The spectre of nihilism – 1

IT can be frightening sometimes to realise how fragile our value systems can be – how easily they can be swept away by events. It can be hard to remain afloat, for example, when faced with a tidal wave of assault on the very notion of truth. From post-modernism to post-truth politics; from conspiracy theorists to egoists, the world can seem a bleak place. And then there’s the loss of any sense of the specialness of humanity since Darwin. We would not exist at all without bacteria and bacteria – the true masters of the universe – will long survive our ephemeral existence, as will the planet.

In these circumstances – as some politicians and their advisers laugh and jeer at those who cling on to truth – it can be tempting to say ‘to hell with it’ and peer into the abyss of nihilism. What if John Dewey is right, as noted in the previous blog, that the ‘radical oppositions in philosophy’ are simply ‘different ways of supplying recipes for denying to the universe the character of contingency’, and that there is no stability or truth? Or, as Marx famously said of capitalism, ‘all that is solid melts into air’? That the truth, reasoning and logic, so privileged by Enlightenment thinkers, are mere chimera, a mockery of human existence?

But what then is nihilism? Well, the word comes from the Latin ‘nihil’, meaning the rejection of all aspects of moral, political or philosophical thought without any positive alternatives. All morality, for example, is simply a cover for egoistic self-seeking. All knowledge is contingent on historical epochs, often relative to groups, nations or civilizations that has no meaning beyond them. The universe is entirely indifferent or even hostile to human life, which is, in existential terms, inherently absurd, pointless and futile.

In practice nihilism has often been applied to movements which, while they want to destroy existing institutions and social mores, actually want to replace them with those that they think will be better. The word was famously used to describe Bazarov, the protagonist in Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons. The Russian Nihilists that followed in the 19th century did not question existential meaning but wanted to destroy a political order they despised in order to effect political and social change.

Going back further in time, the Cynics of ancient Athens have also been described as being nihilists in that they eschewed the existing polis, social and moral conventions, even to the extent of going naked and doing unspeakable things in the market place. Unlike Socrates, for example, Diogenes even rejected the comforts of home and lived in a barrel while begging for his living. But the Cynics wanted to replace the polis with the cosmopolis or universal love of humanity. Nietzsche is also often called a nihilist but, while he loathed what he called the slave morality of Christianity, after Zarathustra declared that God was dead, replaced it with the sublimated will to power and the ubermensch.

Frederich Nietzsche

So wherein lies nihilism proper? Is it even possible to have no values at all? Well, according to Gideon Baker in Nihilism and Philosophy, it lies in philosophy’s own ‘will to truth’ because it ‘makes truth (understood as what is timeless) the utmost thing and by the same token besmirches a world of time and becoming’. And again: “This tension between truth as unchanging and world as change is also why the will to truth continually calls truth into question.” We seem to be back with Dewey’s tension between stability and uncertainty. It is philosophy itself, as understood by Baker, that gives rise to the spectre of nihilism!

The problem for nihilists, however, is that it is also entangled with this two-worlds problem. “If nihilism is wrapped up in the two-worlds problem then why not simply abolish the supersensory (true) world of metaphysics and get back to the one world that metaphysics divided into two?” asks Baker. Why indeed? Why does the metaphysical or noumenal world still hold a bridgehead in our thinking? Here Baker has the most extraordinary insight that the sensory world could not even exist without the ‘supersensory world by which “this world” was first defined’. He adds: “Paradoxically, this world as final ground is the outcome of the groundless world beyond, and not its precondition.” Further: “Once having lost the world beyond we cannot simply revert to this world since, prior to the beyond, it was not there!” And again: “We have lost what we never had and cannot then rediscover it…we are extraneous to all worlds, the true (ideal, eternal) and the illusory (material, transient).”

Martin Heidegger

According to Heidegger it was the dawning realisation of this horrible paradox that led to the insanity of Nietzsche’s last 10 years. In his Late Notebooks Nietzsche identifies three distinct forms of nihilism beginning with reactive or passive which seeks solace in religion and conventional morality. The second, active nihilism, does not feel the lack of old values but does not have the strength to promote new beliefs. As such it ‘remains a pathological intermediate state in which the inference that there is no meaning at all always threatens’. Nietzsche sought to dig himself out of this deep nihilism by seeing it as a necessary stage before its overcoming, post-nihilistic life-affirming stage which, for him, was the ubermensch. Those who do not choose the sublimated will to power, however, can find themselves languishing in the anxiety inducing passive or pathological stages.

