In the „Dialectic of Enlightenment“, against the background of Nazi-Germany, Horkheimer and Adorno attempt to develop a genealogy of totalitarian systems in general. In a process they see continued and reinforced by the Enlightenment, they discover an emergence of totalitarian thinking. Critically reflecting on what enlightened thinking entails, a thinking which is the foundation of the society in which they lived, they appear anti-foundational. Nietzsche, considered an anti-foundationalist, is crucial for thinkers of Social Theory. Indeed, both were thorough readers of Nietzsche.

Horkheimer and Adorno predate the process of enlightenment long before Kant. They discover as its basic drive the ancient struggle for self-preservation in so far as „human beings have always had to choose between their subjugation to nature and its subjugation to the self.“ [1]. Together with the fear of nature – that „noonday panic fear in which nature suddenly appeared to humans as an all-encompassing power“ [1] – it results in an attempt to liberate oneself by trying to understand nature. They see this attempt Kant-like as „the doubling of nature into appearance and essence, effect and force“ [1], which had already been taken place in the epoch of myths: it is „ made possible by myth no less than by science“ [1].

According to Adorno/Horkheimer, in that epoch, in which human traits were projected onto gods, the subject (human as investigator) and the object (nature) were not yet separated. Humans could not yet oppress human nature. They agree with Nietzsche, who sees natural instincts as “human, all-too-human” [2] traits (for the last time) embraced in Greek mythology: “this … is revealed by the merest glance at the Greek gods, those reflections of noble and self-controlled man, in whom the animal in man felt himself deified” [2]. But whereas Nietzsche only goes so far as to present mythology as life-affirmative, for Horkheimer/Adorno it constitutes humankind’s early attempt to make the world predictable (“Myth sought to report, to name, to tell of origins … therefore also to narrate, record, explain“ [1]), and controllable (“Each ritual contains a representation … of the specific process which is to be influenced by magic.“ [1]).

With the Enlightenment humankind has the tools, and the fear of unknown nature starts to debunk the myths: „Humans believe themselves free of fear when there is no longer anything unknown. This has determined the path of demythologization, of enlightenment“ [1]. Now being able to deprive the gods of their power, human’s unleashed urge for domination takes over the process: “Ruthless toward itself, the Enlightenment has eradicated the last remnant of its own self-awareness. Only thought which does violence to itself is hard enough to shatter myths.” [1]

According to Nietzsche, humans developed the ability of generalizing objects into quantities and calculating via the “principle of equivalence” long before the Enlightenment, Those capabilities have their origin in humans prehistoric relationships to each other as „creditor and debtor“. Nietzsche supposes that from those faculties originates human’s superior feeling towards the animal kingdom: man as the “measuring animal”, equivalent to consciousness. Thinking has become calculating before the Enlightenment, and it possesses the potential for domination.

For Horkheimer/Adorno, these faculties – equating and calculating-  play an important in the progress of Enlightenment. The Bourgeois uses them for their predominance: „Bourgeois society is ruled by equivalence. It makes dissimilar things comparable by reducing them to abstract quantities” [1].  Furthermore, “for the Enlightenment, anything which cannot be resolved into numbers, and ultimately into one, is illusion“ [1]. Put differently: qualities become illusions, because illusions are not to be dominated. Expelling the indomitable gives the illusion of total dominance. Enlightened thinking, under the spell of domination, cannot recognize this illusion: it becomes a totalitarian myth.

Domination strives to transform the object into generalized quantities – but generalization goes at the expense of the individuality of the single case. Humans have individual qualities; they do not fit easily into the general mold. Their self has to be reduced to unified entities, by social coercion if necessary: „because that self never quite fitted the mold, enlightenment … has always sympathized with social coercion. The unity of the manipulated collective consists in the negation of each individual“ [1].  Totalitarianism can spread to the social realm.

With science and mathematics, generalization and calculation, Enlightenment possesses the tools of domination. Transferring those tools also to society and law, Enlightenment experiences a regress to an all-encompassing driving force: progress is subjected to the primitive force of domination. Enlightenment, according to H/A reducing and coercing humans and society into calculable, controllable entities, driven by the inexorable “will-to-power”, inevitably ends up in that dialectical state Horkheimer/Adorno diagnose: in two inseparable, parallel processes of liberation over nature as progressive process and violence against human nature as regression. Nietzsche states why separation from animal nature is pernicious: it causes self-inflicted suffering; “man’s suffering from man, from himself, this is a result of a violent separation from his animal past”. [2]

Both Nietzsche and Horkheimer/Adorno diagnose negative, oppressing forces in the progress of Enlightenment. Whereas for the first, the process merely entails an unhealthy state for the individual and society, the latter discover in it a precarious product: enlightened thinking, able to subsume everything under its paradigm, gives rise to totalitarian thinking and becomes a myth it is unable to debunk by itself.

(1) Horkheimer/Adorno: Dialectic of Enlightenment

(2) Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals


Applied concepts of Intercultural Communication in the context of corporate discourse

Moscow collage

By User:Russavia [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

La Plage digitale 2

By Pierre Rudloff (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons








How can Russian culture be taken into account in a corporate discourse context?

From the perspective of a Western European, having come into contact with Russian colleagues in an international technology context, I am going to single out three scales of the Cultural Orientation Model (COM) [1], on which I have seen significant cultural gaps between Russian and Western European preferences as explicated by the lectures and the readings of the MOOC Understanding Russians: Contexts of Intercultural Communication. The focus is on inclinations rather than norms, which makes these observation more subjective, as the Cultural Orientation Identificator also identifies inclinations rather than norms. Among each of these three dimensions, one scale is going to be singled out, and a way how to overcome them in the discourse community ‘workplace’ is proposed.

  1. Sense of Self: Collective/Individualistic scale – here referred to the we(+)-them(-) concept
  2. Thinking Style : Past/Future orientation
  3. Interaction Style : Particularistic/Universalistic scale

1. A substantial cultural gap pertains to the realm of Basic World Values, that is, to the Russian inclination of making a judgmental distinction [2] between “Us” (good) and “Them” (bad). This might constitute a substantial obstacle because it does not exist in such an overt manifestation in European culture, and can therefore be easily misconstrued. One would put this onto the COI scale ‘Collective/Individualistic’, because Russian collectivism in face of a dangerous outside world is the historical cause for this dichotomy. Furthermore, a self, centered in individualism, is much less inclined to see an outside group as dangerous. Hence, referring to ‘Schwartz Theory of Basic Values’ [3], one tends to put this dichotomy into the category of “Conversation”, somewhere located above the adjacent dimensions “Conformity” and “Security”. Security is achieved by in-group conformity. Hence, to overcome this special gap, one has to provide security by alternative means, or transcend the perceived threat emanating from the outside world.

At the workplace, it is not seldom reported that a group of Russian employees shows signs of segregation, sometimes even towards its most direct, non-Russian colleagues. This phenomenon is primarily accounted for by those Basic World Values of We-and-Them; non-Russian-speaking colleagues are perceived as a threat, and the in-group provides security. In order of overcome this cultural inclination of segregation, a corporation may consider developing an alternative sense of ‘We’, for example by repeatedly emphasizing the company’s character as ‘family”, that different ‘We’. Simultaneously, it has to be made palpable that cultural differences are embraced, by being culturally sensitive, i.e. by showing a basic understanding of cultural specifics in daily communication. Thusly, an alternative in-group is created, and a feeling of inadequacy because of one’s cultural peculiarities is avoided. One might argue that this approach be too obvious and has a pejorative connotation to it. Nevertheless, in the business context discourse, certain formulations have always had a pragmatic touch, that of doing business as frictionless as possible, and, therefore, are mutually accepted. Hence, interspersing language elements like “We are a family”, promoting corporation solidarity, wrapped in Solidarity Politeness (which is particularily embraced in Russian culture [4]) has already become good practice in many international companies.

2. At the workplace, cultural gaps in thinking style also matter. Taking a look at the difference between traditional Russian ‘past/present’ versus Western ‘future’ orientation [5], a difference in this scale becomes relevant in so far as orientation on the past and present bears consequences when it comes to cooperation; there is no such thing as a real agenda to determine future outcomes; things can go pear-shaped, and, with the Russian preference to utter what one thinks is true [6], but also not to be direct with superiors [7], an utterance like “Yes, we will do it” is not to be understood as a “Yes”, but as a “Maybe”. This is well-understood in the Russian high-context culture, but Western supervisors may misconstrue it as affirmation, and consequently run the risk of being disappointed, or even feeling deceived. Even though American culture knows the concept of ‘White Lies’ [8], it does not apply here, because neither is the purpose sparing the other person, but avoiding breaking negative news, and nor it is meant as a lie, but as a high-context utterance. Hence, overcoming this gap requires Western superiors to learn about the Russian high-context discourse. Enlightened about the background, they can reemphasize the importance of business demands, or attempt to lower the power distance (P-) by employing solidarity politeness, in order to invite employees to communicate more directly just as they would with colleagues. A misleading high-context ‘Yes’ would then transform into a low-context ‘Maybe’.

3. Russian tendency for particularistic thinking versus European universalistic view may lead, in the business context, to the notion that rules do not apply to everybody to the same extent. Consequently, this might lead to misunderstandings and conflicts. In Western European culture, universal equality before the law and the rules of public cohabitation are mutually accepted, and any deviation from it is widely frowned upon as nepotism. In contrast, Russian are more particularistic. The acute status consciousness of Russian business people , that is, status matters and ‘the boss is the boss’ [9] can be categorized as a manifestation of this characteristic. In contrast, in Anglo-European business discourse, a person-oriented enterprise culture [10], asupervisor is seen rather as a coordinator. A cultural gap arises when Russian employees resort to a deferential and indirect communication style, while, at the same time, the Western employees prefer the direct way. Overcoming this gap would again require diminishing the power distance (P-), and hence to some extent abolishing the special status the supervisor has as an authority figure towards ‘primus inter pares’, the first among equals.

