For this Face to Face with DIS Faculty we called upon Brian Söderquist, Ph.D. (Philosophy and Religion), who has been teaching in the European Humanities program for 14 years now. Brian shares with DIS students the unique experience of studying abroad in Copenhagen, as he studied at the University of Copenhagen as a postgraduate student. Denmark’s deep history of philosophy first attracted him as a place to pursue his Ph.D., and many years later, Brian’s knowledge continues to unfold as he walks the same streets that celebrated philosophers once did.
DIS: You are co-teaching a new philosophy core course to the European Humanities program next fall. What will students taking this course get out of the semester?
Brian Söderquist: Yes! Jakob Lorentzen, my co-teacher for the course, and I are excited to introduce the new course From Religious Mythos to Philosophical Logos! One general theme in the course is the perceived evolution of rational thinking in ancient Greece. Traditionally, scholars viewed classical Greece—the culture that gave rise to great philosophical minds like Plato and Aristotle—as a time when reason finally displaced myth as the tool for interpreting the world around us.
Philosophers at this time are said to have “discovered the mind,” (i.e.
, to have begun to use the rational intellect as a measure of truth rather than the seemingly naïve revelations of the Gods via myth and other religious narratives). And this is not merely of historical interest. We’ll take a critical look at this idea, asking if it is really the case that reason replaced myth.
Even more importantly, we’ll ask if the rational worldview that we have inherited from the Greek tradition has perhaps made us less sensitive to other ways of accessing what is out there and within us. Have we become less able to measure experiences that cannot be rationally and scientifically verified? Are we less sensitive to the power of narrative and art to shape what we see and how we think?
We will be reading some great texts from the period as well. We’ll return to the myths of Homer, which fascinated so many of us as children, looking for signs of how Homer understood the place of the divine and the human. We’ll also read some great tragedies by Sophocles and Euripides, who both present a world where the gods are no longer firmly in control. These tragedies show that human beings can act and influence their own destinies even if fate is still a dominant thought. And the philosophy of thinkers like Plato and Aristotle is still refreshing because of their insistence on asking the most moving questions. One senses the degree to which they are driven by wonder at the oddness of human existence.
DIS: Athens will be your classroom during the Week-Long Study Tour. What is so special about Athens as a study tour location?
BS: Athens is often said to be the birthplace of the western mind, and there is no question that it has a mythical feel. It’s hard not to think of Homer, Sophocles, and Socrates as you walk around the very same streets, carrying on conversations, both philosophical and utterly trivial, just like they did. You might say that our tour to Athens is like a modern pilgrimage to the holy land of philosophical thought. The first time I went to Athens, I couldn’t help but feel a youthful excitement as I gazed at the Acropolis watching over the city. It’s just fun.
And the trips outside Athens are beautiful. We travel to Delphi at Mt. Parnassus, literally the center of the world for the Greeks, as well as cities named in The Odyssey like Argos and Thebes.
DIS: The short study tour during Core Course Week goes to Western Denmark and Northern Germany, where you will hear about some of Germany’s most important modern interpreters of Greek myth and philosophy. Tell us about this – what are you most looking forward to sharing with the students?
BS: The course is just as much about the current use of Greek thought in the modern world, and the most important recent interpreters were from the German tradition: Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Adorno. We’ll hear from some of the top current scholars in Germany while we’re there and take advantage of the great art museums to talk more about philosophy of art in general. Hamburg, the second largest city in Germany, is a fantastic setting for it all.
DIS: You also teach courses at the Søren Kierkegaard Research Center, based at the University of Copenhagen, where DIS students have the opportunity to enroll in these courses. Tell us about this.
BS: Being a part of the Søren Kierkegaard Research Centre at the University of Copenhagen (KU) has been a great privilege for me personally. I came to the Centre as a Ph.D. student and found myself surrounded by some of the most insightful Kierkegaard scholars in the world. And I’ve stayed there ever since.
The courses that I teach in English at the University of Copenhagen are open to DIS students are Making of the Modern Self, Kierkegaard’s Authorship, and Kierkegaard Honors Level Seminar. I’m able to convince some of the most interesting Kierkegaard scholars to give guest lectures. I think that having a mix of DIS and KU students in the class also gives an interesting dynamic. The tone is different from other DIS classes because of the European students, and it’s also different from the classes with only KU students. I think it’s an ideal combination.
DIS: You have a passion for Kierkegaard, have written two books on him, and were recently on national television to celebrate his 200th anniversary, where you actually sat in his old apartment. How has living in Copenhagen impacted your own discovery of philosophy?
BS: Obviously studying Kierkegaard in his old hometown is a great advantage academically. All the top scholars pass through the Centre at some point, and I think that the personal conversations in the hallways and in offices have been as influential as any of the books I’ve read. And conversations about Kierkegaard with my colleagues in cafés after work might be even more informative. I’m constantly inspired to think and to wonder about things.
And on a less scholarly level, I think it’s fun to walk the same streets Kierkegaard walked. After doing this for a few years, you know all sorts of facts about the precise places Kierkegaard frequented. Part of my job includes translating Kierkegaard’s private papers and I recently found myself working on a passage where he described being at a party—in the very same apartment I used to live in. That’s sort of uncanny.
I really have a dream job: I get to know some really interesting scholars at the Centre, and I can facilitate that in class with my KU and DIS students, who are some of the brightest and best educated students anywhere.
DIS: Anything on the future horizon with you and Kierkegaard – hopes, dreams, and other publications?
BS: I’m working on a book about Kierkegaard and the existential tradition, with particular focus on Jean-Paul Sartre. It’s emerged from the study of the texts I use in the joint KU/DIS course Making of the Modern Self.
DIS: You’ve taught at DIS since 2000 – and 14 years later, you’re still teaching! What is your favorite part about teaching DIS students?
BS: The passionate, bright students. The students who gravitate to my courses are smart, well-educated, and passionately interested in the world. With students like that, it’s so easy to teach. They read and think before coming to class, and the classes just run themselves. It really is a pleasure. Like I said, I have a dream job.
DIS: As an American yourself, you know how it feels to be in Copenhagen for the very first time as a foreign student. What advice can you give to future and current DIS students regarding their study abroad semester in CPH?
BS: Coming to Copenhagen when I was a student changed everything for me. Before I lived abroad, I had an intellectual understanding of cultural difference, but I really only understood what that meant once I was here. I think the most valuable experience for me was simply to lose my footing: to see that the moral and political orienting landmarks in Denmark were slightly re-positioned. I highly recommend losing some footing.