In Defense of an Ecumenical Approach to Irony

The empirical study of irony faces a problem of apparently promiscuous application: “irony” is used in everyday and theoretical discourse to characterize so broad a range of phenomena that experimentalists have found it difficult to agree on a shared understanding of the concept appropriate for designing experiments and interpreting their results. (To what extent, for example, should psycholinguistic theories of irony account for discourse- rather than utterance-length cases of irony, like Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” or irony effected in visual rather than verbal media?) Methodological responses to this challenge fall on a continuum between restrictive approaches, according to which progress is best made by partitioning the field into more manageable, coherent subsections; and ecumenical approaches, whose ambition is to provide an account of irony that comprehends the concept’s full range of application. In this paper, I offer a measured defense of ecumenical approaches, arguing that restrictive approaches risk answering properly empirical questions by methodological fiat, and balkanize irony studies rather than providing a shared terrain for interdisciplinary exchange. Ecumenical approaches, meanwhile, become more viable than previously thought when we recognize that ironic phenomena are united by the practice of interpretation, rather than the practice of overt linguistic production. 

Under Review / In Progress

Meaning in Ethics and Meaning in General

We use “meaning” to articulate an interesting and important set of ethical ambitions and anxieties—as when we aspire to lead meaningful lives, or worry that our lives are meaningless. Recent philosophical efforts to account for meaning in this distinctively ethical sense have generally either ignored or denied the relevance of meaning’s other senses (semantic, natural, and literary, for example) to the enterprise, regarding them as only metaphorically related, at best. In contrast, I argue that a robust conceptual integrity underlies our use of “meaning” across contexts, and that appreciating the basis of that integrity advances our understanding of ethical meaning in several respects. The comprehensive-interpretive approach to meaning I advocate explains the depth and elusiveness commonly associated with ethical meaning, and complicates the common assumption that meaning in life is necessarily desirable or valuable. It clarifies the sense in which ethical meaning is “objective,” and recasts the relationship between meaning and characteristic subjective states (like fulfillment in its presence, and alienation or anxiety in its absence) as symptomatic rather than constitutive. It also clarifies the relationship between meaning, moral duty, and value in general. I conclude by using the conceptual framework developed below to discuss the processes by which we come to find and to lose meaning in our own lives.


The Ethics of Irony

My dissertation develops a novel theory of the nature of irony and, on that basis, investigates the ways that irony can be used to enrich and to enervate human experience. A good theory of irony should answer three questions: first, the question of mechanism (how does irony work?); second, the question of usefulness (what’s irony good for?); and, last, the question of continuity (how are irony’s many forms—e.g. verbal irony, dramatic irony, and situational irony—related?). The leading contemporary theories of irony in the philosophy of language and psycholinguistics claim that irony works by employing a kind of insincerity: speakers only pretend to endorse the semantic contents of their utterances, adopting a dissociative, derisive attitude towards them. On this conception, a language community too infected by irony risks radical dissolution of meaning; this is, for example, a central theme in the literature of David Foster Wallace. But my account of irony as dynamic reversal, in which an object of interpretation and its meaning interact disharmoniously (one undermines the other), shows that irony needn’t be insincere. It also provides a sound basis for continuity between irony in speech, literature, and culture, and therefore sheds an important light on ethical concerns like Wallace’s.