A Case for Irony
by Jonathan Lear
Harvard, 224 pages, $29.95

Not long before 9/11, a young Harvard graduate, Jedediah Purdy, published a jeremiad against irony, For Common Things , treating irony as a catch-all for a host of contemporary vices: cynicism, apathy, avoidance of commitment, jaded indifference. For the philosopher Richard Rorty, in the opposite camp, irony offers the proper detachment from ultimate aims and fundamental commitments or principles when we believe that everything is “a product of time and chance.”

But have Purdy and Rorty exhausted the possible understandings of the term? In A Case for Irony , the text of his Tanner Lectures on Human Values, delivered in 2009 at Harvard University, the philosopher Jonathan Lear argues that irony can also provide what Kierkegaard calls an “existential determination” essential to a good human life. Indeed, the capacity for irony is a human excellence. The breakdown in conventional understanding that irony prompts does not, as so many assume, necessarily give rise to skepticism.

Lear marvels that so much of what passes for commentary on Socratic irony in Plato’s dialogues has to do exclusively with the question of whether Socrates dissembles, whether he wears a mask of unknowing behind which lurks either certainty about important matters or skepticism, perhaps even nihilism. He sees Socrates using irony to move readers in “the direction of virtue,” at the core of which is the habit of wonder.

As Lear puts it, “It is constitutive of human excellence that one develop a capacity for appropriately disrupting one’s understanding of what excellence consists in” in order to come to a deeper understanding of that excellence. This is, he argues, precisely what irony allows us to do. It is a capacity for ongoing disruption of one’s settled views, for “cultivating an experience of oneself as uncanny, out of joint.” Such disruption makes possible a recovery of a deeper and more adequate understanding, which is in turn susceptible to further episodes of ironic disruption.

Rorty’s conception of irony, by contrast, entails the “radical and continued doubts about one’s final vocabulary” symptomatic of modernity’s weary skepticism. This irony presupposes and fosters detachment from any set of ends or goals. Beyond the initial, perhaps disorienting, recognition of contingency, there is nothing especially disruptive about Rorty’s irony”it is the smug and self-congratulatory irony of the liberal academic.

True irony, Lear insists, involves both detachment and attachment. It is most obviously a “peculiar form of detachment from the social pretense.” (“Social pretense” refers simply to conventional standards and is not necessarily pejorative.) Beyond the detachment, irony is an attachment to a “more robust form of the ideal.” As Kierkegaard trenchantly observes, “From the fact that irony is present, it does not follow that earnestness is excluded. That is something only assistant professors assume.”

Lear uses the example of a teacher who is suddenly and inexplicably struck with perplexity, not just about this or that aspect of teaching but about the very meaning of teaching. Reflective teachers often consider how they might improve their teaching”the sort of assignments they give, for example, and how they lecture”but irony “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.”

To articulate the way in which irony disrupts, Lear poses the paradoxical question: “Among all teachers, is there a teacher?” The first use of “teacher” relies upon the familiar, conventional understanding, while the second suggests the “teacher” is something uncanny and mysterious. What was unproblematic has become problematic, and the problematic provides the opportunity for a deeper insight.

What then can we learn from irony? From Lear’s interpretation of Socratic irony, we learn that the proper response to the insuperable limits of human knowledge, to the perplexities arising in the midst of what we thought we understood, is wonder. In the Symposium , Plato depicts Socrates so caught up in wonder that he remains motionless in the midst of the commotion of everyday life; in the Hippias Major and the Hippias Minor , Socrates describes himself as suffering from a kind of seizure brought on by perplexity.

One consequence of Lear’s conception of irony is that its paradigmatic case is not as a rhetorical device deployed by someone with superior knowledge in order to block the access, or mock the misunderstanding, of someone without it. The unreflective or hypocritical participants in a social practice are precisely the sort of folks who are likely to be incapable of irony. The paradigmatic case is someone who is deeply and reflectively committed to the ideals of a particular practice. Only he can be afflicted with irony. It is something that afflicts superior types.

So Socrates is not so much a perpetrator of irony as its willing victim. Lear reads Plato’s dialogues as attempts to explain, by the articulation of a psychology, how irony is possible: “why it is that we are creatures who, for the most part, do not grasp the real situation we are in; and how it is that on occasion an individual is able to break free of appearances and engage in genuine acts of pretense-transcending aspiring.”

He notes that contemporary philosophers are quick to dismiss Plato’s purported answer to this question. Plato, on the dominant reading, posits a faculty in the soul to account for the human capacity for transcendence. But this is not so much an explanation as a placeholder for an explanation, or so a contemporary consensus would have us believe. Instead of pursuing this line of inquiry, Lear turns to an examination of the role of irony in psychoanalysis, to the way in which the intrusion of the unconscious self into the awareness of the conscious self involves precisely an ironic disruption of the familiar self by the unfamiliar self.

While there may be much in Lear’s discussion of irony and psychoanalysis worthy of further examination, the shift in his inquiry turns us away from what is most interesting in Plato, namely, that our capacity for irony, our erotic longing to grasp the ideal, suggests a hierarchical order in reality. We sense that our concepts, like “teacher” or “Christian,” derived from our experience, fall short because there is some ideal that they fall short of, even if our knowledge always fails to apprehend that ideal completely.

Lear’s own compelling phenomenology of irony fits, I think, rather nicely with Plato’s insight that knowing involves the hierarchical logic of image and exemplar, described most famously in the Analogy of the Divided Line and the Allegory of the Cave. While Lear does not explicitly accept such an account, without a link between image and exemplar, we could not easily sustain the second moment in irony he describes so well, the moment beyond detachment, the moment of attachment to a more robust ideal.

And without that moment, we risk lapsing back into Rorty’s debased and dreary irony, as eros loses its Platonic character as a desire for wholeness and transcendence. The answer to Rorty is provided in the book’s epigraph from Plato’s Republic : “No one is satisfied to acquire things believed to be good; they seek good things . Here everyone is contemptuous of mere belief . . . . Every soul pursues that and does everything for its sake”having a hunch that the good is something, but perplexed and unable to grasp adequately what it is.”

Thomas S. Hibbs is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and dean of the honors college at Baylor University.