FeatureIn DepthReviews

Prophets of Irony: a Discussion with Richard J. Bernstein

Richard J. Bernstein, Ironic Life (Cambridge UK: Polity Press, 2016), pp. 184, $64.95 hardcover, $22.95 paperback.


There is a certain irony about contemporary attitudes toward irony.  According to the late novelist David Foster Wallace, our culture is steeped in the ironic reluctance to commit to ideals and thus embrace moral seriousness. For Wallace, contemporary American irony is at odds with the ethical requirement of the artist to explore and advocate better ways to see, understand, and live. While it casts a cold glance of suspicion on cant and bullshit, contemporary irony ultimately collapses into a craven cynicism that brooks no cultural challenges. Postmodern ironists are proficient in unmasking the pretenses of the shrinking population of true believers, but fail to see how they undermine themselves:

Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny. It [uses] the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself. (“E Unibus Pluram” in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again)

The irony in Wallace’s screed lies in his ironic confusion of irony with cynicism and indifference. Irony can lead to a detached, uncommitted mode of living, of self-satisfied hipsters who substitute artificial knowingness for sincerity or authenticity. But irony does not necessarily lead to apathetic lethargy about existential values. The best counterexample to Wallace’s critique of pure irony is the figure of Socrates. For although Socrates professed a deep ignorance he also displayed a higher wisdom: the ability to combine self-doubt with self-assurance, acknowledging the fragility of his convictions without diluting or disowning them. For Socrates, irony was an engaged way of life: a delicate balance between the search for truth and goodness and a mistrust that one has actually attained them. Living the apparent tension between knowledge and ignorance cost Socrates his life, it transfigured his life into one that was genuinely his own, the only sort of life he understood to be worth living. Ironic, isn’t it?

Socrates is one of the foci of Richard J. Bernstein’s new book Ironic Life, in which he endeavors to build a case for irony as a central virtue in a life worth living. In Ironic Life Bernstein characteristically develops his philosophical defense of irony by way of exposition and critical commentary on the work of other philosophers, in this case Jonathan Lear, Richard Rorty, Gregory Vlastos, Alexander Nehamas, and Sören Kierkegaard. Each of these philosophers has gone against the grain of institutionalized academic philosophy by taking irony to be more than just a figure of speech – indeed, something of tremendous philosophical importance. Each has their own take on irony as an element in human life, which Bernstein describes, explains, and deftly criticizes. The result is an Aufhebung of each of their views into a rich account of the difficulty and importance of living an ironic life.

I interviewed Prof. Bernstein in September 2016 in his offices at The New School for Social Research.



Quirk: Ironic Life: What inspired you to write this book? Your book was not quite what I expected, but I liked the way in which you brought all the figures in the book into dialogue with each other.

Bernstein: Well, I can tell you exactly how the book came about. I read Jonathan Lear’s book on irony, A Case for Irony, and I found it provocative. I mean it was provocative in several senses. I thought it was an extremely interesting way of dealing with irony. At the same time I thought that there was something desperately wrong with some of the points he was making, and I was also annoyed about the way he was so dismissive of Richard Rorty’s work on irony. He caricatured Rorty. So, initially, I set out to write an analysis and a critique of Lear, and that provided the occasion for me to go much more extensively into Rorty, because I think that there are aspects of Rorty’s conception of irony that many people grasp very superficially. Lear is concerned with the major figures of Kierkegaard and Socrates in developing his views on irony. So I had read a great deal about irony and I really came to feel it was just overwhelming. The term can be used to mean almost all things to all people. So it was a very conscious attempt to write a focused description of irony on the themes Rorty and Lear were bringing up, and to relate it to Kierkegaard and Socrates. I can add one more thing: it was only at the end of writing the book that I really came to realize that what I was really writing about, because in terms of the “conventional” sense of irony, I am not an ironist. But it was a realization that insofar as one is thinking of irony as a way of living one’s life in a mode that emulates some of what Socrates or Kierkegaard is saying about irony, then I realized that it connects up with a theme that I was interested in for a long time — that is, the connection of philosophy with practical wisdom.

