Rising from the Ashes?

It has been almost eight years since I last posted to this blog. To be honest I had nearly forgotten that it exists. Life has been, well, sort of busy in the interim. Even in my absence, however, there has been a steady stream of interest in the contents of the site. I’m kind of shocked to discover that. To be sure, people are no longer commenting on the posts (the last comment was over a year and a half ago). But there are still hundreds of views per month. That is a testament to the importance of the issues we were discussing here, and to the health and intelligence of the community involved in that discussion. Thank you!

I believe that today, more than ever, we need better opportunities for this kind of healthy, serious, respectful, and significant conversation. That is why I am considering trying to post things here again. But I need your help. If you are in favor of a rebirth of All Things Shining, please submit a comment to this post. I would love to hear what you liked about the blog as it used to exist, and how you think it could be better now. Let me say a word or two about what I’m thinking myself.

As with any rebirth, this one would involve a new identity. If there is to be a new blog, or at least a new version of the old blog, then the discussion on it will, I hope, be motivated by the book that I am writing now. It is not the same book as All Things Shining was, nor even the same kind of book, really. So the questions I would be posing are likely to be different from those I was invested in during the period of ATS. But the same issues are standing in the background motivating me to write this new book, and so there will no doubt be a kind of family resemblance.

The basic initial question that I am interested in – indeed, that I have probably always been interested in – is simple: What is it to be human now? That question seems to me both universal and at the same time historically situated. It is universal because, I believe, it is part of what it is to be human for the question to be significant and worthwhile to us. To be human is already to have a standing with respect to the question what it is to be human. But the question is historically situated as well. That’s because what counts as important and interesting in approaching this question is determined, in part, by where and when one exists in history. At our point in history, as the possibility for worthwhile conversation seems ever more distant, as our leaders continually fail to model and encourage this kind of interaction and as technology continues to isolate and distract us from it, the question what it is to be human takes on a peculiar significance.

That is why we must take up the question What is it to be human now? But in my current project, I want to approach that question from a very particular perspective.  The book I am now writing is called, tentatively, The Proper Dignity of Human Being: Notes and Reflections from the Later Heidegger. It is due out by Harvard University Press in Fall 2021. The project is simultaneously an attempt to come to grips with the question What is it to be human now?, and at the same time to explain what Heidegger had to say about that and related questions in his later work. If this blog is to rise from the ashes, if it is to undergo rebirth, then these are the kinds of issues I hope we can discuss in it.

Please put a comment below if this sounds interesting to you.

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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20 Responses to Rising from the Ashes?

  1. Eric Hodges says:

    Sean, this is the first time I’m seeing the blog but I did read, and very much enjoy, ATS. I would be very interested in following along in your new project.

  2. Charles says:

    Sean, this is incredible news. I’ve checked back over the years, hoping for activity. I always left again remembering the quality of the dialogue and goodwill of most participants. I had the privilege of studying philosophy many years ago and have struggled to find online content/interaction that is serious and civil. For me, the existential focus of your new book could not be more topical. Of late, I’ve been re-reading Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and personally absorbed with your question. Especially relative to our our historical situation – whether our most advanced technologies (Quantum AI) may have ontological significance. More broadly, the retreat of the humanities is at the heart of the disintegration of our culture and conscience, so your renewed blog could not be better timed. In sum, I will be re-reading Heidegger in anticipation of your book and regeneration of the blog. Thank you for being willing to dedicate some of your valuable time to a public vehicle.


  3. Lisa Reichenbach says:

    I would love you to restart this blog. I’m sure there are many reasons it would be of interest to people, but purely selfishly, I’m attracted to what you say about engaging in a conversation about what it is to be human, especially in a context where our leaders are not only not modelling a healthy engagement with the question, they are perhaps pandering to what is worst in us. If there was ever a time for a healthy counter-narrative about the things that matter, this is it.

