to be kind to others.  In the moment of anxious disruption I am trying to describe, all bets are off. 

Who knows, even the words of Socrates might start to seem compelling:

“And doesn’t it seem shameful to you to need medical help, not for wounds or because of some seasonal illness, but because, through idleness and the life-style we’ve described, one is full of gas and phlegm like a stagnant swamp, so that sophisticated Asclepiad doctors are forced to come with names like “flatulence” and “catarrh” to describe one’s diseases?… They say that the kind of modern medicine that plays nursemaid to the disease wasn’t used by the Asclepiads before Herodicus.” (Plato, Republic III 405c-406a)

For Socrates in the Republic, the doctors of Athens, that is, those who put themselves forward as doctors, those who were recognized by society as doctors, were often collaborators in the corruption of souls, in the business of propping up the dissolute lives of the rich who would pay them well. To the question, among all the doctors in Athens, is there a doctor, Plato’s answer is: there is one, Socrates; for he alone is concerned with promoting the health of those he encounters. And one of Socrates’ first principles of medicine, as unusual today as it was then, is that one must treat the soul, before one treats the body:

“[The Thracian doctor said] one should not attempt to cure the body apart from the soul.  And this is the reason, he said, why most diseases are beyond Greek doctors… because, he said, ‘the soul is the source both of bodily health and bodily disease for the whole man…So it is necessary first and foremost to cure the soul if the parts of the head and of the rest of the body are to be healthy.  And the soul, he said, ‘my dear friend, is cured by means of certain charms, and these charms consist in beautiful words.  It is a result of such words that temperance arises in the soul, and when the soul acquires and possesses temperance, it is easy to provide health both for the head and for the rest of the body.’ So when he taught me the remedy and the charms, he also said, ‘Don’t let anyone persuade you to treat his head with this remedy who does not first submit his soul to you for treatment with the charm.  Because nowadays,’ he said, ‘this is a mistake some doctors make with their patients.  They try to produce health of body apart from health of the soul.’  And he gave me very strict instructions that I should be deaf to the entreaties of wealth, position, and personal beauty.” (Plato, Charmides 156e-157c)

It would seem that, according to Socratic medicine, before one has surgery one ought to undergo psychoanalytic treatment. (Or, psychosynthetic treatment).

At the medical conference I attended, many of the doctors dealt with the crises of confidence they each faced by turning to religion. This has had many consequences for their practice: turning away from lucrative practices in specialized medicine in favor of primary care or general surgery, expressing regret to patients that a medical procedure did not have a better outcome (in contravention of hospital and insurance requirements), refusing to order tests or procedures when, in their opinion, the major motivation were considerations of tort rather than the health of the patient, and so on. Now imagine a medical doctor who has never felt a twinge of anxiety, who was totally engrossed in the contemporary social practice of medicine, observing anxious, uncanny goings on of these other doctors. How would they appear? It might well appear that these doctors were becoming ‘ironically’ detached from medicine in the familiar sense of irony. After all, if they cared about medicine, why aren’t they aren’t they pursuing the cutting edge? Why are they choosing to be general surgeons rather than neurosurgeons? Why are they not doing cancer research? And if they said the reason they were not pursuing the forefronts of medicine is that they cared about being doctors, it might well appear that they were being ‘ironic’ in the familiar sense of that term; dissembling, saying the opposite of what they mean perhaps with the intention of being recognized as doing so by a knowing elite. It might well look as though they were simply detached and unserious. The utter earnestness of their acts could well be perceived as lack of earnestness. “He isn’t serious about medicine; look at him retiring into a cushy primary care job instead of pursuing neurosurgery. He probably can’t take the stress; and, can you believe it, he says the reason he is doing it is that he wants to be a doctor. He’s just being ironic.”

Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure, Jean-Baptiste Regnault, 1791

We can now see how this experience of irony that I am trying to isolate got to be called irony. Roughly speaking, Kierkegaard became ironic about irony. At various points in the Platonic dialogues some of Socrates’ more challenging interlocutors, Alcibiades, Thrasymachus and Callicles, accuse Socrates of deploying his typical eirôneia. They do so at moments when they feel caught by Socrates, taken by surprise, disrupted, frustrated, up-ended, even if only in the moment. That Greek term eirôneia, from which the English word descends, does mean putting on a mask, dissimulation. Thus there is, I think, no doubt that his interlocutors are accusing him of some kind of deception. Add to that Socrates’ defense in the Republic of what has come to be called the noble lie — and it is easy to see how the debate about Socratic irony became a debate about whether or not Socrates was a deceiver. (Actually, I do not think the phrase “noble lie” is a good translation for the Greek gennaios pseudos – I prefer “high-minded fiction”). The important point is that Kierkegaard, in his maturity, took a different tack. He had his eye on the fact that Thrasymachus, Callicles and Alcibiades are brilliant, but are also deeply flawed characters. One should expect them to be shrewd observers of the world, but nevertheless to misperceive and distort the phenomena they are observing. Kierkegaard became ironic about eirôneia. Kierkegaard treats Thrasymachus, Callicles and Alcibiades as though they were involved in a naming ceremony. He lets their use of “eirôneia” fix rigidly on the activity of Socrates (whatever it is) that elicits this criticism from his interlocutors. He does not expect them to understand what that activity is. And then Kierkegaard asks, what was Socrates actually doing?

In his ironic treatment of irony, irony becomes a profound form of earnestness. As Johannes Climacus, one of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous authors, says, “From the fact that irony is present it does not follow that earnestness is excluded. That is something only assistant professors assume.” So when the Socrates of Plato’s dialogues makes out that in fact he is the only doctor in all of Athens, that he is likewise the only rhetorician, the only statesman, the only wise person — because he alone is genuinely trying to lead his fellow citizens to health, that he alone is trying to their souls to truth, that he alone is genuinely trying to orient the polis towards the good, that he alone knows that he does not know– we can see him as saying exactly what he means, not its opposite, being ironic and earnest at the same time and in the same way. [ix] The irony is his earnestness.

Why should irony matter? When deployed well, irony can make an invaluable contribution to practical reason, to our lives as rational animals. This has not been understood, first, because this philosophically significant species of irony I am trying to isolate has been overlooked; second, because in the contemporary philosophical world we have been living with a narrow conception of what our rational freedom consists in. But to make these points I need to distinguish the experience of irony from a capacity for irony and to distinguish both of those from ironic existence. The experience of irony is the uncanny, disruptive, would-be directed anxiety that I have already described. In itself, it is neither good nor bad; it is a phenomenon that is, I think, intrinsic to human self-conscious life. But it is a phenomenon that can be deployed for significant uses. The capacity for irony is a capacity to occasion an experience of irony (in oneself or in another). Ironic existence is whatever it is that is involved in turning this capacity for irony into a human excellence: the capacity for deploying irony in the right way at the right time in the living of a distinctively human life. For Kierkegaard, Socrates was an exemplar of ironic existence, and Kierkegaard tried to live such a life himself. As his pseudonymous author Johannes Climacus says,

“Irony is an existence-determination, so nothing is more ridiculous than to suppose it to be a figure of speech, or an author’s counting himself lucky when once in a while managing to express himself ironically.” (Concluding Unscientific Postscript)

Irony mattered for Kierkegaard in significant part because it offered an occasion to break out of illusion. An illusion, for him, was a distorted, self-deceiving view of self and world which aimed to be all-encompassing, capable of metabolizing and interpreting all experience in its terms. For Kierkegaard, Christendom (that is the assemblage of social institutions and socially shared understandings of Christianity) was a “dreadful illusion”. That is, it provided an utterly distorted conception of what would be involved in living a Christian life. Now what made the illusion dreadful, I think, was not simply its degree of falsity, but its capacity for entangling one in a skein of self-deception from which there was almost no way out. This is the Christian version of being at the bottom of Plato’s Cave. One was born into this false world of Christianity, one had no choice over that, and before one reached the age of mature judgment one was indoctrinated into the socially shared outlook. From the outlook of Christendom, Christendom is Christianity: the socially accepted and taught practices are put forward as what Christianity consists in.  But what makes the illusion dreadful, from Kierkegaard’s perspective is Christendom’s enormous cognitive and emotional sophistication.  It is all too easy for us to caricature Christendom by thinking of hypocritical priests and the self-serving bourgeois who do not give a damn about others, but do go to church on Sundays to see and be seen. To understand the importance of irony, it is crucial not to slip into this caricature. Christendom included sophisticated debates about Christian belief, self-conscious divisions of the church into different denominations, thoughtful histories of the church and so on.

This means that, in cases like this, one of the philosophers’ favorite images of rational freedom only serves as a further form of entrapment. In contemporary philosophy, Christine Korsgaard, John McDowell and Thomas Nagel have argued that our freedom importantly consists in our ability to ‘step back’ and reflect: on our impulses, on the situation in which we find ourselves, or on a realm of thought that puts itself forward as true. [x] As Korsgard put it, “Our capacity to turn our attention on to our own mental activities is also a capacity to distance ourselves from them, and to call them into question.” [xi] In that moment of reflection, they argue, we gain some reflective distance and can then exercise our judgment. But Kierkegaard’s point, as I understand him, is that when we are inside a dreadful illusion, like Christendom, as we try to take a step back to reflect on it, we achieve only the illusion of distance. In ‘stepping back’, in this case from Christendom, and ‘reflecting’ on it, we are, unbeknownst to ourselves, only making further moves within Christendom. Christendom aims to be (and when the institution is vibrant it for the most part is) closed under reflection: for its inhabitants, reflection is possible, even common, but is not itself sufficient to get them outside it. Here is what is dreadful: Protestant Christendom even encourages us, demands of us that we each with our individual consciences step back and reflect on Christianity, criticize the flawed institutions, and so on. But these moves, as Kierkegaard understands them are designed to keep one confined to an ersatz, hollow mimetic simulacrum of Christian life. Now the claim here is not that it is absolutely impossible to use reflection to break out of, say, Christendom: who would be in a position to know that? Rather, the claim is that the practices and institutions tend to contain and metabolize reflections upon them; so that the thought that, in reflection, one is thereby stepping back from the practice itself may itself be illusion.

This also generates an illusion of rationality. If my sincere aim is to become a Christian, and my plan is in part to become a Christian by rationally investigating and reflecting on its requirements, if I am, unbeknownst to myself in the midst of an illusion, every step I take will seem to me (and my neighbors) to be rational, thoughtful, achieving distance yet on the path to Christian life, but each step will be enmeshing me further in confusion (not recognized as such).

In a journal entry written late in his life, December 3, 1854, Kierkegaard writes:

“…to excavate in the middle of ‘Christendom’ the types of being a Christian, which in relation to present Christians are somewhat like the bones of extinct animals to animals living now – this is the most intense irony – the irony of assuming Christianity exists at the same time that there are one thousand preachers robed in velvet and silk and millions of Christians who beget Christians, and so on.” (my emphasis) [xii]

Imagine a serious young person trying to engage in a Christian life, but doing so by delving into Church histories and debates. This for Kierkegaard was the most intense irony. The only way out, I think he thought, was the cultivation of anxious, disruptive experiences of irony, as I have tried to describe them.

I think the example of nineteenth century European Christendom is for us a useful heuristic device, be we need to recognize that for us it basically an objet mort. We can look on it, as though it were a specimen; and the hope is that we at least gain a preliminary grasp of the problem.  But if the problem really were our problem, we would not be able to look on it in such a detached way; we would be in its midst, and the very attempt to frame the problem would itself be an intense practical problem. As a flight of fancy, imagine that we are living in the midst of an illusion of secular liberalism , an illusion of what the ideal of allowing each individual to determine his own good consists in. Let us call this illusion “Liberaldom”. Again, Liberaldom would be highly reflective: it would contain — indeed, often be exemplified and reinforced by so-called political debates one hears in the academy, on television and in the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times. And inside it we would not be calling it “Liberaldom”, we would be calling it liberalism, assuming we knew from the existing practices of debate, critique and exchange of ideas what a contribution to the debate would consist in. It would seem as though — from the point of view of liberal understanding — its history, fundamental principles, disagreements and so on — that nothing was missing.

