Irony and Humanity: A Dialogue between Jonathan Lear and Alasdair MacIntyre
A companion to A Case for Irony, by Jonathan Lear
Vanity Fair has declared the Age of Irony over. Joan Didion has lamented that Obama’s United States is an “irony-free zone.” But, as Jonathan Lear asks, “What if this little disrupter is crucial to the human condition?” In A Case for Irony Lear argues that becoming a human being is a task, and that developing a capacity for irony is essential to doing it well. Contemporary culture, Lear thinks, has misunderstood what irony is and what makes it important. He claims that ironic experience is a form of truthfulness that is constitutive of human flourishing. It is a call of our own best selves to be our best selves. It is also a recognition and embrace of our finitude. The book, grounded in Kierkegaard, Plato, and Freud, presents Lear in conversation with three philosophers (Cora Diamond, Christine M. Korsgaard, and Richard Moran) and a psychoanalyst (Robert Paul).
The conversation continued in an April 2012 dialogue on Irony and Humanity between Lear and Alasdair MacIntyre, presented by the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought and Department of Philosophy and the Lumen Christi Institute.
The passages below present a thread of that April conversation, in the form of excerpts from A Case for Irony followed by adapted sections of MacIntyre’s and then Lear’s remarks.
Excerpts from A Case for Irony
To get clear on what irony is I want to distinguish the experience of irony from the development of a capacity for irony; and to distinguish those from what Kierkegaard calls ironic existence. In a nutshell, the experience of irony is a peculiar experience that is essentially first-personal: not simply in the sense that all experience is the experience of some I, but that in having an experience of irony I experience myself as confronted by that very experience. Developing the capacity for irony is developing the capacity to occasion an experience of irony (in oneself or in another). We tend to think casually of “the ironist” as someone who is able to make certain forms of witty remarks, perhaps saying the opposite of what he means, of remaining detached by undercutting any manifestation of seriousness. This, I shall argue, is a derivative form; and the deeper form of ironist is one who has the capacity to occasion an experience of irony. Ironic existence is whatever it is that is involved in turning this capacity for irony into a human excellence: the capacity for deploying irony in the right way at the right time in the living of a distinctively human life. It is ironic existence that is the not-that-easy of becoming human.
Note that putting oneself forward does not on any given occasion require that I say anything: I may put myself forward as professor in the way I hunch my shoulders, order a glass of wine, in my choice of shoes, socks, and glasses. Conversely, when I do put myself forward verbally it need not be in any explicit statement to that effect. It’s right there in such ordinary statements as “I’ve switched to a Mac.”
Social roles provide historically determinate, culturally local accounts of various ways in which one might be good at being a human being. So, for instance, given that humans are essentially social animals, who spend a comparatively long time developing, who are born largely in ignorance of the world into which they are born, it is at least plausible that the category of teacher should provide one route of human well-being. A teacher, broadly construed, would be someone who can help his neighbors learn. This is at least a plausible candidate for one way of being good at being human, and thus one way of becoming human. A social role would be a socially available way of putting oneself forward as a teacher. So, for instance, one way of being a teacher would be to be a professor. In the United States and Europe at the beginning of the twenty-first century there is a fairly well established range of teaching styles—in seminar, tutorial, and lecture course—and a fairly well established range of evaluative techniques, such as grades. There is even a range of dress you can expect a professor to wear, a way of being in front of a lectern and delivering a paper. And there are socially acceptable ways of demurring from the role: special ways of not wearing the right clothes, not giving a standard talk. That, too, can be part of the social pretense. But in this variety of socially recognized ways, I put myself forward as a professor. In this way a whole range of activity—including dress, mannerisms, a sense of pride and shame—can all count as pretense in that they are all ways of putting oneself forward as a professor. Since even our simplest acts are regularly embedded in our sense of who we are, the possibility of irony is pervasive. Note that putting oneself forward does not on any given occasion require that I say anything: I may put myself forward as professor in the way I hunch my shoulders, order a glass of wine, in my choice of shoes, socks, and glasses. Conversely, when I do put myself forward verbally it need not be in any explicit statement to that effect. It’s right there in such ordinary statements as “I’ve switched to a Mac.”
The possibility of irony arises when a gap opens between pretense as it is made available in a social practice and an aspiration or ideal which, on the one hand, is embedded in the pretense—indeed, which expresses what the pretense is all about—but which, on the other hand, seems to transcend the life and the social practice in which that pretense is made.
