Dawn of the Idols

Article by Samuel Goldman.
Perhaps it’s just a matter of time before a deity rescues us from the condition that Nietzsche described as “nihilism.” In All Things Shining, philosophers Hubert Dreyfus (of Berkeley) and Sean Dorrance Kelly (of Harvard) take up this possibility. In fact, they claim, “The gods have not withdrawn or abandoned us: we have kicked them out.” This expulsion, they say, is by no means permanent. The gods are ready to come back if only we are willing to “hear their call.”

The first thing to note about this startling claim is the plural. Dreyfus and Kelly urge us to open ourselves to the return not of the God of the Bible but of gods. And not just any gods. On their view, the revival of the Greek pantheon offers the most promising alternative to nihilism.

Unfortunately, All Things Shining is not as exciting as this sounds. Instead of promoting sacrifices, orgies, or other delightfully anti-modern practices, Dreyfus and Kelly reinterpret polytheism as a way of understanding our own experience. They’re not arguing that we should actually worship Ares or Aphrodite as independent agents. Instead, they suggest that we use these gods’ associations with war and love, respectively, as a way of expressing the powerful “attunements” that strike us when we are engaged in certain types of activity.

The thought is not absurd. All of us occasionally feel as if we were not in control of our actions but rather under the direction of an external influence. When we perform those actions well, we experience this influence as a kind of benevolent external force. That’s what athletes mean when they talk about being “in the zone”. Kelly and Dreyfus argue that the influence that places us in the zone for primal activities like battle or sex is more or less what the Greeks meant by a god. We become polytheists when we allow ourselves to be guided by the gods rather than relying on our own will and judgment. To enter the erotic zone, for example, is to give oneself over to Aphrodite.

Dreyfus and Kelly propose two major benefits of this revised polytheism. One is that it more accurately reflects experience than accounts that emphasize deliberation. How often do we actually choose a course of action and then execute it? Isn’t much of our reasoning about how to behave actually rationalization—that is, an after-the-fact explanation of why we did things that we had no conscious intention to do? By reducing the role of willed causality in human life, Dreyfus and Kelly think that they’ve diminished the abstraction that plagues academic philosophy. In this respect, they continue to pursue phenomenological approach that also inspired Heidegger

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