All Things Shining
The next book on my list has captured a bit of media attention lately. It’s called All Things Shining: Reading the Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. It’s written by two leading philosophers: Hubert Dreyfus, an interpreter of existential philosophy who taught at UC Berkeley for more than 40 years and Sean Dorrance Kelly, professor of philosophy and chair of the Department of Philosophy at Harvard University. Here is what Barnes and Noble has to say about the book:
"An unrelenting flow of choices confronts us at nearly every moment of our lives, and yet our culture offers us no clear way to choose. This predicament seems inevitable, but in fact it’s quite new. In medieval Europe, God’s calling was a grounding force. In ancient Greece, a whole pantheon of shining gods stood ready to draw an appropriate action out of you. Like an athlete in “the zone,” you were called to a harmonious attunement with the world, so absorbed in it that you couldn’t make a “wrong” choice. If our culture no longer takes for granted a belief in God, can we nevertheless get in touch with the Homeric moods of wonder and gratitude, and be guided by the meanings they reveal? All Things Shining says we can.
“Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly illuminate some of the greatest works of the West to reveal how we have lost our passionate engagement with and responsiveness to the world. Their journey takes us from the wonder and openness of Homer’s polytheism to the monotheism of Dante; from the autonomy of Kant to the multiple worlds of Melville; and, finally, to the spiritual difficulties evoked by modern authors such as David Foster Wallace and Elizabeth Gilbert.Dreyfus, a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, for forty years, is an original thinker who finds in the classic texts of our culture a new relevance for people’s everyday lives. His lively, thought-provoking lectures have earned him a podcast audience that often reaches the iTunesU Top 40. Kelly, chair of the philosophy department at Harvard University, is an eloquent new voice whose sensitivity to the sadness of the culture—and to what remains of the wonder and gratitude that could chase it away—captures a generation adrift.Re-envisioning modern spiritual life through their examination of literature, philosophy, and religious testimony, Dreyfus and Kelly unearth ancient sources of meaning, and teach us how to rediscover the sacred, shining things that surround us every day. This book will change the way we understand our culture, our history, our sacred practices, and ourselves. It offers a new—and very old—way to celebrate and be grateful for our existence in the modern world.”
I first heard of the book after reading David Brooks’ column. In his praise of the book, Brooks writes that the authors have captured the way we live today. “For the past hundred years or so, we have lived in a secular age. That does not mean that people aren’t religious. It means there is no shared set of values we all absorb as preconscious assumptions. In our world, individuals have to find or create their own meaning. This, Dreyfus and Kelly argue, has led to a pervasive sadness. Individuals are usually not capable of creating their own lives from the ground up. So modern life is marked by frequent feelings of indecision and anxiety. People often lack the foundations upon which to make the most important choices.” This interesting hypothesis led me to purchase the book. However, in this week’s New York Review of Books another author whom I respect very much, Garry Wills, does not see anything at all to like. It was one of the strongest take-downs I’ve read in a book review for quite some time.
“This book, which was featured on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, comes recommended by some famous Big Thinkers. It is written by well-regarded professors (one of them the chairman of the Harvard philosophy department). This made me rub my eyes with astonishment as I read the book itself, so inept and shallow is it.” Now I am really curious.
Addendum: This week (March 29), David Mikics reviewed All Things Shining at The Book. It has some very good things to say, but in the end it is decidedly mixed: “Dreyfus and Kelly like the security of athletic contests and coffee drinking (which takes up another section of this shallow book), events that they want us to cherish precisely because they will never mean very much. They recommend a strange life of whooshes and lattes. Yet a deeper philosophy of life would want more meaning, not less. We cannot always have the shining, but the darkness may have something more interesting to say.”
The State of the News Media
News consumption is up, but only at online news outlets, according to an annual review of the state of the industry. For the first time in the survey’s history, consumers’ primary source for news wasn’t print newspapers. From the AP: “The rapid growth of smart phones and electronic tablets is making the Internet the destination of choice for consumers looking for news, a report released Monday said.
“Local, network and cable television news, newspapers, radio and magazines all lost audience last year, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a research organization that evaluates and studies the performance of the press. News consumption online increased 17 percent last year from the year before, the project said in its eighth annual State of the News Media survey.
“The percentage of people who say they get news online at least three times a week surpassed newspapers for the first time. It was second only to local TV news as the most popular news platform and seems poised to pass that medium, too, project director Tom Rosenstiel said. Local TV news has been the most popular format since the 1960s, when its growth was largely responsible for the death of afternoon newspapers, he said.”
