Significance in a secular age.

Brian Leiter has a post on a recent book by Dreyfus and Kelly:

Back to the Greeks: How to “Whoosh Up”
Judging from these two high-profile, popular reviews, that’s a main theme of Hubert Dreyfus’s and Sean Kelly’s new book All Things Shining, which I’ve not read or seen in draft. Comments from readers who’ve actually read some or all of the book?

I am hard put to explain whooshing, but the articles Leiter linked have a good go at it.  One of the book’s examples, which a lot of commentators referred to, is getting whooshed up at a sports game. Another is a gourmet restaurant. One might worry that there’s a concentration on the public life in discussing the significance of a life.
And the idea that life’s significance lies in the public domain  is a cliche that is supposed to be dying out, isn’t it? One reason men won’t do housework is that they don’t feel domestic life has any significance. Except isn’t that changing?

I am hardly in a position to say whether the book embraces the old cliche.  Just to raise the question, I thought I’d search of the book on  for some words to see if the concentration on the public sphere is as dominant as reviewers’ comments suggest. So I searched for these:
The total hits for these words? Zero.
Let know if you’ve read the book and what the answer to the question of its emphasis is.

To some extent, the significance of seeing life as significant principally or only on the public level may be changing.   In fairly pre-feminist days, I certainly read books for men, as this may be, when I was a student, and I think they can do a good job of making some people feel the production of culture lies in others’ hands. At least we can hope that young women today who read about life’s significance being found in the public sphere may not feel so excluded.  That, however, doesn’t solve the other problem, that of including family, children and sex.

That all said, this is a book based on much in the traditional canon of Western Literature.  Perhaps they consider a female author, but there’s no indication of that in the reviews.

16 thoughts on “Significance in a secular age.

  1. I haven’t read the book (Yet. I plan to.), but I have certainly read a great deal of past work from Dreyfus and Kelly. Based on reading that work, I think the sense of which they would be talking about ‘the public life’ is much broader than what this post might have in mind, probably including almost any skillful behavior attuned to the surrounding world.

    The reviews linked above also claim that Dreyfus and Kelly consider the work of Elizabeth Gilbert.

  2. Rob, thanks,

    Matt, your comment makes me again aware of the problems of distinguishing between the domestic and the public. I think really one needs to look at their examples of meaningful things. Is there transcendence is sitting by a fire with a small child, or do we need to think of great athletes and unusual heroic actions?

    Perhaps because I am at the end of a long day and more tired than I wish, I am inclined to say the quotidian can be sublime. There are, however, many ways in which western culture has neglected this idea, and feminists have worked to recover it.

  3. That’s a great point! The typical Dreyfus examples involve very highly skilled and learned activities, and for him sports (baseball, basketball, gymnastics, tennis, etc.) usually end up being the paradigmatic examples. But it does seem like sitting by the fire with a child, or perhaps being extremely satisfied after a great accomplishment, or reading an engrossing story could have some of the same qualities.

  4. As I understand it (admittedly, not having read the book), what Dreyfus and Kelly are up to is a situated, embodied account of human beings. So their ‘enemies’ are overly mentalistic accounts which do not sufficiently take into account the bodily interactions of human beings with their environments (and thus with other human beings!). It’s a bit of a guess, but I suppose that, what they mean by ‘public’ here is mostly the external sphere (perhaps a Heideggerian ‘being-in-the-world), not so much public life as opposed to domestic life.

    This being said, we can’t rule out that Dreyfus and Kelly are somewhat neglecting traditional ‘female’ forms of being-in-the-world and overly emphasizing other forms. But then again, it is to be hoped that such dichotomies, while historically a reality, shouldn’t stick around for very long anymore!

  5. Catarina, you are certainly right about the general direction of their research, but the book in question is on a special and specific topic: significance in a nihilistic age.

    I’d resist identifying the two spheres with male and female, but I may have suggested otherwise in the post. Rather, I think that general identification has been prevalent, and I hope it is breaking down. In fact, over the last 30 years, there has been some scholarly effort to bring the domestic to our attention, as opposed to concentrating on aspects of the public sphere. E.g., history used to be much more written in terms of what the leaders did, but there’s more attention paid now to the ordinary and everyday, or so historians say. There was a huge uproar when Birmingham University (UK) started a center for the study of popular culture in the 1960’s, at which time no living author was studied in English at oxford. Today there’s much more interest in the details of ordinary lives. Outsider art can get serious critical attention these days, as can folk music.

