Gratitude for what has been

You are probably wondering where I have been for the last eight years. Let me try to fill in the gaps a bit, and to say why I am so grateful for what has been.

A lot of the story is about professional service. The rest is about Bert and Later Heidegger.

Professional Service 

The first thing to say is that I’ve spent a lot of the last eight years doing professional service here at Harvard. That has been its own kind of fulfillment. After ATS was published in 2011, I continued as chair of the Harvard Philosophy Department. That was a position I had taken up in 2009 and which I held, with one semester off for good behavior, until 2015. I learned a lot of fascinating things about how Universities work during that period, and in particular about what to do to help Philosophy Departments thrive. I am proud that our department at Harvard has worked so hard to reach out to the broader community of students and faculty here. We have spent an enormous amount of energy to develop courses, and advising programs, that help students understand why Philosophy is important and interesting. This focus, I’m sure, accounts for the genuine surge of interest our department has experienced during the last decade plus.

The increasing enthusiasm for Philosophy among undergraduates at Harvard has been striking. At the end of my first academic year here, in 2006-2007, we had 44 concentrators (our name for majors) in Philosophy. Not very good for a College of our size (6500). In fact, I have concentration numbers for Harvard Philosophy that go all the way back to 1953, and I am not proud to report that 44 was an all-time low for that period. People were not particularly interested in Philosophy. But things are looking up. At the end of the last academic year we had well over 100 concentrators, and the numbers have been rising consistently. That’s an overall increase of considerably more than 100% in the last 13 years, and something like an all-time high since 1953! I wish my stock portfolio had done as well.

Who am I kidding. I wish I had a stock portfolio.

In any case, the dramatic expansion in Philosophy flies in the face of the more general trend for the Humanities. Across the country, as well as at Harvard, enrollments in the Humanities have seen a sharp decline over the last 50 years. I won’t say that this is the reason for our current social condition, but I do think that we in the Humanities have a special opportunity to help people reflect on how they want to interact with, or should be interacting with, other people in their lives. It seems to me that we could use a good dose of that kind of reflection nowadays. Anyhow, while I was overseeing the Philosophy Department I co-chaired a committee in AY 2012-13 that produced a report about the decline of the Humanities. We looked at the trend both nationally and at Harvard, and made some suggestions about how to turn it around. I am so grateful to the amazing colleagues I work with in our Philosophy department, who have taken many of these ideas to heart and have devoted themselves to making Philosophy relevant again.

Just as I was completing my term as chair, in AY 2014-15, I agreed to head up a committee to review the General Education Requirement at Harvard College. This was a fascinating experience as well. To ask what it takes to be “generally educated” is to reflect on our understanding of what education is for, and of the way that it interacts with, or should interact with, our ability to bring out human beings at their best. This had been a long-standing interest of mine. I even gave a big, public talk in China in 2010 that attempted to explain the American idea of General Education. (I should tell you about that sometime!) It turns out, however, that even here in our own country, general education is a difficult and much-contested issue. Our committee discovered that the program we had in place at Harvard, though it had really good intentions, was generally misunderstood by students and faculty alike, and was performing poorly. After an enormous number of discussions, with an enormous number of people, we ended up producing an interim report that detailed the most significant problems with the current program. Then, after another enormous number of discussions, with another enormous number of people, we ended up writing a final report about how to fix it. That report got a fair amount of publicity. Its recommendations form the foundation of the General Education Requirement at Harvard College, which will finally go into place this fall.

Finally, shortly after the Gen Ed committee completed its work, I was asked with my wife, the Harvard philosopher Cheryl Kelly Chen, to take over as co-Faculty Dean at Dunster House, one of the College’s twelve undergraduate residential Houses. We happily accepted, and moved the family from the western suburbs to Cambridge. We now live with 400 amazing Harvard College undergraduates, as well as with a large staff of graduate students and professionals who help us to oversee the students’ safety, and their social and intellectual well-being. This has been an astonishing experiment in community building and communal living for me, and it has broadened immeasurably my sense of what education is and ought to be.

