Garry Wills really did not like our book!

See here. Please discuss in the comments. I have to go watch a cello recital at daycare.

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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78 Responses to Garry Wills really did not like our book!

  1. Britt Z. says:

    I don’t think Willis gets the intricacies of your argument…but that’s one of the dangers of writing a book for a general audience. Still, Willis is way too harsh, to say the least!

  2. dmf says:

    I’m more interested in your take on his review but would just say that it is reasonable to wonder if you and Bert did justice to some of your examples or if they were instrumentalized in such a way as to be of use in making your point(s), and as such maybe were not the shining displays of careful craftsmanship/research that they might have been.

    • My full take on the Wills review will have to wait for a larger venue. But I’ll make three observations here.

      First, I’m interested in the framing of it. Wills sets himself up in the role of the innocent child who points out that the Emperor has no clothes. Somehow, he seems to think, we have hoodwinked all the “Big Thinkers,” and it will take his innocent truthfulness to set the world aright. That seems an odd inversion of roles given his prominence in the broader intellectual world: at least one academic history site calls him “the finest intellectual historian of our age.” What is motivating this weird frame?

      Second, there is something almost personal about the attack. He calls the book “inept,” “shallow,” full of “nonsense” and its claims almost incapable of being “sillier.” But it’s hard to see how Wills’s long but inconclusive discussion of Homeric naming practices, or his listing of the well-known secondary literature on Homer from Bernard Knox to (our friend) Bernard Williams, or his recitation of the similarly familiar but bizarrely baroque discussion about which book Ambrose was actually reading to himself when Augustine commented on his silent technique, really justifies such claims. Indeed, it seems obvious that these discussions are completely irrelevant to the central purpose of our book. I have to assume, therefore, that they are not what is really motivating his critique. What is motivating it, however, I cannot tell.

      Finally, and most importantly, there is the huge range of straightforward errors that Wills makes in describing our book. And not little ones, either, but fundamental mistakes that are based on missing completely the central point of the project. Indeed, he seems to misunderstand the book in an almost motivated way, as if he is trying desperately to keep from learning about the categories of receptivity and mattering that the book is attempting to focus. The assimilation of moods to “impulses,” for example, or the astonishing claim that we think “each person must forge his or her own view of the universe,” look about as close to motivated misunderstandings as one could get. What the motivation is for them, however, again I cannot tell.

      In general, I don’t know how to explain these observations. I have always enjoyed reading Garry Wills’s books, and I’m saddened by his response to ours. Someone I don’t know has an analysis of his disconnect with our project here, though I don’t really understand it either. If anyone can shed any light on what is going on, I would love to hear it.

      Comments appreciated.

      • dmf says:

        can’t offer any specific insights into his mindset (I don’t share your appreciation of his work so wasn’t surprised by his questionable scholarship,but was taken aback by the bizarre slant/attitude of his review, not that he said it [I had no expectation either way] but that it was printed) but I can imagine that the idea that we are all in a fallen age and in need of saving from our shallow/mistaken beliefs/commitments is going to offend people who feel like the sacred is alive and well in their lives. In one of the related interviews I believe that you backed off a bit from this kind of epochal diagnosis to say that the age wasn’t fallen and that the book was for those people who feel a need for more in their lives/experiences, so some clarity on the scope of the book along these lines might be helpful to your cause.

      • Knut says:

        Three times you question your critic’s motives.

        Makes you come off as pretty desperate, or as someone who just doesn’t know better.

      • Knut says:

        Sorry, that came out the wrong way, and I don’t seem to be able to edit the comment. Moderator feel free to delete.

      • The German word for ‘mood’ as you well know is quite
        different in meaning from the English one. Why do you not address this? Your sociological definition of the ‘sacred’ as
        a mere local convention is ridiculous, especially given the long
        history of anthropological attention to this phenomenon.
        Basically, your book is reductive and evasive in its attempt
        to reduce any notion of human transcendence to a social phenomenon. It is simply post-modern pop literature.

      • Where there's a Wills... says:

        Hi there. What are some of “the huge range of straightforward errors that Wills makes in describing our book”?

      • Well, I’ve listed some of the errors already in various places. But as a handy, albeit abbreviated, reference let me try these:

        1. He says that our book is based on the idea that “each person must forge his or her own view of the universe.” This is the view the book is against.

        2. He says that our view of Homer is based on Bruno Snell’s account. We explicitly reject Snell’s view.

        3. He says we think that Homer’s characters can’t deliberate. We say nothing of the sort, believe nothing of the sort, and in fact give an example of Odysseus deliberating in the book.

        4. He says that on our view the Homeric gods are “impulses.” This is precisely the kind of inner, psychological account we are against.

        5. He says we claim Augustine “invented” the inner. Our view of history doesn’t have anyone (except for maybe Homer) “inventing” an understanding of ourselves.

        6. He says that we think Pip is the “real hero” of Moby Dick. In fact, we claim that Pip is the “end of a rotten line” in the history of the West.

