Mark, Seth, and Dylan discuss On the Concept of Irony, With Continual Reference to Socrates, Soren Kierkegaard’s master’s thesis (1841).
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Rather than simply telling us what irony is, K spends the first half of his book talking about all the ways that Socrates might have been ironic: Not only is he mythologized by Plato (and parodied by Aristophanes and according to K’s analysis misunderstood and rendered harmless by Xenophon), and his execution and subsequent veneration makes him an ironic hero of history, but chiefly his wholly negative activity of debunking the views of others without providing any positive replacement for these views is a chief characteristic of irony, according to K. (K considers the positive ideas in Plato like Forms and the cosmology to be all Plato, not Socrates.) Socrates’ daemon, his (divine?) inner voice that motivates him to do philosophy , only ever tells him “no”; it doesn’t direct but merely forbids.
In the second half of the book, K does give us a theory arising out of this analysis: Irony is not just sarcasm, which is saying the opposite of what you mean, but in a way that anyone who understand sarcasm is very clear about what you mean. Instead, it’s about not taking a positive position. You say something, and you may be joking, or trying out a hypothesis, or even in earnest, but you’re also inwardly saying (it’s not necessary that the hearer knows you’re speaking ironically) that you are not tied down by what you just said. You retain freedom.
K thinks that this sort of freedom is an essential part of life, but it has to be properly contextualized. Asserting you’re free of everything all the time is just irresponsible. You’d have no existential integrity: you’re not actually defining who you are. As one might expect given K’s Christianity, he thinks what is great about Socratic irony is that it refers implicitly to an unknown beyond what’s currently in front of you. Socrates criticizes a view (e.g. one of his opponents’ takes on justice in The Republic, like “justice is paying your debts”), because it fails to capture some higher ideal. Socrates doesn’t know what that ideal amounts to, but he knows it’s out there and is saying “no” to the here-and-now in its favor. Ironically, his statement “the only thing I know is that I know nothing” is not in itself ironic but a simply true statement when interpreted as “the only thing of any real, philosophical importance that I know is that I know nothing.”
Image by Corey Mohler of Existential Comics, which is just now celebrating its 10 year anniversary. Way to go, Corey!