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.
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.
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.
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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