In conclusion, the focus was set on pointing out cultural gaps in the sense of obstacles to overcome in a corporation discourse context. I am well aware that there are positive cultural differences between the Western Europeans and Russians on the COI scales, which could be harnessed for the good of a corporation culture, but those may be the subject of a different essay. Not least, in such instances as investigated, I would prefer putting the emphasis on taking a look at which problems and grievances are there to be improved and overcome, before attending to the positive that is to be promoted – the latter probably culturally independent.


[1] Understanding the Cultural Orientations Approach: An Overview of the Development and Updates to the COA by Joerg Schmitz, Page 8, Table 1: Final Continua and Dimension.

In the dimension of “Interactive Style”, how we handle conflict, disagreements and discords is assigned the continua “Indirect/Direct”. Time-management is depicted on the continuum “Fluid-Fixed”. Within the dimension of “Thinking Style” the way how information is processed is assigned to the scale “Mutli-Focus/Single-Focus”.

[2] Lecture 2.8, Basic values of Russian culture 17:54

“To always distinguish between “us(+)’ and “them(-)”

Lecturer Mira Bergelson: “[…] And one very important aspect for, that characterizes Russians and be seen, can be seen in various situations is to always distinguish us, which are good. Positive and them which are, so to say negatively assessed. Each culture will discriminate between in group and out group, but the amount of this discrimination or better, the strength of borders of the walls that exist. And constructed between us and them, these things really characterize culture. And then this aspect Russian culture, really. Puts sort of heavy, heavy walls and heavy borders between us and them. It can be seen both in the way people deal with strangers and with the familiars and intimates. […]”

[3] An Overview of the Schwartz Theory of Basic Values, Shalom H. Schwartz, page 10

j) tradition and security–preserving existing social arrangements that give certainty to life;

k) conformity and security–protection of order and har mony in relations;

[4] Mira Bergelson. Russian Cultural Values and Workplace Communication Patterns, page 7

Russian vs. Americans:

[…] Value solidarity politeness more than deferential politeness[…] […]Taken collectively, Russians are more insistent on expressing and reviving solidarity politeness […]

[5] Lecture 2.10, Russian Cultural Dimensions: Time and Action, 12:22

Lecturer Mira Bergelson: “Russia, Russians show strong preferences, or better say, have a strong orientation toward past and present, probably not future.”

[6] Russian Cultural Scripts: The theory of cultural scripts and its applications;, page 13

[…] Like pravda, truth, too, refers in its meaning to speech, but it is not as exclusively focussed on speech: the important thing is not so much to tell the truth as to know the truth. From a Russian point of view, people want people to tell pravda to others […]

[7] Lecture 4.8, Russian Communication in Comparison at ca. 11:58

“[…] when we talk about the situation with some social hierarchy because hierarchy is an important part of Russian culture […] So, here people would like to be indirect. For instance in the corporate discourse situations, Russians do not like to deliver bad news or provide negative feedback. […] They will therefore they will go to great length to avoid or at least delay this. […] sometimes it can even lead to situations where in a business context the Russian employee will say yes when they really me, mean maybe or no. […]”

[8] Russian Cultural Scripts: The theory of cultural scripts and its applications;, page 5

[…]On the other hand, it is not regarded as acceptable to lie to another person under any circumstances (and there is no expression in Russian corresponding to the English “white lies”[…]

[9] Lecture 5.10, Russian Corporate Discourse, 14:51

[…] The Russian side is acutely status conscious, which means that Russians don’t like if a person of certain status has to have negotiation with someone who is lower in status as he or she sees it, not the of course normally had because you find much more bosses, male bosses and female bosses in such negotiations. […]


[…] Some Russia enterprises succeed due to person-oriented organizational culture. Top professionals with high level of personal responsibility work in such organizations as a rule. Person-oriented organizational culture gives huge possibilities both for meeting ambitious needs and for realization of personal interests and initiative of employees. It is based upon the ability of employees to come to compromise and their independence from each other. As a rule activity of employees is not controlled but only co-coordinated by their supervisors […]

Sitting in the lounge of the local health center, hosting a couple of physicians of various fields, with a long desk as the reception, one can observe people coming and going, interacting with each other verbally or non-verbally. Visitors coming through the big automatic front glass door immediately feel themselves observed by other people once they step into the brightly-lit hall.

The receptionists at the long counter, all of which young females in their twenties, observe people entering, and estimate and await their concerns. The people waiting in the lounge, patients themselves or accompanying their relatives, are busy doing something. Many pass their time by watching the folks in the hall, finding some places to put their eyes on even if for a brief moment.

Those who enter, once they realize that other people are watching them start acting differently. Their gazes become focused towards where they are heading – the reception desk. This is a form of politely and non-verbally saying something in the vein of “I do not notice you watching me.”

