I've been spending some time with Dreyfus and Kelly the last two weeks. I like what they're up to in their book, All Things Shining, and also in their respective courses based on the themes in the book, which you can find on podcast here for Kelly's Harvard seminar or at iTunes U for Dreyfus's undergraduate lectures at Berkeley.(Search iTunes U for 'Dreyfus, Philosophy 6') While I have a couple of problems with what I see as the limitations of their approach, I see them as as allies insofar as they are struggling in a post-Nietzschean culture-world to develop a non-nihilistic way to understand the human experience in its relationship to Being.
They want to do it avoiding a monotheistic ontology, and they see possibilities for a renewed sense of the sacred in a recovery of a polytheism in a postmodern key. They spend a lot of time with Homer's Odyssey and with Melville's Moby Dick arguing that Homer and Melville give us important clues about experiencing a world that is infinitely rich and full of meaningful distinctions. Meaningful distinctions are precisely what nihilism cannot make.
I like the basic Heideggerian project they are promoting, which is to break out of the Cartesian subjectivist bubble. From my Barfieldian Christian point of view, Heidegger is one of the key thinkers involved in laying the philosophical foundation for the movement toward Final Participation. And I see the value of what they are doing as a credible (because of their incredible credentials) translation of "Heidegerrian" into a language that non-specialists can understand.
That's a very important thing to do, because nothing is more important to our cultural and collective spiritual health now than helping the culture to begin to imagine and experience itself as in a more healthful relationship to Being than the one promoted by Enlightenment rationality.
And so I find interesting the way they talk about the different historical epochs of Western Civilization as having very different, even incommensurate, ways of relating to Being. They lean heavily on Heidegger's lecture entitled "The Origin of the Work of Art," which talks particularly about articulating and reconfiguring forms of art, and the authors add what they argue is missing--the originating work of art. So let's start there.
In their reading of Heidegger they see Homer's poems as originating works of art. An originating work of art gathers within itself the practices, values, attitudes that define in a background way what everybody takes for granted as the real world. While I don't remember them saying so, I would think that the Pentateuch or Torah should also be considered an originating work of art. And other cultures have them as well, but their concern, and mine, is the "history" of Being in the West.
Articulating forms of art are the most common--they express or articulate aspects of the world as it is already defined by the originating work of art or a reconfiguring form of art. They spend a lot of time talking abut the Oresteia, which requires Homer as the background originating form of art and The Divine Comedy, which requires both the New Testament and Aristotle. Again, they don't say so, but I should think that Socrates is to the Homeric tradition what Jesus is to the Hebrew tradition. Both were tranfigurers.
Which brings us to the most intriguing of the three that they call a reconfiguring form of art. They use the gospels, particularly the Gospel of John as a paradigm of this form of art. They define it as a work that changes the rules of the game by pointing to a radically different way of relating to Being that is at first incomprehensible to those who encounter it.
They call Descarte's Meditations a reconfiguring work of art insofar as it "invents", so to say, the autonomous or buffered Self, and I see what they mean, but I think it's a questionable labeling. I don't think he reconfigures the culture, but articulates a shift that has already occurred. I'd argue that the shift from the connected premodern way of relating to Being to the modern disconnected way was more of a group effort following upon the collective change in consciousness effected by the invention of Gutenberg's printing press, but I'm not going to argue the point here. I suppose Nietzsche was more the articulator of the end of an age than the the prophet of a new age, unless you think his nihilism has a future, and I don't. And neither do D. and K.
So the authors would seem to be pointing to both Heidegger and Melville as providing a potentially transfiguring vision of a new relationship to Being as the one to replace the Enlightenment rationalist relationship to Being. And they very well could be right, but their visions would have to catch on culture-wide to fully qualify, and I don't know if the authors' commitment to pluralism even allows for that possibility. Maybe it does. And while they don't say so, they msut see their own book as playing an articulating role for the Heideggerian/Melvillean vision. But they're not trying to convert anybody; they're just trying to make a case that looking at the world from their point of view allows for rich possibilities that offer a non-monotheistic alternative to nihilism.
