4 Kinds of Irony and Nietzsche. An Excerpt From My Dissertation

In this excerpt from my doctoral dissertation On Deriving and Defending an Axiology of the Will to Power, I explored four distinct kinds of irony and explained how understanding them is key to interpreting Nietzsche.

Chapter 1, Section 7: Highlighting Historical and Formal Ironies Through Performative Use of Communicative Irony

Thus far, we have seen how Nietzsche thinks a strong coherent philosophy reflects a strong philosopher’s personal ability to order his world honestly and intelligibly and that he himself has such a strong philosophy reflecting such a strong will.  But does he actually have such a coherent philosophy?  Numerous prima facie contradictions in his texts make many suspect his philosophy is not in fact so cohesive.  But where many read Nietzsche as either willfully or accidentally self-contradictory, I read a great ironist who both points out ironies and communicates them ironically.

There are four kinds of ironies throughout Nietzsche’s texts.  The first two kinds of ironies I explicate are “formal” or “deconstructive” irony on the one hand and “historical” or “contingent” irony, on the other.  These ironies stem from dialectical tensions within the natures of concepts and circumstances.  When we refer to ironies, both philosophically and even ordinarily, ideally we are not simply registering our personal surprise at the unexpected but referring to something conceptually or experientially peculiar.  Distinguishable from these objectively observable, “naturally occurring” ironies, are ironic modes of discourse or behavior through which someone acts, speaks, or writes in a manner that is ironic in order to highlight a formal or historical ironic peculiarity or absurdity for others.

We recognize “formal” or “deconstructive” ironies when we find that through thinking out all the implications of a concept carefully we start to discover the concept’s own self-contradictory, but nonetheless logical, entailments.  Examples of this dynamic are present throughout Derrida’s writings and can paradigmatically be illustrated using his treatment of the concept of “the Gift”[1].  In order to completely fulfill the ideal of Gift-giving, which would involve distinguishing true Gifts entirely from reciprocal economic exchanges, we must both expect nothing in return for our gifts and actually get nothing in return for them in fact.  Gifts, ideally understood, must be utterly distinct from trades among reciprocating partners for benefits of comparable value.  So when we imagine the most ideal Gift we must devise a case of gift-giving with absolutely no reciprocated benefit to the giver.  The slightest bit of transaction, not just exchange for money but for other gifts, or for the simple pleasure of knowing one has given a gift, or, even, the intangible benefits of strengthened friendship, would make a particular act of giving not one of “gift-giving” according to the ideal of Gift-giving as most strictly, purely, and logically defined.  Any material or psychological benefits to the gift giver would formally make for an economic exchange, out of the realm of true Gift giving.

The absurd conclusion that Derrida sees this leading to is that the scenario which best exemplifies the Gift is one in which a person unwittingly drops money and another happens to find it, without the dropper ever discovering what happened.  In this case, the “giver” receives nothing whatsoever—no compensatory goods, relational benefits, or psychological satisfactions.  She receives no delight in feeling herself an altruist who has given for “nothing” in return, there is no strengthened friendship as compensation, no pleasure in the other’s delight as reward, etc.  What is ironic and absurd about this conclusion is that the gift which most purely fits our formal ideal of Gift-giving is nothing like the transactions in our world which we call gift-giving—transactions that are inherently social, inherently voluntary, and inherently connected with other such features which are completely absent when one accidentally drops money and another finds it.

I call this tension within a concept itself a formal or deconstructive irony and we can recognize it whenever our process of formalizing a concept and making its ideal implications explicit and consistent leads to the recognition that the concept formally entails that it must actually function like its formal opposite in order to be itself.  The contradiction within the concept itself is objectively ironic.  When both Nietzsche and Derrida deconstruct this and other concepts, they are not necessarily being ironic.  It is possible to simply point out an irony in a straightforward way (e.g., as I just did in my own exposition of the ironies of Gift-giving) and it is also possible to present an objective irony through an ironic mode of discourse as I will explain shortly.  I hope to make clear in chapter 3 how central to understanding Nietzsche’s philosophical project it is to recognize that he is ironically presenting truths about the ironic nature of truthfulness.

“Historical” or “contingent” irony occurs when a psychological or historical reality upsets the expectations of a formal conceptual relationship such that the opposite of what such a relationship ideally entails is what occurs in a particular situation occurring in time.  To take a commonplace ironic claim, let us consider the oft-heard remark from teachers that they began teaching with the attitude that they were the ones with knowledge to impart but wound up realizing that, ironically, they had more to learn from their students than their students had to learn from them.  Assuming a teacher who made this remark was not exaggerating for emphasis but really did learn more from her students than she taught them, the irony would stem from the definition of the teacher-student relationship.

