Critical Concepts


We should take care not to confuse two related but distinct senses of the term "hypocrisy."  Let us call them "hypocrisy in the rhetorical sense" and "hypocrisy in the morally bad sense of the term."  This latter is what is generally invoked in ordinary discourse today when we complain that someone is a hypocrite.  The former is more general, and embraces both the cases that fall under the latter and those that we might describe as "morally benign hypocrisy."  In what follows our focus will be on this general sense, which is by itself ethically neutral in its connotations. 

In hypocrisy, as in dramatic irony and verbal irony, there is a discrepancy between what the speaker says and the situation in which he says it.  But the particular nature of this discrepancy differs among these kinds of case.

Unlike verbal irony, hypocritical talk is not a figure of speech.  In hypocrisy the speaker does not intend the hearer to understand the facts of the situation that betray the meaning of what is said.  (We might stretch the sense of the verb "to mean" and say that the speaker means one thing for his hearer, but another for himself.) 

To drive home the idea that verbal irony is not the same thing as conscious hypocrisy, contrast the following situations.

We've said that conscious hypocrisy (in the rhetorical sense of the term) is not necessarily morally censurable hypocrisy, since hypocrisy in this more general sense could instead be morally benign.  To drive this home, contrast the following scenarios.

To get an idea of what issues can be at stake in the difference betwee conscious and unconscious hypocrisy, compare the above examples of conscious hypocrisy with what is revealed about Torvald Helmer in the climactic scene of Ibsen's A Doll's House.

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