The Residual Economy of Irony in Hegel’s Dialectic


In charting the development of Hegel’s dialectic Schlegel’s irony appears as a dramatic interruption. If Fichte presents an embryonic Hegelianism, albeit one which is fundamentally restricted to the position of being for-itself unable to achieve the being in-and-for itself which will eventually emerge as Hegel’s precondition for self-consciousness, Schlegel’s irony occurs as a moment of radicalism. Aside from the notion of irony as disruption or interruption, Schlegel’s philosophy constitutes an awkward moment in the narrative of the Hegelian dialectic. Does Schlegel supersede Kant and Fichte? Does Schlegel precede Hegel? It is unclear, in other words, what role Schlegelian irony takes in this history. Does Hegel’s dialectic disarm or invalidate irony, jettisoning it altogether from the discourse of modernity? Or perhaps, does the dialectic incorporate irony into its mechanics? If so, does that suggest that there is a residue of irony which persists in Hegel? And where might such a residue be found in Hegel’s dialectic? Finally, if we can locate this persistent irony in Hegel, what role might it play in the dialectic? All of this is by way of posing the question: can one speak of a Hegelian irony? To return to the task at hand, that is, how and where to situate Schlegel in the development of Hegel’s philosophy, it seems clear that Schlegel intended to move past Fichte’s subjective impasse, that is to say, Fichte develops an “I” which can indeed be seen as an absolute, that “I,” however can only function in the world by reducing all objects to its own identity. The “I” is only absolute because it colonizes the world of objects. This is what I call an impasse, Hegel below will describe it as “empty” or “abstract.” Schlegel explodes this stasis by revising the position that Fichte attributes to the “I.” It also seems clear, however, that Hegel utterly dismissed Schlegel’s project (see below for Hegel’s comments on Schlegel from his aesthetic lectures). Aside from Hegel’s critique of Schlegel, we might also ask, what role does Fichte play for Hegel in his dismissal of Schlegel? Does Fichte play a role of convenience for Hegel’s critique of Schlegel, in other words, and if so, what is that role? It certainly seems that Hegel’s agenda would be furthered by conflating Schlegel with Fichte, or understating Schlegel’s departure from Fichte. In order to navigate through this development, we will need to keep a number of strands in mind. On one hand, there is the narrative which progresses as follows: Schlegel surpasses Fichte and Hegel surpasses Schlegel. As this narrative unfolds, certain Fichtean principles persist in Schlegel and therefore by overcoming Fichte’s impasse, Hegel in effect is able to overcome Schlegel as well and arrives at the absolute philosophy of the subject. As we shall see, this is the narrative that Hegel presents in his aesthetic lectures. I will put forward a counter-narrative, a narrative which is more internally consistent, which is to say, if elements of Fichte persist in Schlegel then elements of Schlegel must persist in Hegel. This seems, after all, to be a more dialectical narrative.



“We hear no more about irony,” Hegel tells us in his lectures on aesthetics[1]. The statement is straightforward: Tieck, for all his insistence upon irony, fails to define or determine its nature. “We hear no more” can be interpreted in two ways. 1) “We” as Tieck’s audience, including Hegel as a member of that audience, “hear no more” from Tieck concerning irony beyond its abstract importance. He may “demand irony” in his works of art criticism but if we look “here” to understand “what the irony is in such a work as, e.g., Romeo and Juliet, we are deceived”.[2] We are deceived, in other words, by our assumption that the significance that Tieck assigns to irony will also inspire him to explicate the concept itself, which he will not. “We hear no more,” therefore “[from Tieck] about irony”. 2) Hegel ends his brief discussion on irony in the Aesthetics with this statement. In this context, the statement suggests that Hegel will speak “no more about irony”, that he will move on to another subject. “We,” therefore becomes understood as ‘the reader’ or ‘Hegel’s audience’. If Hegel himself is put in the position of telling us “about irony”, we must ask: why will we “hear no more about irony”. We demand to hear “more about irony” but Hegel remains silent and moves on. The difficulty no longer lies in the inability to define irony but in the refusal to speak about it. In the first case “We hear no more about irony” because Tieck is presumably unable to adequately define irony. In the second case, we may say that “We hear no more about irony” because Hegel is withholding. Why do I say ‘withholding’? Is it enough to assume that Hegel’s choice not to speak does not suggest his inability to speak? This line of thinking will be furthered by consideration of the convenient homonym present in the statement in question. We can read the statement as: “We here know more about irony.” In this case, we may interpret “we here” as Hegel himself, whether or not his audience is included. If so, what does the comparative “more” refer to? “We here know more about irony” than what? May we say that Hegel “know[s] more about irony” than he is willing to say? “We hear no more about irony,” therefore, because Hegel will not tell us what he knows. It is indeed true that “we hear no more about irony” from Hegel or Tieck. I suggest, however, that we need not “hear no more about irony” from Hegel. Might we not compel Hegel to speak about irony? If we were to speculate as to what Hegel knows “about irony” that he will not tell us, we might analyze the differences between the Hegelian dialectic and Schlegelian irony. Through this method we might be able to determine whether or not one can speak of a Hegelian irony.



