Sunday, April 08, 2007

"They've Been Searching Wheeling, here for me."

Nihilism (from the Latin nihil, nothing) is a philosophical position which argues that the world, especially past and current human existence, is without objective meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. Nihilists generally assert some or all of the following: there is no reasonable proof of the existence of a higher ruler or creator, a "true morality" is unknown, and secular ethics are impossible; therefore, life has no truth, and no action can be preferable to any other.[1]

Nihilism is often more of a charge leveled against a particular idea, movement, or group, than it is an actual philosophical position to which someone overtly subscribes. Movements such as Dadaism as well as Futurism[2] and deconstructionism,[3] among others, have been described by commentators as "nihilist" at various times in various contexts. Often this means or is meant to imply that the beliefs of the accuser are more substantial or truthful, whereas the beliefs of the accused are nihilistic, and thereby comparatively amount to nothing (or are simply claimed to be destructively amoralistic).

Nihilism is also a characteristic that has been ascribed to time periods: for example, Baudrillard and others have called postmodernity a nihilistic epoch,[4] and some Christian theologians and figures of authority have asserted that modernity[3] and postmodernity[5] represent the rejection of God, and therefore are nihilistic.

Nihilism is often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, though Nietzsche explicitly repudiated it. Another prominent philosopher who has written on the subject is Martin Heidegger who argued that "[the term] nihilism has a very specific meaning. What remains unquestioned and forgotten in metaphysics is being; and hence, it is nihilistic."[6]

* 1 In Philosophy
o 1.1 In Ethics and Morality
o 1.2 Postmodernism and the Breakdown of Knowledge
+ 1.2.1 Lyotard and Meta-narratives
+ 1.2.2 Jean Baudrillard On Nihilism
o 1.3 Nihilism and Nietzsche
o 1.4 Self-consistency and Paradox
o 1.5 In America
* 2 In Art
o 2.1 Dada
o 2.2 In Music
o 2.3 In Film
* 3 References
* 4 Further reading
* 5 Books
* 6 See also
* 7 External links

[edit] In Philosophy

Though the term nihilism was first popularized by Ivan Turgenev (see below), it was first introduced into philosophical discourse by Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743 – 1819), who used the term to characterize rationalism, and in particular Immanuel Kant's "critical" philosophy in order to carry out a reductio ad absurdum according to which all rationalism (philosophy as criticism) reduces to nihilism, and thus it should be avoided and replaced with a return to some type of faith and revelation. (See also fideism.)

Friedrich Nietzsche's later work displays a preoccupation with Nihilism. Nietzsche characterized nihilism as emptying the world and especially human existence of meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. He hints that nihilism can become a false belief, when it leads individuals to discard any hope of meaning in the world and thus to invent some compensatory alternate measure of significance.

Though some deride it as nihilistic, postmodernism can be contrasted with the above formulation of nihilism in that the most common type of nihilism tends toward defeatism or fatalism, while postmodern philosophers tend to find strength and reason for celebration in the varied and unique human relationships it explores.[citation needed] Some also compare nihilism to skepticism, claiming both reject claims to knowledge and truth, however skeptics are often offended by this comparison, pointing out they don't in fact reject claims to truth outright; they only reject these claims if there is insufficient empirical evidence to support them. The other side might argue that skepticism does not necessarily come to any conclusions about the reality of moral concepts nor does it deal so intimately with questions about the meaning of an existence without knowable truth.

In a very different vein to that just given, contemporary analytic philosophers have been engaged in a very active discussion over the past few years about what is called mereological nihilism. This is the position that objects with parts do not exist, and only basic building blocks without parts exist (e.g., electrons, quarks), and thus the world we see and experience full of objects with parts is a product of human misperception. Jeffrey Grupp of Purdue University,[7] argues for a doctrine of mereological nihilism, maintaining that there are no objects whatsoever which have parts. Grupp argues that nihilism is the standard position of many ancient atomists, such as Democritus of ancient Greece, Dharmakirti of ancient India, that it is the position held by Kant in his transcendental idealism, and that it is the position actually found in quantum observational physics.[8] The other contemporary mereological nihilists are not atomists (instead they advocate a slightly different theory, called simples), such as the mereological nihilists Trenton Merricks of the University of Virginia, and Peter van Inwagen of the University of Notre Dame.

[edit] In Ethics and Morality

Main article: Moral nihilism

In the world of ethics, nihilist or nihilistic is often used as a derogatory term referring to a complete rejection of all systems of authority, morality, and social custom, or one who purportedly makes such a rejection. Either through the rejection of previously accepted bases of belief or through extreme relativism or skepticism, the nihilist is construed as one who believes that none of these claims to power are valid. Nihilism not only dismisses received moral values, but rejects 'morality' outright, viewing it as baseless.

