March 10, 2011

Sean Dorrance Kelly

Harvard professor of philosophy Sean Dorrance Kelly discusses the book he co-authored, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. Audio by Jenny Attiyeh of


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.

"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." —The New York Times

About Author(s)

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.