Friday, August 10, 2012

19. Beyond nihilism: Imperfection on the move

The philosopher Nietzsche dealt a death blow to belief in old absolutes, raising the spectre of nihilism. God is dead, and truth, morality and beauty have become subjective, relative and evanescent.

There is weak nihilism: regretful loss of belief, and strong nihilism: no longer seeing such belief as desirable. Could we not see the loss of old absolutes as a discarding of shackles, an opening up to the flourishing of life? What room is there for life and humanity when we are bound by universal, immutable ideas? Nietzsche turned the issue around in condemning the old beliefs as a form of decadence, suggesting even that genuine nihilism lay in the old absolutes, in their denial of the forces of life. He heralded the coming of an ‘overman’, who could live beyond nihilism.

There is also a distinction between passive and active nihilism. In the first, there is immobilization, despondency, inability to act, which may end in suicide. Another form of it is withdrawal into the self, or suspension of the self, as in Buddhism. In active nihilism there is an urge to destroy all that is now without sense or aim. An alternative, more positive response, in strong nihilism, is a flight forward, in an attempt at life beyond nihilism, in acceptance of it as a positive opening.

Nietzsche indicated the dilemma that in our criticism of old ideals, including that of truth, we seek that same truth, and thus cannot really step out of it. Nihilism arose from inside: the drive to truth led to the recognition of its limits. To tell the truth, we are unable to quite tell the truth.

Nihilism is a spectre only so long as one thinks that without belief in absolutes there can be no meaningful belief at all. Here, in this blog, I argue that we can escape from the old ideal of certain truth and still seek truth more modestly, in truth as warrantable belief, something that works, for the time being, or in certain conditions, and is imperfect and prone to shift as we stumble on. We seek that makeshift truth because without it we would not survive, and as a result the urge towards it is instinctive. We can act on temporary, imperfect truth on the move, in testing our beliefs, in critical debate.

Key words are imperfection and movement. I plead not for mere acceptance but positive appreciation of imperfection, not just the impossibility but the undesirability of absolutes, and acceptance of change, of ideas, knowledge and morality as provisional but the best we can do now. In change, imperfection can become less imperfect without ever becoming perfect. In that change lies the journey of life. And as Nietzsche indicated, pain, misery, grief, and anguish are part of that life and should be faced rather than hidden in the distraction of false beliefs and hopes. Is there some ultimate goal of that journey, beyond life? Who knows? Probably not. Is it not enough?

In december 2012 I finished a book with the title 'Beyond nihilism: Imperfection on the move'. Now I am looking for a publisher. 


  1. Let's choose the flight forward. Noud

  2. From Mark van den Bergh, Dick Sinninghe Damsté, Gerhard Greidanus, Teije de Jong, Hans Prinsen, Enno Wiersma & Johan Wytema

    Dear Bart, seven of your student friends from Leyden University 1960-1968, together in Zermatt, briefly discussed this blog on 30 January 2013. We chose this blog because its contents provide a preview to the book that you are about to publish with the same title "Nihilism: imperfection on the move". None of us is a professional philosopher, so please bear this in mind when reading these comments.
    We found your plea for the acceptance of imperfection as a tool to assist in dealing with pain, misery, grief and anguish in life, rather than hiding it in the distraction provided by old absolutes, a refreshing approach. The way in which you think that this could work is formulated in the last two paragraphs of your blog. The first four paragraphs, where you introduce Nietsche's nihilism and where you discuss the spectre of nihilism, are of a more technical philosophical nature and it took us some effort to digest these intellectually.
    During our discussion one point came up that - we thought - illustrated that imperfection is indeed already on the move. In religion, one of the old absolutes dumped by Nietsche, there has been over the past half century a noticeable depreciation of dogma and an increasing appreciation of existentialism, with more room for the flourishing of life, an important theme in your recent book "Beyond Humanism".

  3. Dear friends, Thank you for the message. I am glad to hear you appreciate what I propose. I am also glad that in religion there is a loosening of dogma. But if it is theistic religion, religion with a God (rather than, say, a religion of the other, as with Levinas, discussed elsewhere in my blog), then surely God is still absolute.

    Since you find some of the text too technical philosophically, I will in future try to remedy that. However, I feel that here and there I should show how what I am saying is rooted in philosophy. Here, I wanted to show that the nihilism following Nietzsche is a fairly big problem in philosophy.