So all this is to say that I haven’t been doing nothing since I abandoned this blog. I have been happily working in the practical sphere, trying to make higher education significant and worthwhile for those in my community, and in the world at large. But I would be remiss if I didn’t say something else too. It has to do with why I found myself getting farther and farther into administrative and community activities during these last years, and farther and farther away from sustained writing projects. And that has to do with Bert, and eventually with Later Heidegger.


Bert and Later Heidegger

You may know that Hubert Dreyfus was my co-author for All Things Shining, the book we published in 2011. But he was much more than that, too. Bert was the teacher, and ultimately the friend, who helped me to understand what genuine dialogue, and genuine thinking, was all about.

I began studying with Bert as a graduate student at Berkeley in 1989. When we began writing All Things Shining in 2008, we had been talking together for almost twenty years. Conversations with Bert were like nothing I had ever experienced before. At every moment it felt like there was a genuine possibility for something new and revolutionary. It was always brimming with excitement and life. Part of this, I believe, is that Bert’s conversations were held in the mood of hope – hope that just around the corner lay a new insight, a new mode of understanding, a new revelation that would re-orient our entire way of thinking about the domain. But moreover, although there was always a sense of fun about Bert – there are many stories about his mischievousness – there was also a background kind of seriousness to our conversations, a kind of gravitas. For whatever we were talking about – whether it was Helen and Menelaus, or Melville’s Great White Whale, or Heidegger’s notion of Gelassenheit – there was always the sense that it really mattered to get it right. Heidegger says somewhere that the great thinkers are always thinking about only one thing, and it is the most important thing, the thing that matters the most to everything that is. And every conversation with Bert felt that way. It was always hopeful, and it was always about what mattered most.

Almost from the beginning, Bert and I had planned to write a follow-up volume to All Things Shining. It even had a title; it was going to be called The Lofty Sway of the Dark. That’s a quote from a late Heidegger text that seemed relevant, but I also liked that it established a nice interplay between the shining and the dark. It made sense of the fact that the first volume was about the Greek, polytheistic tradition, while the second would be about the Hebrew-Christian monotheistic one. That connection – between Athens and Jerusalem, between the shining and the dark – was a theme we wanted to unfold.

Unfortunately, in the years following the publication of ATS, Bert’s health began to decline. Our conversations still had the same vibrant quality they’d always had, but he didn’t have the energy to continue them for long. Things began to look really worrisome in the fall of 2016, when a flurry of e-mails among his students started to circulate. Bert’s health had taken a turn for the worse. The situation was dire. Mark Wrathall, my classmate at Berkeley, my good friend, and Bert’s literary executor, worked with Bert’s wife Genevieve to put together an amazing conference in very short order. It took place in Moses Hall, the home of the great Philosophy Department at UC Berkeley, in February of 2017. Although Bert was very ill at the time, and couldn’t talk much, it is still one of my most precious memories that I was able to give a key-note address to a large number of his students, colleagues, and fans about teaching, about The Teacher, about Bert. I can still see him sitting beside me as I gave the talk.

I understand now that Bert’s failing health is one of the major reasons I stopped writing. It is why I turned my attention to more practical things. The fact is, it just didn’t seem as worthwhile to write if Bert wasn’t there to read what I had produced. Perhaps that is why, over the years that Bert’s health was failing, it became increasingly difficult for me to understand what I was supposed to write at all. It’s not that I wasn’t capable of writing things on my own – there was a long period during my time at Stanford and Princeton, from 1998-2006, when I wrote a huge amount on my own. But it was simply more fun, more rewarding, and more meaningful, to write in conversation with Bert. I did find myself writing and delivering a bunch of talks during this period – including the one about The Teacher that I mentioned above. I hope someday to publish them as a collection. But I now think that perhaps I wrote in that shorter and more colloquial style because those were the things Bert still had the focus and energy to read and talk about.

