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What is Nihilism?
Q: What is Nihilism?
I received this question a while back — and apologize for only now getting around to it. I will try to answer in my well-practiced, half-ironic & not-entirely-unjustified form of “explaining what Nietzsche meant to say.” So let’s take a look at the formats and sources of nihilism. But first…
Who AREN’T nihilists?
The exploration of nihilism is frequently masked by a popular and superficial view that nihilists are simply people who walk around declaring that they believe in NOTHING. We believe in nothing, Lebowski! This is popularly associated with the philosopher Nietzsche but is (unsurprisingly) far from what he was concluding about humanity, nature & reality. Nietzsche’s attempts to diagnose the meaning crisis in the late 1800s were far subtler and more counterintuitive than the public (and many conventional scholars) generally realize.
Through his lens, the late-stage, self-aware & self-consistently articulated nihilists were an extremely rare and non-representative sample of the phenomenon. A much larger class of nihilists feel the pangs of the meaning crisis but cannot quite commit to it or do not quite realize that they are within this condition. And, by far, the majority of nihilists are people who assume that they are the opposite of nihilists — believers.
As an arch-skeptic & hermeneutic diagnostician, Nietzsche was always looking for clues to phenomena that typically remain hidden from consciousness. He was perhaps the first major philosopher to clearly articulate that our motives, beliefs & strategies are not primarily associated with what we recognize about ourselves and can consciously articulate to others in words.
Assertions of belief or disbelief are, for Nietzsche, symptoms to be decoded — rather than accurate self-descriptions.
So, on one hand, the most apparently ardent and idealistic believer may be driven to assert their “belief” out of a desperate feeling (ie underlying belief) that reality has no special value. Or, perhaps, they assert the facticity of an ultimate value but in a way which — upon investigation — proves to be inherently impossible & unreal. We are all probably aware of the performative contradiction found in the absolute claim that “There are no absolutes!” In a similar vein, we can readily understand that the beliefs implied by a performative gesture or a way of life may be significantly different than the propositional content of people’s statements.
Conversely, it is also easily thinkable that very interesting and daring people, with the self-awareness & gumption to proclaim the meaninglessness of the world, might actually be exhibiting a tremendous amount of self-trust, faith (enough to let go of the contents of belief), willingness to struggle with the cultural moment and a deep confidence in their own ability to take an existential risk.
That’s quite… faithful.
The first step, analytically, therefore, is to tease apart proclaimed nihilists from actual nihilists.
So, who ARE nihilists?
“Man would rather will the void than be void of will.”
This famous Nietzschean claim highlights that humans are essentially affective, intentional & dynamic beings. To exist we must be changing, trying things, moving toward our values. And if we have no better options available, we will start to value our own destruction and move toward the attainment of that unspoken goal.
The premise of nihilism, therefore, is very close to what Freud later called the “death-drive” (thanatos decoupled from eros). A tendency toward the neutralization of meaningful experience. The attempt to nullify ourselves.
When I act as if I wished that I wasn’t — that is nihilism.
But who was Nietzche thinking about when he thought about nihilists? I would argue that six large blocs of nihilists came under his scrutiny:
Socially-progressive egalitarian relativists.
Modern scientific-atheistic “free thinkers”
Western Monotheists & Nationalists
Corrupted sages of Antiquity
Pseudo-Buddhists & Depressive contemporary scholars.
The first category, in a way, is the least problematic. Nietzsche himself is very socially sensitive, highly disturbed by dogma and nationalist psychosis, very willing to move forward into a risky, multi-perspectival reality. Progressives hold the seeds of the future and a lot of Nietzsche’s “friends” are the intellectual and social avant-garde of the day. So he actually goes pretty easy on the nascent postmodernists, feminists, socialists, etc. He chides them a little about superficial reactivity and uninspected assumptions about the categories they are using. He pokes at their clumsy assertions about equality. Makes fun of their emotional difficulty in tolerating hierarchy and difference. Overall, however, he is very sympathetic. The nihilism of these proto-postmodernists takes the form of
(a) the reduction of value that comes from flattening all values (value is inherently comparative) into bland equality
(b) their lack of the strength to contain the relativistic universe — such that it always slides past them into a general bathos of mindboggling mystery and a “shrug” of intercontextual uncertainty
(c) their vulnerability to exhaustion & overwhelm in the face of plurality.
To start to grasp the subtle nature of postmodern nihilism, consider the superficially empowering claim that “Reality is whatever you make it.” Sounds nice. Perfect for a decentered pluralistic worldview. However, it also implies that the deepest nature of the Real is meaningless prior to your action. And while it may be healthy for you to risk the feelings associated with that possibility, nonetheless the belief in “adding meaning” can also express a deeper belief in underlying nothingness.
Nietzsche is a little harder on the “modernists.”
Their apparent lack of beliefs and their rhetoric about being free-thinkers is frequently lambasted. The whole “God is Dead” parable is, in part, a critique of the atheists who blithely imagine that they have leveled up simply because they belong to a new social ethos that dogmatically rejects monotheism without deeply inspecting any of their own metaphysical assumptions. Self-loathing covert dogmatists who flatten the world into a disenchanted realm of neutral external objects and experts in a manner that “just happens” to exclude all the rich sources of nonlinearity, qualitative multidimensionality, surprise, archaic instincts, ecological symbiosis, deep cultural roots, heuristic traditionalism, etc. out of which is cultivated the thriving experience of beings.
