On Irony

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A reflection on Plato’s Hippias Major

Previously, I reflected on the use of deception and came to the conclusion that it was a negative thing representing either a deprivation of justice, a reaction to oppression, the discarding of a companion as intellectually deceased or a form of self-delusion (see on Deception). However, there is one point which I failed to cover when it came to this aspect intellectual intercourse: the use of irony. In its dictionary sense, verbal irony is the use of a word or phrase to represent a meaning radically different and usually opposed to the traditional interpretation. On the surface, this would appear to be a clear case of deception. However, its use throughout philosophical discourse leads me to hypothesise there is something more profound behind its employment. As such, I will analyse irony and whether it is a tool that can be beneficial in debate.

The first point of clarification is to examine the difference between irony and sarcasm. The two forms are not mutually exclusive, but a sarcastic comment is one that has a biting, acidic quality. In this sense, sarcasm can be utilised either as a tool of humour or argument but, as a method of attack rather than clarification, can never be effectually employed in a debate. On the other hand, irony can be utilised in the Socratic manner, where an interlocutor ‘plays dumb’ to encourage the other member of the dialogue to further expound upon their views – often resulting in the person tripping themselves on a poorly formed argument. With this delineation, the question now stands: is this form of Socratic irony beneficial to debate, or merely another type of deception.

I posit that when irony is used as a method of drawing answers out of interlocutor, it can be beneficial to a debate. In particular, by a person feigning the empty cup, they invite another to pour out their beliefs and opinion – opening them up to dissection and debate. In this way a belligerent opponent can be forced to face critique – admittedly in an oblique manner – which allows the person utilising irony to be exposed to the mechanics behind another person’s beliefs. This can be an excellent tool for bypassing the natural defences that an individual will throw up when confronted by external critique. However, what if a person utilises irony as a method of protection as opposed to a means of examination?

When confronted by an overwhelming intellectual force, we may feel compelled to lapse into irony as a means of deflecting the burrowing accusations of our assailant. This can be a useful method of diffusing the attack from someone who is falling from debate into argument, although it is also a danger to our own intellectual growth. If we default to utilising irony as a method of dealing with those questions or statements we find as offensive, we serve a blow to ourselves: wrapping our own opinions in the mantle of arrogance. It is only a short step from ironically dismissing the points of others to cleaving to our own mental idols.

With this in mind, I must admit that irony remains an effective method for extending and improving our intellectual discourse. But it must also be utilised with a healthy dose of caution – ensuring that we do not shield our own opinions from critique. This will result in us decaying into the most fatal form of mental decrepitude, self-satisfaction.

Original text

Plato’s Hippias Major


Paul Joseph Blanc, The Murder of Laius by Oedipus, 1867


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