D. Anthony Storm's Commentary on Kierkegaard

First Period: Works of Youth (1834-42)

The Concept Of Irony

  • The Concept of Irony With Continual Reference to Socrates
  • Om Begrebet Ironi med stadigt Hensyn til Socrates
  • 1841
  • KW2, SKS1, SV8

This early work was Kierkegaard's dissertation, and addressed irony, particularly Socratic irony. The judges at its defence agreed that it was an intelligent and noteworthy work, but were concerned about its style, which some thought to be ambling, wordy, and idiosyncratic. Kierkegaard petitioned the king successfully for permission to submit the work in Danish rather than in Latin, since Danish, he felt, was more suitable to the material. The colloquium, however, was conducted in Latin.

The Concept of Irony received scant reviews when it appeared. One anonymous reviewer lauded it to the skies, but was criticized by Meïr Aaron Goldschmidt for praising its style rather than its content. Kierkegaard knew that the style would be a stumblingblock for many readers. He said,

And if something should be found, particularly in the first part of the dissertation, that one is generally not accustomed to come across in scholarly writings, the reader must forgive my jocundity, just as I, in order to lighten the burden, sometimes sing at my work (Journals, III B 3).

Thus, Kierkegaard's idiosyncratic approach to content and style began early. His interest in Socrates (Plato) remained constant throughout his writing career, with special interest in the maxim "Know thyself" and the theory of recollection (knowledge acquisition).

In later years, Kierkegaard would assess this work, noting with disappointment his sometime uncritical use of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

Influenced as I was by Hegel and whatever was modern, without the maturity really to comprehend greatness, I could not resist pointing out somewhere in my dissertation that it was a defect on the part of Socrates to disregard the whole and only consider numerically the individuals. What a Hegelian fool I was! It is precisely this that powerfully demonstrates what a great ethicist Socrates was (Journals, X 3 A 477).

The Concept of Irony is divided into two parts. Part One is on Socratic irony as exhibited by Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes, with a closing section on Hegel. Kierkegaard aligns himself with most critics when he asserts that Xenophon's Socrates is unattractive and, more importantly, would not have been a man worth executing.

As a preliminary, we must recall that Xenophon had an objective (this is already a deficiency or an irksome redundancy)—namely, to show what a scandalous injustice it was for the Athenians to condemn Socrates to death. ...for Xenophon defends Socrates in such a way that he renders him not only innocent but also altogether innocuous—so much so that we wonder greatly about what kind of daimon must have bewitched the Athenians to such a degree that they were able to see more in him than in any other good-natured, garrulous, droll character who does neither good nor evil, does not stand in anyone's way, and is so fervently well-intentioned toward the whole world if only it will listen to his slipshod nonsense (p. 15f.).

Kierkegaard next considers Plato's Socrates as he appears in The Symposium, The Protagoras, The Phaedo, The Apology and The Republic. A pivotal passage from The Apology concerns Socrates' recount of the oracle at Delphi, which said that he was the wisest man. His interpretation was, after having addressed many reputed wise men, that he was wisest because he was aware of his ignorance, while others were not. Hegel, according to Kierkegaard, does not see irony in this, but takes the passage at face value. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, sees the irony, sees Socrates steeped in irony. But he thinks that Plato himself was not always aware of Socrates' irony, and may have thus taken Socrates seriously. Public resentment at Socrates' irony would indeed go far in explaining how the Athenians could condemn him to death.

The alert student of Plato will find in him two kinds of irony. The one is the quickening force integral to the investigation; the other arrogates, if possible, lordship to itself. Thus, since there is irony in the Apology, one cannot summarily reject it...because it is not Platonic irony, because it is indeed possible that Socrates' irony was different from Plato's.... The difficulty such a reader has in mind is obviously this: to explain how Socrates conceivably could have mystified Plato so that the latter took seriously what Socrates had said ironically. Indeed, the difficulty for me could be increased by recalling that on the whole Plato understood irony very well, something that even his latest writings indicate. ...I would answer, for one thing, that it would always be rather difficult for a Plato to understand Socrates completely and, for another (and this is my main response), that one cannot look for a mere representation of Socrates in Plato and that it has never occurred to any reader of Plato to look for this (p. 87, 125).

It may surprise readers of Kierkegaard that he regards Aristophanes' portrayal of Socrates in The Clouds as enlightening, and in many ways accurate. It has often been flatly stated that this play grossly maligns the character of Socrates, and may in fact have contributed to negative public sentiment sufficient to vote for his execution. Yet Kierkegaard commends it.

It is of importance first of all to be satisfied that the Socrates brought on stage by Aristophanes is the actual Socrates. Just as ancient tradition fortifies this conviction, there are various traits found in this play that either are historically certain or at least prove to be altogether analogous to what we otherwise know about Socrates (p. 131).

Kierkegaard refers to the unusual practices of Socrates, namely, his habit of standing still on his feet and straining in meditation, as well as his mysterious relationship with his own personal deity (daimon). It is these idiosyncrasies, along with Socrates' irony, that were the natural seedbed for an Aristophanic spoof. Moreover, his practices were in some sense like the Sophists. Though he did not charge money for his teaching, sometimes his dialectic did "make the weaker argument the stronger", as The Clouds purports.

Kierkegaard does not provide a definitive meaning for the word irony, but he does elucidate its relationship to dialectic.