We become homo economicus, newspaper readers, cogs in the machine, statistical members of the propagandized public, gullible commercial citizens incapable of deep rest or deep pondering. We annihilate human nature and history to produce useful machine-men. These are well-known modern tendencies of nullification.
Nietzsche is even more critical of the “traditionalists.”
The flock has been deeply misled by their shepherds. Despite his authentic admiration for certain profound Christian souls, Nietzsche is scathing about this “Platonism for the masses” and all the “spiders” who take advantage of this anti-life ideology. These are primary sources of contemporary nihilism.
Ancient slave revolts, in their legitimate zeal to overcome their own oppression, misjudged the nature and needs of healthy human lives. This was institutionalized as the Judeo-Roman tradition of Christianity which, despite its occasional triumphs and mystical depths, has often been a death-cult for the living. A system in which the highest value for the mind is unthinkability, the highest value for the body is to die (to be resurrected elsewhere) and the validity of personal experience is aggressively submitted to an all-powerful, impersonal abstraction who exists “before or outside of reality” (ie in Unreality). People are taught to project value into non-existential and anti-life conditions. The Christian (and not only Christian) popular ideals are actually anti-ideals that produce a long, slow suicide of culture.
A similar phenomenon occurs whenever crude nationalism is resurgent. Tradition and symbolism are exploited by the sick in a war against new health in an attempt to undermine both the functioning of society and the rich diverse living history of the culture. Those who aren’t strong enough to organize the diversity of the world try to destroy and disrupt complex systems in the home of “returning” to a fantasied epoch of simplicity and purity — and they use symbolism and anxiety to sell this self-destructive poison to “patriotic loyalists.”
These forms of nihilism are very general — they pertain to large groups. Nietzsche also has some specific examples:
SOCRATES. Although he is very sympathetic to Socrates, he views the rise of the Platonists as that moment in Greek cultural history when it became clear that they had lost contact with the instincts and rituals that once made them into a great, creative power for civilization. The golden age of Athens is the sunset of the power of the Hellenic intuition. Superficial rationalism begins to dominate. Aristotle converts philosophy from a sacred self-development praxis into a scholarly attempt to professionally own rational opinions about the cosmos. Euripides destroys the last vestiges of tragic participatory art, making it into “representational” entertainment. The great genius of Socrates, in this version, is debased into mere negation -- a critic who is superficially puzzled (rather than instinctively sure) about everything in the Greek world. An agent of disenchantment and mystification. Unable to truly bear the life-giving powers of the musical, tragic, organic, nonlinear and unconscious, Socrates “reasons” his way toward an “impartial death.” Self-nullification.
WAGNER stands for the anti-modernist retro-romantics who, in their youth, rage defiantly against the meaning crisis of modernity through artistry and a new fomenting of pagan powers. Yet, as they age and progressively reveal themselves, it becomes obvious that they were “secret Christians” all long. The most obvious revolutionaries are implicit conventionalists — who revolt only in the obvious ways. Despite their energy and capacities, they have no profound knowledge of themselves and no real instinct for health. Scratch the surface and they are likely to be racists, homophobes, misguided ascetics, proto-fascists who are anti-sexual even their profligate sexuality, anti-body even in their sensualism, monotheists even in their paganism, depressive even in their manic triumphs.
SCHOPENHAUER was Nietzsche’s model for how to be a real contemporary philosopher — stylized, super-personal, character-driven, self-parodying, anti-systematic, provocative, attracted to Eastern spirituality, aware of something like a “will” shared by all phenomena. Although Nietzsche disagreed with most of Arthur Schopenhauer’s conclusions, he nonetheless loved the bloody-minded way that the man went about doing his philosophy.
However, Schopenhauer was both obsessed with self-nullification & emotionally unable to see that his values were quite the opposite of what he claimed about them. While Schopenhauer asserted that life was mostly suffering (due to the illusory and aggressive position of the individual ego) nonetheless he seemed to live for fighting against things and believed deeply in his own clarity and truth. While he promoted the notion that impartial contemplative states would free us from self-interested life, he personally, very personally, “got off” on those states of being.
So from Nietzsche’s POV, this quasi-Buddhist attempt to escape from life into impersonal nothingness was actually the desire of a unique living being to exist more intensely. It was just being falsely stated and submitted to the language of nihilism.
These might be the six major continents of nihilism in which Nietzsche explored the concept of the human self-annihilating or self-degrading tendency. But why should there be such a tendency at all?
What is the Cause of Nihilism?
The highest values devalue themselves. This is what Nietzsche said on the subject. So it is not simply that “we cease to believe” but that the very forms of our faith were already corrupt and, given time, were destined to cancel themselves.
But why did we ever pick up anti-reality, anti-health, anti-self, anti-cultural ideals in the first place? What made us vulnerable?