In this imaginative context, it is worth considering the Occupy movements that have sprung up on Wall Street, in Chicago and most other major US cities. They have been criticized by pundits for saying nothing: for not having any explicit goals or demands, for just hanging around discontentedly. But what if the genre of political protest, as developed since the free-speech and Vietnam protests of the 1960s has itself become fatigued, a familiar, metabolized move? Here is one thing to be said for saying nothing: it brings to light in an unusual way that all those who do say something — all our elected of politicians of both parties — those that are trying to expand the role of government and those that are trying to restrict it — and all of the liberal and conservative intellectual critics who criticize our politicians in the op-ed pages of major newspapers, all columnists of both the liberal New York Times and the conservative Wall Street Journal, all the commentators and regular visitors to Fox News as well as CNN and MSNBC, for regular commentators on NPR as well as Rush Limbaugh — they all have it in common that their income is in top 1% of income distribution in the country. (According to 2006 Bureau of Census, households earning above $250,000 were in the top 1%.) [xiii] And it is the more or less explicit goal of our major institutions of undergraduate education either to maintain its students in that tier, or facilitate their transition into it, a fascinating social structure for enabling the other 99% of the population to determine their own goods. Obviously, the Occupy movement is a heterogeneous and complex social phenomenon, but it is not amiss, I think, to see one of its aspects as ironic performance.

I have thus far been trying to capture the experience of irony, and would like to conclude with a preliminary account of ironic existence. Ironic existence is a form of life in which one develops a capacity for irony – that is a capacity for occasioning an experience of irony (in oneself or another) – into a human excellence. That is, one has the ability to deploy irony in the right sort of way at the right time in the living of one’s life. Ultimately, what this means is that one learns to embrace human finitude; and this counts as an excellence because it is a crucial form of self-knowledge.

But what is ironic existence? If ironic existence is a human excellence – peculiar to be sure – then there are certain lessons we can learn from Plato and Aristotle. First, we should not expect to be able to explain in any detail what the appropriate ironic thing to do is in any particular circumstances. There need be no particular behavioral manifestation that is required on any given occasion. In particular, ironic existence does not entail that a person behave in ways that are manifestly detached from established social practices. Ironic existence does not imply that one is occasioning ironic experiences all the time. Ironic existence is rather the ability to live well all the time with the possibility of ironic experience. This requires practical wisdom about when it is appropriate to deploy irony. We learn how to live with irony appropriately by learning from those who already are living an ironic existence. Our most notable exemplar is Socrates. As Kierkegaard writes in his journal, “In what did Socrates’ irony really lie? In expressions and turns of speech, etc.? No, such trivialities, even his virtuosity in talking ironically, such things do not make a Socrates.  No, his whole existence is and was irony…” [xiv] Second, we can think of ironic existence as lying in a mean between excess and defect: the defect would be the familiar ‘ironic’ wit who forever remains detached from committed life; the excess would be the perpetual disrupter of social norms, lacking good judgment about appropriateness. Ironic existence does not require alienation from established social practice. It only requires living well with the possibility of such alienation. That is compatible with passionate engagement in social life.

To grasp the peculiar ironic mean, it is helpful to return to Socrates. Socrates is often thought of as a negative figure, inflicting his method of refutation, the elenchus, on his interlocutors, reducing them to contradiction and then saying he did not know either. Even the young Kierkegaard went along with this image and in his Magister’s thesis, which was translated and published as The Concept of Irony: With Continual Reference to Socrates, Kierkegaard says that irony is “infinite negativity”. [xv] Later in life, however, Kierkegaard came to reject and even ridicule this view. In a later work, Concluding Unscientific Postscript the pseudonymous author Johannes Climacus criticizes “Magister Kierkegaard” for bringing out “only the one side” of irony.  “As can be inferred from his dissertation,” Climacus tells us, “Magister Kierkegaard” has “scarcely understood” Socrates’ teasing manner. [xvi] I take the mature Kierkegaard to be making fun of himself as a young man: the Concept of Irony, his Magister’s thesis, was written too much under the influence of Hegel, and thus focused one-sidedly on the negativity of irony.  What we need to understand is how ironic activity can be as affirming as it is negating.  In fact, what is so astonishing about Socrates’ life is how effortlessly he blends positive and negative aspects of ironic existence.

So, consider Alcibiades depiction of Socrates on the battlefield. What does Socrates do during the campaign for Potidaea? Well, for one thing, he stands still:

“One day, at dawn, he started thinking about some problem or other; he just stood outside trying to figure it out.  He couldn’t resolve it, but he wouldn’t give up.  He simply stood there, glued to the same spot.  By midday, many soldiers had seen him and, quite mystified, they told everyone that Socrates had been standing there all day, thinking about something.  He was still there when evening came, and after dinner some Ionians moved their bedding outside, where it was cooler and more comfortable (all this took place in the summer), but mainly in order to watch if Socrates was going to stay out there all night.  And so he did; he stood on the very same spot until dawn!  He only left next morning, when the sun came out, and he made his prayers to the new day.” (Symposium 220c-d)

Socrates is often portrayed as absorbed in thought: that he is so busy thinking a problem through that he loses track of his surroundings. Of course, in some sense that portrayal is accurate — Socrates is thinking — but if that is all there is to be said about the scene then, philosophically speaking, it is utterly contingent that Socrates comes to a halt. If all he is trying to do is think through a particularly difficult argument, then, although the portrait of him is charming, a bit eccentric, there might have been another person just like Socrates, only one who could think and walk at the same time. The portrait becomes philosophically significant only if we add that Socrates is standing still not simply because he is too busy thinking, but because he cannot walk, not knowing what his next step should be. I take this to be a moment of erotic uncanniness: longing to move in the right direction, but not knowing what that direction is. He is uprooted only by the conventional religious demands of a new day. Yet when the actual battle comes, Socrates behaves with extraordinary bravery — by the standard lights of accepted social behavior.  As Alcibiades says:

“during that very battle, Socrates single-handedly saved my life!  He absolutely did!  He just refused to leave me behind when I was wounded, and he rescued not only me but my armor as well.  For my part, Socrates, I told them right then that the decoration really belonged to you.” (220d-e)

It is as though the moment of standing still invigorates him, at the right moment, to perform extraordinary acts of conventional bravery. And rather than them being two disparate moments in a dis-unified life, Alcibiades has an intimation that they form some kind of unity. In describing how Socrates bravely helped Laches in the retreat from Delium, Alcibiades says:

“in the midst of battle he was making his way exactly as he does around town, ‘with swaggering gait and roving eye’.  He was observing everything quite calmly, looking out for friendly troops and keeping an eye on the enemy.  Even from a great distance it was obvious that this was a very brave man, who would put up a terrific fight if anyone approached him. That is what saved both of them.” (221b, my emphasis)

And yet, Alcibiades also says that Socrates’ bravery cannot be compared to Achilles or anyone else. (221c-d) Why not, if we are talking about battlefield-bravery? The answer, I think, is that Socratic ignorance (in this case, about courage) far from being a distinct moment in Socrates’ life (in the study, as it were), and far from sapping confidence in the ordinary demands of bravery, can, in certain circumstances, invigorate the enactment of the ordinary requirements. The irony must be right there, in the conventionally brave acts — otherwise Socrates’ bravery would be comparable with Achilles. This is what makes Socrates, in Alcibiades’ words, “unique”: “he is like no one else in the past and no one in the present — this is by far the most amazing thing about him.” He is able to act bravely (according to the lights of social pretence) all the while holding firm to his ignorance.  This isn’t just negativity, it is a peculiar way of obviously contributing to polis life. Socrates isn’t merely a gadfly: he’s a gadfly who, on appropriate occasions, is willing to fight to the death in conventional battle.

Similarly with Socrates’ classic examination of courage in the Laches. To be sure, by the end of the dialogue Socrates declares the shared ignorance of all the interlocutors: “we have not discovered what courage is”. (199e) However, he is only able to enter the conversation because his interlocutors already trust him as a worthy interlocutor — and they trust him because he is well known for having lived courageously, according to the received norms of courage. Lysimachus says to Socrates that he keeps up his father’s good reputation, and that he was the best of men.  And Laches elaborates, “I have seen him elsewhere keeping up not only his father’s reputation but that of his country. He marched with me in the retreat from Delium and I can tell you that if the rest had been willing to behave in the same manner, our city would be safe and would not then have suffered a disaster of that kind.” (181a-b) So Socratic ignorance is compatible with behaving with outstanding courage as socially understood. It is not a way of withdrawing from battle on behalf of the polis, but a way of participating in it. Even the inquiry into the nature of courage is not an abstract theoretical inquiry, but a response to an impassioned plea for help. Lysimachus and Melisius — two of the interlocutors — are the undistinguished sons of great men, who are now worried about transmitting virtue to their sons. (178c-d) This is a conversation born of real-life anxiety.  And Socrates does not leave them empty-handed; they become convinced that they need to find a proper teacher for themselves. (201a-c)

The height of his irony comes when, convicted of corrupting the youth and introducing new gods, Socrates proposes his own punishment. As conventional as he was in courageously defending the polis from external attack, he is unconventional in defending the polis from its own internal disease. It is one and the same virtue that is a manifestation of both. If the appropriate punishment is what he deserves, “Nothing is more suitable, gentlemen, than for such a man to be fed in the Prytaneum – much more suitable for him than for any one of you who has won a victory at Olympia with a pair or a team of horses. The Olympian victor makes you think yourself happy; I make you be happy.” (Apology 36d-e) The irony is utter earnestness: this is what he deserves. In the moment of facing death, Socrates does not deviate an iota from ironic existence.

Kierkegaard says “no genuinely human life is possible without irony”. [xvii] On the interpretation I have been developing this would mean: It is constitutive of human excellence that one develop a capacity for appropriately disrupting one’s understanding of what such excellence consists in. It is a human excellence to know — to practically understand — that human excellence contains a moment of ignorance internal to it. This is the self-knowledge of human finitude. Part of what it is to be, say, courageous is to recognize that one’s practical understanding of courage is susceptible to ironic disruption. Part of what it is to be courageous is courageously to face the fact that living courageously will inevitably entangle one in practices and possible acts that are susceptible to the question, what does any of that have to do with courage? And yet, as we see in the example of Socrates, that recognition of the pervasive possibility for irony need not alienate or detach one from conventional acts of bravery. On the contrary, that recognition seems to have invigorated Socrates on the conventional battlefield. This is the question to which ironic existence provides an answer: how to live well with the insight into human finitude that the experience of irony bequeaths us.

Piece adapted from a lecture given at Stanford University, November 30, 2011


[i] For an in depth account of irony as disruption please see my A Case for Irony (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).

[ii] Harvard University Press, 2006.

[iii] See S. Freud, “The Uncanny”, Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud (London: Hogarth Press, 1951) XVII: 219-256.

[iv] See Plato Symposium 203b-212c (e.g. A. Nehamas and P. Woodruff trans., Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989).

[v] See A Case for Irony op. cit. for an extended discussion of this case.

[vi] From an as yet unpublished survey by Professors Farr Curlin and John Yoon of the University of Chicago.

[vii] Plato, Phaedrus 244a-d, 245b-c, 249d-e (e.g. C.J. Rowe trans., Warminster, England: Aris & Phillips, 1999).

[viii] See, for example, Socrates’ account of how the prisoners in the Cave break their bonds (Republic VII, 515c-d; e.g. C.D.C. Reeve trans., Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004) The prisoner is suddenly (εξαιφνηs) compelled to stand up (515c6); and is and is pained and puzzled (απορειν; d6) to turn around. And see Alcibiades description of Socrates’ disruptive effect upon him in Plato, Symposium op. cit., 215d-216d.

[ix] See Plato Charmides 156e-157b, 1703-171c; Republic III.405a-498e, 409e-4103, VIII. 563c, X.599b-c; Gorgias 513e-521e, 502d-504a 521a; Apology 23a-b.

