DECEMBER 8, 2011
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, Pray, Love. The question that runs through the book is an ethical one that has dominated the long philosophical tradition in which the book participates: how to live a good life? The book rephrases the issue as a question of belief: What (or, in what) do we need to believe in order for our lives to still make sense to us today? What belief is required in order to not just live, but livewell, in a time of such extreme disorientation? In modern times, Dreyfus and Kelley suggest, things no longer “shine” the way they used to. As a consequence, “our lives can at the extreme seem shot through with hesitation and indecision, culminating in choices finally made on the basis of nothing at all.” All motivation to choose one way of life over the other is lacking. One can respond to this through a stance of extreme self-confidence, which risks leading to fanaticism (the authors’ example is the fictional newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane). Or one can try to escape into the addiction of blogs and social networking sites (think Facebook again). The authors favor neither. Instead, they set out to explore a path that is illustrated, in their opening chapter, by the heroic act of Wesley Autry jumping onto the New York subway tracks to save Cameron Hollopeter from being run over by an incoming train; and by basketball player Bill Bradley, who gained such a profound sense of where he was on the field that he could pass the ball to another player or dump it into the basket without even looking. It is this superhuman sense, which the authors characterize as “deeper than belief,” that All Things Shining is after.
All Things Shining begins with an investigation of the Greek mindset, when the world still appeared meaningful, due, the authors suggest, to the important place of religion in Greek culture, to the fact that the Greeks believed in their gods. For us moderns, however, the question hinges on whether such meaningfulness is predicated on the gods’ actual existence, or at least on one’s belief in their actual existence.
The authors’ answer is ambiguous, “yes and no”:
It might be natural to say that the Greeks believed in the gods. This is a historical question about which we will make no commitments. But what is truly important is that the Greeks felt that excellence in life requires highlighting a central fact of existence: wonderful things outside your control are constantly happening for you. That background sense of human existence is what justified and reinforced the feeling of gratitude that was so central to the Homeric understanding of what is admirable in a life. Whether that gratitude is directed towards Athena, Jesus, Vishnu, or nobody at all is almost irrelevant.
As they explain a little earlier on:
[T]he real issue is not primarily metaphysical — it is not, in other words, about whether God or gods exist as supernatural entities, or what their various properties are. Rather, the real question is phenomenological: it is about what ways of experiencing the world and understanding ourselves have underwritten those metaphysical and theological claims. The question that really matters, in other words, is not whether God was the causal agent but whether gratitude was an appropriate response.
The “historical question” to which the authors refer in the first of these quotes comes close to that raised by historian Paul Veyne in the title of his book Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? (Veyne’s book is one of the last manuscripts Michel Foucault read before his death in 1984; Dreyfus, it should be noted, co-authored one of the first American books on Foucault). In it, Veyne wonders whether the Greeks actually believed that they would actually encounter the gods if they traveled to the top of Mount Olympus. Obviously, they didn’t. But how could they still believe in their gods, then? This particular epistemic structure — of believing and not believing; or, if you like, of contradictory belief — fascinated Veyne, and it also fascinates the authors of All Things Shining, who want to save the religious attitude from the (in their view, ultimately irrelevant) question of whether or not God or the gods really exist.
This attitude, as my second quote makes clear, is one of grateful attention to the extraordinary ordinary things that surround us; it is the attitude of saying “thank you” in which Alain de Botton — the popular philosopher who founded the School of Life in London — has also expressed interest. Dreyfus and Kelly situate themselves in the time after Friedrich Nietzsche declared God dead. But the question of whether or not God is really dead is not what interests them; rather, they are fascinated by the effects of this declaration on our ways of life. All Things Shining is not about the life of God or the gods; it’s about the kind of human life that belief in God or the gods enables. The tone of the book is thus emphatically not one of regret for the death of God; it is one of regret for the ways of life that have disappeared as a result of the declaration of his death. The book wants to bring these ways of life back in, but without getting “God” involved. (With “the gods,” it is a different question, as we will see).