[edit] Postmodernism and the Breakdown of Knowledge
Certainty series

* Agnosticism
* Belief
* Certainty
* Determinism
* Estimation
* Justified true belief
* Nihilism
* Probability
* Skepticism
* Uncertainty

This box: view • talk • edit

Postmodern thought is colored by the perception of a degeneration of systems of epistemology and ethics into extreme relativism, especially evident in the writings of Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida. These philosophers tend to deny the very grounds on which Western cultures have based their 'truths': absolute knowledge and meaning, a 'decentralization' of authorship, the accumulation of positive knowledge, historical progress, and the ideals of humanism and the Enlightenment. Though it is often described as a fundamentally nihilist philosophy, before entering a brief discussion on postmodern thought it is important to note that nihilism itself is open to postmodern criticism: nihilism is a claim to a universal truth, exactly what postmodernism rejects. However, it is equally worth noting the extent to which postmodernism might fail according to the same logic.

[edit] Lyotard and Meta-narratives

Lyotard argues that, rather than relying on an objective truth or method to prove their claims, philosophers legitimize their truths by reference to a story about the world which is inseparable from the age and system the stories belong to. Lyotard calls them meta-narratives. He then goes on to define the postmodern condition as one characterized by a rejection both of these meta-narratives and of the process of legitimization by meta-narratives.

"In lieu of meta-narratives we have created new language-games in order to legitimize our claims which rely on changing relationships and mutable truths, none of which is privileged over the other to speak to ultimate truth." It is this unstable concept of truth and meaning that leads one close to nihilism, though in the same move that plunges toward meaninglessness, Lyotard suspends his philosophy just above its surface.

[edit] Jean Baudrillard On Nihilism

Baudrillard wrote briefly of nihilism from the postmodern viewpoint in Simulacra and Simulation. He stuck mainly to topics of interpretations of the real-world over the simulations that the real world is composed of. The uses of meaning was an important subject when Baudrillard discussed nihilism:

"The apocalypse is finished, today it is the precession of the neutral, of forms of the neutral and of indifference...all that remains, is the fascination for desertlike and indifferent forms, for the very operation of the system that annihilates us. Now, fascination (in contrast to seduction, which was attached to appearances, and to dialectical reason, which was attached to meaning) is a nihilistic passion par excellence, it is the passion proper to the mode of disappearance. We are fascinated by all forms of disappearance, of our disappearance. Melancholic and fascinated, such is our general situation in an era of involuntary transparency." (Simulacra and Simulation, On Nihilism trans. 1995)

The role of fascination over seduction removed the need for a moral high-ground over the issue of meaning. By being reduced to an observation of dialectics, or the appearance of the indifferent forms of the world, the presence of meaning disappears from the context of Baudrillard's philosophy in favor of one which may cover all the transparencies of meaning that a concept can contain.

[edit] Nihilism and Nietzsche

'To the clean are all things clean' — thus say the people. I, however, say unto you: To the swine all things become swinish! Therefore preach the visionaries and bowed-heads (whose hearts are also bowed down): 'The world itself is a filthy monster.' For these are all unclean spirits; especially those, however, who have no peace or rest, unless they see the world FROM THE BACKSIDE — the backworldsmen! TO THOSE do I say it to the face, although it sound unpleasantly: the world resembleth man, in that it hath a backside, — SO MUCH is true! There is in the world much filth: SO MUCH is true! But the world itself is not therefore a filthy monster!

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

While few philosophers would claim to be nihilists, nihilism is most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche defined the term as any philosophy that, rejecting the real world around us and physical existence along with it, results in an apathy toward life and a poisoning of the human soul — and opposed it vehemently. He describes it as "the will to nothingness" or, more specifically:

A nihilist is a man who judges of the world as it is that it ought not to be, and of the world as it ought to be that it does not exist. According to this view, our existence (action, suffering, willing, feeling) has no meaning: the pathos of 'in vain' is the nihilists' pathos — at the same time, as pathos, an inconsistency on the part of the nihilists.

– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, section 585, Walter Kaufmann

In this sense it is the philosophical equivalent to the Russian political movement mentioned above: the irrational leap beyond skepticism — the desire to destroy meaning, knowledge, and value. To him, it was irrational because the human soul thrives on value. Nihilism, then, was in a sense like suicide and mass murder all at once. He saw this philosophy as present in Christianity (which he describes as slave morality), Buddhism, morality, asceticism and any excessively skeptical philosophy.

Nietzsche is referred to as a nihilist in part because he famously announced "God is dead!" What he meant by this oft-repeated statement has been the subject of much heated debate, because Nietzsche simply declared this position in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra without actually arguing for it. Some argue that Nietzsche meant not that God has died in a literal sense, or even necessarily that God doesn't exist, but that we don't believe in God anymore, that even those of us who profess faith in God don't really believe. God is dead, then, in the sense that his existence is now irrelevant to the bulk of humanity. "And we," he says in The Gay Science, "have killed him."

Alternately, some have interpreted Nietzsche's comment to be a statement of faith that the world has no rational order. Nietzsche also believed that, even though Christian morality is nihilistic, without God humanity is left with no epistemological or moral base from which we can derive absolute beliefs. Thus, even though nihilism has been a threat in the past, through Christianity, Platonism, and various political movements that aim toward a distant utopian future, and any other philosophy that devalues human life and the world around us (and any philosophy that devalues the world around us by privileging some other or future world necessarily devalues human life), Nietzsche tells us it is also a threat for humanity's future. This warning can also be taken as a polemic against 19th and 20th century scientism.

Nietzsche advocated a remedy for nihilism's destructive effects and a hope for humanity's future in the form of the Übermensch (English: overman or superman), a position especially apparent in his works Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Antichrist. The Übermensch is an exercise of action and life: one must give value to their existence by behaving as if one's very existence were a work of art. Nietzsche believed that the Übermensch "exercise" would be a necessity for human survival in the post-religious era.

Another part of Nietzsche's remedy for nihilism is a revaluation of morals — he hoped that we are able to discard the old morality of equality and servitude and adopt a new code, turning Judeo-Christian morality on its head. Excess, carelessness, callousness, and sin, then, are not the damning acts of a person with no regard for his salvation, nor that which plummets a society toward decadence and decline, but the signifier of a soul already withering and the sign that a society is in decline. The only true sin to Nietzsche is that which is against a human nature aimed at the expression and venting of one's power over oneself. Virtue, likewise, is not to act according to what has been commanded, but to contribute to all that betters a human soul.

Nietzsche attempts to reintroduce what he calls a master morality, which values personal excellence over forced compassion and creative acts of will over the herd instinct, a moral outlook he attributes to the ancient Greeks. The Christian moral ideals developed in opposition to this master morality, he says, as the reversal of the value system of the elite social class due to the oppressed class' resentment of their Roman masters. Nietzsche, however, did not believe that humans should adopt master morality as the be-all-end-all code of behavior - he believed that the revaluation of morals would correct the inconsistencies in both master and slave morality - but simply that master morality was preferable to slave morality, although this is debatable. Walter Kaufmann, for one, disagrees that Nietzsche actually preferred master morality to slave morality. He certainly gives slave morality a much harder time, but this is partly because he believes that slave morality is modern society's more imminent danger. The Antichrist had been meant as the first book in a four-book series, "Toward a Re-Evaluation of All Morals", which might have made his views more explicit, but Nietzsche was afflicted by mental collapse that rendered him unable to write the later three books.

[edit] Self-consistency and Paradox

Nihilism is often described as a belief in the nonexistence of truth. In its more extreme forms, such a belief is difficult to justify, because it contains a variation on the liar paradox: if it is true that truth does not exist, the statement "truth does not exist" is itself a truth, therefore showing itself to be inconsistent. A formally identical criticism has been leveled against relativism and the verifiability theory of meaning of logical positivism.

A more sophisticated interpretation of the claim might be that while truth may exist, it is inaccessible in practice, but this leaves open the problem of how the nihilist has accessed it. It may be a reasonable reply that the nihilist has not accessed truth directly, but has come to the conclusion, based on past experience, that truth is ultimately unattainable within the confines of human circumstance. Thus, since nihilists believe they have learned that truth cannot be attained in this life, they look upon the activities of those rigorously seeking truth as futile.

Extreme versions of nihilism would maintain that the truth of logical propositions cannot be known, so the fact that nihilism leads to a contradiction isn't a problem, since contradictions are only problematic for those who accept logic.

[edit] In America

The American theologian and political writer Michael Novak wrote a poignant study of nihilism from an American point of view titled The Experience of Nothingness (1970). Largely forgotten today, the work remains an incisive critique of ideological "mythmaking" and argues that the loss of meaning and value -- "the experience of nothingness" -- need not become an ideology -- "nihilism" -- but rather can be a fruitful starting point for "ethical inquiry."