        That’s off the top of my head, and it includes only the straw men, not the red herrings. There are a number of those as well. The long discussion of whether Ambrose was reading the Bible or Greek Theology, for example, is completely irrelevant to the claims we make; it’s like the long discussion in the secondary literature whether Melville was sitting on his father-in-law’s sofa when he read an essay by Leigh Hunt. These can be interesting kinds of historical questions, but from the point of view of the philosophical issues the book is focused on, they are laughably irrelevant. So too, the list of early Church fathers who preceded Augustine in Platonizing Christianity. The list is accurate but irrelevant. When we said Augustine was the first “important” person to do this, we meant he was important in the sense that the culture now takes him as a paradigm and a reference point for that project. Of course he had precursors; every important thinker does. But Augustine is the paradigm for this approach – even by Wills’ account I am willing to bet – and no amount of discussion about Gregory of Nyssa proves otherwise.

        But perhaps the most important red herring is the belittling discussion of the ritual practices we discuss. The rhetorical move is satisfying for the uninitiated reader, but based on a basic philosophical error. It fails to distinguish between the rituals that reveal an understanding of being and what understanding the rituals reveal. What Wills really disagrees with, I strongly suspect, is our claim that there is an incommensurate plurality of goods. But instead of arguing against that, which would be hard, he tries to belittle the rituals of coffee drinking and sports, which are chosen as deliberately trivial examples of how our practices reveal this plurality. It would be like someone’s arguing against Catholicism not by taking on its Trinitarian conception of God, but by belittling the practice of eating a cracker. That would be a dishonest approach.

      • Richard Hammerud says:

        Just a thought, but I’ll throw it out. I can understand where Wills is coming from when he describes the book as shallow. I was a student of Hubert Dreyfus in 1972 (or 71) at U.C. Berkeley and I loved his course on Heidegger (and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche). I have been reading Dreyfus’s books for years and find them fascinating. But I do think his take on Christianity is very shallow and that he distorts Kierkegaard’s view of faith. As a Christian and as someone who has studied philosophy and theology, I find it very difficult to discern the true Kierkegaard in Dreyfus’s exegesis of him. (though his exegesis is fascinating). As to your (Sean) remark that Gary Willis is somehow being too aggressive in referring to your (and Dreyfus’s) book as shallow, etc. I don’t quite get your point. If that’s what he believes why the need to think he has some ulterior motive? I have listened to many of Dreyfus’s lectures on Itunes and he often tells his students that some critic or other totally misunderstands Kierkegaard (or whoever); as though Dreyfus is somehow the only one (or one of the few) who has the key to understanding Kierkegaard. A case in point; I was listening to his lectures on Homer and he makes it sound like he is the only one who understands Homer. When he was talking about Dante he says he can’t believe that he is the only one who has understood that Virgil is not to be trusted…and how could he be the only one in history who has seen the truth about Virgil, etc. etc. etc. Don’t get me wrong; I like Dreyfus and find him fascinating to listen to but he is very irritating at times. He even says that Kierkegaard doesn’t understand himself! Wow, what hubris. It’s like no one understands how to read a book except Dreyfus. I have been reading Kierkegaard for years and I think I understand what Kierkegaard is up to; I don’t need Dreyfus to set me straight. That’s what I think lies behind Gary Wills irritation with your book. It is full of hubris. One example. Dreyfus, for whatever reason, has this great love for polytheism (demythologized of course) and he thinks Christian monotheism is no longer viable. Now I call that not only hubristic but also nonsense. And very shallow. Maybe Dreyfus should reread Kierkegaard. Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Or Martin Luther King. Or Gabriel Marcel. Or Paul Ricoeur, Or Rene Girard. Or Charles Taylor. Etc. etc. etc. Dreyfus on Christianity is, at least for me shallow, shallow, shallow.

  3. Albert Borgmann says:

    Erudition is admirable and sarcasm can be liberating, but these virtues lose their luster when they get in the way of attention to a book’s center and context. The real backdrop of All Things Shining is neither philology nor doxography. It’s contemporary culture primarily and mainstream philosophy incidentally, and its central concern is with the fate of the sacred.
    As for contemporary culture, it has largely lost its sense for the sacred and is fascinated with glamour and consumption when it is not worried about securing the necessary resources. The sacred can be met in several ways, and Dreyfus and Kelly have been resourceful both in helping us locate it and in describing the dispositions that are needed to be equal to it.
    Mainstream philosophy excels in its concern for precision, clarity, and rigor. It’s practiced at a high level of sophistication and ingenuity. But it’s rarely concerned with the sacredness that yet pervades our celebrations and our inconspicuous everyday life. Within both contexts, All Things Shining is among the ground-breaking books.
    Like Wills, I’m a practicing Christian and can’t follow Bert and Sean to their polytheistic conclusions. But what makes contemporary culture so impenetrable to the Good News is not polytheism, but the pleasant indifference to things and practices that have a rightful claim on our devotion. Christians too often respond with uncomprehending anger or edifying abstractions. All Things Shining kindles enthusiasm, openness for the divine, something Wills’s command of classical Greek should make him appreciate.

    • Charlie says:

      Very well said. I suppose the best defense is a good offense. The indignity belies a discomfort with democratizing the sacred. I guess he’s cornered the market. A deliberate misunderstanding (and superficial critique) avoids the central argument – that we can lure back the gods. Alas, they don’t me Mr. Wills standards. Ironically, erudition turns on itself.