Some, accustomed to always greeting and being hailed back, mumble or shout a short and impersonal “Morning”, hoping tacitly at least somebody may hail back. Indeed, even though not everybody responds, at least someone always does. That gives those the minimum recognition for which they hope. Feeling acknowledged and with a slight sense of satisfaction, those steer towards to the reception desk, repeating the perfunctory ‘Morning’: „I have an appointment with Dr. Cornell.” „Sure, what’s your name?“


Beethoven 1801 by Carl Traugott Riedel

Timewarp to 1802 – a comtemporary’s view

Be prepared to travel on new emotional paths

Beethoven also titled this sibling of 1801 „almost a fantasy“. The more than unusual first movement not only does away with a stringent notion of  a fantasia, the piece dismantles more – not only that it flouts the familiar fast-slow-fast structure.

First movement

Structurally, a surprise comes already in the first movement. Not only does it not give the piece its character early (that is delayed until the end), not only is it not a fast and lively movement (it is an Adagio sostenuto instead of an Allegro) – it is not even in any sonata form with which we are familiar.

Admittedly, there are two minimally contrasting themes, the first one mostly unaltered throughout the movement – even though is shows some variety later – the second one more malleable, „away“ and somehow contrasting the first, but in tonality as well as in overall atmosphere there is not as much difference as we might expect from the first movement in a piano sonata, a symphony or a string quartet. What the first movement appears can be compared probably – if we are forced to give a category – to something like a fantasia without appearing improvised (albeit, his talent for it comes handy), or a prelude we know from Bach. We are introduced, but we are not proposed as to what comes later.

We are presented two topics here. The first topic consisting of mournful base and a lamenting ostinato in triplet, the second one is a “dotted” funeral-march-like “hymn” (1). We might feel in familiar waters. However, there is no masculine vs. feminine contrast here, as it has often been the case, in particular in some of Mozart’s sonatas. The movement appears genderless. Both topics stay in C-sharp minor and both stick to the same heavy and menacing atmosphere. Beethoven demands it to be played without dampers, further diminishings the contrast: “the harmonies mingle like in water” (2). The most salient distinguishing feature from the sonata form is that we are not going anywhere. We never leave home, we never leave the exposition. There is no development. Hence, we also do not return home in a recapitulation. The movement eschews the sonata form – not only by being extremely slow.

It does not even provide a „home“ as might be expected from an exposition. The atmosphere is, before anything else, menacing – not a pleasant atmosphere you consider home. We experience a contrast between the mournful triplet, which is the ever mournful background, and the lamenting theme, undulating around that mournful background. It never breaks free – it rather delivers associations emanating from a fixed vantage point, which appears as ghostly voices getting to us through the fog.

If we ascribe a trait to the first movement, with its heavy C-sharp minor, it appears as a fist-swinging, a curbed exposition of power, like a tiger in a cage. The coda, returning to the base, gives the impression of that strength caving in, after having been struggling stationary, sinking in to itself. Nothing has been accomplished. The coda means death. It does not becomes clear whether the preceding associations were just memories of a past live or feverish fantasies. What remains is silence and a huge question mark.

Second movement

What a surprise and contrast. Abruptly, we appear out of the “abyss” (3), in life again, and we don’t even know how we’ve got here. Still, we feel a connection to the preceding situation: the key is D-flat major, the parallel enharmonic to the C-sharp minor of the first movement. It is a light-hearted Scherzo in allegretto, but it stays in piano just like the adagio movement. Hence, we do not leap fully into live, but, at least we feel that inner strength by means of interspersed subito sforzandos and forte-pianos.

A scherzo in the middle is familiar to us, so usually we would not expect anything signficantly different here, Yet, with the first movement having been slow, dreamy and fixated, we are not prepared to what is to be expected in the next movement. Hence, it is still a surprise, considering anything could have happened. The most probable thing we expect after the very long exposition – which essentially is the first movement – is a development section a sonata form owes us, a journey taking us away with familiar themes in the knapsack – but it doesn’t. The second movement rips us away, it relocates us out of left field someplace else, without any experience of a journey. A question mark remains. That way, Beethoven keeps us in suspense – at a point, at which usually we have the feeling the main plot is already in the rear mirror.

At this point, we would expect to have the typical sonatas journey ‘home-away-home’ behind us. Yet, we haven not been away in the first place! Furthermore, what has happened during that miraculous leap from the mortal first movement to the very alive scherzo – we don’t know. Hence, we expect an explanation after the scherzo, a big question remains unanswered, We want to know the whole story.

Third movement

We approach the last movement with great expectations, hoping for a redemption.

Beethoven makes up for everything he has withheld from us so far, and even more. We not only have our fast movement, we also have our sonata form, but – almost as a shock – an “inferno”-like piece   (4) in presto-agitato. Structurally, it is the sonata form we are familiar with: an exposition of two contrasting themes, repeated once, the main theme in the tonic C-sharp minor, the side theme in the dominant key G-sharp minor, a journey in the development with frequent key changes, finding the home key from the dominant when returning home in the recapitulation, concluded with a coda. The coda is tradtionally short; Beethoven’s appears to have left his aberration to extreme long and distant coda like in his sonata E-flat major from 1796/97 (annotation: Opus 7) behind him.

