Simon Critchley’s: Very Little … Almost Nothing

Dark Portrait of Simon Critchley.jpg

Simon Critchley (1960 – ) was born in England and received his Ph.D. from the University of Essex in 1988. He is series moderator and contributor to “The Stone,” a philosophy column in The New York Times. He is also currently chair and professor of philosophy at The New School for Social Research in New York City.

In his book, Very Little … Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy and Literature, Critchley discusses various responses to nihilism. Responses include those who: a) refuse to see the problem, like religious fundamentalists who don’t understand modernity; b) are indifferent to the problem, which they see as the concern of bourgeoisie intellectuals; c) passively accept nihilism, knowing that nothing they do matters; d) actively revolt against nihilism in the hope that they might mitigate the condition.[i]

But Critchley rejects all views that try to overcome nihilism—enterprises that find redemption in philosophy, religion, science, politics, or art—in favor of a response that embraces or affirms nihilism. For Critchley, the question of meaning is one of finding meaning in human finitude, since all answers to the contrary are empty. This leads him to the surprising idea that “the ultimate meaning of human finitude is that we cannot find meaningful fulfillment for the finite.”[ii]But if one cannot find meaning in finitude, why not just passively accept nihilism?

Critchley replies that we should do more than merely accept nihilism; we must affirm “meaninglessness as an achievement, as a task or quest … as the achievement of the ordinary or everyday without the rose-tinted spectacles of any narrative of redemption.”[iii]In this way we don’t evade the problem of nihilism but truly confront it. As Critchley puts it:

The world is all too easily stuffed with meaning and we risk suffocating under the combined weight of competing narratives of redemption—whether religious, socio-economic, scientific, technological, political, aesthetic or philosophical—and hence miss the problem of nihilism in our manic desire to overcome it.[iv]

For models of what he means Critchley turns to playwright Samuel Beckett whose work gives us “a radical de-creation of these salvific narratives, an approach to meaninglessness as the achievement of the ordinary, a redemption from redemption.”[v] Salvation narratives are empty talk which cause trouble; better to be silent as Pascal suggested: “All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone.” What then is left after we reject the fables of salvation? As his title suggests; very little … almost nothing. But all is not lost; we can know the happiness derived from ordinary things.

Critchley finds a similar insight in what the poet Wallace Stevens called “the plain sense of things.”[vi] In Stevens’ poem, “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” the setting is a funeral service. In one room we find merriment and ice cream, in another a corpse. The ice cream represents the appetites, the powerful desire for physical things; the corpse represents death. The former is better than the latter, and that this is all we can say about life and death. The animal life is the best there is and better than death—the ordinary is the most extraordinary.

For another example, Critchley considers Thornton Wilder’s famous play “Our Town,” which exalts the living and dying of ordinary people, as well as the wonder of ordinary things. In the play, young Emily Gibbs has died in childbirth and awakens in an afterlife, where she is granted her wish to go back to the world for a day. But when she goes back she cannot stand it; people on earth ignore the beauty which surrounds them. As she leaves she says goodbye to all the ordinary things of the world: “to clocks ticking, to food and coffee, new ironed dresses and hot baths, and to sleeping and waking up.”[vii] It is tragic that while living we miss the beauty of ordinary things. Emily is dismayed but we are enlightened—we ought to appreciate and affirm the extraordinary ordinary. Perhaps that is the best response to nihilism—to be edified by it, to find meaning in meaninglessness, to realize we can find happiness in spite of nihilism.

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[i] Simon Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing (New York: Routledge, 2004), 12-13.
[ii] Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing, 31.
[iii] Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing, 32.
[iv] Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing, 32.
[v] Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing, 32.
[vi] Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing, 118.
[vii] Thornton Wilder, Our Town (New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1938), 82.

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14 thoughts on “Simon Critchley’s: Very Little … Almost Nothing

  1. This seems an interesting book, I will check it out. It is curious how I note that it is actually “nihilists” and “pessimists” (the real ones) who are the first ones to advise to enjoy whatever little things one can.

    I am reading “Yes to life despite everything ” by Frankl (a compilation of separate lectures) where the editor or the publisher (can’t recall) tells of how Frankl, when he received his associates in Vienna, while strolling on the streets with them, he would slide his arms underneath theirs, and drag them in front of a bakery and say: ” Smell! Freshly baked rolls!”, and then would drag them in front of a coffee shop and say: “Smell! Freshly made coffee!”.