[edit] In Art

There have been various movements in art, such as surrealism and cubism, which have been criticized for touching on nihilism, and others like Dada which have embraced it openly. More generally, modern art has been criticized as nihilistic due to its often non-representative nature, as happened with the Nazi party's Degenerate art exhibit. In some communist regimes, modern art is also seen as degenerative, and rules for "aesthetic realism" are forged to stop its influence over public and artist themselves.

Nihilistic themes can be found in literature and music as well. This is especially true of contemporary music and literature, where the uncertainty following what some perceive as the demise of modernism is explored in detail

[edit] Dada

The term Dada was first used during World War I, an event that precipitated the movement, which lasted from approximately 1916 to 1923. The Dada Movement began in the old town of Zürich, Switzerland known as the "Niederdorf" or "Niederdörfli," which is now sporadically inhabited by dadaist squatters. The Dadaists claimed that Dada was not an art movement, but an anti-art movement, sometimes using found objects in a manner similar to found poetry and labeling them art, thus undermining ideas of what art is and what it can be. The "anti-art" drive is thought to have stemmed from a post-war emptiness that lacked passion or meaning in life. Sometimes Dadaists paid attention to aesthetic guidelines only so they could be avoided, attempting to render their works devoid of meaning and aesthetic value. This tendency toward devaluation of art has led many to claim that Dada was an essentially nihilist movement; a destruction without creation. War and destruction had washed away peoples' mindset of creation and aesthetic.

Because they attempted to undermine the way art was viewed in the 20th century, the dadaists chose to name their movement after a baby phrase to show the way their anti-art was shaking everything up. Several myths regarding the invention of the name "Dada" exist, including that it was a form of mockery against Tristan Tzara, who is widely viewed as the father of the movement (in Romanian and Russian, "da, da" means "yes, yes," and offers no indication of the art that bears it).

[edit] In Music

The Punk Rock movement of the 1970s incorporated anti-establishment politics and destructive attitudes into its lyrics, often promoting a "live fast, die young" self-destructive lifestyle, as is heard in the Rancid song Nihilism. Many contemporary gothic bands have lyrics with nihilistic undertones, and even more apparent is nihilism in the death metal and black metal milieu. However, few bands of this tendency incorporate nihilism into their music beyond that arguably superficial level, typically using conventional rock elements such as power chords and standard Western harmony.

One band whose lyrics have dealt comprehensively with nihilistic themes is the industrial group Nine Inch Nails, fronted by Trent Reznor (former owner of defunct record label Nothing Records). "Every Day is Exactly the Same," for example, states: "I believe I can see the future, 'cause I repeat the same routine. I think I used to have a purpose, but then again, it might have been a dream", echoing the impossibility of absolute certainty after the breakdown of knowledge. From his 1994 album The Downward Spiral, the title track tells the narrative of a character's self-destructive descent as a result of his choices regarding religion, drug abuse, etc; one of the key themes being the rejection of God ("Heresy" contains the line "Your god is dead/And no one cares/If there is a hell/I'll see you there"), as well as self-destructive behavior as a response to his realizations, as outlined in the track "Mr. Self Destruct".

[edit] In Film

The defining contemporary portrayal of Nihilism as a central theme is arguably Fight Club, as best expressed by the antagonist's credo "It is only after we have lost everything that we are free to do anything." The film describes the unnamed narrator's disillusionment with the search for meaning in consumerist emasculated society, and his subsequent Nietzschean reaction. A more fatalist treatment of nihilism is in the later I ♥ Huckabees, an indie film which includes nihilism among other theories to develop the film's take on life in general. A similar use of nihilism as a study in futility and meaninglessness can be seen in Jim Jarmusch's 2005 film Broken Flowers.

The 1998 movie The Big Lebowski written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, without treating nihilism as a serious thematic concern, uses several Nihilist characters as comic narrative devices. Three black-clad men with German accents (reminiscent of a Kraftwerkesque band) confront protagonist "The Dude"(Lebowski) claiming "We are Nihilists, Lebowski. We believe in nothing. Yeah, nothing." Also, upon being told that a man on a chair that is floating in a pool with a bottle of Jack Daniels next to him is a nihilist, "The Dude" responds "Oh, that must be exhausting." This satirical treatment of nihilists is in contrast with one of the earliest nihilist characters in cinema, "Animal Mother" in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. Animal Mother is a machine gunner who believes victory should be the only object of war, is contemptuous of any authority other than his own and rules by intimidation.


Post a Comment

<< Home