So, I am sitting at home in the evening grading papers, and I begin to wonder what this has to do with actually teaching my students. For a while, this is a normal reflection in which I step back and wonder about the value of my activity. I still have a sense of what the ideal is; I am just reflecting on how well the activity of grading contributes to it. I decide to talk this over with my colleagues at a department meeting: perhaps we can figure out a better way to evaluate students, one more in line with our core function of teaching. This sort of reflection is part and parcel of inhabiting a practical identity. Thus far I am at the level of reflection that might lead me to engage in educational reform. But then things get out of hand. I am struck by teaching in a way that 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. It is more like vertigo than a process of stepping back to reflect. When it comes to previous, received understandings of teaching—even those that have been reflectively questioned and adjusted in the normal ways—all bets are off. No doubt, I can still use general phrases like “helping my students to develop”; but such phrases have become enigmatic, open-ended, oracular. They have become signifiers whose content I no longer grasp in any but the most open-ended way. I no longer know who my “students” are, let alone what it would be to “help them develop.” Are my students the individuals coming into my classroom at the appointed time . . . or are they to be located elsewhere? Are they in the younger generation . . . or are they my age or older? Might they come along in a different generation altogether . . . maybe in the next century? And if my classroom is where my students are, where is my classroom? What am I to make of the room I actually do walk into now? Where should I be to encounter my students? What would it be to encounter them? And if I were to encounter them, what would it be to help them, rather than harm them? What is development? Already I have enough questions to last a lifetime, and I do not even know where to begin.
This is a different order of concern from something that might at first look a lot like it. In a different mode, a normal mode, I consider myself a serious teacher. It might take me a lifetime of practice before I really get good at it. I am dedicated to this practical identity. I treat teaching as a master-craft, an arduous but noble calling; and even after all these years, I still think of myself as an apprentice, en route. On occasion I do wonder about those around me who assume that teaching is easy, or even those who find it difficult, but assume they know what it is: what are they up to? Nevertheless, in this reflective and questioning mode, I still have a fairly determinate sense of the path I am on. Of course, the path essentially involves reflective questioning of what I am doing; and as a result of the questioning I may alter my direction one way or another. Yet, I know what to do today and tomorrow; and I trust that if I keep practicing and developing my skills I will get better at it. Maybe I’ll even get good at it. In this mode, I act as though I have practical knowledge of how to go about acquiring the skill, even if, in my view, true mastery lies off in the future.
By contrast, in the ironic moment, my practical knowledge is disrupted: I can no longer say in any detail what the requirements of teaching consist in; nor do I have any idea what to do next. I am also living through a breakdown in practical intelligibility: I can no longer make sense of myself (to myself, and thus can no longer put myself forward to others) in terms of my practical identity. That I have lost a sense of what it means to be a teacher is revealed by the fact that I can now no longer make sense of what I have been up to. That is, I can certainly see that in the past I was adhering to established norms of teaching—or standing back and questioning them in recognized ways. In that sense, my past continues to be intelligible to me. But I now have this question: What does any of that have to do with teaching? And if I cannot answer that question, my previous activities now look like hubbub, busyness, and confusion. I have lost a sense of how my understanding of my past gives me any basis for what to do next. That is why, in the ironic moment, I am called to a halt. Nothing any longer makes sense to me as the next step I might take as a teacher. Until this moment of ironic disruption, I had taken various activities to be unproblematic manifestations of my practical identity. Even in this moment, I might have no difficulty understanding what my practical identity requires, just so long as practical identity is equated with social pretense, or some reflected-upon variant. My problem is that I no longer understand what practical identity so construed has to do with my practical identity (properly understood).
Ironic disruption is thus a species of uncanniness: it is an unheimlich maneuver. The life and identity that I have hitherto taken as familiar have suddenly become unfamiliar. However, there is this difference: in an ordinary experience of the uncanny, there is mere disruption: the familiar is suddenly and disruptively experienced as unfamiliar. What is peculiar to irony is that it manifests passion for a certain direction. It is because I care about teaching that I have come to a halt as a teacher.
