Monday, April 28, 2014





143. Forms of nihilism

Here I start a series on nihilism: what does it mean, what forms are there, what responses to it, how can one move beyond nihilism, what did Nietzsche propose for that move, and what is my proposal? Here, I elaborate on item 19 of this blog, with the title ‘Beyond nihilism: Imperfection on the move’. I use bits from a book with that title that I am writing. 

Western culture has harboured a deep urge, and still lingers in that urge, towards the certainty of ideals or values that are objective, i.e. ‘outside’ or independent from human cognition and inclinations, and absolute, that is: universal, unconditional, regardless of conditions and interests, and immutable, in other words applying everywhere and forever. This urge has been shaken by nihilism.

Nihilism is a complex notion, with a variety of meanings and interpretations. Karen Carr gave the overall characterization that I like best: ‘Loss of all sense of contact with what is ultimately true or meaningful’[1]. This loss has led to despair, in a loss of meaning in life, a feeling that life is not worth living. This is called Existential nihilism. It is a derived form of nihilism, following from loss of faith in the old, absolute values, or in human ability to live by them, or both. This can result in despair, if the old ideals are maintained, or in disorientation, if the desirability of the old ideas is in doubt or rejected.[2]

Nihilistic anxiety is not new, and arose before Nietzsche, but the spectre of nihilism manifested itself more openly and radically in his work, and it has been haunting philosophy ever since.

There are different forms of nihilism, according to the type of values lost. Religious nihilism results from loss of God, ontological nihilism from loss of reality as independent from human consciousness, epistemological nihilism from loss of objective knowledge, ethical nihilism from loss of objective morality, and aesthetic nihilism from loss of objective standards of beauty.  

Epistemological nihilism can be traced to the scepticism of the ancient philosopher Pyrrho, and to the later Kantian revolution. According to Kant we can only perceive and interpret the world according to categories of time, space and causality that we impose. We have no access to objective reality as it is in itself. This destroys the correspondence view of truth as a correspondence between ideas and items in reality.

Kant did propound absolute standards of ethics, such as the categorical imperative, a form of the ancient golden rule: do (not) do unto others that you (do not) want done to yourself. The underlying idea is that reasons are sufficient only when based on absolute values, and that reason can grasp them, standing apart from inclinations and interests.

Nietzsche demolished absolutes in all areas, of God, knowledge, ethics and art. The basic idea is that claims to knowledge, ethics and art are always, inevitably, based on some contingent, non-absolute perspective, associated with interests, which could be different but nevertheless yields sufficient reasons. 

For Nietzsche, the point was not only that the old absolutes couldn’t be achieved but, more importantly, that they pervert, thwart life. What room is there for life and humanity, for creativity and invention, and corresponding error, when we are bound by universal, immutable ideas? In particular, Nietzsche rejected the morality of compassion and altruism, as hypocritical, a revolt of the weak against the strong, which destroys excellence and flourishing of life.       

There is a distinction between weak nihilism: regretful loss of belief, and strong nihilism: no longer seeing such belief as desirable. Could one not make a step from disorientation to re-orientation, on the basis of values that are no longer claimed to be objective and/or absolute? Would that still be nihilism?

Nietzsche did not simply reject the old values as irrelevant, deserving indifference, as later postmodernists did (such as Richard Rorty). He also rejected indifference with respect to values, and passiveness, hedonism, and stoicism as an escape from the despair of nihilism. In his view that was as ‘decadent’, i.e. life thwarting, as the old absolutes.

He acknowledged the need for man to seek value and meaning, and rather than rejecting all values that go beyond the self, he sought a ‘Revaluation of all values’, with values that are not absolute and yet contribute to the flourishing of life. This offers an escape from nihilistic despair, but the despair was needed to propel this revaluation. What that revaluation entails I will discuss in a later item in this series. 



[1] Karen Carr, The banalization of nihilism,  State University of New York Press, 1992, p. 2.
[2] I adopt this distinction between despair and disorientation from Bernard Reginster, The affirmation of life; Nietzsche on overcoming nihilism, Harvard University Press, 2006.