Nihilism – The Spiritual Life

Posted: September 10, 2021 at 5:49 am

Nihilism has many definitions, and thus can describe multiple arguably independent philosophical positions.

Metaphysical nihilism is thephilosophicaltheory that posits that concrete objects and physical constructs might not exist in thepossible world, or that even if there exist possible worlds that contain some concrete objects, there is at least one that contains onlyabstract objects.

Extreme metaphysical nihilism is commonly defined as the belief that nothing exists as a correspondent component of the self-efficient world.[6]The American Heritage Medical Dictionary defines one form of nihilism as an extreme form of skepticism that denies all existence.[7]A similar skepticism concerning the concrete world can be found insolipsism. However, despite the fact that both deny the certainty of objects true existence, the nihilist would deny the existence ofselfwhereas the solipsist would affirm it.[8]Both these positions are considered forms ofanti-realism.

Epistemological nihilism is a form ofskepticismin which all knowledge is accepted as being possibly untrue or as being impossible to confirm as true.

Mereological nihilism (also called compositional nihilism) is the position that objects with proper parts do not exist (not only objects in space, but also objects existing in time do not have any temporal parts), and only basic building blocks without parts exist, and thus the world we see and experience full of objects with parts is a product of human misperception (i.e., if we could see clearly, we would not perceive compositive objects).

This interpretation of existence must be based on resolution. The resolution with which humans see and perceive the improper parts of the world is not an objective fact of reality, but is rather an implicit trait that can only be qualitatively explored and expressed. Therefore, there is no arguable way to surmise or measure the validity of mereological nihilism. Example: An ant can get lost on a large cylindrical object because the circumference of the object is so large with respect to the ant that the ant effectively feels as though the object has no curvature. Thus, the resolution with which the ant views the world it exists within is a very important determining factor in how the ant experiences this within the world feeling.

Existential nihilism is the belief that life has no intrinsic meaning or value. With respect to the universe, existential nihilism posits that a single human or even the entire human species is insignificant, without purpose and unlikely to change in the totality of existence. The meaninglessness or meaning of life is largely explored in the philosophical school of existentialism.

Moral nihilism, also known as ethical nihilism, is themeta-ethicalview that morality does not exist as something inherent to objective reality; therefore no action is necessarily preferable to any other. For example, a moral nihilist would say that killing someone, for whatever reason, is not inherently right or wrong.

Other nihilists may argue not that there is no morality at all, but that if it does exist, it is a human construction and thus artificial, wherein any and all meaning is relative for different possible outcomes. As an example, if someone kills someone else, such a nihilist might argue that killing is not inherently a bad thing, or bad independently from our moral beliefs, because of the way morality is constructed as some rudimentary dichotomy. What is said to be a bad thing is given a higher negative weighting than what is called good: as a result, killing the individual was bad because it did not let the individual live, which was arbitrarily given a positive weighting. In this way a moral nihilist believes that all moral claims are void of any truth value. An alternative scholarly perspective is that moral nihilism is a morality in itself. Cooper writes, In the widest sense of the word morality, moral nihilism is a morality.[9]

Political nihilism follows the characteristic nihilists rejection of non-rationalized or non-proven assertions; in this case the necessity of the most fundamental social and political structures, such asgovernment,family, andlaw. An influential analysis of political nihilism is presented byLeo Strauss.[10]

The Russian Nihilist movement was a Russian trend in the 1860s that rejected all authority.[11]After the assassination of TsarAlexander IIin 1881, the Nihilists gained a reputation throughout Europe as proponents of the use of violence for political change.The Nihilists expressed anger at what they described as the abusive nature of theEastern Orthodox Churchand of the tsarist monarchy, and at the domination of the Russian economy by the aristocracy. Although the termNihilismwas coined by the German theologianFriedrich Heinrich Jacobi(17431818), its widespread usage began with the 1862 novelFathers and Sons by the Russian author Ivan Turgenev. The main character of the novel, Yevgeny Bazarov, who describes himself as a Nihilist, wants to educate the people. The go to the people be the people campaign reached its height in the 1870s, during which underground groups such as the Circle of Tchaikovsky, the Peoples Will, and Land and Liberty formed. It became known as the Narodnik movement, whose members believed that the newly freed serfs were merely being sold into wage slavery in the onset of the Industrial Revolution, and that the middle and upper classes had effectively replaced landowners. The Russian state attempted to suppress the nihilist movement. In actions described by the Nihilists as propaganda of the deed many government officials were assassinated. In 1881 Alexander II was killed on the very day he had approved a proposal to call a representative assembly to consider new reforms.

