Sponsors: Learn about St. John’s College at sjc.edu/pel. Have your donation matched up to $100 to a top-performing charity at GiveWell.org (enter “The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast” at checkout).
The definition of irony that K finally gives us here is “infinite absolute negativity.” Perhaps “global” would be a better word than “infinite,” because the point is that it negates all phenomena and is not just, e.g. a parody or rejection of some particular social practice or even a particular society. It’s “absolute” because it negates the existent in favor of some unseen absolute (the divine). K describes the birth of irony in Socrates as the birth of subjectivity, as in the self-analysis and choice-making that distinguishes one person uniquely from everyone else. To be ironic is to not just let yourself be defined by others’ expectations, but to have your own style of being.
K distinguishes between an “inner infinity,” where we each have infinite possibilities within us, which is good, and an “outer infinity,” which is identifiable with nothingness. A Romantic builds on Fichte’s idea that we as individuals create our entire world through interpretation: Out of the mass of perceptions I build my environment and myself, and by interpreting the world according to my wildly varying moods, I can in effect create different environments for myself to live in, different ways of being. While it would be dishonest (“bad faith” according to Sartre’s later formulation) to nail myself down as being just one type of person, the Romantic avoids any enduring self-definition at all and so ends up being nothing. Even though a Romantic is trying to realize oneness with God, this attempt to say see everything as underlyingly one is, according to K, nihilistic, because an undifferentiated everything (Spinoza’s God) is indistinguishable from nothing (the Buddhist Void).
We talk about examples like The Colbert Report, Andy Kaufman, Bob Roberts, and Borat, Spinal Tap, and more. Read Mark’s past essays on this site about irony.
Finally, we talk about K’s ethic of irony, and Mark and Wes will read through the last few pages of the book to lay this out more evidently. In short, the Romantic trying to live the poetic life ends up a slave to whims and moods, which is ironically exactly the opposite of the freedom that irony is supposed to provide. Also, K agrees with Nietzsche that one should not be a “despiser of life” in rejecting everything through irony. Rather, irony should give us the distance from the present circumstance to reconcile ourselves to it in a mature way, not to simply deny it.
Next time: We’ll hear more about Kierkegaard’s critique of Romanticism as he does so “from the inside” by writing ironically as a character in the first essay in his next book, Either/Or (1843). Buy it.