The Philosophy of Irony and Sarcasm

Is there a difference between irony and sarcasm? Is every target equally worth it?


In Ancient Greek comedy, Eiron was a clever underdog who somehow always managed to get the better of his rival, Alazon, by sheer use of wit. The Socratic dialogues by Plato essentially represent Socrates as the philosophical equivalent of Eiron. And, of course, it is from him that we derive the term “irony,” the Greek root of which means dissimulation, feigned ignorance.

Contrast that with sarcasm. That word also has a Greek root, naturally, which meant “to tear flesh, bite the lip in rage, sneer.”

Irony and sarcasm are often confused with one another, but they are not the same thing, even in today’s usage. They are, however, not quite distinct either, as sarcasm can (and often does) have a component of irony, though the latter concept clearly encompasses a much larger range of linguistic situations.

I’m interested in the topic for a number of reasons, but chiefly because I need to reconcile — if possible — my profound dislike for sarcastic videos like the one infamously recently tweeted by Richard Dawkins, featuring a feminist who agrees to be raped by an Islamist, because, you know, when Islamists do it is not really rape, with my enjoyment of comedy of the type featured by Jon Stewart, and now Trevor Noah, on The Daily Show. Is there a principled distinction there? Or am I just trying to rationalize my taste, seeking differences where there are none? (Obviously, this is a rhetorical question, which, however, is neither ironic nor sarcastic…)

First things first. Let us begin with a brief examination of each phenomenon in turn.

Irony, Socratic and otherwise

There are, of course, a number of definitions of irony. The OED puts it this way: “A condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what was, or might naturally be, expected; a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things.” Notice, however, that such mockery is not necessarily the result of human agency. Things can be ironic in a cosmic fashion (the irony of fate), or in a historic one (e.g., the fact that The New York Times used to mock crossword puzzles, back in the 1920s, while it is now the newspaper most widely identified with the concept).

Indeed, a probably partial taxonomy of irony includes: classical (i.e., in the sense used by the ancient Greeks), cosmic (the serendipitous and often contradictory outcomes of fate), dramatic or tragic (from the Greek tragedies to Shakespeare and beyond), “romantic” (related to self-awareness and self-criticism), situational (resulting from a disparity between intended and actual outcome), and verbal (literally a contradiction between intended and stated meanings). And, naturally, there is plenty of overlap and cross-fertilization.

The type of irony that concerns us here is comic in nature, as famously exemplified in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which begins with the author stating that it is well known that men of good fortune are always on the look out for a wife, while it is obviously the opposite that she means: it is women, in her cultural universe, who are after marriage with men of means. Clearly, Austin uses wit to poke fun, and implicitly criticize, certain aspects of her culture — very much like the writers of the Daily Show often do.

But, being a philosopher, I’m also concerned with Socratic irony. It is a matter of dispute exactly what the “Socratic method” consists of. In some dialogues, Socrates himself tells us that he acts as a philosophical “midwife,” simply helping his interlocutors “remember” (or, better, figure out on their own) a given conclusion about whatever subject matter is at hand.

In other cases, however, it is equally clear that his “elenchic” approach aims at convincing others that they really don’t know as much as they think they know (after all, the Oracle at Delphi did declare Socrates the wisest man in Greece, on account that he knew that he didn’t know…).

These cases, at the least some of the times, become clear examples of irony, if not sarcasm. When Socrates pleads with Euthyphro to teach him what the latter knows, since Socrates is so obviously less wise than Euthyphro himself, he is quite clearly making fun of the guy for the benefit of the audience (i.e., of those that heard the dialogue narrated, or read it, later on).

Do the characters in Austen’s novels, and Euthyphro in the homonymous dialogue, deserve the irony? It seems so, because it is directed either at a usually unquestioned — but perfectly questionable — social habit, or at a fool who has potentially dangerous to others delusions of grandeur.

Which brings me to a couple of initial conclusions. First, irony is not always intentional, nor is it always concerned with comedy. Second, when it is both of those things, it is a somewhat gentle form of criticism — of social mores or of individuals — aimed at teaching others and whose targets tend to be deserving of it (either because of their otherwise unquestioned hegemony, or because they are pompous, self-important, and so forth).

Sarcasm, biting and scratching

Let’s begin again with definitions. Here is “In sarcasm, ridicule or mockery is used harshly, often crudely and contemptuously, for destructive purposes.”

According to B. Brousfield, “sarcasm is an insincere form of politeness which is used to offend one’s interlocutor.” John Haiman separates sarcasm and irony in this way: “situations may be ironic, but only people can be sarcastic … people may be unintentionally ironic, but sarcasm requires intention. What is essential to sarcasm is that it is overt irony intentionally used by the speaker as a form of verbal aggression.” And for Henry Watson Fowler “the essence of sarcasm is the intention of giving pain by (ironical or other) bitter words.”

Here is an interesting observation from William Brant’s Critique of Sarcastic Reason: “sarcasm is hypothesized to develop as a cognitive and emotional tool that adolescents use in order to test the borders of politeness and truth in conversation.”

There are, however, some illustrious defenders of sarcasm: Dostoyevsky, for instance, argued that sarcasm is “usually the last refuge of modest and chaste-souled people when the privacy of their soul is coarsely and intrusively invaded.”

One last note, not at all intended as sarcastic (or is it?): in 2014, the US Secret Service actually requested bids for software that would identify sarcasm in tweets. Good luck with that.

Irony, sarcasm, and the ethics of humor

It is a well known truism of the ethics of comedy that “good” (in the ethical sense) humor punches up, not down. That is, comedy ought to concern itself with going after the mighty and powerful, not the downtrodden.

Of course, plenty of comedians still rely on ethnic and gender jokes, though the best ones do it in a subtly disarming (because at the least partially self deprecating) fashion, like Louis C.K.

It should go without saying, but at issue here isn’t the legality of even vicious humor, as in the kind of sarcastic satire practiced by the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo. I happen to think that attacking by way of humor, no matter how bad the aim is, ought to be protected by the law. But that doesn’t make it ethically acceptable, nor does it mean that one shouldn’t criticize it. In the specific case of Charlie Hebdo, for instance, the little I have seen of the magazine is rather childish and clearly aggressive. It doesn’t enlighten, and it does seem to be aimed at the teenage level mentioned by Brant. But, given the choice between a society with even a single soul like those of the assailants in Paris and one inundated by Charlie Hebdos, I’d unquestionably and unhesitatingly choose the latter.

An additional issue that is not easy to settle is what, exactly, counts as punching “up” or “down.” Taking again about the case of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, one could argue that the cartoonist were punching down on an already beleaguered ethnic minority in France. Then again, one could also say that the target of the sarcasm was actually one of the most powerful and currently (please do note the temporal qualifier) harmful religions in the world. Moreover, when automatic weapons are raised against pencils I think that even an oppressed minority automatically forfeits the moral high ground.

We are left, predictably, with a complex landscape, were no hard and fast rule can be drawn, or simple demarcation criterion be followed. That’s the realm where wisdom comes in for people who wish to practice it. When we laugh at an ironic remark, or a sarcastic cartoon, it is left to each of us to pause and reflect on whether laughter was the appropriate response to the situation, given all we know of the individuals and cultures involved. It’s a call that requires us to summon our inner Socrates, and that makes us a better person every time we do it.