Tag Archives: philosophy

All Things Shining

Late last year I read an article by David Brooks in The New York Times about a new book by prof. Hubert Dreyfus of UC Berkeley and prof. Sean Dorrance Kelly of Harvard entitled “All Things Shining”. Since Brooks is one of my favorite columnists and I enjoy his weekly analysis with Mark Shields on PBS Newshour immensely, the book caught my attention and I decided to take a small detour from technology and business readings to take a refresher on Western philosophy.
Dreyfus and Kelly take the reader on a journey from the beginnings of modern thought exemplified by Homer’s writings, through transition from polytheism to monotheism until the emergence of nihilism. Throughout history, they document greater empowerment of an individual which paradoxically led to increased uncertainty and gradual erosion of meaningful life experiences. There are several very intriguing observations in the book I’ve particularly enjoyed. For example, the authors’ assertion that “[…] Before Descartes people had little sense of an inner self. […]” was quite shocking to me, since it runs contrary to common beliefs about relative constancy of human nature and behavior across generations. Similarly, their treatment of how excessive reliance on technology transforms our lives also resonated with me “[…] To the extent that technology strips away the need for skill, it strips away the possibility of meaning as well. To have a skill is to know what counts or is worthwhile in a certain domain. Skills reveal meaningful differences to us and cultivate in us a sense of responsibility to bring these out at their best. To the extent that it takes away the need for skill, technology flattens out human life. […]”.
While, not being a philosophy geek myself, I have found the book very engaging and interesting. Only chapter 6, largely devoted to Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” could use some editing and it took a while to get through. I am also not quite sure “Moby-Dick” deserves this much coverage (it is the longest chapter of the book) alongside such giants as Homer’s Odyssey or the works of René Descartes, though I trust the authors. Still, a bit more selective editing would go a long way here.
In the final chapter of the book, Dreyfus and Kelly give a prescription for a meaningful life in the times of daily iconoclasts based on appreciation of many experiences (e.g. watching a game at the ballpark) beyond the religious ones. David Brooks’ review of the book focused on the apparent dissonance between that message and the reality (the world is getting more, not less religious). Personally I think the central observation the authors make is that many rituals previously relegated to the periphery of our spirituality are going to over time ascend to the pedestal and I find their thesis quite appealing.