That irony and dialectic are the two great forces in Plato everyone will surely admit, but that there is a double kind of dialectic cannot be denied, either. There is an irony that is only a stimulus for thought, that quickens it when it becomes drowsy, disciplines when it becomes dissolute. There is an irony that is itself the activator and in turn is itself the terminus striven for. There is a dialectic that in perpetual movement continually sees to it that the question does not become entrapped in an incidental understanding, that is never weary and is always prepared to set the issue afloat if it runs aground—in short, that always knows how to keep the issue in suspension and precisely therein and thereby wants to resolve it. There is a dialectic that, proceeding from the most abstract ideas, wants to let these display themselves in more concrete qualifications, a dialectic that wants to construct actuality with the idea. Finally, in Plato there is yet another element that is a necessary supplement to the deficiency in both the great forces. This is the mythical and the metaphorical. The first kind of dialectic corresponds to the first kind of irony, the second kind of dialectic to the second kind of irony; to the first two corresponds the mythical, to the last two the metaphorical—yet in such a way that the mythical is not indispensably related to either the first two or the last two but is more like an anticipation engendered by the one-sidedness of the first two or like a transitional element, a confinium [intervening border], that actually belongs neither to the one nor the other (p. 121).

In Part Two Kierkegaard begins by addressing Socratic irony again.

...irony [is] the infinite absolute negativity. It is negativity, because it only negates; it is infinite, because it does not negate this or that phenomenon; it is absolute, because that by virtue of which it negates is a higher something that still is not. The irony established nothing, because that which is to be established lies behind it.... Irony is a qualification of subjectivity. In irony, the subject is negatively free, since the actuality that is supposed to give the subject content is not there. He is free from the constraint in which the given actuality holds the subject, but he is negatively free and as such is suspended, because there is nothing that holds him. But this very freedom, this suspension, gives the ironist a certain enthusiasm, because he becomes intoxicated, so to speak, in the infinity of possibilities.... But if irony is a qualification of subjectivity, then it must manifest itself the first time subjectivity makes its appearance in world history. Irony is, namely, the first and most abstract qualification of subjectivity. This points to the historical turning point where subjectivity made its appearance for the first time, and with this we have come to Socrates.... For him, the whole given actuality had entirely lost its validity; he had become alien to the actuality of the whole substantial world. This is one side of irony, but on the other hand he used irony as he destroyed Greek culture. His conduct toward it was at all times ironic; he was ignorant and knew nothing but was continually seeking information from others; yet as he let the existing go on existing, it foundered. He kept on using this tactic until the very last, as was especially evident when he was accused. But his fervor in this service consumed him, and in the end irony overwhelmed; he became dizzy, and everything lost its reality (p. 262ff.).

Irony is negativity because it seeks to clarify by saying what something is not. Some Medieval theologians used the same method in what is now called negative theology. To some extent so does Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard next addresses his own categories with reference to Hegel, Johan Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814), a German philosopher and political thinker, Friedrich von Schlegel (1772-1829), a German romantic poet and critic, Johan Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853) , a German romantic novelist, and Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand Solger (1780-1819), an esthetician and student of Fichte and of Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775-1854).

Hegel is ultimately antipathetic to irony (p. 265). As we said above, Hegel took Socrates at his word when he said that he was ignorant. According to Hegel, irony was a defect, and thus beneath the dignity of Socrates (Plato). Kierkegaard then criticizes Fichte's subjectivity. As we said above, Kierkegaard would soon champion the cause of subjectivism. Schlegel is best known for his novel Lucinde, which Kierkegaard calls "the gospel of young Germany" (p. 286). It was considered by many to be immoral. Nevertheless, Schlegel was combatting the "moral straitjacket" of society, and irony is an effective weapon. Kierkegaard concedes both the usefulness of irony and the obscenity of the book. As Schlegel "didacticizes", Tieck "indulges in a poetic abandon" (p. 302).

Although Tieck did not negate actuality with as much earnestness as Schlegel did, nevertheless his exaggerated and impotent ideal, which floats about like a cloud in the sky or like the cloud's shadow fleetingly flies across the ground, reveals that he has gone astray (p. 307f.).

Kierkegaard's view of Solger was that he did not manifest the negativizing aspect of irony. Rather he fell under the spell of the positivizing speculation of Hegel. "...Solger was a sacrifice to Hegel's positive system" (p. 323). Hegel sought to subsume everything under his system. Thus it was a positivizing system in that it sought to name and classify everything, and thus, Hegel had no regard for irony. Solger's irony, according to Kierkegaard, could not be fully posited since the Hegelian schema had no room for it.

Kierkegaard discusses the importance of irony in speculation as it relates to doubt.

In our age there has been much talk about the importance of doubt for science and scholarship, but what doubt is to science, irony is to personal life. Just as scientists maintain that there is not true science without doubt, so it may be maintained with the same right that no genuinely human life is possible without irony (p. 326).

He begins his conclusion with a note on subjectivity, in which he inclines to a view that he would later address more thoroughly in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, a theme that one might argue would become the most prominent of his life.

Furthermore, if our generation has any task at all, it must be to translate the achievement of scientific scholarship into personal life, to appropriate it personally (p. 328).

Lastly, he briefly notes the place of humor, which he would also later address in Concluding Unscientific Postscript.

Finally, insofar as there may be a question concerning irony's "eternal validity," this question can be answered only by entering into the realm of humor. Humor has a far more profound skepticism than irony, because here the focus is on sinfulness, not on finitude. The skepticism of humor is related to the skepticism of irony as ignorance is related to the old thesis: credo quia absurdum [I believe because it is absurd], but it also has a far deeper positivity, since it moves not in human but in theanthropological categories; it finds rest not by making man man but by making man God-man (p. 329).

The Latin phrase, attributed to Tertullian, forms the basis for Kierkegaard's later emphasis on the paradoxical as the crux of Christian faith. For more on this see Johannes Climacus, which work he would undertake the following year, and Practice In Christianity.