This comes at a time when the New York Times announces that it will begin charging for its online content. Those of us who have grown used to reading the Times online must now decide if we should make the investment to continue to gain access to the information. From the Times article:
“No American news organization as large as The Times has tried to put its content behind a pay wall after allowing unrestricted access. The move is being closely watched by anxious publishers, which have warily embraced the Web and struggled with how to turn online journalism into a profitable business.
“A few years ago it was almost an article of faith that people would not pay for the content they accessed via the Web,” Arthur Sulzberger Jr., chairman of The New York Times Company, said in his annual State of The Times remarks, which were delivered to employees Thursday morning.
“This move is an investment in our future,” he said. “It will allow us to develop new sources of revenue to support the continuation of our journalistic mission and digital innovation, while maintaining our large and growing audience to support our robust advertising business. And this system is our latest, and best, demonstration of where we believe the future of valued content — be it news, music, games or more — is going.”
I’m very excited to read a new book that just hit the shelves written by noted science writer James Gleick. It’s called The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. The book seeks to explore the concept of “informatio.” What is it? How have we come to think of “bits” of information? And what does it mean for our future? That’s a poor what of describing what the book is really about. Here is the synopsis provided by Barnes and Noble:
“James Gleick, the author of the best sellers Chaos and Genius, now brings us a work just as astonishing and masterly: a revelatory chronicle and meditation that shows how information has become the modern era’s defining quality—the blood, the fuel, the vital principle of our world.
“The story of information begins in a time profoundly unlike our own, when every thought and utterance vanishes as soon as it is born. From the invention of scripts and alphabets to the long-misunderstood talking drums of Africa, Gleick tells the story of information technologies that changed the very nature of human consciousness. He provides portraits of the key figures contributing to the inexorable development of our modern understanding of information: Charles Babbage, the idiosyncratic inventor of the first great mechanical computer; Ada Byron, the brilliant and doomed daughter of the poet, who became the first true programmer; pivotal figures like Samuel Morse and Alan Turing; and Claude Shannon, the creator of information theory itself.
And then the information age arrives. Citizens of this world become experts willy-nilly: aficionados of bits and bytes. And we sometimes feel we are drowning, swept by a deluge of signs and signals, news and images, blogs and tweets. The Information is the story of how we got here and where we are heading.”
To learn more about James Gleick, read his website here.
The Social Animal
I am a fan of David Brooks, even though my politics may tend to drift a bit left of his. I enjoy his columns every week, and I especially like the subject matter of his latest book, The Social Animal--out now in stores and online. It seems that David and I have been reading the same books and research the past few years. I’m anxious to read more about his book.
Here is a brief review of David Brooks book at The Book Beast. “The Social Animal is of a whole other order: authoritative, impressively learned, and vast in scope,” writes James Atlas. “Its thesis can be stated simply: who we are is largely determined by the hidden workings of our unconscious minds. Everything we do in life—the careers we choose; even, on a deeper level, the way we experience and perceive the sensation of being alive—emerges from an infinitely complex neuronal network sending out signals (Brooks calls them “scouts”) that, largely unknown to us, assess and determine our behavior. Insights, information, responses to stimuli are governed by our emotions, a rich repository of thoughts and feelings that courses just beneath the surface of our conscious minds. They are “mental sensations that happen to us.””
Thomas Nagel has a mixed review of the book in the upcoming New York Times Book Review. Brooks builds on the ideas of others to find his arguments. “As Brooks observes, these ideas are not new: the importance and legitimacy of sentiment and social influence in determining human conduct was emphasized by figures of the British Enlightenment, notably David Hume, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. Hume denied the dominance of reason, though he also offered brilliant analyses of the complex and systematic ways in which our sentiments, or passions, operate. So what has been added by recent cognitive science? Most significant, according to Brooks, is the accumulating evidence of the many specific ways that our lives and conduct are less under our conscious control than we think.”
Nonetheless, Nagel wonders, How are we to use this kind of self-understanding? “Brooks emphasizes the ways in which it can improve our prediction and control of what people will do, but I am asking something different. When we discover an unacknowledged influence on our conduct, what should be our critical response? About this question Brooks has essentially nothing to say. He gives lip-service to the idea that moral sentiments are subject to conscious review and improvement, and that reason has a role to play, but when he tries to explain what this means, he is reduced to a fashionable bromide about choosing the narrative we tell about our lives, “the narrative we will use to organize perceptions.”
In essence, Nagel argues that such ideas about our lives require conscious thought. And instead of wondering about the means, as Brooks does, perhaps we should give more of that directed thought to the ends. An interesting debate on fascinating research.