Fifteen Questions with Sean D. Kelly

FM sat down with Professor Sean D. Kelly, Chair of the Department of Philosophy, to discuss his book “All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age” and his thoughts on life at Harvard.

FM sat down with Professor Sean D. Kelly, Chair of the Department of Philosophy, to discuss his book “All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age” and his thoughts on life at Harvard.

1. Fifteen Minutes: You recently wrote a book with Hubert Dreyfus entitled “All Things Shining.” What was it like to work with Dreyfus?

Sean D. Kelly: Oh it was terrific. He was my advisor in graduate school many years ago, and we maintained a close connection. It’s unusual for philosophers, and in general unusual for people in the humanities, to co-author books. I mean I haven’t done much of it, but working with Bert was terrific. I did a lot of the writing, and he would do a lot of the revising, and that was our collaborative mechanism. It was terrific to do it that way.

2. FM: What is it like teaching a General Education course?

SDK: It’s the second time I’ve taught the course. I taught it once before I wrote the book, and now I’m teaching it after I wrote the book. It’s called Culture and Belief 14: Human Being and the Sacred in the History of the West, and it’s a lot different this time than the previous time because now I’m teaching it having worked through the issues in the way you have to in order to write a book .... The issues sort of grow and develop every time you think about them.

3. FM: Do you think your students are helping to expand your thoughts?

SDK: Absolutely. The students often have really great challenges to the position that I hold. Sometimes they force me to rethink the position that I hold. Often, they have examples that I never could have thought of because they are examples from their lives and the things that they confront. That’s what’s exciting about teaching.

4. FM: How do you think we can take those ideas from the ancient texts and translate them into today’s world?

SDK: In short, I can say one of the things that people say characterizes our existence has to do with the threat that we feel that people in earlier epochs apparently didn’t feel. That’s what gets called the threat of nihilism. I think some students and some people in our culture do feel that as a threat, and I think that a lot of 20th century literature and philosophy is devoted to articulating what it is like to live in the midst of a threat like that.

5. FM: What do you think is the fundamental reason why we’ve lost what’s sacred to us?

SDK: I think it has to do with the promotion, in both senses of the word, of human beings into the place that is traditionally held by God, which is a place called the ground of existence, the ground of everything that is. I think that in my own view, it is very hard, maybe even impossible, to say that there is an entity that serves that role as the ground of all existence. But because I think that, I think it’s also wrong to think that human beings serve that role. I think that there is something that serves that role and that’s what allows us to resist the threat of nihilism, but to think clearly about what is capable of serving that role is very difficult, and it requires a different metaphysics, a different understanding of ourselves.

6. FM: You had the chance to be on “The Colbert Report.” What was it like to banter with Colbert?

SDK: Turns out I’m a fan of Colbert now too .... I think he’s a very smart guy. It was fascinating to have this conversation with him, and he said to me afterwards (well maybe he says this to everyone), “Boy, I wish I didn’t have to be pretending I was so dumb when we were having that conversation. I really wanted to dig in.” It was terrific, and I hope I’ll have more conversations with him and other people like him.

7. FM: Do you have a favorite moment from being on the Colbert Report?

SDK: Something that got cut out, I think. I was trying to explain the fact that it is no longer socially acceptable, as it was in the Middle Ages, to think when we meet someone who has different religious views that because they have different religious views they are therefore less than human. I was saying this as “that’s a kind of progress we’ve made, and that’s a nice step.” His immediate reaction was to say, “Yeah we threw the baby out with the bath water on that one.”

8. FM: If you could go on another talk show, whom would you pick to interview you?

SDK: When I was there I watched his little interaction with Jon Stewart. I admire him as an interviewer also, and I think he would be a great person. I also used to listen to Terry Gross on NPR, and I think she’s a great interviewer, but I’m sure there are lots of great interviewers, and I would be delighted to talk with any of them.

9. FM: You’ve mentioned many great Western Classics. Which book would you say is the most important one to read?

SDK: The one that I love most: “Moby Dick.”  I think that Melville’s “Moby Dick” is one of the great, and maybe even the great novel, in the history of the West. Certainly one I think we’ve got a lot to learn from.

10. FM: There was some media attention over Gary Wills’ criticism about your book. How did you face this criticism and what advice would you give to students when it comes to facing criticism?

SDK: It is really character building to face scathing criticism of that sort. Obviously, I think the criticism was misplaced, and I’m not at all convinced that he read the book. But still, it’s criticism in a public venue by a well-known person. The best advice I got was to read a lot of Marcus Aurelius, and I did.

11. FM: Harvard students are looking to find their passion. What’s one thing that really gets you excited?

SDK: I’m fascinated by pedagogical issues as they relate to children nowadays. We have a two-year-old and a seven-year-old and I’m totally fascinated by people who are able to reach children of those ages, and to help them cultivate in themselves the skills you need to have in order to see things as meaningful or important.

12. FM: What’s it like to co-teach a course?

SDK: It’s like co-writing—it’s different in every case. We spent time together over the summer preparing the course and even in the spring last year, and now we meet weekly for a few hours to prepare together what we’ve already each individually prepared .... So I would say it’s more work than teaching by yourself, but it’s also in a certain way if you’ve got the right chemistry, more fulfilling.

13. FM: Who do you think is the greatest philosopher?

SDK: I’ll say different things in different moods. I am very influenced by Aristotle. I think Aristotle was one of the really important great philosophers.

14. FM: Which philosopher would you read when you are feeling down in the dumps?

SDK: Lately, I’ve been reading Pascal. He thinks that it’s an essential feature of human beings that we are down in the dumps sometimes, and that’s what he calls our wretchedness, but he thinks that it is counterbalanced with our greatness.

15. FM: If you could take one class at Harvard which one would you take?

SDK: Chris Korsgaard’s course on Kant’s Ethical Theory.