October 25, 2012

All Things Shining

In their book All Things Shining, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly claim that in order to lead meaningful lives we have to go back to the mode of being of the Homeric Greeks. This is a striking and puzzling claim.
On one common story of human progress, life in the distant past was mainly tortured and meaningless for the vast majority of people, for they had to be the slaves or otherwise subordinate to the kings and priests who had the majority of power in society. On this common story, life became better, and so enabled most people to lead meaningful lives, only with the dawn of modernity and the rise of democracy and the idea that each person has an ineliminable right to choose their way of life; that instead of the kings or priests dictating how people in society should live, it is up to each person to determine for themselves how to live. With the casting away of the chains, people are now responsible for their own lives, and it is this capacity for self-determination which makes them free, and how they utilize that freedom is what determines how meaningful their life is. On this common story the basic point is that the distant past is horrible, the recent past enabled people to more free, and so we are generally better off now than in the distant past.
The striking aspect of Dreyfus and Kelly's argument is to turn this common story around. Their view is akin to Rosseau's Noble Savage view, where it was in the natural state of their distant past that human beings were truly free, and the introspective freedom of modern man is an ersatz freedom riddled with doubt and anxiety. Unlike Rosseau, Dreyfus and Kelly focus not on the noble savage free to roam the forests as he chooses, but on the citizens of polytheistic Greece before the advent of rationalistic Socratic philosophy. On Dreyfus and Kelly's view, before Socratic philosophy disrupted people from their habitual actions, people lived lives filled with meaning, for, free of nagging doubts of whether their upbringing was in fact right or whether there are reasons to believe in Gods, people were completely immersed in their actions and with the world, and in that immersion they experienced viscerally that every act they performed was magical and meaningful. Every action they performed was called out of them by the world, and the Gods were the locuses of meaning in the world towards which the actions were directed. Dreyfus and Kelly suggest that in order to find meaning in our contemporary world we have to go back to that Homeric mode of being, and live our lives being open to moments of being called by the world into action. Instead of thinking about the meaning of life, to lead meaningful lives we are better off not thinking, but simply being with the world, attuned to hidden dimensions of action which the world elicits from us.
In a way Dreyfus and Kelly's view can seem common sensical, as if it were a more scholarly version of the Zen idea of going with the flow. Dreyfus and Kelly see Achilles as a prototype of someone leading a meaningful life because he is loved by the Gods and is instinctively and skillfully pulled into the world of action. But one can imagine that on their view The Dude from The Big Lebowski also leads an exemplary meaningful life. For The Dude, like Achilles, goes with the flow and does not seek to impose meaning on the world through his deliberation, but stays open to the ways in which the world calls out to him to act. So one might boil down Dreyfus and Kelly's message as follows: think less, act more, be.
It is one thing to hear this advice from The Dude. Or from the Dalai Lama. Or Deepak Chopra. But it is interesting to hear this suggestion from two professional philosophers whose job it is to think. A lot. Whose professional expertise consists of interpreting texts, developing arguments, critiquing other views, and generally engaging in the kinds of activities which are more similar to Plato than to Achilles. In fact, the brunt of the book is not focused on how one can cultivate the kind of skillful actions which can lead to a meaningful life--it is not a practical book in that sense. Rather, most of the book consists of arguments for why other ways of conceiving of meaning, by Augustine or Dante or Kant or Nietzsche, are bound to fail--it is a theoretical book in that sense. The kind of convincing the book aims for is a theoretic ought: of how one ought think of a meaningful life, and importantly how not to think of it.
Here, though, there is a puzzle. The thesis of the book is that one lives meaningfully to the extent that one doesn't deliberate about how to live a meaningful life and instead throws oneself into, or opens oneself to, skillful actions developed through habit and practice. Given this thesis, what is one to make of the book itself? How is one supposed to use it? The most obvious way might be akin to how Wittgenstein suggested one use the Tractatus: that it is like a ladder one throws away after one has climbed it. On this possibility, the idea would be that one reads Dreyfus and Kelly's book, realizes that meaning in life is a matter of skillful engagement with the world, puts the book away and dedicates one's time to carpentary or cooking or sports, etc. This is in fact how Wittgenstein envisioned one would use the Tractatus: whether one stopped doing philosophy was for him a sign of whether one understood the book. However, this way of thinking of the Tractatus was only possible because Wittgenstein himself gave up philosophy, or felt that he no longer had the need to do it. Given that this is not true of Dreyfus and Kelly, given that they are still philosophy professors, it is hard to know what it might mean to say that their readers should discard the book after they have internalized it. Does it mean to discard just this book? Or philosophy books in general? But surely philosophy professors cannot advocate that people would be better off practicing their jump shot instead of reading philosophy books. Or could they advocate that?