    This is what “mindfulness” teaches. This is also why the tea “ceremony” was so important for samurais: they never knew when they were going to die, they fully understood human finitude. They enjoyed sitting in silence in a little shack with nothing else that a teapot and a cup.

    People who don’t get this stuff, who don’t want to understand it, who essentially don’t have the “philosopher’s guts”, say nonsense such as, don’t think about it, these are morbid thoughts, etc.

    Especially in the West, people run away from death and human finitude. But these things have amply been said by many philosophers, no need to try to repeat it in my own inadequate words.

    However, I do not exalt the lives of ordinary people at all. One cannot be TOO ordinary or simple, for ordinary people are the ones I mentioned above, the ones who don’t really understand much of anything: they carry on doing the same stupid, trivial things and saying nothing, because they have nothing to say, not because they are afraid of uttering devastating truths.

    This trope about ordinary people was mentioned by others before, such as Tolstoy.
    I’d say the best thing to do, in my view, is to not be too ordinary, but never rejecting “ordinary” things, for otherwise, one has an abyss before the eyes. In a sense, one has to turn back and not get TOO close that he might fall in it, but close enough to contemplate it deeply. Ordinary people can’t do that, they are too busy running around doing mostly stupid things, or as Schopenhauer wrote: “engaging in vulgar trouble, and losing sight of the very end of life”.

    Thanks for your article!

  2. Not to be too circular, but if you find meaning in nihilism, doesn’t that meaning, such as it is, mean you’re no longer a nhilist? If you embrace nihilism, you’ve found meaning in something. The true tragedy of nihilism can only lie, therefore, in those who cannot embrace it and find life empty. Once you’ve gone beyond that to accept nihilism, you’ve found meaning. You’re cured. See Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus,” in which one finds meaning by embracing the absurdity of life.

  3. Well, I can’t argue with your logic here. I think Critchley would say that the world is objectively meaningless but can be subjectively meaningful. A lot of contemporary philosophers argue that way.

    Perhaps Frankl’s “tragic optimism relates closely to Critchley view and ” Nietzsche’s “strong pessimism” may be similar. Here’s how I stated his view in a previous post,

    “For Nietzsche pessimism refers to the fact that reality is cruel, ugly, irrational, and impermanent, while optimism is the view that reality is orderly, intelligible, and open to betterment. Optimists mistakenly believe that they can overcome the abyss and make the world better by action, but Nietzsche wants us to see reality realistically and become pessimists.

    Yet Nietzsche didn’t want us to be weak pessimists who deny the passions and seek nothingness like the Buddha. Instead, he wanted us to be strong pessimists who affirm life rather than renounce it, who fill life with their enthusiasm, and who take pleasure in what is hard and terrible. Salvation and freedom come from accepting the contradictory and destructive nature of reality, and responding with joyous affirmation.”

    I don’t know but Critchley might say something similar.

  4. Interesting response. Perhaps my comments to Bruce are applicable to some of what you’re saying.

  5. We don’t take what Nietzsche wrote with straight faces: he was writing for effect. He wished to shake-up the philosophical ancient regime with bombast. Responding with joyous affirmation by accepting the contradictory and destructive nature of reality was an exaggeration, to get people thinking—not to be Accepted.

  6. The most insightful and nuanced treatment of nihilism with regard to the meaning-of-life quandary that I know of is Brian Magee’s Ultimate Questions published in 2016. His is the inspiration for my own take on the problem in my essay “What’s It All About?” and its postscript, both of which were posted on this blog some time ago.

    The bottom line, I believe, is that there is no solution, only a way to cope. Life may (because as Magee shows, we can never know for sure, given the limits of human perception) be meaningless but it can be worth living by way of this thing I call “pure experience”–instances of transcending the mundane into the realm of the sublime allowing us to feel the rapture of being alive. I would liken it to Maslow’s “peak experiences” or Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of “flow” where we are simultaneously part of the experience yet sufficiently outside of it and grounded in present to enjoy it–something like a kind of heightened self-awareness without the need for drugs.

