Course: Søren Kierkegaard – Subjectivity, Irony and the Crisis of Modernity
School: University of Copenhagen via Coursera (free)
Instructor: Jon Stewart
It is often claimed that relativism, subjectivism and nihilism are typically modern philosophical problems that emerge with the breakdown of traditional values, customs and ways of life. The result is the absence of meaning, the lapse of religious faith, and feeling of alienation that is so widespread in modernity.
The Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) gave one of the most penetrating analyses of this complex phenomenon of modernity. But somewhat surprisingly he seeks insight into it not in any modern thinker but rather in an ancient one, the Greek philosopher Socrates.
In this course we will explore how Kierkegaard deals with the problems associated with relativism, the lack of meaning and the undermining of religious faith that are typical of modern life. His penetrating analyses are still highly relevant today and have been seen as insightful for the leading figures of Existentialism, Post-Structuralism and Post-Modernism.
No prior knowledge of Kierkegaard is required. The course will be on an advanced undergraduate level, and it will be an advantage for students to have some prior knowledge or idea about the history of philosophy.
[Addendum: this course has been converted to the new Coursera platform; some content may have changed, and the experience is likely to be very different]
I now know (or, more accurately, know of) three Jon (no “h”) Stewarts: the comedian, the oldest American Ninja Warrior contestant to qualify for the Mt. Midoriyama finals in Vegas – and the philosophy professor who taught this class.
I signed up for this course because 1) I wanted to know more about Kierkegaard, and 2) I heard a lot of good things about this course from some students who took it last year. It worked out well.
True to its title, the course focused on Socratic irony and the difference between German Romanticism, and Kierkegaard’s vision of negative irony as subjectivity rather than relativism, and a general overview of his understanding of Christianity, all set in a travelling on-site biography. The lectures took place in a variety of places around Copenhagen – in the University, museums, houses where Kierkegaard (and others important to his life) lived, Amalienborg Castle, in front of the Parliament,the Citadel Church, his gravesite, and most dramatically, a stone monument in the village of Gilleleje which honors the man who in 1835 there contemplated his mission in life.
The focus on irony and subjectivity pushed existentialism and the “stages” of life – two things I’d associated with Kierkegaard prior to the course – into the background. I quite liked the more in-depth approach to a smaller area, but I’d like to pursue other aspects of Kierkegaard’s work further; I hope a “part two” will be forthcoming at some point. Kierkegaard isn’t someone I would dare to read alone.
I do think, however, they buried the lede. It wasn’t until the 7th week I found out that Kierkegaard was sure he’d die at age 33 and so planned his work in two parallel streams with a final analysis capping them off. He was so confused when he didn’t die, he checked his birth records to make sure he had his age right. So what was the poor guy to do, but write more books – and pick a fight with the church, bless his heart. I wish I’d known that initially, not just because it’s interesting, but because it gives a structure to his body of work.
In addition to the video lectures (about an hour a week), readings from Plato/Socrates, Hegel, and Kierkegaard were assigned, and made available in PDF format. This was one of the first courses where I used the video transcripts provided for most Coursera lectures, highlighting instead of taking notes; this approach worked quite well for me, allowing me to listen more than worry about catching everything. It worked so well, in fact, I’ve started using the technique in other courses; I’m embarrassed I never thought of it before. [Addendum: Dr. Stewart’s book, scheduled for publication in October 2015, includes much of the material from this course] [Another Addendum: More good news – the course lectures from the 8 weeks (about an hour per week) are available on Youtube.]
Each week concluded with a ten-question multiple choice quiz (three tries), and a 2000-word final peer assessed essay was assigned; to my surprise, the question was extremely general, linking Socrates, Kierkegaard, and modern life. Anyone who’d paid even cursory attention to the lectures would’ve had no trouble with the essay, though of course peer assessment is unpredictable. I can’t say I’m particularly proud of what I turned in (assessments aren’t completed yet so I have no idea what “score” I received) but I do feel like I got a great deal out of the course, so it was a success.
I’d recommend this course to anyone; it’s very accessible – and, by the way, it’s scheduled to run again in March 2015. The course description estimates 4 to 6 hours a week, which seems about right (they’re usually much too low), though, as with any course, one can always find ways to dive deeper into the material. Plenty of avenues were available, and I probably could’ve spent more time on certain areas, like supplementary readings. I didn’t use the discussion forums at all for this course; initially I was simply overMOOC’d, and later, I just couldn’t find a comfort zone.
I find it interesting that both Dante and Kierkegaard, two profoundly Christian writers, took as primary muses voices of the Ancient world, Socrates and Virgil, neither of whom had any part in the Judeo-Christian tradition. But where Dante gives Virgil a few slaps for his paganism, Kierkegaard holds Socrates in highest esteem throughout his life, and saw a great deal of similarity between his contemporary understanding of Christianity and the model Socrates followed. Interestingly, I found this course, which sometimes included some heavy-duty issues of religious faith and Christian dogma, far more enjoyable and productive than the Georgetown approach to Dante, though I enjoyed reading Inferno more than reading Kierkegaard.
In the last week of the course, as Ferguson showed the world what injustice looks like and 12-year-old Tamir Rice was gunned down for looking dangerous, this quote from The Sickness Unto Death came into focus on my screen:
“…When I see someone who declares he has completely understood how Christ went around in the form of a lowly servant, poor, despised, mocked, and, as Scripture tells us spat upon – when I see the same person assiduously make his way to the place where in worldly sagacity it is good to be, set himself up as securely as possible, when I see him then so anxiously, as if his life depended on it, avoiding every gusty of unfavorable wind from the right or left, see him so blissful so extremely blissful, so slap-happy, yes, to make it complete, so slap-happy that he even thanks God for – for being whole-heartedly honored and esteemed by all by everyone – then I have often said privately to myself: “Socrates, Socrates, Socrates, can it be possible that this man has understood what he says he understood?”… No, Socrates, you I can understand; you make him into a joker, a jolly fellow of sorts, and fair game for laughter; you have nothing against but rather even approve of my preparing and serving him up as something comic – provided I do it well.
Socrates, Socrates, Socrates! Yes, we may well call your name three times; it would not be too much to call it ten times, if it would be of any help. Popular opinion maintains that the world needs a republic, needs a new social order and a new religion – but no one considers that what the world, confused simply by too much knowledge, needs is a Socrates…
So it could very well be that our age needs an ironic-ethical correction such as this – this may actually be the only thing it needs – for obviously it is the last thing it thinks of. Instead of going beyond Socrates, it is extremely urgent that we come back to this Socratic principle – to understand and to understand are two things – not as a conclusion that ultimately aids people in their deepest misery, since that annuls precisely the difference between understanding and understanding, but a the ethical conception of everyday life.~~ Søren Kierkegaard
I don’t think invoking Socrates will help, until we’re ready to fix ourselves – the crowning irony being, we all (myself included) think it’s the other guy that needs to change. And kids keep dying, and will keep dying, until “their kids” become “our kids” and “them” becomes “us” and we stop the self-mutilation we’ve been inflicting on ourselves. But this has nothing to do with the course. Does it.