According to this formal relationship, the person in the official capacity of teacher is supposed to possess and dispense knowledge and those submitting as students are supposed to receive knowledge, to learn.  Based on the formal character, or accepted meaning, of the teacher-student relationship there are certain expectations and situations that overturn them in an intrinsically ironic way.  Without such conceptual ideals and their received semantics, there is no irony, but rather the happenstance that this person taught and this other learned, with no interesting significance worth calling “ironic”.  Formally it is possible that any such overturning of conceptually dictated expectations is an instance of irony, though the extent to which we actually take special notice of an irony depends on how much we ourselves understand a given concept’s requisite implications, actually adopt the logical expectations it provides, and care enough about the subject of the concept to realize what is happening.  Nonetheless, apart from those ironic reversals of conceptual expectations that matter enough to us to be startling, funny, frustrating, bemusing, disappointing, or lucky, etc., there are many innocuous ironic reversals happening all the time.

Next there is “communicative irony”, which is the kind of irony Socrates models wherein one says what one does not actually (or at least does not precisely) think in order to indirectly highlight something problematic about believing the thing you are saying you believe.  Socrates repeatedly used this technique to demonstrate the disconnect between the reputations of various Athenians for wisdom and their actual ignorance by calling them wise experts even as he was laying bear their ignorance through his interrogations of their positions.  In flattering them by treating them as experts and calling himself “ignorant”, he exemplified what I call “performative irony”.  This, fourth, kind of irony is one by which one “acts out” a conceptual or historical irony in order to highlight its presence.  In Socrates’ and Nietzsche’s case, this is largely a philosophical and literary technique for demonstration but one could imagine it taking other forms.  To see how another kind of act of performative irony might work, consider the following scenario of historical/contingent irony that a critic might feel compelled to address with a performative irony.

Imagine for example that there was a rule that everyone in a given group was expected to follow without exception.  Let’s also say that most everyone both acknowledged the wisdom of the rule and paid reverential lip service to the importance that there be no exceptions to it.  Now imagine that at the same time, these same people in practice quite regularly did ignore the rule, and even did so for sensible reasons.  Everyone’s hypocrisy would involve historical/contingent irony, as many hypocrisies do, insofar as it would involve people acting at odds with their own most adamant abstract beliefs.  Conceptually it only makes sense that strong attitudes should condition behavior strongly consistent with them.  It is ironic then when those who get mentally agitated contemplating the possibility of people performing or avoiding a certain behavior nonetheless perform or avoid it themselves in practice.

Were an opponent of hypocrisy to emerge in the group and want to bring out the implicit contradiction between everyone’s behavior and their words, she might “perform” the ironic disconnect between everyone’s words and actions by totally following the rule in the undeviating way prescribed.  By showing the impractical, undesirable, and, even, absurd way of life that would result from the rigid adherence to the rule that everyone claims they support and by eliciting their disbelief and derision at her stunt, she would expose the contradiction between the group’s desire to talk about the rule as inflexible and the group’s real recognition of the rule’s limits, as revealed by their shocked response to the strict rule follower.

Absolute prohibitions against lying might be performatively undermined in such a way.  Similarly, one might do a demonstration of how another prescribed action was not only impractical but ironically went so far as to turn into the kind of action that had the exact opposite of its intended effects or even become the exact opposite kind of action if done incessantly.  So, for example, someone could performatively show the limits of an injunction to “always be nice” by showing how this ironically could become unpleasant or harmful to those to whom one always behaves nicely.  The irony here of course is that the sorts of actions most characteristic of niceness are generally associated with pleasantness and other benefits for others.  When characteristically nice actions become unpleasant or harmful, this is ironic.

Similarly one could performatively demonstrate the ironies of overprotective parenting that seeks to safeguard children with such neurotic levels of attention and anxiety that children wind up with the unintended side effects of increased dependency, anxiety, and incompetence, all of which render them, ironically, less safe.  An experiment or artistic rendering might performatively make this irony clear.