Underlying this phenomenon is what I would call the deranged instincts hypothesis. It begins with the will to power (i.e. the subjective description of energetic processes as “aiming” toward the experience of intensified coherent flow). Organisms are a high-complexity instance of this process but, over time, greater complexity comes with greater sensitivity and greater susceptibility to derangement. Once you have a body you can get traumatized. Once you have a psyche you can get psychologically fucked up. Enter: HUMANS.
When human organisms emerge they obviously vary in their capacity to live in an empowering fashion. Domestic and ecological pressures can disrupt the coordination of instincts but now we also get recurrent sociological trauma. Tribal groups that are faster, stronger, more coordinated, more audacious, tend to attack other tribal groups — leading to violence, death & enslavement. The healthy instincts within the oppressed groups revolt against their enslavement and “interpret” the dominators as vile creatures. Unfortunately, this also includes the virtues of which the dominator are most proud. And some of those are normal, healthy human virtues.
Whenever the oppressed gain enough strength, cunning or opportunity to rise up we get a new regime that enshrines the demonization of some positive virtues and lauds some anti-virtues (whichever were claimed as part of the symbolic opposition to the oppressors). An enormous social shift occurs in tandem with the rise of civilization as we become self-thwarted, self-contradictory, low self-esteem beings who adapt to stressful, inauthentic lifestyles in which peak experiences and developmental growth become rare and suspicious events. The lack of coordination among our instincts leads to a forgetting of the “taste” of natural spirituality and healthy living patterns.
So the story is that (a) deranged instincts are fallible in their overall orientation toward their own well-being (b) historical reversals of sociological power have led to the idealization of some anti-life ideas and the demonization of some healthy ideas.
Thousands of years later, with all of us inheriting mixtures of both “master” and “slave” ideals, we have various Supreme Values that are actually opposed to the organic source of value itself and which, therefore, devalue themselves over time.
And they do this in different ways:
What are the Types of Nihilism?
Cognitive nihilism is the use of non-thoughts to replace thoughts. Nietzsche is very open to both rational & irrational functions of the mind but when these functions operate against their own operational capacity then we have a problem.
Henri Bergson in the book Creative Evolution, explains how pure Absence or Nothingness is not a possible object of thought — even though people speak about and pretend they are thinking it. Likewise, the ideas “outside of reality” and “beyond everything” are thoughts that cannot operate according to the logic of thought itself. They are like transfats which are toxic to our bodies because they replace and block healthy fats. It does not mean that there is no way to effectively contemplate translational experience — but it does mean that you can not treat the non-possible as if it were a possible object of reasoning. To do so is to use the mind to nullify its own empowerment.
Spiritual nihilism is largely impersonal. Nietzsche points to the danger of treating all higher developmental & spiritual possibilities as ways of getting away from yourself, escaping life, avoiding the world, trivializing your uniqueness, undermining functional activities, rejecting the messiness of relationships — conceptualising the spiritual endeavor as a migration toward increasingly abstract and impersonal states of consciousness. A self-neutralizing, life-neutralizing interpretation of even very useful practices.
Emotional nihilism might be generally described as feeling-against-our-feelings. This doesn’t mean we should be totally expressive, never keep cool, never harden our hearts in situations where vulnerable self-expression would be dangerous — but it does mean that we have to be able to feel our own feelings in order to have (a) energy (b) authenticity. This is what the work of Wilhelm Reich was largely about. A healthy organism is capable of being excited by the expansive movements of its own emotional impulses whereas an unhealthy culture breeds beings who treat their own feelings as dangers to be thwarted, rejected, projected and suppressed in favor of shallow calm and positivity. The self-neutralization of our feeling life.
Physical nihilism is now very well known from a medical health POV. .What would it mean if your favorite thing to eat was bad for your body’s health? What if your tastes and habits and physical reactions all favored things that opposed the thriving of human bodies? This would be a kind of strategy of self-neutralization qua embodiment.
Cultural nihilism is important as well. The nullification problem is not merely about individuals. Fascism, for example, is typically a situation in which a modern society starts regressing toward a neo-theocratic, ethnocentric, conformist & quasi-medieval culture. It is moving against the emergent higher value system, nullifying itself and starting to “rollback” toward some previous and more primitive system of establishing values. Likewise, a mass shooter or a politician who dismantles the basic social functions is moving to decrease the degree of value present in the cultural field with which he or she is identified.
And we must understand this, of course, in a universe of emergent regimes in which operating systems can enfold each other in an organic holarchy. That means that nihilism is a graduated phenomenon — not a zero-sum game. The sort of total self-cancellation epitomized by suicide is only one version. More often there is a partial reversal or regression which increases the odds of returning to a less meaningful platform of operation. Slavoj Zizek is fond of specifying that the Freudian death drive is also the “undead” drive associated with zombies and a meaningless cycle of activity that never secures a higher value. That can be a good way of thinking about nihilism as downward migration in the stack of emergent systems-of-meaning.
So, anyhoo, you probably now have a pretty good sense now of how I use the word “nihilism” — as the conscious or unconscious tendency to degrade, attack or replace the sources of health and meaning for beings by those same beings.