Nevertheless, do not expect a Haydn-, Mozart-, not even Early-Beethoven-trajectory here. It keeps the form, but not the path.

The movement opens with a menacing theme in the exposition, reminiscent of the main theme from the first movement. Admittedly, the second theme reminds us of a short motif in Mozart’s sonata in C major of 1775 with a subdued entertaining character, yet merely for the sake of some contrast. It does not chip away from the permanently agitated character of the entire movement. Emotionally, there is not much of a contrast.

In the development and terrifying in the finale, the so far suppressed energy is unleashed, the tiger is out of his cage. What is revolutionary about the piece: the last movement, the finale, becomes the highlight, the pinnacle of the dramatic endpoint of a trajectory, known so far as leading us down from an early pinnacle to a undramatic end. The finale of the last movement does not feel like a homecoming in a recapitulation. It is even more shaking and agitating. Beethoven already does something similiar in the coda of the E-flat major sonata, but that seems outside the sonata form. Here it is part of it.

Beethoven has turned the familiar trajectory upside-down, following a natural path of emotions rather than an artificial form, the course of suppression and explosion of personal rage. He pushes the boundaries of what we are able to experience as instrumental music, a little more away from prescribed structure towards individualistic expression, making it are more direct emotional and personal experience without the detour over form as intellect.

Klemens Großmann, May 2014


Jenő Jandó – Beethoven Sonatas, No. 14, Opus 27/2:

1st mvmt:

2nd mvmt:

3rd mvmt:

1) 2) 3) 4) Andras Schiff’s lectures on Beethoven’s piano sonatas, Moonlight sonata:

Dreyers “Ordet “ deals with the contrast of religious faith in different manifestations with human needs, represented by the characters in the coffin room. The parson is institutionalized faith, the patriarchs religious movements outside the established church – dogmatic and diametrical opposed. In Johannes we find spirituality outside of any accepted mold and innocent faith in the child. Beyond is life affirmation with its emotional and sexual needs, crossing the opposites and rescued by undogmatic spiritualism.

The style is mostly aesthetic and cold. The interior of the room is furnished scantily with objects symbolizing the inner reality of the characters. The clock as a symbol of time having come to a halt reflects the mindset of mourners, the light falling through the window hope in the face of death. The slow paces of the actors convey meaning while giving a sense of disturbing detachment.

These stylistic features let the notion of meaning and inner reality dominate the perception of the audience – and hold it in suspense [1] [2]. A natural inclination of resolving those disturbances get disposed spectators involved in creating meaning.

A similar effect have long shots and facial close-ups, commenting as mirrors of the souls“ the external on-goings: we see the child smile upon the resurrection. Emotional identification keeps the audience connected while conveying abstract concepts. [3]

Nevertheless, relationships remain crucial. Actors are shown only either as seen by others -we see Johannes entering through the eyes of the others – or in interplay with others. Isolated people are merely on their way between two places of social interaction – the coach drives are cross-cuttings between scenes of interaction. Hence, the density of characters in the coffin room accounts for the relatively high number of shots, still serving the „life of the film“ rather than the „life of the story“. [4]


[1] Casper Tybjerg: Forms of the intangible: Carl Th. Dreyer and the concept of ‘transcendental style’, 2008, page 71

[…] The vague sense of higher meaning created by the stylistic features, as we have seen, ‘tantalizes’ the spectator and encourages meaning-making; thematic elements may suggest some kinds of meaning rather than others, but they will remain spectator constructions. […]

[2] Casper Tybjerg: Forms of the intangible: Carl Th. Dreyer and the concept of ‘transcendental style’, 2008, page 64

[…] This emerges because the spectator gradually ‘senses there are deep, untapped feelings just below the surface’ (Schrader 1972: 44, original emphasis). The depth and strength of these feelings seem incompatible with the ‘cold, sparse stylization’ of the surface of the film (Schrader 1972: 161) […]

[3] Donald Skoller (publisher), Dreyer in Double Reflection: Carl Dreyer’s Writings on Film, 1973

[…] that which cannot be explained but only felt […]

[4] Casper Tybjerg: Forms of the intangible: Carl Th. Dreyer and the concept of ‘transcendental style’, 2008 page 69

[…] In the same way a painter doesn’t express himself through colours but through the relation of colours; a blue colour is blue in itself, but if it is next to a green colour, or a red, or a yellow, it is no longer the same blue: it changes. We must arrive at the point where a film plays on relations of images; there is an image, then another which has relational values, that is to say that the first one is neutral and that suddenly, in the presence of the other one, it vibrates, life bursts into it: and it’s not so much the life of the story, the characters, it is the life of the film. From the moment the image lives, you make cinema. (Bresson 1957: 4) […]


By Neils Christian Kierkegaard, via Wikimedia Commons

Sǿren Kierkegaard, widely regarded as the philosopher of Christian faith, has nevertheless been an inspirational figure for various schools of thoughts, like existentialism and several trends of art. At first glance, this appears contradictory; after all, official Christianity is usually associated with dogmatism and narrow traditions, which often constitute a straitjacket for the individual. How then could it happen that the Christian philosopher Kierkegaard could have become so influential for a variety of philosophical and artistic currents? Its crucial to emphasize that, before being a philosopher for the faith, he was first and foremost an avid proponent of subjectivity and the integrity of the individual.

