Sean D. Kelly, chair of Harvard’s philosophy department, believes philosophers ought to pose the question of how to live a good life to people who “are busy living”—not just to those reading Friedrich Nietzsche in the Ivory Tower.
“From the freshmen who come into the Gen Ed course I teach, to the surgeon in the middle of his career, I think that almost everyone faces questions about what they ought to be aspiring to,” Kelly says. “It’s one characteristic of the secular age. We’re faced with these questions in a way that people living in other ages weren’t.”
According to Kelly, during the “secular age” public discourse has been infused with nihilism, which maintains that life is devoid of meaning and purpose.
In order to challenge this nihilism, Kelly and his former dissertation advisor, Hubert L. Dreyfus ’51 of the University of California at Berkeley, have co-written a book to be released in January 2011, “All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age.”
CAN TECHNOLOGY OVERCOME NIHILISM?
The book, to be published by Simon & Schuster’s Free Press imprint, is not intended to be an academic title with a limited press run. According to Kelly, he and Dreyfus wrote it with a mass audience in mind because they are concerned that the idea that life is meaningless has spread widely in contemporary culture.
“This [book] is really meant to combat that development from within by revealing to people the meanings that are already in their lives that they’re covering up,” Kelly says. “The project needs mass appeal because if not, the nihilistic stuff could become the seed around which the understanding of our age could grow.”
Dreyfus says that he and Kelly chose to explore philosophical themes in literature from Homer to Herman Melville to David Foster Wallace to “help rediscover a way of life in which things really do matter, in which people take risks and really do commit themselves.”
Dreyfus fears that these themes are being lost in the age of new media. “The main point,” he says, “is that nothing is supporting serious commitments, whereas all sorts of things like Facebook have taken the seriousness and aliveness out of people’s interaction.”
The phenomenon of texting also poses a challenge to the meaningful life, Dreyfus says. “I’m amazed at how young people prefer texting to talking,” he says. “Why are they texting? Again, lack of commitment—when you’re texting, you don’t have to make a spontaneous response. When [communication] is ‘safe,’ it becomes meaningless and boring and sad and so forth.”
Despite the effects of technology has on human interaction, Kelly and Dreyfus both acknowledge its potential to expand their audience and convey their message.
Their book deal grew out of a series of Dreyfus’s podcasted lectures, which introduced his ideas to an untapped global market of people interested in philosophy. He says that Alaskan fishermen and trans-continental truck drivers called to request the syllabi from his courses in order to follow along with the podcasts.
Eventually, Hilary Redmon, senior editor at Simon & Schuster, suggested that Kelly and Dreyfus turn these lectures into a book.
“We’re not an academic publisher,” she says, “but I do think it’s important to publish books that are speaking not just to interscholastic debates but are speaking intelligently and articulately about questions that anyone on the street could have.”
Pointing to the recent successes of books by authors Alain de Botton and Yale’s Harold Bloom, Redmon argued that there is a market for philosophical writing.
NEW MEDIA, NEW ACCESSIBILITY
But others, such as The New School’s Simon Critchley, who moderates The New York Times philosophy blog “The Stone,” maintain that this craving for popular philosophy is better satisfied by new media rather than books.
“There’s a hunger for serious intellectual discussion, but done in a non-technical way,” Critchley says. “People aren’t necessarily going to go to a bookstore and buy a book anymore, but they can read a 1,000-word column.”
Of the top 20 most e-mailed New York Times op-ed pieces in the last six months, Critchley said that five or six have come from The Stone. He said that one explanation is the “dialogic” interactive capacity of new media that allows readers to participate in the conversation.
“It means for professional philosophers that there’s a huge interest in what they do, but that there’s also little toleration for the abstruseness of most academic discussions,” he says.
Still, Critchley shares Kelly’s and Dreyfus’ concern with the tendency of new media to promote the idea that modern life is void of meaning.
“The problem that Kelly and Dreyfus have identified is exactly the right one,” he says, “and Homer and Melville are exactly what need to be gone back to.”
For Critchley, new media forms are thus “a double-edged sword” that make it rare for people to read entire novels but that also make public conversations possible. Ultimately, though, he says these innovations are good for philosophy.
Kelly, who plans to begin contributing to “The Stone,” says that, in the age of new media, philosophers must rise to the challenge of communicating in a more accessible way.
“There’s an audience for people who are thinking seriously about philosophical questions related to living a life,” he says.
“That encourages philosophers to write in such a way that’s not laden with technical terms. That’s a totally legitimate challenge for our generation.”
-Staff Writer James K. McAuley can be reached at email@example.com.