In any case, the thing that seemed most relevant to write, the big project that was the most significant and exciting, was always our next volume on The Lofty Sway of the Dark. And no matter how you slice it, that was really meant to be a joint project. We were always finding ways – in person or by telephone or by skype – to talk about it as often as possible. I would go regularly to Berkeley to give lectures in his classes on the topics of the book, and he would come often to Cambridge to contribute to mine. I even have drafts of book proposals and chapter summaries that I would update every time he could summon the energy to read them. But in the end, that book was meant to happen in conversation; it was envisioned as a kind of dialogue. Finally, on Saturday, April 22, 2017, the possibility of that dialogue was closed for good. Along with others, I received an e-mail from Genevieve that morning announcing Bert’s “final demise.” It is a testament to Bert’s sense of humor, and Genevieve’s kindred spirit, that later that afternoon Bert’s twitter account announced “Reports of my demise are not exaggerated.” I spent much of the weekend composing an obituary for him, but it wasn’t until I had to lecture about Being and Time on Tuesday, in front of my class of 50 strong, that I broke down in tears.

Bert’s death is an enormous loss. There was something about how I felt in dialogue with him that I don’t expect to feel in quite the same way ever again. There is something about the way he managed to establish community in every conversation he had – even if it was with hundreds of students at a time – that was invaluable for everyone who came under its sway. But despite this great loss, I am so thankful for Bert’s friendship and his influence that now, almost two and a half years after his death, the sadness I once felt thinking about him has been replaced entirely by gratitude. I am so happy to have learned from him, and to have experienced his mode of existence, and I’m so hopeful and excited that the communities I am involved with may continue that legacy, that I can only be grateful to him for making that possible. And as this transformation has occurred, as my sadness has sunk deep down into my being and established itself as a bedrock of gratitude, I have found myself increasingly interested in writing more.

It probably began in the fall of 2017. Already during the summer after Bert’s death, it was clear to me that I could not, under the circumstances, write The Lofty Sway of the Dark. Maybe after some time had passed I would be able to write it on my own. I still hope for that in the future. But for the time being, the project was too tied up in my conversations with Bert – conversations that had now come to an end – for me to imagine pursuing it alone. So I looked around for other things to write. The first thing that came out was a kind of homage, a philosophical reflection about Bert’s influence in my teaching and research. It was inspired jointly by my experience with my own students, who I was teaching at the time, and by my gratitude for Bert. That was a fulfilling experience. I felt that, with the help of a really great editor, I learned to write in a new and somewhat exciting way. But then, a few months later, something even more extraordinary happened. I started teaching Later Heidegger.

Later Heidegger had always been a mystery to me. I learned about early Heidegger from Bert, and after a long engagement, and many conversations, I finally felt I had come close to understanding something about what he was up to. But Bert was never really as clear when we talked about Later Heidegger, and there was always something unsatisfying about it. Still, I had been attempting to teach some of the major texts from Heidegger’s later period for about 10 years. I had made some progress, I thought, but it was all still pretty raw. When I launched the class on Later Heidegger in the Spring of 2018, however, something was different. As I tried to prepare for each lecture, I found myself writing notes. The notes started to get longer and longer. Sometimes, they were the length of long essays – 3000, 4000, 5000 words and more. I quickly determined to give these writings as handouts to the class: if it was helpful for me to write them, then perhaps the students would get something from reading them through. The notes were mostly rough and un-edited. They were essays in the literal sense – attempts, tryings. They meandered this way and that, and I made no attempt to bring them under control. But at the same time, I felt they were really doing something. I felt that something was happening in them. I don’t honestly know what the experience was for the students, but I had an absolute blast. I have never felt more alive. By the end of the semester I had written well over 100,000 words. Over that summer it became clear to me that it was probably a book. With Cheryl’s help, and with the encouragement of some of my students, I determined to write it. And that is what I hope will become The Proper Dignity of Human Being.

So here we are – on a blog that used to belong to me and Bert, that still has our picture together on its banner and is filled with conversations from way back when conversations were what we did. Bert never wrote much on this blog – already in 2010 he had trouble with the computer, and writing was never really his favorite medium. But he was here, always. And he is here still. And we are here.

Even though everything is new.