      • dmf says:

        I like this “democratizing the sacred” as it fits (?) my (and Rorty’s) Dewey/Nietzsche hybrid but having watched the above video where Sean clarifies his stance against Nietzsche I’m not sure that this fits the ATS party line, and this is the haunting Heideggerian question; is Authenticity available/open to a democratic/cosmopolitan 1,ooo flowers blooming ethos or does it demand a kind of communal assent/disciplining? I think that this is the difference between an Emersonian project, and a Heideggerian project, of moody attunement.

      • I don’t understand this criticism at all, dmf. Why shouldn’t the polytheism we advocate be open to a multiplicity of goods, to a fully “democratized sacred.” I thought that was pretty much its definition.

        (This is a reply to dmf’s reply to Charlie’s reply to Albert, but astonishingly I can’t figure out how to make my own blog do that.)

  4. Alexander says:

    Although it looks appealing, I haven’t read your book Sean. However, I feel like commenting on the review’s treatment of Homer, something which Wills seems to regard as important. And from the little I can grasp of your reading of Homer, it doesn’t seem that your reading is even philologicially discredited in the way Wills thinks it is.

    Although Wills is right that Snell’s strong position – that the Homeric Greeks had no real concept of the mind or individual deliberation – is probably wrong, we can’t just say the reverse and say their concept of the mind and deliberation is exactly the same as ours. Reading Homer – especially the Iliad – just tells you that is wrong. The characters’ deliberation is entirely open and available to the reader/hearer to view immediately. I find this lack of private hidden motives very striking – characters in later fiction don’t describe their deliberations (publicly or privately) in this kind of way. When and how in the the history of literature characters’ motivations became more interiorized is a question which deserves asking. And if one thing your book does is to try to explain the conceptual underpinnings of that change then I thinks that’s worthwhile.

    (p.s. I think there are some interiorized motives in Circe and Penelope in the Odyssey, so I think the story may be more complicated than I have put it so far, but it is important that they are exceptions.)

    • dmf says:

      I think that we should be very leery of inferring sociological/psychological implications/realities from works of art, especially poetry, especially ancient poetry…

  5. dmf says:

    from Frank Cioffi’s Wittgenstein on Freud and Frazier:
    We can absolve Wittgenstein of inconsistency if we pose the historicity issue in a manner which strips it of soteriological implications and give it the same character as disputes about the historicity of Homer’s account of the Trojan war: salvation is not annexed to the historicity of Achille’s encounter with Hector, or Priam, and so the irrelevance of the historicity in our responses to the Illiad can be discussed without distraction. Similarly, we can best see what Wittgenstein was getting at in his dismissal of historicity if we retell the gospel story thus: ‘A long time ago there was a Jew who believed that he had been sent by God to preach a gospel of human brotherhood and to suffer the terrible ordeal of crucifixion, that all men might be saved and enjoy eternal life. But there are people who say that there was no such man and that the story is a garbled amalgam of diverse persons and event.’ Put it in this way would we still think it perverse to find reverberations of this story more arresting than its problematic history? Georg Simmel remarked this particular direction of interest. “Emotional reactions are associated with our ideas even if they are conceived purely from the standpoint of their qualitative content without regard to the question of their reality…We associate the mere idea of a very noble or very abhorrent deed, a uniquely complex personality, or a remarkable turn of fate with certain feelings. These feelings are independent of our knowledge that those men and events really existed, persisting even if we know that they did not.”

  6. Charlie says:

    dmf, regrettably, I must pile on and disagree with Sean’s statement that Nietzsche somehow relished a pure perspectivism which levelized choices. However, Nietzsche’s view that some perspectives were better than others has no bearing on this argument. ATS’s dilemma can indeed be traced to Nietzsche as the final nail in the coffin of meaning. There are different answers to the nihilistic soup and, for me, the novelty of the ATS argument is the sensible condition – the receptivity or disposition that Albert discussed – that enables the sacred. Now, as to form – polytheistic or (dare I say) apocryphal – I would venture to say that ATS has more in common with Nietzsche than that one statement implies. On your question, I might quibble with your distinction on the form of sharing/sacred. Put another way, I don’t think discipline or assent qualifies communal for these purposes. (Perhaps only with respect to my base phenomenological ATS takeaway). Circling back to Mr. Wills, he doesn’t like the diluted answer, so won’t consider the conditions/ask the question.

  7. dmf says:

    Sean, I’m just working this through (that’s the use that I find for these kinds of blog micro exchanges) for but I think it has to do with Rorty’s public/private distinction in his Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity book and whether things/events “shine” because of some revelatory aspects/powers or because of the ways in which we have been socialized (not that this is an absolute either or, but might be a difference between say meeting Jesus [on the road?] and being raised a faithful-citizen-of-christendom or cheering a football game, which Rorty puts in terms of ‘living’ and ‘dead’ metaphors in his Kuhnian work on Davidson ) to see them. What I like about Emerson (who in this sense is more modern than Heidegger) is that he has a sense of our indebtedness/moodiness but also a sense of the the transitory natures of our existence and the need for constant adaption and is probably a better match for Melville and for us. Check out Melville scholar Branka Arsić’s excellent On Leaving
    (there is a sample chapter in her edited work The Other Emerson)