[x] Christine Korsgaard, Sources of Normativity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 92-93; John McDowell, “Two Sources of Naturalism”, in Mind, Value and Reality (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 71; Thomas Nagel, “Universality and the Reflective Self”, in Korsgaard, Sources op. cit. , pp. 200-209.

[xi] Korsgaard, Sources op. cit. p. 93.

[xii] Søren Kierkegaard, Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, Volume 2, F-K (H.V. and E.H. Hong eds; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970), p. 277.

[xiii] Source: 2006 Bureau of Census data based on households:

Top 10% of households $118,000

Top 5% of households $166,000

Top 1% of households somewhere above $250,000 (this is the reported cutoff for the top 1.5%)

Top 0.1% of households $1,600,000

Source: 2010 IRS data based on tax filers with positive adjusted gross income (a subset of households)

Top 10% of taxpayers  $114,000

Top 5% of taxpayers $160,000

Top 1% of taxpayers $380,000

[xiv] Ibid. p. 278.

[xv] Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony With Continual Reference to Socrates (H.V. Hong and E.H. Hong trans.; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), e.g. p. 279.

[xvi] Johannes Climacus (Søren Kierkegaard), Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments (H.V. and E.H. Hong trans., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), pp. 503, 90n

[xvii] The Concept of Irony, op. cit. p. 326.  See also Thesis XV: “Just as philosophy begins with doubt, so also a life that may be called human begins with irony.” (p.6)















To illustrate the meaning of irony in his “Poetics,” Aristotle chose the statue of Mitys, a man from Argos who had won a chariot race in the Olympic Games and who was later, for unknown reasons, murdered. As Aristotle tells it, Mitys’ murderer, having left the city, eventually journeyed back to view the stone monument to his victim, which then promptly toppled on him and killed him.

For most of us, the kind of misfortune that befell Mitys’ killer will jibe well with our understanding of irony. And so we are likely to scratch our heads at Jonathan Lear’s recommendation, in “A Case for Irony,” that we make episodes of irony central to our growth as human beings. Yet Mr. Lear explains himself and in the process offers a provocative case for leading an “ironic life.”

There are two basic types of irony, Mr. Lear informs us: situational and verbal. Situational irony, the kind exemplified by the tale of Mitys’ statue, relies on a contrast between what one expects to happen and what does happen. But not just any kind of contrast will do. Situational irony arises when one’s expectations lead to their own subversion. Mitys’ killer expected to come to Argos to preen before the statue of the man he had killed, and in doing so created the circumstance for his own death.

As for verbal irony, it relies on a contrast between what is said and what is meant. I might say, for example, that the president is doing “a mighty fine job” when I mean the opposite. Mr. Lear finds this understanding of verbal irony, which is indistinguishable from sarcasm, too superficial. Nor does he have much time for the tedious postmodernist take on verbal irony, according to which all meaning contains within itself, because of the instability of language, the seeds of its own subversion.

Mr. Lear instead offers a psychoanalytically tinged reworking of the whole ironic category. His understanding of verbal irony is illustrated in an old psychoanalytic joke. “Last night at dinner with my mother, I made a terrible Freudian slip,” a man tells his friend; “I meant to say ‘please pass the salt,’ but what I actually said was ‘you’ve ruined my life, you manipulative witch.’ ” Here the social convention normally surrounding what we say—that is, the need to be civilized—buries our true thoughts deep in our unconscious mind until one day they burst through. When this happens, Mr. Lear says, a moment of irony occurs. We realize that what we have been saying, perhaps for years, diverges from what we truly mean. Such ironic episodes are invaluable, Mr. Lear argues: Through them we come to know things about ourselves that we did not know before.

A Case for Irony

By Jonathan Lear (Harvard, 210 pages, $29.95)

Mr. Lear similarly reinterprets situational irony, the kind of irony where what happens diverges from what is expected. He offers the example of married “Ms. A” who—given what’s socially expected of married women—resolves not to ask her handsome friend Bruno out for a drink but then does so anyway. Here a social expectation leads to the opposite result, but not in the Mitys sense. It’s not as if Ms. A heads to the gym to avoid calling Bruno, runs into him there and winds up taking him out for a drink. It’s that the very expectation itself—married women do not invite single men to socialize tête-à-tête—causes a resentment to build up until Ms. A surprises herself by taking the opposite course. In the process, she gains a deeper understanding of the parts of herself that had been “cut off” by social rules and her own acquiescence in their logic.

For Mr. Lear, such moments of irony—whether they involve true meaning bursting through civilized surfaces or true desire erupting through social constraints—can be therapeutic. The more such episodes we can incorporate into our life, the more we will stay in touch with who we really are. It may seem as if Mr. Lear is simply applying the term “irony” to insights that Sigmund Freud discovered a century ago; indeed “A Case for Irony” includes commentaries by a few distinguished thinkers who, in different ways, say as much. And yet perhaps for that very reason, Mr. Lear helps us to gain perspective on the ways in which irony has since evolved.

Consider the tiresome verbal irony signaled by air quotes. A person might acknowledge himself to be (air quotes) “a Wall Street tycoon” or describe her new leopard-spotted rug as “the quintessence of awesomeness.” (Or think of Dave Eggers, who called his best-selling memoir “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.”) The idea is to show off one’s accomplishments and acquisitions but at the same time to mock them. Such verbal irony conveys two opposed meanings, serious and scoffing, as if we’re too cool to care much one way or the other.

Mr. Lear does not mention this current form of verbal irony. Nor does he touch on any new versions of situational irony. In her song “Ironic,” for example, Alanis Morissette croons that “it’s like rain on your wedding day . . . a traffic jam when you’re already late.” A few critics noted that there is nothing ironic in what she describes since none of it is truly unexpected. Rainy weddings and inopportune traffic jams happen all the time. What Ms. Morisette finds ironic, apparently, are situations in which her wishes are frustrated, not her expectations.

Irony today is thus a mixture of self-detachment and self-absorption: an unwillingness to take a stand and an eagerness to see the strange workings of fate in mere thwarted desire. By turning away from these forms, Mr. Lear performs a valuable service. He shows us just how far the contemporary usage of irony diverges from an older, far more appealing meaning, according to which irony is a portal to self-knowledge.













What happened to irony?

                            Despite Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, an expert explains why the rhetorical device isn’t what it used to be


What happened to irony?Enlarge Stephen Colbert, President Abraham Lincoln, Jon Stewart     (Credit: AP/George Eastman House / CC BY 3.0)

Remember the scene in “Reality Bites” where Wynona Ryder is asked to define irony? “Irony. Uh … Irony. It’s a noun. It’s when something is … ironic. It’s, uh … Well, I can’t really define irony but I know it when I see it!” Irony is one of those terms that can be hard to define, particularly since it is often used interchangeably with other related (but distinct) terms like satire, sarcasm, cynicism and snark. Why is irony such a difficult concept to grasp?

Philosophy professor Jonathan Lear sets out to answer this question in his new book, “A Case for Irony,” attempting to redefine and flesh out this term from the pat and the vague. In Lear’s view, irony is not just about humor: It’s meant to serve as a sobering mirror to our lives and actions, revealing and reaffirming to us our passions and beliefs. It shows how exactly we measure up to our professed ideals, all in an effort to strive for excellence – to become better at whatever it is we devote our lives to. Irony asks us, in a fundamental way, “Am I really who I say I am?”

Lear spoke with Salon over the phone to discuss this obscured meaning of irony, its connection with erotic impulse, its usefulness in the political arena, and Lincoln’s smarting humor.

You set out to define irony in this book and find that it has little to do with what is commonly understood by the term (i.e., wit and detachment). What do you understand irony to be?

I’m trying to go back to what I think is an old conception of irony. You can find it in Kierkegaard if you look hard, and he found it in Socrates. It’s almost the opposite of what irony is taken to be in contemporary culture, although if you start to look and think about it, one can see how they’re related.

How do they differ and what’s the connection?

I was just reading the paper the other day, and you begin to wonder: Is there any such thing as a euro anymore? Or when was the last time we had a president of the United States? Or among all our liberals, can we find a real liberal? One of the points of these questions that I think is very important in the central usage of irony is that it is not the opposite of earnestness. When you’re asking these questions, you’re not just being a smartass, or saying the opposite of what you mean in order to be recognized as saying the opposite of what you mean. These questions can be asked with intense seriousness, deep earnestness. You can be saying exactly what you mean and not the opposite of it. And unlike the contemporary culture’s understanding of it, it can be asked in the sense of “this really matters to me.”

It’s very complicated. When you say something like, “Is there a euro anymore?” or, “Is there a president anymore?” – on the one hand, you are, of course, somewhat detached from the current engagement, or that question wouldn’t even arise. But I think in its most important sense, it’s not meant to be a form of detachment. It’s because ultimately having a real president of the United States, or having a real liberal, or a having a solid currency matter to you that these questions arise. It’s not a question of, “Like, I’m not going to be attached to anything,” or, “I’m going to show how detached I am.” It’s actually quite the opposite. In its primary use, irony is a sign of how much things can matter and ought to matter and what they really ought to be like. So, I think that although there may be a moment of detachment in irony, it’s really, deeply in the service of trying to reattach to a more serious and committed way of living. And that, I think, is a complete 180-degree, just opposite view of contemporary culture’s understanding.

So if it’s not fundamentally about detachment, how is irony experienced? You write that it is linked with ignorance. How so?

Irony has to arise in the first person [i.e., has to be directed at oneself first]. There are a lot of derivative uses about how it’s about striking out at other people, or the world, or what you think about it. But, the really core issue of irony is when it hits you about yourself and the living of your life. Am I really succeeding as the kind of person I want to be? What outstrips what I’m now doing? Where do I stand with respect to that? What am I going to do with that? That, I think, is the key experience of irony.

In other words, irony is sort of like having an identity, or existential crisis where you question your ideals and purpose in life and whether or not you are actually living up to those, but this crisis moment doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative experience because it reveals or reaffirms the things/values we deem most important to life and who we are as individuals. Do you believe, then, that humans are always striving for excellence? That complacency is not inherent in us? Transcendence seems to be a running theme in your book.

I think there’s a tendency toward both. The thing that is more surprising is this kind of hopefulness and striving, which seems to me to be built into the kind of creatures we are. When you think about your own ambitions [and the steps you take to fulfill them], there’s a kind of excitement in that. That excitement, Plato thought of (and Freud picks up on this) is part of your erotic life. Your Eros has gotten into doing this thing, or being this kind of a person, and there’s something just exciting and alluring and fun about it. It’s that kind of erotic pull that, in a way, won’t let you rest content with being mediocre. Insofar as you fall into routines, that original love affair with what you might become makes you discontent with settling for the routine. That’s the moment of conscience.

On the other hand, we’re born helpless. It’s not just a psychological fact about us, I think it’s a structural fact. We’re very dependent for a long time. We get inducted by parents and teachers into a natural language and routines, everything from potty-training to eating food at a dinner table to not pushing to sharing, and all these things. It’s in our nature that we have to be inducted into society’s patterns and rituals and habits. There’s a tendency toward complacency – of fitting into the group, not questioning things too much. It’s an inherent part of who we are, and yet there’s also this countervailing tendency to disrupt that, to be discontent with it, to not settle for it. You can see this. Once you start looking for it, it’s everywhere. This [moment of discontent] is something important about being human.

You mentioned Socrates earlier; do you see any great ironists today?

That’s a really good question. No, I do not.  I see situations I think of as ironic, but I have not seen public figures deploying it. In terms of statesmen and public figures, Abraham Lincoln was an ironist. He had a wonderful, self-deprecating humor, and some of his humor is ironic in my sense. At some point he says that people say that slavery is a good, but the strange thing about it is it’s a good that people only pursue for others – they never pursue it for themselves. Now that’s beautiful. That’s irony. That level of wit. But you see there’s something very deep in that. What I love about it is that anybody who heard it, if they could laugh at it, [then] it also stung them. It can get into your soul. “How is it that this could be a good if we’re always pursuing it for other people?” There you’ve got irony that’s earnestness. It’s got all the marks and features of it. But I don’t see this in the contemporary crop of political leaders.

[Irony] is being caught by something you already take yourself to believe in, and then the sudden sickening sense that the commitment is so much more demanding than you originally took it to be. You’re caught because the value matters to you, but then you come to see that your understanding up until now has been somewhat complacent. That’s the sting. “Whoa! What do I have to do now? Because on the one hand I’m already committed to it, and on the other I have a sudden glimpse that I don’t yet understand the it is that I’m already committed to but have a sense that it outstrips what I’m currently doing.” You start to get that anxious sense of “Holy mackerel!” That’s the sting.

And irony’s evil twin, snark, is just all sting?

Trying to be snarky, and above it all, and “nothing really matters,” and “it’s just naive to think that something matters” – this is the opposite of irony, as I understand it, and I think it’s an attempt to stay away from it. It’s too scary, too dangerous, too demanding.

To commit yourself to anything worthwhile?

Exactly. I think it’s a shallow attempt to isolate yourself from a recognition of commitment. You know, what is your life about? Do you want it to be about anything? I think it’s a fearful sense of “Well, maybe I can insulate myself from that question if I look at it as being naive.” I just think it’s a pretty thin defense. It doesn’t really work that well.

Was there ever a golden age of irony?

I don’t know and I’d be a pompous ass if I started to go on about the whole sweep of intellectual history. I assume there are other great ironists that have come along – Swift, Montaigne. There are, I’m sure, plenty others. The truth of the matter is is that I’ve lived in the company of Plato and Aristotle and Kierkegaard.

[However,] I think our time is ripe for irony around issues of what it would be to be a democracy. The recent Supreme Court decision where corporations get counted as persons and can contribute as much to campaigns as they want – is this what we mean by free speech? I’m not an expert on that ruling, but it seems a very poor ruling in terms of the free speech that a democracy needs.

Do you think that politicians are just fundamentally poor ironists?

How well does one do as a politician if you don’t fit into the demands of your political party? The demands of fundraising? How much of this is promoting a democracy and how much is interfering? My view is that there are tremendous social and political pressures against there being any ironist on the political scene. I think should one rise amongst us, he or she could be seen as a real leader.

Do you consider satirists and comedians like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert or Bill Maher to be ironists?

I make a big difference between these three. I put Colbert and Stewart on one side, and Maher on the other. Maher is more snarky. He’s sort of preaching to the converted. He’s asking people who already agree with him to laugh at people who don’t agree with him, and, in itself, it’s a group activity. I think there’s less of that certainly in Colbert, and I think in Stewart too. There’s more of an attempt to play with ironic moments – especially the whole persona of Colbert, which is hilarious. But when [Colbert] looks straight into the camera and says, “Nation,” on the one hand it’s a very funny routine and it’s mimetic. He’s imitating others, and we recognize the imitation, and we enjoy the mimesis, and it’s pleasurable, but when he does that, is there ever a moment when one is stung by the thought: Well, what would it be to be a nation? What would it be for us to be a polity that could be addressed? Underneath the very real humor – and I’m not saying it’s always arising – but there’s a possibility of actually getting shaken up about this. I think Stewart does this as well, pointing out, in a hilarious way, the various ways our leaders can be hypocritical. Again, we laugh at the humor, and he’s very good at it, but I think that in laughing at the humor there’s a possibility for that kind of a sting – what would it be to either have a leader or to be one? Or to take responsibility for our elected officials? For Colbert and Stewart, there’s a possibility for irony that I don’t much see in Maher.












Interview: Jonathan Lear, The University of Chicago


Villanova University

Jonathan Lear’s latest book,

A Case for Irony (Harvard University Press), explores the idea that irony, understood rightly, is essential to our lives as human beings. Drawing on his studies of Socrates, Kierkegaard, and psychoanalysis, Lear provides a compelling account for us to rethink irony today and commit ourselves to a different understanding of it. Lear is currently the John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor at the Committee on Social Thought and the Department of Philosophy at The University of Chicago, where he teaches and writes about questions at the intersection of psychoanalysis and philosophy. I had the chance to talk with him about A Case for Irony in April 2012. What follows below is a transcript of that discussion.


What led you to write a book about irony? How did your interests in the subject grow out of previous interests and questions about the themes at the intersections of psychoanalysis and philosophy?


Well, you know as well as I do that at The University of Chicago we tend to teach single books as a course. Certainly I have done that and I spent a period of time teaching texts by Kierkegaard, really to learn him better than I thought I understood him. I wanted to come to grips with Kierkegaard’s thinking, and in particular that grows from a long-standing work I have been doing on Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates. I knew that Kierkegaard was engaged significantly with Plato and Socrates. The figure of Socrates loomed very large for Kierkegaard and I wanted to get a deeper understanding of what that engagement was in particular because he was a modern figure, living in nineteenth-century Europe and reflecting, drawing upon the ancient world for a kind of moral sustenance. I wanted to have a better understanding of how he understood the legacy of the ancient world for his contemporary world. So that is how I started, as an open-ended inquiry into his thought and engagement with the figure of Socrates.

So I would teach a text in a term and the years went by. I mean I would work my way through a lot of material in the classroom and the more I got into the text the more I realized that what he was saying about irony didn’t really fit all the dictionary definitions. I had been sort of taught about what irony meant and it’s not they had nothing to do with it, but it seemed like a poor fit.

And as I read some of the later work, especially pseudonymous works by Johannes Climacus, I realized that Climacus was very critical of his own work on irony, the original book,

The Concept of Irony,1 so I also realized that if you read contemporary lit on Socrates and irony they would all refer to passages in [The Concept of] Irony and there were no references to the thought Interview: Jonathan Lear 2

that Kierkegaard had gone on to reject in significant ways that early work of his. Then I read these late diary entries, things he wrote just before his death about irony, and I realized that there had been a development of his thought. There was a puzzling and hard-to-understand … and yet it was the hard-to-understand part of it that seemed to be the part that made it the most significant for Kierkegaard. So that was all in my mind. I mean it just sort of arose in the process that happens at The University of Chicago of reading books together in a seminar. Then I just happened to get an invitation from Harvard University to give the Tanner Lectures on Human Values and I just at that point thought, “Well, this would be an occasion to try to pull my thoughts together.” I mean I had a lot of notes and thought on it but I hadn’t really pulled them together and so the occasion came up and it was really sort of how it happened. It’s not like I knew where I was going from the beginning.

But the more I got into it, the more intriguing I saw that it was. And also it came more and more … I mean, I began to feel that I more and more understood why Kierkegaard thought this was so important to living a human life and I also thought that the standard reception of irony either as a kind of deception or as a kind of witty detachment is really missing the central issues about why irony matters for us as humans. So I thought I had a great topic to work with.


So, can I jump in?


The more I thought about it the more I came to see irony as a kind of anxious, uncanny disruption. I began to wonder how much of this is possible because my Freudian interests kicked in and I began to wonder how much more of this is possible for us because we are creatures with a sort of percolating unconscious.


So, could I ask about this misunderstanding of irony as deception, or as being detached? What is it about that that makes it a misunderstanding and how do you think we should correct that misunderstanding?


Well, I think that that’s a really good question, because I mean in some sense it’s not a misunderstanding. I think it is very important to grasp the sense in which it is not a misunderstanding before you grasp the sense in which it is. I mean, it is certainly right that if you go back to the ancient Greek, to the idea of eirōneía when Thrasymachus and Callicles and Gorgias and Alcibiades accuse Socrates of deploying his typical eirōneía I think that there is no doubt that they are accusing him of a kind of masking or deceptiveness or deviousness, so you know that that’s not a mistake.

It’s certainly not a mistake to make the accusation [of deceptiveness] and I also think that if the English word “irony” is used by speakers to mean that then that is one of the things irony means.


Right, right.


You know, a billion English speakers can’t be wrong about what the English word means. 3 Pichanick

What I talk about is really something that I think is being poorly understood if that’s what you think it all amounts to. What I think Kierkegaard did and I think this is a really interesting issue: how ironic are you going to be about irony itself? Or, how are you going to use the occasion of the discussion of irony to actually be ironic? Or, are you just going to be didactic about irony? As Kierkegaard matured, he became more and more ironic about irony and what he, I think, did was he sort of used the term for what he took Socrates to be doing at the moment that he was being accused of deploying his typical

eirōneía, so that’s what made it so important for him to explore the issue of Socrates. These very unreliable characters, I mean, each of these figures of Alcibiades, Thrasymachus, Gorgias, and Callicles, they’re very brilliant people, all of them with very flawed characters, and so I think that Kierkegaard’s thought was, well, at the moment it is true they are accusing him of being deceptive but what is Socrates actually doing?

In that moment, what illustrated that kind of criticism? From these kinds of people? I mean, basically Kierkegaard is treating them as unreliable – very smart, very brilliant very insightful – but ultimately unreliable narrators and with distorted visions of things. And so he then becomes quite playful with the concept of irony and says, “What is Socrates actually doing in these moments?” And what Kierkegaard sees, I think correctly, is that these are moments of intense earnestness; they are not deceptive at all although they appear like deception to people who can’t really see what Socrates is doing.

So that’s what you miss if you just stick with [the thought that] irony must be deception and that’s the mistake there. The mistake is to think that it must be deception because that’s what

eirōneía means and that’s what Callicles meant. I mean, that’s all true, but to think that’s the whole story, that’s the place where the mistake comes. Because it’s not the whole story and what’s in addition to that part of it is Kierkegaard’s point of view, why he took irony to be so important to the human condition.


Right. Could you say more about what we are being earnest about? In the book you analyze Kierkegaard’s question, “Among all Christians, is there a Christian?” That seems to be the important ironic question, the question that generates an ironic experience. So why is that question the question for us to understand?


That’s another really good question. I think firstly you can get a lot out of it if you really spend some time thinking with it. I think that lots of things can be occasions for irony and it doesn’t have to look like that. And then you know the other point I make in the book is that a sentence like that is neither necessary nor, and this is the really important part, nor is it sufficient for irony. I think that the not sufficient part is really crucial to get because I think that a sentence like that can and for the most part is used totally un-ironically. This is a place where there is an occasion for irony; the structure of irony is especially clearly displayed. So the sentence “among all Christians, is there a Christian?” can be used in an extremely straightforward way where we immediately hear it as what I would say as sort of superego terms, raising the question, “Do Interview: Jonathan Lear 4

people who put themselves forward as Christians, do they really live up to Christian ideals or do they fall short?”

And just as such, I want to say there is no irony there at all, but what I want to say is that there are occasions where the issue has to be – it’s got to be – in the first person. It could be either in the first person singular or first person plural. In this case I think the first person singular is the appropriate category. So you have to imagine that you yourself are that Christian asking the question. So that’s Step One: you have to assume the first personal engagement with it, although the personal pronoun doesn’t occur there. I am asking that question, and I am asking that question

qua Christian, and I start to experience it. At first one of the features of it has got to be just the content of the question, the what of the question. But the how of the question, as I experienced it first personally as addressed to me or confronting me, has got to be an occasion for shaking me up, via my own sense of Christian engagement. Now the nature of the being shaken up when it’s working, which I am happy to say is rare, but when it is working ironically, the nature of the shaking up takes the form of uncanny anxiousness. It’s anxious longing and what’s so great about the question is that it shows the uncanniness is in the formal structure of the sentence. The first occurrence of “Christian” is like picking me out in my self-understanding in general, an understanding of myself living a Christian life. But the second occurrence of “Christian,” when the sentence is working ironically, is you might say the return of the familiar as unfamiliar and is disruptive in its familiar unfamiliarity. So its uncanniness is right there in the structure of the sentence.


So in the book you use the phrase – when this happens it’s like you’ve lost the ground beneath your feet.


That’s right. I think this is the experience of irony and the experience of irony is a particular species of anxiety. And that’s what I am trying to capture, this particularity, the species nature of the genus anxiety is irony.


Right. So, why would I ever want this to happen to me? Somebody might say, “It sounds like you’re falling into the abyss.” Is somebody missing something when they ask that?


I think that’s a moment of it. But, I think, “Why would I want this?” There are two different reasons. I think the experience of irony in itself is neither good nor bad.