If All Things Shining isn't like a ladder one throws away after one climbed it, then how is it to be used? Another alternative seems to be that one should do precisely what philosophy professors do, and that is to analyze in detail whether Dreyfus and Kelly's arguments work. To ask whether in fact they are interpreting Homer or Augustine or Kant correctly. Whether their conclusion follows from their premises. What the counter examples to their claim might be. To question what exactly they mean by reason and action and a meaningful life. All of these are familiar activities, at least to any one who has taken a college philosophy course. And given Dreyfus and Kelly's day jobs it seems natural enough to suppose that they are advocating precisely such activities to the general public.

The puzzle though is that, as a matter of fact, this is not what they are recommending to the public. In fact, their main claim seems to be just the opposite. For, after all, their thesis is that a meaningful life is to be acquired not by deliberating about how to live meaningfully, but by cultivating skills which will enable one to experience the whooshing of meaningful, engaged actions. The insight they wish to press upon the reader is that it is precisely deliberation which leads to the threat of nihilism, and that the way to avoid nihilism is to avoid deliberation about how to find meaning in life. Here there is the awkward sense that perhaps Dreyfus and Kelly wish to say to the reader, as it were in a whisper: do as we say, not as we do. That though obviously the book is the result of a lot of philosophical deliberation, the upshot of the book is that it is precisely such philosophical deliberation which interferes with, and alienates us from, the blissfully unreflective and meaningful life of an Achilles.
The puzzle about how to read All Things Shining arises because it is unclear how the book fits into the form of life that Dreyfus and Kelly recommend. On their view, a meaningful life is cultivated by focusing on embodied skills which tighten one's relation to one's environment; tighten, that is, in such a way that, through habituation, one instinctively feels called into action by the world. So to lead a life of meaning one should develop particular skills, say of a chef or chess player or doctor or athlete or sports spectator or warrior or coffee drinker, etc.
Of course, no one person can develop all of these skills. So which skills should a person develop? Dreyfus and Kelly do not say. Presumably the idea is: whichever skills you are interested in. If you like drinking coffee in the morning, then really develop that skill. Don't half ass it. Don't treat it simply as a means to the end of getting to work, something you take for granted. Instead, prepare and structure your life in such a way that drinking coffee becomes a ritual, a performance, an act which replicates how the Coffee Gods drink coffee. But if you are not interested in coffee, well, that is not the way you live meaningfully. Maybe it is through cooking or driving or playing soccer or building a boat or writing a computer program, etc. Dreyfus and Kelly's advice seems to be: find what you are called to do by the world, and do that!

This advice is general and open ended in that it doesn't dictate what particular actions people should do. In other words, it suggests how a person can live meaningfully without suggesting what particular actions and form of life will make that person's life meaningful.

In this regard, their advice has no analogue in the Homeric world which they present as an possibility for the current time. For in the Homeric world, back around 1,000 BC, it was not a question for each person to decide what actions will enable them to lead a meaningful life. Those questions were answered for the most part by the family they were born into or the physical or mental skills they exhibited in their childhood. Could Odysseus have been a chef instead of a commander? Could Helen have been a slave girl instead of the queen whose beauty precipitated the war? In some abstract sense perhaps it is possible. But in the Homeric world this seems quite impossible. For Odysseus, Helen, Hector, Achilles--they have the skills they do partly because there was no question for them of which skills to develop. It is hard to imagine Achilles deliberating at age eighteen whether to become a warrior or an artist or a carpenter. This is because Achilles was born to be the greatest warrior in the world, and was guided by the hand of the Gods precisely to achieve such a form of life. Did Achilles choose to become a warrior after tortured inner deliberations about the meaning of his life? No. But this is not because Achilles had a magical, individual talent for being attuned to the call of the Gods. He had such attunement to the world because in his society that was his determined path of life. He was a warrior in the way that he was a human being--as the intrinsic and unquestionable essence of who he was. The fact that his path was unquestioned was what made his skillful links with his environment so tight; the skill was developed since he was a child and with the sense that he will be true to himself not by choosing the path of his life, but by realizing as perfectly as possible the already set ideal of his life.

