When things shine in Canada

Apologies for my absence lately – my administrative duties have taken over. But I’ve been reading the comment threads when I can, and I want to thank everyone there for keeping the discussion going. I’m going to try slowly to work my way back into posting. For the time being, I’m interested to know what people think of this review of All Things Shining at the CBC. The author seems to get the underlying idea that we are trying to illuminate the experience of a gift without a giver, and he seems to recognize that this is a difficult thing to understand. There are certainly infelicities in his description, but at that level it seems to me pretty perceptive.

In the category of things to look forward to in the future, I note that on March 30th, Bert and I sent in a short letter to the NYRB responding to Garry Wills’ review. I was surprised not to see it appear in the May 12th issue, but the editor did promise to publish it soon. Keep a look out for that, probably with a response by Wills.

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.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to When things shine in Canada

  1. Charlie says:

    Sean, I do think the “as if” kernel is illustrative. There is a certain suspension involved, reflecting the lack of a foundation/legitimacy – which opens up the possiblities. A gift for its own sake, which is liberating

    • dmf says:

      ha maybe this oddly styled aging hipster non-review (so little of the book) is something or a Rorschach but I think his “No, Dreyfus and Kelly are asking us to believe in forces beyond ourselves, even if we don’t quite believe in anything. Believe “as if” — then maybe something may stick.”
      is more like 12step fake it til you make it (which is a bit Infinite Jest like) than Hans Vaihinger and so he missed the central phenomenological aspects (moodiness/tuning) all together.
      It would be helpful perhaps to write a kind of philosophical background primer for the book (something like James Hillman’s Archetypal Psychology: A Brief Account) I think many of us who have followed the previous related works are reading them back into ATS but for people coming to this fresh it doesn’t seem to be coming through.

      • I’m not sure I’ll write anything about the philosophical background to the book, dmf. Not right away anyhow. But for the record, recordings of an entire graduate seminar on the issue, which I ran last semester, are available here.

  2. david leech says:

    I don’t think the reviewer gets it. He uses the word “spiritual,” the phrases “spiritual grounding” and “forces beyond” too much. He is groping, for sure, but I think these words err in the direction that misses the interactivity of us-in-the-world, not external in the spiritual or the physical (forces) sense. He seems to be trying but I read his conclusion as flippant and dismissive.

    A good set-up for the main point of the book (IMHO) is the discussion of the scene from Odyssey and the parallel dialogue between Jules and Vincent from Pulp Fiction (pp. 67-76, with some emphasis on footnote 17, pp. 232-33).

    The whole point of the book — indeed, the journey that Dreyfus and Kelly have taken themselves, and with their students, to get to the book — is to help us locate a place between divine intervention and random luck; to recapture a sensibility that the Homeric Greeks appear to have had but in a form that is dusted off and situated in our secular age; an age in which we are all — secular and religious — looking over our shoulders at competing ontologies.

    I said in a very early post to this blog that the next step might be a meta-poietic skill-building workshop/conference. That was facetious BUT it comes to the same thing to say to a loved one, “Do you get it? Do you see what it means to be attuned and how, if you own it, it can make a difference in your concrete life? Do you see that if you are open to certain kind of phenomenon that our contemporary “training” teaches us to ignore, the outcome is self-affirming, confidence-building, and conducive to happiness?”

    Here is what I take to be a concrete lesson in meta-poietic skill-building: The setting for an important, life-change, event (the physical/natural site of a marriage proposal that has deep meaning for the participants) depends critically on the weather. The proposer is clear about his aesthetic vision, doggedly persistent (the sort of persistence that takes him right up to the limit of the highly unlikely), and well prepared emotionally and logistically. He is physically and psychologically open and flexible (of the sort that finds him ready to seize the moment should it occur with only a slight but definite alternative should the weather not cooperate in the least, that is should the situation prove dangerous). The authoritative, up-to-the-hour, prediction, based on scientific weather models, indicates dire conditions — severe thunderstorms and hail predicted for the time the proposal is to take place. The proposer persists with genuine knowledge that weather conditions are quite situation-specific. It can be raining “here” and not “there” simultaneously; rainy “down here” but not “up there.”

    Approaching the scene, the situation looks dire. He persists. “The plan” is set in motion, even though the steep woodland path is mired in fog and mist, dark grey clouds moving swiftly overhead. It’s an hour trek before the event is to occur. He remains persistent. It is still unlikely that the weather will cooperate but the nebulous line separating wise from un-wise has not yet been crossed. He is cautious and perceptive.

    The overhead clouds begin to thin; blue patches of sky begin to appear as the trek to the top continues. The sun begins to shine brightly. The clouds clear and the vista opens. Due to the predicted weather conditions, they are alone at the top of the mountain, the deep green wooded valley spread out as far as the eye can see. It is beautiful, as envisioned. “Will you marry me?” “Yes!” It is beautiful as envisioned.

    Some hours latter a family member claims, “It was meant to be.” (Jules from the scene in Pulp Fiction.) Another claims that the proposer has been incredibly lucking. (Vincent.)

    Upon reflection (Oh, that I were nimble-witted enough to perform extemporaneously), yours truly opines, delivering what he thinks is a lesson in meta-poietic skill-building; bringing focus to the actual phenomena: “Not pure luck, nor divine intervention. Rather something like “ownmost being-in-the-world” if you’ll pardon the term. It’s what All Things Shining is all about, don’t you think? You were prepared, attuned and opened to possibilities that exist within the interstescies of concrete existence that the predictive model smoothed over; skeptical of authority without being dismissive; fulfilled by your choices, satisfied, emboldened to repeat this kind of behavior in life-situations to come. And don’t you think it was a more meaningful experience than if you had “folded your tent” in the face of what “they” said; pursued the lesser route; and missed the experience that affirmed your own vision of how things could be. Weren’t you being responsive to your muse, so to speak?”

    I take this to be a lesson in meta-poietic skill coaching; a case of thickening what is for our contemporaries the very thin ice between “blessed” and “purely lucky.” I think this is what ATS is all about and I think most reviewers — including the subject reviewer — are missing it because they are not receptive, either because of the novelty of meta-poiesis (I expect this is the case for the subject reviewer) or because they have considerable intellectual and social capital invested in the “blessed” and “lucky” alternatives and these high fixed costs weigh them down. (Perhaps this accounts for Wills.)

  3. david leech says:

    The New York Review of Books exchange between the ATS authors and Gary Wills appears today at:


    Its not very helpful.

    • dmf says:

      not directly helpful but to say that “We claim there is, but that it takes serious philosophical work to uncover it” might lend some credence to my concern about the lack of much explicit philosophy in the book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s