Q: One of the things that grabbed me about your discussion of Lear was the rather extreme claim he was making. He understands irony to be a radical experience of “uncanniness” or “disruption” or “vertigo” that occurs when you come to see your “practical identity” to be possibly pointless or groundless. To use his example: say you are a teacher, and one dedicated to the practice of teaching and to teaching well. You might wonder whether aspects of this practice can be improved or reformed, but you might have an experience that calls the whole practice into question, and with it, your practical identity. This is what it means to experience and live ironically – the same kind of experience that Kierkegaard recounts when he asks “in all of Christendom is there a single Christian?”, or Socrates when he wonders whether anyone truly knows anything, or whether anyone who claims justice is actually just. Lear contends that this construal of irony as existential “vertigo”, as a radical experience of “uncanniness” that throws your practices and practical identities radically into question, is an essential element in living a truly human life. If you do not experience such existential vertigo, then you are missing something about being a human being.  I am always very suspicious, as I think you are, of someone who bandies about the terms “all” and “always”. There are plenty of people I have known in my life whom I would classify as wonderfully good – successful at being human beings – who never had such crises of meaning, and thus were not ironic in his sense at all. Are their lives any less admirable, any less excellent, for all that?

B: I would agree with you. And that’s why quite deliberately, I did not call this book THE Ironic Life – I just called it Ironic Life. And it clearly is one of the things I am calling Lear on. He talks – you can take it as rhetorical, but I find it offensive – of the “real meaning of irony”. In fact I drew a contrast with Rorty, who does not make any of these essentialist claims about irony. So I am very critical of that aspect of Lear’s claims.

Q: As sort of an aside to all this: prior to reading your book I decided to read the famous essay by the late novelist David Foster Wallace, who claims our culture is drowning in its irony, that no one is earnest about values or commitments anymore, and I closed the book, scratched my head and thought “well, this is fine, but Wallace is confusing Irony with cynicism.”

B: Yes. I had read David Foster Wallace on Irony, and I know what kind of popular appeal he has, and I can see the point he is trying to make about contemporary culture, but it also misses the most important point about irony, its relation to practical wisdom.

Q: I think Rorty is a good counterexample to Wallace’s take on irony, and also Lear’s. I think Rorty has a very idiosyncratic idea of what irony is (at least no more idiosyncratic than Wallace’s). He views irony as a willingness to have radical and continuing doubts about what Lear calls “practical identities”, and Rorty himself calls “Final Vocabularies.” But you can’t doubt that Rorty was extremely morally serious.

B: I agree, entirely. As you know a theme in the book is that irony is a way of becoming serious, and isn’t just a rhetorical trope.

Q: Let’s talk a bit about Lear’s conception of irony as a “radical displacement” of self, and not just concerning not just the way you live your self-defining practices, but about the value of the practices themselves. His was an interesting description of that kind of experience, but I would like to hear your take on it.

B: Well there are two points I’d like to make. First, there is a core truth to Lear’s account of irony that I really wanted to preserve. There is something significant when he makes the point we can always be critical without being ironical. He says ironical experience is like vertigo – you ask yourself, in a radical way, what is going on, what are you doing with the practice. Second, Rorty is a perfect example of that. He really did go through an existential crisis in the 1970s, asking himself “what are we doing in the Philosophical profession? Is that really Philosophy?”

Q: I remember the fallout in the American Philosophical Association, regarding his Eastern Division Presidential address…..”A World Well Lost” I believe…..

B: Well it was before that, actually. It was building up, and culminated in his whole decision to leave Princeton… People do go through existential crises, of that particular sort. I also think another point I would want to preserve from Lear, and I think he’s right, is that in an ironic life there’s still an attachment to the practice you’re questioning, to the ideal norm that’s supposed to be acknowledged. You’re not saying “well, this teaching, it’s just awful and I’m going to give the whole thing up.” The core question is: What is it to BE a good teacher? So THAT’s right. As you know, in my book I think that there is enormous slippage in his discussion of that. And I am very critical of him on irony-as-a-radical-existential-crisis, because he thinks that that is the same thing as being an excellent human being. That is a non sequitur.