Dreyfus and Kelly's claim that in order to live meaningful lives we have to reawaken to the Homeric world view can be interpreted in one of two ways: what I will call the individual interpretation and the communal interpretation. On the individual interpretation, Dreyfus and Kelly's claim is that at this stage in human history each person has to reawaken for themselves the kind of skillful coping which the Homeric Greeks had. This is a task set, first and foremost, for each individual person, and they can achieve it independent of how the rest of the community functions. On the communal interpretation, Dreyfus and Kelly's claim is that at this stage in human history we as a society have to reawaken to the kind of communal life that the Homeric Greeks had, and that each person can live a meaningful life in virtue of developing skills within such a communal framework, the way that the actual Homeric Greeks did. Each interpretation faces its own problem.


The individual interpretation sounds nice--each person should strive to be the best kind of Achilles they can be, in whatever domain of skill that matters to them--but it seems internally incoherent. Each person cannot strive to have by themselves the kind of skillful engagement with the world that Achilles had, since Achilles' capacity for skillful engagement cannot be separated from the societal structures, rituals, self-narratives of his time which reenforced at every juncture that Achilles is meant to be a great warrior. The modern analogue of Achilles is someone like Tiger Woods or Lebron James, individuals who from an early age were primed for a particular skill and whose social interactions from middle school on were structured around the imminent greatness which everyone expected them to achieve in due course.

The problem most ordinary human beings have is not just that they don't have the genetic skills of a Lebron James or Mozart, but that society recognizes that they don't have such skills and so society doesn't expect them to be very skillful at all, but expects them to just realize the mediocre skills which seems to be their lot. Conditioned by such expectations of mediocrity, a person can assume that at most they have a mediocre life, including a mediocre meaningful life. One might push through this and claim that they too can be an Achilles irrespective of how society views them. But no matter how skillful such a person becomes, there is bound to be in that person an internal awareness that they achieved the skill by themselves and independent of the expectations of the community.

This in itself marks their skill as different from Achilles, since, no matter what troubles Achilles had in his life, one trouble he did not have was society not expecting him to be great. So on the individual interpretation, one can at best mimic the kind of skillful engagement that Achilles had. But the fact that it is such as an individual achievement seems to mark it as a quintessentially modern kind of achievement, the kind in which a certain amount of distance and incomprehension from other people is assumed.

The communal interpretation seeks to avoid this modern predicament of individuality by suggesting that the way to have the kind of skillful engagement that Achilles had is to structure our society in the way that the Homeric Greeks structured their society. But this view can seem like a non-starter, as if it hopes to regain an innocence which has long been lost. Like all ancient civilizations, the Homeric world was a highly stratified one with different classes of rulers and slaves. And also like all ancient civilizations, the Homeric world was tribalistic and was defined by a strict sense of of us verses them. A warrior like Achilles was valued because the battleground was a main space where human excellence was defined, and that was because of the obvious role that war played in their lives. So what would it mean for us to now aim to recreate such a Homeric society? How would this not be a form of regressing to a more primitive form of society?
One possible answer is to say that the stratified life of Homeric Greece wasn't unjust at all. That however limited the lives of most everday people was back then, it was justified by the fact that such a social organization enabled some people to lead exceptionally skillful lives. And that though particular individuals exercised such skill (Achilles, Hector, etc.), such extraordinary excellence permeated through the society at large and ennobled the lives of everyone, including the ones at the bottom of the power structures. The idea here is that what matters in an individual's life is not whether they are the locus of excellence, but whether they are enabling excellence as such to flourish in the society. On this view, a sixteen year old foot soldier who rushes head long into battle and dies in an instant, but who thereby helps his king achieve brilliant excellence, leads a more meaningful life than an ninety year old person who has been trying his whole life to achieve a mediocre amount of excellence by himself, and, as it were, for himself. What matters is not in whom or where the excellence is realized, but that one strives to enable the most excellent kind of excellence to be realized in the world as such, somewhere in the community with which one's identity is inextricably bound. On this view, the point applies even to Achilles himself. That Achilles is at his worst when he thinks it is due to his greatness that he is able to perform great actions, and that he is at his best when he loses his sense of himself altogether in pursuit of the greatness which beckons him into action. On this line of thought, Achilles and the foot soldier are similar in that both are called into action by the world. The difference lies only in that the foot soldier is like a rivulut enabling the main river to pick up steam, and Achilles is like the river as it rushes over a tall cliff.
There is a seductive appeal to this way of thinking of the communal interpretation. For it suggests that in a way Achilles and the foot soldier are on equal footing, and that what matters is giving oneself over to greatness and not so much how much greatness is realized by one's particular actions. This picture can appeal to both the messiah and the dutiful follower of the messiah; to the former because his taking on the role of the messiah need not be interpreted as petty egoism, and to the latter because his taking on the role of the follower need not be interpretated as weak minded submission. By making skillful actions ultimately a product of the community as a whole, this view can suggest that everyone in the community can partake of the cleansing benediction of the greatness achieved by the community.
I imagine it is the appeal of this communal interpretation which lured Heidegger into the Nazi party. A lot has been made of Heidegger's silence after World War II, and why he never apologized for being a member of the Nazi party and taken responsibility for the atrocities commited that party. Is it because he was a Nazi in his heart even after the war? Or was it that he was so full of himself that he couldn't imagine admitting that he was wrong?

