I want to criticize David Brook's column today, but I am not sure I can. His column today is a review of All Things Shining by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. "They take a smart, sweeping run through the history of Western philosophy. But their book is important for the way it illuminates life today and for the controversial advice it offers on how to live.
"In today's secular world, where "there is no shared set of values we all absorb as preconscious assumptions ... we should have the courage not to look for some unitary, totalistic explanation for the universe. Instead, we should live perceptively at the surface, receptive to the moments of transcendent whooshes that we can feel in, say, a concert crowd, or while engaging in a meaningful activity, like making a perfect cup of coffee with a well-crafted pot and cup. We should not expect these experiences to cohere into a single 'meaning of life.'"
I am sure some obnoxious nerds would argue with Brooks' definition of secular society and say that secularism really means no centrality of religion. A society, however, in which religion is not central does not provide the shared values as opposed to encouraging individual development in a certain context that is broader than the context provided for individual development in a religious society, at least AT THE SURFACE.
But more important is Brooks' attempt to engage with Dreyfus and Kelly's idea of whooshing up. The psychological sensation of excitement (including passive excitement) described as whooshing up is only one of many psychological sensations that people exprerience over their entire lives. If you concentrate on the experience of this feeling, you can easily fall into either the passive destructiveness of laziness (and addiction) or the active destructiveness of enthusiasm for its own sake. Of these, enthusiasm for its own sake is a threat but is also easily countered when it becomes a threat. Laziness (and addiction) are more difficult to counter, but they are also not as obviously threats.
Brooks acknowledges the danger of the active destructiveness of enthusiasm for its own sake, which is in some ways similar to enthusiasm that is based on a unitary, totalistic understanding of the uverise, when he writes "Though they try, Dreyfus and Kelly don’t give us a satisfying basis upon which to distinguish the whooshing some people felt at civil rights rallies from the whooshing others felt at Nazi rallies." The violence that can come from enthusiasm for its own sake can also come from enthusiasm can be fought with force (either the neutral bureaucratic force of a modern state or the enthusiasm of others), but it can also be replaced with laziness and addiction.
Laziness and addiction arise by concentrating on whooshing up that happens passively, without much effort from the person expreiencing or enjoying that whoosh. Are people really pursuing happiness ( to say nothing of following a law of nature) when they go to football game? Brooks tries to address this when he writes about "engaging in a meaningful activity, like making a perfect cup of coffee with a well-crafted pot and cup." This, however, means that people are giving special meaning to certain activities, an intellectual attempt to define their existences independent of whooshing up itself, which can them cause a whoosh up. It would be easy at this point, to suggest that David Brooks is, within the elegant word-count limits of the New York Times, introducing a more nuanced understanding of whooshing up that is more related to the fact that people's minds have other functions than the experience of excitement, but there is another explanation. This is that for the people David Brooks at least imagines as his readers, the people at the top, there is still both a possibility and even necessity of personal meanings in a highly technologized world. But even they should be open to considering life in terms of the sensation of excitement in case they join the remainder of civilization and have nothing left but the bread and circuses of whooshing up.