I’ve been thinking more about All Things Shining and why I am drawn to it and why I have problems with it. I think the easiest way for me explain my thinking about the book is by reference to the diagram above. ATS is Quadrant 1 thinking, and it’s very interesting and helpful within that context, but the thinking in other quadrants is also useful, even if it is out of season. I’ll explain the seasonal logic of this diagram below, but first a word about my approach to the history of ideas in the West, which is really what ATS is all about.
My basic approach to the great thinkers in the history of the West is not to judge him as right or wrong, but to see their philosophy as a more or less successful attempt to articulate a fundamental insight or intuition that tells us something important. The problems arise when these thinkers or their followers get inflated notions about how their philosophy has some exclusive claim on the truth. None does—each is a limited perspective, but this kind of perspectivalism doesn’t mean that what comes into view within a particular perspective isn’t a significant truth.
So it’s not about agreeing or disagreeing with Descartes or Schopenhauer or Plato. The challenge is to look at their philosophies as poem-like texts that reveal or disclose aspects of Being that cumulatively tell us about what it means to be human in a world. It’s silly to say that one was wrong or that his mistake is at the root of some fundamental cultural malady. They are spokespersons or articulators of a particular perspective, and our task as their readers is to accept the validity of what comes into view within that perspective, and then to see it as best we can in relationship to other perspectives. The diagram above is a scheme I’ve been tinkering with over the years that attempts to understand the relationships between these perspectives.
I accept the basic point that ATS makes about how radically different moderns are from medieval Christians and medieval Christians from the Homeric Greeks, and that each mindset has to be understood on its own terms. But I am uncomfortable with their statements about how incommensurate they are with one another, or the implication that their relationship to one another is random, as if it's not possible or workers in one field to seek a rapprochement with workers in another or that work in one field doesn't depend on or develop one of the others. They don't seem interested to see the connections, and so we are left with the impression that the history of thought in the West is so contingent that it could have happened in any random way.
When I put my Q2 hat on I become something of a Leibnizian arguing for the necessity of what has happened and that while there's plenty of room for contingency, for good and bad choices, for successes and failures, there is a necessity about the underlying structure, which provides a kind of trellis on which history grows and develops. Necessity and contingency define a Q1/Q2 antinomy, and they both need to be held in a balanced tension. That's why I think the seasonal analogy is helpful--there's the ineluctable (necessary) cyclical change of the seasons as the earth revolves around the sun, but there is also an unpredictable variety (contingency) in the way each season plays out.
So this diagram maps out what I’ve been describing here for years as the seasonal shifts that determine cultural change, from Quadrant 1 to Quadrant 4, from winter to autumn. We’re currently in a cultural winter phase, which means we’re in Q1, and All Things Shining in this scheme is a very good example of Q1 thinking. I see it as an interesting effort to begin something new in this epoch after the death of God, which is another way of saying in this time after the death of the Christian cultural cycle.
Although Dreyfus and Kelly don’t use this seasonal analogy, and in fact would probably object to its use in reference to their book, I want to argue that it adds an interesting dimension to the story that they tell, which is essentially the story of the birth, burgeoning, withering, and death of the Christian West. In telling this story they, following Nietzsche (late Q4) and Heidegger (early Q1), point to the Homeric Greeks as having an experience or relationship with Being they think offers a clue as to what a new springtime might might look like. This interests me because I think they are pointing to a part of the story, but I’m interested in trying to understand what I believe is the bigger story, and readers can decide for themselves whether they think my framing of this larger story is compelling or not.
So let’s use my seasonal diagram above to retell the story Dreyfus and Kelly tell in their book. They start with and spend a lot of time with the Homeric Greeks, because they think a retrieval of the relationship with Being as experienced by these archaic Greeks is an important clue that will lead us out of our current winter-season nihilism. While they also spend a lot of time with the Christian story from the Gospel of John through Dante to Luther, it surprised me how little attention they paid to the Jewish story. They nowhere discuss the Torah an originating work of art in the Heideggerian sense. This, from where I stand is strange, since I’d argue that it’s equally or more significant for the history West than Homer’s poems. But that's a debate for another day.
