Monday, May 12, 2014


145. Responses to nihilism: relativism

A radical response to nihilism is to reject the claim that absolute values are needed or even desirable, and to seek life without them. Two forms are Richard Rorty’s indifference and Nietzsche’s passionate ‘revaluation of all values’. 

One can become indifferent, shrugging at nihilism. What is the point of regretting values that cannot be achieved? Let us rejoice in being freed from them. This is the stance of (some) postmodernists, notably Richard Rorty.

This yields a pragmatist view: ideas and actions are good if they are useful, contribute to a good life.

This entails perspectivism: what one considers valid or true, in some sense, or good, depends on one’s perspective, which depends on history, circumstances, culture and personal perspective.

If the criterion for adequacy or validity is contribution to the good life, the question then is, of course, what the good life is and who determines that.

For Rorty that is a matter of consensus in some community, with different communities making different choices, without any perspective- and interest-free argument to adjudicate between them.

For Nietzsche the old absolutes were not just impossible to achieve but were inimical to the good life. Life entails variety and ongoing change of perspectives, and this is blocked by absolutes, any absolutes. For Nietzsche the good life is contribution to the flourishing of life, the furthering of human life and excellence, in an ongoing movement of self-transcendence and ‘Dionysian’ creative destruction, driven by the ‘will to power’. I will discuss that in a later item.  

Concerning knowledge, one can take refuge in epistemological scepticism, like Pyrrho, and later philosophers, such as Montaigne and David Hume. This skepticism can, but does not necessarily, lead to radical relativism: no claim to knowledge or truth is inherently better than any other.

An alternative to radical relativism is to accept that values can be legitimate and reasons can be sufficient without being absolute, while they are not arbitrary and are subject to debate and to improvement.

In pragmatism, absolute, objective truth is replaced by warranted assertability (which goes back to John Dewey). Something is to be accepted is there are good arguments for it, to be settled in debate. In pragmatism the central warrant for assertability is that it ‘works’, stands up in practice and furthers practical conduct.

As indicated, for Rorty the warrant lies in consensus in some community (in ‘ethnocentrism’). Karen Carr argued[1], correctly in my view, that this entails a surrender to conservatism, the status quo. And if there is no basis for adjudication between different perspectives, ultimately it is a matter of force, the right of the strong.

I would add that it entails a surrender to what Nietzsche called the ‘herd’ and Heidegger called ‘Das Man’. It entails surrender to suppression by the anonymous power of institutions, illustrated by Foucault. It entails surrender to the prisoners’ dilemmas in which society has increasingly been caught (as in the case of banking, discussed elsewhere in this blog), where individual morality is strangled in collective interest.    

Nietzsche acknowledged that man seeks meaning and value, but rather than accepting them from some outside authority, man produces them. Is his ultimate value as contribution to the flourishing of life not a new absolute, a new metaphysics? Does it yield an escape from relativism? That is the subject for the next item.


[1] Karen Carr, 1992, The banalization of nihilism, Twentieth century responses to meaninglessness, State University of New York Press.