Jon Stewart: “Kierkegaard has a special gift of discussing perennial human issues”

Newly launched in Brazil, Kierkegaard – Subjectivity, irony and the crisis of modernity is for all those in love with the Danish philosopher. The book allows a deep dive into the life and relationships of the great author, leading the reader to a better understanding of his thoughts with the proper historical context in which he lived. Written by Jon Stewart, associate professor at the Søren Kierkegaard Research Center at the University of Copenhagen, and an expert in philosophy and religion in the nineteenth century, the book promises bibliophiles a Holiday season in good company. Exclusively for FAUSTO, Jon Stewart talks about the importance and charms of the writer. Must-read!

Jon Stewart.

FAUSTO – The announcement of the biography you wrote about Kierkegaard made a lot of impact here in Brazil… 
Jon Stewart: I’m delighted to hear that the announcement of the Portuguese translation of my book has made an impact in Brazil. There are many outstanding Kierkegaard scholars in Brazil, such as Álvaro Valls and Ricardo Quadros Gouvêa. Through their teaching and writing, they have done a great job promoting Kierkegaard studies through the years. They deserve the credit for laying the foundation for the interest in my book. I’m very thankful to my translator Humberto A. Quaglio de Souza, who is also a great scholar. He helped me out with the open online course that I did on Kierkegaard that appeared on the Coursera platform (www.coursera.org/learn/kierkegaard). The course, which is still running, has been seen by more than 80,000 online students, and it formed the basis for the book. Humberto did a great job translating the subtitles and leading the discussion forum in Portuguese. He too has thus done a lot to spread the interest in Kierkegaard studies in Brazil and Portugal.

Do you think the biography will make Kierkegaard even more relevant?
With regard to the question of relevance, people today are often quick to dismiss thinkers of the past as irrelevant for the problems of today. We tend to think that we are confronted with a special and unique set of issues in the 21st century that the thinkers of the past never knew anything about. Given this, it might seem a waste of time to continue to study them. But while it is true that Kierkegaard never heard of globalization, personal computers or the internet, nonetheless many of his concepts and analyses are still deeply relevant for our own time. In the book I tried to trace the development of Kierkegaard’s life and thought with special emphasis on what he has to tell us today. Kierkegaard has a special gift of discussing perennial human issues that speak to people from different countries, with different intellectual backgrounds.

Do you remember the first moment when you found yourself enchanted with Kierkegaard? How old were you?
When I was 19 years old, I took an undergraduate class at the university on the philosophy of religion in which we read Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript. This had a profound impact on me. We also read some other classic texts that are usually read in such classes, but there was something about Kierkegaard’s tone and style that really stood out. The other works seemed somewhat boring or tedious, but Kierkegaard struck me as iconoclastic. He truly seemed to take seriously the difficult challenges to religion that had arisen in the Enlightenment. His focus on the individual and human freedom was very attractive to me at the time since I was struggling with these ideas in the context of my own life.

Why did you decide to go beyond his thinking and investigate Kierkegaard’s life?
In reading books about Kierkegaard, I often become somewhat frustrated by the fact that the authors invariably wanted Kierkegaard to say something that they had already decided ahead of time. Often they wanted, in a sense, to recruit him in the service of their own conception of religiosity or their own specific philosophical or political position. After reflecting on this for some time, I realized that this happened so often since people were accustomed to abstracting Kierkegaard’s ideas from the context in which they originally arose, that is, his own life and times. If one follows this methodology, it is fairly easy to twist and turn his words in order to make him say what one wants him to say, but this, I thought, does not respect the integrity of the text. Kierkegaard was not an abstract philosopher, who was just analyzing concepts for their own sake; instead, his ideas arose out of the context of his own experiences and interactions with the main trends and figures of the intellectual life in Denmark and the German states at the time. So when I approach Kierkegaard, I think it is important to include this kind of historical and biographical context in order to fully understand the philosophical ideas that he is developing.

For example?
It is impossible to appreciate the details of his polemical criticism of the Danish State Church if one does not know anything about the main trends and controversies in the Danish Church at the time and Kierkegaard’s personal relations to some of its leading figures. For me, having this background information made it much easier to understand his texts than it had been before I had learned about these things.

