Comments on “The uncanny absence of nihil –ism”

If you want an example of nihilism

My 2021-08-14

Nos just catatonia, go watch “Rick and Morty”


Larry Edelstein 2021-08-14

How in holy hell do these statements cohere:
He was brilliant; the best philosopher of all time, in my opinion. He also frequently contradicted himself, couldn’t assemble a coherent theory, and much of his writing is quite wrong. He was crazy.

It depends on what you find most valuable

David Chapman 2021-08-14

Different people find different qualities valuable in philosophy, and different schools of philosophy emphasize different values too. The Anglophone analytic school, which is the major carrier of the rationalist tradition in current academic philosophy, values precise definitions and deductive rigor (or at least claims to). If that’s your thing, you may not find Nietzsche to your taste, since he was explicitly anti-rationalist.

Continental (German and French) philosophy in the 20th century was basically footnotes to Nietzsche. What he offered was a new start. He cleared out all the rubbish that had accumulated starting from Socrates. (Or, an awful lot of it anyway.) It became possible to think something new instead of doing “footnotes to Plato,” which had wasted everyone’s time for a couple thousand years.

Most of 20th century Continental philosophy was also rubbish (in my opinion), but at least it was new and different rubbish.


John Salvatier 2021-08-14

Fucking amazing David.

‘Nihilizing’ is a great term. Identifying the lack of highly visible nihilists AND the existence of many real amateur nihilists are both great observations.

These two paragraphs are excellent.

No academic book explains why the many conceptual arguments for nihilism, as advanced by talented amateurs, are mistaken.2 I’ve had to do that mostly from scratch. Apparently this has no academic value,3 but these arguments matter because they stabilize the stance. When in the grip of nihilism as a psychological process, faulty “proofs” of meaninglessness suddenly seem compelling. My hope is that explaining both what’s wrong with each, along with its valid underlying intuition, will help afflicted readers extricate themselves.

These are genuine attempts to take nihilism seriously, which academics have never bothered to do. Since nihilism—as a stance—is a common and dire problem, this is important. Laypeople feel they have to work it out for themselves, because the pros refuse to do their job. On the other hand, it’s naive: meaning is pervasive, so nihilism is false, and it’s impossible to make sound arguments for it. I respect the attempt, even if the results are at best silly, and often creepy.

I’d appreciate more links to the places where you take apart proofs of meaninglessness.

Probably obvious but there’s also very basic and productive kinds of meaning denial. “ugh, this just doesn’t matter” when talking about, say arguing about the color of a bike shed.

I guess you could say...

Mike 2021-08-14

Nearly all the ones written in the past hundred years are actually books about books about nihilism. They mainly review the previous books. And since several like that have been published every year for decades, they are mostly books about books about books about … about books about nihilism.

I guess you could say…

..they were about nothing. 👉😎👉

Noticing the surprising amount of detail

David Chapman 2021-08-14

Hi John—

Your “Reality has a surprising amount of detail” is one of the greatest things I’ve ever read about anything, and I have it permanently open in a tab.

This page is from the middle of an otherwise-unwritten section of a mostly-unwritten chapter of a mostly-unwritten online book. I was last working on it in 2015… I’m hoping to be able to write full time over the next month or so, in which case it’s plausible I’ll finish the chapter.

In the mean time, I’m afraid the “how proofs of meaninglessness fail” part is imaginary, apart from a file of notes. Relevant, though, is “Reasons to be cheerless, part 3,” which collects some of the nihilistic conclusions. It’s probably pretty clear why each is wrong. The value of spelling out what is usually obvious comes when you are somehow stuck in a nihilistic funk and need the reminder.

One of the best ways out of nihilism is just to notice the surprising amount of detail in reality. Abstraction, generality, and spurious meta are characteristic of nihilistic thinking. It’s easy to regard that stuff as meaningless. The vividness of concrete, open perception reveals meanings that are difficult to deny.

Importantly also, as you say, some things are meaningless. From “Extreme examples, eternalism and nihilism”:

A tiny gray pebble slides half an inch down a slope on a lifeless planet a million light-years from the nearest star. No being ever knows about this, and nothing happens as a result of it.

Why on earth would you claim this must be meaningful? Only if it is important that absolutely everything is meaningful. And why would that be?

