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Kierkegaard, Despair and the Possibility of Education: Teaching Existentialism Existentially


Written collaboratively by two undergraduate students and one professor, this article explores what it would mean to teach existentialism “existentially.” We conducted a survey of how Existentialism is currently taught in universities across North America, concluding that, while existentialism courses tend to resemble other undergraduate philosophy courses, existentialist texts challenge us to rethink conventional teaching practices. Looking to thinkers like Kierkegaard, Beauvoir and Arendt for insights into the nature of pedagogy, as well as recent work by Gert Biesta, we lay out the four qualities that we propose characterize “existentialist” teaching practices: an emphasis on teaching over learning and on the “how” over the what; the cultivation of newness as well as capacities for resistance. Reflecting on the significance of existentialism for classroom dynamics, we conclude by examining the tensions between existentialist commitments to freedom and prevailing trends in higher education. This essay raises questions about the emancipatory potential of existentialist philosophies, especially in the context of undergraduate classrooms.

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  1. 1.

    Since we are interested in foregrounding the material import of existentialism, our analysis follows recent work that elaborates materialist, immanent interpretations of Kierkegaard; see Kangas (2007), Burns (2015) and Hughes (2014). For feminist interpretations that explore Kierkegaard’s ontology as relational and embodied, see Assiter (2013) and Battersby (1998).

  2. 2.

    “Constructivist” pedagogy emphasizes learning over teaching, an emphasis at odds with existentialist insights. For helpful overviews of constructivism, see Sutinen (2008), Splitter (2009), Richardson (2003) and Roth (2011).

  3. 3.

    Mills advocates a pedagogy that takes “the historical reality of a partitioned social ontology as one’s starting-point rather than the ideal abstraction of universal equality” (1994, 229). In this article, we interpret existentialist texts along the non-ideal lines that Mills is arguing for. There are, of course, liberal and idealizing readings of existentialism, but we follow the cues of readers like Gordon (1995), Ahmed (2006), Jaarsma (2009), and Mann (2014) who read existentialism as critical and non-ideal.

  4. 4.

    Biesta might be too kind to constructivism—or too ungenerous to Socrates—in this characterization of constructivist pedagogy, however. Considering how Kierkegaard and his pseudonyms explicate the transformative impact of a teacher like Socrates, we wonder if constructivism is better understood as a simulation of Socratic teaching. After all, if the teacher is akin to any other resources, is there really the kind of impassioned encounter with a teacher that we find in exchanges with Socrates?

  5. 5.

    And so, as Roberts observes, “To be educated is to live, constantly, with tensions—and the most important of those tensions, between hope and despair, can never be resolved” (2013b, 472).

  6. 6.

    Or more precisely, to follow Rubenstein’s analysis, perhaps Biesta is focusing too squarely on Climacus’s rejection of Socrates in Philosophical Fragments to the exclusion of Climacus’s subsequent affirmation of Socrates in Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Rubenstein’s reconstruction of this double move by Climacus resonates with our account of existentialist teaching: “There is thus an irreducible difference at the heart of subjectivity—there is no self-identical self…. Is the Socratic encounter antisocial? Is it solipsistic and self-identical? Hardly—it is creative and forward-moving and dynamic, precisely because the Socratic method maintains difference. Without difference, there can be no relation” (2002, 361, italics in original).

  7. 7.

    In this way, we share the interpretation, expressed by thinkers like Connolly (1999) and Jager (2006), that Kierkegaard’s most impassioned form of existence, namely the religious, is post-secular. Put in simple terms, by privileging becoming over belief, Kierkegaard’s religious existence is at odds with the secularizing (and objectifying) accounts that predominate in liberal societies.

  8. 8.

    As Arcilla argues, methods that presume to be transparent and rational are merely, on existential terms, indifferent to the particularities of students (2013, 492). In contrast to the disinterestedness upheld by thinkers like Rawls, Arcilla elaborates an account of education oriented towards the interested, partial and particular qualities of existence. (Arcilla stages his analysis in the first-person so that his claims resonate with his methods, an evocative example of what it might mean to do philosophy existentially).

  9. 9.

    Kierkegaard explains, “Do not be deceived by the word deception. One can deceive a person out of what is true, and—to recall old Socrates—one can deceive a person into what is true. Yes, in only this way can a deluded person actually be brought into what is true—by deceiving him” (1998, 53).

  10. 10.

    One way to examine this kind of subjective encounter with despair is to explore the question, “how does it feel like to be a white problem?” For an edited collection that poses this very question and assesses a range of responses, see Yancy (2014).

  11. 11.

    Kierkegaard’s “double-truth giving” provides an existentialist corrective to scenarios in which, as Biesta puts it, teaching is understood to be merely “accidental to learning” (2013, 454).

  12. 12.

    Arendt introduces the concept of natality in Love and Saint Augustine and develops it in The Human Condition. Natality is a capacity for newness that is intricately bound to the possibility to begin again and to participate in political action. Arendt explains that “the beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting” (1998, 9). Natality is integral to plurality: political action allows individuals to disclose their identities while also holding out the possibility for beginning anew. For a fuller explication of Arendt’s conception of natality, see Fry (2014).