They argue that one of the problems in the West is this conflict, in their opinion, an irresolvable conflict, between the Judaeo-Christian, existential, historical side of the Western Tradition and the Greek side, which is preoccupied with theory, essences, and timeless absolutes. They see the two as incommensurate antinomies, and that every attempt to get them together has been a mistake. I tend to agree and disagree, but mostly disagree—I’d argue that it’s not one or the other that defines the West but the Q2/Q4 tension between them, and that this tension has given the West its peculiar dynamism, for better and for worse. The problems arise when one side of the antinomy gets out of balance with the other, i.e., when the tension breaks down.
I’ll come back to that argument later, but it should be clear that from where I stand, that the limitations of what D&K are doing lie in their seeing as incommensurate by definition the work being done in different fields or quadrants, and I’d argue that there is instead a dynamic relationship between them. Anyone doing creative work in one of the fields tends to think people working elsewhere are wrong, but my goal is more catholic or synthetic—to appreciate what they are doing but also the possibility, the desirability, and the validity of what has been or is being produced in any field at any time, but especially when they are in season.
When it’s winter, summer is a distant memory, and it’s hard sometimes to believe that spring is around the corner. And that’s where we are now—in winter. We’re at the end of a cycle, which means that we’re also at the beginning of a new cycle, and D&K interest me as winter thinkers who are giving us the tools that will help us to develop the right kind of vigilance that will help us see signs of the coming spring.
Their work is different from most of the late autumnal, early wintery postmodern stuff precisely because it has a whiff of springtime in it. Winter thinking is suffused with Nietzschean nihilism and its dissolving, isolating subjectivism. When Sartre tells us that "l'enfer c'est l'autre" we're really in the dead of winter. (Remember for Dante the deepest part of the inferno is a frozen lake.)
D&K accept the world bequeathed to us by Nietzsche, but they want to move us out of the subjectivist box, to move us away from the idea that meaning is something that the individual human in an act of the overcoming will must create for himself--or else fall back into the slavish Last Man. Kelly in particular, in his discussion of David Foster Wallace, makes a compelling argument that such a life, while it might be described in some ways as heroic, is for most people is unlivable. It puts way too much unnecessary pressure on the individual and requires an unsustainable effort. It may be a possible life, but he rightly questions whether it is the only kind of authentic life possible or worth living.
And so the whiff of springtime comes in their Heideggerian argument for what can be called 'existentialized transcendence'. Meaning as gift rather than meaning as work; meaning as discovered or disclosed, rather than meaning as created. They talk about experiencing the infinite richness and the infinitely varied meaningful distinctions of Being. They are describing existentialized grace, existential because they want to insist that it’s important to experience this infinite variety as a gift without a giver. The Homeric gods aren’t personal; they are impersonal forces or moods. But they are not moods understood in the subjectivist sense. Rather they are moods that come from the “world”, from Being, and that have authority over us, an authority to which we must submit if we are to live a human life at its highest potentiality.
This is an interesting and important move, and while I think there are problems (which I discuss here), they are not insuperable—especially if we understand their work in the context of the diagram above. So let’s try that on. How does their story, which is the story of the birth and death of the Christian West framed by Homer on the front end and Melville on the back end, map in relation to my Styles of Thinking scheme?
Q1 represents the dimension of existential immediacy in human experience of the world. Some experiences within this dimension are life changing and in some cases culture changing. In their book, D&K talk about Jesus as having the kind of experience of agape love that radically reconfigured the Jewish framework and eventually the entire cultural framework of the West. (BTW I strongly recommend listening to Kelly’s lecture on the Gospel of John in the light of Heidegger’s long essay “The Origin of the Work of Art”. It is very interesting gloss on the chapter in the book covering this topic.) On the individual level the stories of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, or the disciples experience at Pentecost, or St. Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus are the existential experiences that had transformative personal effects, and these personal effects were robust enough to change an entire civilization over time—and in historical time, not in mythic time. Something clearly happened, the attempts to articulate what happened are recorded in certain texts, and of course all that is open to interpretation. But a dominant interpretation emerged and it shaped the West for the next 1500+ years.
So in the diagram above, let’s place the events from Jesus’ death through Pentecost on the winter solstice line, and the formation of the primitive Christian communities, the letters of St. Paul, and the gospels as activities of Q1 with the the Gospel of John sitting on the spring equinox line. Q1 then (as now) was an anarchic, antinomian phase during which almost anything goes in the wildly pluralistic cultural context of the Roman Empire. Q2 marks a different kind of activity in which certain key figures try to make sense of the world in light of the Q1 existential experience. It was about the attempts of the early Church Fathers to bring some order into the Q1 chaos, and this was an articulating project.