It’s an occasion that could have a deleterious effect on life. I mean, it doesn’t have to be good. It might be neutral, but it does provide an answer to your question. I think it does provide an occasion you might say of calling oneself back to one’s own best self. Calling oneself, shaking oneself up in the name of oneself.

Because in so far as the category Kierkegaard was working with – Christian, I mean – you don’t have to be working with that one but we have been talking about it so we can go on with it, but whatever the categories are, [they are] the important ones in life. I focused on practical identity

5 Pichanick

because that’s what Christine Korsgaard was talking about,

2 and others who I was engaging with. But it doesn’t have to be your identity. It can be whatever central values there are to your life that you are already committed to as being what really matters to who you are and what you are going to be. And yet you are called back to them. Maybe you haven’t been living quite as well with respect to them as you could. So it’s a kind of – when it’s working well, it’s a kind of call of your own best self back to you, without it being a superego-voice just falling short of a well-established ideal. It’s shaking up your sense of ideals as well as your sense of yourself.


Interesting. You mentioned your colleague – well, not your colleague but your dialog partner – Chris Korsgaard. So I wanted to ask you why you chose to write the book the way you did, where the first half is a presentation of your Tanner Lectures and the second half is presented as several dialogues between you and colleagues. Is that connected to the content of the book?


Yes. I thought there’s always a question in writing philosophy of form and content and how they fit together. When I went up to give the lectures I was very impressed with the discussions. On the one hand they didn’t agree with me and on the other hand I didn’t agree with them but I really thought that this was… I knew philosophy becomes alive in living conversation and then I felt, “This is a living conversation,” so it struck me that this might be a really good form for the book. Just as dialogues are really a good form in Plato for what he is doing, the places where Chris Korsgaard and I disagree are places where the reader can make up his or her own mind about where they stand and give me more of a chance to elaborate what I was thinking and also show how people can understand each other. So for me, it was the hope of presenting a living conversation to a reader as a way of engaging the reader and his or her own philosophical thinking about the subject. It is very much in my mind that this might be a very nice way to present an account of irony.


So would learning to read a Platonic dialogue the way Plato wanted or a pseudonymous work by Kierkegaard the way Kierkegaard wanted help us to understand irony better?


I think so but I think the issue – you used the word “understanding” and I want to make clear that the relevant understanding at issue is practical understanding, which is also taken by academic philosophers to be theoretical understanding. And I think that what Plato was trying to do and I think Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous author was trying to do it in different ways was to shake us up as readers. It’s not just about coming to a theoretical understanding of what irony – the concept of irony – is. But [it’s also about] putting ourselves in a position where we can grasp in terms of living why there is something to be said for irony in the human experience.


That makes me want to ask, is irony something you hope both your students experience in the classroom and your patients in psychoanalysis? Do those two experiences compare?Interview: Jonathan Lear 6


I think it comes up in different ways, but yes. I think that in the philosophical case of students studying Plato or Socrates in class, I take it that coming to an understanding of, for instance, Socratic ignorance: what does Socratic ignorance amount to? I think there’s a huge difference between grasping intellectually that Socrates was the guy who said he knew he didn’t know and internally developing a sense of what that kind of ignorance consists in, why it’s important to human life and how to integrate it into a human life. I am not saying that students should succeed in that, but if there’s no practical understanding and no practical engagement – how does this kind of ignorance arise in my life? Then I think something has gone missing in the process, the engagement.


As a professor myself, I feel we teach under external pressures to show that students must acquire quantitatively measurable skills as a result of their education and one could wonder about patients in psycho-therapy here as well. So I want to ask what you think the prospects are for something like the ironic experience you’re talking about as being a real goal of education. What do you think it would take for that kind of idea to sink in?


I don’t think I can talk a lot about social movements but we have noticed that the humanities are under some kind of critique and attack and questioning why should there be humanities at all in a university setting. And I think people in the humanities ought to have some answers. From my point of view, you can’t really come up with an answer that is going to satisfy unless you bring in an essential aspect of the humanities, whether it’s literature or philosophy, that the humanities have value because when it’s working, they are experienced as… they are addressed to us in the first person. There is a first-personal confrontation with the words of another, whether it be Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Homer, or Plato. It’s not just that these writers were great writers; their greatness consists in an ability to strike you, the reader, and leave haunting words to which you are called upon somehow to react. And I see that kind of personal engagement is a constituent of the humanities when the humanities are working well. And from that point of view, irony is a specific example of this kind of first-personal address and confrontation.


That’s interesting. Next week, you continue your dialogue with Alasdair MacIntyre. How do you compare his views to yours?


I’ll know a lot better after… I guess we will have to find out. Alasdair MacIntyre is someone I very much admire and I have long admired him. I’ve been reading his work since I was a very young man and learning from him. I’m curious to hear what he has to say but I don’t yet know. From my point of view, I use the example of being a Christian as an example because Kierkegaard used it, and just as an attempt to explicate Kierkegaard. I stuck with his own example for a while. I also talk about other things but the issue of the religious commitment and/or Christianity in particular is not my central interest. My central interest is the phenomena of irony and I think irony can occur in perfectly secular or atheist contexts as well and I deal with that in the book. But Kierkegaard was a Protestant and MacIntyre is a committed Catholic so I 7 Pichanick

would expect there to be some difference there between Kierkegaard and MacIntyre on the engagement and that might come up in his discussion of my book. I can’t tell you what will happen but I’m looking forward to it.


Some people might label both you and Alasdair MacIntyre “public intellectuals.” What do you think about that label?


I’m not sure why. I don’t think I’ve done as much of that as I used to do. Not that I’m against it, just that I have been busy with my own academic writing and research. And though I very much like my own book, I don’t think of it as a best-seller. I knew in making the decision that the book should have the form it has – where I would receive responses by commentators and then my responses to their responses – I knew that it would sell many fewer books than if I had written a different kind of book, but I wanted it to have this form. I actually feel I have been so busy with my academic work I have not written as many [non-academic pieces]. I used to write more op-ed pieces and pieces for The New Republic and I haven’t been doing that just because I have been so busy. So, what I try to do is write on topics that I hope are broad and deep philosophical interests and I try to write in a way that is clear as can be. I try to make my writing as open as possible to a readership. The previous book on Radical Hope3 which was about the Crow Indians – there are a lot of non-philosophers who have read that book. It’s been read by anthropologists and Christians as well, Indians, Native Americans… It’s been pretty widely read and I’m pretty glad about that but I’m not sure that would make me a public intellectual. It’s just that I’m writing books of wider interest. About the specific question you asked about public intellectuals, I don’t know what I think about the term but I do think that, I wish I was writing more, taking more of a stance. I do think I’m in favor of philosophers taking a role of a citizen in the polis, taking a stand on the important issues of the day. I haven’t been doing it much but I am in favor of people doing it more than I am doing it.


I feel like there is a final question that must be asked. Our whole conversation between you and me about irony – a professor talking to his former student about irony, education, the soul – I think in your sense might not have been an experience of irony for either of us. So what would it be for us to have spoken ironically? I guess you talked about this in the beginning – to speak ironically about irony in your sense.


What do you think?


You’re asking me? What do I think? Well, my response is now I feel like we have to start over and maybe that’s the ironic part.


I’m going to leave that as an exercise for the listener.


Very good.Interview: Jonathan Lear 8


1. Kierkegaard, Søren. 1992.

The Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

2. Korsgaard, Christine. 2011. “Self-Constitution and Irony.” In Jonathan Lear,

The Case for Irony (Tanner Lectures on Human Values). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 75–83.

3. Lear, Jonathan. 2008.

Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press












Irony and Humanity: A Dialogue between Jonathan Lear and Alasdair MacIntyre

A companion to A Case for Irony, by Jonathan Lear

Excerpts from A Case for Irony | Alasdair MacIntyre’s Remarks | Jonathan Lear’s Response

'Irony and Humanity' event poster courtesy the Lumen Christi Institute

Vanity Fair has declared the Age of Irony over. Joan Didion has lamented that Obama’s United States is an “irony-free zone.” But, as Jonathan Lear asks, “What if this little disrupter is crucial to the human condition?” In A Case for Irony Lear argues that becoming a human being is a task, and that developing a capacity for irony is essential to doing it well. Contemporary culture, Lear thinks, has misunderstood what irony is and what makes it important. He claims that ironic experience is a form of truthfulness that is constitutive of human flourishing. It is a call of our own best selves to be our best selves. It is also a recognition and embrace of our finitude. The book, grounded in Kierkegaard, Plato, and Freud, presents Lear in conversation with three philosophers (Cora Diamond, Christine M. Korsgaard, and Richard Moran) and a psychoanalyst (Robert Paul).

The conversation continued in an April 2012 dialogue on Irony and Humanity between Lear and Alasdair MacIntyre, presented by the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought and Department of Philosophy and the Lumen Christi Institute.

The passages below present a thread of that April conversation, in the form of excerpts from A Case for Irony followed by adapted sections of MacIntyre’s and then Lear’s remarks.

Excerpts from A Case for Irony

To get clear on what irony is I want to distinguish the experience of irony from the development of a capacity for irony; and to distinguish those from what Kierkegaard calls ironic existence. In a nutshell, the experience of irony is a peculiar experience that is essentially first-personal: not simply in the sense that all experience is the experience of some I, but that in having an experience of irony I experience myself as confronted by that very experience. Developing the capacity for irony is developing the capacity to occasion an experience of irony (in oneself or in another). We tend to think casually of “the ironist” as someone who is able to make certain forms of witty remarks, perhaps saying the opposite of what he means, of remaining detached by undercutting any manifestation of seriousness. This, I shall argue, is a derivative form; and the deeper form of ironist is one who has the capacity to occasion an experience of irony. Ironic existence is whatever it is that is involved in turning this capacity for irony into a human excellence: the capacity for deploying irony in the right way at the right time in the living of a distinctively human life. It is ironic existence that is the not-that-easy of becoming human.

Note that putting oneself forward does not on any given occasion require that I say anything: I may put myself forward as professor in the way I hunch my shoulders, order a glass of wine, in my choice of shoes, socks, and glasses. Conversely, when I do put myself forward verbally it need not be in any explicit statement to that effect. It’s right there in such ordinary statements as “I’ve switched to a Mac.”

Social roles provide historically determinate, culturally local accounts of various ways in which one might be good at being a human being. So, for instance, given that humans are essentially social animals, who spend a comparatively long time developing, who are born largely in ignorance of the world into which they are born, it is at least plausible that the category of teacher should provide one route of human well-being. A teacher, broadly construed, would be someone who can help his neighbors learn. This is at least a plausible candidate for one way of being good at being human, and thus one way of becoming human. A social role would be a socially available way of putting oneself forward as a teacher. So, for instance, one way of being a teacher would be to be a professor. In the United States and Europe at the beginning of the twenty-first century there is a fairly well established range of teaching styles—in seminar, tutorial, and lecture course—and a fairly well established range of evaluative techniques, such as grades. There is even a range of dress you can expect a professor to wear, a way of being in front of a lectern and delivering a paper. And there are socially acceptable ways of demurring from the role: special ways of not wearing the right clothes, not giving a standard talk. That, too, can be part of the social pretense. But in this variety of socially recognized ways, I put myself forward as a professor. In this way a whole range of activity—including dress, mannerisms, a sense of pride and shame—can all count as pretense in that they are all ways of putting oneself forward as a professor. Since even our simplest acts are regularly embedded in our sense of who we are, the possibility of irony is pervasive. Note that putting oneself forward does not on any given occasion require that I say anything: I may put myself forward as professor in the way I hunch my shoulders, order a glass of wine, in my choice of shoes, socks, and glasses. Conversely, when I do put myself forward verbally it need not be in any explicit statement to that effect. It’s right there in such ordinary statements as “I’ve switched to a Mac.”

The possibility of irony arises when a gap opens between pretense as it is made available in a social practice and an aspiration or ideal which, on the one hand, is embedded in the pretense—indeed, which expresses what the pretense is all about—but which, on the other hand, seems to transcend the life and the social practice in which that pretense is made.