  8. dmf says:

    from Albert:
    If Ess thinks that I am too pessimistic about the world as it is, Myron Tuman thinks I am occasionally too optimistic. He would have liked me to acknowledge Vico as a progenitor in my critique of technological progress (something I did in The Philosophy of Language, pp. 73-80). Tuman particularly doubts that it is possible to show how “a progressive social agendum is to be reconciled with a more basic and generally conservative view of the family (gathered around the stove) and community celebrations generally.” Well, here is an example. I support Tuman’s generous view of social life, and I would like to include the family in such generosity – a family is any two or more people who have cast their lot together, two women, two men, a woman and a man, more than two, any two with children or without. At the same time I urge fidelity among the partners, love and discipline toward children, common meals for the entire family, and engagement in the life of their communities. The socially progressive part should be secured by law. The culturally conservative part is a matter of example, education, and publication.
    Tuman expects me “to harbor and express some lingering concern about the traditional anti-intellectual edge of community celebrations, or at least point out what has changed so much from European culture of the first half of the twentieth century where so much anti-Semitism was fueled by the Jews as outsiders… “Tuman is right – this is a crucial issue, and it has concerned me deeply. One of the opportunities that a discussion of Freiburg Minster affords is to point out how impotent such a grand center for communal celebration has been in keeping virulent anti-Semitism at bay (Holding, pp. 116-18). I mention the holocaust once more in the last section of the book where, agreeing with Tuman, I urge remembrance as the duty we owe to that catastrophe (p. 229). There is, thank God, a glimmer of good news about the connection of tolerance, if not with communal celebration, at least with civic engagement (which does include some celebration). As Robert Putnam has found, tolerance is more vigorous among the communally active than the socially solitary (Putnam 2000, pg. 355).”

  9. Frank Cook says:

    I think that D & K are excellent diagnosticians. The ailment – nihilism is clear. Without a transcendental metaphysic life has no meaning. Therefore there is no treatment. Gratitude? How can you show gratitude and thankfulness when there is no one to direct these feeling towards? We are left to invent meaning for ourselves. Wallace is right. No mere mortal can invent meaning. This is a godly task and we no longer believe in gods.

    • dmf says:

      that’s funny I was just feeling grateful for the sunshine this morning, of course we can feel grateful and even gifted without a someone(else) per say to thank for the event/gift . our good authors have pointed to some ways in which to heighten our awareness of, even to cultivate, such experiences but this is sublimation and not the Sublime. we are meaning generating critters and can’t stop it even if we try (go ahead and try), the trick is to recognize that we dwell poetically and to take care.

      • Charlie says:

        Great link again dmf. Interesting twist to this thread. Language can be transformed into art itself as it approaches effability. But take the conclusion that “insofar as logic pertains to real human inquiry, logic can’t do ANYTHING without feeling”. Well, Dewey’s pragmatism may be beautiful, but I would like to think that Einstein and Darwin actually advanced the pre-Socratic ball. The indescribable April light bathing a forest may underpin the larger event/quantum, but when do we lose perspective basking in our qualitative experience and diminish reason? Our unique expressiveness, dwelling poetically, is only part of the picture. Are we throwing the baby (reason – science, and, yes, thereby Philosophy) out with the bathwater with merely sublime phenomenology? It’s not necessarily good or bad, or teleological per se, but it seems meaningful to me that residue seeping out of that nuclear plant has a half life of 28,000 years. We mortals have wrought/invented meaning. To answer my rhetorical question in the context of this link, I believe that reason can supersede feeling in the way that Einstein’s formulas sprung from the equivalency of accelerated motion and gravity. In ATS terms, I don’t think meaning is binary, and we can bootstrap to more fundamental insights that are still short of a transcendental metaphysic.

    • dmf says:

      ch, if you mean by “advanced the ball” that we/moderns now have manufactured new ways get a grip on aspects of life that better suit our current life-styles (but maybe not existential needs?) than i think that this would be in line with dewey’s post-darwin naturalized hegel (which is anti-dualisms) and my pragmatic take on our as-if/poetic way of being in the world, which would likely make heidegger turn over in his grave if he was capable of taking an american seriously. but you seem to be heading down a more orthodox hegelian/idealist branch in the road akin to:

      Click to access JungV6N1p1-66.pdf

      I have worried here about the possible gap of thinking things through tho wouldn’t go as far a Dan Zahavi:
      “I assume you’re somewhat familiar with Hubert Dreyfus’ reading of Heidegger, which centers on the notion of “skilful coping” as a way of rejecting the cognitivist/constructivist conception of human beings as information-processing machines. What do you make of his interpretation? Do you think there is a tendency to think of ourselves as machines?

      One worry I have with Dreyfus’ notion of skilful coping is that he sometime presents it as a form of mindless coping, i.e. one that lacks first-personal character and subjectivity. I don’t think that is the right way to characterize our being-in-the-world, and in particular, I don’t think it is a good alternative to a conception of human beings as information-processing machines, since it equally threatens to turn us all into some kind of zombies. As for whether or not there is a tendency to think of ourselves as machines, I think this is something we very rarely do in the first-person case, i.e., when thinking about ourselves. It might be more widespread when thinking about human beings in the abstract. “

  10. Frank Cook says:

    dmf said:

    “… I was just feeling grateful for the sunshine this morning, of course we can feel grateful and even gifted without a someone(else) per say to thank for the event/gift…”

    grateful to whom? may i suggest that what you feel is fortunate – lucky, for tomorrow the weather may change. the distinction is subtle, but i think important. i thank my friend and feel grateful for his birthday gift, but i feel fortunate when that school bus just missed me.