Ironic disruption is thus a species of uncanniness: it is an unheimlich maneuver. The life and identity that I have hitherto taken as familiar have suddenly become unfamiliar. However, there is this difference: in an ordinary experience of the uncanny, there is mere disruption: the familiar is suddenly and disruptively experienced as unfamiliar. What is peculiar to irony is that it manifests passion for a certain direction. It is because I care about teaching that I have come to a halt as a teacher. Coming to a halt in a moment of ironic uncanniness is how I manifest—in that moment—that teaching matters to me. I have a strong desire to be moving in a certain direction—that is, in the direction of becoming and being a teacher—but I lack orientation. Thus the experience of irony is an experience of would-be-directed uncanniness. That is, an experience of standard-issue uncanniness may give us goose bumps or churn our stomachs; the experience of ironic uncanniness, by contrast, is more like losing the ground beneath one’s feet: one longs to go in a certain direction, but one no longer knows where one is standing, if one is standing, or which direction is the right direction. In this paradigm example, ironic uncanniness is a manifestation of utter seriousness and commitment (in this case, to teaching), not its opposite. As Johannes Climacus, one of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous authors, puts it, “From the fact that irony is present, it does not follow that earnestness is excluded. That is something only assistant professors assume.”
It is often assumed that irony is a form of detachment. From the perspective of those who are embedded in the social pretense—who just don’t get what is going on with me—it may well appear that irony is a form of detachment, a lack of commitment or seriousness. For, after all, it is a peculiar form of detachment from the social pretense. And, as we shall see, it may be the occasion for a peculiar form of re-attachment. But if, in one’s blinkered view, social pretense is all there is, then it is easy to view irony as it regularly is viewed. “Lear hasn’t handed in his grades—typical; and now he’s jabbering on about not knowing how to grade. Of course he knows how to grade; he’s just being ironic. It would be better if we had a colleague who was committed to teaching.” To the socially embedded, it is precisely this manifestation of commitment that will appear as lack of commitment—perhaps as dissembling or as sarcasm. (That is, of course, precisely how Socrates seemed to some of his interlocutors.)
If we get away from misleading appearance, and try to capture what is really going on with me, the language that suggests itself is that of Platonic Eros: I am struck by teaching—by an intimation of its goodness, its fundamental significance—and am filled with longing to grasp what it is and incorporate it into my life. I can no longer simply live with the available social understandings of teaching; if I am to return to them it must be in a different way. Thus the initial intuition is that there must to be something more to teaching than what is available in social pretense. Irony is thus an outbreak (or initiation) of pretense-transcending aspiring. The experience of ironic uncanniness is the form that pretense-transcending aspiring takes. Because there is embodied in this experience an itch for direction—an experience of uncanny, enigmatic longing—it is appropriate to conceive the experience of irony as an experience of erotic uncanniness.
To understand ironic existence, consider the modal structure of practical identity. To have a practical identity is in part to have a capacity for facing life’s possibilities. As a teacher, to continue with the example, I have the capacity to face what comes my way as a teacher would. In particular, I can rule out as impossible, acts that would be incompatible with being a teacher. Thus I have internalized an implicit sense of life’s possibilities, and have developed a capacity for responding to them in appropriate ways. This is what it is to inhabit a world from the perspective of a practical identity. In normal circumstances, this capacity for dealing with life’s possibilities is an inheritance from, an internalization of, available social practices. I learn how to be a teacher from people I take to be teachers, and, in the first instance, I take society’s word for who the teachers are. Obviously, as I develop, I may subject various norms to reflective criticism: that is part of my normal development as a teacher. Ironic experience is, as we have seen, a peculiar disruption of this inherited way of facing life’s possibilities. This is not one more possibility one can simply add to the established repertoire. It is a disruption of the repertoire—and, in the disruption, it brings to light that the established repertoire is just that.
In ironic existence, I would have the capacity both to live out my practical identity as a teacher—which includes calling it into question in standard forms of reflective criticism—and to call all of that questioning into question; not via another reflective question, but rather via an ironic disruption of the whole process. In this twofold movement I would both be manifesting my best understanding of what it is about teaching that makes it a human excellence and be giving myself a reminder that this best understanding itself contains the possibility of ironic disruption. No wonder that getting the hang of it does not come that easily. Done well, this would be a manifestation of a practical understanding of one aspect of the finiteness of human life: that the concepts with which we understand ourselves and live our lives have a certain vulnerability built into them. Ironic existence thus has a claim to be a human excellence because it is a form of truthfulness. It is also a form of self-knowledge: a practical acknowledgment of the kind of knowing that is available to creatures like us.