Cover: A Case for Irony by Jonathan Lear

So, I am sitting at home in the evening grading papers, and I begin to wonder what this has to do with actually teaching my students. For a while, this is a normal reflection in which I step back and wonder about the value of my activity. I still have a sense of what the ideal is; I am just reflecting on how well the activity of grading contributes to it. I decide to talk this over with my colleagues at a department meeting: perhaps we can figure out a better way to evaluate students, one more in line with our core function of teaching. This sort of reflection is part and parcel of inhabiting a practical identity. Thus far I am at the level of reflection that might lead me to engage in educational reform. But then things get out of hand. I am struck by teaching in a way that disrupts my normal self-understanding of what it is to teach (which includes normal reflection on teaching). This is not a continuation of my practical reasoning; it is a disruption of it. It is more like vertigo than a process of stepping back to reflect. When it comes to previous, received understandings of teaching—even those that have been reflectively questioned and adjusted in the normal ways—all bets are off. No doubt, I can still use general phrases like “helping my students to develop”; but such phrases have become enigmatic, open-ended, oracular. They have become signifiers whose content I no longer grasp in any but the most open-ended way. I no longer know who my “students” are, let alone what it would be to “help them develop.” Are my students the individuals coming into my classroom at the appointed time . . . or are they to be located elsewhere? Are they in the younger generation . . . or are they my age or older? Might they come along in a different generation altogether . . . maybe in the next century? And if my classroom is where my students are, where is my classroom? What am I to make of the room I actually do walk into now? Where should I be to encounter my students? What would it be to encounter them? And if I were to encounter them, what would it be to help them, rather than harm them? What is development? Already I have enough questions to last a lifetime, and I do not even know where to begin.

This is a different order of concern from something that might at first look a lot like it. In a different mode, a normal mode, I consider myself a serious teacher. It might take me a lifetime of practice before I really get good at it. I am dedicated to this practical identity. I treat teaching as a master-craft, an arduous but noble calling; and even after all these years, I still think of myself as an apprentice, en route. On occasion I do wonder about those around me who assume that teaching is easy, or even those who find it difficult, but assume they know what it is: what are they up to? Nevertheless, in this reflective and questioning mode, I still have a fairly determinate sense of the path I am on. Of course, the path essentially involves reflective questioning of what I am doing; and as a result of the questioning I may alter my direction one way or another. Yet, I know what to do today and tomorrow; and I trust that if I keep practicing and developing my skills I will get better at it. Maybe I’ll even get good at it. In this mode, I act as though I have practical knowledge of how to go about acquiring the skill, even if, in my view, true mastery lies off in the future.

By contrast, in the ironic moment, my practical knowledge is disrupted: I can no longer say in any detail what the requirements of teaching consist in; nor do I have any idea what to do next. I am also living through a breakdown in practical intelligibility: I can no longer make sense of myself (to myself, and thus can no longer put myself forward to others) in terms of my practical identity. That I have lost a sense of what it means to be a teacher is revealed by the fact that I can now no longer make sense of what I have been up to. That is, I can certainly see that in the past I was adhering to established norms of teaching—or standing back and questioning them in recognized ways. In that sense, my past continues to be intelligible to me. But I now have this question: What does any of that have to do with teaching? And if I cannot answer that question, my previous activities now look like hubbub, busyness, and confusion. I have lost a sense of how my understanding of my past gives me any basis for what to do next. That is why, in the ironic moment, I am called to a halt. Nothing any longer makes sense to me as the next step I might take as a teacher. Until this moment of ironic disruption, I had taken various activities to be unproblematic manifestations of my practical identity. Even in this moment, I might have no difficulty understanding what my practical identity requires, just so long as practical identity is equated with social pretense, or some reflected-upon variant. My problem is that I no longer understand what practical identity so construed has to do with my practical identity (properly understood).

Ironic disruption is thus a species of uncanniness: it is an unheimlich maneuver. The life and identity that I have hitherto taken as familiar have suddenly become unfamiliar. However, there is this difference: in an ordinary experience of the uncanny, there is mere disruption: the familiar is suddenly and disruptively experienced as unfamiliar. What is peculiar to irony is that it manifests passion for a certain direction. It is because I care about teaching that I have come to a halt as a teacher.

Ironic disruption is thus a species of uncanniness: it is an unheimlich maneuver. The life and identity that I have hitherto taken as familiar have suddenly become unfamiliar. However, there is this difference: in an ordinary experience of the uncanny, there is mere disruption: the familiar is suddenly and disruptively experienced as unfamiliar. What is peculiar to irony is that it manifests passion for a certain direction. It is because I care about teaching that I have come to a halt as a teacher. Coming to a halt in a moment of ironic uncanniness is how I manifest—in that moment—that teaching matters to me. I have a strong desire to be moving in a certain direction—that is, in the direction of becoming and being a teacher—but I lack orientation. Thus the experience of irony is an experience of would-be-directed uncanniness. That is, an experience of standard-issue uncanniness may give us goose bumps or churn our stomachs; the experience of ironic uncanniness, by contrast, is more like losing the ground beneath one’s feet: one longs to go in a certain direction, but one no longer knows where one is standing, if one is standing, or which direction is the right direction. In this paradigm example, ironic uncanniness is a manifestation of utter seriousness and commitment (in this case, to teaching), not its opposite. As Johannes Climacus, one of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous authors, puts it, “From the fact that irony is present, it does not follow that earnestness is excluded. That is something only assistant professors assume.”

It is often assumed that irony is a form of detachment. From the perspective of those who are embedded in the social pretense—who just don’t get what is going on with me—it may well appear that irony is a form of detachment, a lack of commitment or seriousness. For, after all, it is a peculiar form of detachment from the social pretense. And, as we shall see, it may be the occasion for a peculiar form of re-attachment. But if, in one’s blinkered view, social pretense is all there is, then it is easy to view irony as it regularly is viewed. “Lear hasn’t handed in his grades—typical; and now he’s jabbering on about not knowing how to grade. Of course he knows how to grade; he’s just being ironic. It would be better if we had a colleague who was committed to teaching.” To the socially embedded, it is precisely this manifestation of commitment that will appear as lack of commitment—perhaps as dissembling or as sarcasm. (That is, of course, precisely how Socrates seemed to some of his interlocutors.)

If we get away from misleading appearance, and try to capture what is really going on with me, the language that suggests itself is that of Platonic Eros: I am struck by teaching—by an intimation of its goodness, its fundamental significance—and am filled with longing to grasp what it is and incorporate it into my life. I can no longer simply live with the available social understandings of teaching; if I am to return to them it must be in a different way. Thus the initial intuition is that there must to be something more to teaching than what is available in social pretense. Irony is thus an outbreak (or initiation) of pretense-transcending aspiring. The experience of ironic uncanniness is the form that pretense-transcending aspiring takes. Because there is embodied in this experience an itch for direction—an experience of uncanny, enigmatic longing—it is appropriate to conceive the experience of irony as an experience of erotic uncanniness.

Portrait of KierkegaardSøren Kierkegaard

To understand ironic existence, consider the modal structure of practical identity. To have a practical identity is in part to have a capacity for facing life’s possibilities. As a teacher, to continue with the example, I have the capacity to face what comes my way as a teacher would. In particular, I can rule out as impossible, acts that would be incompatible with being a teacher. Thus I have internalized an implicit sense of life’s possibilities, and have developed a capacity for responding to them in appropriate ways. This is what it is to inhabit a world from the perspective of a practical identity. In normal circumstances, this capacity for dealing with life’s possibilities is an inheritance from, an internalization of, available social practices. I learn how to be a teacher from people I take to be teachers, and, in the first instance, I take society’s word for who the teachers are. Obviously, as I develop, I may subject various norms to reflective criticism: that is part of my normal development as a teacher. Ironic experience is, as we have seen, a peculiar disruption of this inherited way of facing life’s possibilities. This is not one more possibility one can simply add to the established repertoire. It is a disruption of the repertoire—and, in the disruption, it brings to light that the established repertoire is just that.

In ironic existence, I would have the capacity both to live out my practical identity as a teacher—which includes calling it into question in standard forms of reflective criticism—and to call all of that questioning into question; not via another reflective question, but rather via an ironic disruption of the whole process. In this twofold movement I would both be manifesting my best understanding of what it is about teaching that makes it a human excellence and be giving myself a reminder that this best understanding itself contains the possibility of ironic disruption. No wonder that getting the hang of it does not come that easily. Done well, this would be a manifestation of a practical understanding of one aspect of the finiteness of human life: that the concepts with which we understand ourselves and live our lives have a certain vulnerability built into them. Ironic existence thus has a claim to be a human excellence because it is a form of truthfulness. It is also a form of self-knowledge: a practical acknowledgment of the kind of knowing that is available to creatures like us.

Alasdair MacIntyre’s Remarks

Photo of Alasdair MacIntyreAlasdair MacIntyre is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Contemporary Aristotelian Studies in Ethics and Politics (CASEP) at London Metropolitan University and Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He has made great contributions to the history of philosophy, moral philosophy, and especially to the renewal of Aristotelianism and its challenge to rival traditions. His After Virtue remains the most important text in the recovery of virtue ethics.

Jonathan Lear has put us all in his debt once again. Irony had for some time been a subject left to literary critics and to scholars in linguistics. But what they have had to say, although often instructive, has thrown insufficient light on the part that irony might or should play in our lives. Lear, by taking up where Kierkegaard left off, has reopened some old questions and opened up some new ones, in both cases with insight and elegance.

So where to begin? One way to ask what place a form of speech, a type of experience, or a mode of existence has in our lives is to ask what those lives would be like if that form of speech, that type of experience, or that mode of existence were wholly absent from our lives. And so I ask: What would a human world be like in which irony had been abolished, in which no one uttered, experienced, or existed ironically?

Consider first the example of the teacher, transposed to a world deprived of irony. Imagine that teacher as someone who, when young and enthusiastic, was anxious to do well as a teacher, although never in fact quite sure what good teaching is. He therefore trusts his mentors and gradually becomes, at least to outward appearance, what they would have him be, someone whose students are quiet and orderly in class and score increasingly well on tests, someone who gives more attention to test score subjects than to anything else, providing administrators with just the statistics that they need to satisfy the funding authority. His teaching evaluations tell him that he is a good teacher and he believes them. But then he encounters a class taught by someone else, in which the students are sometimes talkative and even noisy, in which discipline is sometimes stern and sometimes relaxed, in which the teacher makes bad jokes and improvises to dramatic effect, in which progress by test score or any other standard is real, but somewhat uneven, in which art and music are treated as important, and in which the students are plainly excited by what they are learning and frustrated when they fail to learn. The result of this encounter is that his conception of good teaching and of himself as a good teacher is put radically in question.

I may be what they call “a good teacher,” he says to himself, but am I a genuinely good teacher? His use of quotation marks and indirect speech enables him to do without irony. What he learns from his experience is that he now has just enough grasp of what good teaching is to know that he is in key respects not a good teacher and that becoming a good teacher is a task whose full dimensions he has yet to learn. He is transformed, just as the teacher described by Lear is transformed, but his experiences are unironic. What has substituted for irony in speech is plain, truthful, and, when necessary, harsh speech, that speech in which the would-be good teacher acknowledges his inadequacies and asks others for help in remedying them. What has substituted for irony in experience is seeing himself as he is, and consequent humility. But such speech and such experience will only be to the point if they are an expression of and result in the exercise of the relevant virtues. What virtues are these?

First obviously is truthfulness, a virtue exercised not only in refraining from lying, except on the rarest of occasions, but also in knowing which truths to utter to whom, in knowing when to speak and when to keep silent, and in caring about the truth. Lacking truthfulness, the would-be good teacher will be all too liable to self-deception. But truthfulness by itself is insufficient. The would-be good teacher also needs humility, since without humility we are unable to recognize, let alone to acknowledge our defects and our faults. Note that the exercise of humility is incompatible both with failing to acknowledge our defects and faults and with exaggerating those defects and faults. To belittle our qualities of mind and character untruthfully is a vice that Aquinas, following Aristotle, identified as irony, declaring it to be not only a vice, but a sin. What kind of a vice it is is brought out by Ross’s translation of eironeia as “mock-modesty.” Someone who says “I am not in fact a good teacher,” if they are then to learn what it would be to become a good teacher must have abandoned pretending as well as pretension, must exhibit real and not mock modesty.