    • dmf says:

      you would be incorrect, just as song-writers and novelists can feel like melodies and characters are given to them (or just come to them) without experiencing a giver, I was truly grateful for the rare bit of sunshine as a natural event.
      we are practicing phenomenology and not being bewitched by correct(?) grammar and I would suggest that the feelings/moods came first and we invented persons/causes after as we tend to do with our personifying psyches.

  11. Frank Cook says:

    i hate to quibble, but i do think the distinction between grateful and fortunate important. the reason i don’t like the word grateful is because it implies agency when in fact there may be none. no one deserves credit or blame when there is no known agency – sunny days for example. therefore you may most appropriately feel fortunate. people may deserve credit or blame when their actions cause good or bad things to result. it is for this case that i would reserve the word grateful. I think that D & K fail to make this distinction too.

    • Jermaine says:

      Hi Frank,

      I think you make an interesting point, but I think I would retain’ gratitude’ as a helpful concept for thinking about how we encounter the sacred. Because I do believe there is some sense of agency at work, but not in the ordinary sense. And this is what I think Dreyfus and Kelly are aiming at; getting us to revise our common sense intuitions about what being an ‘agent’ is.

      Roughly, if we think of ‘agency’ as “skillfull receptivity” in which the ‘skill of being open’ to the -beauty- of sunny days drawn out (by the sun’s affordance, rather than the willing agent), then indeed, gratitude may be at work. And I think this more significant than what being ‘fortunate’ implies–mere luck.

  12. dmf says:

    “That philosophy is conditioned by art, as well as the other domains, rather than tethered to them by a common function of disclosure with respect to Truth,
    radically interrupts the ‘obscure domination of the poem’ which Badiou sees as the real specter haunting the 20th Century.”

  13. dmf says:

    I think that we should be careful in talking about nihilism/leveling that we don’t lose sight of what has happened to peoples whose cultures have actually been devastated:

    • Jermaine says:

      Lear’s book is as much a response to nihilism -construed as a total loss of (conceptual) meaning- as is ATS.

      In that respect, they very much can be seen as companion pieces, offering alternative visions. Lear’s exemplar is Plenty Coups, who embodies a form of “Radical Hope” for the Crow people to follow and eventually take-up as their own, whereas we, as readers of ATS, are compelled to ‘lure back the gods’.

      D&K were aware of it:

      Click to access fulltext.pdf

      • dmf says:

        to draw a direct comparison like this is a kind of ethical aporia if not a category error, and in this sense echoes the flattening of MLK’s calling to various professional entertainers. I get that this isn’t obvious to all and I’m out of examples so I’m out.

  14. Frank says:

    Hi Jermaine,

    Thanks for you thoughtful response and that helpful link. You write:

    “Roughly, if we think of ‘agency’ as “skillfull receptivity” in which the ‘skill of being open’ to the -beauty- of sunny days drawn out (by the sun’s affordance, rather than the willing agent), then indeed, gratitude may be at work. And I think this more significant than what being ‘fortunate’ implies–mere luck.”

    Agency = skillful receptivity? I don’t understand. But, but, but…a sunny day is mere luck. There is no known benefactor we can feel gratitude to for sunny days. How about this little thought experiment?

    Standing in a field on a sunny day. The tree next to you gets zapped by lightening while you narrowly escape unharmed. Do you feel gratitude or lucky (fortunate) or skillful receptivity? Or, your good pal, your dog, standing next to you gets zapped – dies. Do you feel ingratitude, unlucky (unfortunate), or unskillful receptivity?

    I’m not trying to be difficult – just trying to understand.

    • Jermaine says:

      Hi Frank,

      Your thought experiment brought to mind D & K’s use of an iconic scene from the Tarantino film Pulp Fiction (see p. 68-72 of ATS). The characters Jules and Vincent are shot at, almost point blank, in close quarters, yet all of the bullets miss. Jules and Vincent then have a debate about how to interpret this event in which their bodies are unscathed and their lives preserved, almost magically–is it merely lucky or as something deserving gratitude?

      I think, perhaps, to be clearer about what we’re discussing, it’s not the sun on a sunny day, but ‘how we as human beings encounter’ that sun, how the sun, for somebody receptive, is something to be appreciated. In that respect, we don’t need a benefactor (as the Greeks did via the Olympian gods).

      Of course, gratitude is only one among other appropriate responses to encountering phenomena. So in case that my dog is struck by lightning, I would likely feel grieved. Gratitude may or may not even come into the picture.

  15. Jermaine says:


    If you mean that drawing a direct comparison between texts is an ‘ethical aporia’ and a ‘category error’, then what’s to be said for the majority of scholarship and criticism in the humanities?

    If you mean that drawing a direct comparison between the Crow people and us (meaning us folk commonly embodying a culture called “the West”) is an ‘ethical aporia’ and a ‘category error’ then so much for for trying to to work towards a better understanding between peoples.

    If it’s “not at all obvious” what you’re trying to say and you fail to give examples, then why post at all?

  16. M.T.Cicero says:

    What is the *real* difference between “democratizing the sacred” and desecrating (exposing the sacred/secret to the vulgar), i.e., anarchy (the perfect tyranny)?