Understanding Nietzsche’s writings requires sensitivity to all four kinds of ironies.  (1) He often writes using language and perspectives from which he keeps himself at some degree of ironic distance (communicative irony).  (2) He specifically highlights concepts’ logical interconnections with their formal opposites (formal/deconstructive irony).  (3) He stresses repeatedly the dissonance between conceptual ideals and their actual dependence for political power on practices or conditions that they would explicitly denounce (just one of many kinds of historical irony Nietzsche notes).  (4) Finally, he performatively assumes many of the things that an absolutist about truth or morality would, again as part of adopting these perspectives in his choice of language, in order to show how adhering to the absolutist’s ideals of truth and morality ironically leads to his famous perspectivist and “immoralist” conclusions.

What lends Nietzsche’s writing so much of its labyrinthine character is that he often exposes conceptual ironies and historical ironies through communicative irony as part of a performatively ironic act of philosophizing about concepts on their own terms in ways that show how they themselves lead the way to their own self-deconstruction, by pointing out their own ironies.  He uses terms in an ironically detached way that does not always express his own primary meaning for them but a formal, conceptual sense in order to performatively show how the concept more popularly denoted by the adopted term leads to its opposites either conceptually or as a matter of its own historical conditions.

Once again, to take one of the two examples of this central to the dissertation, we can see this with his use of the term “truth”.  He uses this term quite often not to denote a concept of truth that he would philosophically defend but rather in the way that idealizes its popular and absolutist connotations and to that extent he has ironic distance from the term a good deal of the time and can be said to be writing with a form of communicative irony.  He does this in order to performatively explore the deconstructive conceptual implications that result when the traditional concept of truth is taken consistently to its logical implications with formal rigor.  He also uses this sense of the term to show the historical contradiction between this conception of truth and its biological, social, and historical preconditions.  While performatively ironically adopting the language and expectations of absolute truth, he exposes the embodied and historically conditioned character of this ideal itself and its own dissolution within the terms of its own expectations.

In these sorts of ways, Nietzsche discovers and otherwise exposes ironies through ironic expressions and through performatively adopting ironically self-undermining, formally-self-deconstructing, disintegrating perspectives.  This is one of the main ways in which Nietzsche’s style of presentation expresses his philosophy’s substance.  Rather than just explaining that a concept undermines itself logically or historically, he adopts the concept itself as he analyzes its collapse into its opposite or traces its genealogy to find that its formal opposite is its great ancestor.  The result (ironically) is that the tensions and contradictions often attributed to Nietzsche himself are actually the tensions and contradictions already in our concepts to which Nietzsche is merely calling our attention through his ironic adoption of our common ways of speaking and his twisting them to reveal their breaking points.

The central moral irony that Nietzsche seeks to expose is that moralistic honesty leads to conclusions about moral systems that undermine their pure expectations for themselves.  In particular, moral systems are undermined by (a) the honest reevaluation of their roots in historical contingencies, (b) their lack of divine (or otherwise transcendent) foundation they often claim for themselves, (c) the absence of any other eternal realities or intrinsic natural properties of goodness to serve as ontologically grounding, (d) their inability to hold up against empirically preferable judgments about what is actually most conducive to human flourishing, and (e) their hypocritical historical reliance upon practices they condemn in order to ascend to power and consolidate it.  (WP 397; GM, II: 3, 6) Nietzsche will expose these ironies by performatively and ironically being moral in the utmost, which will mean, more specifically, being truthful in the utmost.

Nietzsche’s language about “morality” can be read as performatively ironic to the extent that Nietzsche sees himself in his philosophical endeavors as being moral and honest in such a way that through him honesty itself ironically exposes morality’s own irony-laden history.  So, not only does morality ironically turn out to be historically the bastard child of immoral practices, but ironically it is morality itself which exposes itself as a fraud and it does so through Nietzsche’s act of following morality’s dictates to always be truthful to the logical extreme that absolutistic morality demands.  Nietzsche is not only embodying historical irony but by adopting the language of absolutistic morality and its categories while simultaneously already thinking beyond them to other perspectives “beyond good and evil”, his adoption of the perspective and categories of absolutistic morality also reveals itself to have a degree of ironic detachment (communicative irony).  He shows where morality ironically leads by embodying the moralistic perspective and yet simultaneously also ironically distances himself from that perspective because he realizes it is a perspective that ironically deconstructs itself and so must be subsumed under a higher perspective.  The nature of his higher, “post-moral”, ethical perspective is chapter 4’s subject.



[1] Derrida, Jacques (1991); Kamuf, Peggy (ed. and trans.). Counterfeit Money/Time.  Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1992.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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