Nihilism and Meaning

29 December 2011

'Nihilism’ is based on the Latin word for `nothing’: nihil.  Nihilism is used for a lot of positions in philosophy…  that there is nothing at all; that we know nothing at all; that there are no moral principles at all, and virtually any other position that could be framed with the word `nothing’.  But the most common use, and what we'll explore today, is nihilism as the view that nothing we do, nothing we create, nothing we love, has any meaning or value whatsoever.

Nihilism not only captures a philosophical point of view, but a certain mood, a certain melancholy: is this all there is?  Is all of humanity just a paltry few years of events on an insignificant planet, about which the universe cares nothing?  Does anything matter?  For most people it isn’t a problem posed by reading philosophy, but by absorbing the modern point of view… the miniscule place in the world that humans have - according to science.

 Nihilism first came into the philosophical vocabulary as an accusation.  It didn’t start off with philosophers saying:  `I am a nihilist’ but `You are a nihilist’.  Some Philosophers felt that if what certain other philosophers said was true, then everything would be meaningless. 

 In particular a fellow named Friedrich Jacobi said that Kantian Philosophy – particularly as developed by Johann Fichte – led to nihilism, the view that nothing mattered.  That's because Fichte's philosophy didn’t rest on faith and revelation but on a limited conception of reason.  He emphasized the self as the beginning of philosophy.

 Jacobi – the accuser - put his finger on the fundamental issue of nihilism.  Most religions, many philosophies, and the common beliefs of many people suppose that the source of value is something beyond the individual, beyond humans, beyond the physical world, beyond the natural world.  If not God, perhaps a transcendent realm of forms, as Plato thought.  Nihilism as an accusation is a challenge: if you don’t believe in God, or something else transcendent and eternal, why does anything matter? 

 And by the time we come to Nietzsche, we have a philosopher embracing nihilism, in a way.  He says, God is dead, everything is permitted, and hurray for that. 

 I think there's a little ambiguity here, though.  Think of Jacobi’s basic point as an argument.  First: all meaning and value have a transcendent source.  But, if we don’t have God, faith, and revelation, then there is no transcendent source.  Conclusion: On your Godless view (whether you admit it or not), there is no meaning.  I don’t think Nietzsche really accepted the conclusion that there was not any meaning.  He accepted that there wasn’t the kind of meaning that Jacobi wanted.  But not that there was no meaning.

 I think Nietzsche would qualify the first premise: some kinds of meaning and value need a transcendent source.  So with the second premise -- there is no transcendent source  -- you get a modified conclusion: There are no meanings and values of that kind.  But Nietzsche thought there were meanings and values, and life was meaningful.

 So in one sense, he is a nihilist: there is no transcendent meaning to ground the meaning that comes out of human projects and commitments.  But in another sense he’s not: human projects and commitments are themselves a valid source of meaning.

 In those broad strokes, maybe our very eminent guest is a Nietzschean.  That's Hubert Dreyfus, Professor emeritus at Berkeley, author of many influential books, and co-author of a recent book right on our topic, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age.

 

Comments (9)


Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, December 30, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

See: Graham Martin's book:

See: Graham Martin's book: Does it Matter? I have advocated such views before, without concerning myself with possible altenatives. As I have opined : Nietzsche was a sufferer. as was the Dane, Soren K. I find it maudlin that we still attend these thinkers who had so many problems of their own, yet tried to conceive and postulate theories and suppositions which would apply to humanity, generally. A bit like the enigmas of Christianity; Islam; Judism and other systems that cannot agree with themselves, let alone with each other.
I wonder. Has anyone dared to think about this? Sure, there are atheists, agnostics and others---all having their own agendas; positions; points-of-view. Historionicity wreaks havoc---quietly, without anyone knowing quite what it is that is happening. And that, is quite the point: Validity exists only in the realm of human experience. Sure. The tree falling in the forest is heard by?---no one---but something that hears and whose consciousness is a few millenia behind our own. If one believes in evolution, that is. I do.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, January 1, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

There are two distinct views

There are two distinct views on nihilism, one that sees existential meaning in an ubermensch, another that sees nihilism as a total void. For over twenty years our website has discussed these views - www.ws5.com

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, January 2, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

