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C O U R S E 
Søren Kierkegaard: Subjectivity, Irony and the Crisis of Modernity
Jon Stewart, PhD, Dr theol & phil, University of Copenhagen
C O U R S E   L E C T U R E 
Kierkegaard's Admiration of Socratic Irony
Notes taken on January 17, 2017 by Edward Tanguay
the central focus of attention in most of the concept of Kierkegaard's irony is Socrates
Kierkegaard was not only interested in the concept of irony, but in the figure of Socrates
Socrates (469-399 BC)
the dialogue The Apology is an account of his trial
the dialogue The Phaedo is an account of his final hours and his execution by drinking hemlock
spent much of his time walking around the city talking with people
found people who claimed to know something about some specific area of knowledge and asked them about it
claiming to be ignorance on the matter, he begged his discussion partners to enlighten him on whatever topic they claimed to know something about
what is known as Socratic irony usually appears at the beginning of these exchanges when Socrates gets his interlocutor to explain something to him or give a definition of something
one can see this illustrated in the dialogue, the Euthyphro
Socrates goes to the courthouse at Athens to stand trial for the charges raised against him
he meets an acquaintance, Euthyphro
Euthyphro says he is bringing charges against his own father
something very unusual
Socrates saw the immediate contradiction
instead of pointing out this contradiction, he points out that there must be something he has not understood, and that Euthyphro must have some special knowledge into this matter
this sounds like a compliment in the ears of Euthyphro who fails to see the irony in it
Socrates then refutes every answer that Euthyphro givse
Euthyphro suddenly runs off, claiming to have an urgent appointment
Socrates is disappointed since he thought he was going to learn something about piety from Euthyphro
Socrates' irony is a key factor in this process
Kierkegaard was fascinated by this practice of Socratic irony
he saw in his own Danish society of the 19th century people like Euthyphro
they claimed to have knowledge about things about which they were in fact ignorant
Greek word for being at a loss, or being unable to answer
Socrates leads his interlocutors into a state of aporia in the course of his dialogue with them
aporetic dialogue
one of Plato's dialogues which ends with no definitive conclusion
usually when one writes a treatise
the goal is to express a thesis
to establish a specific point
but Socrates doesn't establish anything at all
all that the reader has learned is a number of definitions are incorrect
no positive definition survives the process of critical examination
Socrates method appealed to Kierkegaard
he enjoyed seeing in Socrates a thinker of negativity
"the fact that several of Plato's dialogues end without result has a far deeper reason than I had earlier thought. It makes the reader self-active."
Socrates makes other people reflective
traveling scholars of rhetoric
gave lessons to the sons of rich families for a fee
claimed to be able to teach useful skills
public speaking
logical reasoning
general knowledge of various fields
had a reputation of lawyers today
they were eloquent speakers who could seduce people with language
Socrates was associated with the sophists
one of the arguments against him was that he made the weaker argument the stronger
Socrates rejects this
he claims not to know anything and so he doesn't teach anything
he says people come to see him because they find it amusing to interrogate people in his own special way
since he doesn't teach anything, he doesn't demand a fee
Kierkegaard knew people who were like the sophists
they claimed to know something about Christianity
taught it while benefiting materially from their positions in the church
enjoyed a comfortable life
Kierkegaard found it deeply problematic
attracted to Socrates' method to undermine these self-satisfied and overly confident people
Socrates made people feel publicly humiliated
some of his enemies raised charges against him
when asked why he does this, Socrates tells of a story of a friend of his who went to the Oracle of Delphi
the Oracle was a revered religious institution
it was believed that the god Apollo spoke through the priestesses there
the state would go to the Oracle to see if a proposed plan would prosper
Socrates' friend asked the Oracle if there was anyone wiser than Socrates
the Oracle said there was nobody wiser
Socrates was perplexed
he could think of nothing about which he had special knowledge about
he considered other people wiser than he about numerous things
questioned each expert which exposed that they knew very little for sure about their areas of expertise
Socrates came to the conclusion that he was wiser in the sense that he at least knew that he didn't know
in contrast to the others who claimed to know things that they didn't know
Socrates was not a positive knowledge but a negative knowledge
he felt it was his duty to go around Athens and test people on their claims of knowledge
uses the image of a gadfly
constantly irritates a horse by buzzing around and occasionally landing on it here and there
"I think, the god attached me to the city, the sort of person who never ceases provoking you and persuading you and reproaching each of you the whole day long everywhere I settle."
the gadfly of Athens, who performs a beneficial although irritating function of keeping people from falling into complacency
keeping them on their guard with their respect to their knowledge
he does this as following a command of the god, a religious duty
Kierkegaard relished this vision and saw his own task as similar
through of writings, he could become the gadfly of Copenhagen, keeping his countrymen from falling in into complacency