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  • The Ironic Creativity of Socratic Doubt*
  • Jonathan Lear


Even after we pay due regard to his wish that the voices of the pseudonymous authors not be taken to reflect his own views (Concluding, trans. Hannay 527-529), it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the mature Kierkegaard found his early writings on irony—there is no better word for it—immature. In the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, published in 1846, the author Johannes Climacus introduces his discussion on irony with this jibe: "What then is irony, if one wants to call Socrates an ironist, and not, like Magister Kierkegaard, consciously or unconsciously to bring out the one side only" (trans. Hannay 422; trans. Hong 503). The Concept of Irony: With Continual Reference to Socrates is the thesis by which Kierkegaard earned his master's degree. The pain, the humor, the irony of looking back on oneself as a young man: the days of accepting a socially conferred title of master! The embarrassment gets worse when one claims to be a 'master of irony.' Doesn't the claim refute itself? Would any master of irony be willing to let himself be called such? [End Page 1001]

Climacus complains that young Kierkegaard's account of Socratic irony is one-sided.1 The one-sidedness consists in a portrait of relentless Socratic negativity. Here is one of many such passages:

Socrates certainly indicated a new direction: he gave the age its direction (taking this word not so much in a philosophic as in a military sense). He went around to each one individually in order to find out if that person had a sound position; nevertheless, his activity was intended not so much to draw their attention to what was to come as to wrest from them what they had. This he accomplished, as long as the campaign lasted, by cutting off all communication with the besieged through his questions, which starved the garrison out of opinions, conceptions, time-honored traditions, etc. that up until now had been adequate for the person concerned. When he had done this to the individual, the devouring flame of envy (using this word metaphysically) was momentarily slaked, the annihilating enthusiasm of negativity momentarily satisfied, and he relished the joy of irony to its fullest, relished it doubly, because he felt himself divinely authorized, was convinced of his calling. But naturally this was only for a moment; soon he was back to his task again…. In this way he admittedly freed the single individual from every presupposition, freed him as he himself was free; but the freedom he personally enjoyed in ironic satisfaction the others could not enjoy, and it developed in them a longing and a yearning…. The reason Socrates could be satisfied in this ignorance was that he had no deeper speculative craving. Instead of speculatively setting this negativity to rest, he set it far more to rest in the eternal unrest in which he repeated the same process with each single individual. In all this, however, that which makes him into a personality is precisely irony.

(Concept 175-176; my italics)

Climacus's complaint transcends issues of Kierkegaard scholarship. Working out a richer conception of irony is of enduring ethical significance. If Socratic irony is only in the service of undermining people's confidence in their ability to defend their beliefs, why think that this is in the service of a good? It is too quick to say it is a good to be robbed of falsity. Imagine Socrates' evil twin Schmocrates: he too has that "devouring flame of envy," as Magister Kierkegaard put it, but he preys on good-hearted interlocutors who happen to be not very good at explaining their good wills. It is difficult to see how 'irony' that makes a good person ashamed of his good will must be in the service of a good.

If we are to understand irony as a good, we must come to understand how the disruption it provokes can, on occasion, lead us in a [End Page 1002] good direction. This—and here I agree with Climacus—requires us to see another side to Socratic irony, one which eluded the view of the young...


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