Commentary on the Varieties of Nihilism

Painting of Sisyphus by TitianSisyphus by Titian, 1549

For the past ten days or so I’ve been discussing various views about the meaning of life that I’d classify as nihilistic. I’d now like to briefly summarize my response to nihilism.

I believe that suffering and death count strongly against meaning—they detract from meaning. I also believe that the challenge posed by nihilism is the challenge for contemporary individuals and culture. We have argued that rejecting or denying nihilism, by accepting a religious metaphysics for example, is philosophically problematic, inasmuch as there are good reasons to doubt the truth of these systems. Accepting nihilism is either self-defeating, useless, or both. Finding meaning by affirming nihilism is a brave response but it is not all that different than accepting nihilism in the end. So questions remain. Why give up so easily? What do we gain by embracing nihilism?

Camus’ Sisyphus supposedly found happiness in his revolt, but one has to wonder whether that suggestion is mere romanticism. And neither Nagel’s nor Feinberg’s irony provides solace; they merely counsel passive acceptance. Maybe we should simply reject meaning and all salvific narratives, reveling in the pleasures and joys of this world, the extraordinary ordinary. But can we really do it? In his play “Our TownThorton Wilder suggests we cannot, it is too hard to appreciate life while you live it. When responding to Emily’s query as to whether human beings can appreciate life every minute while they live it, the narrator tells her: “No—saints and poets maybe—they do some.”80 But even if we could affirm nihilism would this be satisfactory? If we think of Critchley as advocating living lightly, Kundera responds that such a life is unbearable; perhaps even more so than living heavily.

We thus find ourselves at an impasse. Nihilism looms large and none of our responses are completely viable. Rejecting nihilism seems intellectually dishonest, passively accepting it appears fatalistic, actively rejecting it with Camus is futile, embracing it looks pointless, and yet our consciousness of it is unbearable. The only way forward—if we do not want to accept the verdict of nihilism—is to consider other responses. It is to these responses that we now consider over the next few months.

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4 thoughts on “Commentary on the Varieties of Nihilism

  1. Excellent summary, Doc. Depressing in its succinct philosophical accuracy, really. That said, though, I do wonder, still . . . To “count against” meaning implies to me that meaning may exist in the absence of nihilism (aka, “no meaning”), as both terms are interdependent (and once more the old binaries arise from the grave).

    And isn’t religiosity (say, Jewish, Christian or Muslim, etc.) as much a form of nihilism as “philosophical” (or perhaps, if you will, “academic”) nihilism, with the former merely a roundabout way to the more “direct” approach of the latter?

    That is, are we talking about two routes to the same intellectual/epistemological cliff, one merely more winding than the other? The religious call it “faith.” The atheists call it “reason” ? Lemmings and Eagles both die, just in differing ways perhaps (but now I devolve in romanticism . . .)

    I guess, in all humility as an amateur, lap-top philosopher, wouldn’t Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, et al, if they were alive today (and what difference would that make?) suggest
    even the discussion is pointless, or, perhaps, the discussion is exactly the point, a faint crack of light under our door? That fact that we can identify (to some extent) and discuss the void means the void is not meaningless? I am now reminded of Homer Simpson: “What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind.”

    No need to answer my silly questions directly Doc. I’ll be happy to read and consider your discussion of these and related issues in the weeks ahead.

    Thanks for the interesting work, and hope all is well with you.

  2. Great wrap up. I guess one thing though, is that, you said in the end rejecting nihilism is intellectually dishonest; yet we can investigate other forms of meaning. Isn’t that a rejection of it? Maybe I’m reading too much into it.

    On the opposite side of that, couldn’t it be possible to be a nihilist and still think that there’s some subjective meaning? Maybe my entire idea is hinging on these definitions. I think about the existentialist who weren’t nihilists per-se, but they did think that life was intrinsically meaningless. But I don’t think they’d define themselves as nihilists.

    Maybe you’ll be covering this later on. Just some thoughts that popped in. I look forward to the next chapter in this series.

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