Egan, Kieran. “Ironic Understanding and Somatic Understanding”

Egan, Kieran. The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape our Understanding, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998.

To remember:

  • irony involves more than a perverse disguise of what might be better stated literally (137).
  • It leads to a discussion of the kind of understanding that results from the breakdown or decay of general schemes … It leads to the accumulating reflexiveness of language and consciousness and the ramifying consequences of this reflexiveness in modernism and postmodernism. It leads to Socrates, whom Thrasymachus irritatedly accused of habitual irony (Republic, 1.336) (138).

  • More recently we have been urged to face up to the decay of earlier hopes that in language we would be able to establish foundations for our knowledge claims and secure the truth of our beliefs; instead we are to accept the “contingency of . . . our most central beliefs and desires,” and abandon “the idea that those central beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance” (Rorty, 1989, p. xv). This recognition of the contingency of things is a requirement for living the undeceived life Richard Rorty recommends for what he calls “liberal ironists” (138).

  • the epitome of irony is expressed in what Vlastos calls “Socrates’ renunciation of epistemic certainty” (1991, p. 4) (139).

  • A more common theme in the Western intellectual tradition is that without some clear foundation, some bedrock of truth, human life and our sense of the natural world are chaotic and meaningless. The fear of raw contingency has long driven the pursuit of truth (139).

  • Irony is notoriously multifaceted, and trying to characterize it has been likened to “gathering the mist; there is plenty to take hold of if only one could” (Muecke, 1969, p. 2) (139).

  • In Socrates and Plato’s time, the most common meaning of eironeia was something like “dissembling,” “shamming,” or “pretending.” The eiron was a person with generally unworthy motives, who never talked straight and was intent on deceiving or making a fool of someone. The term connotes rebuke and disapproval, reflected in Swearingen’s suggested translation, “dissembling scoundrel” (1991) (139).

  • The central constituent of irony is a high degree of reflexiveness on our own thinking and a refined sensitivity to the limited and crude nature of the conceptual resources we can deploy in trying to make sense of the world. That is, irony involves sufficient mental flexibility to recognize how inadequately flexible are our minds, and the languages we use, to the world we try to represent in them. Ironic, really (155).

  • The product of alienating irony is impotence; sophisticated irony is liberating and empowering. The aim of this educational theory is precisely to keep alive as much as possible of the earlier kinds of understanding in the development of irony (162).

  • Now, I have a number of times referred to a further kind of understanding, one most evident in pre-language-using human experience … Calling it Somatic understanding suggests a general embodied kind of understanding that is somewhat distinct from the languaged and conceptual kinds (162).

  • Somatic understanding is the first kind in the sequence, and persists through each of the other kinds (162).

  • This is just another case of the first being last.) The Somatic is a somewhat distinctive kind of understanding that sequentially precedes the Mythic, coalescing and accommodating with each subsequent kind of understanding as they develop on the Somatic foundation. Somatic understanding, then, is not something that exists only prior to language development but rather, like each of these kinds of understanding, it ideally remains with us throughout our lives, continuing to develop within, though somewhat modified by, other kinds of understanding (163).

  • [Merlin Donald’s Origins of the Modern Mind] synthesizes a vast amount of data from anthropology, paleontology, linguistics, cognitive science, and, especially, neuropsychology into an articulate account of the major cognitive transitions in hominid prehistory and in the historical period, and of the new ways of representing reality and the new forms of culture each transition implied. The three most general tools that have effected these transitions he identifies as the body’s mimetic skills, oral language, and external symbols, and these produce stages of cultural development which he calls Mimetic, Mythic, and Theoretic (164).
  • Mimicry, [Donald] points out, seeks to reproduce exactly some event or action … Imitation is less literal, as in an offspring copying its parent’s behavior … ”Mimesis adds a representational dimension to imitation” (p. 169), as in adopting a gesture like covering the face to indicate grief. Mimesis is distinguished, then, by its involving “the invention of intentional representation” (p. 169, emphasis in original), and performance of such acts in front of an audience communicates intentions beyond what is possible for apes and other animals. “Mimetic skill or mimesis rests on the ability to produce conscious, self-initiated, representational acts that are intentional but not linguistic” (p. 164).

  • The main constituents of Mimetic culture … are summarized by Donald as follows: Intentionality … Generativity … Communicativity … Reference … Unlimited Objects … Autocueing (165).

  • In the human past, Mimetic skills enjoyed considerable pragmatic success in socially coordinated activities such as toolmaking and hunting. “But its greatest importance would have been in the collective modelling, and hence the structuring, of hominid society itself. Mimetic culture was a successful and stable adaptation, a survival strategy for hominids that endured for over a million years” (Donald p. 200) (165).

  • Emphasizing the importance of Somatic understanding to this theory is awkward because it seems to conflict with what is taken almost for granted by many prominent philosophers. Much modernist and postmodernist theory is built on the assumption that human understanding is essentially languaged understanding. As Rorty puts it: “it is essential in [his] view that we have no prelinguistic consciousness to which language needs to be adequate, no deep sense of how things are which it is the duty of philosophers to spell out in language” (1989, p. 21). This is “the current doxa which unites the various schools” of advanced thinking (Norris, 1993, p. 289) (166).

  • Bernard Williams has argued against the view that human personhood comes only with language and socialization: “anyone who has lived with a six-year-old, or a two-year-old, has vivid reasons for thinking of them as persons” (1985, p. 114).

