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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) March 26, 2011: Hubert Dreyfus in philosophy at Berkeley and Sean Dorrance Kelly in philosophy at Harvard have examined carefully where we in Western culture have come from, and they suggest where we may be heading in ALL THINGS SHINING: READING THE WESTERN CLASSICS TO FIND MEANING IN A SECULAR AGE (2011). As their subtitle intimates, they have broken out of the departmental confines of philosophy by reading certain Western classics in literature. Perhaps there is still life in certain Western classics in literature by supposedly dead white males. Perhaps the proclamation of the death of those white male authors was premature.


In the spirit of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humans, perhaps Dreyfus and Kelly can steal meaning for our secular age from certain classic works of Western literature. The authors are secular humanists writing primarily for other secular humanists. You get the picture? Two big shots in philosophy are going to enlighten our secular age by drawing on certain classic works of Western literature, eschewing works in philosophy.


But how come all those dummies in literary studies haven't enlightened our secular age? How come our secular age has had to wait for two big shots in philosophy to enlighten us by discussing classic works of Western literature?


As I hope to show, one person in literary studies, Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003), did as a matter of fact discuss certain points that are relevant to Dreyfus and Kelly's discussion. But they do not mention Ong's work. Because he was not a secular humanist, I would raise the following question: Did Ong have anything significant to say that even secular humanists in our secular age might want to pay attention to?


Ong received his master's in English from Saint Louis University (1941) and his Ph.D. in English from Harvard University (1955). In 1978, he served as the elected president of the Modern Language Association. In 1964, he delivered the Terry Lectures at Yale University; in 1979, the Messenger Lectures at Cornell University; and in 1981, the Alexander Lectures at the University of Toronto. In April and May 1974, Ong's lecture tour as a Lincoln Lecturer took him to different countries in Africa. (I mention some of Ong's books below.)


Dreyfus and Kelly celebrate the Homeric life-world. They stop well short of suggesting that we in Western culture today are returning to the Homeric life-world. By stopping well short of suggesting this, they avoid suggesting a cyclic view of cultural history. But they claim to have discovered a quality of life in the Homeric life-world that may be worth recycling (my term), at least to a certain extent. On page 82, they say, "The Homeric Greeks were open to the world in a way that we can barely understand." Perhaps.


But we should remember that the Homeric Greeks are stylized larger-than-life fictional characters. They are stereotyped in certain ways so that epithets can be used to characterize them; they are also heroicized and idealized, as superheroes today are in comics and action movies. The Homeric kings and warriors served as socially acceptable role models in their oral culture, just as Beowulf served as a socially acceptable role model in his oral culture.


However, we can certainly do our best to understand how the Homeric Greeks were open to the world. For example, David Abram does his best to understand how certain oral people were open to the world in his book THE SPELL OF THE SENSUOUS: PERCEPTION AND LANGUAGE IN THE MORE-THAN-HUMAN WORLD (1996). Because Dreyfus and Kelly praise the Homeric Greeks for being open to the world, I should mention that Ong discusses open-systems thought and closed-systems thought in his book INTERFACES OF THE WORD (1977, pages, 189-212, 213-229, 305-341). As Ong notes in the last of the three essays just cited, open-systems thought is favored today. Thus if the Homeric Greeks were open to the world as Dreyfus and Kelly claim, then we should see them as exemplifying open-systems thought.


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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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