What did Kierkegaard learn from his study of Socrates?

Often inadvertently swept under the carpet – on account of Kierkegaard himself having excluded his master thesis “On The Concept of Irony” from his authorship – is the fact that the profound influence of Socrates made the Danish philosopher highly concerned with individual freedom. As a pivotal aspect, Kierkegaard adopted from Socrates the ironic stance towards an objective outward actuality, such as society, traditions and religious doctrines – in short, to ethical concepts established outside of the individual. Thusly, he asserted what was in Socrates’ age the unthinkable: subjectivity in social, political or moral matters.

According to Kierkegaard, the origin of the concept of irony is to be traced back to Socrates while an authentic view on Socrates is of the essence, ”because the concept of irony makes its entry into the world through Socrates.“ [‘CI,9]. Kierkegaard sees in Socrates an embodiment of what we may call a tool for the negation of actuality, a “negative concept” [CI,12] : “He was not like a philosopher delivering his opinions in such a way that just the lecture itself is the presence of the idea, but what Socrates said meant something different. The outer was not at all in harmony with the inner but was rather its opposite, and only under this angle of refraction is he to be comprehended. ” [CI,12]

Hence, Socratic irony is the distance of the individual to positive concepts to such an extent that Socrates himself did not mean what he said; the speech itself contains the negation of what is said: Socrates knew that he did not know anything. This is the utmost distance the ironist can take, a negation of the actuality – which external objective truth purports to be-  and it is the foundation for subjectivity and the freedom of the individual. Kierkegaard writes: “Irony is a qualification of subjectivity. In irony, the subject is negatively free since the actuality that is supposed to give the subject content is not there. He is free from the constraint in which the given actuality holds the subject, but he is negatively free and as such is suspended because there is nothing that holds him.” [CI,262]

Equally, if everything can only be negated, rather than affirmed, the individual’s inner oracle for decision-making must not claim anything positive either. Instead, it has to be a negative voice as well; it can only warn against something. This harkens back to Socrates daimon, which, according to his defense [AP] had always reliably dissuaded him from engaging in politics. Kierkegaard accepted this warning voice and its negativity: “What I, on the other hand, would like to point out to the reader is significant for the whole conception of Socrates: namely, that this daimon is represented only as a warning, not as commanding-that is as negative and not as positive.” [CI,159].

Albeit Socrates’ daimon is not conscience itself, it is nevertheless subjective. With irony’s negation of the validity of external actuality, is possesses credibility for the individual. As an admirer of Socrates, for Kierkegaard it had credibility and contributes to the individual’s freedom. With the daimon – even though according to Hegel not wholly subjective but still something external – being present in and audible only to the individual, the individual gains an independence of acting more subjectively. Historically, the daimon’s impact goes even further: it transfers the outside religious voice into the individual – a step towards religious freedom.

Closely related to irony’s negating stance towards the positive is the Socratic state of aporia: a dialog ends up in the negative, without answer, without postive conclusion. This state was an objective because the concept of ironyof Socrates questioning his erudite contemporaries about their knowledge. Asking those often highly-esteemed citizens to give an explanation for something, for example virtue, Socrates’ intentions were twofold: First, he attempted to arrive from the particular to the universal, that is, the absolute concept, and second, to liberate his fellow-humans from their misconceptions – exactly because in many cases there no such thing as an absolute. Apart from that, it seems probable that debunking the ignorance of socially highly-esteemed citizens helps undermine the customary ethics of society – and thusly strengthening the position of the individual against the universal.

For Kierkegaard, these Socratic methods were tools for something dear to his heart: to rid people of dangerous misconceptions about Christian faith lest they end up in a seemingly secure state which actually leads to perdition. Revealing the absurdity of the claims of the clergy by means of Socrates irony (“I am ignorant”) and evoking the state of aporia is for Kierkegaard as much as for Socrates the premise for something also very Socratic: the art of midwifery or maieutics, that is, Socrates method of bringing to the fore the truth which is already present in the individual. According to Socrates, nothing cannot be taught from the outside, and by reducing religious claims to its absurdity and coming into the state of aporia, the individual is free to discover the subjective truth by itself.

Most importantly, for Kierkegaard this truth often stops short of the paradox, irreconcilable with an enlightened mind. An example for this the Christian notion of Jesus’ duality as God-human. According to Kierkegaard, this is to remain a paradox of either-or which the individual should cease trying to resolve and expound in rational terms to others. According to Kierkegaard and in contrast to Hegel “the truth eternity does not lie behind either/or, but before it” [EO,39]. This amounts to Kierkegaard’s notion that subjective truth is not supposed to be communicable to others because language is universal, hence the message would distort the subjective truth. Hence, Kierkegaard sets up a place for the absurd in order to maintain its validity for the individual.