Alasdair MacIntyre’s Remarks
Jonathan Lear has put us all in his debt once again. Irony had for some time been a subject left to literary critics and to scholars in linguistics. But what they have had to say, although often instructive, has thrown insufficient light on the part that irony might or should play in our lives. Lear, by taking up where Kierkegaard left off, has reopened some old questions and opened up some new ones, in both cases with insight and elegance.
So where to begin? One way to ask what place a form of speech, a type of experience, or a mode of existence has in our lives is to ask what those lives would be like if that form of speech, that type of experience, or that mode of existence were wholly absent from our lives. And so I ask: What would a human world be like in which irony had been abolished, in which no one uttered, experienced, or existed ironically?
Consider first the example of the teacher, transposed to a world deprived of irony. Imagine that teacher as someone who, when young and enthusiastic, was anxious to do well as a teacher, although never in fact quite sure what good teaching is. He therefore trusts his mentors and gradually becomes, at least to outward appearance, what they would have him be, someone whose students are quiet and orderly in class and score increasingly well on tests, someone who gives more attention to test score subjects than to anything else, providing administrators with just the statistics that they need to satisfy the funding authority. His teaching evaluations tell him that he is a good teacher and he believes them. But then he encounters a class taught by someone else, in which the students are sometimes talkative and even noisy, in which discipline is sometimes stern and sometimes relaxed, in which the teacher makes bad jokes and improvises to dramatic effect, in which progress by test score or any other standard is real, but somewhat uneven, in which art and music are treated as important, and in which the students are plainly excited by what they are learning and frustrated when they fail to learn. The result of this encounter is that his conception of good teaching and of himself as a good teacher is put radically in question.
I may be what they call “a good teacher,” he says to himself, but am I a genuinely good teacher? His use of quotation marks and indirect speech enables him to do without irony. What he learns from his experience is that he now has just enough grasp of what good teaching is to know that he is in key respects not a good teacher and that becoming a good teacher is a task whose full dimensions he has yet to learn. He is transformed, just as the teacher described by Lear is transformed, but his experiences are unironic. What has substituted for irony in speech is plain, truthful, and, when necessary, harsh speech, that speech in which the would-be good teacher acknowledges his inadequacies and asks others for help in remedying them. What has substituted for irony in experience is seeing himself as he is, and consequent humility. But such speech and such experience will only be to the point if they are an expression of and result in the exercise of the relevant virtues. What virtues are these?
First obviously is truthfulness, a virtue exercised not only in refraining from lying, except on the rarest of occasions, but also in knowing which truths to utter to whom, in knowing when to speak and when to keep silent, and in caring about the truth. Lacking truthfulness, the would-be good teacher will be all too liable to self-deception. But truthfulness by itself is insufficient. The would-be good teacher also needs humility, since without humility we are unable to recognize, let alone to acknowledge our defects and our faults. Note that the exercise of humility is incompatible both with failing to acknowledge our defects and faults and with exaggerating those defects and faults. To belittle our qualities of mind and character untruthfully is a vice that Aquinas, following Aristotle, identified as irony, declaring it to be not only a vice, but a sin. What kind of a vice it is is brought out by Ross’s translation of eironeia as “mock-modesty.” Someone who says “I am not in fact a good teacher,” if they are then to learn what it would be to become a good teacher must have abandoned pretending as well as pretension, must exhibit real and not mock modesty.
It seems then that we can safely conclude that in the case of the teacher the kind of needed self-discovery and self-amendment identified by Lear can be achieved without irony, that whatever else might have been lost from a world in which irony had been abolished, this possibility would not have been lost.
What I have been suggesting is that this example discussed by Lear, that of the self-questioning teacher, does not show that irony need play any part in our moral lives. What can be said ironically, so it seems, can be said non-ironically and for the moral shock therapy of ironic experience we can substitute the moral shock therapy effected by plain, truthful, harsh words, spoken with humility. We may therefore be tempted to conclude that a human world in which irony had been abolished, but in which the virtues of truthfulness and humility were practiced, might be a stylistically duller world, a less witty world, but not one in which there had been any significant loss of moral resources. It would however be premature to yield to this temptation.
Not everyone needs a capacity for irony in order to be truthful—when Kierkegaard said that “no genuinely human life is possible without irony,” he confused being human with being Kierkegaard—but enough of us do for irony to be important.
