All Things Shining, part one

So, I was looking for something to read on the beach last week (other than student papers), and I decided to go with All Things Shining, by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly.

Many things were shining that day, so it seemed like a good choice. Actually, with its mix of history, philosophy and literature, it seemed like a good candidate for discussion on this blog. And it may still be, but only one chapter in, I have some concerns.

The basic idea of the book is to diagnose our modern disenchantment with the world and loss of meaning, in part by contrasting our worldview with that of the Greeks (for whom, apparently, all things shone). It then looks for ways of avoiding nihilism in a secular age, with examples from sports–and, in particular, David Foster Wallace’s writing on tennis.

One reason I picked up the book is that I have a great deal of respect for Dreyfus’s philosophical work. He was John Haugeland’s advisor, and I really like his work on Heidegger. I don’t know Kelly’s work, but (at the risk of appealing to authority) he is the chair of Harvard’s philosophy department, so it ought to be pretty good. I’m also just sympathetic to the project, and I think their strategy for combating nihilism is promising. And yet…

The book has ignited quite a bit of passionate discussion in the philosophical blogosphere. There have been a number of complaints that the examples they use, particularly those drawn from Greek literature and philosophy, are misleading or just factually wrong. (See here, for instance.) I haven’t gotten far enough into the book to speak to those issues, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there are some problems. For, already, in the first chapter, I find them making claims that are just flat wrong. Take Hamlet, for example. Here’s what they have to say about young Hamlet and his famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy:

For Hamlet, by contrast [to Dante and other Medievals], the thought that suicide would be an affront to God never seems to occur. The question is simply ‘whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles. / And by opposing, end them?’ [….] God, or the understanding of God as the divine planner of the universe, offers no help to Hamlet in considering this question. (pp. 18-19)

But this just isn’t true! Hamlet is clearly aware of and concerned with God’s views on suicide. This comes out quite clearly in Act 1, where he says:

O that this too too sullied flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, / Or that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter.

This too is from a well-known soliloquy, so Dreyfus and Kelly shouldn’t have missed it. It’s irritating, but it’s also just unnecessary. They could have made a more nuanced point about how the role God plays in Hamlet’s life is different from the Medieval conception–that God provides no existential comfort for him in his crisis. That would have involved a deeper engagement with the play, but it would have been well worth reading.

Anyway, like I said, I’m still sympathetic to the project, so I’ll keep reading. (I believe I have another beach day coming up.) Let’s hope there’s less glare and more illumination in the pages to come…


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5 Responses to All Things Shining, part one

  1. Josh says:

    Nates – I did read about this in the book review. It sounds interesting. It seems like books like this always get the scholarship a bit wrong, since the scholarship isn’t quite the point, right? If you’re trying to paint a broad picture you end up fudging the details. But the Hamlet point is probably right.

    Funny I was just listening (for the umpteenth time) to “The Suburbs” – there, in the argot of indie-rock, there’s a very similar sort of anti-nihilist sentiment. Consider these lyrics, from “Deep Blue” (they’re not spoken that clearly – the internet helped me with them):

    Put the cellphone down for a while
    In the night there is something wild
    Can you hear it breathing?
    And hey
    Put the laptop down for a while
    In the night there is something wild
    I feel it, it’s leaving me

  2. Nates says:

    Yeah, I’m trying not to be pedantic about these errors, but the broader picture is built up from the small points. In this case, the problem is that they want Hamlet to play the part of angst-ridden atheist, but he’s not. (I had a very interesting conversation with Michael Kremer last year about the numerous biblical references in the play, many of which go unmentioned by modern editors–and unnoticed by modern readers.) If Hamlet is nihilistic without being an atheist, then that suggests that belief in God isn’t exactly the problem.

    Again, I’m not saying they’re totally off-base: I think there’s probably some sort of shift in understanding the God-humanity relationship in the early modern period, which makes the meaning of our lives less secure. But you can miss the subtleties of this issue when you go straight to Hamlet-as-atheist. So I guess I do think the error has broader implications. Anyway, we’ll see how the coming chapters go.

    I like the Arcade Fire lyric (not surprisingly). Lack of focus is surely part of the problem (he says, as he blogs with google chat and seven browser tabs open). And I agree that nature would be another obvious candidate for secular inspiration. Probably not the New Jersey beach kind of nature, but sometimes you have to make do…

  3. Josh says:

    Another thing this book sounds a little like is Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age”, which I read like 2/3rds of a couple of years ago before running out of steam. It was really interesting though. A big idea was that what had happened was not a gradual disenchantment, i.e. the removal of God, but a transformation in the relation between secular and divine matters that actually came about from a more DEMANDING vision of God and the obligations we incur from belief.

  4. Nates says:

    Yeah, someone else mentioned Taylor’s book too by way of comparison. As a McGill alumni, I should probably check it out…

  5. Pingback: Intellectual History | Original Positions

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