It seems then that we can safely conclude that in the case of the teacher the kind of needed self-discovery and self-amendment identified by Lear can be achieved without irony, that whatever else might have been lost from a world in which irony had been abolished, this possibility would not have been lost.

What I have been suggesting is that this example discussed by Lear, that of the self-questioning teacher, does not show that irony need play any part in our moral lives. What can be said ironically, so it seems, can be said non-ironically and for the moral shock therapy of ironic experience we can substitute the moral shock therapy effected by plain, truthful, harsh words, spoken with humility. We may therefore be tempted to conclude that a human world in which irony had been abolished, but in which the virtues of truthfulness and humility were practiced, might be a stylistically duller world, a less witty world, but not one in which there had been any significant loss of moral resources. It would however be premature to yield to this temptation.

Not everyone needs a capacity for irony in order to be truthful—when Kierkegaard said that “no genuinely human life is possible without irony,” he confused being human with being Kierkegaard—but enough of us do for irony to be important.

Without irony some of us some of the time would not be shocked into truthfulness. Take away any capacity for ironic speech and for the experience of irony and some of us will on occasion be incapable of either truthfulness or humility. Not everyone needs a capacity for irony in order to be truthful—when Kierkegaard said that “no genuinely human life is possible without irony,” he confused being human with being Kierkegaard—but enough of us do for irony to be important. So my earlier suggestion that irony might have no necessary part in any of our lives, that truthfulness and humility can substitute for irony without loss turns out to be mistaken. Note however that both in Lear’s examples and in mine the salutary uses of irony do not involve that untruthful belittling of the self that Aristotle and Aquinas rightly condemn. It is because and only insofar as irony serves the ends of truthfulness and humility that we need it. To understand irony is to understand its place in the structures of the virtues, as Aristotle and Aquinas do. What would it be to understand irony in this way?

I spoke a moment ago of salutary uses of irony, distinguishing them from nonsalutary uses. Lear too makes this distinction, writing that “the deeper form of ironist is one who has the capacity to occasion an experience of irony. Ironic existence is whatever it is that is involved in turning this capacity for irony into a human excellence: the capacity for deploying irony in the right way at the right time in the living of a distinctively human life.” The implication is clear. Irony can be deployed in the wrong way or at the wrong time or both. So how in particular instances are we to distinguish right from wrong? My suggestion will be that when irony is misused, when it is vicious, it is used so as to undermine or corrupt truthfulness and humility. But, in order to explain why and how this is so, I must say a little more about truthfulness and humility, and in order to say even that little more, I have to introduce a way of thinking about the self very different from Lear’s or Korsgaard’s or Kierkegaard’s.

What constitutes us as human beings—by contrast with dolphins or wolves—is our accountability to ourselves and to others, our capacity for responding to questions of the form “Why did you/I/we do that?” or “What was the good of doing that?” where the account that is asked for is to function as at once explanation and justification. We are constituted as selves in the exercise of this capacity through our interactions both with others and with ourselves and there is therefore no task of self-constitution. Our identity is that of an accountable animal and it is as such that we occupy social roles, undertake tasks, and set ourselves to achieve individual and common goods. When we put in question our attainments as teachers, we put in question ourselves as teachers, as agents contributing to the achievement of certain common goods, while directed towards our own final good. To say this and no more is of course to speak far too briefly, but it is enough to make it clear that—and why—truthfulness has the central place that it has among the virtues. For it is crucial that the accounts that we give to others and to ourselves of why we choose and act as we do in respect of individual and common goods should be true accounts. So from the outset a conception of truth and of norms of truthfulness is presupposed in our saying and doing. And, if truthfulness is in this way a central virtue, then so too is humility. For to be humble is to see oneself as one is and to judge and speak of oneself as one is. It is to be able to speak the truth about oneself.

Irony then is important for its bearing upon truthfulness and humility, whether positively or negatively, and we can only understand its full importance if we understand how it can be misused as an enemy of truthfulness and a servant of arrogance.

Jonathan Lear’s Response

Photo of Jonathan LearJonathan Lear is the John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor at the Committee on Social Thought and in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. He trained in philosophy at Cambridge University and The Rockefeller University. Lear works on philosophical conceptions of the human psyche from Socrates to the present.

I am not surprised that Alasdair MacIntyre has raised fundamental questions about the value of irony, but I am very grateful to have such a serious reader of my work.

MacIntyre’s comments put on display a movement of his own thinking. As he says about half-way through, “So my earlier suggestion that irony might have no necessary part in any of our lives, that truthfulness and humility can substitute for irony without loss turns out to be mistaken.” Let me go back then to his example of a teacher in a world without irony and consider what might be missing. MacIntyre gives us an example of a well-intentioned teacher who has internalized the norms of teaching passed onto him by his or her teachers, who then encounters a very different exemplar of what good teaching might consist in and has his own conception radically put in question. He is open to his own self-questioning (“Am I genuinely a good teacher?”), and I agree with MacIntyre no irony need be present here. And there is no doubt that significant ethical improvement can take place without irony. Still, I want to say that something ethically significant is missing in this “world without irony,” so that it is a mistake to think we can leave it out without loss.

To see this, we need to reflect on how we engage with various normative pulls in our lives. Ducks are governed by norms of duckly life but, as Kierkegaard pointed out, ducks are not themselves open to irony because their lives are not entangled in what Kierkegaard called pretense: putting themselves forward or making claims for themselves. In MacIntyre’s terms, the possibility of irony arises for us because we are accountable animals. But even in this realm of human accountability there is an important distinction that needs to be made that is sometimes overlooked. The distinction may admit of vague boundaries, debatable examples and so on, but we can nevertheless see a basic division.  There are some normative dimensions of human life that can be understood, more or less, as social constructions. So, for instance, if we take the normative arena of baseball, we can certainly have debates about what makes for a good player, about whether the game is improved or diminished by allowing a designated hitter and so on. But the debate about the goodness of the game eventually comes back to ourselves: our sense of what makes the game satisfying, what yields greater pleasure, a more exciting game and so on. As a young, ambitious and talented player, I may “take on responsibility” for becoming a good player; and I may, in visiting another team, see an alternative model of excellent playing that radically shakes my sense of how one plays the game well. I may change my ways in light of this conflicting and ultimately transformative experience. It may even make me anxious as I do so. But I want to say that in an important sense I have not yet taken on responsibility for what the goodness of baseball itself consists in. That is a different level of normative engagement—and it is at this different level that the possibility of irony becomes both important and, as possibility, ineliminable.

The subjective category teacher, unlike the social role of baseball player, is subject to a normative pull of goodness that outstrips any social construction of what that goodness consists in. Here we have a different kind of responsibility for and responsiveness to the goodness of teaching—one which is enigmatic and which can be very unsettling. Here I think a reference to Platonic metaphysics and psychology can be helpful. The goodness of the forms is transcendent and when, in human life, we brush up against them, for instance in the stunning experience of beauty, the experience can be shocking, anxious, disruptive. I want to say: let’s remain agnostic about the metaphysics—maybe we need the forms to explain the experience, maybe there are other ways to explain it—but take the psychology absolutely seriously. Roughly speaking, I am vulnerable to a kind of shocking, anxious, uncanny and erotic disruption with respect to my life as a teacher that is not open to me in my life as a baseball player. I don’t have the same kind of responsibility for the ultimate norms of its goodness. And the importance of irony (in the paradigm case I am trying to isolate)—the occasions when it can genuinely be valuable—is in these kinds of cases.

MacIntyre’s example of the teacher does not tell us enough to help us determine which kind of case it is. Although it might well be a case of serious development as a teacher, it might nevertheless fit the overall model of the baseball player, whereby the teacher sees a different social instantiation of the norms of teaching and decides to change her ways, perhaps radically, as a result. It is important not to caricature or diminish such a moment. It is one that can be incredibly important, ethically speaking. And it can occur more or less in a “world without irony,” as MacIntyre asks us to envisage. But it leaves out of account a crucial aspect of our life with norms: namely, for certain categories, though not all, we are vulnerable to an uncanny, anxious, would-be-directed, erotic longing that itself manifests our commitment to and responsibility for what the goodness of the whole way of being consists in. This is what the experience of irony consists in when it is occurring in a potentially valuable way.

In receiving an oracle, I am given an unfamiliar account of who I am and the drama unfolds as I uncannily gain a sense of familiarity, a sense that this is indeed who I am. (Oedipus is our paradigm). With the experience of irony the movement is in the reverse order: I start out with a familiar sense of who I am—say, I am a teacher—and as the irony unfolds the category itself becomes unfamiliar, uncanny, oracular, calling me to something to which I take myself already to be committed, but which has now also become as enigmatic as it is beckoning.

Let me spend another moment on the teacher in a world without irony to make the contrast clearer. It is important to allow this example to be as rich and complex as can be. So: we can imagine the teacher coming upon this alternative form of teaching and really being stunned and shaken by it. “Wow!” she might think. “I never realized teaching could be like that!” We can imagine her instantiating significant changes in how she teaches and how she lives. Still, when we try to think about what is happening to her, it seems that she is getting disrupted in her practical understanding of how to live in respect to an ideal. She suddenly recognized she has been going about teaching in the wrong sort of way. She now realizes a much better way is open to her that she had not realized before. Thus she reorients herself with respect to her telos. By contrast, in the experience of irony there is an uncanny, oracular dimension—not present in the non-ironic counterpart—in which the telos itself comes in for anxious questioning. In A Case for Irony I say that the experience of irony is like the experience of receiving an oracle, only in the reverse direction. In receiving an oracle, I am given an unfamiliar account of who I am and the drama unfolds as I uncannily gain a sense of familiarity, a sense that this is indeed who I am. (Oedipus is our paradigm). With the experience of irony the movement is in the reverse order: I start out with a familiar sense of who I am—say, I am a teacher—and as the irony unfolds the category itself becomes unfamiliar, uncanny, oracular, calling me to something to which I take myself already to be committed, but which has now also become as enigmatic as it is beckoning. A crucial aspect of our life with oracles is that they shake us up. Irony is one important manifestation in which the telos itself can undergo anxious questioning in a practical sort of a way.

Now one reason the possibility of irony is important, in Kierkegaard’s opinion (and mine), is that it holds open the possibility of disillusioning us with our illusions. Imagine that we are all (MacIntyre’s teacher included) living at the bottom of Plato’s Cave. I imagine that life here at the bottom of the Cave seems, for us inhabitants, to be a complex and fairly rich environment: in particular, it is one in which it is possible to have a conflicting social experience about how to teach well, make some shifts in how one is teaching, which one experiences as radical development, and yet still remain a denizen of the Cave. Part of the illusion of the Cave is that it allows for illusions of improvement and development. One value of irony, when it is working well, is that it opens up opportunities to pierce illusions. There is obviously much more that needs to be said about this, but at least this gives an indication of what would be missing in a world without irony.

It seems to me that about the most important issue Alasdair MacIntyre and I are in agreement, or very close to agreement. He says, “It is because and only insofar as irony serves the ends of truthfulness and humility that we need it.” Basically, I think he is right; but I want to sharpen the point a little. When an experience of irony is being deployed well, I want to say not merely that it serves truthfulness and humility, but that it itself is a manifestation of truthfulness and humility. This is the form truthfulness takes on this occasion; and thus a “world without irony” would be a world without this form of truthfulness as a human possibility. Thus I agree completely with MacIntyre when he says, “Without irony . . . some of us some of the time would not be shocked into truthfulness.”