Without irony some of us some of the time would not be shocked into truthfulness. Take away any capacity for ironic speech and for the experience of irony and some of us will on occasion be incapable of either truthfulness or humility. Not everyone needs a capacity for irony in order to be truthful—when Kierkegaard said that “no genuinely human life is possible without irony,” he confused being human with being Kierkegaard—but enough of us do for irony to be important. So my earlier suggestion that irony might have no necessary part in any of our lives, that truthfulness and humility can substitute for irony without loss turns out to be mistaken. Note however that both in Lear’s examples and in mine the salutary uses of irony do not involve that untruthful belittling of the self that Aristotle and Aquinas rightly condemn. It is because and only insofar as irony serves the ends of truthfulness and humility that we need it. To understand irony is to understand its place in the structures of the virtues, as Aristotle and Aquinas do. What would it be to understand irony in this way?
I spoke a moment ago of salutary uses of irony, distinguishing them from nonsalutary uses. Lear too makes this distinction, writing that “the deeper form of ironist is one who has the capacity to occasion an experience of irony. Ironic existence is whatever it is that is involved in turning this capacity for irony into a human excellence: the capacity for deploying irony in the right way at the right time in the living of a distinctively human life.” The implication is clear. Irony can be deployed in the wrong way or at the wrong time or both. So how in particular instances are we to distinguish right from wrong? My suggestion will be that when irony is misused, when it is vicious, it is used so as to undermine or corrupt truthfulness and humility. But, in order to explain why and how this is so, I must say a little more about truthfulness and humility, and in order to say even that little more, I have to introduce a way of thinking about the self very different from Lear’s or Korsgaard’s or Kierkegaard’s.
What constitutes us as human beings—by contrast with dolphins or wolves—is our accountability to ourselves and to others, our capacity for responding to questions of the form “Why did you/I/we do that?” or “What was the good of doing that?” where the account that is asked for is to function as at once explanation and justification. We are constituted as selves in the exercise of this capacity through our interactions both with others and with ourselves and there is therefore no task of self-constitution. Our identity is that of an accountable animal and it is as such that we occupy social roles, undertake tasks, and set ourselves to achieve individual and common goods. When we put in question our attainments as teachers, we put in question ourselves as teachers, as agents contributing to the achievement of certain common goods, while directed towards our own final good. To say this and no more is of course to speak far too briefly, but it is enough to make it clear that—and why—truthfulness has the central place that it has among the virtues. For it is crucial that the accounts that we give to others and to ourselves of why we choose and act as we do in respect of individual and common goods should be true accounts. So from the outset a conception of truth and of norms of truthfulness is presupposed in our saying and doing. And, if truthfulness is in this way a central virtue, then so too is humility. For to be humble is to see oneself as one is and to judge and speak of oneself as one is. It is to be able to speak the truth about oneself.
Irony then is important for its bearing upon truthfulness and humility, whether positively or negatively, and we can only understand its full importance if we understand how it can be misused as an enemy of truthfulness and a servant of arrogance.
Jonathan Lear’s Response
I am not surprised that Alasdair MacIntyre has raised fundamental questions about the value of irony, but I am very grateful to have such a serious reader of my work.
MacIntyre’s comments put on display a movement of his own thinking. As he says about half-way through, “So my earlier suggestion that irony might have no necessary part in any of our lives, that truthfulness and humility can substitute for irony without loss turns out to be mistaken.” Let me go back then to his example of a teacher in a world without irony and consider what might be missing. MacIntyre gives us an example of a well-intentioned teacher who has internalized the norms of teaching passed onto him by his or her teachers, who then encounters a very different exemplar of what good teaching might consist in and has his own conception radically put in question. He is open to his own self-questioning (“Am I genuinely a good teacher?”), and I agree with MacIntyre no irony need be present here. And there is no doubt that significant ethical improvement can take place without irony. Still, I want to say that something ethically significant is missing in this “world without irony,” so that it is a mistake to think we can leave it out without loss.
