All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age

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“What constitutes human excellence?” and “What is the best way to live a life?” These are questions that human beings have been asking since the beginning of time. In their critically acclaimed book, All Things Shining, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly argue that our search for meaning was once fulfilled by our responsiveness to forces greater than ourselves, whether one God or many. These forces drew us in and imbued the ordinary moments of life with wonder and gratitude. Dreyfus and Kelly argue in this ...
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All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age

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Overview

“What constitutes human excellence?” and “What is the best way to live a life?” These are questions that human beings have been asking since the beginning of time. In their critically acclaimed book, All Things Shining, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly argue that our search for meaning was once fulfilled by our responsiveness to forces greater than ourselves, whether one God or many. These forces drew us in and imbued the ordinary moments of life with wonder and gratitude. Dreyfus and Kelly argue in this thought-provoking work that as we began to rely on the power of our own independent will we lost our skill for encountering the sacred.

Through their original and transformative discussion of some of the greatest works of Western literature, from Homer’s Odyssey to Melville’s Moby Dick, Dreyfus and Kelly reveal how we have lost our passionate engagement with the things that gave our lives purpose, and show how, by reading our culture’s classics anew, we can once again be drawn into intense involvement with the wonder and beauty of the world.

Well on its way to becoming a classic itself, this inspirational book will change the way we understand our culture, our history, our sacred practices, and ourselves.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Many contemporary public intellectuals have described our age as one in which religious absolutes have been called into deep question. Both those thinkers and their critics ask the same question: How can we find meaning and identify values in this new secular age? In All Things Shining, two distinguished professors tackle this potential crisis by exploring classic writings that most of us grappled with only as test topics. Their illuminating discussion of writers including Homer, Kant, Melville, Dante, Luther, and Descartes reveals a stabilizing groundwork of meaning.

Publishers Weekly
Eminently qualified philosophers Dreyfus (U.C. Berkeley) and Kelly (Harvard) attempt to trace the decline of the West from the heroic, inspired age of Homer to our secularized, nihilistic age without a sense of transcendence and exultation. Unlike the ancient Greeks, the authors claim, today we lack a sense of the meaningfulness of life, of being called by a transcendent force. They probe this loss through a nonchronological roll call of writers, thinkers, and religious figures central to Western culture: Homer, Jesus, St. Paul, Dante, Luther, Descartes, Melville, and, representing today's unheroic age, David Foster Wallace But this sincere book reads more like a series of set pieces. Ambitious it is, but by turns it drifts or jumps, giving a sense of randomness to its argument. Late in the book, a long section on Moby-Dick notes, "Ahab is a combination of Kant's theory of human beings as autonomous selves and Dante's religious hope for eternal bliss." Such grand statements are not backed by a fully coherent, or a gracefully structured and proportioned argument. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Dreyfus and Kelly (philosophy, Univ. of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Univ., respectively) explore the history of Western literature and philosophy with the aim of exposing how the ancients were able to mine meaning from such pieces while contemporary Westerners are so overwhelmed by choices that they have become blind to the elevating qualities that reflection can provide. Writing in a style that is straightforward and readily accessible to general readers, the authors consistently provide their audience with both reason and model for reengaging wonder at intellectual wonder itself. As they unwind Western intellectual history from Homer, Aristotle, and Augustine to Kant, John Foster Wallace, and beyond, they point to the mechanism by which one generation or era posits meaning on its literary tradition and how that "new idea" suppresses earlier visions of enlightenment. Thus, by the new emerging, the older ideas and ideals necessarily become different from what they were in their own time of mergence. VERDICT Successful in every way: as a clear-eyed history and as a call to move from bloodless analysis to a return to ancient wonder; recommended.—Francisca Goldsmith, Infopeople Project, Berkeley, CA
Kirkus Reviews

Two distinguished professors seek mankind's salvation in the ancient Greek gods.

At first glance, this book would seem to be a rebuttal of the spate of arguments for atheism, and a ringing defense of polytheism, or an academic version of a self-help book, showing how to live a richer, more meaningful life by returning to precepts that preceded individual autonomy. In fact, Dreyfus (Philosophy/Univ. of California, Berkeley; On the Internet, 2001, etc.) and Kelly (Philosophy/Harvard Univ.) audaciously promise "nothing less than a philosophical and literary history of the West" in little more than 200 pages, aimed at the "nonspecialist audience" and "general reader." The authors successfully leapfrog through literary-philosophical history to suggest how we can reclaim redemptive qualities sacrificed to modernity. "When we develop in ourselves the ability for this kind of wonder and gratitude then we become a standing invitation to the gods," they write, asserting that one need not believe in those gods to recognize that one's feelings and fate are often shaped by forces outside the self and that there are limits to individual freedom and responsibility. In response to a metaphysical debate framed by Pulp Fiction, the authors write that "[t]he question that really matters...is not whether God was the causal agent but whether gratitude was an appropriate response." In other examples, Dreyfus and Kelly explore meaning (or the nihilism of meaninglessness) in the suicide of David Foster Wallace, the throwing problems of former baseball star Chuck Knoblauch and the rejection by Martin Luther of Aristotle. The book's wide scope is occasionally exasperating in its concision—"But before we move on to Descartes and Kant we will have to make a detour by way of St. Thomas Aquinas and Dante, who draw on Aristotle rather than Plato to make Christianity intelligible in Greek terms"—but the end result, detours and all, suggests a road map to the divine.

