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Aphrodite, an embodiment of erotic love's untrammeled power. (Getty Images)

An Appreciation For 'All Things Shining'

by Alva Noë
Feb 11, 2011

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Alva Noë

In Ridley Scott's movie Blade Runner, discussed here not long ago, Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) is a blade runner, a cop charged with capturing rebel androids (replicants). To find out whether a suspected replicant is a replicant, he deploys a sort of lie-detector test: He poses emotionally loaded questions to would-be replicants and uses a device to measure a tell-tale physiological response.

Deckard's hard-cop detachment is deeply incompatible with the kinds of relationships — even romantic ones — that he himself carries on with replicants. This brings us to the argument of the movie: in treating others as if a physiological response is called for to decide if they count or not — in taking up a detached attitude that is willing to call their very humanity into question — Deckard convincingly puts his own humanity in jeopardy. This is driven home when we learn that Deckard himself, unbeknownst to him, is probably a replicant. (I discuss this in Out of Our Heads. My understanding of the film is indebted to Stephen Mulhall's marvelous writings on the subject. See his On Film, and here.)

Although Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly don't discuss Blade Runner in their important new book All Things Shining, they might have. Deckard's is just the sort of perversion they investigate.

Physicists Steven Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, in their book The Grand Design, suggest that the Greek gods, like all gods, were posits of ignorant people to explain phenomena they didn't understand. All Things Shining offer a very different picture. Homer's Gods stand for meanings in the world around us, and also for the moods or moments when we are most drawn to or sensitive to those meanings. Aphrodite, for example, marks the untrammeled power of erotic love, a force that can be overwhelming when one is in the right mood.

Homer doesn't suggest that the goddess actually causes lust! The point rather is that erotic love is not something we decide to find compelling. It confronts us with the full force. And then there's this: it isn't easy to be open to the full force of things, not erotic love, not anything else. This is why Helen, who abandons her husband and infant baby to run off with Paris, eventuating in the Trojan War and terrible suffering, is celebrated in Homer as no less a hero than Odysseus himself. She allows herself to be open to one of life's unstoppable forces.

We can find this sort of openness to the living values in the world around us everywhere, in the large and in the small. Think of the way a soldier is drawn to perform a great deed. He may not decide to be brave. He just acts. Or think of the way a skilled craftsperson handles tools and materials. In cases such as this, skillful atunement to what a situation requires takes over. No need for contemplation. It is as if a god carries us along.

Neither Homer, nor Dreyfus and Kelly, are recommending that we abandon our families to chase sexual satisfaction. Nor do Dreyfus and Kelly naively suppose that all Ancient Greeks led meaningful and intense lives. A successful openness to what calls, after all, is not something any of us get for free. It is a blessing of the gods, available to slave and free person alike.

Unless we actively resist it. Which, in a way, is the besetting sin of the modern age. Our nihilism comes before skepticism about God (or gods). It arises from the fact that we position ourselves before the world as if we were new arrivals who are in charge of our own agendas. We stand back and apart and we try to figure out what we should believe, what we should value, what kind of people we should be. In our earnest, hyper-intellectualized thoughtfulness, we are like Deckard in Blade Runner, so alienated from what really matters that we think we need a test to find out who (or what) is real.

Indeed, this has been a central commitment of main swathes of modern philosophy. To be a human being, is to be a legislator; or perhaps it is to be a fact-finder and policy wonk.

Suppose two ships are sinking and you can only save one. Sound reason dictates that you save the ship with the most people in it.

But when this question was put by her hard-headed teacher to Sissy Jupe, the young girl in Charles Dickens' Hard Times, she could only burst into tears and run away. Sissy was unable to take up the standpoint from which this question could even be asked. For to take up this standpoint is already to have become blind — as Deckard is blind — to life shining, to its sacredness.

Dreyfus and Kelly don't argue that we return to Homeric values; critics who have suggested otherwise haven't read the book. But they warn us not only of the dangers of our hubris, but of its basic incoherence. We cannot decide what moves us.

I have a criticism of All Things Shining. Stay tuned!

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