That, at least, is one way to read All Things Shining. At times, Dreyfus and Kelly seem to come quite close to the joyful secular nihilism that can be found in Nietzsche. Elsewhere, however, the gods take up a more prominent role. In their chapter on Herman Melville, the authors readMoby Dick as a critique of monotheism but not as a rejection of religion; indeed, they see the novel as a defense of a polytheistic approach to the world. “The ultimate indifference of Moby Dick toward Ahab could be an indication that this is the way the world really is,” Dreyfus and Kelly write in the conclusion of that chapter. “Perhaps there really are no meanings, no truths about the purpose of our lives; perhaps the nihilistic story is the final truth. But,” they continue,
Melville’s account is subtler than this. Sometimes the universe is meaningless, it is true — sometimes death is senseless or dumb. But the universe has its brute and reflex-like moments as well, in addition to the malicious and vindictive and devilish ones. And in addition to all these, it is also gently joyous and divine … The ultimate story of the universe is not that it is indifferent to us … [T]here are other gods as well — malicious and vindictive and joyous and divine — and the universe is all of these by turns.
Without wanting to make too much of this, it is worth noting that the last ones to be thanked in the authors’ acknowledgements are “the gods, who show themselves little by little or sometimes all at once and for whom we hope this book provides an appropriate landing place to welcome you back home.” Here, as in the reading of Melville, it is not nihilism but a polytheistic life that restores meaning to the world. It is within such a mindset that the world can begin to make sense again.
The Greeks, Dreyfus and Kelly insist, had such a mindset. Although us moderns have largely lost it, one realm in which contemporary Americans still experience the polytheistic way of life is sports. In the ancient world too, athletic contests were a source of meaningful living. Besides Bill Bradley, Dreyfus and Kelly cite the example of Lou Gehrig’s Fourth of July speech at Yankee Stadium in 1939. Gehrig, forced to retire from the game because of his illness, delivered a powerful, improvised speech at an event to celebrate his life and career, and after the speech a “thundering applause filled the stadium for two full minutes.” “It is a fair bet,” Dreyfus and Kelly write, “that nobody in the stadium that day felt even a tinge of T.S. Eliot’s indecision, or Samuel Beckett’s sense of an interminable wait, or David Foster Wallace’s anger and frustration at his inability to find meaningful differences in life.” Instead, the speech allowed everyone present to experience a sacred sense of community, one that let “each thing shine at its very best.” In these moments, people are “carried along as on a powerful wave.” They are swept up in an experience that makes the world appear as meaningful. It is also here, however, that the pharmacology of the ancient Greek mindset is laid bare: making the comparison between the crowd at Yankee Stadium and the crowds at a Hitler rally, the authors also consider the potentially empoisoning dimension of their attitude.
As a solution to this problem, All Things Shining proposes the notion of metapoiesis. If poiesis refers to “the craftsman’s skills for bringing things out at their best,” metapoiesis is the skill to resist the potentially empoisoning effects of this shining. “Living well in our secular, nihilistic age, therefore, requires the higher-order skill of recognizing when to rise up as with the ecstatic crowd and when to turn heel and walk rapidly away.” Metapoiesis arguably functions in the book as another name for philosophy, and the therapeutics or care it can provide in an age devoid of meaning.
Having been part of a crowd swept up in rapture, I am not sure whether the rapid turning away the authors recommend here is possible at such moments. But the point of metapoiesis is that it is a skill one would need to practice — importantly, by taking the leap, and taking the risk of actually becoming part of a crowd at a Hitler rally. (Aristotle says something quite similar in his Nicomachean Ethics, when he proposes the so-called “mean” as a directive for good living: One can only obtain it through the risk of experience). To not take this risk would mean giving up on the experience of the sacred altogether.
In the book’s conclusion, Dreyfus and Kelly turn to David Foster Wallace’s essay (one of his last) on the Swiss tennis player Roger Federer, entitled “Federer as Religious Experience.” To see Federer play, they argue, paraphrasing Wallace, is “like having a religious experience: it focuses a new understanding of human beings and their pursuits.” “Federer’s athletic grace,” Dreyfus and Kelly write, “focuses the possibility of a fully embodied, this-worldly kind of sacred,” a “notion of the sacred that embraces the limitations of the body precisely because exploring, extending, and reforming bodily constraints can open up new kinds of experiences to us.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the anti-technological tone of their book, the authors make reference at this point to The Matrix — the Wachowski brothers’ famous film trilogy about the war of human beings against machines in the age of virtual reality — and compare Federer’s impossible shots to one of Neo’s impossible martial arts scenes. Overwhelmed (if we are; it may also just be a guy thing), what we experience in these moments is a kind of contemporary sacralism that allows for the world to become meaningful for us again.
