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.

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.

Daniel Dennett (@danieldennett): Influential writer, philosopher and prominent leader of new atheism. A good source of contemporary problems in society.

Alain de Botton (@alaindebotton): Author, philosopher and television presenter. A terrific account of issues in modernity that anyone can relate to.

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.