They are phenomenologists, so their goal is to describe the phenomena, which means all the stuff that happens in human experience. And the phenomenon that most interests them is 'mood', which they want to argue is a non-subjective experience--it's something given by Being that we attune to if we are receptive to it. They refer to Heidegger's description of the gods as the "attuning ones". When the gods favor you, they attune you to aspects of Being that effect feeling states and shifts in consciousness. And the difference between the heroes, or a figure like Helen, is that when the gods 'shine' upon them they are overtaken by a mood that raises them above the normal grade of human to be themselves god-like. When the gods abandon them, as Athena does Odysseus, they are quite ordinary and usually screw things up.
So what's important about Achilles is not that he is a killing machine in the modern militaristic sense, but that he has a special relationship to the god Ares. And the same is true for Helen. She may have been the cause of untold death and suffering, but, hey, Aphrodite shown upon her, and she did what any right-thinking Greek would do--surrender to the god because only in doing so does the possibility for human excellence lie. Such surrender is the prerequisite for any human to live at his or her best. And besides if she didn't run off with Paris, there would have been no great deeds for the bards to sing about.
Now the case that the authors want to make is that this experience of surrender is precisely what makes human beings perform at their best, and that the key is to learn to live, as the Homeric Greek did, with an attitude of receptivity, reverence, and gratitude. Living with such an attitude makes it more likely that you will catch this mood, and the worst thing is to live like Penelope's suitors, whose lives are bestial precisely because they have no sense of reverence and so are incapable of being receptive of the gods' gifts. And they have, I think, very interesting things to say about what that means for us today. It's not about nostalgia for the Homeric world but a way of gathering all the ways in which we humans have been in relationship with Being and saying Yes to all of them, even if they seem to contradict one another.
Whether it is Jesus' sense that the world is best revealed through the light of his mood of agape love or Dante's sense that we teach ourselves the skill to be receptive to the love that moves the sun and other stars; whether it Aeschylus' sense that we can bring out the culture at its best by finding an appropriate place for all its nascent forces, or Sturt's sense that we can dwell in a natural world of sacred worth, these poietic accounts of the sacred are gentle and nurturing in a way that was alien to Homer's world. . . .
The practices have gathered through the history of the West to reveal these manifold ways the world is. Perhaps there are other ways the practices have gathered too. But only now, released from the ancient temptation to monotheism, can we find a place for each of these ways of being in our contemporary world. The polytheism that gets all these ways in balance will be more varied and more vibrant than anything Homer ever knew.
This contemporary Polytheistic world will be a wonderful world of sacred shining things.
The book and their lectures crackle with all kinds of interesting insights, and I'm not doing it justice here, and I might be posting on some of their other ideas later. The last chapter from which the excerpt is taken is for the most part an exposition and meditation on the development of what Aristotle called phronesis--practical wisdom, which is a good beginning. Aristotle also talked about sophia, which is higher order kind of wisdom. Dreyfus and Kelly don't go there, and that's from my point of view a limitation. As the piece I put up yesterday indicates, for me it's all about the Logos as ground of Being, and sophia is what we get when the logos in potentialis becomes in small or significant ways actus. They might think that makes no sense; I don't know.
D & K would probably say that the constraints of their phenomenological method prevent them from talking about Logos and Sophia, at least in the way that I do. They'd probably tell me that's cool if it works for you, but don't judge anybody as inferior if they don't agree with you. But I'd argue that there are different kind of judgments, stupid ones and wise ones, and I think we're so freaked out by the kinds of stupid judgments that have been made especially by religious types that we are afraid of any standard by which you can judge something as better or worse.
I believe it's possible to embrace a rich pluralism of responses to being, but also to develop a wisdom about what is higher and lower, better and worse, mature and immature. I think there is a way of honoring differences, and knowing not to judge what you don't understand. But I think it's also dangerous to bracket a priori the possibility of all such judgments. That's what I hear them saying. And this brings me to my second objection where this problem becomes particularly acute.