Before turning to Schlegel, it might be fruitful to pause for a moment to explicate Hegel’s brief comments on Schlegelian irony in the lectures on aesthetics. Hegel charts the genealogy of irony from Fichte through Schlegel, remarking that though the latter was able to “tear himself loose from” Fichte’s philosophy, there are nevertheless certain aspects of his theory which persist in the Schlegelian conception of irony[3]. With regard to this Fichtean persistence Hegel states that “we need in this respect [the influence of Fichte’s philosophy on Schlegel’s irony] emphasize only the following points”.[4] Why “only the following points”? Might we say here again that Hegel seems hesitant to reveal all he knows about irony. In fact, we hear nothing concerning Hegel’s justification for the “following points,” why for instance are these points so essential to the connection between Fichte and Schlegel, or why are they exclusively essential to this connection? By saying that “we need…emphasize only the following points” Hegel restricts this connection to the points that he has identified as ‘essential.’ All other points have been deprived of their significance by Hegel’s declaration. What are these points?


Hegel notes that Fichte’s notion of the “I” as the “absolute principle of all knowing, reason, and cognition” remains in some form in Schlegel’s philosophy.[5] But this is not Hegel’s language. We must take care not to criticize a narrative that we in fact have attributed to Hegel or imposed upon his words. Our skepticism concerning Hegel’s comments about irony should not blind us to anything but that which encourages that skepticism. Hegel’s words are less conclusive. He simply states that “the following points” are concerned with “the closer connection of Fichte’s propositions with one tendency of irony”.[6] Yet how are we to read this? If it would be unjust to presume that Hegel is trying to identify elements of Fichte’s philosophy that carry over into Schlegel’s conception of irony in order to conveniently supersede them both in the same gesture, what are we left with? We might say that the answer lies in Hegel’s distinction that this is “one tendency of irony” and that there may very well be others. Unfortunately, no such distinction is developed. Perhaps we can say that the appearance of the word “tendency” may lend some constructive ambiguity to Hegel’s argument. The desire to establish ambiguity here reflects my interest in complicating what seems to be reductive narrative. Whether or not the existence of a Hegelian irony depends upon his reading of irony in this context, there seem to be suggestive openings in his text. He go on to say that

these three points comprise the general meaning of the divine irony of genius, as this concentration of the ego into itself, for which all bonds are snapped which can live only in the bliss of self-enjoyment. This irony was invented by Friedrich von Schlegel.[7]