Medical nihilism is the view that we should have little confidence in the effectiveness of medical interventions.[12]Jacob Stegenga proposed the term in the bookMedical Nihilism. It is a work inphilosophy of sciencethat deals with contextualizeddemarcationof medical research. Stegenga appliesBayes Theoremto medical research then argues for the premise that even when presented with evidence for a hypothesis regarding the effectiveness of a medical intervention , we ought to have low confidence in that hypothesis.[13][14]

The concept of nihilism was discussed by the Buddha (563 B.C. to 483 B.C.), as recorded in the Theravada and MahayanaTripiaka.[15]The Tripiaka, originally written in Pali, refers to nihilism as natthikavda and the nihilist view as micchdihi.[16][17]Various sutras within it describe a multiplicity of views held by different sects of ascetics while the Buddha was alive, some of which were viewed by him to be morally nihilistic. In the Doctrine of Nihilism in the Apannaka Sutta, the Buddha describes moral nihilists as holding the following views:[18][19]

The Buddha then states that those who hold these views will not see the danger in misconduct and the blessings in good conduct and will, therefore, avoid good bodily, verbal and mental conduct; practicing misconduct instead.[18]

The culmination of the path that the Buddha taught was Nirvana, a place of nothingness nonpossession and non-attachment [which is] the total end of death and decay.[20]In an article Ajahn Amaro, a practicing Buddhist monk of more than 30 years, observes that in English nothingness can sound like nihilism. However the word could be emphasised in a different way, so that it becomes no-thingness, indicating that Nirvana is not a thing you can find, but rather a state where you experience the reality of non-grasping.[20]

In the Alagaddupama Sutta, the Buddha describes how some individuals feared his teaching because they believe that their self would be destroyed if they followed it. He describes this as an anxiety caused by the false belief in an unchanging, everlasting self. All things are subject to change and taking any impermanent phenomena to be a self causes suffering. Nonetheless, his critics called him a nihilist who teaches the annihilation and extermination of an existing being. The Buddhas response was that he only teaches the cessation of suffering. When an individual has given up craving and the conceit of I am their mind is liberated, they no longer come into any state of being and are no longer born again.[21]

The Aggivacchagotta Sutta records a conversation between the Buddha and an individual named Vaccha that further elaborates on this. In it Vaccha asks the Buddha to confirm one of the following, with respect to the existence of the Buddha after death:[22]

To all four questions, the Buddha answers that the terms appear, not appear, does and does not reappear and neither does nor does not reappear do not apply. When Vaccha expresses puzzlement, the Buddha asks Vaccha a counter question to the effect of: if a fire were to go out and someone were to ask you whether the fire went north, south east or west how would you reply? Vaccha replies that the question does not apply and that a fire gone out can only be classified as out.[22]

Thanissaro Bikkhu elaborates on the classification problem around the words reappear etc. with respect to the Buddha and Nirvana by stating that a person who has attained the goal [Nirvana] is thus indescribable because [they have] abandoned all things by which [they] could be described.[23]The Suttas themselves describe the liberated mind as untraceable or as consciousness without feature, making no distinction between the mind of a liberated being that is alive and the mind of one that is no longer alive.[21][24]

Despite the Buddhas explanations to the contrary, Buddhist practitioners may, at times, still approach Buddhism in a nihilistic manner. Ajahn Amaro illustrates this by retelling the story of a Buddhist monk, Ajahn Sumedho, who in his early years took a nihilistic approach to Nirvana. A distinct feature of Nirvana in Buddhism is that an individual attaining it is no longer subject to rebirth. Ajahn Sumedho, during a conversation with his teacher Ajahn Chah comments that he is determined above all things to fully realize Nirvna in this lifetime deeply weary of the human condition and [is] determined not to be born again. To this Ajahn Chah replies what about the rest of us, Sumedho? Dont you care about those wholl be left behind?. Ajahn Amaro comments that Ajahn Chah could detect that his student had a nihilistic aversion to life rather than true detachment. With his response, Ajahn Chah chided Ajahn Sumedho about the latters narrowness and opened his eyes to this attitude of self centred nihilism.[25]

The novelist Ivan S. Turgenev made the term nihilism popular.