More to the point, this inwardness of truth as a highly subjective conviction entails for Kierkegaard something even more radical. The inward truth becomes so much congruent with the individual’s spiritual identity and existence that betraying it would be tantamount to spiritual death, so that even physical death is a prize worth paying: “My sole thought is some day to dare in conversation to come closer to that Greek wise man [Socrates] whom I admire, that Greek wise man who laid down his life for what he had understood and once again would joyfully have risked his life in order to understand more, since he considered being in error the most terrible thing of all. “ [SLW,482]

Why is this connection between Socrates and Kierkegaard still relevant in the world today?

In Socrates’ time, with oracles and ubiquitous natural religion, subjectivity was an inconceivable thing, and Socrates’ thoughts might appear relevant only against the background of that society, so it seems that in a modern, enlightened age, with Kant’s imperative to think for oneself, Socrates has lost its relevance. Still, Kierkegaard managed to transfer Socrates’ irony and subjectivity into a different age with different demands, making Socrates still relevant for us today.

The enlightened age has not always been as individualistic as it might appear. Despite Kant’s original demand, the trajectory of the Enlightenment features a prevalence of outwardly objective science, sometimes at the expense of the individual. Objective scientific truth is inclined to leave the individual in the dark about how it has personal validity,. because this belongs to “the purely personal life with which science and scholarship admittedly are not involved” [CI,166]. This was already an issue in Kierkegaard’s age: “Particularly in our age, irony must be commended. In our age, scientific scholarship has come into possession of such prodigious achievements that there must be something wrong somewhere; knowledge …. is offered for sale at such a bargain price today that it all looks very dubious. … we have forgotten that an achievement is worthless if it is not made one’s own. But woe to him who cannot bear to have irony seek to balance the accounts. Irony as the negative is the way; it is not the truth but the way.” [CI,327].

Hence, Socratic irony helps the individual not to be appropriated by outside demands and outside objectivity, but rather to appropriate outside claims for itself and screen out those demands which have no value for the individual’s personal life. Kierkegaard writes: “In our age, there has been much talk about the importance of doubt for science and scholarship, but what doubt is to science, irony is to personal life.” [CI,326]. Hence, Socratic irony is the tool of validation for the individual. Especially today, in a world of mass media, Sophists are probably even more ubiquitous than in Socrates’ time. We are permanently exposed to rhetoric and positivist argumentation which are supposed to convince us. So there is an urgent need for the individual to weed out the plethora of demands and information and keep a distance, lest it winds up in a state of mental overload and depression.

Furthermore, Kierkegaard’s connection to Socrates’ aporia tackles the problem of subjective religious freedom under a secular universal law. Whereas the idea – embracing the non-communicable and subjective paradox as valid –  was for Kierkegaard a struggle against the ubiquitous Christian dogmatism of his age, today it offers an aspect how to deal with religious freedom. Following Kierkegaard, the individual can find a way of embracing religious conviction inwardly and still taking responsibility for its behavior in the secular world, exactly because the subjective can never serve as justification. This way, a religious person can strike the balance between religious conviction and the validity of secular law. Therefore, Kierkegaard’s Socratic aporian embrace of the paradox and the religious absurd adds to the separation of religious conviction and secular law, each having their validity in separate realms.

In a broader sense, in a cosmopolitan age, in which most societies are secularized and united in terms of what is legally permissible and what is punishable, the individual, often still coming from a religious and traditional background, has to strike a balance between his individual convictions – what he considers as the truth and a guideline for his life – and behavior according to a universally ethical law. It is the struggle of being faithful to one’s internal law while complying with the rules for the sake of cohabitation of a variety of different people. Kierkegaard’s socratic emphasis on the individual’s integrity brings relevant aspects on the table and speaks on behalf of the individual.

Referring to Horkheimers and Adornos Critical Theory, seeing a negative dialectic in the trajectory of the Enlightenment with an emergence of totalitarian thinking towards the quantitative to which the individual not fitting into this mold is in danger of falling by the wayside – that is, either being subsumed or ignored, In a world in which scientific empiricism and rationality has spread to the social realm and often determines what to embrace and what to reject, non-quantifiable aspect the individuals are in danger of being oppressed. Kierkegaard’s embrace of a non-communicable subjectivity offers encouragement for the individual to decide for itself even against a scientific mainstream, lest the potential of a wise subjective decision is wasted. Sometimes, a decision based on non-communicable subjectivity might be the better one. Just because it is not communicable, one cannot justify it, and hence can pratice self-responsibility.


[CI] Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony

[AP], Plato, The Apology of Socrates

{SLW] Kierkegaard, Stages on Life’s Way

[EO] Kierkegaard, Either/Or 1

Joseph Haydn

Joseph Haydn, portrait by Thomas Hardy

I’ve chosen Haydn’s piano sonata in E-flat major, Hob.XVI:52, as emblematic for Haydn’s late take on the piano sonata form, vicarious for the three so-called „English sonatas“, in a recording by Mehmet Okonsar.

