The Neo-Polytheism of Hubert Dreyfus: A Rational Fideist Analysis

Hubert Lederer Dreyfus (b. Oct 1929) is an American philosopher and professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. He has contributed much to the interpretation and analysis of Heidegger’s philosophy. In recent times, his choice of an experience-based epistemic methodology has tended more towards a very pluralistic, anti-nihilist view; in fact, a reveling in Homeric polytheism as an inspiration for modern, revisited, or neo-polytheism.

In Epistemics of Divine Reality, the conflict between reason and experience in the history of  the philosophy of religion has been identified. The conflict usually results in reason’s tending to expel the empirical categories and choose a very metaphysical and, usually, monist or via negativa view of God. On the other hand, it also results in experience’s tending to expel the rational categories and choose a very concrete, plural, this-wordly view of self and the universe.

Dreyfus’ studies in Husserl’s phenomenological method and Heidegger’s existentialism in addition to Merleu Ponty’s filling-in-the-gaps of what Heidegger failed to address, viz a philosophy of being in body, seems to culminate in a celebration of Homeric polytheism and Melville’s Moby Dick view of self and the divine. Dreyfus considers Protestantism’s departure from the Catholic metaphysical God of the philosophers (of Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes) as a major contribution which paved the way for the Nietszchean annunciation of the death of that “non-biblical” philosophical God. To the metaphysicians, God seemed to always be in the present and objectified. But, to him God is like the whale of Moby-Dick that is not as much available to philosophical exegesis as the seeming hieroglyphics on the whale’s body. According to Dreyfus, the God of the Bible is not that Pure Being that the intuitionists or mysticists (similar to the rationalist monists) talked about; He was the God of the burning-bush.  But, Dreyfus fails to notice that this same God who appeared in the burning-bush also announced His name as being “I AM THAT I AM”. In All Things Shining, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly collaborate to introduce the new polytheism of empirical metaphysics. Samuel Goldman from Harvard makes the following observations:1

In All Things Shining, philosophers Hubert Dreyfus (of Berkeley) and Sean Dorrance Kelly (of Harvard)…claim, “The gods have not withdrawn or abandoned us: we have kicked them out.”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. ……

…Dreyfus and Kelly….also contend that in recognizing the role of gods, we gain access to sources of meaning that would otherwise be obscured. Polytheism relieves us of the burden of choosing what we should do. In place of the modern struggle to establish one’s freedom, polytheism encourages an attitude of joyous gratitude. Like the Greek, they argue, we can experience our lives as a succession of unasked gifts that we do not need to earn or understand to cherish and enjoy. All things are “shining” with divinity and promise once we are open to living that way.

….. Rather than confronting this objection, Dreyfus and Kelly subtly revise Heidegger’s account of nihilism. The problem is not so much that “God is dead” as that the Judeo-Christian God is reduced to one option on the cultural menu. Many people do find meaning in Biblical monotheism. On the other hand, there at least some are who can’t or won’t. Polytheism, therefore, turns out to be a specialized product for a niche audience rather than a solution to the decline of the West. It is the spiritual equivalent of the pseudo-antique espresso machines sold to people who just aren’t satisfied with their old percolators.

Goldman considers All Things Shining‘s goal as failing in not being able to provide what it promises:

Polytheism, then, is a provocative way of describing one way of experiencing the world. But it fails to provide the access to meaning or values that Dreyfus and Kelly promise. This failure is the consequence of their rejection of the philosophical tradition on the one hand and biblical religion on the other. For all their disadvantages, both recognize that access to the meaning of life involves separating ourselves from our own moods and actions and evaluating them from an external standpoint. This isneasy. But at least it acknowledges that what we regard as the most admirable actions are not only shining with intensity, but also morally right.

It is worth remembering that Homer depicts the Greeks engaged in war of conquest and that his characters express profound gratitude to the Olympians when they have successfully taken their enemies’ lives, women, and property. Even in a disenchanted world, theirs are not the gods that we are looking for.

One can’t attempt to find meaning once one has obliterated the existence of the possibility of the transcendent absolute. As Wittgenstein submitted in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “The sense of the world must lie outside of the world.” Plato’s Euthyphro pronounces the problem very well when it argues that ethics cannot be absolute if we turned to the pluralistic gods for a deontological answer. The Euthyphro dilemma was: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” To which the answer was that a plurality of gods with their finite experiences cannot determine the nature of the good. The resolution consisted in a turning towards reason. The Platonic argument cannot be dismissed. In fact, Plato considered Homer (his stories of the gods) as dangerous to politics and ethics. In his Republic, Plato argues for the outlawing of the Homer that Dreyfus looks to for inspiration. To Plato, a strong republic cannot be built on false stories and flawed personalities as depicted by Homer and Hesiod. And, while Plato does understand the practical importance of the narratives, he doesn’t allow these narratives to claim authority above reason: which is, of course, also impossible for cogency demands that the rational be intact, without ignoring the empirical.


1Dawn of the Idols, The American Conservative, May 2, 2011.
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