The term nihilism was first used by Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (17431819). Jacobi used the term to characterize rationalism[26] and in particular Immanuel Kants critical philosophy to carry out a reductio ad absurdum according to which all rationalism (philosophy as criticism) reduces to nihilismand thus it should be avoided and replaced with a return to some type of faith and revelation. Bret W. Davis writes, for example, The first philosophical development of the idea of nihilism is generally ascribed to Friedrich Jacobi, who in a famous letter criticized Fichtes idealism as falling into nihilism. According to Jacobi, Fichtes absolutization of the ego (the absolute I that posits the not-I) is an inflation of subjectivity that denies the absolute transcendence of God.[27]A related but oppositional concept isfideism, which sees reason as hostile and inferior to faith.

With the popularizing of the wordnihilismbyIvan Turgenev, a new Russian political movement called theNihilist movementadopted the term. They supposedly called themselves nihilists because nothing that then existed found favor in their eyes.[28]This movement was significant enough that, even in the English speaking world, at the turn of the 20th century the word nihilism without qualification was almost exclusively associated with this Russian revolutionary sociopolitical movement.[29]

unfinished sketchc.1840 ofSren Kierkegaardby his cousinNiels Christian Kierkegaard

Levelling at its maximum is like the stillness of death, where one can hear ones own heartbeat, a stillness like death, into which nothing can penetrate, in which everything sinks, powerless. One person can head a rebellion, but one person cannot head this levelling process, for that would make him a leader and he would avoid being levelled. Each individual can in his little circle participate in this levelling, but it is an abstract process, and levelling is abstraction conquering individuality.

Kierkegaard, an advocate of aphilosophy of life, generally argued against levelling and its nihilistic consequences, although he believed it would be genuinely educative to live in the age of levelling [because] people will be forced to face the judgement of [levelling] alone.[31]George Cotkin asserts Kierkegaard was against the standardization and levelling of belief, both spiritual and political, in the nineteenth century, and that Kierkegaard opposed tendencies inmass cultureto reduce the individual to a cipher of conformity and deference to the dominant opinion.[32]In his day,tabloids(like the Danish magazineCorsaren) and apostate Christianity were instruments of levelling and contributed to the reflective apathetic age of 19th century Europe.[33]Kierkegaard argues that individuals who can overcome the levelling process are stronger for it, and that it represents a step in the right direction towards becoming a true self.[31][34]As we must overcome levelling,[35]Hubert Dreyfusand Jane Rubin argue that Kierkegaards interest, in an increasingly nihilistic age, is inhowwe can recover the sense that our lives are meaningful.[36]

Note, however, that Kierkegaards meaning of nihilism differs from the modern definition, in the sense that, for Kierkegaard, levelling led to a life lacking meaning, purpose or value,[33]whereas the modern interpretation of nihilism posits that there was never any meaning, purpose or value to begin with.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Nihilism is often associated with the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who provided a detailed diagnosis of nihilism as a widespread phenomenon of Western culture. Though the notion appears frequently throughout Nietzsches work, he uses the term in a variety of ways, with different meanings and connotations. Karen L. Carr describes Nietzsches characterization of nihilism as a condition of tension, as a disproportion between what we want to value (or need) and how the world appears to operate.[37]When we find out that the world does not possess the objective value or meaning that we want it to have or have long since believed it to have, we find ourselves in a crisis.[38]Nietzsche asserts that with the decline of Christianity and the rise of physiological decadence,nihilism is in fact characteristic of the modern age,[39]though he implies that the rise of nihilism is still incomplete and that it has yet to be overcome.[40]Though the problem of nihilism becomes especially explicit in Nietzschesnotebooks(published posthumously), it is mentioned repeatedly in his published works and is closely connected to many of the problems mentioned there.