  • This unique and private mental world is with us from the beginning; its imagistic, concrete, vivid forms of thought remain throughout our lives, endlessly active without, or “below,” language. When steadied by waking perceptions of the external world, this private mental activity remains unique and provides us with a unique “take” on the world that the most energetic poetic intellects try to capture in language, always recognizing the inadequacy of language to the task. While one can exaggerate this unique “take” on the world, one can equally, as is currently fashionable, exaggerate the extent to which language mediates our understanding. Given the conception of education in this theory, which requires the fullest possible development of each kind of understanding, it becomes important to develop and preserve Somatic understanding, along with its sense of the uniqueness and loneness of our experience. The educational scheme requires that we seek ways to make this kind of understanding rich and vivid to ward off the anesthetizing socialization of the tribe (168).

  • As Merlin Donald puts it: “Language is usually placed at the top of the cognitive pyramid; but language evolved in, and continues to be employed in, a wider cultural context. . . . In human culture . . . language is not used equally in all areas of activity, nor is it the only means of communication and thought. It is possible that language is a ‘dedicated’ system, that is, a specialized system for special applications, rather than a general-purpose device” (1991, p. 201) (169).

  • Somatic understanding provides to Ironic understanding something beyond language, something foundational to all later understanding. It is not the kind of metanarrative foundation sought in Philosophic understanding. The tension between the Somatic foundation of consciousness and the Ironic, flexible, linguistic superstructure allows to the Ironic language-user an understanding of ultralinguistic experience; this Somatic experience provides us with something below language that our language can strive to be true to, and that truth can be something more Rortyesque than agreements with fellow language-users (170).

  • The strategies for making the ineffable, including our Somatic understanding, articulate are those most popularly recognized as ironic … there remains something mysterious about what such a simple, absurd assertion generates between speaker and hearer, writer and reader. It is the sense that there are features of our understanding that are beyond the possibility of articulating, even as we constantly try to articulate them, with which the reflexiveness of irony is entrammelled. And, incidentally, this crucial feature of irony seems largely lacking in Rorty’s liberal ironist, who may be profoundly liberal but, in this crucial regard, seems to have given up on what the strategies of irony are designed for (170).

  • irony’s central reflexiveness … enables us to apply to our own sense-making, to our own understanding, to our own beliefs and opinions, the questions and doubts we may have about those of others. In this reflexive ability we can recognize, with Schlegel, that irony entails an ethical no less than an aesthetic and an intellectual dimension (cf. Handwerk, 1985). Ironic understanding thus requires expanding our sympathies and sensitivities even to those who seem quite unlike us. This is an educational aim shared with Rorty’s liberal ironist; instead of identifying ourselves in terms of some excluded groups who are unlike “us,” and who consequently can be treated with less sympathy, less sensitivity, less humanity, we will seek to include wider and wider groups within the category of “us” (171).

  • Our initial understanding, according to this theory so far, is Somatic; then we develop language and a socialized identity, then writing and print, then abstract, theoretic forms of expressing general truths, and then a reflexivity that brings with it pervasive doubts about the representations of the world that can be articulated in language. But irony is a general strategy for putting into language meanings that the literal forms of language cannot contain; along with this, Ironic understanding involves abstract, theoretic capacities, plus the capacities stimulated by literacy, plus the winged words of orality, and also our bodily foundation in the natural world (171).

To consume:

  • Bettelheim, B. (1976). The uses of enchantment. New York: Knopf.

  • Booth, Wayne C. (1974). A rhetoric of irony. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Booth, Wayne C. (1979). Metaphor as rhetoric: The problem of evaluation. In Sheldon Sacks (Ed.), On metaphor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre, et al. (1994). Academic discourse (Richard Teese, Trans.). Oxford: Polity. First published in France, 1965.

  • Bruner, Jerome. (1960). The process of education. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  • Bruner, Jerome. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  • Bruner, Jerome. (1988). Discussion. Yale Journal of Criticism, 2 (1).

  • Bruner, Jerome. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  • Cole, M., and Scribner, S. (1974). Culture and thought: A psychological introduction. New York: Wiley.

  • Donald, Merlin. (1991). Origins of the modern mind. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  • Egan, Kieran. (1983). Education and psychology: Plato, Piaget, and scientific psychology. New York: Teachers College Press.

  • Eisner, Elliot W. (1985). The educational imagination. New York: Macmillan.

  • Heath, Shirley Brice. (1983). Ways with words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Heller, Erich. (1959). The disinherited mind. New York: Meridian Books.

  • Kierkegaard, Søren. (1965). The concept of irony: With constant reference to Socrates (Lee M. Capel, Trans.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press. First published, 1841.

  • Kristeva, Julia. (1984). Two interviews with Julia Kristeva by Elaine H. Baruch and Perry Mersel. Political Review, 1.

  • Norris, Christopher. (1993). The truth about postmodernism. Oxford: Blackwell.

  • Scribner, S., and Cole, M. (1981). Psychology of literacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Vygotsky, Lev. (1962). Thought and language (Eugenia Haufmann and Gertrude Vakar, Trans.). Cambridge: MIT Press.

  • Vygotsky, Lev. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes (Michael Cole, Vera John-Steiner, Sylvia Scribner, and Ellen Souberman, Eds.). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  • White, Alan R. (1990). The language of imagination. Oxford: Blackwell.

  • Williams, Bernard. (1985). Ethics and the limits of philosophy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  • Vlastos, Gregory. (1991). Socrates: Ironist and moral philosopher. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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