Book Essay on A Case for Irony

Simon, B. (2013). Book Essay on A Case for Irony. J Am Psychoanal Assoc February 2013 vol. 61 no. 1 147-155.

Extract: A Case for Irony. By Jonathan Lear . Commentary by Cora Diamond, Christine M. Korsgaard, Richard Moran, Robert A. Paul Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.

By Bennett Simon

For Jonathan Lear, trained in two dialogical fields, philosophy and psychoanalysis, The Case for Irony is another expression of his long-standing commitment to understanding the relationship between the two. Exploring that relationship goes back to the early years of psychoanalysis—the minutes of the Vienna Society record several philosophers participating in those meetings—and Lear has a number of predecessors and colleagues in this enterprise.1 His own labors span now some twenty years of publications. Among the themes running through much of his work are two that are most salient in this book: one is the question of transformation: How do philosophy and psychoanalysis each aspire to bring about profound change in mind and heart, including transformations in the social and political sphere? The second is how psychoanalysis and contemporary moral philosophy interdigitate and, especially in this book, how moral philosophy needs psychoanalysis for a richer and more realistic view of how the person as moral agent is constituted. His books, essays, and collections of essays, while always interdisciplinary in their larger purpose, have varied in the degree to which they are addressed primarily to psychoanalysts, philosophers, or more general audiences (e.g., earlier essays in The New Republic). The present book is heavily tilted toward a readership of philosophers, dealing in great depth, it seems to me, with issues of current concern in contemporary philosophy dealing with morals and ethics. Clearly, for Lear explicating the relevance of philosophy and philosophical exploration for psychoanalysts is also crucial. While the book also offers much of importance for psychoanalysts, it places some heavy demands on the psychoanalytic reader.

A Case for Irony is based on Lear’s 2009 Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Harvard. The two lectures, “To Become Human Does Not Come That Easily” (a quotation from Kierkegaard) and “Ironic Soul,” are complemented by four formal discussions (“commentaries”), three by philosophers and one by a psychoanalyst anthropologist (Robert Paul), and Lear’s responses to these interlocutors.

The armature of the book is constructed of two interrelated arguments. The first argument—a philosophical one—is that there is a form of irony, “pretense-transcending irony,” epitomized in Socrates and Kierkegaard, that is indeed capable of transcending conventional categories and social norms and radically questioning the very premises of our human existence. The second argument—a statement about psychoanalysis—is that psychoanalysis can constitute a radical form of questioning the basic premises of who we are, who we think we are, and who or what we aspire to be. This capacity of psychoanalysis bears some similarities, or at least parallels, to the radical irony attributed to Socrates and Kierkegaard. A link between the realms of the more radical form of irony and the experience of psychoanalysis is the experience of the uncanny (see, e.g., pp. 15–16). Entailed are arguments about the nature of psychic unity, with Lear contending that his presentation of the organizing role of unconscious fantasy adds a new way of looking at the unity of the self. The question of the nature of the self, the unity of the self, is connected to Lear’s critique of the limitations of self-reflection in fundamentally questioning the premises of oneself and of one’s being, and hence limitations on the power of moral philosophy (at times Lear calls it “moral psychology”) as we know it, to achieve those goals. “Reflective distance” is contrasted with “ironic disruption,” and the former is limited in comparison to the latter. The arguing between Lear and his commentators is quite civil—only an occasional violent image (e.g., hitting and punching [p. 170])—but is also a “civil war,” a contest between moral philosophy and psychoanalysis as claimants for “analyzing” the human soul.

His first lecture takes off from the great ironists in the history of philosophy, Socrates (via Plato) and Kierkegaard (who himself draws some inspiration from Socratic irony). In brief, Lear argues that these thinkers present “ironic pretense-transcending activity,” truly radically disruptive forms of questioning the most basic assumptions, the “illusions” of the societies in which they lived. He argues for a much more robust meaning of the irony in the life’s work of these two than is accorded them by other modern philosophers, and speaks of Socrates’ and Kierkegaard’s “ironic existence.”

Read the full book review.

(Something interesting I found)Posted:Feb 01 2013, 12:00 AM by brendah
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