I came across Garry Wills New York Review of Books review of ATS last night. He pretty much hated it. "It is written by well-regarded professors," he says "(one of them the chairman of the Harvard philosophy department). This made me rub my eyes with astonishment as I read the book itself, so inept and shallow is it." I'll leave it to you to read the rest of the review. Now I don't want to oversell Dreyfus's and Kelly's book, because I think its objectives are fairly modest. But I think Wills's misreading of it is hilarious. It's a classic case of someone who plows in one field being incapable of understanding the work being done in another.
In the Styles of Thinking diagram (see below) I discussed in my last post, I used Kelly and Dreyfus as examples of Q1 thinking. Wills is an example of mid-Q4 thinking. He's an American liberal Catholic plowing in the field of Enlightenment-rationalist scholarship. Dreyfus and Kelly are Heideggerians who are attempting to make Heidegger accessible to a broader audience. If you don't understand or care about the post-Nietzschean problems that Heidegger is trying to solve, chances are you are not going to be interested or understand what D&K are doing. The culture is inundated with pop-Nietzschean, self-absorbed subjectivism, and this intelligent and well informed pop-Heideggerian attempt to break out of the subjectivist box is a refreshing and welcome relief.
I'm not saying that Wills's critique has no merit if you understand where he's coming from. But I think it's fair to say that Wills doesn't have a clue what the book is really about or trying to do. And it probably shows the cluelessness of the Q4 NYRB sensibility that the editors there would give the book to Wills to review in the first place. They probably thought that, what with him being a Catholic and all, it's his kind of thing. But Q4 American liberal intellectuals are still very pre-Nietzschean in their sensibility, and someone like Wills is very much shaped by that sensibility.
Wills most likely thinks that the old things, the Enlightenment things and Catholic things, still play essential roles in our civilization because for him they still do. I get that because they play that role for me too. But I don't make the mistake I think he and other Q3 and Q4 people make in thinking that because these old, valuable things play this role for me, that if more people would just think like me, that would solve their nihilism problem. The fact is that Wills represents a moribund, minority position in the culture at large, and lots of people, especially young people, if they think about these issues at all, look at Wills and the style in which he writes this review as being over the top for its learned, pompous cluelessness.
D&K are thoroughly post-Nietzschean in their sensibility. They are extraordinarily learned but extraordinary also for their modesty. They are very familiar with and clearly appreciate all the things that Wills and I value, but they would argue, and I would agree, that they don't signify and can't signify to the culture at large in the way they used to. So they want to start out fresh, and so the mood of their book (and of their lectures if you listen to them) is modest, exploratory, and collaborative.
In Q3 you have to meet certain standards of rigor; in Q1 the task is more tentative and experimental. Wills's world is well traveled and well understood--and, except in the subjective experience of a few well-educated dead-enders, dead. D&K's world is terra incognita, and into it they are taking baby steps. And I doubt the authors would claim more for their book than that.
Their quoting Melville here pretty much sums up the modesty of their project because in the end it comes down to gratefulness for what is near at hand. That is a very good beginning for anyone in a post-NIetzschean mindset who is looking to break out of the subjectivist box in finding signifiers, homely as they might be, of transcendence, or existentialized grace:
I have perceived that in all cases man must lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country. (ATS p. 163)
I do not accept this as a final statement, but rather as a honest, modest beginning; it's something to build from.
Here's the Styles of Thinking diagram referred to above: