Ironie -Theorie und Praxis

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

26 Pages, Grade: 1,3




1 Introduction

2 From the Semantic Theory to the Pragmatic Theory to the Mention Theory of Irony. From Cicero to Grice to Sperber and Wilson

3 Blakemore

4 Clark: The Pretense Theory of Irony

5 Conclusion

6 Works Cited

1 Introduction

In this paper, I want to explore the accounts of irony given by Wilson and Sperber, Blakemore, and Clark. Wilson and Sperber formulated a theory of irony that has been commented on by almost every theorist of irony that came after them. Their notion that irony is echoing interpretive use of language is taken up and modified by Blakemore, who adds further components derived from the concept of weak implicature. The breach between Clark’s and Blakemore’s account of irony is wider than that between the accounts of Sperber and Wilson and Blakemore. Clark introduces a new focus on irony, stressing the fact that every ironical utterance is a joint pretense that requires some sort of coordination of the speaker’s and the hearer’s actions. The descriptions of Sperber and Wilson, Blakemore, and Clark will each be followed by a discussion of their theses in which I will focus on the problems that seem unresolved by the respective theory. I begin with an account and a subsequent short discussion of theories of irony from Cicero to Grice to Sperber and Wilson.

2 From the Semantic Theory to the Pragmatic Theory to the Mention Theory of Irony. From Cicero to Grice to Sperber and Wilson

Traditional accounts of irony work via reference to figurative meaning. These are rhetorical definitions of irony. Cicero and Quintilian formulated them. In short, irony was identified as a trope that means the opposite of what is says. Cicero distinguished this type of irony from another one which says something different from what it means. Quintilian introduced a moralistic definition in which irony is admonishment through false praise and praise through false admonishment (cf. Knox 1973:25).

A problem with these short definitions can bee seen when looking at the sentence (1), which is uttered during a downpour.

(1) What lovely weather

A theory that holds that the main feature of irony is that it conveys the opposite of what it says forgets that in the absence of a distinctive intonation, only a certain context can make this utterance ironic. Only if the hearer knows that the speaker’s utterance is false (for example, speaker and hearer are standing in the rain together) or if the hearer knows about the speaker’s beliefs (they are on the phone, and the hearer must know that the speaker does not think the weather is nice since it is raining in his city) is it possible that the utterance (1) is recognized as ironic. Thus, any theory of irony that will not take the context into account, will fail (cf. Blakemore 1992:170).

Grice has claimed that the figurative meaning is not semantic but pragmatic in nature. He has proposed that ironic utterances flout the first maxim of quantity, thus producing the conversational implicature that the speaker means the opposite of what he says. The sentence ‘Today, we have lovely weather’ would be ironic when it’s raining heavily since the speaker utters something that is obviously false. The difference between the traditional and Grice’s theory of irony is merely the quality of the substitution that is made. While traditional theories claim that the substitution is semantic, Grice claims that it is solely pragmatic: it consists of a special kind of conversational implicature in which the first maxim of quality if flouted (cf. Lapp 1995:59ff.). The problem with Grice’s theory is that it does not get away from figurative meaning. Why does it not get away from figurative meaning? First, figurative meanings are hard to define. Since almost every utterance is ambiguous, it should be even harder to find the figurative meaning, even if we take the disambiguating function of context into account (cf. Sperber and Wilson 81:298). According to Sperber and Wilson, a second problem is that Grice must claim that irony conveys something in addition to the literal sense, whereas it in fact substitutes one meaning for the literal one (cf. Sperber and Wilson 81:299). In other words, the notion of irony seems hardly reconcilable with the concept of implicature, unless this concept is seriously distorted. Another shortcoming of Grice’s theory is that it cannot explain the ironic nature of a sentence like

(2) It seems to be raining [it is heavily raining]

(Sperber and Wilson 81:300)

The meaning of the sentence is hardly the opposite of what it says. And yet, we feel compelled to call it ironic. And what would be the opposite meaning of sentence (3), uttered under the same circumstances as the previous utterances?

(3) Did you remember to water the flowers? [it is heavily raining]

(Sperber and Wilson 81:300)

The fact that our question cannot be answered points to a significant deficit in both the semantic and Grice’s pragmatic account of irony. Irony may not be only a case where the first maxim of quality is flouted, but it may involve understatement, inappropriateness or irrelevance (cf. Sperber and Wilson 81:309).

In contrast to Grice, Sperber and Wilson claim that there is exactly one semantic condition for an utterance to be ironic. The only way to understand all given examples (from Sperber and Wilson 81:300) as ironic is to make the distinction between utterances that are used and utterances that are mentioned, i.e., utterances that express a belief about the utterance. The use of an expression involves reference to what the expression refers to. Mention of an expression involves reference to the expression itself (cf. Sperber and Wilson 81:303). Irony is understood as an echoing of a proposition whereby the speaker distances herself from that proposition; it is thus a meta-linguistic phenomenon that seems to bypass figurative meaning. Only in this way, Sperber and Wilson claim, can (2) be explained as ironic, in that it echoes a proposition that is unfit for the given context, thus making clear that the speaker distances himself from the utterance. In their view, there is no figurative meaning because nothing is to be substituted for something else by the hearer in order to understand the irony. Further examples are given (Sperber and Wilson 81:306-8):

(4) a. I’m tired.

b. You’re tired. And what do you think I am.

(5) a. I ’m a reasonable man.

b. Whereas I ’m not (is what you’re implying).

(6) Elinor looked at him with greater astonishment than ever. She began to think he must be in liquor; … and with this impression she immediately rose, saying,

‘Mr Willoughby, I advise you at present to return to Combe – I am not at leisure to remain with you longer. – Whatever your business may be with me, it will be better recollected and explained tomorrow.’

‘I understand you,’ he replied, with an expressive smile, and a voice perfectly calm, ‘yes, I am very drunk. – A pint of porter with my cold beef at Marlborough was enough to over-set me.’

[Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility ]

In (4), a proposition of a. is pretty straightforwardly mentioned by b. Apart from the instant echoing, there are examples like (5) where the proposition mentioned is not one just uttered but what the hearer takes to be a pragmatic implication. Similarly, in (6) it is rather a thought (correctly) attributed to Elinor than a real utterance that is echoed by Mr Willoughby: Willoughby correctly assumes that Elinor thinks he is drunk and consequently utters that he is drunk as an echoing of her thought. All these examples are called ironic by Sperber and Wilson, in that the propositions are mentioned in such a way that the speaker makes clear that he thinks they are false. In the case of Mr Willoughby, this happens by saying “A pint of porter with my cold beef at Marlborough was enough to over-set me,” although it is quite evident that such a small amount of alcohol will not make Willoughby drunk. For the hearer, understanding such an utterance means realizing that it is a case of mention rather than use, and also recognizing the speaker’s attitude to the proposition mentioned (cf. Sperber and Wilson 81:308).


Sperber and Wilson’s theory of irony seems to offer some advantages, but it has its flaws. It becomes clear that the notion of figurative meaning seems to be avoided in some way by Sperber and Wilson, yet this happens at the price of a vagueness that proves to be so great that the theory must collapse. Sperber and Wilson say that ‘the propositions mentioned are ones that have been, or might have been, actually entertained by someone.’ (81:309) They say about ironic utterances that ‘some are immediate echoes, and others delayed; some have their source in actual utterances, others in thoughts or opinions; some have a real source, others an imagined one; some are traceable back to a particular individual, whereas others have a vaguer origin. When the echoic character of the utterance is not immediately obvious, it is nevertheless suggested.’ (81:309f.) I believe this to be a blank cheque for interpretation. The imagination is not checked by any limitation, we must conclude from Sperber and Wilson’s remarks, since a restricting concept like ‘context’ seems to be so broad as to explain everything and nothing at the same time. If, under such circumstances, a proposition can be imagined and then mentioned, pretty much everything can be interpreted as a mentioning of some proposition. The Mention Theory of Irony seems to lose its explanatory power by explaining everything as potentially ironic.[1] This is also the case because Sperber and Wilson do not say enough about how the speaker makes clear that she distances himself from her utterance, thus rendering it ironic. They say much about what irony does but do not go into any depth when talking about its mechanisms. When they say about (2) that it is ironic ‘even when there is no prior utterance’ (81:310), Sperber and Wilson involuntarily concede that they possess no criterion with which to limit the possible number of ironic utterances. The notion of ‘mention’ surely becomes an empty one if there is nothing that can be referred to in an act of mentioning. And in fact, where should the mentioned proposition in (2) come from? In my view, Sperber and Wilson cannot give a good answer. The problem is related to a question raised by Barbe: How are, according to Sperber and Wilson, ‘novel’ ironies possible that do not rest on a known background? And what are the differences between irony and allusion (cf. Barbe 1995:47f.)?


[1] According to Lapp (1992:78), Clark and Gerrig (1984:123f.) were the first to argue that the mention theory is an anything-goes-theory.

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Ironie -Theorie und Praxis
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