Jonathan Lear

Jonathan Lear
John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor
Foster Hall, Room 503
Office Hours: Autumn Quarter:
Rockefeller University PhD (1978)
Teaching at UChicago since 1996
Research Interests: Philosophical Conceptions of the Human Psyche, Philosophy of Psychoanalysis, Kierkegaard, Ancient Philosophy

Jonathan Lear is the John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor at the Committee on Social Thought and in the Department of Philosophy. His work focuses on the philosophical understanding of the human psyche—and the ethical implications that flow from us being the kind of creatures we are. He trained in Philosophy at Cambridge University and The Rockefeller University where he received his PhD in 1978. He works primarily on philosophical conceptions of the human psyche from Socrates to the present. He also trained as a psychoanalyst at the Western New England Institute for Psychoanalysis. His books include: Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (2006); Aristotle and Logical Theory (1980); Aristotle: The Desire to Understand (1988); Love and Its Place in Nature: A Philosophical Interpretation of Freudian Psychoanalysis (1990); Open Minded: Working out the Logic of the Soul (1998); Happiness, Death and the Remainder of Life (2000); Therapeutic Action: An Earnest Plea for Irony (2003); Freud (2005); and A Case for Irony (2011). His most recent books are Wisdom Won From Illness: Essays in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (Harvard University Press, 2017) and The Idea of a Philosophical Anthropology: The Spinoza Lectures (Assen: Van Gorcum, 2017). He is a recipient of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Distinguished Achievement Award. In 2014, he was appointed the Roman Family Director of the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society and continues in that role currently. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. (Photo: Erielle Bakkum)

Selected Publications

Out of unbearable loss, a vision of radical hope

Transience and hope: A return to Freud in a time of pandemic*

Wisdom Won From Illness: Essays in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017)

Freud, 2nd ed. (New York and London: Routledge, 2015)--one of the top-ten books on psychoanalysis in The Guardian

Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); rev. by Sebastian Junger in Time Magazine (July 12, 2010)

A Case for Irony (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011)

Therapeutic Action: An Earnest Plea for Irony (New York: Other Press, 2003)

"Inside and Outside the Republic," Phronesis 37, no. 2 (January, 1992)

Katharsis,” in Phronesis, 1988; reprinted in Aristotle’s Poetics, ed. Amelie Rorty (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992)

Aristotle: The Desire to Understand (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988)

Aristotle and Logical Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980)

Recent Courses

PHIL 27523/37523 Reading Kierkegaard

(FNDL 27523, SCTH 27523, SCTH 37523)

This will be a discussion-centered seminar that facilitates close readings some of Kierkegaard texts:

The Present Age, Fear and Trembling, Sickness Unto Death, and The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air. Topics to be considered will include: living in clichés and self-satisfaction, despair, absolute requirements, the demands of ethical life, and becoming a human being. We shall also consider Kierkegaard's forms of writing and manners of persuasion. Students will be expected to write comments each week and to read the comments of others. Our reading each week will be determined by the pace of the group. (IV)                                 




This seminar is intended for undergraduate majors in Philosophy and Fundamentals and for graduate students in Social Thought and Philosophy. Permission of Instructor required.

2023-2024 Winter

PHIL 51002 Neo-Aristotelian Practical Philosophy

(SCTH 51002)

Neo-Aristotelianism marks philosophical views indebted to Aristotle.  In practical philosophy—ethics, political philosophy, accounts of practical reason, and so on—these views are distantly indebted to Aristotle’s views in metaphysics.  The 4 crucial aspects of Aristotle’s metaphysics, for our purposes are: 

I. His understanding of substances 

II. His understanding of causality 

III. His understanding of form and matter, and, relatedly,  

IV. His understanding of powers/ potentialities, and actuality  

Substances are unified, individual objects of a specific kind that can have accidental features like color and location in addition to natures or essences.  The paradigmatic instances of substances for Aristotle are individual living things—plants, animals, and human beings being three examples.  These things—organisms—come in specific kinds—the geranium, for example, or the honey badger.  The kinds are the substantial forms of the living things that are instances of those kinds.  Organisms are composite things—their matter is informed.  And the matter in question only counts as matter relative to the form it can take.  Organisms have characteristic powers—sight, for instance, or nutrition, or discursive reason—and these powers are actualized when exercised.

Aristotle identifies the substantial forms of living things as different kinds of souls—living things are animate things.  The ‘anima’ in ‘animate’ holds the word for soul—or source of life—for Aristotle.  And Aristotle’s principal teaching on the substantial forms of living things is, accordingly, the book that goes by the title De Anima—of the soul.  We will begin by reading passages from this work alongside mainstream Anglophone practical philosophy.

We will focus on rational animals—human beings—in focusing our attention on what makes a human being an exemplary one of its kind—virtue—and what makes for a sound human community.  In this work, we will pay special attention to Aristotle’s writings on ethics and politics, again read alongside philosophical work that is openly indebted to Aristotle. (I)




Permission of Instructors.