Nietzsche characterized nihilism as emptying the world and especially human existence of meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. This observation stems in part from Nietzschesperspectivism, or his notion that knowledge is always by someone of some thing: it is always bound by perspective, and it is never mere fact.[41]Rather, there are interpretations through which we understand the world and give it meaning. Interpreting is something we can not go without; in fact, it is something weneed. One way of interpreting the world is through morality, as one of the fundamental ways that people make sense of the world, especially in regard to their own thoughts and actions. Nietzsche distinguishes a morality that is strong or healthy, meaning that the person in question is aware that he constructs it himself, from weak morality, where the interpretation is projected on to something external.

Nietzsche discusses Christianity, one of the major topics in his work, at length in the context of the problem of nihilism in his notebooks, in a chapter entitled European Nihilism.[42]Here he states that the Christian moral doctrine provides people withintrinsic value, belief in God (whichjustifiesthe evil in the world) and a basis forobjective knowledge. In this sense, in constructing a world where objective knowledge is possible, Christianity is an antidote against a primal form of nihilism, against the despair of meaninglessness. However, it is exactly the element of truthfulness in Christian doctrine that is its undoing: in its drive towards truth, Christianity eventually finds itself to be a construct, which leads to its own dissolution. It is therefore that Nietzsche states that we have outgrown Christianity not because we lived too far from it, rather because we lived too close.[43] As such, the self-dissolution of Christianity constitutes yet another form of nihilism. Because Christianity was an interpretation that posited itself as the interpretation, Nietzsche states that this dissolution leads beyond skepticism to a distrust ofallmeaning.[44][45]

Stanley Rosenidentifies Nietzsches concept of nihilism with a situation of meaninglessness, in which everything is permitted. According to him, the loss of higher metaphysical values that exist in contrast to the base reality of the world, or merely human ideas, gives rise to the idea that all human ideas are therefore valueless. Rejecting idealism thus results in nihilism, because only similarly transcendent ideals live up to the previous standards that the nihilist still implicitly holds.[46] The inability for Christianity to serve as a source of valuating the world is reflected in Nietzsches famous aphorism of the madman inThe Gay Science.[47]The death of God, in particular the statement that we killed him, is similar to theself-dissolution of Christian doctrine: due to the advances of the sciences, which for Nietzsche show that man is the product ofevolution, that Earth has nospecial placeamong the stars and thathistoryis notprogressive, the Christian notion of God can no longer serve as a basis for a morality.

One such reaction to the loss of meaning is what Nietzsche callspassive nihilism, which he recognises in thepessimisticphilosophy ofSchopenhauer. Schopenhauers doctrine, which Nietzsche also refers to asWestern Buddhism, advocates separating oneself from will and desires in order to reduce suffering. Nietzsche characterises thisasceticattitude as a will tonothingness, whereby life turns away from itself, as there is nothing of value to be found in the world. This mowing away of all value in the world is characteristic of the nihilist, although in this, the nihilist appears inconsistent:[48]

A nihilist is a man who judges of the world as it is that it oughtnotto be, and of the world as it ought to be that it does not exist. According to this view, our existence (action, suffering, willing, feeling) has no meaning: the pathos of in vain is the nihilists pathos at the same time, as pathos, an inconsistency on the part of the nihilists.