  4. Carlos says:

    I randomly discovered the blog a bit too late, but had enjoyed ATS and reading the background questions was very interesting. I agree with the comment above, the exchanges in the comments were terrific. I’d love to read more. I’m particularly curious about the combination of the being human with another idea in the title (“proper dignity”).

  5. Thanks to all of you for your quick responses! A lot of great points here. I’m particularly struck by Lisa’s emphasis on the need for a “healthy counter-narrative” to our current discourse, and to several of you who pointed out how healthy our discussion was in the earlier incarnation. I am truly grateful to the community who made our discussion so great before, and hope that we will bring more people into that way of talking with one another!

    • dmf says:

      hi Sean would be lovely to have this project revived, I think that the work you and Bert did provided a welcome phenomenological/existential aspect that Richard Rorty’s take on poetic dwelling (in his Contingency book) was lacking, along the lines of Terence’s interests in pluralism/democratization Rorty offers us:
      ““In the Davidsonian account of metaphor, which I summarized in Chapter I, when a metaphor is created it does not express something which previously existed, although, of course, it is caused by something that previously existed. For Freud, this cause is not the recollection of another world but rather some particular obsession-generating cathexis of some particular person or object or word early in life. By seeing every human being as consciously or unconsciously acting out an idiosyncratic fantasy, we can see the distinctively human, as opposed to animal, portion of each human life as the use for symbolic purposes of every particular person, object, situation, event, and word encountered in later life. This process amounts to redescribing them, thereby saying of them all, “Thus I willed it.” Seen from this angle, the intellectual (the person who uses words or visual or musical forms for this purpose) is just a special case – just somebody who does with marks and noises what other people do with their spouses and children, their fellow workers, the tools of their trade, the cash accounts of their businesses, the possessions they accumulate in their homes, the music they listen to, the sports they play or watch, or the trees they pass on their way to work. Anything from the sound of a word through the color of a leaf to the feel of a piece of skin can, as Freud showed us, serve to dramatize and crystallize a human being’s sense of self-identity. For any such thing can play the role in an individual life which philosophers have thought could, or at least should, be played only by things which were universal, common to us all. It can symbolize the blind impress all our behavings bear. Any seemingly random constellation of such things can set the tone of a life. Any such constellation can set up an unconditional commandment to whose service a life may be devoted – a commandment no less unconditional because it may be intelligible to, at most, only one person. Another way of making this point is to say that the social process of literalizing a metaphor is duplicated in the fantasy life of an individual. We call something “fantasy” rather than “poetry” or “philosophy” when it revolves around metaphors which do not catch on with other people – that is, around ways of speaking or acting which the rest of us cannot find a use for. But Freud shows us how something which seems pointless or ridiculous or vile to society can become the crucial element in the individual’s sense of who she is, her own way of tracing home the blind impress all her behavings bear. “

  6. Matthew says:

    Welcome back! I’d been missing your voice in the wider world. Since Hubert Dreyfus and John Haugeland passed away these urgent questions had been too quiet in public spaces. I’m very interested to see where you will take the question of the human in, I’m guessing you’d agree, a technological time. I wonder will you open up being poetic, the abandonment of the ontological difference, even the last god? Will you take on Foucault, Lacan, Sartre, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and position later Heidegger with respect to them? I’m wondering about your views on the post- and trans- humanists. Or what literature you use. Perhaps none of these are going to be relevant. In the end, I’m most interested in what human phenomena you draw attention to and that you consider to be changing, threatened or be emerging today. I join with Charles in thanking you for engaging in the wider public and hope you will take up the blog again.

  7. terenceblake says:

    I think it is a good initiative to revive this blog after such a hiatus. There was much that was good in ALL THINGS SHINING, but it was also incomplete and one-sided. I was looking forward to its complementary volume, The Lofty Sway of the Dark, but I am not sure that as the project stood it could have provided a fully satisfactory sequel.

    Meanwhile, the world has moved on. Various questions have arisen more sharply, and some notions need development.

    Are we living in a post-truth epoch? Does the idea of a post-truth understanding of being have any validity? Can the pluralist idea of different understandings of being have any responsibility to respond to this epoch (or pseudo-epoch), to resist its cynicism, to provide a “counter narrative” and counter-values to its nihilism? Bernard Stiegler has written much on this development recently, for example in THE NEGANTHROPOCENE (2018).

    Continental philosophy has moved on. In particular on the question of different modes of existence and of understanding there is Bruno Latour’s AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE (which was published in French in 2012, and in English in 2013) book and the associated AIME project (http://modesofexistence.org/). Alain Badiou has published a new volume (700 pages), the last, in his Being and Event trilogy: THE IMMANENCE OF TRUTHS (2018, as yet untranslated).

    The questions of the openness and the democracy of thought as opposed to the enclosure and the elitism of traditional philosophy have been increasingly articulated and deepened by François Laruelle. This is of interest as the ALL THINGS SHINING project always suffered from a residual elitism in its focus on “human beings at their best”, as if the gods were not also present to human beings in their suffering, lostness, and mediocrity.

    So I am hoping to see renewed discussion of the changing human phenomena in relation to changes in our relation to truth, understanding, existence, and equality. I will do whatever I can to widen and deepen the discussion.

    • Thanks for your comment, Terence! You’ve got many good and interesting questions here, and of course I won’t be able to answer them all in the book or on the blog. But you are certainly correct that there have been many new contributions to French philosophy over the last eight years. That said, to my mind you leave out the most interesting of them: Meillassoux’s After Finitude. That book seems to me clearer and more pointed than the work of his teacher Badiou or of his predecessor Latour. And of course, it presents a great challenge to the whole phenomenological tradition. I don’t intend to write much about this challenge in the current book – it would be historically out of place. But I am interested in it, and perhaps it will come up here on the blog in time. I’ll look forward to your comments when it does, since I know this area is a special interest of yours!

      • terenceblake says:

        Thanks for your reply Sean. I think that you are right to bring up Meillassoux and his critique of correlationism (or of idealism as I prefer to call it) in the Continental tradition. I don’t really think that he is the most interesting of the recent contributions to French philosophy, but the discussion of the problem of realism that grew around his work is certainly important. In fact, I did discuss Meillassoux and the possible objection of correlationism to ALL THINGS SHINING and possible reply to it in my review of the book: https://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2019/08/23/review-of-all-things-shining-by-hubert-dreyfus-and-sean-dorrance-kelly/. (For memory, Meillassoux’s APRÈS LA FINITUDE came out in 2006, and its English translation, AFTER FINITUDE, in 2008). It was only after my review that I gradually became clear about the vague open-ended set of criteria that I was using to understand and evaluate general metaphysical research programmes in Karl Popper’s sense) such as ATS. These criteria are heuristic rules of thumb, and include: pluralism, realism, historicity, testability, the shadow, apophatism (leaving some place for the ineffable), openness, and democracy. So it is clear that I will have to rewrite my review, and that your own thought has evolved too.

    • dmf says:

      TB, you might like Roberts Avens’ The new gnosis: Heidegger, Hillman, and angels

  8. Pingback: Sean Kelly revives ALL THINGS SHINING blog | AGENT SWARM

  9. Dear Terence: Thank you so much for this comment, and especially for pointing me in the direction of your old review of ATS! I have a vague memory that you wrote such a review, but looking it over now I didn’t remember it was so sophisticated! Did you publish it somewhere?

    For the time being, I have only skimmed the piece you wrote back then – I’m mostly interested in looking forward to my new project instead of looking back to the old one. But let me say briefly that I think you have understood the project of ATS extremely well – certainly better than many of the high profile reviewers did! – and that there is a lot I agree with in your review. Even some of the things you offer as criticism of the project seem to me to be pushing me to say more clearly what we already believed at the time, rather than asking me to reject some unrecognized commitment or another. Let me give two examples.

