Review: All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age

All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age
All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age by Hubert L. Dreyfus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The book is an ambitious one, it aims at helping us to find meaning in our lives by way of a philosophically informed reading of some of the great classics of the Western Canon. It seeks to address a popular audience rather than a professional one: it has its roots in Heideggerian philosophy but the style is not that of academic prose and it uses examples taken from news items, sport, and readily available literary classics such as THE ODYSSEY, THE DIVINE COMEDY, and MOBY DICK. It can be read without any major difficulty and with a great deal of pleasure, but it has the ambition of addressing the grand question of the search for meaning and for a life worth living in our contemporary world. This is a world that the authors, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly, describe as « postmodern », « technological », and « nihlist »: a world where the « shining things » have been lost, where we are subject to a crushing burden of choice without an unquestioned framework of meaning, such as served as a foundation for life and its meaning in previous epochs.

According to these authors the world was formerly a world full of intensity and meaning, « a world of sacred, shining things » (cf the preamble ), which elicited moods of wonder and reverence and gratitude and openness. However the shining things are now far, and life has become permeated with moods of sadness and lostness, a purely personal affair to be managed by the plans and choices of the closed-off « autonomous » ego. This is the explanation of the book’s title. The solution proposed is a reappropriation of Homer’s polytheism, now understood to be a polytheism of moods, such as we can see the outlines of in MOBY DICK. An important part of this response is the necessity to cultivate a specific skill that can help us discern when we can or should let ourself be taken up in the moods we encounter and when we should resist and walk away: this skill they call « meta-poiesis ».

There is something very attractive about the ideas in this book: the pluralism of moods (« polytheism »), meta-poiesis, a subjectivity of openness to the world and wonder at its shining things. But there are ambiguities that make one wonder (in the other sense of wonder) whether the book avoids the trap of romantic nostalgia. Its vocabulary is often nostalgic: « lure back » the gods, « uncover » the wonder, « reveal » the world. Also there is the danger of proposing merely a postmodern theology, however philosophically distilled and sublimated. Here we can cite the suggestive slippage from « the shining things », index of a world charged with intensity and meaning, to the « sacred things », as if that were the same thing. But surely a life based on intensities, on moods and on meaning without any reference to the sacred is worth living. A last worry is that with their constant evocation of moods that attune a subject and reveal a world the authors seem to be stuck in what Quentin Meillassoux calls the « correlationist circle », unable to talk about the world outside its correlation with subjectivity.

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