Nihilism and Meaning

Sunday, January 1, 2012
First Aired: 
Sunday, January 24, 2010

What Is It

The ancients believed in an enchanted universe – a universe suffused with meaning and purpose. But with the dawn of modernity, philosophy and science conspired together to disenchant the universe, to reveal it as entirely devoid of meaning and purpose. Must any rational and reflective person living in the 21st century accept such nihilism? Or is there a way to re-infuse the disenchanted universe with meaning and purpose? Join John and Ken for a thought-provoking discussion of nihilism and meaning with Hubert Dreyfus, co-author of All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age.

Listening Notes

After welcoming the audience at this live show at the Marsh, Ken and John introduce the audience to the meaning and history of the word “nihilism” as they will use it in the show. They realize that they need help to make sense of the concept, and so invite Professor Hubert Dreyfus from UC Berkeley to join their conversation.

Once they get a firmer grip on the meaning of nihilism, Ken challenges the justifications for taking it seriously: Why should our lack of complete confidence in guidelines and authorities of the past convince us that there are no good guidelines or authorities in life in general? They discuss the answer the Nietzsche might give to Ken’s concern, the practical imperative of grounding identity in external guidelines or life philosophies, and the place and possibility of judging others on the basis of one’s own philosophy.

In the next section, Ken and John invite the audience to join the conversation. One audience member asks whether nihilistics are really acting nihilistically when they passionately and forcefully insist that only their nihilistic philosophy of life is really true. John then makes a useful distinction between psychological and philosophical nihilism, and John and Ken ask Hubert about the place that God or gods should or shouldn’t have in understanding of the meaning of life.

In the last section, John, Ken, and Hubert discuss audience members questions about nihilism and the meaning of life. The questions and their answers lead them to discussions about the re-enchantment of the universe and Kant, Nietzsche, and Ken’s views on the the nature and source of meaning. They wrap up with Hubert’s take on the re-enchantment, a take that (contrary to Ken’s views) emphasizes the importance of being receptive and responsive to non-intellectual and unfamiliar experiences.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 6:15): April Dembosky talks to Jack Boulware, author of Gimme Something Better: The Profound, Progressive, and Occasionally Pointless History of Bay Area Punk from Dead Kennedys to Green Day, about how punk rock - and their straight edge compatriots - pull in and push against nihilism.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 50:20): Ian Shoales gives a short narrative of the long history of nihilism and nothingness, starting with the Greek philosophy of vacuums.



Ken Taylor  
This is Philosophy Talk, the program that questions everything...

John Perry  
...except your intelligence. I'm John Perry.