  17. Joseph Harder says:

    How do you respond to Wills criticisms that you fundamnetally misread both Homer and Augustine?
    Another critique of your work( which you seem to have ignored altogether, is that by David Hart in First Things.

    • Sean D. Kelly says:

      Thanks for your question, Joseph.

      The basic response, which we go into in some detail in our letter to the NYRB, and which I have outlined already in this thread and also here, is that Wills is just plain mistaken about the views we hold. In most cases he’s not even close; a simple fact-checker could have caught his errors . A number of times – especially when it comes to Homer, but elsewhere as well – he attributes to us views that we explicitly reject in the book. His long discussion of Augustine is equally puzzling; we spend four pages on Augustine in our book and it takes up almost 15% of his review. By contrast, a huge proportion of our book is consumed with Moby Dick, which Wills barely mentions. The whole thing has the feel of someone looking under the lamppost for his keys because that’s where the light is best. The real question is not so much how we respond to his criticisms, but what happened to this normally careful historian to make him write such an angry and poorly researched review.

      For better and for worse I’m now reconciled to the fact that our book is becoming extraordinarily controversial: major figures are busy lining up on either side. Naturally, I wish that everyone was in favor. But I take some consolation in the fact that the people who appreciate the book are typically the ones who have taken the time and effort to understand it.

  18. Charlie says:

    I don’t live in the academic world, so I might be over reacting to the angry reviews. I don’t know David Hart from a sack of sand. And perhaps chiding, obfuscation and ridicule are customary tools. But I would rather think that the challenge is truly provocative and the insecurity telling. I think it’s especially galling when great works can make the case for openness and sharing that, to borrow Sean’s phrase, create a multiplicity of goods. The irony is fascinating because its easily construed as an agnostic case where gods are not mutually exclusive. I was originally threatened because my philosophical heroes were sacrificed. And I’m sure a continuum including faith is even more disturbing. But these critiques with philological quibbling don’t do the question and prescription justice. All things – considered, controversial may be just right

    • dmf says:

      to be fair, to folks who roughly follow Tillich/Kierkegaard this kind of aesthetic/phenomenal approach would read as a sign/symptom of the flattening/nihilism of our age and not its cure.

      • It’s true that the approach in ATS does not specifically promote (or even discuss) a Kierkegaardian account. But ATS is polytheistic, and its polytheism is intended to be broad enough to leave open the possibility that some kind of Kierkegaardian account is one of the (many) ways one might learn to recognize what matters. How things will look from that Kierkegaardian point of view, or from a related Pascalian or Doestoevskian perspective (among others), will be the point of our next book.

    • dmf says:

      Sean, looking forward to it, as I said long ago I favor a Rortyish Romantic-polytheism, and enjoy Cornell West’s related forays through Russian literature, but I can also understand that for many more traditional Theists this seems like we are advocating for a death in the family tree.

      • dmf says:

        my old prof. Aghanandi Bharati once impishly asked mother Teresa if she didn’t think it was wonderful that the Indians in her community had incorporated Jesus into their pantheon to which she replied that they would not know him as Christ until they gave up the pantheon…

      • Britt Z. says:

        Kierkegaard? Pascal? Really?? …Why? To get involved w/ the ontic seems dangerous and too metaphysical. It seems that it would STILL be more important to make people aware of the possibility of appropriated being-there (belonging & dwelling).

  19. Charlie says:

    Very much looking forward to the next work. dmf, I think you are on point with Kierkeegard’s plea for subjectivity, and ultimately we must grapple with the Cartesian foundations. The by-product distractions of modernity mask the question. Debating the vacuity of our current state is no better than the hyper-critical exegesis of classic texts. I think this is ruffling some feathers as a hermeneutics of faith and the rubber will hit the road as Sean weaves Kierkegaard and Pascal into the fold/continuum. Can’t wait to see the sparks fly

  20. Enoch Lambert says:

    I read the David Hart review and found that it actually understood the point and argument of ATS more than several of the positive views. (There may be some misunderstandings, but show me a review that doesn’t make some errors of interpretation). He just thinks that given the threat the book articulates, its proposed solution is no match for it. No continuing openness to the shining of Marilyn Monroes, Baryshnikovs, and Lou Gehrigs is sufficient to meet the threat of nihilism. Gods stripped down to labels for phenomenological experiences just doesn’t capture the power they held in other eras. How do you respond to that?

  21. dmf says:

    “For Dewey God is in no way Kierkegaard’s Wholly Other. Nor is he One. Rather, he is all the varied sublimities human beings come to see through the eyes that they themselves create.
    If atheism were identical with antimonotheism, then Dewey would have been as aggressive an atheist as has ever lived. The idea that God might have kept something back, that there might be something not ourselves that it was our duty to discover, was as distasteful to him as was the idea that God could tell us which of our needs took priority over others. He reserved his awe for the universe as a whole, “the community of causes and consequences in which we, together with those not born, are enmeshed.” “The continuing life of this comprehensive community of beings,” he said, “includes all the significant achievement of men in science and art and all the kindly offices of intercourse and communication.”
    Notice, in the passages I have just quoted, the phrase “together with those not born” and also the adjective “continuing.” Dewey’s distaste for the eternity and stability on which monotheism prides itself is so great that he can never refer to the universe as a whole without reminding us that the universe is still evolving–still experimenting, still fashioning new eyes with which to see itself.
    Wordsworth’s version of pantheism meant a great deal to Dewey, but Whitman’s insistence on futurity meant more. Wordsworth’s pantheism saves us from what Arnold called “Hebraism” by making it impossible to treat, as Dewey put it, “the drama of sin and redemption enacted within the isolated and lonely soul of man as the one thing of ultimate importance.” But Whitman does something more. He tells us that nonhuman nature culminates in a community of free men, in their collaboration in building a society in which, as Dewey said, “poetry and religious feeling will be the unforced flowers of life.”
    Dewey’s principal symbol of what he called “the union of the ideal and the actual” was the United States of America treated as Whitman treated it: as a symbol of openness to the possibility of as yet undreamt of, ever more diverse, forms of human happiness. Much of what Dewey wrote consists of endless reiteration of Whitman’s caution that “America … counts, as I reckon, for her justification and success, (for who, as yet, dare claim success?) almost entirely on the future…. For our New World I consider far less important for what it has done, or what it is, than for results to come.” ”

  22. Jermaine says:

    Hi Enoch,

    Here’s my stab at a semblance of a response to David Hart’s review. Hart’s stance can be summed up in his conclusion: “But, if they are really serious, then they had better start erecting altars and temples, and praying for a return of the gods precisely as gods… Only if we really believe in the divine can we genuinely, lastingly, “meaningfully” experience any sacredness in the things of earth.”

    Based on the above quote, Hart is pretty much calling for more of the same; i.e., A theology in which Gods are metaphysically ‘gods precisely as gods’. This misses the point in terms of the “diagnosis” of D&K, and better yet, Charles Taylor; that we are living in a secular age in which belief in ‘gods as gods’ no longer has any grounding/unifying force on Western culture as a whole.

    In that respect, D & K offer ‘phenomenological experiences’ as a possible way out. D & K (following Heidegger and Melville) are visionary in this sense of offering a prescriptive alternative to the nihilism of modernity. Put another way in rough paraphrases:

    “We’ve tried being autonomous subjects controlling our thoughts, but that’s failed to give us meaning that could sustain our lives…”

    “We’ve tried living a religious life, but that too no longer holds any grip on our secular world….”

    D&K and All Things Shining: “Let’s try something else. Let’s be open to appearances as appearances; to phenomena as they show themselves. Let’s bring these kinds of experiences back into the CENTRE of our culture from the margins in which they currently stand and SEE WHAT HAPPENS.”

    Of course they might be wrong, but, in Western liberal democracies, democracy in the most ideal sense has always been about an EXPERIMENT IN LIVING. D & K could have added Thoreau’s Walden to accompany Moby Dick in their effort to lure back the ‘gods’.

    • Frank says:

      You summarize our dilemma well, Jermaine. All these great thinkers, the books, the religions – all for naught. There is no exit. We are trapped. There is no meaning or purpose to life other than what we, as individuals decide. Once you realize this, there is only one way to attain peace: Learn to live with uncertainty, mystery, and doubt without that constant and infuriating reach after the unknown and unknowable. Life is a brief glimpse at time between two eternities. Make the most of this brief ride as best you can.

  23. dmf says:

    Sean, if you get a chance check out Franzen’s New Yorker piece on DFW, I think that there are positive resonances there with your own project that might balance out some of the trolls that have descended on your work.

    • Sean D. Kelly says:

      Thanks for the reference, dmf. I’ll take a look.

    • Charlie says:

      Terrific piece. The first thing I thought of was Nehamas’ case that Nietzsche made an artwork out of his life.  But, dmf, can it be positive if the novel is merely a refuge from boredom and interpretations alone meaningful. For me, the resonance was ATS using the literary model/aesthetic for normative purposes

      • dmf says:

        ch, some of my favorite authors; Kierkegaard/Nietzsche/Wittgenstein/Derrida/Emerson, all tried to write books such that in their (the books) interaction with the reader the reading experience would show, rather than tell, the reader what the author was trying to convey/invoke, and in this sense are all existentialists in that they know/value the difference between knowing by experience vs just having information about. Sady if you look into the reception of these writers the overwhelming response has been a failure to experience these books in the transformative ways meant by the authors. Now for my reading ATS does not try to write in such a way as to create life changing experiences and so is in the telling (about) camp and not the showing camp. The test will be if such a traditional style can do what the other more experimental modes largely failed to do and get people to read in a way that changes their lives/worlds. The proof will be in the pudding and I look forward to hearing testimonies from/about readers who don’t have a history with such ideas.

  24. dmf says:

    “I may interject here that the idea of thinking as reception, which began this path of reasoning, seems to me to be a sound intuition, specifically, to forward the correct answer to skepticism [which Emerson meant to do]. The answer does not consist in denying the conclusion of skepticism but in reconceiving its truth. It is true that we do not know the existence of the world with certainty; our relation is deeper-
    one in which it is accepted, that is to say received. My favorite way of putting this is to say that existence is to be acknowledged.”
    St. Cavell, Thinking of Emerson

    • Charlie says:

      Greetings on Friday afternoon, dmf! Wondering if this particular passage is too close to the ahistorical, pragmatic middle ground. I’ve raised the question of scientific “progress” before, where reason might be getting short shrift. But how about Will in the more primordial sense, with the primacy suggested by Schopenhauer? This sort of third person “acknowledgement” has an epiphenomenal ring. I’m dangerously tying threads together, but your Dewey points above were barking up this tree, with the ‘continuing’ adjective. Again, I think we need to wait for Sean’s new book to bring Kierkegaard into the genealogy of all things sacred. The suspense is killing me.