Friedrich Nietzsche, KSA 12:9 [60], taken fromThe Will to Power,section 585, translated byWalter Kaufmann

Nietzsches relation to the problem of nihilism is a complex one. He approaches the problem of nihilism as deeply personal, stating that this predicament of the modern world is a problem that has become conscious in him.[49]According to Nietzsche, it is only when nihilism isovercomethat a culture can have a true foundation upon which to thrive. He wished to hasten its coming only so that he could also hasten its ultimate departure.[39]

He states that there is at least the possibility of another type of nihilist in the wake of Christianitys self-dissolution, one that doesnotstop after the destruction of all value and meaning and succumb to the following nothingness. This alternate, active nihilism on the other hand destroys to level the field for constructing something new. This form of nihilism is characterized by Nietzsche as a sign of strength,[50]a willful destruction of the old values to wipe the slate clean and lay down ones own beliefs and interpretations, contrary to the passive nihilism that resigns itself with the decomposition of the old values. This willful destruction of values and the overcoming of the condition of nihilism by the constructing of new meaning, this active nihilism, could be related to what Nietzsche elsewhere calls a free spirit[51]or thebermenschfromThus Spoke ZarathustraandThe Antichrist, the model of the strong individual who posits his own values and lives his life as if it were his own work of art. It may be questioned, though, whether active nihilism is indeed the correct term for this stance, and some question whether Nietzsche takes the problems nihilism poses seriously enough.[52]

Martin Heideggers interpretation of Nietzsche influenced many postmodern thinkers who investigated the problem of nihilism as put forward by Nietzsche. Only recently has Heideggers influence on Nietzschean nihilism research faded.[53]As early as the 1930s, Heidegger was giving lectures on Nietzsches thought.[54]Given the importance of Nietzsches contribution to the topic of nihilism, Heideggers influential interpretation of Nietzsche is important for the historical development of the termnihilism.

Heideggers method of researching and teaching Nietzsche is explicitly his own. He does not specifically try to present NietzscheasNietzsche. He rather tries to incorporate Nietzsches thoughts into his own philosophical system ofBeing, Time andDasein.[55]In hisNihilism as Determined by the History of Being(194446),[56]Heidegger tries to understand Nietzsches nihilism as trying to achieve a victory through the devaluation of the, until then, highest values. The principle of this devaluation is, according to Heidegger, theWill to Power. The Will to Power is also the principle of every earliervaluationof values.[57]How does this devaluation occur and why is this nihilistic? One of Heideggers main critiques on philosophy is that philosophy, and more specifically metaphysics, has forgotten to discriminate between investigating the notion ofabeing (Seiende) andBeing(Sein). According to Heidegger, the history of Western thought can be seen as the history of metaphysics. And because metaphysics has forgotten to ask about the notion of Being (what Heidegger callsSeinsvergessenheit), it is a history about the destruction of Being. That is why Heidegger calls metaphysics nihilistic.[58]This makes Nietzsches metaphysics not a victory over nihilism, but a perfection of it.[59]

Heidegger, in his interpretation of Nietzsche, has been inspired byErnst Jnger. Many references to Jnger can be found in Heideggers lectures on Nietzsche. For example, in a letter to the rector of Freiburg University of November 4, 1945, Heidegger, inspired by Jnger, tries to explain the notion of God is dead as the reality of the Will to Power. Heidegger also praises Jnger for defending Nietzsche against a too biological or anthropological reading during theNazi era.[60]

Heideggers interpretation of Nietzsche influenced a number of important postmodernist thinkers.Gianni Vattimopoints at a back-and-forth movement in European thought, between Nietzsche and Heidegger. During the 1960s, a Nietzschean renaissance began, culminating in the work ofMazzino MontinariandGiorgio Colli. They began work on a new and complete edition of Nietzsches collected works, making Nietzsche more accessible for scholarly research. Vattimo explains that with this new edition of Colli and Montinari, a critical reception of Heideggers interpretation of Nietzsche began to take shape. Like other contemporary French and Italian philosophers, Vattimo does not want, or only partially wants, to rely on Heidegger for understanding Nietzsche. On the other hand, Vattimo judges Heideggers intentions authentic enough to keep pursuing them.[61]Philosophers who Vattimo exemplifies as a part of this back and forth movement are French philosophersDeleuze,FoucaultandDerrida. Italian philosophers of this same movement areCacciari,Severinoand himself.[62]Jrgen Habermas,Jean-Franois LyotardandRichard Rortyare also philosophers who are influenced by Heideggers interpretation of Nietzsche.[63]

Gilles Deleuzes interpretation of Nietzsches concept of nihilism is different in some sense diametrically opposed to the usual definition (as outlined in the rest of this article). Nihilism is one of the main topics of Deleuzes early bookNietzsche and Philosophy(1962).[64]There, Deleuze repeatedly interprets Nietzsches nihilism as the enterprise of denying life and depreciating existence.[65]Nihilism thus defined is therefore not the denial of higher values, or the denial of meaning, but rather the depreciation of life in the name of such higher values or meaning. Deleuze therefore (with, he claims, Nietzsche) says that Christianity and Platonism, and with them the whole of metaphysics, are intrinsically nihilist.