  13. 13.

    This exploration of existentialist teaching could just as productively occur through close readings of passages by Beauvoir, Nietzsche, Sartre, Fanon or Arendt. It would be valuable, moreover, to examine the tensions between existentialist thinkers about what a concept like “subjective truth” means in the context of pedagogical encounters.

  14. 14.

    An indifferent student remains unchanged; there is no moment of “being taught.” Following Biesta, we could say that regardless of whether a student earns an A in a course, if she is not transformed then teaching has not occurred. Of course what matters here is the nature of such transformation; we reflect on this in the following section.

  15. 15.

    Sartre writes that ontological freedom cannot be evaded: “In fact we are a freedom which chooses, but we do not choose to be free. We are condemned to freedom” (1984, 623). Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Judge William explains that it is possible to evade choice by choosing not to choose: “there eventually comes a moment where it is no longer a matter of an Either/Or, not because he has chosen, but because he has refrained from it, which also can be expressed by saying: Because others have chosen for him—or because he has lost himself” (1987, 164).

  16. 16.

    Keltner points out that, in Beauvoir’s statement, the point is not that I must work for the freedom of others in order to become existentially impassioned myself. Rather, Beauvoir is describing freedom as the simultaneous work of solidarity with others (2006, 208).

  17. 17.

    Greene has, perhaps more than any other thinker, explored the risky but politically vital import of existential pedagogy, especially in terms of subverting racializing exclusions (1988, especially 87–116). Corporatized, neo-liberal universities emphasize excellence in teaching, but at the expense of solidarity, freedom and often the very activities involved with "being taught." For more on this point, see Jaarsma (2015).

  18. 18.

    In an extensive survey of North American Existentialism courses that we undertook as preparation for writing this article, we discovered that these four thinkers are, to a startling degree, the most represented thinkers on Existentialism syllabi.

  19. 19.

    Climacus writes, “The way of objective reflection makes the subject accidental, and thereby transforms existence into something indifferent, something vanishing. Away from the subject the objective way of reflection leads to the objective truth, and while the subject in his subjectivity becomes indifferent, the truth also becomes indifferent, and this indifference is precisely its objective validity” (173).

  20. 20.

    This movement from objective to subjective knowledge is what tends to characterize existential education. As Saeverot, Reindal, and Wivestad explain in their introduction to a recent special issue on Existentialism and Education: “[E]xistential education is not about obtaining objective truth, it is rather a matter of obtaining subjective truth” (2013, 443).

  21. 21.

    Since learnification saturates our current cultural moment—and since its paradigm includes an approach to learning called “constructivist”—certain versions of “subjectivity is truth” seem to pervade most students’ everyday educational experiences. And so it is Climacus’s turn towards untruth that marks the radical, pedagogical challenge of existentialism, not the initial turn towards subjective truth.

  22. 22.

    For a defense of constructivism, see the edited collection Fosnot (2005). For examples of critiques of constructivism that resonate with our essay, see Bozalek et al. (2014). This latter collection includes a range of anti-colonial and liberatory strategies that are at odds with the voluntarism of the constructivist framework.

  23. 23.

    According to Climacus, who employs the Christian terminology that marks all of Kierkegaard’s writings, Socrates does not have an understanding of sin. For Socrates, every individual has the capacity to explore truth subjectively and “recollect” what is true. The main point for Climacus is that religious truth cannot and can never be proven objectively. In fact, to approach the Christian incarnation story objectively is to move far away from religious inwardness (1992, 212).

  24. 24.

    See Schonsheck (2003) and Nowachek (2014) for examples of pedagogical practices that take cues from Sartre and Kierkegaard and that prompt dissonance, irony or humour through indirection or misdirection. In an analysis of Kierkegaard’s own indirection, Borman makes the convincing argument that persuasion (as the converse of deception) requires its own analysis (2006, 256). It seems noteworthy to us that existentialist teaching prompts recognition of the deceptive nature of teaching as such.

  25. 25.

    In an interview, Rancourt explains, “With grades students learn to guess the professor's mind and to obey. It is a very sophisticated machinery, whereby the natural desire to learn, the intrinsic motivation to want to learn something because you are interested in the thing itself, is destroyed…. The only way to develop independent thinking in the classroom is to give freedom, to break the power relationship by removing the instrument of power” (Freeston 2009). This interview took place in the context of Rancourt being fired from his position at the University of Ottawa because of his refusal to grade students’ projects; his refusal and subsequent firing speak to the quandaries that we are hoping to surface in this essay: quandaries regarding the extent to which “being taught” can occur in the context of the corporatized university system.


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We thank the anonymous reviewers for their insightful and helpful suggestions. This research was supported by a Learning Inquiry Grant from Mount Royal University's Academic Development Centre.

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Correspondence to Ada S. Jaarsma.

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Jaarsma, A.S., Kinaschuk, K. & Xing, L. Kierkegaard, Despair and the Possibility of Education: Teaching Existentialism Existentially. Stud Philos Educ 35, 445–461 (2016).

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  • Existentialism
  • Pedagogy
  • Gert Biesta
  • Søren Kierkegaard
  • Constructivism
  • Despair