This insistence is motivated by fear: the fear that perhaps everything is meaningless.

Russian nihilism

mtraven 2021-08-14

Russian nihilism in the late 19th century was a real movement, with many self-proclaimed adherents (the most famous is probably a fictional one, the character of Bazarov in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons). It was a counterculture of sorts, probably closer to anarchism (denial of authority) rather than what today would be considered nihilism (denial of all values).

This might just be a definitional nit, but the larger point is that nihilism makes more sense seen as a reaction to historical cultural conditions than as a coherent philosophy. It’s what you do, or one thing you do, when the basis of traditional moral and political authority collapses.

Multiple senses of "nihilism"

David Chapman 2021-08-14

Right; to quote the wiki:

In popular use, the term commonly refers to forms of existential nihilism, according to which life is without intrinsic value, meaning, or purpose. Other prominent positions within nihilism include the rejection of all normative and ethical views (§ Moral nihilism), the rejection of all social and political institutions (§ Political nihilism), the stance that no knowledge can or does exist (§ Epistemological nihilism), and a number of metaphysical positions, which assert that non-abstract objects do not exist (§ Metaphysical nihilism), that composite objects do not exist (§ Mereological nihilism), or even that life itself does not exist.

I’m using “nihilism” to mean “existential nihilism,” which is the most common usage, especially by non-philosophers.

The dozens of tedious interchangeable academic books I consulted all had a brief bit at the beginning that says “Russian nihilism was an extinct political movement that’s only vaguely related to ‘nihilism’ in the usual sense, so we’ll ignore it.” For once I’m following their lead here :)

the larger point is that nihilism makes more sense seen as a reaction to historical cultural conditions than as a coherent philosophy. It’s what you do, or one thing you do, when the basis of traditional moral and political authority collapses.

Yup. “How meaning fell apart” is about that.

We haven’t had a full-blown nihilist apocalypse yet, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen :(

A threat they cannot locate

Andrew 2021-08-15

“Their “problem of nihilism” is how to respond to a threat they cannot locate—because it is not a coherent ideology. It is a psychological phenomenon, not a philosophical one.”

This reminds me of another part of Meaningness, about cultural systems of meaning making, and where we are now with things like “critical race theory” or more generally (to use Wesley Yang’s term) the ‘Successor Ideology’ - which may also be a threat that cannot be located. Or perhaps, to be more precise, it’s a cultural turn, where a lot of different sides are trying to respond to such threats.

Monster Wheel affair

paul 2021-08-15

As I remember, the surprisingly good Man From U.N.C.L.E. book “The Monster Wheel Affair” by David McDaniel (pseudonym of a midline SF writer whose real name I’ve forgotten) had a nihilist character who debated nihilism while trying to blow up the world. I read it as a little kid and remember having to look up nihilism in the dictionary. I think I didn’t understand the dictionary definition and decided at the time that it meant wanting to blow up the world

Nietzsche and Buddhism

garymar 2021-08-28

I distinctly remember Nietzsche referring to Buddhism as “the other nihilistic religion”, the first nihilistic religion being, of course, Christianity.

“Man would rather will nothingness than not will.”

He was right

David Chapman 2021-08-28

Buddhism is nihilistic (as well as eternalistic, in different parts of different Buddhist systems).

Generally, different schools of Buddhism all agree that one should be neither nihilistic nor eternalistic, but criticize each other (often correctly) for doing both.

I could have sworn that I cited “Renunciation is the engine for most of Buddhism” apropos of this, just a few days ago, but I can’t find where I did that now (if I did!).

David McDaniel (Monster Wheel) and other fiction, and Nietzsche

Sarah 2021-11-01

That was his real name, also used for a Prisoner novel. He took on a pseudonym for a little bit of SF writing, and a lot of fandom activities (event organizing, filking).

There are other nihilists in literature (see G.K. Chesterton characters, e.g.), though I haven’t looked closely at which were Russian style and which were existential style – mocked in social satires, villains/dupes in mysteries/thrillers.

Because of Nietzsche’s volume and inconsistency, readers can find many things they want to find there, including flashes of brilliance, LOL. Some of the inconsistency is due to grappling with weighty issues and reflecting and changing his mind. He has a lot of fun/popular aphorisms.