Note six years later (August 24, 2019): Sean Kelly, co-author with Hubert Dreyfus of ALL THINGS SHINING, has published a thoughtful post on the relation between decision and gratitude, in partial dialogue with this post (which figures as a section in my review of their book: To continue the conversation I have revised and expanded the post below on « non-theistic gratitude »:


« wonderful things outside your control are constantly happening for you » (ATS, 73)

Can we describe the phenomena that we experience in terms that are both illuminating and free of the extraneous presuppositions that habitually cover over our experience? Is a pure description of phenomena possible, and what sort of language would it use? Can we capture the « wondrous » quality of our experience without importing theological or religious beliefs into our descriptions?

ALL THINGS SHINING by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly is a text of pluralist phenomenology and ontology that attempts to answer these questions. It proposes many interesting ideas and analyses, and I think it deserves to be better known. However it contains some ambiguous formulations, and I think its basic ideas need to be protected from possible theological co-optation.

What is at stake here is the smuggling into the immanent phenomenological perspective and descriptions of transcendent ontological assumptions by means of the use of theistic or “believerly” language that is not neutral, but that has onto-theological presuppositions built into it, rather than pure phenomenological import.

This problem can be illustrated in Dreyfus and Kelly’s analysis of the « event » that occurs in Pulp Fiction where Jules and Vincent are left unscathed after being shot at (discussed in ALL THINGS SHINING, 68-72). Jules sees their survival as a miracle, whereas Vincent is unmoved.

Surprisingly, Dreyfus and Kelly come down in favour of Jules’ reaction, despite its being factually false. (Jules speaks of “divine intervention” and specifies: “God came down from Heaven and stopped the bullets”). The important issue for them is not factual but phenomenological. They say: “gratitude is the more fitting response”. On this analysis Vincent’s fatalistic, more impersonal reaction (« we were lucky », « this shit happens ») is less « appropriate » or less « fitting ».

I think that if one must speak of gratitude in relation to such an event Dreyfus and Kelly should have said “non-theistic gratitude is the more fitting response”. Otherwise, they seem to be committed by their very language and its « descriptive » terms to saying that a creationist is right despite his false beliefs about evolution (and his reactionary politics!), as long as he feels gratitude at the miracle of human life.

Non-theistic gratitude is a gratitude at the abundance of the world and of its events, an affirmation of what happens without any idea of providence or other transcendence. It is what Nietzsche names amor fati, and Dreyfus and Kelly name the « gift without a giver »:

the Greeks felt that excellence in a life requires highlighting a central fact of existence: wonderful things outside your control are constantly happening for you (ALL THINGS SHINING, 73).

I must admit that at first I was hostile to this idea of “gift without a giver”. My argument was that this was bad phenomenology, that the phenomenon was not being experienced or not being described in a pure state, because the very notion of the event as “gift” and of the appropriate response as “gratitude” seemed suspect to me.

The language of of gift and of gratitude seems contaminated by the theistic connotations of these two words in this « miraculous » context, as implying necessarily a “giver” of the event, whether one consciously intends the implication or not.

I finally became reconciled to this vocabulary when I came upon the more explicit formulation “nontheistic gratitude” in the work of William Connolly. In “The Ethos of Pluralization” (cf. Connolly talks about a third possibility outside the theistic and secular belief systems, which he calls “post-secularism”. In his explication, post-secularists comprise “numerous agents of resistance to the monotheisms and monosecularisms” who “define themselves—retrospectively, as it were—as carriers of nontheistic gratitude for the rich diversity of being.” (190).

What bothers me about Dreyfus and Kelly’s analysis of Jules’ reaction is that they try to separate the cognitive (or at least ideational) aspects of his experience from some pure affective or emotive core, and then proceed to endorse the hypothetical emotive core of the experience, in this case “gratitude”, while rejecting the cognitive component as just an “attempt at justification”. I don’t think a mood can exist in isolation as a pure emotive state. Rather it intrinsically includes conceptual, affective, linguistic, social, and practical elements.

I still think Dreyfus and Kelly are being unfair to Vincent, giving his expressions an uncharitable reading, as his remark (“this shit happens”) could be seen as a Lucretian endorsement of physis as against Jules’ theos.

In their own descriptions of the multiple understandings of being Dreyfus and Kelly contrast Heidegger’s view on the succession of epochs with Hegel’s view, declaring that for Heidegger there is no “why”. This idea sounds to me as if they are maintaining that Heidegger is more like Vincent, and « there is no why » is similar in meaning to “this shit happens”.

However, to adjudge the victory to Jules or to Vincent is to oppose them inside the same commensurable field, and such a victory is conceptually empty. For me the force of ALL THINGS SHINING lies in its attempt to describe and exhibit the diverse incommensurable understandings of being.

Unfortunately, Dreyfus and Kelly pose a prescriptive overlay to this descriptive task (for example,when they talk about the more fitting response), and so are of doing “normative phenomenology”. This would seem to in contradiction with their aim of pure description.

I do not wish to oppose an atheist Lucretian Vincent to a crypto-religious Heideggerian Jules, nor do I think that this dualistic distribution of roles and understandings exhausts the conceivable possibilities.

Rather, within the terms of the book a third way can be articulated, outside this dualism, one of seeing the event as an occasion for what Dreyfus and Kelly call metapoiesis. Such a way eliminates the need to presuppose one unique response. A metapoietic Jules would allow himself to be perfused with gratitude without affirming, or even feeling, that God stopped the bullets. A metapoietic Vincent could resist one form of the affect of gratitude as being too entangled with theistic sentiments, without refusing gratitude absolutely.

“This shit happens” could be understood as a Lucretian enunciation, a declaration of openness to and gratitude for the abundance of Nature, the affirmation that the world contains many wondrous combinations.

However, Dreyfus and Kelly’s solution is unsatisfying as it stands. They operate by extracting and decontextualizing from Jules’ theistic perception of the event the pure affect of gratitude that they valorize when it occurs in quite other contexts.

My feeling is that in this case his gratitude is a cliché closing Jules off from the encounter with the world,  providing a stereotyped version of the affect, covering up the human phenomenon instead of revealing it.

This is why I embraced Connolly’s notion of non-theistic gratitude. But perhaps by calling it “gratitude” one is still implicitly accepting the validity of this extraction of affects from the case in which they occur in view of their re-utilisation and re-appropriation in other contexts.

Beyond the example of Jules and Vincent, the mere use of the word « gratitude » in other cases as a neutral descriptive term may be laden with meanings that are extraneous to the experience itself.

The problem is to determine whether there is a living affect inside the cliché that covers the experience over, or if it is a caricature all the way down.

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3 commentaires pour NON-THEISTIC GRATITUDE: On William Connolly, ALL THINGS SHINING, and PULP FICTION

  1. dmfant dit :

    yes I was puzzled by their suggestion that there is an « ought » in that scene, too many folks (including dear Lingis) highlighting their own preferences as Imperatives to their phenomenologies, that’s a kind of sleight of hand magic I could do without, or better yet in a style after Wittgenstein they could just own such project-ions up front…



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