Kierkegaard on Romantic Irony

A little more on Romantic Irony, this time focusing on Kierkegaard’s interest and use in the romantics’ aesthetic pose — K’s dissertation was “On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates.” He adopts Hegel’s notion that irony is “infinite absolute negativity.”

To recap from last time, this means that the ironic subject, if truly dedicated to irony, must negate, diminish, parody — must treat ironically — everything. But this is not the same as thoroughgoing skepticism.

According to K, doubt wants to know the truth of what’s going on, but cannot settle on one; Irony wants to deny the reality of what’s going on outside of itself: it’s all just more ridiculous nonsense:

K says irony is “subjectivity’s being-for-itself.” For him, irony is not just a negative attitude to be dispensed with, it’s actually close to the essence of subjectivity itself, it’s the subject discovering its own powers, discovering its “negative independence of everything.”

In the “Concept,” he says Irony as “infinite and absolute negativity is the lightest and weakest indication of subjectivity.” The subject becomes acquainted with itself, in a low stage, with irony, it becomes “free.” But his own vanity is not overcome.

The ironist, this free spirit that K describes lives his life artistically, but since objective reality can have no ultimate significance for him, only his own moods are of interest and are the focus of his life. He is carried on by whim, the only standard is aesthetic.

Eventually mood itself becomes the object of his ironic distance, and he becomes “paralyzed”; eventually he can only relate to his moods ironically. He flits from position to position, topic to topic. This kind of romantic is a familiar figure in modern life.

K says that irony in this extreme form is *almost* like religious devotion, because it sees the vanity of the world but since it can’t deny its own vanity, doesn’t quite make it there.

Still, K does not condemn irony. In fact, without it “no genuinely human life is possible”, he thinks it can be “controlled,” and where it becomes an indispensable part of having an inner life.

K believes that the objectivity of the scientific worldview dominates modern life leads to an imbalance, irony helps us to balance the books, and discover our own subjectivity, it is the “way, but not the truth.”

Finally, Kierkegaard, like Hegel, concludes the humor is superior to irony, because it has a more fully formed religious dimension. Although most Kierkegaard scholarship thinks he revised his views significantly after “Concept,” it seems like it’s the foundation of his later work.