An Existential Pilgrimage


Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

The lives of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir have been romanticised for years. I’m guilty of an obsession in a couple that challenged conventions to the point of polygamy governed by a contentious moral philosophy that denied actual right and wrong.

Despite judgement, the 20th century existentialists continue to swoon students and literature buffs to the Parisienne district of Saint-Germain- des-Prés. But it’s not just geeks attracted to the cafés where Sartre and Co. would mingle.

In fact, the overwhelming majority are the exact bourgeois type that Sartre was attempting to overthrow. Perhaps it’s rather ironic for the bourgeoisie to take responsibility for Sartre turning in his grave, but it’s really not surprising as capitalism prevails.

Cafe Flore

Sartre wrote a large part of Being and Nothingness at Café de Flore

Once the haunt of French intellectuals, Café de FloreLes Deux Magots and other local coffee houses are now the high priced stopovers on any Parisienne tourist map. But why get so worked up?

As a philosophy major or a Sartrean sympathiser, I suppose I wanted a different experience: An existential pilgrimage that was supposed to introduce me to the sights and hosts of my literary icons. Although, I was naive to think that I could have somehow captured the spirit of Sartre by visiting a cafe.


The grave of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir’s masterpiece, The Second Sex is considered a feminist’s bible, but what can we make of Sartre’s legacy in the 21st century? “You are aware that no one likes him anymore” said a friend of mine living in Paris.

Without becoming defensive, I made an attempt to only promote his philosophy of freedom as a profound influence and reminder that we are not bound by society and its obligations to dictate how we lead our lives. We always have a choice. It is the moments whereby we believe that we don’t have an option, Sartre would argue, is acting in bad faith.

This notion of bad faith is still reminiscent in modernity, although some would argue that existentialism is no longer relevant. Baroness Mary Warnock told Nigel Warburton that existentialism is a “totally forgotten little sub-branch of philosophy that nobody thinks about at all anymore.”

Cafe De La Mairie was my final attempt to embrace any existential energy that may have been loitering opposite the stunning Church of Saint-Sulpice.

I sat down by the window and ordered the omelette champingnons with a black coffee. The humble decor looked as if it hadn’t changed since Albert Camus and Sartre met here for the last time in 1951, shortly before their famous falling out.


Cafe De La Mairie feat. Ferrari

Considering the rich history, the aged furnishings and the veteran staff, this had to be my one opportunity to feed my psyche with some sort of temporal, yet inspirational experience. But, unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be. It wasn’t necessarily a problem with obnoxious clientele, but rather obnoxious forms of transport; the brand new Ferrari across the street. I couldn’t help but think what Sartre and Camus might have said if they spotted a 1951 Ferrari 212 out the window of Cafe De La Mairie. Then, suddenly Sartre’s “idiotic” approach to money came to mind.

“I know it makes me look like a big shot to pull out a fat bundle. I remember a hotel on the Côte d’Azur where we often went, Simone de Beauvoir and I. One day the substitute for the manageress complained to Simone de Beauvoir that I had brought out too much money to pay her.”
– Sartre (Self-Portrait at Seventy, 1975)

Although, Sartre had a particular way with money that was the complete opposite to an obnoxious consumer of Ferraris. He never had the desire to buy his own apartment, his furniture was modest, his clothes were – as he admits – “almost always the same” and he was a very generous tipper at the cafés he would frequent.

“The waiters in the café appreciate the fact that I give them big tips, and repay me in kindness. My idea is that if a man lives off tips, I want to give him as much as I can, because I think that if the livelihood of a man is my responsibility, then he must live well.”
– Sartre (Self-Portrait at Seventy, 1975)

Perhaps reading Sartre is the only way to absorb any type of Sartrean spirit. It certainly isn’t in the streets of Saint-Germain- des-Prés. Marketed as the stomping grounds – exploiting the seeds – of existentialists, they are out of sight and out of mind.


Shakespeare and Company: Books in English

As much as one tries, it’s impossible to channel the French intellectuals. It is here where we must return to the written word for encouragement. The pilgrimage came to fruition at the popular Shakespeare and Company bookstore where I collected an early copy of Sartre’s Nausea. Yes, I too have succumbed to consumption.

Let’s let Sartre have the last word on cafés:

“Things are bad! Things are very bad: I’ve got it, that filthy thing, the Nausea. And this time it’s new: it caught me in a café. Until now cafés were my only refuge because they are full of people and well lighted: from now on I shan’t have even that; when I am run to earth in my room, I shall no longer know where to go.”
– Sartre (Nausea, 1938)


A Moral Experiment

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Man fishing. Scauri, Italy. 2013

My view inspired by Peter Singer, Propagandhi and animal welfare groups was met with disdain when my first generation Italian parents found out that I was a vegetarian. Although as an ordinary adolescent, I was determined to do the very opposite of their wishes. I have been a vegetarian for about eight years and I have only recently decided to conduct an existential exercise.

A few weeks ago I went to the local fish shop and I ordered grilled calamari. Perhaps this is one of those things that vegetarians would prefer to keep a secret, but to make my point, my moral compass needs to be recalibrated.

The squid arrived and I stared down at my plate trying to comprehend the act of eating something that had been alive a short while ago. I considered the contentious argument that fish don’t have feelings or that their central nervous systems are less complex than humans. And after all, it wouldn’t be much of an existential experiment if I didn’t evaluate my morals as I intended.

When I was able to put my moral self aside, I continued without a great deal of guilt. That was at least until I got home and began Youtubeing giant squid vs shark videos to learning how squid are caught and farmed. However, shortly after I faced a great deal of melancholy.