In my diagram, Q2 is the field in which thinking seeks to work out the implications of the Q1 existential experience, and the early Christian thinkers leaned heavily on Greek philosophy to effect that kind of understanding. Greek thinking, particularly in its Platonic and Neoplatonic articulations, is concerned to understand the world in terms of its eternal essences. For Plato, mathematics was the hidden logos of being, and the human mind was capable of understanding Being with mathematical clarity. It's no surprise then, that the ground of Being defined as the Logos made flesh in John's Gospel made Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophy a very seductive tool for Christian thinkers to articulate the implications of the Christian Q1 experience. I must say that I myself find it a very attractive tool, and I suspect that when we move into Q2 in the current cycle, there will be a convergence of what theoretical physicists are doing with Christian and Greek ideas about the Logos. But I digress.
I see the first Q2 cycle as extending from Irenaeus, an early Q2 figure (late 100s A.D.) through Nicaea to Nazianzus, Chrysostom, and Augustine, who sit on the summer solstice around the 400 A.D. mark. In my view this process of defining what is canonical and orthodox was not purely a political power game, although clearly that played a role, especially after Constantine. But I think that there was also the honest attempt to “get it right” when clearly some people were getting it wrong.
This was not simply a head-trip, but rather one primarily of discernment, i.e., the probing of the thinking heart that weighs the relative validity of certain Christian articulations and 'moods' in the light of the originating Q1 experience. People who have no idea what the Q1 experience is cannot judge the validity of these judgments; they can only be evaluated by those who have had the experience, which however does not guarantee that among those who have had the experience there are no differences of opinion or that the final consensus developed is the best one or in any way definitive for all time.
So there’s the experience, the verbal articulation of the experience within the limits of language and culture, and that’s the work of Q1. In Q2 we get a second level of experience and interpretation. St. Augustine is a paradigm here, and if John’s Gospel is sitting on the cusp of Q1/Q2, Augustine is sitting on the cusp of Q2/Q3, a late spring, early summer figure. He typifies the Q2 experience. He like others during this phase is now removed from the originating existential experience, but has his own experience, in this case mediated by a Q1 text. He in turn creates his own text, which is a second level of articulation.
Augustine’s Confessions is a profound existentially grounded text, and Augustine given the kind of soul he was, felt compelled to understand the world in the light of that life-transforming, existential experience. The medieval phrase fides quaerens intellectum captures this project, and it was the project of the West culminating in Aquinas’s Summa and Dante’s Divine Comedy, both late Q3 or late summer products.
But it’s important to remember that fides, faith here, is understood as an existential experience, as a kind of gift or revelation, and not as it has come to be thought of during decadent periods, viz., believing in what cannot be explained. There is an experience, and then there is the attempt to understand the world in the light of that experience. Lots of people have the experience, even in culturally decadent periods. The problem for us now is that since we are in a decadent part of the cycle (Q1), the old articulations about how to understand the world in the light of the grounding existential experience have all broken down and no longer have broad-based cultural legitimacy. So we are in a stage in which the grounding experience has to be re-articulated if it is to have any broad cultural resonance.
But in thie first cycle this grounding faith experience sought to understand its relationship to the world first by reference to Plato and Neoplatonic thought, then toward the end by reference to Aristotle. D&K argue that this was a mistake because this project lost the existentialized dimension of primitive Christianity and rendered the Christian experience into a Greek abstraction. They also argue that Dante’s bliss, because it is an obliteration of the individual in its encounter with the beatific vision, is more Greek or even Buddhistic than it is Christian, and that’s something I’ve argued myself.
Is Dante, or Meister Eckhart for that matter, talking about anything that is essentially Christian? I don't think so, but they are describing something that is clearly part of the picture, and needs to be understood on its own terms. I don’t think that there is necessarily a ‘metaphysical mistake’ being made by any of them, or that Greek philosophy and Judaeo-Christian revelation are necessarily incommensurate. I’d argue that they’re in a Q1/Q2 tension, and that trouble arises when they get out of balance. Dante, it could be argued, might be a out of balance. It's an interesting question, but I don’t want to get into that here.