I'd argue that their ontological pluralism while it might work effectively for individuals and small or local groups, reinforces a mentality that keeps us divided and conquered in the larger public sphere--particularly when it comes to issues regarding political and economic power. Here's an excerpt from an email I wrote them yesterday asking them about this:
But here's what worries me: In a globalizing world I think there must be some transcultural standard of 'right' that transcends local-god particularity. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, for instance, were able to change the mood in their respective societies, but they did so by appealing to universalist Christian and Enlightenment ideals. They were able to create successful movements that were powerful precisely because they were not circumscribed by local gods--they appealed to something at a different level, a level that during the modern period has come to be recognized trans-culturally as a legitimate standard of the Good by all men and women of good will.
If such movements have no such background ideals that transcend the local gods, then I'd argue that in a world that is in almost in every other respect divided and conquered by its pluralism, there is no resisting the coming transhuman barbarism. And I fear that because the lack of or the diminution of the felt power of those transcultural ideals is precisely what allows the barbarians to take the field unopposed, especially in the techno/economic and political spheres.
I'd argue that what is required is not a new polytheism, but something that comes closer to henotheism, in the sense that there is one transcultural principle, (call it what you want--Logos works for me), but in a balanced tension or metaxis with local gods, incommensurate as they may be [with one another]. Maybe these events in Wisconsin will change the national mood, but it's been disturbing to me that appeal to universalist ideals seems so impotent, and I don't see that your approach has an answer for it. Is this something you've thought about?
It could be that politics is just not something they want to get into--and that's fine, but if so, it's a limitation. I think there has to be some transpersonal, transcultural philosophical principle that everyone accepts as legitimate that can slap down the local gods (or demons, like racism) when they get out of line. It's fine for individuals to learn from experience that choices that they've made were not the best, but sometimes people who are further along in the development of their phronesis need to have a word with those who are less far along, especially if they're about to make choices that will have tragic consequences for others. But you have to believe there is the possibility for being further along, that there is a better and worse, and that the judgment about it is not just an aesthetic one, but one about what is deeply real or less deeply real. The Heideggerians have it right when they say that truth is not propositional, but rather revelatory. But somer revelations are more profound than others.
To take the example of Homer's Helen that the authors spend a great deal of time describing as an exemplar of a shining human being at her best, it probably would have been better if someone slapped her upside the head and told her that Paris was a chump. Eventually she figured this out for herself, and there are in life all kinds of lessons that we have to learn from experience, but the authors' argue that to think Helen's running off with Paris was childish and irresponsible is to fundamentally misunderstand what makes the Greeks so wonderful. And I think this is, to say the least, questionable. It's actually pretty ridiculous, and explains why Heidegger was similarly seduced by Hitler. No doubt he thought the gods were shining on him as Aphrodite was shining on Helen.
D & K point out that Helen was regretful about all the death and destruction that followed upon her running away with Paris, but she had no regrets about being swept up by the 'mood' of Aphrodite, and neither did any of her contemporaries blame her, including Menelaus her husband. They didn't think she had done anything wrong because in the author's reading humans are at their best when they are shined on by the gods and surrender to them. I don't know if Cheney and Rumsfeld regret their invasion of Iraq--probably not. But even if they did, as Robert McNamara came to regret his Vietnam delusions, that doesn't mean that we should refrain from judging them, or to accept their justification that they were swept up by the mood of Ares, and they were for a while, at least, at their shining best and brightest.
Now that the god has abandoned them, the dust has settled, and all the unnecessary death and destruction is appallingly obvious to everyone, can anyone possibly justify their actions by reference to being swept up by a mood? By D & K's logic we would be patronizing them as we would the the Homeric Greeks if we did so. Why? Because we can't make judgments about the experiences of the gods others have if we worship other gods. If I'm into Jesus' mood of agape love, that's cool, but leave the other dude who's into Mars alone. Sorry I can't accept that, if that's what they're saying.
This is fine when it comes to relate to and understand our family members, neighbors and co-workers, but not when it comes to politics. These fools ought to have been stopped, just as Helen ought to have been stopped, and if the gods aren't going to give the rest of us a mood to motivate our doing it, then we have to find other resources. Maybe I'm misreading D & K, or maybe they have an answer for these objections. If they write back, I'll let you know.