A Case for Irony

James Garvey considers whether human identity is a conscious construct or for ever veiled in mystery

January 26, 2012

To become human does not come that easily." Jonathan Lear takes this old line of Kierkegaard's seriously, and builds around it the surprising view that no genuinely human life is possible without irony. By "irony" he does not mean witty turns of phrase, but something much deeper and less familiar - maybe something worth seeking in pursuit of a flourishing life.

The traditional line of thinking here, and Lear's target, is the idea that being human is a task, a sustained attempt to live up to one's ideals. He cites the philosopher Christine Korsgaard as a proponent of this "task-oriented" view of self-constitution. According to Korsgaard, he says, being human means reflectively endorsing or rejecting courses of action in line with our practical identities; in other words, consciously acting in accord with the descriptions of ourselves that we find valuable. So, for example, you might have a wayward inclination, and then take a mental step back and measure your response to it based on the kind of person you take yourself to be. You're a Christian, a liberal, a feminist, a "real man" or whatever, and being human means being true to that. In other, better words: "This above all: to thine own self be true." Acting in line with this degree of self-knowledge isn't easy, but Lear thinks Kierkegaard has something even rarer in mind.

Instead of reflective self-constitution, Lear argues, what is required of us, if we are to get the hang of being human, is the experience of ironic displacement. If you aim to be true to your liberal self, you can think a series of critical thoughts entirely within the liberal worldview. But sometimes when a gap opens up between your social pretence and aspirations, you come to see that you don't really know what it means to be the kind of person you take yourself to be. As Lear puts it: "we seem to be called to an ideal that, on the one hand, transcends our ordinary understanding, but to which we now experience ourselves as already committed". This is not just another experience against the backdrop of standards that make up one's identity but the weird realisation that one is committed to a set of standards that one only sees, in the ironic moment, as something one does not truly understand.

Lear is true to himself as both a philosopher and practising psychoanalyst in this collection, which is drawn from talks he gave as part of the multiinstitution Tanner Lectures on Human Values series. Throughout, a number of intriguing points emerge from his attempt to bring the insights gleaned from the analyst's couch to bear on philosophical reflection about the unity of the self, action and agency. Comments from fellow analysts are mostly met with a cheer from Lear. Cora Diamond's wonderfully self-critical discussion of instances in which there is no difference between social pretence and aspiration - the self-conception of un homme comme il faut, a hipster or dude - is entirely engaging. But the gloves seem to come off in his exchange with Korsgaard, whose response to his critique is literally: "So what?"

Lear describes Ms A, a woman whose unconscious boyishness shapes her conscious identity. Isn't this trouble for the view that we consciously choose to be who we are? Ms A's boyish acts, Korsgaard replies, "come from her only in the same sense that a squirrel's act of burying an acorn comes from the squirrel". Lear, a student of Freud if not a disciple, can't help himself: "Do I really need to say that, in comparison to the squirrel, it is a different kind of question where Ms. A. has buried her nuts?"

A Case for Irony

By Jonathan Lear

Harvard University Press

224pp, £22.95

ISBN 9780674061453

Published October 2011

to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments


Featured jobs