What is currently more fascinating in Kierkegaard’s thinking, after so many years of studying about the Danish?
This is related to the previous question. When I learned Danish, this opened up a new world to me with regard both to Kierkegaard’s own texts and those of his contemporaries with whom he was in constant dialogue. With regard to his own texts, by reading them in the original Danish, I could appreciate for the first time the rhetorical and stylistic elements which are impossible to capture adequately in a translation. With regard to the texts of his contemporaries, I was able to read these for the first time since almost none of them was available in translation. By reading these, I could see that Kierkegaard was in fact constantly making critical allusions to his fellow Danes. This motivated me to begin my own translation series (Texts from Golden Age Denmark), Museum Tusculanum since I wanted to make some of the key texts of the period available to international readers. I wanted them to be able to see for themselves the importance of these other figures for the development of Kierkegaard’s thought.

What moment of Kierkegaard’s life was deeply impacting to you?
After Kierkegaard defended his dissertation, The Concept of Irony, in 1841, he decided to take a trip to Berlin, the capital of Prussia, in order to learn more about German philosophy. At the time the university in Berlin has just hired Schelling, who was in a polemical relation with the Hegelians, and this created a rich and stimulating intellectual atmosphere. Kierkegaard went to Berlin and attended, among others Schelling’s lectures. This was an important crossroads for him since he had just finished his degree and was unsure of what he wanted to do with his life. He decided that he wanted to become a writer and began work on Either/Or while he was in Berlin. This period in Kierkegaard’s life was important for me since I also wanted to go to Germany and study there when I was a young student. Like Kierkegaard, I wanted to study the great German philosophers with the leading experts. Ultimately, I managed to do this, and I spent two years in Germany, while I was working on my dissertation. This period was also an important crossroads in my life. I spent much time reflecting on what I wanted to do when I finished my degree. In the end, I decided to be a researcher, and after I defended my dissertation, I returned to Europe to continue my research on Continental philosophy.

How important is Kierkegaard in Romanticism?
I think that Kierkegaard can be seen as an important critic and commentator of the German Romantic movement. But this is a complex issue since some people take him to be a Romantic himself. There is a branch of Kierkegaard studies that associates him with movements such as post-modernism and deconstruction. They see in him an advocate of certain concepts that come from Romanticism, such as the indeterminacy of meaning, the rejection of authority and the use of the pseudonyms. However, in works such as The Concept of Irony, Kierkegaard explicitly criticizes the Romantics and proposes his own theory of irony as an explicit critical alternative to that of the leading figures of the German Romantic movement.

And what is the importance of Kierkegaard today? What can we learn from him if we dive into his thinking?
I think that Kierkegaard has many lessons for us today. We live in a time when communities are collapsing and people feel a sense of isolation and alienation. Kierkegaard gives some insightful analyses of these kinds of concepts, including anxiety and despair. He also has some valuable things to say about how people think and act in groups, and how individuality is undermined. Kierkegaard’s critical analysis of his own time can in large part be applied to our own age as well. The trends and currents that he identified for criticism still exist today and have, if anything, developed even further.

What is the importance of poetry in your texts?
Kierkegaard was aware of the fact that there were many different kinds of readers. Some were educated and others were not. He explicitly crafted his works with different kinds of readers in mind. I think that this explains, at least in part, the great success of his texts and their ability to speak to everyone. A part of this has to do with their rhetorical or poetical quality. Here I think he has something to teach us. Today modern academic treatises in philosophy are entirely homogenous with respect to their form. One can say that there is a fixed formula that one must follow in order to publish an article or book on philosophy. Today academic journals and publishers will not accept anything else that does not follow the accepted formula. I have tried to argue in another book (The Unity of Content and Form in Philosophical Writing: The Perils of Conformity, London, New Delhi, New York and Sydney: Bloomsbury 2013) that this dogmatism with respect to form does not do any service to philosophy since there are some philosophical positions and arguments that might well be better suited to different forms of expression such as dialogues, novels, poems, dramatic pieces, etc. Kierkegaard saw this clearly and his creative ways of writing are excellent examples of how one can make philosophical arguments and issue philosophical criticisms by using a different form of expression from the one that is generally accepted today. So I think poetry can play an important role in a philosophical text—a role that is not just about aesthetics, but in fact carries a philosophical point.
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Eliana de Castro Written by:

Idealizadora da FAUSTO, é jornalista e ensaísta, mestre em Ciência da Religião pela PUC-SP.

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