This citation is not an example of such suggestive openings. It seems that Hegel, for all our attempts to exonerate his narrative, is determined to go through with his conflation of Fichte and Schlegel. Hegel’s second point is that what carries over from Fichte to Schlegel is the sense that this “I” is “in itself just simple”.[8] This is a point which we will have to further explicate for this seems to be one of the points which Hegel seizes upon as a moment of the breakdown of Schlegel’s dialectic[9]. To comment on this particular point in a somewhat circuitous manner I would like to note that when Hegel uses the phrase “in itself” above, it does not seem that he intends to invoke the technical distinction of being “in itself” and being “for itself” or for that matter being “in-and-for-itself.” In fact, it seems odd that Hegel would choose to characterize this Fichtean I as “in itself” even without intending to apply this distinction to it and even so, it seems unlikely that this could be a coincidence as the term “in and for itself” appears just below the previous citation. It seems that Hegel would refer to this I as being “for itself,” which is to say, being which is “self-certain.” The absolute “I” which Fichte has developed is indeed certain only of its selfhood, that is to say, it cannot be certain of anything beyond the self which is why Fichte’s dialectic is incomplete and perhaps why Schlegel rejects Fichte’s notion of the I. Why does Hegel then characterize this notion of the self in such a way? If this is a coincidence, it is unfortunate. Being “in-itself” is to be understood as being which exists objectively, whether or not it is involved in a process of subjectivity. When being exists simply for-itself, as Hegel points out[10], it negates and submerges all content within itself because the external world comes to be seen as existing only through the recognition and instrumentality of the I.[11] Fichte’s absolute “I” therefore produces a world of illusion wherein the omnipresent “I” has simply duplicated itself ad infinitum throughout external reality. Hegel writes “everything genuinely and independently real becomes only a show, not true and genuine on its own account or through itself, but a mere appearance due to the ego in whose power and caprice and at whose free disposal it remains”.[12] The “I” which has reproduced itself in the world of objects is free, in other words, to create and destroy at will since it only interacts with its own products. This “I,” which Hegel designates as “empty” or “abstract,” cannot establish value or meaning beyond itself. This seems to be a fairly accurate description of the problems of Fichte’s philosophy but it still remains to be seen how applicable these points are to Schlegelian irony.


Hegel’s third and final point revolves around his association of irony with the artistic life. He introduces the nature of this associate with a reference to his theory of the recognition of consciousness. He writes “the ego is a living, active individual, and its life consists in making its individuality real in its own eyes and in those of others, in expressing itself, and bringing itself into appearance. For every man, by living, tries to realize himself”.[13] One may think here of the attention which Hegel pays elsewhere to the moment in which consciousness attempts to make “its individuality real in its own eyes and in those of others”.[14] For Fichte’s absolute “I,” however, there is no such necessity for recognition. What need is there for the “I” to recognize itself? The “I” must posit itself in order to achieve self-certainty but are positing and recognition synonymous? Once the “I” has stated itself as such it becomes self-evident. What is Hegel’s distinction here then? And what is the relationship between irony and the artistic?



Hegel seems to suggest that the activity of the Fichtean “I” can be understood as a form of art. The infinitely self-reproducing “I” becomes artistic when “all my action and my expression in general, in connection with any content whatever, remains for me a mere show and assumes a shape which is wholly in my power”.[15] In other words, the absolute “I” is inherently artistic. The illusion which occurs when being for-itself negates the objects of the world and replaces them with itself becomes understood as a act of artistic creation. An illusion, furthermore, over which the “I” has total power can be seen as the highest form of art. The “I” posits itself everywhere and thus can retain complete control over the external world, saturated with its own subjectivity though it may be. Is it in this notion of the artistic that Hegel begins to incorporate Schlegel’s irony?



I began by attempting to discern what Hegel may be leaving out of his explication of irony. I also referred to the moments in which these omissions become visible as openings. The most profound opening in this text is that which is suggested by Hegel’s attempt to conflate Schlegel with Fichte, thereby reducing irony to a manifestation of the solipsistic absolute “I.”

[1] Charles Karelis, trans., Hegel’s Introduction to Aesthetics (Oxford, 1979), p. 69.

[2] Ibid.

[3] p. 64

[4] Ibid. italics added.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] p. 66

[8] p. 64

[9] We will have to see whether it is likewise possible to speak of Hegel’s irony or Schlegel’s dialectic.

[10] I am choosing to substitute the term “for-itself” in this context because this seems to be Hegel’s meaning. It is not clear to me whether the appearance of the phrase “in itself” here is accidental or not. Is it possible to refer to something “in itself” in this context without suggesting the implications for being? This may be an error in translation. Again, the complete phrase as it appears in Hegel is: “this ego is therefore in itself just simple.”

[11] Ibid.

[12] p. 65

[13] Ibid.

[14] I am thinking here specifically of the struggle to the death which precedes the Master-Slave dialectic.

[15] Ibid.


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