The "suffering philosophers",

The "suffering philosophers", the German, the Dane and others, have not added so much to our cultural milieu. And all the differing schools of explanation, along with subsets, offer little in the way of understanding, as I am fairly sure Locke and others would observe, were they alive today. Why is it, exactly, that we revere these ancients? Because they laid foundations? Just so, many of those foundations have crumbled and we are teetering upon the sand below. As an aside, I recall, many years ago, a cartoon regarding NOTHING. It may have appeared in the Saturday Review or some other such periodical: there was an edifice which consisted of the word NOTHING. Round about it, there were supplicants kneeling, presumably in prayer. An onlooker asked another: Is NOTHING sacred? Well, it was sarcasm, or high irony, I suppose. But, in retrospect, was it either or was it an introduction to the later vogue idea of nihilism? Everything changes while nothing stays the same?
Or is it really the other way around? Or, well...what were we talking about anyway? Nothing? Or nothing at all...
Heh. Was Russell right: Science=study of those things known; philosophy=study of those things not known? Given the track record of both, I'd say, yeah---Bertie hit it pretty well. Everyone has their own OEOs to rely upon.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, January 2, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

If this IS all there is, why

If this IS all there is, why isn't it enough? We are only unique in the sense that we see ourselves as unique, ergo, we have invented the resurrection mythology. To make ourselves feel better about our mortality. How vain. And, how patently human. Of course, it has contributed greatly to economic progress and all of those things human, that we value as humans---as evolution progresses, we just don't get it because we are but a flyspeck on the windshield of billions of years. Sagan might have said that---but I have not read it. RIP Dr. Gould. Goodnight Dr. Dawkins and Dr. Wilson...

Fred Griswold's picture

Fred Griswold

Wednesday, January 4, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Taking God out of the picture

Taking God out of the picture isn't necessarily the end of the story. If you substitute physics for God, that does make certain explanations easier. Take evolution, for instance. If you start with physics and the things that follow from it (chemistry, biology etc.), then you can explain how all those creatures evolved. If you say that God created them all in separate acts of creation, that's a violation of Occam's razor. Occam's razor is the principle in science that explanations shouldn't be made any more complicated than they need to be to account for the facts. So the scientific explanation is better. It simplifies life.
Ken was bemoaning the 20th century and all the brutality that happened in it. But that's not the whole story. There were 12 democracies in the world at the end of WW II, and now there are about 120. If freedom and democracy are what you care about, then that was the century for you. But all of it, in my view, the good, the bad, and the ugly, was possible only because of technology. And technology is one more consequence of the evolutionary process.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, January 5, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Well, in response to Fred, we

Well, in response to Fred, we managed to figure out physics (much of it anyway), and chemistry, and so on. Somehow. There are singular and plural arguments about how and/or why we did these things. Those include sacred and secular notions regarding progress and whether such was a result of divine intervention(s), or human ingenuity, borne of evolutionary increase, coupled with mother necessity. Actually, I am fine with any reasonable explanation. But, so far, the proof of evolutionary progress through God's hand and actions, is doubtful to my primitive mind.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, January 9, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Having read the comments, and

Having read the comments, and listened through the program, it is clear enough that nihilism leads directly not only to a lack of purpose to life, but a lack of standards - moral relativism. And I think this is the much bigger problem. One of the questioners pointed out that we can just follow "nature" and from that, what is "good for society" or "for the race" or "for humanity" to restore meaning and purpose. Great! One of the longest-lasting societies out there, and one highly regarded throughout most of history since, was the Roman Empire - which was based on conquest, slavery, and mindless violence. And all the best minds of Rome were convinced that this was not only good, but good for all of humanity. And this is only one example.
Human beings are basically selfish (myself included), and so are human societies. Nihilism removes any cause not to act on that selfishness. Oh, there is "reason" - but reason is a tool, not a standard. Given our nature, we can and will bend reason to suit any rationalization we feel we need - and give us a new one tomorrow, if we feel like it.
Once you peel it all back, I think Mr. Dreyfus' suggestion to "call back the gods" by responding to things that "draw" us is just another way of saying "do whatever you want" dressed up in philosophical jargon. He seems to assume, as I think Nietzche's "active nihilism" assumed, that people are basically good, so if we follow what "draws" us, good will result at least most of the time. The assumption, though, is false.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, January 10, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

This episode is very

This episode is very interesting.
Does the 60sec philosophy talk section contains a quote from E.M.Cioran (I'm not sure if I got it right)? Where does the quote come from?

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, January 11, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Alright then. Let's see where

Alright then. Let's see where we are. Nihilism is about nothing, or nothingness. Meaning is about, what? Mankind's search for a sense of purpose? A belief in somethingness, rather than worthlessness? All of these words---Pinker would have a picnic, picking apart meaning from philosophical inanity. And just so. (Ken, are you listening?) Seems to me that nihilism and meaning are about as far apart as, what?---good and evil? Nihilism vs, Meaning? Apples and oranges---seems to me.

 
 
 

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