I began to think about how detrimental abattoirs and fisheries are for ecosystems, fish population and the environment in general. But more personally, I thought about how vegetarianism provides meaning in my life and how my values contribute to my greater purpose.

For years, I have claimed the title of ‘vegetarian’ and adopted a strict diet within its restricted parameters. I did not crave childhood comforts like sopressa, prosciutto and cotoletta but I wanted to climb the fences and see over the confined borders of a title.

Perhaps the strangest thing was that I chose to conduct the exact same experiment one week later. This time, I ordered a barramundi burger. I knew what the consequences of my actions would be, so I didn’t understand why I decided to eat fish, again. I was confused to think that I would go against my better judgement after my previous moral lesson.

“No one who either knows or believes that there is another possible course of action, better than the one he is following, will ever continue on his present course.”
– Socrates, via Plato (Protagoras)

In the 4th century BC, Plato coined the term, ‘akrasia’ also known as weakness of will to describe when one acts against their better judgement. Socrates and Aristotle hold opposing opinions of akratic behaviour. For Socrates, akrasia wasn’t achievable; it was a mere misjudgement, whereas Aristotle believed it should be studied as an empirical phenomenon.

Whilst the study of wrongdoing contains entertaining experiments for moral philosophers, I too have found interest in my own musings. Reflecting inwards is the position I wish to take as my point of departure to considering my own moral philosophy.

My own values were stripped from me when I acted against my better judgement. It is here where anxiety caught me like a fish out of water. Life suddenly seemed nebulous and I was stunned in the face of freedom. Our personal choices have consequences, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of the future of my moral self.

It is always my desire to challenge conventional thinking, and that extends to testing my own beliefs. This moral exercise provided evidence of a sense of purpose, meaning and identity. And for some, this is fair and rational reasoning. Although, to challenge idealism also operates within the boundaries of my domain.

The exercise also provided a lucid example of the enkratic alternative to akrasia; the ability to act within my power, or reason. It is here where I find solace in my decision to exercise freedom as an act of its own. Perhaps this attitude is synonymous with Nietzschean affirmation or a farfetched Sartrean reaction to bad faith. Although, to reconsider the conventions of morality would lead to another contentious debate about actual moral right and wrong that we shall save for another day.

The Fall’s Friedrich Nietzsche


It’s the end of semester and I have been binge watching BBC2’s, The Fall. I also have a mountain of assessment which means I have collected a stack of new books. I just finished John Armstrong’s Life Lessons from Nietzsche that has provided a refreshing take from the gnarly pessimist in The Fall. If you’re familiar with this Northern Irish psychological thriller, then you’re aware that Friedrich Nietzsche’s place in it is unquestionable. And if you haven’t seen the series, don’t worry, there won’t be any spoilers.

Erotic romantic, Jamie Dornan (50 Shades of Grey) plays the psychotic protagonist, Paul Spector and he is not your average madman. He is – obviously – handsome, intelligent and a bereavement counsellor when he isn’t a malevolent serial killer. The show’s creator, Allan Cubitt has deliberately riddled Nietzschean sentiments and quotes throughout the series. But why is the Nietzschean übermensch reminiscent of a brutal murderer?

“One must have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star.”
– Spector, via Nietzsche (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

Cubitt has expressed his fascination with the BTK (bind, torture, kill) strangler, Dennis Rader who inspired the character. And perhaps even more appropriate is the Moors murders duo, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Cubitt is well aware of this as Spector quotes Brady’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s great self-contempt.

“Once a man has achieved, in a praiseworthy sense, contempt for himself, he simultaneously achieves contempt for all man-made laws and moralities, and becomes truly free to do as he wills.”
– Spector, via Brady (The Gates of Janus)

The show has been criticized as the most repulsive drama ever broadcast and hailed as the most feminist show on television for its harrowing depiction of violence against women. Former X-Files star, Gillian Anderson plays Detective Superintendent, Stella Gibson. In Cubitt’s response to the criticism, he writes that it was a deliberate decision to have a female detective confront male violence against women.

There is a great deal of Nietzschean philosophy and ‘nihilism’ to explore in The Fall. But what do we mean by this bleak description? Nietzsche best describes nihilism in his posthumous work, The Will to Power.

“What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devaluate themselves. The aim is lacking; ‘why?’ Finds no answer”
– Nietzsche (The Will to Power)

It is easy to enjoy Nietzsche’s writing anecdotally as much of his work is written in an aphoristic style. However, this is a danger to readers that are looking to absorb some short existential lessons. Nietzsche’s ‘nihilism’ should be understood on the contrary to Spector’s twisted interpretation; it is rather an overcoming of nihilism. This is also known as the affirmation of life. Perhaps it is unwise to utilise Martin Heidegger as an academic aid for clarity, but he is able to clearly outline Nietzsche’s statement as a process of devaluation in which the highest values (i.e. “cosmological values”) become valueless. You can consider these values as rules or principles; for example, religion becomes a predominant focus available for reassessment in Nietzsche’s thought. Nihilism should not be associated with sheer meaninglessness – or that we can bind, torture and kill who we please – rather it refers to a process on how the human being can reshape values. This is a task for Nietzsche’s übermensch and without religion, it doesn’t make this person some kind of serial killer. In fact, they are the ultimate Yes-sayer. The übermensch says yes to life.

However, this affirmation of life is so radical that it demands a willingness to love fate. In Nietzschean terms, this concept is called amor fati; the overwhelming ability to love what life throws at us. And unfortunately, Nietzsche wants to take the bad with the good. And this includes the Spector-esque ability to consider suffering as a desire. This is indeed a hard pill to swallow and one that Cubitt inevitably picks up on. Spector takes this concept to the test with his young accomplice.

“There’s suffering all around us. Why not take some pleasure from it?”
– Spector

One can appreciate Nietzsche’s gallant sense of pain in The Gay Science. He writes, “the heroic human beings, the great pain-bringers of humanity, those few or rare ones who need the same apology as pain itself – and truly, they should not be denied this.” An apology to pain itself may indicate a revaluation of values, but he doesn’t stop there. Additionally, the heroic human being will “not hide their nausea at this type of happiness.” Within this interpretation of happiness lies a precondition of the horrendous. This happiness is synonymous with suffering. Like Spector, Nietzsche wholeheartedly accepts suffering as necessary to happiness. Although, the fundamental difference is that Nietzsche in no way endorses harming one another.

The idea of reinterpreting suffering as a prerequisite of happiness is hardly plausible. It’s not hard to see how suffering as a desirable value remains unconvincing. It has left readers puzzled with disdain that has inspired murderous Spector-type interpretations. And so Nietzsche’s concept of amor fati for the Yes-sayer requires further clarification. The Fall provides a devastating and sadly realistic narrative of the plight of women who become victims to a violent man. And Nietzsche’s misogyny is no secret. Commentators within philosophy and gender studies have provided countless responses and feminist interpretations to his work. Cubitt has done a great job to create a relevant drama with stories that need to be discussed. Although, Nietzsche as an inspiration for a serial killer is an interpretation that extends far beyond his philosophy and only into the disturbed minds of crazed lunatics.

Perhaps we can briefly return to Armstrong’s chapter, On Visiting the Pyramids. He provides an alternative account of Nietzsche and explores how society can value grand adventures that we take for granted in the 21st century. As Armstrong summarises, “Nietzsche is asking us to regard our lives as more precious.” Perhaps the ability to stop, reflect upon the exquisite and consider meaning within our brief, precious existence is somewhat of a contemporary revaluation of values in modernity. And this may be another interpretation, but far from the alternative Nietzsche in The Fall.

Subjectivity, Education and Authenticity with Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart

As a kid, I wanted to grow up to become a screwdriver. My folks told me this story over and over until we all forgot. Last year, my dream job came rushing back when I found out that a young Søren Kierkegaard wanted to be a fork. I was a little relieved to find out I wasn’t the only one who dreamt of being a mere object.

This revelation arrived while I was completing Jon Stewart’s online Coursera program, Søren Kierkegaard – Subjectivity, Irony and the Crisis of Modernity. Jon Stewart is Associate Professor at the Søren Kierkegaard Research Centre, University of Copenhagen. He has written and edited several books and founded the International Kierkegaard Network. The free program is now in its second year and runs eight weeks, commencing 6 October 2014. Jon and I exchanged emails to discuss education and some key themes that arise throughout the program.

Coursera Trailer

The Philotoric: In your Kierkegaard program, there is no target audience, no philosophical jargon and the ideas relate to modernity. Did you feel it was important for Kierkegaard to be seen in this way?

Jon Stewart: Yes, I do. Kierkegaard is rather unusual as a modern philosopher. He does not write in any special academic jargon, he rarely uses any kind of elaborate footnote apparatus, and indeed, he takes pains to distance himself from academic philosophers. So I think that if we are to be true to his thought, we need to keep this in mind and present his ideas to a broad audience beyond the university. He should not be regarded as the private domain of academics. I think that that would miss the point of much of his thought. It may be that professional scholars find in his thought interesting ideas for academic problems, and that is of course OK if they want to pursue this in an academic context. But I think that unlike so many other academic philosophers, Kierkegaard has something more to offer. He has the ability to reach people who have no academic training at all. He has a great gift of being able to speak to people, as it were, personally, even despite the great distance in time and culture that separates him from the modern reader. For this reason I think the idea of having a MOOC [Massive Open Online Course] dedicated to Kierkegaard was a good one. With online courses one can reach many more people than in a usual classroom context, and Kierkegaard is a good author to use when reaching out to those people.

The Philotoric: The preconceptions that people have of philosophy are sometimes grim. Do you think that teaching philosophy is in need of reform?

JS: There is something to this. There are today of course many egregious misunderstandings of what philosophy is, and it is a shame that this can turn people off before they even get started. This is really too bad since philosophy is a highly diverse and heterogeneous field that potentially has something to offer everyone. Maybe with new innovations in education such as online courses we can help to bring about a change in the way philosophy is taught and then a change in the way in which it is perceived. I am convinced that online courses offer some great didactical possibilities, but we are still at the start of the learning curve here when it comes to figuring out how best to exploit them.

Some people might argue that philosophy is just about the analysis of abstract concepts: What is Truth? Beauty? Justice? So given that it is all about concepts and not visual images, they would argue that an online course offers no real advantage in teaching philosophy. But I think our course showed how Kierkegaard can be made very interesting if he is understood in the context of his own age. The learning experience can be further enhanced by visiting some of the locations where Kierkegaard actually lived and worked, as we did in the course. In this way students can benefit from an interesting and appealing approach to his thought that would not have been possible in the traditional classroom context. In ways like this I think we can improve philosophy education by means of the new technologies.

Jon Stewart

In Copenhagen

The Philotoric: Within the program, you make an interesting correlation between the fear of knowledge presented in the bible and the fear of knowledge still held today. Was there any philosophical influence to offer this program for free?

JS: The question of offering a free online course via Coursera was not my decision. This was a decision that was made by the administrators at the University of Copenhagen, who wanted to profile some strong areas in Danish research with their handful of Coursera courses. Once this decision was made, the task itself was delegated to me to carry out. So I cannot really take any credit for this decision or any philosophical inspiration behind it. But I do think that the question of the value of and free accessibility to knowledge is an important one for all of us living today.

Many of our modern problems are caused by modern technology, and so one can ask if this knowledge is an unqualified good. On the other side, one can argue that the only way to intelligently solve our modern problems is with knowledge. But the dilemma is that most forms of knowledge or all kinds of technology can be used for good and for bad ends. How should we regulate this and assure ourselves that new knowledge will not simply exacerbate our modern problems?

The Philotoric: Kierkegaard’s subjectivity is a reoccurring theme throughout the program. He wrote about finding a truth, “finding the idea for which I am willing to live and die.” How would Kierkegaard want his readers to interpret this?

JS: I think that Kierkegaard really wanted to get his readers to reflect on the issues that he presented for themselves. He wanted them to be able to put these issues in the context of their own lives and to “appropriate” them each in their own way. So for Kierkegaard, it’s not really about teaching someone new information or a specific doctrine but rather creating the conditions for the individual to look within themselves and reflect about things on their own.

Jon Stewart and Daniel Conway

Jon Stewart and Professor Daniel Conway

The Philotoric: Can we simply rid of any objective meaning to follow our own subjective passions?

JS: This is a justified question since it is a difficult and disputed interpretive point in Kierkegaard. He is, of course, quite critical of people who lack passion – especially in their relation to Christianity. But what does this really mean? When we talk about simply living and acting in the world, it seems that most of our actions are some kind of combination of thought or a cognitive element, on the one side, and feeling or passion, on the other. It would not make sense to act based exclusively on abstract thought alone; if we did that, then we could not make any sense of things such as love or friendship, which require an emotional element. But on the other side it does not make sense to act exclusively on passions since this could potentially be dangerous or destructive to oneself or others. Our passions can be positive but they need to be governed or directed by some thought. So what is Kierkegaard really saying here? I don’t think that he is suggesting that we wholly give up our reason or rational faculty. Rather, he is enjoining us to keep in mind our own unique relation to key issues such as death, sin, love, etc. We need to keep in mind the subjective dimension of life and always be aware of this. This is not always so easy to do in the modern world, where we are often distracted with so many things in our busy daily lives.

“Come, sleep and death; you promise nothing, you hold everything.”

The Philotoric: The program explores much of Kierkegaard’s work and the focus on Either/Or presents a provoking account of the nihilist and the bourgeois. Is Kierkegaard trying to shake them from their very foundations?

JS: Yes, I think that that is a good way to put it. It reminds me of Kierkegaard’s interest in Socrates as the gadfly of Athens and how he himself wants to be the gadfly of Copenhagen. His goal is not to reassure people or make things easier but, on the contrary, to shake them up. The examples you give are also good since I think that they show that it is impossible to co-op Kierkegaard. He is not on the side of the nihilist, although one might think for a moment that he is when he is criticises the bourgeois philistine. Likewise, he is not on the side of the bourgeois, although one might think that he is when he is criticising the nihilist. His point is to address different kinds of people – like these two examples – and get them to reflect and look within themselves. This sounds initially easy, but it’s not since it means giving up a number of conventional ways of thinking about things that we are all used to. It is definitely a major element in Kierkegaard’s mission to shake people from their complacency.

The Philotoric: When Kierkegaard addresses the question who am I, he faces a series of problems with authenticity in the German Romantics. How does this relate to modernity?

JS: There are a number of important connections that one might make here since many of the problems that we associate today with the difficulty of one’s self-definition began in the Romantic period. In the past the question was easier to answer since people had tighter bonds to their family, their tribe, their guild or some other institution. But after the French Revolution many of these traditional ties and values were undermined and the Western world was set on a path towards ever increasing individuality. This was held up as a great ideal by the leading figures of the Romantic movement. Today we place great value on being the individuals who we are. We insist on making our own decisions and defining ourselves. But as we have learned, it is not always so easy to stand on one’s own, especially when there are no supporting institutions or values. This results in problems such as modern alienation and anomie. This leads many people today to cast around desperately to try to define themselves in a meaningful way. This is a modern problem that the ancients could not have imagined.

The Philotoric: Is there any clear path to lead an authentic life?

JS: In some ways this might be regarded as the central question of all of existential philosophy. Kierkegaard resists giving anything like a set of rules or guidelines that one needs to follow in order to reach authenticity. He is quite convinced that this kind of thing is misguided. I think that his view is that we need to seek the truth in our own subjectivity, but this can look different for different kinds of people.


Søren Kierkegaard – Subjectivity, Irony and the Crisis of Modernity commences 6 October 2014.
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Terminology: Anxiety and Despair with Patrick Stokes


Patrick Stokes

Do you ever get that feeling in your stomach when you walk across a bridge and something tells you to throw yourself off? If these odd urges of suicide are the result of your freedom, are they all that bad? Or does this create a deep anxiety which you prefer not to think about?

In 1844, Søren Kierkegaard wrote that anxiety is the dizziness of freedom. 102 years on, Jean-Paul Sartre said that existence precedes essence (whatever). These philosophers poured their lives into thinking and writing about how we live our lives. Today, some people are content with living the traditional bourgeois fashion, but does this predetermined life lead to despair?

This is part deux of my conversation with Patrick Stokes on A Very Short Introduction to Søren Kierkegaard (and existentialism). Patrick is a lecturer in philosophy at Deakin University and an author of two books on Kierkegaard. So, what’s the connection between freedom, anxiety, necessity and despair?

The Philotoric: The existentialists use words like anxiety, anguish, despair, nausea etc. Are any of these terms interchangeable?

Patrick Stokes: No, they’re not. But Kierkegaard does use anxiety (or angest), which becomes angst in Heidegger, and then again in Sartre.

The Philotoric: Ok. Let’s start with anxiety…

PS: Anxiety for both Kierkegaard and Sartre is fear that doesn’t have an object. It’s basically the feeling of freedom. The way in which we respond to the fact that what we do is not determined. For Kierkegaard, it’s religiously qualified because its got to do with the possibility of sin. Sin arises with Adam when he realises for the first time that he could eat the apple. Adam goes from a dim possibility of the possibility of sin – to the realisation that he is going to sin – to the realisation that he has sinned. Anxiety is there in all those stages. Kierkegaard calls it a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy. In other words, you can be simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by something. Now, think about Sartre when he talks about the experience of vertigo: the fear is that I might be blown off a cliff – Anxiety is the realisation that I could throw myself off that cliff and nothing is stopping me from doing that. It’s that response to the horror of freedom – that’s anxiety.

The Philotoric: And despair…

PS: Kierkegaard’s despair is a complicated psychological relation. It is either not wanting to be yourself, or wanting to be yourself in a despairing way. If you imagine a man who says I will be Caesar, or nothing (or insert whatever modern aspiration you like) – and he fails to become Caesar. He then becomes intolerable to himself because he still exists and he is not Caesar. Or alternatively, you could be in despair because you became Caesar – because you want to be essentially Caesar.

The Philotoric: But I want to be Caesar. Why am I in despair?

PS: In becoming Caesar you think that is all you are. In saying that I am essentially Caesar, you are saying I am nothing more than Caesar.

The Philotoric: Does this then map into Sartre’s idea of bad faith?

PS: For Sartre, bad faith is the idea of wanting to be yourself in one of the three modes of being that defines you. The waiter in Sartre’s example reduces himself to what he is for others. The woman flirting reduces herself to a mere body. They reduce themselves to a facticity and not their freedom. Likewise for Kierkegaard, you can inhabit social roles in such a way that you act as if that defines who you are and you are nothing more than that – that person doesn’t have a self. He or she doesn’t understand that they are more than just the clothes they wear. And it’s similar with Sartre – A person in bad faith denies that they are more than just one of those modes of their being.

Existential Comics

Jean-Paul Sartre executing radical freedom. An excerpt from Existential Comics’ World Cup Philosophy: Germany vs France. Click through to see the final result.

The Philotoric: Can you expand on the self for Kierkegaard?

PS: Just remember that these are under pseudonyms. Although, Anti-Climacus and Vigilius Haufniensis are probably the closest pseudonyms to Søren Kierkegaard – these works were nearly published under his own name. So for Anti-Climacus, this model of the self is a theory of oppositions – finite and infinite, freedom and necessity, temporal and eternal, psychical and mental, etc. Where despair comes in (and this is very Sartrean) is that you identify with one of these in whole to the exclusion of the other. So you might live life entirely determined by social norms and bourgeois codes around you, never believe that you have any further possibilities and in doing so, that’s despair. On the other hand, if you do whatever you want and act to your imagination, you are also denying your facticity – you’re denying your reality. Living as if you are completely determined or completely free, you are in both cases living what Sartre calls bad faith, or in what Kierkegaard calls despair.

The Philotoric: Do we actually need to think about these ideas as problems today?

PS: I do. I think a lot of the things that Kierkegaard described never stopped being legitimate human problems. But he was talking to a society who thought you can do a bit of philosophy and you’re done with that question. Kierkegaard was trying to get them to slow down  These are problems that remain problems your entire life. These aren’t just intellectual problems that you can knock off in an afternoon and then move on to the next problem. These are the existential problems that remain existential problems – they are yours just in so that you are a finite human being and you’re stuck with them.


Follow Patrick Stokes on Twitter and keep up with his articles at The Conversation.

Also see his New Philosopher magazine articles online.

And thanks to Existential Comics for the Jean-Paul Sartre ‘radical freedom’ excerpt.

Philosophy of Religion with Russell Blackford

Russell Blackford

Does God exist? If so, how do we prove it? And does the existence of an intricate device like a watch provide a reasonable, intelligent argument?

British philosopher, Bertrand Russell tells us that we should suspend judgement if we can’t figure out what’s true. But for those of us who question our beliefs and want to know more might just relish in the field of philosophy of religion. And I shouldn’t forget the staunch theists and atheists who want to broaden their understanding of religion.

Author and dual Ph.D academic, Russell Blackford went from an evangelical Christian to an atheist. Russell is a lecturer at the University of Newcastle and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology. Russell and I discuss philosophy of religion and creating meaning in this short introduction to a much larger topic.

The Philotoric: You were on the brink of becoming an evangelical leader and now you write books on atheism – what happened?

Russell Blackford: I suppose I was already an evangelical leader in a small way, in that I was the Vice-President of the Evangelical Union at my university (the University of Newcastle, here in Australia). Who knows what might have beckoned beyond that? I wouldn’t necessarily have ended up in the priesthood or anything like that, but still… The trouble at the time was that I “had doubts” – as we used to say – and they ultimately defeated my attempts to put them to rest. I could not make any Christian account of the world add up, and by the time my tenure as EU Vice-President was over I’d eventually abandoned any Christian belief. I didn’t make a fuss about it, but I dropped out of evangelical activities and concentrated on other aspects of my life. I had no ill-feeling toward my Christian friends, who were kind and good people; it was just that I, personally, could no longer honestly believe in the Abrahamic God, the Incarnation, the doctrine of sacrificial atonement, or any other Christian doctrines, including specifically Christian moral ideals. This makes it all sound simple, but it most certainly wasn’t. I was going through months of doubt and worry about the truth of my religion, it was a psychologically agonising period.

Those events were many years ago now, back in the 1970s when I was an undergraduate student. It wasn’t until 2009 that I co-edited a book about atheism (with Udo Schuklenk) – 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. Much had happened in my life and in the wider world during those 30+ years, and many things converged to encourage me to address the issue of atheism – and the pretensions of religion – in a more formal, public way. One aspect was my sense of the growing political influence of religion, even in Western countries where traditional religious belief is steadily declining. Worse, much of that influence comes from especially reactionary and authoritarian varieties of religious faith.

50 Voices of Disbelief

50 Voices of Disbelief

The Philotoric: Was there a philosophical source of inspiration?

RB: Sure – though again, it wasn’t just one thing or a particular text by an atheist thinker. I read many books and articles, and thought about many aspects of how the world might look from the perspective of secular philosophy rather than religious faith. A major stumbling block for me was the classic Problem of Evil. This may be expressed as a question: If there is a supernatural being who is powerful enough to create a world without pain and suffering (and so much of it!), and who is supposed to be all-benevolent, so as to be motivated to do so, why do we actually live in a world such as we see around us where pain and suffering are so common and so horrendous? Of course, theologians and religious philosophers have offered many answers, some of them ingenious, and perhaps one of them just might turn out to be acceptable if we had overwhelmingly powerful reasons to believe in God. Perhaps we’d just have to trust that one of these answers, or another that we are unaware of, is sufficient even if implausible from an outsider’s perspective. That, however, was not the position I found myself in. All the answers were highly implausible at best. And too much else converged to cast extreme doubt on the whole Christian worldview, rather than to provide compelling reasons in its support. A time came when I decided, once and for all, that I could not honestly hang on to the Christian worldview in any of its variants. I felt enormous relief and liberation when that happened: the worst thing in a situation like this is the anguish of continuing uncertainty and indecision. A weight seemed to fall from my shoulders.

The Philotoric: What is philosophy of religion?

RB: I take philosophy of religion to be the rational examination of religious institutions, world views, and particular teachings. First, philosophy of religion tries to understand what religion is or how it’s best understood. But then it asks all sorts of questions about whether religious belief is reasonable and what justification religion has. Does it have some kind of intellectual or moral authority that we ought to respect? Are there any good reasons to believe in a God or gods, or to accept other supernatural doctrines such as the existence of an afterlife or of reincarnation? What kind of worldview could replace it, and how could we live without religious belief? The questions go on, but perhaps this gives you an idea.

The Philotoric: The New Atheists have gone hard in the last ten years. Do you think there is a resurgence of interest in God/s, or perhaps a slight sympathy towards it?

RB: I wouldn’t put it like that. I think that there was a regrouping by religious organisations and leaders after the severe loss of social credibility and political relevance that they suffered during the 1960s and 1970s. We’ve seen a revival in organised efforts by religious conservatives to influence society and politics, much of it successful, but this seems to be happening against a general background of decreasing religiosity in Western countries. The so-called New Atheists can be seen as pushing back against some of the more dangerous and authoritarian manifestations of religion. I doubt that they’d have gained much traction, or even had much motivation to write their books, if the most prominent and influential Christian voices in the United States had been theologically and socially liberal ones and if we were not confronted by the disturbing phenomenon of Islamist fanaticism.

The Philotoric: There are different arguments for the existence of God. One that I have heard a few times from evangelical Christians in recent years is William Paley’s teleological argument (the watchmaker analogy). Can you briefly summarise it?

RB: There are many versions of the argument, including varying reconstructions of Paley’s own meaning. The general idea is that we point to some impressive phenomenon, most likely, for Paley, a living thing of some kind, and we argue – more or less by analogy to complicated, intricate devices such as watches – that it must have had an intelligent designer and artificer. The central premise is that when we are confronted with functioning, intricate things we inevitably and rightly infer the existence of some kind of powerful intelligence that brought them about.

The Philotoric: Can you shed some light on notable criticism?

RB: Of course, with life forms we now know a great deal about how their amazing intricacy and diversity arose over time via small, incremental steps – that is, through the processes of biological evolution. But even before Darwin, the watchmaker type of argument was inconclusive. After all, we did not know, as part of our background information, that all intricately functioning things are artificial; on the contrary, we knew only that some were, and we were fairly well placed to tell the difference between living organisms and artificial things such as watches. Today, we are even better placed to make that distinction. I.e., scientists and engineers have a much better idea of what kinds of materials and structures can and cannot be produced by natural, as opposed to artificial, processes. Prior to Darwin, we did not have a truly compelling explanation for the diversity and intricacy of life forms, so there was a gap in our theoretical knowledge. But even without that explanation, there was no good positive argument that such things as living creatures are, in effect, artificial (the artificers being one or more gods). Once it’s expressed like that, the argument is not so intuitive at all.

The Philotoric: If theism fails at intellectual reasoning, can faith trump argument?

RB: No. I don’t accept that there are “ways of knowing” – whether it’s faith, or mystical experience, or anything else – that trump evidence and reason.

The Philotoric: Another interesting perspective is Rudolf Bultmann’s idea of demythologising the bible in existential terms. Can you explain what this interpretation is?