    I do remember someone who got some standing among professionals involved with Maslow’s idea of “peak experiences” saying that it was such a surprise to find that a housewife preparing a dinner party could get a peak experience from it.

    One might worry about whether philosophy can recognize the importance of the very mundane, and that’s really my question about the book. That there have been two spheres, with their gendering, has probably been harmful.

  6. jj, I see your point. As I said, I didn’t have the chance to check the book yet, so I’m basically just guessing here :) But I also think you have a point (if that’s what you are saying indeed), that the historical neglect of the domestic sphere is without a doubt at least to some extent related to the fact that, historically, this sphere was associated to women. I had an aha-erlebnis the other day reading the preface of that book on the history of vibrators (it was mentioned here at FP, I forgot the name of the author). The author said that at some point she became interested in the history of embroidery, if I’m not mistaken, and at first instance was surprised that there was hardly any work done on the topic. Then she realized that this was because embroidery was an activity traditionally carried out by women! So there’s definitely something to it.
    So, as much as I am sympathetic to the general Dreyfus-Kelly approach of a situated conception of the human being, this situatedness should definitely take into account *all* aspects of the human existence in this world, including the domestic sphere.

  7. jj, One of the reviews linked to in your post refers “the moments of transcendent whooshes that we can feel in, say, a concert crowd, or while engaging in a meaningful activity, like making a perfect cup of coffee with a well-crafted pot and cup.” That’s rather quotidian, I’d say. The same reviewer also mentions walking through nature. Also, in a recent article in The Stone, Kelly quotes “Moby Dick” (which from what I gather is meant to serve “All Thing Shining” as a sort of spirit guide): The meaning that one finds in a life dedicated to “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” these are genuine meanings.

  8. I haven’t read the book, but this thread reminded me of a recent film that I heard about but have not yet seen:

    Someone brought this film to my campus recently, and although I couldn’t attend, I watched the trailer. It seems like an important and interesting project, but all 8 of the people listed under “The Philosophers” are men! Some of “The Masters” featured in the film are women, but couldn’t they find *any* women to feature as philosophers?

  9. I just downloaded and read the first chapter (a free sample from amazon), and the words “father” and “son” do appear, so there might be something fishy about that amazon search function.

    The chapter I read suggests the thesis that secularism is, if not the root of, then at least a hotbed of existential crises; that Western culture has lost a deep and omnipresent sense of meaning and purpose that presumably made Dante’s Inferno possible, and which we can still catch glimpses of when we lose ourselves in the certainty of the moment. (I guess making a pot of coffee counts here, though in the first chapter they focus exclusively on more spectacular moments, like acts of heroism and pivotal moments in professional sports.) I gather the book attempts to map this historical shift through literature, which could easily play into a hoard of stereotypes and is more likely to be tainted by the authors’ own prejudices. And, yes, the first chapter focuses exclusively on men, both real and fictional. The two examples of “living in the moment” are both men, one a hero and the other an athlete. The examples of existential tragedy and despair are also male. The authors even say, at one point, that it is usually men that try to avoid “the burden of choice” through an inflated and artificial sense of self-confidence. (They refer specifically to Captain Ahab and Charles Foster Kane here, and I have to say that I’m not sure I like the choice of the former in this context.) The second way of avoiding this burden (there are only two, according to the authors–they don’t explain why) is through self-enslavement (obsessions, addictions, and infatuations). No examples are given of the second type, but the masculine pronoun is used exclusively. (I’d think Ahab would make more sense in this category–he’s certainly obsessed; but I still don’t quite like reading him as a man trying to escape the burden of choice.) Anyway, I don’t want to draw too many conclusions from just one chapter, though it does open the book up to criticism.

  10. helenesch: The women asked to appear in the film was unable to do so. Also, I’ve heard it said that Dreyfus wasn’t entirely in agreement with the use made of his ideas in the film. I don’t mean that he was upset, I mean that he thinks something a bit different from the narrative presented in the film.

  11. Thanks so much for these very helpful comments. Jason, you remarks have been illuminating. The movie looks very interesting. Monkey, do we know women philosophers were asked to participate?

  12. Yes, I know that at least one woman philosopher was asked to participate in the film, but was unable to do so.

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