I think the key to understanding his silence is that he did not so much think that he was joing the Nazi party and aligning himself with the greatness of Hitler, but that, as he saw it, Hitler and the Nazi party would in due course align themselves to his greatness. That while Hitler was organizing Germany around the kind of communalism which was at the core of the Homeric form of life, Germany could not achieve the real ethos of such communalism without the philosophical vision of Heidegger. That without Heidegger's understanding of Dasein and of how Dasein is ready to reclaim its understanding of its being which had been lost in Socratic Greece, Hitler could not be anything other than another Napolean or a Nietzschen Superman--that is, someone whose sense of greatness is still bound up with his own sense of his individuality, as if his greatness was his own, unique, particular achievement. I think Heidegger imagined that for Hitler to move beyond the Nietzschean individualism to a deeper understanding of the communal nature of Dasein it was essential for Hitler to be guided by Heidegger's understanding of Dasein and Western philosophical history.

With all the vanity of a philosopher, Heidegger might have imagined that in the coming society it is himself who plays the role of Achilles, and that Hitler is but a subordinate commander who helps him--Heidegger--achieve the truly great, skillful action of reorienting Western civilization to the true ground of Being. Probably it took Heidegger a year or two to realize that Hitler and the Nazi party did not quite have the same vision of Heidegger's contribution. Hence the bizarrely complicated form of Heidegger's silence. He must have seen the Nazi party's misunderstanding of his philosophy as a brutal insult, something which made him mentally cut his ties with the party. Thus the double insult to be asked later to apologize as if he were just yet another member of the party. In this way the critics asking him to apologize seem to be making the same mistake the Nazis made, that is, to see Heidegger as just yet another cog in the bigger Nazi machine. To Heidegger it must have seemed that to apologize might be to thus affirm a false view of why exactly Heidegger joined in the first place, and so to issue an insincere apology. Better to remain silent, since both the Nazis and those asking for the apology fail to see Heidegger's truly grand vision.
Heidegger's predicament shows the problem with the communal interpretation. For no matter how much one holds up the Homeric way of life as the ideal of human society, there is no denying that to acquire that way of life as a community now means ultimately to choose that way of life over other ways of life. And to choose that means to engage in debates - or wars - with others in the community who have others ideas for the direction of society. In this way in trying to reclaim the Homeric way of life one is faced with the possibility of creating more ruptures in one's community, and so moving that much farther away from the imagined communal unity of the ancient Homeric life. The communal interpretation thus faces an analogous problem to the individual interpretation.


Given that the Homeric way of life is long gone, and given that it has been supplanted with dozens and hundreds of other forms of life in the last two thousand years, any attempt to reclaim that way of life in its prestine beauty, whether individually or communally, highlights only how far we now are from such a life. The very fact that we have to go back to that way of life shows that we can never achieve again that way of life. Since the Homeric Greeks themselves did not have to actively choose that way of life. It is the way of life they had--that they were thrown into-- and as far as they were aware, the world had always been that way and would always be that way. Given that we now are thrown into a different world than the Homeric Greeks, it is hard to see how we could now find meaning trying to achieve the grounding of that totally different epoch.

In this regard the reapproachment that Dreyfus and Kelly suggest seems more like a fantastical hope than like a real, practical suggestion. The way that a Lord of the Rings fan might say that we would be better off going back to the form of life of Middle Earth.


  1. I think the positive content in the book is the defence of a pluralism of ways of understanding and being, and a corresponding psychological pluralism such as is proposed in Jungian psychology. The negative side is the nostalgia for ways of life that are irretrievably lost. In the example of LORD OF THE RINGS it may be that people recognise aspects of their psychic multiplicity that are not presented in mainstream literature. This is argued by Ted Friedman in his notion of a Centaur Manifesto to replace Donna Haraway's scientistic Cyborg Manifesto: http://tedfriedman.com/2014/01/21/the-politics-of-magic/. I was influenced by ALL THINGS SHINING to begin my blog, AGENT SWARM, which is an attempt to philosophise outside the academy: http://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2015/01/03/coming-out-as-a-pluralist-1-engaging-with-hubert-dreyfuss-ontological-pluralism/

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