Monday, September 19, 2011

Ebels-Duggan, Kyla. Review of Hubert Dreyfus, et al. ALL THINGS SHINING. NDPR (August 2011).

Dreyfus, Hubert, and Sean Dorrance Kelly.  All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular AgeNew York: Free Press, 2011.

Those not initiated into the practice of academic philosophy tend to assume that daunting questions about the meaning of life are its main occupation. But any academic philosopher knows how far this is from the truth. Speaking to questions simultaneously so momentous and so ill-defined hazards both offensive pretension and embarrassing silliness. So it is easy to see why, over the last century, an increasingly professionalized discipline agreed to treat them as inappropriate for grown-up philosophers, notwithstanding the interest they held for grown-ups such as Plato and Kant. But in a salutary trend, some mature minds have recently returned to this topic. Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly are to be commended for their presence among them.

Having determined to face the risks, Dreyfus and Kelly take no half measures. They open All Things Shining with a promise of no less than deliverance from the boredom, nihilism and despair that they think characteristic of our "secular age:"
anyone who is done with indecision and waiting, with expressionlessness and lostness and sadness and angst, and who is ready for whatever it is that comes next; anyone with hope instead of despair, or anyone with despair that they would like to leave behind, can find something worthwhile in the pages ahead. (xi)
To accomplish this deliverance they take readers on a whirlwind tour through the history of Western thought. The tour, though necessarily selective, serves two purposes. First, it provides an account of the causes and character of the contemporary malaise. In short, the problem is the need for a middle path between two tempting, though in the authors' view bankrupt, positions. The first is the "temptation to monotheism," which they trace to the rise of Christianity. But this is not a book for monotheists and does not purport to address them. Rather, its audience is those living in the wake of monotheism, people who cannot regard believing in God as a serious option but still have sensibilities shaped by a recently monotheistic culture. Monotheism promised "ultimate or final" meaning (179), "an ultimate truth behind everything that is" (181). The authors never make entirely clear what they mean by a "final" or "ultimate" account. But, as their extended discussion of Melville's Moby Dick makes clear, they think that the possibility of such a thing disappears with monotheistic faith. Still saddled with unsatisfiable longing for ultimate meaning, post-monotheist secularists fall prey to the second temptation, trying to create this meaning for themselves. This turns out to be merely a detour to the same ennui and despair it aimed to avoid.

Though they claim to provide glimpses of a "hidden history of the West" (89), some elements of the authors' historical story are familiar: Judeo-Christian monotheism crowds out earlier possibilities, Luther -- quite unintentionally -- plants the seeds of autonomous meaning-creation with his individualist opposition to the Catholic church, Descartes expands individualism into epistemology, Kant carries this further than anyone had intended with his Copernican revolution, and this leads on to Nietzsche's subjectivism. David Foster Wallace is cast as spokesperson for the contemporary inheritors of the nihilism that the authors think results. On their view, Wallace displays particular insight into the problem of contemporary life: our loss of the sense that anything could be more worth doing than anything else. Their Wallace tries to apply a Nietzschean solution, inserting significance into the world through individual acts of will. But the attempt fails and despair ensues. . . .

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