Upfront: As a similarity to Beethoven sonatas of 1809. both Haydn and Beethoven are not exactly fond of the traditional role and expression of the piano sonatas. Both are playful and to some extent bold, even cheeky and clearly not for those sonata listeners who are seeking for a secure and resting vantage point, especially not emotionally. Both composers – Haydn even more than Beethoven – take us on an adventerous journey, in particular by means of unexpected key changes.

Compared in terms of structure, Beethoven steers away almost completely from the symphonic three-movement structure „fast-slow-fast“ in his opus of 1809: Opus 77 is a one-movement fantasy, Opus 78 comprises only two movements (slow-fast, fast), and Opus 81 has a trilogy-like structure: slow – leisurely – vivacious, depicting the timeless topics farewell, absence and return. Haydn, in contrast wide keeps the familiar three-movement structure of fast-slow-fast.

Looking at Beethoven opus 78, what is striking in the key first movement, vicarious also for Opus 81a to some degree in so far as every theme, every topic, every mood takes its righteous place. Beethoven has endowed each of it with an obvious raison d’être, widely in respectful neighbourhood to others. Contrasting topics and moods coexist without disturbing each other. As different as they may be – pensive, joyful, upbeat, pessimistic – surprisingly, they do not conflict with each other whenever they encounter. Richness and variety without conflict is the hallmark feature of those of Beethoven sonata, even in the case of Fantasy Opus 77, appearing perfectly improvised.

Beethoven of 1809 uses something which had not been common for sontats until then: a long introduction and a unusual coda in the first movement of Opus 78. Haydn did not do this.

Worth mentioning with respect to juxtaposing Beethoven sonatas with Haydn’s late sonata is a use of humour. Even though in the very short second movement of Opus 78, Beethoven shows humour –  for Beethoven’s sonata admittedly not that frequent – , opera of that time did not distinguish itself by wit.


Beethoven, circa 1811, by Carl Schloesser

In contrast, Haydn’s late „English sonatas“ are in in both respects -conflictlessness and a forgoing of humor- a striking difference. Already Haydn’s Hob.XVI:50 is – predominantly in its first movements – a cornucopia of wit. Also, in particular in the second half of Haydn’s Hob.XVI:52, witty cheekiness is found all over the place: Seriousness and gravity repeatedly tries to establish itself and to take center stage, but is repeatedly mockingly and teasingly interrupted and shunt by mirth and  sassy, buoyant sequences of sounds: Gravity gets not foot in the door, no matter often is tries to assert itself. Joyful and upbeat tunes sneeringly imitate the serious tones and shunt them. Those youthful forces are chasing each other like frolicking siblings. in some parts, the “old” and “grumpy” voice almost sulkily heckles from the background, and it is immediately put in its place by joyful voices.

Hob.XVI:50 does completely without an introduction, and opens with a short and festive motif  – a baroque motif, which is repeated again several time over the course of the movements, but is very quickly, after being echoes, replaced by something else. Haydn raises an expectation, but dispels it immediately, again leaving you confused about what is to come. Apart from Beethoven forgoing Baroque motive completely, Haydn – using the Baroque motive only for a cheeky confusion, does not establish anything of substance in the beginning.

In the slow movement of Hob.XVI:52, the Adagio. Haydn shows a relaxed mirth and an optimistic serenity, which is it is always expressed neither decrepit nor weak, but with force and energy. The strokes demand and express physical strength. Right at the beginning, Haydn’s slow movement takes up a key which came up in the first movement as suprising hovering points between the dominant and the tonic and which  was unconcluded, but in the second movmentwe feel that we are arriving where we were travelling to in the first movement. The second movement is an arrival, whereas in Beethoven the slow movements appear as a journey of its own beetween two fast movements. Furthermore, Haydn’s slow movement is imbued by optimism and strength, whereas the slow movements of Beethoven 1809 sonatas are mean to be, before anything else, beautiful.

Listening to Haydn Hob.XVI:52, the expectations of a rather festive Baroque piece is soon dispersed (to some relief), and one feels challenged by the chase of variations, and, predominantly in the second half the movements, which an amusement about the lovely cheekiness of joyful voices towards grumpiness.

It seems as Haydn, in his late sonatas, does away with the sonata form as the messenger of the gravity of life, and establishes them as message of a different kind: Don’t take life and yourself too seriously, you are going to embarrass yourself – and the upbeat forces of youth are going to push you lovingly into the background. They are going to put you in your place, and even more, you are going to miss much if you stay on the grave and serious side.

Haydn’s  Hob.XVI:52 seems to say with a wink: Life is full of cheerful surprises, and nothing is as serious as it purports to be. I feel the aged Haydn becomes astonishingly youthful in his last sonata – juvenile but wise at the same time, whereas Beethoven of 1809 seem to say: Life is full of surprises, and it is grave.


IMSLP(,_Joseph)), or directly via

1st movement:

2nd movement:

3rd movement: