A Very Short Introduction to Søren Kierkegaard with Patrick Stokes

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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.

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