Philosophy of the Novel IV: Romantic Irony and Kierkegaard

(Summary of a research project unlikely to be realised in the form articulated, but which is guiding current projects. For earlier posts in this series, see posts of October 3rd and  27th August)

In Concept of Irony, Kierkegaard considered irony in the Jena Romantic/Romantic Ironist group which gathered briefly in 1798 and 99, and which published some of their work in the Atheneum journal.Kierkegaard analyses their literary and philosophical production as the outcome of Fichte’s philosophy in the first two editions of the Science of Knowledge (1794), leading us back to the aesthetic significance of German Idealism. Kierkegaard looks at the way that the Fichean ego appears in Irony, in endless reflections and shifts of perspective.

Romanticism marks an elevation of the aesthetic. The emergence of art an autonomous realm culminates in its elevation into the realm of autonomy where the freedom of imagination enables an act of pure creation. The rise of Romantic aesthetics coincides with the elevation of ethics in philosophical legislation, where the laws of ethics reveal the essence of philosophy as legislation.  Aesthetics becomes the absolute expression of freedom, legislating for itself; ethics became the absolute expression law legislating for freedom.

In the Romantic urge for aesthetic absolutism, there is the urge to find the absolute source of law; in the law’s urge for the ethical absolute, there is the urge to establish a realm of freedom where individuals have autonomy and can legislate for themselves. There is a strong complicity between these positions, which Kierkegaard gives form to in his remarks on Fichte in The Concept of Irony, which demonstrate how Romantic aestheticism arises This is the way that Kierkegaard writes in Either/Or and his life of writing is of using different styles and perspectives, even in his more ‘direct’ Christian discourses.

In The Concept of Irony, Kierkegaard criticises the ironists for destroying the strength of the self, which is the subjective origin of irony. In Concept of Irony, Kierkegaard also expresses some support for Hegel on the question of irony.  Kierkegaard’s positive account of Hegel in Concept of Irony is in contrast with his later tendency to take Hegel as the main object of criticism. Kierkegaard both depends on Hegel’s analyses and moves on from them, and we can this in The Concept of Irony as Kierkegaard develops a position, which accepts to some degree Hegel claim that Roman Irony tends to dissolve reality, including the reality of the subject that ironises, but maintains a position in which Romantic Irony has some continuity with the philosophical achievements of Socrates who was the first great hero of irony.

There is wish to avoid the absolute ‘historicism’ in Hegel, so absolute that the absolute take over from the historicism, and allow for a tension between subjectivity and the collective forms of spirit which Hegel with all his awareness of conflict and paradox, sees as able to absorb subjectivity, so that anything left over is negative, even ‘evil’. Kierkegaard’s own more aesthetic texts, particularly his narratives, Either/Or, Repetition and Stages on Life’s Way, themselves serve to show and alternative to Hegel and to show the philosophical and religious possibilities of the novel. He puts into practice more successfully than the Romantic Ironists argued for with regard to the fusion of poetry and philosophy in the novel, while exploring the problems he found in an idea of absolute romanticism, an idea that there can be a self-producing imagination without limit, unrestrained by anything external. There are forms of absolute we encounter in our subjectivity and in the foundations of that subjectivity for Kierkegaard, and the exploration of that brings him into exercises in novelistic form, which illuminate the nature of the genre.

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