A Lost Conception of Irony


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)

About the Author:

Jonathan 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 works primarily on philosophical conceptions of the human psyche from Socrates to the present, and has also trained as a psychoanalyst at the Western New England Institute for Psychoanalysis. He is the author of A Case for Irony .