To see this, we need to reflect on how we engage with various normative pulls in our lives. Ducks are governed by norms of duckly life but, as Kierkegaard pointed out, ducks are not themselves open to irony because their lives are not entangled in what Kierkegaard called pretense: putting themselves forward or making claims for themselves. In MacIntyre’s terms, the possibility of irony arises for us because we are accountable animals. But even in this realm of human accountability there is an important distinction that needs to be made that is sometimes overlooked. The distinction may admit of vague boundaries, debatable examples and so on, but we can nevertheless see a basic division. There are some normative dimensions of human life that can be understood, more or less, as social constructions. So, for instance, if we take the normative arena of baseball, we can certainly have debates about what makes for a good player, about whether the game is improved or diminished by allowing a designated hitter and so on. But the debate about the goodness of the game eventually comes back to ourselves: our sense of what makes the game satisfying, what yields greater pleasure, a more exciting game and so on. As a young, ambitious and talented player, I may “take on responsibility” for becoming a good player; and I may, in visiting another team, see an alternative model of excellent playing that radically shakes my sense of how one plays the game well. I may change my ways in light of this conflicting and ultimately transformative experience. It may even make me anxious as I do so. But I want to say that in an important sense I have not yet taken on responsibility for what the goodness of baseball itself consists in. That is a different level of normative engagement—and it is at this different level that the possibility of irony becomes both important and, as possibility, ineliminable.
The subjective category teacher, unlike the social role of baseball player, is subject to a normative pull of goodness that outstrips any social construction of what that goodness consists in. Here we have a different kind of responsibility for and responsiveness to the goodness of teaching—one which is enigmatic and which can be very unsettling. Here I think a reference to Platonic metaphysics and psychology can be helpful. The goodness of the forms is transcendent and when, in human life, we brush up against them, for instance in the stunning experience of beauty, the experience can be shocking, anxious, disruptive. I want to say: let’s remain agnostic about the metaphysics—maybe we need the forms to explain the experience, maybe there are other ways to explain it—but take the psychology absolutely seriously. Roughly speaking, I am vulnerable to a kind of shocking, anxious, uncanny and erotic disruption with respect to my life as a teacher that is not open to me in my life as a baseball player. I don’t have the same kind of responsibility for the ultimate norms of its goodness. And the importance of irony (in the paradigm case I am trying to isolate)—the occasions when it can genuinely be valuable—is in these kinds of cases.
MacIntyre’s example of the teacher does not tell us enough to help us determine which kind of case it is. Although it might well be a case of serious development as a teacher, it might nevertheless fit the overall model of the baseball player, whereby the teacher sees a different social instantiation of the norms of teaching and decides to change her ways, perhaps radically, as a result. It is important not to caricature or diminish such a moment. It is one that can be incredibly important, ethically speaking. And it can occur more or less in a “world without irony,” as MacIntyre asks us to envisage. But it leaves out of account a crucial aspect of our life with norms: namely, for certain categories, though not all, we are vulnerable to an uncanny, anxious, would-be-directed, erotic longing that itself manifests our commitment to and responsibility for what the goodness of the whole way of being consists in. This is what the experience of irony consists in when it is occurring in a potentially valuable way.
In receiving an oracle, I am given an unfamiliar account of who I am and the drama unfolds as I uncannily gain a sense of familiarity, a sense that this is indeed who I am. (Oedipus is our paradigm). With the experience of irony the movement is in the reverse order: I start out with a familiar sense of who I am—say, I am a teacher—and as the irony unfolds the category itself becomes unfamiliar, uncanny, oracular, calling me to something to which I take myself already to be committed, but which has now also become as enigmatic as it is beckoning.
Let me spend another moment on the teacher in a world without irony to make the contrast clearer. It is important to allow this example to be as rich and complex as can be. So: we can imagine the teacher coming upon this alternative form of teaching and really being stunned and shaken by it. “Wow!” she might think. “I never realized teaching could be like that!” We can imagine her instantiating significant changes in how she teaches and how she lives. Still, when we try to think about what is happening to her, it seems that she is getting disrupted in her practical understanding of how to live in respect to an ideal. She suddenly recognized she has been going about teaching in the wrong sort of way. She now realizes a much better way is open to her that she had not realized before. Thus she reorients herself with respect to her telos. By contrast, in the experience of irony there is an uncanny, oracular dimension—not present in the non-ironic counterpart—in which the telos itself comes in for anxious questioning. In A Case for Irony I say that the experience of irony is like the experience of receiving an oracle, only in the reverse direction. In receiving an oracle, I am given an unfamiliar account of who I am and the drama unfolds as I uncannily gain a sense of familiarity, a sense that this is indeed who I am. (Oedipus is our paradigm). With the experience of irony the movement is in the reverse order: I start out with a familiar sense of who I am—say, I am a teacher—and as the irony unfolds the category itself becomes unfamiliar, uncanny, oracular, calling me to something to which I take myself already to be committed, but which has now also become as enigmatic as it is beckoning. A crucial aspect of our life with oracles is that they shake us up. Irony is one important manifestation in which the telos itself can undergo anxious questioning in a practical sort of a way.
