In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, conservative columnist David Brooks discusses the bookAll Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age,
As a review, it’s basically just a fancied up version of one of these blog posts (meaning he gets paid a lot of money to write it and so actually puts some energy into it): he sets out a key, evocative point or two and says that while the idea doesn’t jibe with the American need for religious certainty (and it’s hard to tell if Brooks is actually advocating this need or just trying to play his role as “conservative” and represent the common man against evil academia), it’s intriguing nonetheless.
This review is timely for me, in that I’ve been listening to Dreyfus’s lectures on Heidegger in preparation for that podcast episode. The characterization of Dreyfus’s view here is in accord with what I understand about (later) Heidegger’s take on culture as providing “preconscious assumptions” that shape our world-view. I don’t want to impute anything more specific to Heidegger or to Dreyfus, so let me briefly consider a straw man that may or many not have anything to do with Heidegger but seems to represent a view Brooks is flirting with here:
In the olden days, when everyone had to be religious or get burned at the stake, we had a solid, ingrown foundation for a stable worldview with a permanent, human-independent system of morality and all that. Now we’re all cast adrift in this horrific existential nightmare and use false gods like sports and money and music and all that to fill the void. Oh, woe! We surely must try to get back to those traditional values instead of growing up to the reality of our human situation!
My reaction to the straw man here should be too obvious for me to bother spelling out, and it’s not clear that Brooks actually means to be saying that. He contrasts having a coherent world-view to living on the fragmented meaning provided by periodic moments of transcendence (e.g. during a stirring political rally or listening to music), and puts the choice Dreyfus presents as:
We can either rebel against this superficial drift, or like Dreyfus and Kelly, go with the flow, acknowledging that the autonomous life is impossible, not seeking totalistic theologies, but instead becoming sensitive participants in the collective whooshings that life offers.
Brooks doesn’t really give us enough information about the book to make sense of this choice, but he’s using the thesis to argue that our culture is incoherent: we espouse individual freedom while participating in organizations that stress the collective, and recognizing this is supposed to make us more astute.
Personally, I don’t see it. Transcendent experiences for me are typically individual. I don’t get caught up in the group spirit at a rally or concert, e.g. I saw Pink Floyd at a stadium at some point and was more annoyed by the out-of-tune squawking along that the people next to me were engaged in than swept up in the group appreciation. Though I understand the group spirit phenomenon Brooks is talking about, I don’t in any way find it to be central to my experience at least, and feel like Brooks is just condescending in the bi-partisan way he tries to affect to all us people who think we have our own political and moral philosophy but are really just swept up in some pre-conscious, schizophrenic modern zeitgeist.
(Thanks to listener Howard Seaton for alerting me of this article via our Facebook group. We welcome your ideas of things to cover on this blog, or, if you’re up to it, just write a post about it in an e-mail and I’ll put it up and credit you if it’s the kind of thing — unlike those foul Personal Philosophies — that our readers would enjoy.)