2023-2024 Autumn

PHIL 50113 The Concept of World and Its Vulnerability

(SCTH 50113)

We will be interested in the special and problematic notion of an attitude toward the world as a whole, and in some questions that arise in contexts where people face what they experience as the end of their world or its vulnerability to destruction.  Readings will include texts from Freud, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein, as well as more contemporary readings from Cora Diamond, Jonathan Lear, Brian O’Shaughnessy, and others.

Permission of instructor required for grad students not in Philosophy or Social Thought.

2022-2023 Spring

PHIL 27522/37522 Aristotle's Ethics

(SCTH 37522)

The seminar will combine a careful reading of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics with philosophical considerations of fundamental problems involved in being human discussed in the text: happiness, virtue, courage, friendship, decision, political and contemplative life. (III)

Consent required for graduates and undergraduates.

2022-2023 Autumn

PHIL 51413 Essential Concepts of Psychoanalysis

(SCTH 55512)

This seminar will introduce some of the central concepts of psychoanalysis: Mourning and Melancholia, Repetition and Remembering, Transference, Neurosis, the Unconscious, Identification, Psychodynamic, Eros, Envy, Gratitude, Splitting, Death. The central theme will be how these concepts shed light on human flourishing and the characteristic ways we fail to flourish. Readings from Plato, Aristotle, Freud, Loewald, Lacan, Melanie Klein, Betty Joseph, Hanna Segal and others.

Consent required.

2021-2022 Spring

PHIL 55701 The Ethics and Poetics of Mimesis

(SCTH 55701)

In this seminar we will examine the concept of mimesis as a way of thinking about poetry and the arts and also as a way of thinking about human life more generally.  Our focus will be Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Poetics, though we will consider relevant passages from other dialogues and treatises.  What should we make of the fact that Socrates figures both the unjust person and the philosopher-ruler as a mimetic artist? In what way is his critique of mimesis ontological, psychological, and political?  Are there differing explanations of the influence of mimetic speech, sound, and sights? Why do Plato and Aristotle believe that poetic mimesis is a necessary element of moral education?  How does Aristotle’s different, more dynamic account of poetic mimesis reflect a different understanding of the nature poetry and its place in human life?  If time permits, we will briefly consider Epictetus’s idea that we should think of ourselves as actors playing a role in the cosmic drama. (IV)


Preference will be given to PhD students.  MA students require permission of the instructor.


2021-2022 Autumn
Ancient Philosophy
Medieval Philosophy

PHIL 51416 Envy, Gratitude, Depression and Evasions: The "Contemporary Kleinians"

(SCTH 51415)

In this seminar we shall consider contemporary psychoanalytic thinking on fundamental aspects of human being: envy and gratitude, the capacity to learn from experience, mourning and depression, Oedipal struggles, the structure of the I, the superego and other forms of defense.  We shall also consider relevant clinical concepts such as projective identification, splitting, internal objects, the paranoid-schizoid position, the depressive position, and attacks on linking. The seminar will focus on a group of psychoanalytic thinkers who have come to be known as the Contemporary Kleinians.  Their work develops the traditions of thinking that flow from the works of Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein -- and we shall consider their writings as well when appropriate.  Readings from Betty Joseph, Edna O'Shaughnessy, Wilfrid Bion, Hanna Segal, Elizabeth Spillius, John Steiner, Ronald Britton, Michael Feldman, Irma Brenman Pick and others.

Registration by permission of instructor. 

Jonathan Lear, Dr. Kay Long
2020-2021 Spring

PHIL 50119 Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript by Johannes Climacus

(SCTH 41604)

This seminar will engage in a close reading of Concluding Unscientific Postscript.  The aim will be to develop an understanding of topics such as: living in clichés without realizing it, subjectivity and objectivity, ethics, eternal happiness, guilt, humor, irony and different manners of being religious.  We shall also consider the meaning of Kierkegaard's pseudonymous authorship. 

This will be a seminar that requires active participation.  Students please come to the first session having read up to page 43 of the Alastair Hannay translation (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy). Registration by permission of Instructor.

2020-2021 Autumn

PHIL 20215/30215 The End of Life

(SCTH 30215)

Aristotle taught that happiness, or eudaimonia, is the end of human life, in the sense that it is what we should strive for. But, in another sense, death is the end of life. This course will explore how these two “ends” – happiness and death – are related to each other. But it will do so in the context of a wider set of concerns. For, it is not only our individual lives that come to an end: ways of life, cultural traditions, civilizations and epochs of human history end. We now live with the fear that human life on earth might end. How are we to think about, and live well in relation to, ends such as these? Readings from Aristotle, Marx, Engels, Freud, Heidegger, and Arendt.


Graduates: By permission of instructor.

2018-2019 Spring

PHIL 21720 Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

(FNDL 21908)

This course will offer a close reading of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, one of the great works of ethics. Among the topics to be considered are: What is a good life? What is ethics? What is the relation between ethics and having a good life? What is it for reason to be practical? What is human excellence? What is the non-rational part of the human psyche like? How does it ever come to listen to reason? What is human happiness? What is the place of thought and of action in the happy life? (A)

This course is intended for Philosophy majors and for Fundamentals majors. Otherwise please seek permission to enroll.

2018-2019 Autumn
Ancient Philosophy

For full list of Jonathan Lear's courses back to the 2012-13 academic year, see our searchable course database.