But there are two other points I want to make about truthfulness. First, it seems to me that if we take truthfulness as the fundamental human value, we can see that humility, at least when properly deployed, is itself a manifestation of truthfulness and not some added on value. One cannot be truthful without some humility about one’s ability to understand the world one inhabits or to understand oneself as an enquirer into that world. So, in the deep sense of truthfulness, we do not need to say that “truthfulness by itself is insufficient”: the humility required is itself part of truth’s sufficiency. Second, there is an aspect of truthfulness that MacIntyre does not focus on in his comments: the fullness of truthfulness. When we think, for example, of the true cross or a true friend or a truly religious person, we are concerned not just with accuracy or faithfulness to norms, but with a fullness of being. When I think of my life-long friend Fred, for example, I realize not just that he has been a real friend to me over the decades, but that his friendship fills him up, as it were, expresses who he most genuinely is. Now if we take the fullness of truthfulness seriously, we can see another reason why the possibility of irony can be so important. When it is occurring in the right sort of way it fills one up with an anxious longing to figure out—in a practical sort of way—what the goodness of, say, teaching consists in. When deployed on the right occasion in the right sort of way, the truthfulness that is irony is a fullness of truth.

The value of irony, when it is deployed well, is that it opens up the possibility of hearing an internal call to goodness—the call of an ideal, the call to one’s better self—that might not be opened up in another way.

The value of irony, when it is deployed well, is that it opens up the possibility of hearing an internal call to goodness—the call of an ideal, the call to one’s better self—that might not be opened up in another way. I do not want to promote irony as a cure-all. Still, there are possibilities for experiencing critique as coming from inside oneself, as speaking oneself to one’s own most valued ideals that, I think, would not be available in a world without irony.

I would like to conclude with a particular kind of thank you to Alasdair MacIntyre. When I wrote A Case for Irony I was focused on Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard thought that the dominant social tradition in which he lived, Protestant Christendom, had become corrupt and that irony was an invaluable tool in shaking things up. But in thinking about Alasdair MacIntyre’s comments I realize irony can be used every bit as much to deepen and enrich a tradition as it can to disrupt and undo it. I discuss this very briefly at the end of the book when I discuss Socrates’ uncanny capacity to participate wholeheartedly in absolutely conventional acts of bravery when the occasion requires. But I have not thought nearly as much as I would like to about how irony might, on occasion, enliven our lives within a tradition. And I am so grateful to Alasdair MacIntyre for waking me up to this challenge.












Paul J. Griffiths on Jonathan Lear’s Irony


Called to a Halt


You’re likely to think of irony as a literary conceit, and perhaps also as a pathological trait of hyper-intellectual elites. If you take A Case for Irony seriously and read it carefully, there’s a good chance it will overturn such views by convincing you that irony is an essential constituent of a life well lived.

A Case for Irony contains Jonathan Lear’s two Tanner Lectures in Human Values, given at Harvard University in 2009, along with comments on those lectures by Cora Diamond, Christine M. Korsgaard, Richard Moran, and Robert A. Paul, as well as Lear’s responses to those comments. Reading the lectures together with the back-and-forth responses provides a window into the way philosophical thought proceeds: challenge, response, request for clarification, suggestion of new distinctions, and so on. The Tanner Lecture series was established in the late 1970s to “advance and reflect upon…scholarly and scientific learning relating to human values.” It has been given by some of the most prominent humanists of the past three decades. Lear certainly belongs in their company: he teaches at the University of Chicago, and has written a great deal on broadly ethical topics in philosophy and on the theory and practice of psychoanalysis.

What unifies Lear’s work over the past twenty years is a concern with what we are and how we can learn to flourish. He thinks, following Kierke-gaard, that becoming human is a difficult skill and that each of us needs a good deal of help in learning it. Catholics should agree, and even though Lear is no Christian (he emphasizes that fact in this book), he has a deep understanding of the grammar of Christian thought, and deploys it to good effect.


Lear’s argument is that cultivating a capacity for irony is essential to human flourishing. We are creatures aimed at irony, he believes, and if we fail to move toward it we lose an excellence appropriate to us. Of course, everything depends here on how irony is understood, and about this there is a special difficulty for Catholics aware of the history of Christian thought, because it is normal for us to classify irony (or, anyway, ironia) as a vice. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, understood it as one of the vices opposed to truth, and categorized it with such things as lying, pretense, hypocrisy, and boasting. He defined the vicious kind of ironia as a belittling of oneself in a way opposed to truth—as, for example, if I were to write that I find it difficult to utter a lucid sentence in English. (Boasting is the opposite of irony in this sense—as, for example, if I were to write that lucid sentences in English are always effortless for me.)

This is not what Lear has in mind. Neither is the ordinary dictionary definition of irony—the figure of speech in which the meaning expressed contradicts, or stands in some other kind of tension with, the meaning intended. Rather, “irony” is for Lear a term of art, and the most important elements in the picture he paints of its meaning are a certain construal of Socrates as ironist, and a consideration of Kierkegaard’s work on irony. Ironic experience, for Lear, is indexed to our practical identities—our sense of ourselves as being such that we can put ourselves forward in this or that role—as a teacher, say, or a Christian or an American or a parent. Those practical identities are largely constituted by a sense that one knows how to go on with one’s role—knows the next steps in being such and such. I teach a class, and have some sense that I know how to; I instruct or cuddle or chastise my child with the same sense; I perform political speech as an American, similarly.

But these practical identities are not only a matter of know-how; they are also aspirational. They carry with them a sense that we have as yet more to learn about how to perform them. I am not the perfect parent or the perfect teacher, and my knowledge of how to go on as either carries with it an aspiration to improve. And not only that. Many of our practical identities contain moments of self-reflection: part (though a relatively small part) of what it is to be an American or a Christian is reflection on those identities, reflection that often includes puzzlement about what comes next.

All that, for Lear, belongs to the sphere of practical identity and the habitation of various available social roles. It is good and normal, but not enough for flourishing. Ironic experience, as it relates to any one of our practical identities—or to some range of them at once—is what moves these identities toward what they should be. It does so by radically disrupting practical knowledge: when it occurs, it has the form, “I now find myself utterly committed to going on with something that I have no idea whatever how to go on with.” Or, to put the same matter a little differently, the ironized practical identity is confronted by the unrealizability of its own aspiration, and so “in the ironic moment, I am called to a halt.” I don’t know how to go on; what to do next escapes me utterly.

Irony as Lear understands it is uncanny (we don’t know what to make of it); it is erotic (it calls us, with longing, to something whose shape we cannot see); and it breaks apart whichever practical identity it pertains to, showing the repertoire of that identity to be essentially inadequate to its own aspirations. Lear values ironic experience because it is a form of truthfulness and thus a form of self-knowledge. It shows us the incompleteness of our practical identities without providing a solution. It shows us something with which we must live, something that binds the fabric of our existence. Augustine knew this: mihi magna quaestio factus sum (“I am become a great question to myself”).

Lear thinks that ironic experience can be cultivated and integrated into a life. It need not bring us to a halt for good. He takes the example of Alcibiades’s Socrates, puzzle-struck for a whole night on the eve of battle, a man who, halted by ironic experience, does not know how to go on. But the same Socrates fights the next day, with bravery and dispatch. And Lear offers the following elegant formulation: “The practical knowledge that is human excellence contains a moment of ignorance internal to it.” Note the word “moment”: irony doesn’t have to paralyze us forever—we can go on—but those who live with irony now know their goings-on to be inadequate and opaque to their own purposes and aspirations.

Lear is interested in the psychoanalytic applications of this understanding of ironic experience. Those are what his second lecture is about (I’ve been writing here mostly about the first). I’m not the least interested in the psychoanalytic mode of thinking and practice. But I am interested in the uses of Lear’s analysis for Catholic theology, and these, I think, are real and important. Lear sees some of them himself, because of the place that Kierkegaard has as his interlocutor. It seems to me that the liturgy, especially the liturgy of the Mass, already represents an ironic understanding of what it performs—and that such an understanding is essential to the Christian life considered more broadly.

Consider, to take just one example, the non sum dignus said after the consecration. This is a deeply ironic moment. Something of great importance has just happened, and I, as a participant, am now about to be incorporated into it. But I am incapable of deploying concepts adequate to what has just happened; and, still more important, I am incapable of receiving the gift that is being given in the events now underway. That’s just what the non sum dignus means: saying it disrupts the form of activity to which it belongs and leaves me on my knees with no idea how to go on. And this moment is the heart of the Christian life here below: the identification of an aspiration that can neither be adequately understood nor acted upon in such a way as to realize it. This is the liturgical expression of Augustine’s discovery: “I am become a great question to myself.”

That, at least, is the grammar of the practical identity called being a Christian, and of its principal activity, which is worship. One can live that life and perform that activity non-ironically, but not without some loss.

Lear’s book provides intellectual pleasure of a very high order: its distinctions are careful, its prose lucid and elegant, and its examples suggestive and well chosen. It’s too bad he hasn’t thought more than he seems to have done about the extent to which a life ordered by the liturgy is and must be an ironic one, or about the place that irony ought have in the Christian life. But that is no reason to hesitate: you should read this book.













James Garvey considers whether human identity is a conscious construct or for ever veiled in mystery

“To become human does not come that easily.” Jonathan Lear takes this old line of Kierkegaard’s seriously, and builds around it the surprising view that no genuinely human life is possible without irony. By “irony” he does not mean witty turns of phrase, but something much deeper and less familiar – maybe something worth seeking in pursuit of a flourishing life.

The traditional line of thinking here, and Lear’s target, is the idea that being human is a task, a sustained attempt to live up to one’s ideals. He cites the philosopher Christine Korsgaard as a proponent of this “task-oriented” view of self-constitution. According to Korsgaard, he says, being human means reflectively endorsing or rejecting courses of action in line with our practical identities; in other words, consciously acting in accord with the descriptions of ourselves that we find valuable. So, for example, you might have a wayward inclination, and then take a mental step back and measure your response to it based on the kind of person you take yourself to be. You’re a Christian, a liberal, a feminist, a “real man” or whatever, and being human means being true to that. In other, better words: “This above all: to thine own self be true.” Acting in line with this degree of self-knowledge isn’t easy, but Lear thinks Kierkegaard has something even rarer in mind.

Instead of reflective self-constitution, Lear argues, what is required of us, if we are to get the hang of being human, is the experience of ironic displacement. If you aim to be true to your liberal self, you can think a series of critical thoughts entirely within the liberal worldview. But sometimes when a gap opens up between your social pretence and aspirations, you come to see that you don’t really know what it means to be the kind of person you take yourself to be. As Lear puts it: “we seem to be called to an ideal that, on the one hand, transcends our ordinary understanding, but to which we now experience ourselves as already committed”. This is not just another experience against the backdrop of standards that make up one’s identity but the weird realisation that one is committed to a set of standards that one only sees, in the ironic moment, as something one does not truly understand.

Lear is true to himself as both a philosopher and practising psychoanalyst in this collection, which is drawn from talks he gave as part of the multiinstitution Tanner Lectures on Human Values series. Throughout, a number of intriguing points emerge from his attempt to bring the insights gleaned from the analyst’s couch to bear on philosophical reflection about the unity of the self, action and agency. Comments from fellow analysts are mostly met with a cheer from Lear. Cora Diamond’s wonderfully self-critical discussion of instances in which there is no difference between social pretence and aspiration – the self-conception of un homme comme il faut, a hipster or dude – is entirely engaging. But the gloves seem to come off in his exchange with Korsgaard, whose response to his critique is literally: “So what?”

Lear describes Ms A, a woman whose unconscious boyishness shapes her conscious identity. Isn’t this trouble for the view that we consciously choose to be who we are? Ms A’s boyish acts, Korsgaard replies, “come from her only in the same sense that a squirrel’s act of burying an acorn comes from the squirrel”. Lear, a student of Freud if not a disciple, can’t help himself: “Do I really need to say that, in comparison to the squirrel, it is a different kind of question where Ms. A. has buried her nuts?”

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3 Responses to Jonathan Lear’s case for irony

  1. Pingback: Forget shallow Bill Maher — Jon Stewart & Stephen Colbert have the needed depth to attempt a reach at the deepest art/ontic of irony | Curtis Narimatsu

  2. Pingback: In praise of married couple Sista’ Clara and Herb Alvarez and Sista’ Clara’s Under His Wings Social Ministry | Curtis Narimatsu

  3. Pingback: topic: irony | Curtis Narimatsu

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