In preparing for class this week, I reviewed Rousseau’s Discourse on Origin of Inequality, otherwise known as the Second Discourse. For the first time, I have chosen to teach the Dedication to my students, as it gives a nice overview of the basic principles Rousseau thinks define a well-governed society. What is not immediately obvious, but becomes so especially towards the end, is just how over the top the Dedication is. Rousseau’s praise for Geneva is so effervescent that many have said it was written ironically, as a way of criticizing Geneva’s leadership. Patrick Coleman, in the introduction to a copy of the text put out by Oxford University Press, says “So hyperbolic are the terms of the epistle that one wonders whether Rousseau was deluding himself or being ironic.” Similarly, the translator of the copy of the text I am using writes in a footnote “The description of the government of Geneva is largely false, and an example of Rousseau’s frequent tactics of duplicity.”
Though following the publication of the Discourse Geneva’s rulers were not immediately shamed into acting better, irony nevertheless has its uses. It has been deployed throughout history to encourage critique, challenge power, and motivate action. Irony does not apply only to the injustice of one’s age (Rousseau’s intended target), but to the entire human condition (Greek tragedy, for instance, makes great use of dramatic irony). And there is no single stopping point that irony draws us toward, but rather a continual searching for something new. As Kierkegaard puts it in On the Concept of Irony, “[Socratic] irony established nothing, because that which is to be established lies behind it…”
Curious what philosophers have said about the concept of irony, I discovered the following papers. They focus on the way in which irony upsets conventional notions of understanding, and how it connects to politics, aesthetics, and epistemology.
- Stephen Barker and Mihaela Popa-Wyatt, “Irony and the dogma of force and sense,” Analysis, January 2015.
- Lore Hühn, “Irony and Dialectic: On a Critique of Romanticism in Kierkegaard and Hegel’s Philosophy,” MLN, December 2013.
- Roel Goor, “The fruits of irony: gaining insight into how we make meaning of the world,” Studies in Philosophy & Education, November 2006.
- Bjørn Torgrim Ramberg, “Irony’s Commitment: Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity,” European Legacy, March 2014.
- Edmond Reiss, “Medieval Irony,” Journal of the History of Ideas, April 1981.
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