Prize recipient 2022 | Frederik Stjernfelt



Text profile on Frederik Stjernfelt. Winner of the Carlsberg Foundation Research Prize 2022.

What is your research about?

I have several very different research interests. One is semiotics, or the study of signs, where I’ve been interested in developing realistic semiotics in the sense that it accounts for how we recognise the world through signs. This has led me to further develop US philosopher Charles Peirce’s insights, such as his generalisation of the concept of diagrams, which was at the heart of my thesis Diagrammatology in 2007, and his original theory about propositions (Natural Propositions, 2014), both of which are taken further in my book Sheets, Diagrams, and Realism in Peirce (2022).

Another interest is the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment, including the period in 1770-73 when Denmark was the first country in the world to introduce full freedom of the press. Together with Ulrik Langen and Henrik Horstbøll, I’ve produced a history of this period in the work The World’s First Full Press Freedom, published in Danish in 2020 and in English in 2022. A third interest is the philosophy of science, where I’ve worked with David Budtz Pedersen on an empirical mapping of Danish research in the humanities in reports and books in recent years.


What are the challenges and prospects for your research?

It’s a challenge having several different research interests at the same time, perhaps particularly because this can make your position unclear to observers. I decided early on that my semiotic research needed to be in English, while my research into Danish freedom of speech and humanities is mainly in Danish. This means I have different profiles for Danish and international observers.

Many of my results have been published in monographs, and to some extent it’s a challenge to convince of the necessity of this scientific genre at a time when the winds are blowing in favour of the article genre. Many of my publications have been written and published together with other authors, which I see only as a good thing. Not only because of my esteemed colleagues’ willingness to be co-authors, but also because of the possibilities it opens up. By working together across disciplines, we can achieve far more than any of us could attain individually.

How did you become interested in your research field?

I studied mathematics and physics at school, but I’ve made my career in the humanities. My overarching research interest was always the history of ideas and the philosophy of science, which provided a platform for narrower and more tangible topics and studies. I got into semiotics via a study circle in the 1980s led by the likes of Harly Sonne and Per Aage Brandt. Charles Peirce as a subject came about in the 1990s, supported by several visits to Harvard Library. My fascination with the history of ideas grew when working with Hans Siggaard on editing the volume Tankens Magt, while my interest in the Age of Enlightenment was aroused by Jacob Mchangama, Ulrik Langen and Henrik Horstbøll.

My involvement in the philosophy of science as a subject was deepened through collaboration with Claus Emmeche and Simo Køppe, current political philosophy through collaboration with the author Jens-Martin Eriksen, and humanities research through collaboration with David Budtz Pedersen. I’ve also worked on the Internet together with Anne Mette Lauritzen and all kinds of different subjects in discussions with Søren Ulrik Thomsen, Dan Zahavi and Vincent Hendricks.

What are the greatest insights or discoveries you have made?

I’ve had my greatest insights in a variety of areas. First and foremost, there is what I would call “grammatical thinking” and its key role in both science and insight more generally. The essence of this is that truth-claiming propositions are not expressed solely in linguistic form, but also in many different multimodal combinations of images, diagrams, gestures, language and so on, reaching right down into our biology. From this, a number of metaphysical consequences can be derived concerning the world’s structure and recognisability.

When it comes to the topic of freedom of expression in Denmark, it’s been particularly eye-opening just how revolutionary and diverse the Press Freedom period was. It truly marked the birth of modern, free debate in Denmark – with all the associated possibilities and problems.

My mapping of democratic problems in multicultural thought and politics and of intellectual and political positions and their role in the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s has also brought a whole series of new insights. The same applies to my mapping of Danish humanities researchers’ interdisciplinarity and communication activity, and the global tech giants’ new kind of pressure on freedom of speech.

What does it mean to you to win the Carlsberg Foundation’s Research Prize?

It means a particularly great deal to me to win the Carlsberg Foundation Research Prize. My very diverse contributions in terms of both science and communication can perhaps make my position difficult to define, so I’m delighted my research efforts have been recognised with a prize awarded on the basis of recommendations from my fellow scientists.

Tell us about your background, family and leisure interests

I was born and raised in Aalborg as the son of Mensendieck therapist Mette Stjernfelt and window dresser Egon Stjernfelt, who died in 1976. My brother Christian died when he was in his 20s. My background was not academic, but there was a real interest in art and knowledge in my childhood home, and I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a researcher. After studying mathematics and physics at school, I moved to Copenhagen to study philosophy and ended up with a doctorate in Nordic literature. 

I’ve since been employed at Copenhagen University, Aarhus University and now Aalborg University in Copenhagen. For 20 years from 1993 to 2013, I edited Gyldendal’s journal KRITIK with various partners. I’ve also always had a sideline writing in the press, first in Information and for the past 25 years in Weekendavisen. I’m married to the translator Agnete Stjernfelt. We have two daughters: graphic designer Agnes and comic book artist Karoline Stjernfelt.