Now one reason the possibility of irony is important, in Kierkegaard’s opinion (and mine), is that it holds open the possibility of disillusioning us with our illusions. Imagine that we are all (MacIntyre’s teacher included) living at the bottom of Plato’s Cave. I imagine that life here at the bottom of the Cave seems, for us inhabitants, to be a complex and fairly rich environment: in particular, it is one in which it is possible to have a conflicting social experience about how to teach well, make some shifts in how one is teaching, which one experiences as radical development, and yet still remain a denizen of the Cave. Part of the illusion of the Cave is that it allows for illusions of improvement and development. One value of irony, when it is working well, is that it opens up opportunities to pierce illusions. There is obviously much more that needs to be said about this, but at least this gives an indication of what would be missing in a world without irony.
It seems to me that about the most important issue Alasdair MacIntyre and I are in agreement, or very close to agreement. He says, “It is because and only insofar as irony serves the ends of truthfulness and humility that we need it.” Basically, I think he is right; but I want to sharpen the point a little. When an experience of irony is being deployed well, I want to say not merely that it serves truthfulness and humility, but that it itself is a manifestation of truthfulness and humility. This is the form truthfulness takes on this occasion; and thus a “world without irony” would be a world without this form of truthfulness as a human possibility. Thus I agree completely with MacIntyre when he says, “Without irony . . . some of us some of the time would not be shocked into truthfulness.”
But there are two other points I want to make about truthfulness. First, it seems to me that if we take truthfulness as the fundamental human value, we can see that humility, at least when properly deployed, is itself a manifestation of truthfulness and not some added on value. One cannot be truthful without some humility about one’s ability to understand the world one inhabits or to understand oneself as an enquirer into that world. So, in the deep sense of truthfulness, we do not need to say that “truthfulness by itself is insufficient”: the humility required is itself part of truth’s sufficiency. Second, there is an aspect of truthfulness that MacIntyre does not focus on in his comments: the fullness of truthfulness. When we think, for example, of the true cross or a true friend or a truly religious person, we are concerned not just with accuracy or faithfulness to norms, but with a fullness of being. When I think of my life-long friend Fred, for example, I realize not just that he has been a real friend to me over the decades, but that his friendship fills him up, as it were, expresses who he most genuinely is. Now if we take the fullness of truthfulness seriously, we can see another reason why the possibility of irony can be so important. When it is occurring in the right sort of way it fills one up with an anxious longing to figure out—in a practical sort of way—what the goodness of, say, teaching consists in. When deployed on the right occasion in the right sort of way, the truthfulness that is irony is a fullness of truth.
The value of irony, when it is deployed well, is that it opens up the possibility of hearing an internal call to goodness—the call of an ideal, the call to one’s better self—that might not be opened up in another way.
The value of irony, when it is deployed well, is that it opens up the possibility of hearing an internal call to goodness—the call of an ideal, the call to one’s better self—that might not be opened up in another way. I do not want to promote irony as a cure-all. Still, there are possibilities for experiencing critique as coming from inside oneself, as speaking oneself to one’s own most valued ideals that, I think, would not be available in a world without irony.
I would like to conclude with a particular kind of thank you to Alasdair MacIntyre. When I wrote A Case for Irony I was focused on Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard thought that the dominant social tradition in which he lived, Protestant Christendom, had become corrupt and that irony was an invaluable tool in shaking things up. But in thinking about Alasdair MacIntyre’s comments I realize irony can be used every bit as much to deepen and enrich a tradition as it can to disrupt and undo it. I discuss this very briefly at the end of the book when I discuss Socrates’ uncanny capacity to participate wholeheartedly in absolutely conventional acts of bravery when the occasion requires. But I have not thought nearly as much as I would like to about how irony might, on occasion, enliven our lives within a tradition. And I am so grateful to Alasdair MacIntyre for waking me up to this challenge.