Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Irony – Some Quick Thoughts on Method

The Concept of Irony is not recognized by Kierkegaard in his later work The Point of View on My Work as an Author.  Noteworthy, I think, is the fact that The Concept of Irony represents his first and last direct engagement with the academia.  Subsequent works were all published independently or jounralistically.  His writings had no backing or initiative from the academic institution.

While Kierkegaard received unanimous approval for his thesis it was not without qualification.  Nearly all critical comments were directed towards style and method. Kierkegaard himself notes this at several points and explicitly states in the conclusion of the first section how the whole treatise “departs somewhat from the now widespread and in so many ways meritorious scholarly method” (156).  What I take K to be referring to here is the subjective dialectic (or ironic method?) being employed.  K is trying to outline the Socratic as ironic but to do that he must wade through the mediated sources of Plato, Xenophon and Aristophanes.  This is no ‘Quest for the Historical Socrates’ (those scholars would have done well to read this).  Rather, Socrates is in some sense intuited by the misunderstandings of these three writers.  In a footnote K clarifies this mode,

Wherever, it is a matter of reconstructing a phenomenon by means of what could be a view in the stricter sense of the word, there is a double task: one must indeed explain the phenomenon and in so doing explain the misunderstanding, and through the misunderstanding one must attain the phenomenon and through the phenomenon break the spell of the misunderstanding (155).

This seems to me to be a healthy pre-Gadamer understanding of the situatedness of both the reader and the text.  And K presses forward pushing all scholarly boundaries by conceding that in all this he already had an ‘end’ in mind.

During this investigation, I have continually had something in mente [in mind], namely, the final view, without thereby laying myself open to the charge of a kind of intellectual Jesuitism or of having hidden, sought, and then found what I myself had found long ago.  The final view has hovered over each exploration simply as a possibility.  Every conclusion has been the unity of a reciprocity: it has felt itself drawn to what was supposed to explain and what it is supposed to explain drawn to it.  In a certain sense it has come into existence by means of reflecting, although in another sense it existed prior to it.  But this can scarcely be otherwise, since the whole is prior to its parts. . . . If I had posed the final view first of all and in each particular portion had assigned each of these three considerations its place, then I would easily have lost the element of contemplation, which is always important but here doubly so, because by no other way, not be immediate observation, can I gain the phenomenon (156). [emphasis mine]

This is not a simple admission that K found what he was looking for . . . eisegesis as the biblical scholars like to accuse.  Rather this seems at first to be a negative dialectic.  Perhaps it is already K’s attempt at Socratic irony.  However in the next part K says that he will shift methodology now incorporating ‘historical facts’ which he will treat in their ‘inviolate innocence.’  We’ll see where that goes . . .


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