Q: Yeah, I think it can go either way: coming out the other side of that kind of existential crisis can either make you or break you….

B: I don’t know if you remember, but I drew an analogy with The Sopranos in the book. There is a way in which Tony Soprano goes through an existential crisis on what it means to be a good mobster. He is still a “bad” human being. So in some ways what I was trying to do in all of this was trying to extract what I thought was insightful in Lear and to reject what I thought was wrong.

Q: I especially liked the section in Ironic Life on Rorty. I have always thought that people liked to “beat up” on Rorty. But there is always one thing that bothered me about Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, and his notion of “Final Vocabulary”, the set of words that define what is most important to you and hence, what and who you are. I have a problem with Rorty’s movement from the idea that you cannot rationally ground or argue for the Final Vocabulary that you not only choose to adopt but choose to keep, to the idea that you should always be in doubt about that Final Vocabulary. It is almost as if for Rorty your Final Vocabulary just falls from the sky! He uses the Phillip Larkin poem about the “blind impress” of experience or fate – the notion that our deepest, self-defining convictions just happen to us, through genes or environment, and we just have to take them as they are and as they come. Maybe that’s true some of the time for some people, but I’m not sure whether what Rorty means by “Final Vocabulary” actually works like that necessarily. He is right in saying there is a kind of irony at work in Final Vocabularies, but elsewhere you speak of the dichotomy that Rorty falls into between argument and redescription, and that dichotomy gets him into trouble.

B: Well you know, I’m pretty critical of Rorty on that particular issue. I mean, I think there is something right about Rorty’s enormous skepticism about foundationalism and an ultimate ground for our convictions, for our Final Vocabularies. I think he is also right — it is a Nietzschean point! — that we are constantly talking as if we could do this: rationally justify our fundamental convictions. He makes the valid point about there is no non-circular thinking about Final Vocabularies — that you always presuppose something, so Final Vocabularies can never be absolutely validated.

Q: Right.

B: Think of the changing meanings of “rational,” of what it means to be rational through the history of philosophy. That is what I think is right about Rortyan irony, but what I think is deeply wrong is that Rorty is caricaturing argument, which we often employ when discussing Final Vocabularies. I mean, serious philosophical argument is never like that of the foundationalist, and therefore Rorty strikes me as off the mark. When you really argue about something you call something into question. You can appeal to something else or to another aspect, or to the web of belief and then … Rorty at times comes close to this view about philosophical argument, But then he still wants to use what I think is a misleading dichotomy between re-description and argument, and wants you to believe he is not really arguing about things but redescribing things.

Q: Well, there is redescription a la Nietzsche and redescription a la Wittgenstein, one designed to promote suspicion and doubt and another to make skepticism pointless. Rorty’s redescription seems to oscillate between these two kinds or redescription, and they seem to be geared towards different ends.

B: Rorty is always arguing. He is always arguing when he redescribes. His book, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity — you might consider it to be filled with bad arguments, but they are arguments nonetheless. If you make claims that “there is no essence of the self”, “there is no essence of language”, that “only language can be true” — all of those claims, you are not just saying them, you are arguing for them. You are trying to give reasons and so forth, whatever you want to call it.

Q: It is almost as if in some of his moods Rorty wants to construe argument the way Charles Sanders Peirce did, using the metaphor of the cable, what you called “horizontal argument”, and then other times Rorty is saying that, well that this sort of cumulative, piecemeal argument is not really argument, that only a Cartesian kind of formal proof, “vertical argument”, is the real thing.

