NO TERMS ARE PRIMARY: towards a generic language of the phenomena

In a post on his blog ALL THINGS SHINING Sean Kelly tries to describe the phenomenon of making an important life-decision. To give some context to his analysis he has shared a personal story about how he came to a decision at a difficult moment of his life. I find his account very interesting and moving, but also a little strange. It has an asymmetrical structure, as there is a disconnect between the beginning and the end of the story. It is as if he changed its subject matter en route.

He begins by saying that as an example of the phenomenon of decision he will give an account of how he decided to write his new book (THE PROPER DIGNITY OF HUMAN BEING), but he concludes his story with the decision taken, after an incapacitating accident, to « swim again ». It is left to us to connect the existential dots.

At first his story sounds like a familiar one of loss, mourning, retreat into over-activity, a gnawing need to do something deeper, a task that is calling but that one is as yet unable to respond to, a traumatic awakening to one’s own fragility, a period of uncertainty about oneself and one’s future, culminating in a firm commitment.

On the literal level that commitment is to swim again, and I hope he is well on the way to fully retrieving that capacity.

However, given the apparent disconnect between the beginning and the end of the story one feels that there is something more going on, that there are other resonances at work, that there is an “allegory” of meaning. I do not wish to speak lightly of serious matters in Sean  Kelly’s life, but I think we can find even more to say, within his own terms, about what meaning his lived experience can bear, for him and for us.

I do not know how much he still adheres to of the “polytheism” defended in the book he wrote with Hubert Dreyfus, ALL THINGS SHINING. Nonetheless, given that on his blog and on mine we have been discussing ways of  thinking human phenomena outside the old theistic frameworks (that still inhabit us, whatever we believe) I would like to view this story in the light of that discussion and of the resources provided by that book.

Several ways of looking at and experiencing the world are provided by Sean Kelly’s book. For it is his book too, even if he wrote it with Hubert Dreyfus. The question of how much of that book does Kelly wish to retain, to transform, or to abandon remains open.

(Note: we do not have much in the way of philosophical reflection on the phenomenology of collaboration. The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, discussing his twenty-year long collaboration with Felix Guattari, gives us some insight on this point. He insisted that it was useless to try and isolate out which idea was contributed by which author,  and that the writing was a creative fusion in that sense. Nevertheless, he maintained that he and Guattari never had exactly the same understanding of the words and concepts deployed in their books, nor the same way of explaining and going further with them. So we do not know how Sean Kelly today understands the ideas and perspectives in that shared book).

This exploration of different ways of experiencing and expressing the phenomena has in its background the question of what phenomenological language is most appropriate for describing our experience today.


We are living in a secular society but our Christian inheritance remains a significant part of our sensibility, and it often leads us to see and experience the world in quasi-theistic, Providential terms, even when we longer believe or take them literally.

To capture this non-creedal impregnation of our experience by the remnants of Christian categories ,we can make use of Dante’s poetic (and so partially secularised) vision, which is described in Chapter 5 of ALL THINGS SHINING.

In his story, Sean Kelly recounts a sort of “mid-life” crisis, that can be envisioned in terms of the opening situation of Dante’s INFERNO:

“In the middle of life’s journey I found myself within a dark forest where the straight way was lost.”

Kelly refers to a number of women in his account, who helped him on his way, providing wisdom, caring attention and encouragement: his agent (who told him « You’re the man now »), his student (who « helped me focus myself »)  the “teenage girls on the lifeguard », the physical therapist. Finally his student again by the intermediary of the Daruma doll she gave him. These are Beatrice figures manifesting care and loving-kindness when the dark (pain, doubts, uncertainty, lostness) surrounds us.

With Hubert Dreyfus gone Kelly had lost his Virgil and needed to go on to insights that were not destined for his collaboration with his friend and mentor, but for himself. One could have the impression that even his swimming accident was part of the destining of his life and thought.

However, even if we cannot help sometimes seeing or feeling things through this sort of quasi-providential grid, as if the journey were necessarily of the form that it comes to take, with the end already decided even if not in sight, there is something unsatisfying with this perspective. This sort of vision can seem to us too facile, too totalising, like a machine for transforming contingency into necessity, bringing a monistic sort of starry-eyed static “reconciliation”.

The focus of Kelly’s analysis is on the phenomenon of a decision as being made within us and not by us. The quasi-theistic perspective is true to this aspect of decision-making (or perhaps we could call it « decisioning »), in that the events of our life are felt as decided by another instance than our Cartesian ego.


There is another perspective for understanding human phenomena, which in their book Kelly and Dreyfus call polytheism, that is more conflictual and diverse, more open-ended, less providential and reconciliatory. There are multiple forces at work, that cannot be unified into a single teleology. This sort of perspective is described in chapters 3 and 6 of ALL THINGS SHINING.

One version of this type of polytheism they find at work in the Homeric epics, especially in the ODYSSEY, as they analyse it in chapter 3 of the book. In these terms one could see the part of Kelly’s journey that he recounts in this post as embodying the passage from Telemachus to Ulysses. “You’re the man, now”, says his agent, who by his own account is plays the role of Athena, being “an incredibly wise and caring figure”. This constitutes an important step on one’s life path, but there is a price to pay for such a passage.

As recounted in the ODYSSEY Ulysses’s fate is to have to constantly navigate between the conflicting influences of Athena and Poseidon, and of the other gods. There is not a single force at work, but many.

Kelly seems to be an athletic person, skilled at bodysurfing, as well as a very successful academic. So perhaps he has been seeking in his life a more dynamic reconciliation than the monotheistic quasi-religious perspective can provide.

The women he describes as having influenced him are Athena figures (appropriate to a philosopher), so more multi-dimensional than Dante’s Beatrice. At the same time, with Dreyfus gone he was more exposed to the waters of chaos, a chaos that he protected Kelly from by the understanding and vision of the future that they actualised together.

On the day of the swimming accident the ocean god Poseidon was constellated physically as well. I am sorry, but in view of our discussions I cannot help asking Sean Kelly: were you at your best that day? Was it then just a case of bad luck and overwhelming force? Or were you for an instant at slightly less than your best, did you leave a tiny breach that the god could seize upon? This question arises because Dreyfus and Kelly in ALL THINGS SHINING maintain that the gods are present when we are at our best, but I find this to be an élitist presupposition. I think the gods are present also when we are in difficulty or at a low point.

Finally, after the accident and the struggle to cope with its consequences Kelly achieved a new balance between Athena and Poseidon. This can be seen in the that he begins with the story of his decision to write a new book (Athena) but ends with the decision to swim again (Poseidon. Which is it? It seems to be both, a dynamic reconciliation on new terms.

The end result of his suffering was a new decision and a new resolve. I do not think that we should see Kelly’s accident as necessary, providential, even if something good came out of it. Perhaps he could have resolved his creative and existential crisis after a dream, during a very interesting and moving conversation, or as a result of a psychedelic trip (as apparently Foucault did).

No matter, this is what actually happened. Should you be “grateful” to it?, or rather as Dirk Felleman suggests “give it its due”? There may be no clear or stable answer to give here.

I feel there is life here in this sort of polytheistic language, it can help us describe other aspects of the phenomena than we would usually see without it. It may not be not a “pure” phenomenological language (see this post), but it is (at least sometimes) a fitting one. Like the quasi-theist perspective has the advantage of describing process of coming to a decision outside the modern doxa of the Cartesian ego that is master and maker of its life. It has the further advantage of describing this process not in monolithic terms but as the synthetic result of multiple and sometimes conflicting potencies.

However, the polytheistic perspective, in its Homeric form, has a similar disadvantage to the quasi-religious vision. Not only do they make use of now out-dated languages, they also tend to unify phenomena inside categories that themselves are unified into a global picture that is unavailable to us today.

Our contemporary experience is much more fragmented, and we need a language that is appropriate to contemporary multiplicity and fragmentation.


At the end of his story Sean Kelly makes use of a third perspective, and a language that is more abstract. He talks of gift, gratitude, and authority.

A decision is a gift. It is given to us. And a gift requires gratitude.

This is not my habitual vocabulary, and it raises my hackles. Perhaps if I manage to see it less in terms of a theistic understanding and as fully appropriate to a polytheistic one I will be able to “reconcile” myself to it.

Kelly himself is aware of the danger of the the possible contamination or covering up of the phenomena he is examining from the connotations of the language he is using. This is why he refers to his preferred vocabulary as belonging to a « radical » polytheism, one in which there is  » “a god to watch over even a single, important aim”.

The problem with these inherited vocabularies (the Christian and the Greek) is that they are not generic enough. They are too imbricated with particularistic formulations and assumptions from other places and times, that we cannot share today.

I agree with Kelly that we need a a more « minimalist », more generic language. Where I differ from him is that I think we need to use more than one language, and even to adopt more than one linguistic strategy. To be sure, finding a minimal, generic language is an important task if we want to approach the phenomena free from the dead hand of the past. However, there is much to be said for a more ample language, such as Melville’s polytheism as Kelly and Dreyfus describe it in chapter 6 of ALL THINGS SHINING.

My second point of difference with Kelly’s descriptions concerns the vocabulary of the minimal, generic language. While I agree with the more general talk of a decision as not something that we do, but that is made within us, the more specific talk of gift, gratitude and authority just does not do it for me. Not only does it not seem to me to describe my own experience, it also seems to me to be tacked on to the more plausible formulations. Lastly, the very vocabulary (gift, gratitude, authority) sounds unduly pious to my ears.

In conclusion, I have not been trying to psychoanalyse Sean Kelly at a distance, quelle horreur! Rather, I think it is useful to attempt to re-describe the phenomena he shares in his account in terms of the multiple languages he has explored in ALL THINGS SHINING, to approach them closer.

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Un commentaire pour NO TERMS ARE PRIMARY: towards a generic language of the phenomena

  1. dmf dit :

    to the degree that phenomenology is still tied to 1st person experiences one may in fact feel gratitude or feel (as say many song writers) as if one has received a gift and then I think the terms have value (should be included) but if we are trying to trace out something more fundamental than I think there is a you say no necessity to their inclusion (part of why I embrace Rorty on contingency), or as I say no imperative, to them. My guess is that Sean is still haunted by the specter of Nihilism (or just plain old uncertainty) whereas I think that’s a relatively rare and generally fleeting condition, that in fact as individuals and certainly as a species we are much more plagued (and in the anthropocence ultimately doomed by) feelings/stances of Certainty. Now increasingly many of us in the 1st economic world are coming to recognize that we have very little say over the shape and content of our lives but that’s a quite different matter than what I see Sean being taken by, one more in the realm of Deleuze and Guattari than Heidegger.


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