A provocative, illuminating and inspirational exhortation to "Ask not why the gods have abandoned you, but why you have abandoned the gods."

Michael Roth
Though brief, this is an ambitious book, offering insightful readings of authors including Homer, Dante, Descartes and Kant, as well as the novelists Herman Melville and David Foster Wallace…All Things Shining repays attention and reflection. It is a fascinating read and deserves an audience far beyond the borders of academia. Even if you don't agree that we are caught in an age of nihilistic indecision, if you attune yourself to the authors' energetic intelligence and deep engagement with key texts in the West, you will have much to be grateful for.
—The New York Times
Susan Neiman
Here, two distinguished philosophers from the heart of the profession offer a meditation on the meaning of life, in a sharp, engaging style that will appeal to readers both within the academy and beyond it. They provide a compressed narrative of changes in Western understanding of human existence over the course of nearly three millenniums, and argue that reading great works of literature allows us to rediscover the reverence, gratitude and amazement that were available in Homeric times…All Things Shining offers fascinating readings of works of literature chosen to illuminate this narrative…as well as passionate glimpses of the attitudes toward the world the authors urge us to regain.
—The New York Times Book Review
From the Publisher
“[A]n inspirational book but a highly intelligent and impassioned one.… compelling.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Offers a meditation on the meaning of life, in a sharp, engaging style …” New York Times Book Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416596158
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 1/4/2011
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.75 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Hubert Dreyfus is a leading interpreter of existential philosophy. He has taught at UC Berkeley for more than 40 years.

Sean Dorrance Kelly is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Harvard University. He is also Co-Chair of Harvard’s interdisciplinary committee for the study of Mind, Brain, and Behavior. Before arriving at Harvard, Kelly taught at Stanford and Princeton, and he was a Visiting Professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. He is considered a leading interpreter of the French and German tradition in phenomenology, as well as a prominent philosopher of mind. Kelly has published articles in numerous journals and anthologies and has received fellowships or awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEH, the NSF and the James S. McDonnell Foundation, among others.

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Read an Excerpt

A NOTE TO THE READER

THE WORLD DOESN’T MATTER to us the way it used to. The intense and meaningful lives of Homer’s Greeks, and the grand hierarchy of meaning that structured Dante’s medieval Christian world, both stand in stark contrast to our secular age. The world used to be, in its various forms, a world of sacred, shining things. The shining things now seem far away. This book is intended to bring them close once more.

The issues motivating our story are philosophical and literary, and we come at them from our professional background in these disciplines. But All Things Shining is intended for a nonspecialist audience, and we hope it will speak to a wide range of people. Anyone who lives in the contemporary world has the background to read it, and anyone who hopes to enrich his or her life by experiencing it in the light of classic philosophical and literary works can hope to find something here. Anyone who wants to lure back the shining things, to uncover the wonder we were once capable of experiencing and to reveal a world that sometimes calls forth such a mood; anyone who is done with indecision and waiting, with expressionlessness and lostness and sadness and angst, and who is ready for whatever it is that comes next; anyone with hope instead of despair, or anyone with despair that they would like to leave behind, can find something worthwhile in the pages ahead. Or at least that is what we intend.

© 2011 Hubert Dreyfus

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 20 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 21 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2011

    highly recommended

    A thought provoking and well articulated historical anthology of the godlessness associated with our nihilistic society. The literary references and their analyses speaks to the breadth of knowledge of these two authors. Rarely can a book appeal to such a wide cross-section of readership. Congratulations on this masterful work!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 9, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    How to live according to the masters

    I am a sucker for self-help books written by noted philosophers or serious academics. My virtual library is filled with titles like "How to Live," "Where is Wisdom to be Found" and "Shop class as Soul Craft" so when I saw this title co-written by philosopher Hubert Dreyfus I went for it like paparazzi at a Brangelina sighting. I don't think that philosophers and literary critics necessarily have any more wisdom than, say, someone like Mitch Albom or Deepak Chopra, it's just that the scholars usually write better and refer to more interesting/obscure sources. So that where Albom might view a dying social psychology prof as a fount of wisdom, someone like James Miller (author of "Examined Lives") will quote Aristotle, Seneca and Nietzsche. That being said, I found this volume a bit disappointing. It is well-written and well-researched but it works better on the level of literary analysis than on the level of imparting wise thoughts. Not that there is not some wisdom to be found within its pages. I just thought it dwelt overmuch on Herman Melville and "Moby Dick." I don't have anything against "Moby Dick" but it felt out of place in this work, which in earlier chapters focuses on Homer, Dante, Augustine and Kant. I found those chapters to be more illuminating than the one on Melville (this is ironic because Melville is one of my favorite writers). The authors rail against contemporary nihilism, which is a worthy effort. However, they offer nothing much more than the notion that sports provide modern society with "sacred moments," and we need those. The authors refer to such experiences as recognizing the need for practices to propitiate the divine. Okay, so what they are saying is that sports are contemporary society's new religions. I do not consider myself to be religious but I beg to differ with them. Religious practices, whether they are mainstream or counter-cultural, are still the most authentic means to achieve communion with the divine. True, being swept up by the emotions of the crowd at a sporting event is transcendental in its own way but to what ultimate effect? You experience going beyond the self to experience oneness with the crowd but there is no true transcendence in the sense that you experience the divine. Overall, while I disagree strongly with the book's conclusion, I do find it's premise to be thought-provoking, and we need more of that in books these days.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 24, 2011

    Don't Waste Your Time

    Philobabal

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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