If Aquinas and Dante are late summer figures, Luther is an early autumn figure, and with him the great dissolution of the medieval synthesis begins. D&K argue that Descartes was a reconfiguring personality because his Cogito ergo sum ushered in the modern sense of the secularized, autonomous self over against the rest of Being. But I think that Luther’s “Here I stand” had a more significant cultural or transforming effect. I think Luther, not Descartes, was the more significant threshold figure defining the shift from the premodern to the modern. Descartes, I would argue, is more of an articulator of this new experience of the individual that is the defining characteristic of the epoch following upon the Renaissance and Reformation. And yes, as soon as the subjectivist-driven dissolution begins, Nietzschean nihilism became inevitable.
I would also argue that the awakening of this deep sense of the individual was not a reconfiguring event, but rather a necessary development from the original Q1 experience. Central to the Christian revelation was the idea of the Kingdom of God being born within the individual soul of the believer—Protestantism is the necessary culture-wide expression or blossoming of this sense of the individual as having this kind of interior life. This life is something separate from the collective or communal life of the Durkheimian social world, which defined the Catholic Christian experience. It’s not that the Catholic experience at its best was wrong; around 1500 it was no longer in season.
The breakdown fo the Durkheimian community is the story Charles Taylor tells in his A Secular Age, and it was inevitable that as soon as the primary locus for religious experience moves from outer communal framework to an inner subjective framework that this would have a dissolving effect on religious institutions. And a second problem develops because the existential faith experience is not available to everyone--it is by definition a gift. This was a problem the Massachusetts Puritans faced when second and third generation colonists did not have existential conversion experiences that were necessary for church membership. It doesn't take long for the originating experience to dissipate and evolve into a fuzzy Unitarianism that has little or no understanding of the originating existential faith experience.
Institutions shaped by foundational, existential experiences cannot survive long in the Durkheimian sense if the foundational existential experience is something that has to meet this subjectivist criterion. The subjective experience cannot be generationally transferred, because faith as an existential experience just doesn’t work that way. And so the Durkheimian god of the Christian West abandoned communal life in going underground, so to speak, into the interior subjective experience of believers, and eventually it all but died as a presence in the traditional Durkheimian social forms. There develops what Taylor calls the neo-Durkheimian religious forms that typify American civil religion, but that has little or nothing to do with Christianity.
So Q3, which correlates with modern, post-renaissance, post-reformation period in the West, is the Age of Dissolution. Put Kant and Rousseau and the American Revolution in October, the French Revolution begins the downslide into the secular in November, and the crude capitalist materialism of the 19th century as December. And the darkness of December culminates with Nietzsche, whom we place on the Winter Solstice line. If Jesus Christ was in that position at the beginning of the cycle, it is fitting that the man who called himself the anti-Christ sits on it at the end of the cycle.
It’s always struck me as interesting that the year in the Western calendar begins in winter rather than in spring. It relates, of course, to the solstice and the shift from increasing darkness to increasing light in late December early January, rather than the shift from organic death to organic rebirth in late March early April. It symbolizes what deep down we all know to be true—that what happens in the sublunar or immanent, contingent world is preceded in some way by that which influences it from outside in the world of transcendent necessity.
And so here we are since then in Q1 again. Like Q1 at the beginning of the last cycle, it’s an anarchic, wildly pluralist era in which anything goes. But if in retrospect we see Jesus’ life and the formation of the primitive Christian communities as the seeds from which the new cycle would develop, it would have been impossible for a contemporary, objective observer to recognize their significance, unless they were somehow, magi-like, predisposed to see the signs of it.
Quadrant 1 correlates with winter, the season when the old thing has clearly died, and it's not yet clear what the new thing will be. You look around, not much life. It doesn’t mean it isn’t there, it’s just not visible because it’s in the underworld awaiting the sun’s return which will set off all the alarms awakening this sleeping life so that it groggily at first will emerge to do its work in the daylight world. I’d argue that God hasn’t died, but that he’s gone underground. He’s living in the seeds and roots and tubers, which during winter hold an enormous store of dormant life that awaits its moment to burst forth. Our task is to practice the good farmer's winter discipline--to sharpen and oil the tools, to feed and care for the animals, to repair the rickety barn and the empty silos, and to be vigilant for signs of spring.
I like All Things Shining because I see it as a tool-sharpening exercise. It’s a book about developing habits of vigilance, of paying attention to the Being of the world. It’s a modest book in that sense, because its examples about what Being has to reveal are homely ones—experiences at sports event, or the making of a well-crafted wheel or cup of coffee. And that’s fine. That’s the kind of thing we must attend to during winter. But surely there is much, much more. And when it emerges from the underworld where it’s sleeping, then we shall have that 'more' to talk about as we move into Q2.