B: Well I think there are some ways in which Rorty would disagree of course, but I think that your contrast is not unhelpful. I think that in a way when Rorty speaks about argument, as opposed to redescription, it is always as if the model behind it is what Cartesianism is supposed to be. Something that you can’t possibly doubt and which is the ground and on the basis of which you can then achieve certainty and finality. I mean, philosophers are always talking that way, so there is something right about Rorty’s being skeptical. The rhetoric makes it just sound as if convictions are up for grabs, and that I think that is not the case.

Q: Somewhere you characterized Rorty as sort of a victim of “the god that failed.” In other words, he was once a die-hard foundationalist Philosopher, later loses his faith, and then goes overboard trying to compensate by giving up on philosophy altogether.

B: I did that in another essay on Rorty and I think that is the case. I mean Rorty has done great work… I am a great fan of him, but I am also a great critic of him, and he has introduced a whole set of facile distinctions, whether it be systematic/edifying, private/public, argument/description, which, if you think them through, don’t hold water.

Q: They are not dichotomies the way he makes them out to be.

B: Right.

Q: One thing that I do find very attractive about Rorty’s conception of irony is that he doesn’t fall into the trap that you either have to fall on the side of the liberals or on the side of the ironists; the false choice that you either have to side with Heidegger and Nietzsche on the one hand or Rawls and Dewey on the other.

B: Well, although I don’t really take up that theme so much in my discussion, there I am a little bit more critical of Rorty. More critical because I don’t think that there are the good guys, who are the liberals, and the only trouble with people like Rawls and Habermas is that they have to be “liberal metaphysicians” or foundationalists, and Rorty says we can’t be, so we need to be “liberal ironists”. . .

Q: Right.

B: Because Rorty thinks the way you need to read edifying philosophers like Heidegger and Derrida is like the way you read Proust. As pure ironists. That to me is also a bit facile.

Q: Agreed. You can’t leave out the scary parts of Heidegger as if he were a pure ironist and claim to be reading him seriously.

B: Well let’s take a different issue, I mean you don’t have to be a Derridian to begin to see that I think from his earliest work Derrida has been very much concerned with ethical issues.

Q: Yes.

B: Derrida is very concerned with issues of response and responsibility, whatever you feel about his conclusions, But to say, as Rorty suggests, “throw that out and just listen to him as a pure ironist, in terms of what he can pun and joke” is a bit flippant.

Q: Moving on, you have the section where you talk about two scholars of Socrates, as he appears in Plato’s works: Gregory Vlastos and Alexander Nehamas. I did my dissertation on Plato’s later dialogues. Vlastos was one of the key figures of my argument and I always thought that he had this kind of flat footed and rather un-ironic take on the historical Socrates. He felt his job was to find out, much like the 19th century quest for the historical Jesus, just who is the historical Socrates, and he believed he found the historical Socrates in Plato’s early dialogues, but not his middle- and late-period dialogues.

B: Yes, that’s absolutely right.

Q: I think that’s a hopeless task. That said, one thing about Vlastos’s work on Socrates that struck me as a decent insight, although not a complete one, was the notion of Socratic irony as ”complex irony.”

B: Well, I would say yes and no. Because there is a way in which you can trivialize the notion of complex irony. Of course Vlastos really wants to deal with difficult issues in Plato and in the dialogues concerning the sense in which Socrates is a teacher, the sense in which Socrates is not a teacher, in what sense Socrates has wisdom, what sense Socrates doesn’t, but nonetheless I think that the definition Vlastos gives of complex irony tends to trivialize it. What fascinated me is that Vlastos sees, or he wants to claim, when he is making the distinction between the Greek eironia and what irony became in Socrates, that there is a radical transformation in irony, that being “ironic” is not just a matter of deceiving, as the original meaning of eironia suggests. Okay? Vlastos says, and that is what really I focused on, that Socrates “created a new form of life.” But he doesn’t really, in my opinion, explicate that, and that is why it seems to me that you can have this very interesting play between the teacher and the student, because it strikes me that what Alexander Nehamas, in his critique of his teacher Vlastos, is trying to do is to give some texture to the form of life that Socrates presumably created.

Q: Yeah. I mean the thing about Nehamas’s view that struck me is that he complicates complex irony.

