A Contest

The page proofs should be arriving in a couple of days, so we’re getting ready for the final push. As I think about the book I realize it has a funny structure. There are something like 85,000 words in it all together, but a big chunk of those are quotations from the primary texts, quotations that we are commenting on and trying to make sense of. These primary sources are, in our view at least, some of the greatest works of art in the history of the West – works by Homer and Melville, Aeschylus and Dante, Augustine and Luther, Nietzsche and Kant.  And many others.  Many of the readers of this blog will be familiar with these works, though the book is intended for those who haven’t read them yet as well.  And even for those who are familiar with them, the interpretations we give are unlikely to seem standard.

One of the things we are particularly interested in is the background understanding of the sacred from out of which the various authors are writing.  Something in the way he (unfortunately, our authors are mostly, though not entirely, “he”) experiences himself and the world makes it seem appropriate to describe some event or another in terms of the presence of a god or the gods.  Our question in the book is almost always:  what is the background understanding of himself and the world from out of which this author is writing, and is there any sense in which the phenomenology as we experience it underwrites the description that the author gives?  Or in other words, is there anything in our own phenomenology that will look different if we understand what led these  authors to describe it the way they did?

The only real way to come at a project like this is to  read the texts with your own sense of the phenomenology in mind.  What one does in a class, therefore, is to try to give examples of phenomena that we are familiar with in our own lives that make sense of the way a particular author describes an event.  If Melville talks about the importance of moods in giving meaning to a life, for example, and about how  moods are contagious and that Ishmael is the kind of person who is open to them, then you have to find some example from your own life to make sense of this.  Perhaps Ishmael is the kind of guy who can immediately sense the mood of a party and seamlessly enter into it, for example.  This is not the final story about Ishmael, of course.  But perhaps it gives you some sense for what he’s about.  And then you can ask yourself the question whether Melville is right to suggest that Ishmael’s kind of moodiness is the way to chase away a certain kind of cultural malaise.

Well, with this background in mind I would like to propose a contest.  The goal is to get people thinking about the phenomenological implications of the works of art we discuss.  I don’t know for certain if anyone will be interested, but let’s give it a try.  Here are the ground rules:

In the following post I will give a short passage from a primary source that occurs in the book.  The passage will be slightly modified, though not in such a way as to change its meaning.  The goal of the contest is to identify the passage by saying what work it comes from, who the author is, and where in the book it occurs.  (The point of the slight modification is to make it harder to identify the quote simply by sticking it into google.)  If things are getting really difficult, I’ll step in to offer some hints.  Once the identification is made, though, then the goal is to try to figure out what phenomenological point one might be making with the passage in question.  Probably with all the interesting things you guys have to say, the book will seem boring by comparison when it comes out.  Anyhow, maybe this will give us something fun to think about for the next few months.  Whaddya say?

Turn to the next post for the first passage in the contest.  Good hunting!


About Sean D. Kelly

Sean Dorrance Kelly is the Teresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. He is also Faculty Dean at Dunster House, one of the twelve undergraduate Houses at Harvard. He served for six years as chair of Harvard's Department of Philosophy. Kelly earned an Sc.B. in Mathematics and Computer Science and an M.S. in Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences from Brown University in 1989. After three years as a Ph.D. student in Logic and Methodology of Science, he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley in 1998. Before arriving at Harvard in 2006, Kelly taught at Stanford and Princeton, and he was a Visiting Professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Sean Kelly's work focuses on various aspects of the philosophical, phenomenological, and cognitive neuroscientific nature of human experience. He is a world authority on 20th century European Philosophy, specializing in the work of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He has also done influential work in philosophy of mind and philosophy of perception. Kelly has published articles in numerous journals and anthologies and he has received fellowships or awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEH, the NSF and the James S. McDonnell Foundation, among others. Fun fact: He appeared on The Colbert Show in 2011 to talk about All Things Shining. Sean Kelly lives at Dunster House with his wife, the Harvard Philosopher Cheryl Kelly Chen, and their two boys, Benjamin and Nathaniel.
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