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A Case for Irony
Jonathan Lear
Harvard University Press / Softcover / 2014-10-01 / 0674416880
price: $32.95 (may be subject to change)
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In 2001, Vanity Fair declared that the Age of Irony was over. Joan Didion has lamented that the United States in the era of Barack Obama has become an “irony-free zone.” Jonathan Lear in his 2006 book Radical Hope looked into America’s heart to ask how might we dispose ourselves if we came to feel our way of life was coming to an end. Here, he mobilizes a squad of philosophers and a psychoanalyst to once again forge a radical way forward, by arguing that no genuinely human life is possible without irony.

Becoming human should not be taken for granted, Lear writes. It is something we accomplish, something we get the hang of, and like Kierkegaard and Plato, Lear claims that irony is one of the essential tools we use to do this. For Lear and the participants in his Socratic dialogue, irony is not about being cool and detached like a player in a Woody Allen film. That, as Johannes Climacus, one of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous authors, puts it, “is something only assistant professors assume.” Instead, it is a renewed commitment to living seriously, to experiencing every disruption that shakes us out of our habitual ways of tuning out of life, with all its vicissitudes. While many over the centuries have argued differently, Lear claims that our feelings and desires tend toward order, a structure that irony shakes us into seeing. Lear’s exchanges with his interlocutors strengthen his claims, while his experiences as a practicing psychoanalyst bring an emotionally gripping dimension to what is at stake—the psychic costs and benefits of living with irony.


“Lear’s book provides intellectual pleasure of a very high order: its distinctions are careful, its prose lucid and elegant, and its examples suggestive and well chosen… You should read this book.”—Paul J. Griffiths, Commonweal

“Lear performs a valuable service. He shows us just how far the contemporary usage of irony diverges from an older, far more appealing meaning, according to which irony is a portal to self-knowledge.”—Andrew Stark, The Wall Street Journal

“Before we can claim to live a truly examined life, says Jonathan Lear, we need to pass the test of ironic self-scrutiny at something approaching the level set by Socrates and Kierkegaard. Following the contours of the subtle case for radical irony Lear makes turns out to be an intellectual adventure in its own right.”—J.M. Coetzee

“Jonathan Lear’s re-reading of the significance of irony for getting the hang of a genuinely human existence is an unheimlich maneuver that brings religion and psychoanalysis into productive conversation with philosophy, and induces characteristically sharp and creative responses from his interlocutors: an exemplary instance of the virtues of the Tanner Lectures format.”—Stephen Mulhall, University of Oxford


Part One: The Lectures
1. To Become Human Does Not Come That Easily
2. Ironic Soul
Part Two: Commentary
3. Self-Constitution and Irony by Christine M. Korsgaard
4. Irony, Reflection, and Psychic Unity: A Response to Christine M. Korsgaard
5. Psychoanalysis and the Limits of Reflection by Richard Moran
6. The Immanence of Irony and the Efficacy of Fantasy: A Response to Richard Moran
7. Thoughts about Irony and Identity by Cora Diamond
8. Flight from Irony: A Response to Cora Diamond
9. On the Observing Ego and the Experiencing Ego by Robert A. Paul
10. Observing Ego and Social Voice: A Response to Robert A. Paul

About the Author:

Jonathan Lear is John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago.

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