The discussion of the Wallace essay harkens back to the book’s first chapter, which is dedicated entirely to Wallace’s Infinite Jest. It may seem strange for a book about the good life to make such an extended example of Wallace, given that he was famously depressive and hanged himself. But suicide, too, has an important place in the Western tradition: think, for example, of Stoic philosophy (which Dreyfus and Kelly reject because it closes itself off against the openness to the world they advocate). Indeed, although the authors appear to reject Wallace’s world as having no joy in it, they also return to Wallace in their conclusion for his strong sense of the sacred. Wallace is a figure of the nihilism the authors reject in their first chapter, but he reappears in the conclusion as one who was able to see the extraordinary ordinariness of the world.
The discussion of Wallace opens up a new sense of mastery in the age of profound disorientation, one that “stands in direct contrast with the ideals of Enlightenment individualism.” All Things Shining is interested in the moment that “offers what autonomy cannot: a sense that you are participating in something that transcends what you can contribute to it.” Although the language of mastery is preserved in the book, its content has thus decidedly shifted from its Enlightenment definition:
The master of living in our poly-sacred world will … have acquired the skill to let himself be overwhelmed by the ecstatic and wild gods of sport, but the discrimination to keep himself from being drawn in by the rhetoric of the fanatical and dangerous demagogue. He will have a life attuned to the shining things and so will have opened a place to which all the gods may return.
This is what the authors call the polytheistic life; or, more simply, the good life.
One wonders, given this critique of the Western Enlightenment, whether a more elaborate treatment of works from outside the Western Enlightenment tradition might have contributed something to the argument. Some might question Dreyfus and Kelly’s choice of authors for other, related reasons as well: Although the selection includes Wallace, Pulp Fiction, and other pop references in their discussions, the book still feels very much stuck in the canon that dominates the “great books” courses taught at American colleges. Anyone who has taught or has taken one of those courses (I used to teach one of them myself at Columbia University) will likely be familiar with their problems: They are usually focused largely, if not entirely, on the Western tradition, include mostly, if not solely, white male authors, and attempt to cover an insane number of texts in one or two semesters. All Things Shining suffers from all of these problems. The best chapters are those focused on Wallace and Melville, as well as the introduction and the conclusion where the authors lay out their general argument. More problematic are the in-between chapters, which range from Aeschylus to Augustine and from Dante to Kant — and all this in just over 50 pages!
Such speed is difficult to keep up with; I am not sure what to think, for example, of the authors’ statement in chapter three that “[i]n the history of the West we have only two figures” who have reconfigured the world: “Jesus and Descartes.” Only two? Jesus and Descartes? Such statements might of course be due to the impossibility of doing justice to the overwhelming experience of having been swept up by the Western tradition, and all the shining things within it. But as the authors argue in the book, it is important in such a situation to develop the critical, higher-order skill of metapoiesis that would presumably prevent one from making these kinds of reductive statements. It doesn’t do the history of the West much good to reduce it to two figures, however charismatic and brilliant they may have been.
All Things Shining ends with a parable. Because of the book’s insistence on belief and the polytheistic way of life, one is tempted to read the parable religiously, in relation to the experience of the sacred that Dreyfus and Kelly capture. However, going back to Veyne’s book on the Greeks and their myths, in which the central category is not so much belief but what Veyne calls “the constitutive imagination,” one wonders how important the imagination and its tension with belief might be in this context. Is it really a religious, polytheistic mindset that is required to live the good life? Or might an imaginative, literary mindset suffice? (And what is the difference between the two?) If the question is not metaphysical (does God or do the gods exist?) but phenomenological (how will we respond to the world?), why would we hold on to the experience of the sacred that the authors try to capture?
Literature might, in the end, be enough.