Postmodernandpoststructuralistthought has questioned the very grounds on whichWestern cultureshave based their truths: absolute knowledge and meaning, a decentralization of authorship, the accumulation of positive knowledge, historical progress, and certain ideals and practices ofhumanismandthe Enlightenment.

Jacques Derrida, whosedeconstructionis perhaps most commonly labeled nihilistic, did not himself make the nihilistic move that others have claimed. Derridean deconstructionists argue that this approach rather frees texts, individuals or organizations from a restrictive truth, and that deconstruction opens up the possibility of other ways of being.[66]Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, for example, uses deconstruction to create an ethics of opening up Western scholarship to the voice of thesubalternand to philosophies outside of the canon of western texts.[67]Derrida himself built a philosophy based upon a responsibility to the other.[68]Deconstruction can thus be seen not as a denial of truth, but as a denial of our ability to know truth. That is to say, it makes anepistemologicalclaim, compared to nihilismsontologicalclaim.

Lyotardargues that, rather than relying on anobjectivetruth or method to prove their claims, philosophers legitimize their truths by reference to a story about the world that cant be separated from the age and system the stories belong toreferred to by Lyotard asmeta-narratives.He then goes on to define thepostmodern conditionas characterized by a rejection both of these meta-narratives and of the process oflegitimationby meta-narratives.

In lieu of meta-narratives we have created newlanguage-gamesin order to legitimize our claims which rely on changing relationships and mutable truths, none of which is privileged over the other to speak to ultimate truth.

This concept of the instability of truth and meaning leads in the direction of nihilism, though Lyotard stops short of embracing the latter.

Postmodern theoristJean Baudrillardwrote briefly of nihilism from the postmodern viewpoint inSimulacra and Simulation. He stuck mainly to topics of interpretations of the real world over the simulations of which the real world is composed. The uses of meaning were an important subject in Baudrillards discussion of nihilism:

Theapocalypseis finished, today it is the precession of the neutral, of forms of the neutral and of indifferenceall that remains, is the fascination for desertlike and indifferent forms, for the very operation of the system that annihilates us. Now, fascination (in contrast to seduction, which was attached to appearances, and to dialectical reason, which was attached to meaning) is a nihilistic passion par excellence, it is the passion proper to the mode of disappearance. We are fascinated by all forms of disappearance, of our disappearance. Melancholic and fascinated, such is our general situation in an era of involuntary transparency.

Jean Baudrillard,Simulacra and Simulation, On Nihilism, trans. 1995

InNihil Unbound: Extinction and Enlightenment,Ray Brassiermaintains that philosophy has avoided the traumatic idea ofextinction, instead attempting to find meaning in a world conditioned by the very idea of its own annihilation. Thus Brassier critiques both the phenomenological and hermeneutic strands of Continental philosophy as well as the vitality of thinkers likeGilles Deleuze, who work to ingrain meaning in the world and stave off the threat of nihilism. Instead, drawing on thinkers such asAlain Badiou,Franois Laruelle,Paul Churchland, andThomas Metzinger, Brassier defends a view of the world as inherently devoid of meaning. That is, rather than avoiding nihilism, Brassier embraces it as the truth of reality. Brassier concludes from his readings of Badiou and Laruelle that the universe is founded on the nothing,[69]but also that philosophy is the organon of extinction, that it is only because life is conditioned by its own extinction that there is thought at all.[70] Brassier then defends a radically anti-correlationist philosophy proposing that Thought is conjoined not with Being, but with Non-Being.

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Nihilism - The Spiritual Life

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