The ancients believed in an enchanted universe – a universe suffused with meaning and purpose.
'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.