RB: I’m no expert on Bultmann’s theology, so I won’t pretend to be… As far as I understand Bultmann’s approach, the basic idea was that the New Testament accounts of Jesus and his teachings were heavily mythologised in a way that was helpful to the understanding of their original audience but now operates as a psychological barrier to modern audiences in a scientific age. Once you think in this way, you might try to extract the moral and “existential” essence of the biblical teachings – which you can then present to modern audiences in a way that they will find more palatable. A theologically conservative critic of Bultmann might see him as engaging in theological vandalism: denying the historical reliability of the Gospel narratives. An unkind secular critic might see him as desperately trying to save the value of historically unreliable narratives by denying that they were ever intended to be understood literally.

50 Great Myths About Atheism

50 Great Myths About Atheism

The Philotoric: In your book, 50 Great Myths About Atheism, as you debunk atheism is depressing, you write that atheists must find meaning and fulfilment. Are you referring to a subjective purpose within life?

RB: There is actually quite a bit to say both about why many people seem to find religion reassuring, but also about how you might understand the world and live your life without the crutch of religion. We can live well not only without religion but without any other comprehensive ideology. There can be joy in acknowledging the areas of uncertainty and ambiguity in our knowledge of the world and approaching it in a spirit of wonder rather than claiming to have all the answers (or following someone else who claims to have them). I’m somewhat out of sympathy with this whole idea that meaning and fulfilment are jeopardised merely because someone does not have supernatural beliefs. For many of us, the natural and cultural worlds gradually being revealed by the sciences and humanities are quite enough, and it can even feel liberating not having to reconcile the bizarre claims and demands of religion with a good human life by ordinary standards. We can find joy, satisfaction, and experiences and connections that have meaning for us in the things of this world – for all its suffering and pain, our world also offers much in the way of delights and satisfactions, enough to last for many lifetimes. If life seems flat and meaningless to a particular individual, he or she probably has problems of some kind that are very different from an inability to accept the doctrines of one or other religion.

The Philotoric: What about those who choose to live between arguments? Those who deny the existence of God, but do not necessarily reflect on creating meaning. Are these lives meaningless?

RB: Not at all. I write for people who actually are concerned about these issues for whatever reasons. Obviously, I think the issues are important, but that doesn’t mean that everyone should spend their time thinking about them. People find connection, joy, personal satisfaction and fulfilment, experiences that are deeply meaningful to them, in many ways – perhaps through their relationships with loved ones, through absorbing work, through ordinary hobbies and interests, and, really, in ways that are as varied as people themselves. Philosophy is important, and I encourage people to take an interest in it, but I certainly don’t think that explicit reflection about creating meaning is necessary for leading a good and meaningful life.


Russell will have a chapter in John Loftus’ new book, Christianity Is Not Great, in which he discusses living without God, at length. Release date is 14 October 2014.

Also see 50 Great Myths About Atheism and 50 Voices of Disbelief, as well as other titles from Russell on Amazon

Philosophy and Its Audience with Zan Boag

NP promo

Martin Heidegger’s poetic prose was difficult to understand at the best of times. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote baffling waffle throughout parts of his speed-induced authorship. And even judges who reviewed Søren Kierkegaard’s dissertation found it complicated to get through. In fact, Kierkegaard never worked a day in his life but criticised the bourgeois. And Heidegger, who had a short spell with Nazism criticised Sartre, but he was quite fond of Kierkegaard. These thinkers were profound, but who were they writing for and what is their relationship to ordinary people?

Zan Boag is the editor of New Philosopher magazine – An independent print publication delivered to the general public every quarter. Zan and I had a chat about philosophy’s audience and what the everyday person can gain from thinking.

The Philotoric: Can you tell me a little about yourself – Who are you? What do you do? Hobbies, habits, heroes?

Zan Boag: The majority of my time is spent working on the magazine and taking orders from my young children. I play basketball, don’t watch television and believe that heroism is like happiness – it happens in a moment, it’s not a permanent state.

The Philotoric: You now have four issues of the New Philosopher magazine and each of them is beautiful, congratulations. What can you tell me about your readership – Is it trending amongst younger generations?

ZB: The writers and designers are doing a terrific job. They have managed to appeal to people of all ages – from school kids to those in aged care. We have subscribers in corporate offices, prisons and churches, apartments and mansions, rich suburbs and poor. Rather than age, religion, cultural background or socio-economic class, I’d say the common thread is that they are humans who think that there’s more to life than consumption, production, comparison and competition.

The Philotoric: I recently purchased a new translation of Søren Kierkegaard’s, The Concept of Anxiety by Alastair Hannay and the cover has the following blurb – A Simple Psychologically Orientated Deliberation in View of the Dogmatic Problem of Hereditary Sin. Does this type of jargon turn people away from philosophy literature?

ZB: That’s Kierkegaard for you, he packed a lot of complex ideas into his 42 years – In fact, Heidegger had twice as long to confuse people. It’s important to distinguish between philosophy for philosophers and philosophy for the general public. The former serves as a means to extend thought, to explore ideas by delving into the depths; the latter involves communicating these ideas to others so as to bring about some sort of positive change in our world, of our understanding of the world and our place in it. They are interdependent, both needing the other to thrive.

The Philotoric: How does an academic audience feel about the ordinary person’s involvement in philosophy?

ZB: When we [New Philosopher] approached leading Australian universities and the Australasian Association of Philosophy (AAP) – the professional association for philosophers in the region, they were thrilled that such a project was taking shape. Ultimately the AAP and five universities backed the project as founding partners. Philosophers have also lent their support, including Peter Singer, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Dennett and Angie Hobbs. Thinking is not a treasure they wish to keep to themselves, it is a virus they aim to spread.

New Philosopher #4

The Philotoric: What would you say to those who think studying philosophy is useless?

