LAST AUGUST, I TRAVELED to France to participate in a reenactment of Plato's banquet at the house of Bernard Stiegler, the French philosopher of technology. The reenactment was part of a school of philosophy that Stiegler started in the fall of 2010 and that is continuing this academic year. The school involves not just doctoral students but also high school students and people living in Stiegler's hometown: the mayor and his wife, a photographer, an art dealer, a philosopher-turned-architect, and so on. For the banquet, they were joined by local and international visitors (academics, a community activist, a high-school physics teacher, a video artist, a software engineer).
Although there was no general theme for the banquet, many of the presentations and discussions revolved around the notion of pharmacology. Taking our cue from Jacques Derrida's brilliant text "Plato's Pharmacy," which lays bare the ambiguities of the word "pharmakon" in Plato's dialogues — it means, among other things, both "cure" and "poison" — the group reflected for four days on the "pharmacological" conditions of modern existence: the ways in which technology, for example, has both remedial and empoisoning effects (it enables you to read this article online, but it might also distract you to go update your status on Facebook, and miss out on the good stuff that is to come). Hence, the pharmakon requires a therapeutics, that is, some practice of care. Philosophy, those at the banquet believed, can participate in defining such a therapeutics, can actually be therapeutic; it can help one live a meaningful life in a time of disorientation.
I thought of that banquet as I read All Things Shining, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly's new book on how to "find meaning in a secular age." For Dreyfus and Kelly, professors of philosophy at UC Berkeley and at Harvard, respectively, philosophy provides orientation in a time characterized by all manner of crises, emergencies, and exceptions. All Things Shining echoes both authors' work in existentialism and phenomenology. Following the position that Dreyfus takes up in his work on artificial intelligence (for example, in Dreyfus's What Computers Can't Do: The Limits of Artificial Intelligence), Dreyfus and Kelly argue that technology is an important contributor to the contemporary state of disorientation, because it has attacked and replaced the craftsmanlike skills that allow things to shine (more on this enigmatic formulation in a moment). Although it "improves our lives by making hard things easier," the authors note that "the improvements of technology are impoverishments as well," and thus enter into the logic of the pharmakon. In such a condition, only philosophy can help one navigate the treacherous, shifting border between poison and cure.
All Things Shining traces such an understanding of philosophy back to the ancient Greeks, suggesting that there is something in the Greek way of being in the world that is supremely meaningful today, and that can be found (by those who are still capable of paying careful attention) in Western classics from Dante's Divine Comedy and Melville's Moby Dick to Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, and Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat,...