Category Archive '“All Things Shining”'

25 Mar 2011

The Wisdom of the Whoosh

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Gary Wills reviews, with well-deserved derision, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly’s All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, a recent effort by two prominent academic philosophers (Mr. Dreyfus is a professor of Philosophy at Berkeley, Mr. Kelly is chairman of the Philosophy Department at Harvard) to find an authentic basis for values compatible with postmodern Continental Nihilism.

The authors set about to solve the problems of a modern secular culture. The greatest problem, as they see it, is a certain anxiety of choosing. In the Middle Ages, everyone shared the same frame of values. One could offend against that frame by sinning, but the sins were clear, their place in the overall scheme of things ratified by consensus. Now that we do not share such a frame of reference, each person must forge his or her own view of the universe in order to make choices that accord with it. But few people have the will or ability to think the universe through from scratch.

So how can one make intelligent choices? Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly call modern nihilism “the idea that there is no reason to prefer any answer to any other.” They propose what they think is a wise and accepting superficiality. By not trying to get to the bottom of things, one can get glimpses of the sacred from the surface of what they call “whoosh” moments—from the presence of charismatic persons to the shared excitement of a sports event. This last elation is sacred and unifying:

    There is no essential difference, really, in how it feels to rise as one in joy to sing the praises of the Lord, or to rise as one in joy to sing the praises of the Hail Mary pass, the Immaculate Reception, the Angels, the Saints, the Friars, or the Demon Deacons.

How proud Harvard must be.

Read the whole thing.

I had a number of courses at Yale from the late John N. Findlay, whose normally lofty and Olympian demeanor could actually be ruffled by any reference to Heidegger (whose thought is the foundation of the Nihilism of Messrs. Drefus & Kelly).

Findlay’s customarily serene blue eyes would flash fire at the mention of the odious Swabian sexton’s son. I remember Findlay once pausing to explain, in Oxonian tones dripping with bitterness and contempt, that Heidegger was guilty of systematically confusing emotional states with metaphysical objects. As Dreyfus and Kelly demonstrate, that kind of thing leads, if not to murderous totalitarianism, at least to incontinent puerility.

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.


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