ALL THINGS SHINING and individuation: Sean Kelly on becoming a philosopher

Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly’s ALL THINGS SHINING is an interesting and important, but deeply flawed book. It is well worth reading, despite their misreading of David Foster Wallace’s work as the expression of nihilism. ALL THINGS SHINING is, like INFINITE JEST, itself a transitional work, and is meant to be followed by a sequel that would look at existentialists from Pascal to Nietzsche, and would finish with a discussion of Dostoyevsky and THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV. These figures from the history of philosophy and literature are given contemporary relevance by Kelly and Dreyfus as carrying out the existentialising of what used to be contained in religion.

So perhaps their relation to Wallace was more than a little determined by what Harold Bloom callsthe “anxiety of influence”, a process of misreading that allows one to elaborate one’s own ideas without being constantly blocked by the feeling that one’s predecessors and influences have already said all that is worth saying. Dreyfus and Kelly’s project for their second book certainly has much in common with Wallace’s own goals in writing, especially given the underlying religious passion of his writing and his explicit affirmation of his affinities with Dostoyevsky. However, Dreyfus and Kelly do accord great philosophical importance to David Foster Wallace’s essays and novels, and even when they criticise him they are using his values and ideas (often without even realising it). They treat him more as a passionate and insightful diagnostician of our nihilist predicament in the wake of the death of God, and of the collapse of any sure and universal founding principle of thought and action.

In a recent interview Sean Kelly talks about ALL THING SHINING and the projected sequel, to be called “THE LOFTY SWAY OF THE DARK”. Kelly declares his agreement with Wallace’s emphasis on the sadness of our culture and on the need to cultivate our attention instead of letting it be controlled:

There’s a chapter in the earlier book about David Foster Wallace and the chapter is intended to be very sympathetic at the same time that it’s critical of the story he ends up giving about what the possibility of our salvation might be in these times. He really understood a lot about the challenges in our culture: about the onslaught of entertainment, about the onslaught of distractions, about the way in which we’re constantly having to fend off things that are really ultimately not that interesting in order to pay attention to things that are more interesting”.

Kelly claims that their analysis of Wallace is both sympathetic and critical. The sympathy is with the diagnosis: the reign of distraction and the loss of attention to what is important, a generalized sadness and a feeling of isolation . The criticism is of  what they see as Wallace’s solution: regaining control of our attention by giving our experience the meaning that we have chosen for it. Dreyfus and Kelly argue that the solution is dependent on the notion of the autonomous individual and his sovereign will, and thus that it reinforces the nihilistic problem rather than solving it.

The solution that is proposed by Dreyfus and Kelly in ALL THINGS SHINING is to develop what Kelly calls “community practices”, practices that are shared with others and that focus a meaning that is not imposed by a decision of the autonomous will:

Practices to share with others that we’re close to that have a kind of ritual component to them and that are organized around bringing out the best in ourselves and others …If we manage to develop practices like that, then we’ll live better lives”.

Dreyfus and Kelly advocate a conversion of attention to those who are “close”, and to the “best” in ourselves and in others. Meaning and intensity emerge out of such shared pracitices that bring out the best in people, i.e. that foster their individuation. This vision of the emergence of meaning is very different from the rational signification and programmed satisfaction.

Sean Kelly gives a very interesting example of such emergence of meaning in his own life as he underwent a transformation from a mathematical understanding of the world to a philosophical understanding. Kelly is at pains to show us that this sort of transformation is not reducible to a vocational transition from mathematics to philosophy, a mere change of profession, but that it involves “a transformation in the way you experience the world”. In Kelly’s case he did not seek out this transformation deliberately, he was trying to understand why his research in artificial intelligence was not teaching him anything interesting about human intelligence. He was in search of a new paradigm.

Describing his conversations with Hubert Dreyfus, Kelly explains that what he received in those encounters was much more than a simple change of paradigm: “ I felt like I was really learning something about myself and about this paradigm of research, and also about humanity”. This took place in a process that was not based uniquely on rational argument, but was a process of growth, in which reasoning and understanding occurred, but only as part of a larger process:

When I talked with Bert, I could never understand what he was saying and yet every time I asked him a question or gave him a challenge, he had something to say. I’m not convinced it was always something that he understood, but there was a really interesting conversation that ensued”.

Kelly goes on to describe how the full extent of the process of transformation cultivated in these conversations with Dreyfus and in many other experiences only dawned on him much later. In fact, it was in a “moment” of insight that came when he was explaining the sort of transformation involved in becoming a philosopher to someone else that he realised that it was more than simply an intellectual process but also “a transformation in the way you experience the world”.

Paradoxically, Adam S. Miller, in his critique of Dreyfus and Kelly’s analysis of David Foster Wallace’s work, affirms something very similar:

“both meaning and happiness should – for their own sake – be treated as byproducts, not as fundamental. There’s no surer way to sabotage your own happiness, for instance, than to make the pursuit of your own happiness the center of your life. I think the same tends to be true with meaning in general. Meaning and happiness can’t be pursued directly”.

Meaning and happiness are byproducts that emerge during these processes of growth and transformation, they are not to be confused with the sort of rational signification and programmed satisfaction that can be imposed from on high.


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