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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14 Responses to Gratitude for what has been

  1. Roberto R Hayes says:

    Sean, thank you for the flashlight. I have wondered many times what my friends have been up to. It always seemed like a walk in a dark tunnel with flashes of light from above when we would meet again for short time frames. Now I have light on those dark times between visits. Rob

    • Thanks for reading it, Rob! I had intended this post to re-introduce myself to old readers of my blog, now that I’m thinking of returning to it after eight years. But I hadn’t realized it might also be a good update for old friends! I hope you’re doing well! Sean

  2. Achim says:

    Thank you, Sean, for this long, interesting and touching post as well as for your idea to revive the blog. I have never studied with Hubert Dreyfus, but came to this blog via him: I was reading Moby Dick some ten years ago and was looking for some comments on the major themes of this book on the web. I was lucky enough to stumble across Hubert Dreyfus’ courses in Berkeley – what a discovery! I was not prepared for what he unearthed in Moby Dick. Living in Europe and being 52 years old now, I never sat in a lecture of his, but I was deeply impressed by his way of teaching, his interest, his enormous respect for the students and his conviction that he could learn from them as they could from him. His death is indeed an enormous loss. After that I was looking into other resources on the net, especially on Heidegger but I must admit that I did not muster the energy to dive deep into other courses – it is not always easy to find the time when you are working full time. Your new project sounds exciting and I can only echo the others having commented on your post “rising from the ashes” in encouraging you to restart the blog. Am not really sure how to put this, but I feel that this decade is at the same time a highly interesting era with so many things changing, many opportunities and choices, but also a challenging terrain to navigate, with the constant needs to “upgrade” and reinvent many aspects of your life (including yourself), with the myriad of distractions available, the many things calling for your attention, the fast-paced and fragmented exchanges and discussions, the changing media landscape, and so forth. I would love to see this blog reactivated and to read your new book. All my good wishes for that!

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

  4. dmf says:

    thanks for the background, as you’v struggled to define and institute what makes the humanities worth studying in these times I imagine you’ve had to struggle with the broader economic and political environs/systems that shape so much of what’s possible or not for individuals and while Heidegger made some efforts to wrestle with Technology writ large I still find his (as well as related work from folks like Wittgenstein) efforts to define the good life to be lacking much in the way of analysis around how we are in sense living at/under the feet of titans (industries, armies, pollution, etc) and have very little control over our lives, will you be addressing such concerns this time around?

    • Thanks for your question, dmf. There is no doubt that Heidegger’s engagement with technology is incomplete, and he may not even have understood very well whatever insights he did have. But there’s something worth pulling on there, and that’s what I will hope to do. It won’t be a complete account of our condition, by any means. But hopefully it will be a way in…

  5. Thanks for the link to the Lauren Berlant piece, dmf! I’ve saved it and will take a look when I get a moment. I haven’t read too much of her work, but I have a number of friends with Chicago heritage – whom I respect a lot – who think the world of her.

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

  7. Pingback: LOOKING A « GIFT  THOUGHT IN THE OTHER: on etymology, genericity, and thinking | «AGENT SWARM

  8. Donald says:

    Thanks for the update Professor Kelly. I look forward to reading your next book: The Proper Dignity of Human Being.

    Although I read it years ago now, I still often reference “All Things Shining” in conversations with friends ranging from Art, to AI, to politics, to pop culture. I’ve listened to your Phil 139 lectures (and 2010 era Later Heidegger lectures) roughly two dozen times and found them to be the most helpful of many sources on the topic. My two favorite areas of study now are (inspired by yours and Professor Dreyfus’ podcasts): The common points (and differences) of: Pascal, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Heidegger. For example, the alignment of the grand inquisitor chapter’s (of The Brothers Karamazov) citation of “The Three Temptations of Christ” with three-fold structure of “being-in” and the three anxieties of Being and Time division II. The second topic is the general structure of holisms as applied in Being and Time compared with the various descriptions and examples of emergence and complexity in nature.

    With my Heidegger glasses, I can now read some great books:

    1. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (Professor Harari proclaims rightly and clearly that one can’t understand human being by studying the brain or individuals, but only by studying large groups, then gets lost sorting the imaginary and the real.)
    2. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (Professor Kahnerman calls familiarity “thinking fast”. Familiarity is far from thinking.)
    3. Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick (Order and patterns and periodicity should not be confused with intelligibility and being. Holisms in nature don’t amount to holisms in being.)

    Yours is the gift that keeps on giving. Once you see it, you can’t stop looking. Thanks for helping me see.

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