To be continued…

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  1. Just a short response.

    You are certainly a well-read person, far better read than I. Nevertheless, as you made the effort to write your blog, I will make some effort to develop the discussion.

    I have for a long time been interested in the philosophical idea of nihilism. Not that I understand it as deeply as you do nor have I the breath of your knowledge. I have always understood it to mean striving for perfection, or utopia, to be useless as all we have is change. I believe Marx’s mate Engels said much the same. Striving for the perfect world, system, only produces change as each change brings about its own problems. We can look back in history to see that this is true.

    Though it of course requires questioning value judgements. Few would argue the striving to remove the Victorian slums and deprivation was a bad thing. Yet, it has created its own problems. Healthier longer lives require expensive medical and health care and consumes more carbon-based fuel which may be detrimental to people living now or in the future.

    So, does nihilism really mean all of humankind’s endeavours to improve are useless, a waste of effort, a self-delusion and all we really have is change, simply change.

    Animals don’t seek to develop and change their environment or living conditions. With food in their bellies and somewhere warm and safe to sleep they settle for what is not what could be.

    Perhaps one of man’s greatest self-delusions is the belief that when dead we will live happily ever after sitting on a cloud drinking milk and honey or whatever representation fits your religious dogma, when in fact there is nothing, absolutely nothing, the light goes out and darkness into non-existence triumphs.

    Or is that too nihilistic?

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  2. Hi Mike, thanks for your response. It’s interesting that you equate nihilism with utopia. As I understand it nihilism means a belief in nothing, so those who have often been regarded as being nihilists, like Diogenes, Nietzsche and the Russian Nihilists were not, in fact nihilists, because they believed in replacing the existing moral and social frameworks with new ones. The word utopia doesn’t necessarily mean perfection. It’s literal translation is ‘nowhere’ and has often been used as an ironic way of criticising an existing society – I believe that Thomas More’s Utopia one such.
    I don’t think Marx, in this sense, could be regarded either as a nihilist or a utopian. It’s worth pointing out that great thinkers are often traduced and misrepresented. Marx was one of these, as was Nietzsche and, indeed, Adam Smith – the latter especially by, somewhat ironically, the Adam Smith Institute. Regarding Marx, for example, how many people know that he admired and celebrated the emergence of capitalism – just read the Communist Manifesto for the most extraordinary paean to capitalism – because he saw it is as a major step away from the sclerotic feudal society towards the potential for individual freedom. His whole oeuvre, in fact, could be seen as an attempt to shift humanity away from what he called the Realm of Necessity to the Realm of Freedom. As a lifelong radical humanist he would have been appalled to see what was done in his name by the likes of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin.


  3. I did not intend to equate nihilism with utopia. Rather the opposite. Nihilism is nothing. In the terms I used it nihilism means everything is meaningless. Hence the striving towards something is meaningless because that something can never be achieved or obtained for in the end there is nothing. Though I did suggest that the only something that exists is change. Postulating social economic structures be it Adam’s Capitalism or Marx’s Communism is, well, a meaningless activity because in the end there is nothing. Moving from a feudal society, whilst superficially would be judged by modern values as a good thing, is in fact simply changing ones set of rules for another. Are we any happier today than people of yesterday? Of course we are healthier and live longer but are we better off, is the world a better place.

    You will know more, philosophically, about this than I do: there is nothing only thought yet thought does not exist, it is merely an interpretation of, an experience of, neurons.

    Regarding Marx, I read Das Capital many years ago, my understanding then was that Marx proposed a free market economy, essentially capitalism. Though some of the difference is in the use of the word in a finance context (i.e. Return on Capital Employed) as opposed to describing a social political economic society. Rather that seeing the proletariat as a trudging mass destiny to hammer iron for the benefit of society Marx embodied them with the equal freedom to exploit and use the free market to enhance their own existence as Adams did to those with ‘capital’. As you say, the Realm of Freedom.

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