Sean D. Kelly

Dean of Arts and Humanities, Harvard University | Bestselling Author, "All Things Shining"
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Sean D. Kelly is the Dean of Arts and Humanities and the Teresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. His work focuses on various aspects of the philosophical, phenomenological, and cognitive neuroscientific nature of human experience. At the root of all his research, writings, teachings, and talks is the question: What does it mean to be human? He explores not only the answers to that question, but also what it means to even ask that question in the present day and throughout different eras of human history.

Professor Kelly is co-author of the New York Times bestselling book All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. In this critically acclaimed book, he examines the impact of secularism on our ability to find meaning and fulfillment in life. By reexamining Western classics such as The Odyssey and Moby Dick, Kelly reveals how we can rediscover our sense of wonder and gratitude and find purpose in everyday life, encouraging readers to reconnect with the world around them and pursue a more passionate and engaged existence. In his forthcoming book, The Proper Dignity of Human Being, Kelly takes readers on a journey of philosophical definitions of dignity throughout history, culminating with his concept of dignity in the modern era. In this thought-provoking work, Kelly argues that the very essence of human dignity is under threat in the face of rapid technological progress.

Kelly’s work has been published in both academic journals and general audience publications, with two of his most popular pieces, "Navigating past nihilism" and "Waking up to the gift of aliveness" appearing in anthologies by the New York Times on multiple occasions. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and currently holds a Harvard College Professorship, the University's highest recognition for excellence in undergraduate teaching.

Since joining the Harvard Faculty in fall 2006, Professor Kelly has taught courses on a wide array of topics, including Post-Kantian European Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Cognitive Science, Philosophy of Perception, Imagination and Memory, Aesthetics, and Philosophy of Literature. Achieving both breadth and depth in his research, his recent work addresses the experience of time, the possibility of demonstrating that monkeys have blind sighted experience, the understanding of the sacred in Homer, and the importance of community in solving the epidemic of loneliness. In his position as Faculty Dean of Dunster House, one of Harvard’s 12 residential Houses, Sean is able to observe the modern effects of isolation and community in real time as he lives, works, and fosters togetherness amongst the Gen Z students.

Prior to joining Harvard, Kelly taught Philosophy and the Humanities at Stanford and Philosophy and Neuroscience at Princeton. He possesses an Sc.B. in Mathematics and Computer Science and an M.S. in Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences from Brown University, as well as a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley.


Breaking the Dichotomy: Embracing Nuance in Today's Divided Society

In an era marked by extreme division and polarization, individuals often hold their own views in high esteem and view dissenters as enemies to be extinguished. The prevailing attitude seems to be, “I’m right, you’re wrong, and you’re a terrible person for being wrong.” But few issues are actually so cut and dry. While mathematical truths like two plus two equaling four remain steadfast, the moral quandaries of human life are much more nebulous. It’s crucial to acknowledge how factors such as situational relevance, history, local standards, and future possibilities color our perceptions of right and wrong. In this talk, Harvard philosophy professor Sean Kelly guides audiences away from dichotomous thinking that serves no one and toward more stimulating, expansive conversations filled with nuance that open doors to new understanding and deeper connection.

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The Importance of Play: What We Lose When Everything is Decided for Us

When was the last time you played? If you’re someone who regularly makes time for video games or pick-up sports at your local park, you’re doing better than most adults, but unfortunately this isn’t the sort of play we’re talking about. Professor Sean Kelly likes to distinguish games from play. Games have rules, guidelines, expected outcomes—which is no different than the rest of our lives. Play on the other hand is the antithesis of these structures: endlessly open and spontaneous and freeform. The concept of true play is elusive in most adults, and that should concern us. In this talk, Professor Kelly makes the case that play is connected to our dignity as human beings. When we play, we’re faced with constantly changing frameworks and forced to reevaluate and ask ourselves “What counts as good now?” This constant updating of what’s meaningful and important is central to creative endeavors, resilience in stressful situations, and more. This is humanity at our best, but we stand to lose this as technology becomes more ingrained in our lives.

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Reflections from Dunster House: Building Community in the Face of Loneliness

We as a society are only beginning to turn our lenses to the gravity of the loneliness epidemic. With the rise of social media and digital communication, intensifying political division and tribalism, and the growing absence of third spaces, people are becoming increasingly isolated from each other. Isolation can negatively affect everything from our mental and physical well-being to one’s susceptibility to extremist ideas; these effects have implications that reverberate beyond the personal to the societal and economic. Now that we have identified the problem, how do we fix it? The simple answer: community. But that is, of course, easier said than done. Based on a combination of philosophical research and real-life practice and observation as the head of one of Harvard’s residential houses, Sean Kelly offers insight into effective community building practices that stave off loneliness and its harmful side effects.

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Maintaining Your Humanity in an Increasingly Less Human World

Every day we’re introduced to new artificial intelligence technologies that approach or surpass human capabilities. It’s easy to become despondent and fearful of replacement by machines, but find comfort in the fact that artificial intelligence will always be artificial. We thrive by leaning into and strengthening that which makes us human, that which a machine could never achieve. With the perspective of a mathematician and computer scientist turned philosopher, Sean Kelly discusses how to integrate technology into our lives in a manner that allows us to maintain our humanity.

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Pursuing Well Being
Sean D. Kelly


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Sean Kelly named dean of Arts & Humanities
Harvard Gazette


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