Gifts without a Giver

All Things Shining
Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age
Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly
Free Press, $26, 272 pp.

One of the stories that came out of the Tucson tragedy is that the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, in a prior public meeting in 2007, had asked Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords the following cryptic question: “What is government if words have no meaning?” According to Loughner’s friends, Giffords’s inability to answer the question stoked the troubled young man’s anger and frustration. Though I doubt that it would offer consolation to anyone touched by the shooting, Loughner’s question and its nihilistic underpinnings form the subject of a new book by a pair of academic philosophers, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. In a culture where belief in God no longer speaks to some people, All Things Shining proposes to investigate whether and how meaning, in both words and deeds, can nonetheless be found.

The book has already created a bit of a stir, including a positive notice by New York Times columnist David Brooks. Critics have praised its authors for writing an accessible book that asks fundamental questions about the meaning of life. In the process, they have tapped into our secular anxiety, our capacity to be haunted by that age-old existential question, “If God is dead, is everything permitted?”—a question Jared Loughner seems to have answered with a violent yes. Against this bleak backdrop, Dreyfus and Kelly search for a way out of that dead end, and find it eventually in everyday, mundane things like the cherished morning cup of coffee....

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About the Author

Francis Kane is professor emeritus at Salisbury University and co-director of its Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement. He is the author of Neither Beasts nor Gods (Southern Methodist University Press).