B: Well if you want to put it that way, yeah okay.

Q: He sort of throws it back in the reader’s lap, which I always thought was something that a lot of people didn’t appreciate in Plato. For example, you read Plato’s Euthyphro and your first reaction is, my lord, what a buffoon Euthyphro is! But Nehamas’s point, according to you, is that then he throws it back at you, the reader, as if to say, “well, are you any better than he is? Any less ignorant? Any less self-deceived about the extent and accuracy of your knowledge? Any less vulnerable to Socrates and his questions?”

B: That is right. I mean in this respect I’m very sympathetic with, not always the details, but the general approach by Nehamas to the Platonic dialogues, which is that part of the justification of the dialog form is to get you to enter into the dialogue. If you stand there as a spectator you know that ”Of course Socrates is right!”, without really being able to answer why he is right. Can you answer the question any better than Euthyphro about “what is piety?”

Q: I’ve always found Plato to be a very … Not just challenging but clever writer in that he plants these little land mines in the dialogues that are designed to explode your preconceptions about where the dialogue is heading. For example, in The Republic Socrates makes the case that being just is not merely an instrumental virtue, that there is something inherently good in being just. Then the argument plods along and you get to the “noble lie” business. Then you sort of scratch your head and say, “Plato is playing games with us here: if a noble lie is necessary for the just cause of a good polis, how can you square that with Socrates’ earlier account of dikaiosune as inherently and unconditionally valuable?”, and you really can’t, but Plato’s Socrates doesn’t answer the question either.

B: I think, in Ironic Life, that I radicalize your point. I think that most of the dialogues, if you read them extremely closely, are filled with perplexities and paradoxes. There is no way to get a smooth doctrine out of any of these things, and if we take seriously some of the things that Plato does say about dialectic, dialectic is really that form of complexity which is a kind of provocation for you to think.

Q: Yeah.

B: I ended with that section of Ironic Life with a brief discussion about Hannah Arendt, and I think in this respect that she is very insightful about at least the portrayal of Socrates: how Socrates, or at least the Socrates that Plato is presenting for us, infects us with his complexities.

Q: So the complexity of Socratic irony and of being ironic in a Socratic way is illustrated by, say, the fact that while you still don’t know what justice is at the end of The Republic, you are in a better place after having read it then you were before.

B: Well you are in a better place but you also see the problems and the difficulties that you yourself have to face. That you see these difficulties is very much involved with the theme that I wanted to stress. I mean, a related theme that I am explicit about at the end of the book is that I am distressed by the professionalization of philosophy and the objectification and the loss of any sense of wisdom, and wisdom does involve for me at some point a kind of radical questioning.

Q: Yes.

B: That is why you see that theme or radical questioning going all the way back to Lear, and is clearly dominant in Kierkegaard’s kind of radical questioning, which goes so far as to say that Socrates is really just negative, we don’t learn anything, which is a way I think of emphasizing the kind of deep questioning which I think is necessary in order to come to some type of wisdom.

Q: This gives us a nice segue into Kierkegaard. I’ve always been very ambivalent toward him. On the one hand you are right: Kierkegaard has constantly got Hegel in his sights, but I think it is also a mistake to read his take on Hegel as being a hundred percent negative. Kierkegaard said somewhere that if Hegel were to say that his philosophy of the absolute was all just a thought experiment, he would be the greatest thinker who ever lived. . .

B: Rorty says that. Rorty quotes that in Kierkegaard, but if you look at the scholarship now, I think it is clear that Kierkegaard’s relationship to Hegel was complex. Particularly if you go into the early work of The Concept of Irony, you see how much Hegel there is there. You cannot really … I mean the view that this is simply just an ironical attack on Hegel is itself simplistic.