    First, your hope that we should have used the phrase “non-theistic gratitude,” seems to me very close to being on point. Certainly we needed to distinguish, and indeed we meant to be distinguishing, our account from a more traditional account of “theistic gratitude.” The only reason not to have used your phrase, I think, is that it implicitly gives priority of place to “theistic gratitude.” That’s because it defines the phenomenon we are interested in – what we call colloquially (and no doubt misleadingly) the gift without a giver – as the negation of that already given theistic phenomenon. We are trying to avoid giving this kind of priority to the theistic phenomenon, prioritizing instead the phenomenon of the gift as primary and postulating the *source* of the gift as a metaphysical surplus. But still, insofar as your point is to force us to *distinguish* what we are describing from “theistic gratitude,” I am fully in agreement.

    A similar point could be made about your hope that we should have distinguished between an immanent and a transcendent account of “authority,” just as Deleuze attempts to distinguish between two notions of power (puissance and pouvoir). Insofar as this is the desire for us to distinguish our account of “authority” from a transcendental, theological one, I am fully on board. But it seems to me wrong to try to make this distinction by stating that our phenomenon finds its proper place in the immanent rather than the transcendent realm. That’s because the immanent realm is describable only in contrast to the transcendent, so to say that ours is an account of immanent authority is implicitly to give a certain kind of priority to the phenomenon it is not, namely transcendent authority. What we are interested in is the originary phenomenon of “authority,” one that is prior (in some sense) to the notions of both the immanent and the transcendent, and allows for the development of each. Still, if your main hope is to get me to say that the phenomenon we are interested in is *distinct* from the traditional theistic one, then I am sympathetic with your desire! It is hard to say this correctly, but there is certainly a kernel of truth in the hope.

    In any case, this is all to say that I think we are closer to one another than you might once have thought. No doubt we will disagree about some things, but we are in a very good position for productive discussion. I’m looking forward to it!

    • terenceblake says:

      Thanks, Sean, for finding something still of interest in my old review, in particular the signs that a productive dialogue may be possible today.

      I take your point that insisting on qualifying adjectives like “non-theistic” and “immanent” can give, even unwittingly, priority to the term that they are opposing and so skew the meaning of what one is getting at. As you say, it would be best to come up with a way of talking that is “prior” to these oppositions, but this quest for priority may open up an infinite regress, searching for what is pre-prior to these prior terms, etc.

      I agree that once it is clear that we are no longer talking in a theistic context, not even in a very sublimated or poetic one, then the dualistic adjectives can be dropped. My worry is that even so the vocabulary of gift, gratitude, and authority may still be skewed in some way that makes it cover up the phenomena as much as it reveals them.

      More neutral terms (such as event, gladness, and potency) not only themselves contain presuppositions, but are also abstract and lifeless in comparison.

      I do not know the answer, or even if there is one. Sometimes I go concrete and I personify and poetise shamelessly, other times I prefer abstraction and try out more austere vocabularies. Both can be illuminating, there is no rule.

      Whatever our preferred solution, I think in both cases we need mental “correctors” to compensate for any residual one-sidedness, and a “charitable” understanding of what our partners in dialogue may say.

  10. Pingback: How do you make a decision? | All Things Shining



  13. Jacob McNulty says:

    I would be very interested in continuing to follow this blog.

  14. Christy says:

    Yes! The book you’re currently working on is exactly what I’ve been waiting for. All Things Shining was such a gift; these ideas demand more discussion and elaboration.

    Although I never told him, Professor Dreyfus, helped me navigate my way out of an existential depression when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. The examining of historical ideas and stances really helped me rise above the cynicism that I felt surrounded by. Later, ATS further crystallized for me so much of what I learned in studying Heidegger (and Kierkegaard!), reading literature and living my life.

    Thank you for your work. I’m so curious to see if we’re still on the same page (I bet we are!).

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