Subjectivity, Irony, & the Crisis of Modernity
Jon Stewart is an associate professor and very active scholar at the University of Copenhagen’s Søren Kierkegaard Research Centre. In addition to his own important monographs and translations of Danish texts, Stewart serves as editor for Routledge’s mammoth series Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception and Resources as well as the Texts from Golden Age Denmark and Danish Golden Age Studies series, and as co-editor of the Kierkegaard Studies Yearbook and the Kierkegaard Studies Monograph series. His latest book, Søren Kierkegaard: Subjectivity, Irony, & the Crisis of Modernity, is meant to provide a basic introduction to Kierkegaard while at the same time advancing Stewart’s claim that Kierkegaard’s primary influence, both pedagogically and existentially, was Socrates.
The book is based on an online course (using the Coursera platform) that Stewart developed in 2013; and thus far, over 70,000 people have taken part worldwide. The popularity of the course provided the impetus for the book, which, as one might expect, is a fine, if brief, introduction to Kierkegaard for those who are unfamiliar with his thought. Stewart also presents an argument in the book regarding the role of Socrates as a model for Kierkegaard’s personal and philosophical character. As with the online course, Stewart intends the text to be accessible to those with no prior knowledge of Kierkegaard. Alongside this, he has three goals: (1) To show that Kierkegaard’s thought is still particularly relevant in our “modern” setting; (2) to demonstrate that Kierkegaard gained many of his attitudes and insights from Socrates; and (3) to “trace Kierkegaard’s life and his relations to his contemporaries” in the light of the preceding two lenses (5).
Stewart is also keen to show that Kierkegaard’s doctoral thesis, The Concept of Irony (CI), is not a “piece of juvenilia that can be readily expedited” by Kierkegaardians, but that it contains basic themes important to understanding Kierkegaard’s overall project and his understanding of his task as a writer (viii). In conjunction with this claim, Stewart tries to develop a “single strand” of Kierkegaard’s thought, namely, the way in which Kierkegaard viewed himself as a Socratic figure in relation to his contemporaries in Denmark (vii). Stewart’s argument that Kierkegaard saw himself as “the Socrates of Copenhagen” is persuasive; and opens the reader to the influence of Socrates throughout Kierkegaard’s thought. While these claims may not be entirely new, one of the strengths of the book is the way Stewart develops his assertions using a clear and constructive style that both the uninitiated and the expert alike will appreciate.
In the first chapter, Stewart describes the “Socratic Task” by providing a brief background of Socrates himself, as well as the various aspects of Socrates’s methodology and personality that may be found reflected in Kierkegaard. In the second chapter, he examines in some detail G. W. F. Hegel’s interpretation of Socrates, providing in the process a brief introduction to Hegelian thought, and articulating links between Hegel, Hans Martensen (Kierkegaard’s peer and adversary), and Kierkegaard. The rest of the book explores, from various angles, this “Socratic Task” as a primary feature of Kierkegaard’s authorship. It is displayed in Kierkegaard’s responses to Danish Hegelianism and Romanticism, and then discussed throughout several chapters in terms of his early authorship, the pseudonymous works, and his post-1846 “second authorship.”
Along the way, we are also given various highlights of Kierkegaard’s life, which serve not only to bolster Stewart’s argument, but also provide a fine combination of theoretical exposition and historical biography, which should give the book a broad appeal. As with his previous works, Stewart deftly articulates the connections between Kierkegaard and Hegel, leaving the reader with the helpful realization that, although there are substantial disagreements between the two thinkers, Kierkegaard relied upon—and was far more sympathetic to—Hegel than many scholars have often supposed.
Of course, in a relatively short book that attempts to cover so much ground, general overviews will have to suffice for many topics, leaving the reader to pursue further for themselves the exactness of Stewart’s accounts of Immanuel Kant, Johann Fichte, and many other figures who are only given a brief mention. Nevertheless, as a broad-brushed account, it leaves this reviewer sufficiently convinced, and regarding the tasks of opening up the general reader to both Kierkegaard’s life and works, and connecting those to important contemporary issues of individuality and social identity, the book succeeds admirably.
Geoff Dargan is a recent graduate of Oxford University in the Theology and Religion.
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