  25. Charlie says:

    dmf, think we’ve exhausted the reply count above: yes…and I think the question is whether the literary tool/metaphor can help bridge the gap, in terms of familiarity/accessibility/informality. Specifically, does the telling by analogy approximate showing. It’s prescription with a bedside manner. As for transformational in our cluttered world of app-texting, I’m all ears. Notwithstanding your good point on their projects, certainly post Nietzsche/Wittgenstein the philosophical discipline affords no options. Again, I distinguish ATS as a normative literary experiment, so why not? If you can’t beat em, maybe you join and live in the irreducible moment(s) Franken mentions toward the end of that great piece. Whether it’s watching Aaron Rodgers sling the pigskin or seeing the rayadito songbird. It pissed off some people so that’s a good start.

    • dmf says:

      ch, we may have finally reached the general/public limits of the (theological?) idea of learning to live via texts, in academic circles this was briefly embraced as the “practice turn” and without any apparent sense of irony turned into the subject of many articles/books, but certainly there are other ways of teaching/learning that can take into account our learning modes (including the non-conceptual aspects) and our various cognitive biases, and Bert and others studies of expertise/know-how are certainly leading the way. As to why not focus on the irreducible (follow your bliss) moments I can only say that our besieged yet-to be-achieved democracy requires more from us even if we don’t yet know how to be response-able to such demands.

  26. dmf says:

    after the disappointments of Infinite Jest I wasn’t going to take on Pale King but the reviews won me over and so far it’s a better book, is anyone else going to take the leap?

    • Charlie says:

      I will jump – checked out the reviews…but have to find time to read the book.

    • Britt Z says:

      Disappointed, really?? I actually can’t wait until the Fall so I can begin to write on “Infinite Jest.” I just finished “Pale King,” and some sections were great while others were lacking. It definitely felt like reading an unfinished manuscript. I think, eventually, the editing will be HEAVILY criticized.

      • dmf says:

        oh yeah IJ was a mess, the whole tennis academy/film line could/should have been dropped the canuck assassins should have been eliminated, etc. I can see why DFW was pained by it. PK is more mature but largely tedious (this is one of the themes so perhaps he was intentionally trying our patience) overall DFW (the author not the person) is something of a warning about the limits of being clever.
        I’m sure I’m 20yrs too old to be reading these books but than I’m a bit younger than he would have been.
        We started to address work/bureaucracies a while ago here but lost our lead there which was a shame cause DFW was lacking the insight (experience?) to bring the full weight of it to bear. I don’t really want to get into the whole book and I’m still in the 300s but if folks here are interested I think that the best, and most relevant ch. is 22 on attention, events, boredom, and callings.

  27. dmf says:

    fish vs lorax:
    st. fish (like cg jung) believes that we don’t so much have our ideas as they have us, this is not unlike ATS/Heidegger on moods and may be the other half of the
    human-animal-faith equation.

    • Charlie says:

      Interesting, thx for think, but I’m not going to wait for a tree to talk. First, paradigms are actively debunked (e.g. the will-to-power relative to the theological grounding of our dominion). Second, different interpretations can represent progress – to hark back to a sore subject, scientific revolutions do more than shift prejudices. (I’m still agog that gravity bent light). Finally, and most importantly, let’s not send up the white flag on consciousness-raising. The modern welfare state is a laudable compromise. Perhaps not traced to epistemological revolutions, but fomented by cross disciplinary “socially-constructed theses”. Our invidious distinctions/history of errors is the willing itself

  28. Nancy D. says:

    At the end of the Day, Life is about the relationships and friendships that are made along the way, for Love exists in relationship to begin with.

  29. rk says:

    I just finished reading All Things Shining and I was not disappointed. I am not a philosopher nor a historian nor (I admit) have I read many of the “classics” yet despite my lack of background this book is written for me as I am one of the anxiety riddled “masses.”

    Garry Willis just doesn’t get it and that’s probably because he is too walled off by all he knows to ever experience it. But we -the masses – experience it every day and yes, we and our children are committing suicide because of it.

    Having been caught up in the fanaticism of born-again Christianity for most of my adult life then having exited that life only to find myself awash in meaninglessness I hungrily read the book looking for the “answer.”

    Ironically I already knew the answer, I just didn’t know that I knew it until I got to the last chapter. Being able to see both the sacred and the meaningless in a cup of coffee at the same time, not blended, but separate and distinct, just simultaneously is what Willis can’t see.

    In my opinion, this is the most important “truth” we can give the next generation.

    Yay to Dreyfus and Kelly for helping point the way!

  30. Beowulf says:

    I felt the first quivering when you implied that Homeric Greeks do not attend to family matters, that they fail to act in a vengeful way when their household has been threatened. A word with multiple appearances in the Odyssey is “oikade” and its cognates- meaning homeward. Odysseus may not have enlisted the Furies, but Homer’s description of his vengeance on the suitors is certainly focused upon a man (god-driven or not) who believes he is acting on behalf of his family and his kingdom.

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