Q: Well, I’ve always thought that there was something basically Hegelian about, say, Either/Or but overall …

B: Well also I think Hegelianism is there if you go all the way back to The Concept of Irony. What I wanted to do with Kierkegaard is to show how much you can grasp in terms of his view of irony without getting into all the religious and Christian themes. As you know, I bracket that sort of religious discussion in the book, even though I don’t think it is bracketed at all for him, because I wanted to show how insightful he is about questioning and self-questioning.

Q: Do you think that his task of making it clear what becoming a Christian is, ultimately pushes him in the direction of saying irony is important but it can be deadly if you stay there?

B: Well that is clear. That is, I mean we don’t even need “the religious” for that, but I think that if you take the book, The Concept of Irony, the first part of that book, the major part, is a very detailed discussion on the Platonic dialogues in which he is stressing the point about Socratic negativity. But the second part is really dealing with criticizing the romantics. The criticism of Schlegel and romanticism is very compatible with Hegel’s criticism of Romanticism. That is what I think leads into Either/Or. I mean Either/Or is in some ways, among other things, a parody of romantic conceptions of irony.

Q: Still, the thing that always sticks in my craw with Kierkegaard is, you know, that if all you are left with is negative dialectics, he seems to be saying, well then, the only thing left to do is come to Jesus.

B: I think we need a few steps before that. In Kierkegaard you see, there are times in which he will speak about “the ethical” as if the ethical is itself religious, but there are other times that he really wants to distinguish them, and I think what I want to take from Kierkegaard is the stage where you move from this kind of radical irony to a kind of passionate commitment that I think corresponds to the motif I stress in my reading of Kierkegaard.

Q: Right.

B: That’s what I’m really trying to develop in the book. That is why for me it took a lot of work to come to my interpretation of Kierkegaard and this is why I think that there really is a change in Kierkegaard from his Concept of Irony to the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, because I think if I were going to use your term “negative dialectics” (but Kierkegaard doesn’t quite use it), that Kierkegaard comes to realize that negative dialectics, carried to its extreme, doesn’t leave you anyplace. There has got to be a further move, so when Johannes Climacus criticizes Kierkegaard on this, I think his is also the voice of Kierkegaard himself.

Q: What do you think Kierkegaard would have thought of Adorno, I wonder, with his steady commitment to “negative dialectics”?

B: Well I think that Adorno’s reading of Kierkegaard is really unfortunate, myself. Trying to do justice to Kierkegaard is an interesting and very complicated project.

Q: Well, I am still struggling. . .

B: There is certainly what I would call a common, standard interpretation of Kierkegaard that is just wrong. I mean the interpretation that  you start with the aesthetic, you see the despair, and that leads you to the ethical, then the ethical doesn’t work, finally that leads you to religious and then ultimately to conversion. I mean that is just … That is a very Hegelian reading of Kierkegaard, which is very popular but, I think, very un-Kierkegaardian.

Q: You’ve written a lot on Pragmatism. How would you connect irony as it has been understood by Socrates, Kierkegaard and other people with the pragmatic project that you endorse and extend?

B: Yeah, I mean there is no easy way of doing this. But let’s take, for example, the strand of Pragmatism that we do find in James and Dewey that, in a way that they want to in a contemporary, democratic form, recover the sense of what I’m calling practical wisdom, that to use a kind of pragmatic term, the “ultimate payoff” of philosophy is in the way how it helps us to live our lives. That is a theme that is there with Plato, with Socrates, and I end the book with a quote from The Republic on this motif. I think the way I put it at the end, you know, and you would know this from other work. I don’t want to denigrate what could be called the “theoretical” approach in philosophy — getting something right, getting something straight. But I do want to keep alive the tradition which I think is there in ancient philosophy and according to some people is what ancient philosophy was all about, which is “how to live”.

Q: Socrates’ “Life worth living. . .”

B: That is the strand of philosophy which I think I am concerned to keep alive in a contemporary context, and which I think is in a deep accord with Pragmatism.

Q: Thank you very much, Professor Bernstein.



Also for you:

Michael Quirk

Previous post

Punk Preempts the Post-Popstar Age

Next post

A Tale of Freud, Women's Bodies and Male Dread