    Now whether this is sufficient to make life “meaningful” is a more open and personal question. I guess I know intellectually it isn’t, but sometimes I get swept up in the moment and things seem less bleak than I know they are–or at least appear to be. We all contain multitudes, as per Whitman, and contrary feelings arise in us as we make our way in life.

    The thing is, as is Magee’s point, we just don’t know. There are likely layers and layers of reality we are simply unaware of which could alter what seems like certain pessimism at this point in time. We can’t know what we can’t imagine, much as the ancients couldn’t anticipate DNA and quantum mechanics–there were only the four humors or at best vague concepts of atomic theory.

    So for anyone really interested in getting a handle on nihilism, I strongly recommend reading Ultimate Questions. If pressed for time, just focus on chapter 7, “Our Predicament Summarized.” I’d love to hear from anyone who wants to discuss all this. I’m at SylviaJaneW@hotmail.com.

  7. John,

    I wrote another long comment to you, but I think something went squirrelly with my browser, etc.

    It probably wasn’t anything new to you. Thanks again for your article. I look forward to your new book.

  8. Anyway, it appears Nietzsche was playing the antipode of the Buddha by writing on “joyous affirmation”.
    Tidings of comfort and joy. Ho ho ho.

  9. I published a pretty long one a couple of days ago. Hope that’s the one. If not feel free to send another.

  10. John,

    You mention action, or even being joyous: certainly, that is always the best thing to do, as far as possible.

    But it really changes nothing: our path still leads to nowhere. We die and then we are cast into oblivion, as if we never existed, or at most, some will remember us, the very few people who did, and then they will die and cast into oblivion.

    The idea that action and joy etc doesn’t really fundamentally change anything, is not mine, I have read it in the Zibaldone (basically a huge diary) of Giacomo Leopardi (a translation in English, which I actually prefer, because the original language is a 19th century Italian that I don’t understand, etc.).

    But Leopardi is pretty devastating on that subject, and I have no choice but to agree with him.

    On the other hand, “we don’t question life: life questions us”, as Frankl said in the lectures I mentioned (he of course explains further what he means, but perhaps an inadequate idea to describe his, would be to adapt and to strive to find any useful meaning, especially in relation to other people. I am still reading the book, though.)

    I add, it is also a bit too easy to become life whiners. If someone like Frankl found meaning, and still lived with that belief, considering the total devastation that happened in his life, then it would certainly be weak of one to whine about life.

    But the point is that it still all leads to nihilism, i.e. nothing.

    I think the best written representation of that idea, comes from Marcus Aurelius in his “thoughts to himself”.

    I really have nothing of my own to add to any of that, again it is pretty devastating, but in my view it is absolutely truthful and factual.

    The only things I can add myself (but even these were written by Schopenhauer) is that not only we are cast into oblivion, we even get there gradually, erasing ourselves slowly but surely, through old age.

    The picture is not a happy one, and that is, I think, where Stoicism can help, or even the defiant attitudes by ancient philosophers such as Socrates, Diogenes of Sinope, and Seneca.

    “Do your very best, and then laugh at your demise”, their message seems to me, to have been.

    Sorry, I did not forget about Critchley, and he has my highest respect and admiration. In the end, I really think it’s philosophers who are the ones who do the most useful work, even if few acknowledge it.

    Thank you for your article!

  11. PS. this idea, “die and then we are cast into oblivion, as if we never existed”, comes directly from contemplating my mother’s death, she was 36.

    Obviously, this experience is not exclusive to me: plenty of people die at that age. But it strikes me how someone I remember so well, suddenly is not there anymore, and after 30 years, it is indeed as if she never existed.

    Nihil, indeed. But I agree that as long as we live, we should never be idle.

    “The samurai ‘s way is the way of death: nevertheless, whilst he lives, he is never idle, and he is always doing something useful, such as learning calligraphy and arts. Moreover, he should complete all his tasks. There is no shame in dying before the time (i.e. accidental death) and not completing one’s aims; but to go on living, and not aiming at doing and finishing one’s work, this, is a dog’s life.”.

    I find interesting how such a parallel universe in a completely different culture, has many analogies with Western philosophy.

    Sorry, got carried away again! Thank you for reading, John, and again, thank you for your articles and essays! They are always very instructive!

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