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On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates

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On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates (Danish: Om Begrebet Ironi med stadigt Hensyn til Socrates) is Søren Kierkegaard's 1841 university thesis paper. This thesis is the culmination of three years of extensive study on Socrates, as seen from the writings of Xenophon, Aristophanes, and Plato.[1]

His thesis dealt with irony, and in particular, socratic irony. In Part One, Kierkegaard regards Aristophanes' portrayal of Socrates, in Aristophanes' The Clouds to be the most accurate representation of the man. Whereas Xenophon and Plato portrayed Socrates seriously, Kierkegaard felt that Aristophanes best understood the intricacies of socratic irony.

In the shorter Part Two of the dissertation, Kierkegaard compares Socratic irony with contemporary interpretations of irony. Here he offers analysis of contemporary German Romantic writers and philosophers including Fichte, Hegel and especially Schlegel. It is from an early exposure to these writers, and later to the writings of Johan Ludvig Heiberg, that prompted Kierkegaard to write this as a scholarly history. Joakim Garff, Kierkegaard's biographer, traces some of the thoughts leading up to the dissertation: he notes that in September 1837, Kierkegaard had considered writing a thesis on "The Concept of Satire", and noted in July 1839 that he might "desire to write a dissertation on suicide". On July 6, 1837, Kierkegaard described a relationship between Socratic irony and Christian humor based on a conversation with Poul Martin Møller who himself had written a five-page article in 1835 called "On the Concept of Irony" (which wasn't published until 1842).[2]

Although presented as an academic work, Kierkegaard's readers complained that the style of the work did not meet traditional standards of the day for academic work. For one thing, Kierkegaard had written it in Danish rather than Latin, for which he had to apply to the King for permission.[3] Kierkegaard noted later that he had great difficulty in playing the impartial scholar, as exhibited in a remark Kierkegaard made in Part One:

I have now finihsed presenting my conception of Socrates as he is exhibited in Xenophon's peepshow, and in conclusion I will ask only that the readers, if they have been bored, not place the blame on me alone.[4]

This understanding of irony informs Kierkegaard's later work under the 'Johannes Climacus' pseudonym – specifically the Philosophical Fragments and the Concluding Unscientific Postscript – the former of which compares the approach of Socrates (which combines irony with the so-called maieutic method) with that of Jesus Christ. In the Historical Introduction to the Princeton edition of Philosophical Fragments, Hong and Hong give a clear example of Socratic irony in use in the Postscript which they paraphrase as:

indeed, in the best of all centuries, with everything made easier and easier, he [Climacus] decides there is nothing for him to do except to make things more difficult[5]

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  1. Julia Watkin, Kierkegaard, Outstanding Christian Thinkers Series, London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1997, p. 13.
  2. Joakim Garff, Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography, Princeton University Press 2005, p. 193.
  3. Joakim Garff, Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography, Princeton University Press 2005, p. 193-194.
  4. In Garff, p. 195.
  5. Hong and Hong, Historical Introduction, Kierkegaard's Writings VII: Philosophical Fragments and Johannes Climacus, p. xxii.