ZB: I’m not sure how learning to think critically about the world and your place in it could be deemed useless, unless, of course, you’re content with studying to work, working to buy stuff, buying stuff to impress others, and then dying – all the while ignoring the plight of others on the planet and the planet itself. If you’re still not convinced, try this quote from Alex Pozdnyakov (a philosophy student in Europe): “I have this strange phrase I use when people ask me why I chose philosophy. I tell them I wanted to become a professional human being.”

The Philotoric: What is the purpose of studying philosophy and ancient texts in 2014?

ZB: I question the purpose of a lot of activities undertaken in 2014. Seeking wisdom from another time – a time before social media, 24/7 news and shopping malls – isn’t one of them.

The Philotoric: Can you provide a concrete example of how philosophy has changed your life?

ZB: Hmm, concrete and philosophy in the same sentence … I’d like to think that it has changed everything – what I deem important, how I view others and the way I live my life. But if you want a concrete example … well, thanks to philosophy, I’m pretty good at arguing.

A Very Short Introduction to Søren Kierkegaard with Patrick Stokes


BuzzFeed have featured Friedrich Nietzsche as trending hipster material. So was it his luscious moustache that did it, or the existential literature that draws such wide attention?

A Danish theologian by the name of Søren Kierkegaard is often referred to as the father of existentialism. But what is existentialism and how do we interpret this religious writer who lived 200 years ago?

Patrick Stokes is a lecturer in philosophy at Deakin University and an author of two books on Kierkegaard. In a traditional existential fashion, Patrick and I met at a café to discuss Kierkegaard’s philosophy.

The Philotoric: What is existentialism?

Patrick Stokes: Existentialism is a first-person here and now perspective of the world. It is very difficult to say that anyone is an existentialist, except for [Jean-Paul] Sartre for about 15 years or so, but no one owns up to the label. I don’t think that [Søren] Kierkegaard is really an existentialist but I think he does belong to that genealogy of existential thinkers.

The Philotoric: Who was Søren Kierkegaard?

PS: A very strange man who no one knew what to do with. Kierkegaard had a theology degree but spent most of it doing philosophy. He never had a job in a university. He never got married. He got engaged, but broke it off. He spent his whole life living off his father’s income, self-publishing his work. And he died at exactly the right moment, just as he was about to run out of money.

The Philotoric: If we could only read one book by Kierkegaard, what should it be?

PS: It is hard to do that with Kierkegaard because his whole argument is spread over several books. It depends on who that reader is. If it is a philosopher, I would say Concluding Unscientific Postscript [to Philosophical Fragments]. For a writer, I would say Prefaces. If that person wants to learn about the human condition, I would say the Upbuilding Discourses.

The Philotoric: Does Kierkegaard often get misinterpreted with quotes like life is meaningless?

PS: Yes, it is not really Kierkegaard, it is a character. In fact, I know an academic who has been working on Kierkegaard for years who actually came across him in exactly the right way. He picked up Either/Or not knowing anything about it and really appreciated the ‘life is meaningless/we are all going to die’ stuff. Then he got to volume two and said, ‘what the hell, I don’t want to get married.’ It is exactly the way that Kierkegaard wanted you to come across it.

The Philotoric: So Kierkegaard wants to provoke his readers?

PS: Yes, to throw it back on you as the individual concrete reader who is working out how to live their life. He is trying to engage the reader on an existential level. If he just tells you how it is, it does not engage you. But as he does this indirectly, it engages you existentially and makes you think how it relates to your life.

Twitter Phavourites

The Danish thinker, Søren Kierkegaard once said that some day, communication would become instantaneous, but people would have nothing to say.

It could be said that Kierkegaard’s prediction from the Danish Golden Age is accurate. This might ring true for struggling conversationalists of the 21st century who spend too much time on social media. And what about those who are more inclined to text rather than phone?

One could argue that social skills are a little passé and one’s online identity is just as profound as the real deal. But with fake names and distant acquaintances making up real friends, are we really projecting an accurate portrayal of our true self? After all, if so much of Kierkegaard’s authorship was pseudonymous, why can’t we take wAyNe_69 seriously?

Nevertheless, I want to share the following which highlights what we are saying in 2014 on Twitter. These handles are some of the most influential voices of our time. They provoke philosophical thought in modernity and challenge contemporary standards. Whilst the others may come from a time not so long ago, they are still relevant. As for the rest, they showcase the creative and humorous side of the existentialists.

Without further ado.

New Philosopher Magazine (@TheNewPhil): Great subject matters, excellent writers, attractive design and no advertisements. But If you miss the print run, check out and follow them on Twitter. @TheNewPhil often features expressions of their avid readers and stimulating excerpts from back issues.

Peter Singer (@PeterSinger): Author and moral philosopher. The latest account of ethics in today’s society.

Kim Kierkegaardashian (@KimKierkegaard): Funny tweets from a Kardashian-gone-Kierkegaardian, or vice versa.

Simone de Beauvoir (@SimoneBeauvoirs): Quotes from the prominent feminist thinker and other thought-provoking ideas relating to gender equality.

Nigel Warburton (@philosophybites): Co-founder of the philosophy bites podcast. Keep up to date with the latest releases and hear about Nigel’s extracurricular philosophical activities.

Søren Kierkegaard (@SorenKQuotes): Angst-filled quotes from the Danish thinker that might affect your mood.

Patrick Stokes (@patstokes): Writer, philosopher and regular guest on Triple R Breakfasters. @patstokes merges philosophy with politics, and other everyday issues of modernity.

Existential Comics (@existentialcoms): A humorous account of existentialism in comic form.