Comments on “Sexy cynicism and nihilist elitism”

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Marko 2021-09-24

Hi David!

First of all thanks for posting this. I’m glad to hear you’re going to finish the Nihilism chapter. As I’m sure everyone agrees, this is the spicy, juicy material we are all here for!

This post brings to mind the band Nirvana and the whole grunge subculture of the 90’s. I don’t know how relevant it is to the more recent death metal, because that is just ridiculous, hilarious, and absurd, and I don’t know much about it.

Also, nihilism is kind of like masochism in the way it is self-contradictory.

The Big Nada

mtraven 2021-09-25

(forgive the length of this, I’m trying to refine my own views on nihilism and I hope I am still talking about more or less the same thing you are)

Two kinds of nihilism: the rebellious subcultural kind, and the despairing exhausted kind.

The first isn’t really nihilism but likes to play at it; it can appear nihilistic to the mainstream culture and will occasionally lean into that (eg, the original Russian nihilists, punk), adopting an exuberant stance seeking to overturn or escape the established cultural order, but also constructing a new one, overtly or otherwise. A subculture can’t sustain itself on actual nihilism and the participants kind of know that. “Sexy rebels” generally fall into this bucket, as you point out, real nihilism is not very sexy.

The second is more genuine and stems not so much from rebellion but from the failure of meaning-generation. It’s something that can happen after subcultural rebellion has played out; it’s nihilism for older people. Its hallmarks are alienation, anomie, despair, and exhaustion. You find the theme addressed in modern art and literature (Beckett, Cioran, Delillo’s White Noise …I’ve been compiling a list .

These seem pretty different to me; but they have in common that they are responses to an even greater nihilism: the absence of core values and structures of meaning in a modernist, capitalist world. This is the real Big Nada; all our posturings are small potatoes in the light of its darkness.

As an old, I’m not all that interested in the first form. Sometimes I wish today’s youth would figure out a more effective rebellious subculture, because we need one, but I’m not going to be part of it.

The other kinds are more relevant to me. Your work here addresses the the second kind, providing practical techniques for escaping nihilistic traps.

I’m not sure what the Meaningness stance on the third kind I mentioned, which is more of a collective than an individual (I know you’ve written about this but at this point your output is so vast I can’t recall it all). Here’s what I think you’d say: We killed god (eternalism) and are living with the consequences, which includes a frantic search for new eternalisms (Marxism, Rationalism, and other ideologies) that will also not work. Or we are feeling their absence as nihilism. We should instead accept and embrace the absence of grand collective narratives, and work with real, actual, local forms of meaning.

I’m like 98% on board with that, but not quite all the way, I find myself clinging to some faint hope of an underlying Something, partly because I’m not sure the world can survive without one. The world runs on shared narratives, and will make up bad ones if good ones aren’t available.

World progression

Marko 2021-09-25

As my chemistry TA so eloquently put it, whenever you have a “why?” question as in “why this?”, “why that?” (I think he meant in Chemistry, but it can be extended too), the answer is always “Lower energy.” (Basically that things will always proceed through the path of lowest resistance.) Does kind of impinge on the idea of free will though and the power we have to change things.

I hope you're ok

SusanC 2021-09-26

Hi David,

Your recent post about nihilism leave me slightly concerned about you — they are much are more concerning than your usual posts about Buddhism.

They have something of the feel of someone who is trapped in some kind of psychopathology.

Maybe intellectualizing it isn’t the way out of it, whatever “it” is. Maybe it isn’t an intellectual/philosphical thing at all, it’s just presenting as one.

Well, of course there isn’t some absolute meaning hard-wired into the structure of the universe, or even our genome. (Young children expend considerable effort figuring out the rules of the society they find themselves born into … which suggests that what is genetically programmed into us is the facility to find out, not any particular cultural construct). But to be seriously worried about this, like it’s an actual practical problem rather than the sort of amusement one finds in philosophy books (like trolley problems) is … well, kind of odd.


SusanC 2021-09-26

P.S. Those people in the photographs look like Goths, not nihilists, which is not the same thing at all.

Goth are, in the main, not too worried about whether their taste in music/clothing is ultimately grounded in anything universal…


A couple of weeks ago, a missionary stops me as I am walking across the park. Missionaries amuse me, and anyway, after being kept in conditions of social isolation for an extended period due to covid19 lockdown, I am in the mood to talk to someone. Anyone. He clearly really really wants to convince people that his belief system is the right one. I briefly ponder which belief system I am going to pretend to have this time around. The Philip K Dick take on the last judgement is a good one. or I could argue that being an Anabaptist is obviously right. I pick a slightly extreme version of Nagarjuna this time round, and start to explain… “Like in The Matrix?” he asks. Good. He has seen the movie, which makes my task easier…

An acute practical problem

David Chapman 2021-09-26

Yup, thanks, I’m actually the most OK I’ve been in several years—because I’m getting significantly more time to write, which is what seems most enjoyable and useful for me.

Nihilism is indeed closely related to several sorts of psychopathology. I’ve been reading a bunch of the academic literature; today I spent most of the day reading about cognitive deficits in depression, which was super interesting and relevant.

But to be seriously worried about this, like it’s an actual practical problem rather than the sort of amusement one finds in philosophy books (like trolley problems) is … well, kind of odd.

This isn’t about philosophy, at all. It is a deadly serious practical problem for some people. Deadly in that people do die of it, and lots more might as well be dead, or wish they were. If you read the comments on pages in this chapter, you can read first-person accounts from people enmired in it.

I am writing about nihilism in language that (I hope) feels familiar and that makes sense when you are in the nihilist stance. It may sound horrific and insane if you are aren’t feeling nihilistic currently. It’s meant to reach people where they are at. Academic or psychotherapeutic or cheerful self-help language would not. I’ve gotten enough positive feedback on this that it seems I’m getting it roughly right.

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