The Unrepentant Nihilist

The topic of nihilism raises two important questions. “What do we mean by nihilism?” “What are the consequences of nihilism?” (Is it a disease or a cure?)

In her book “The Banalization of Nihilism: Twentieth-Century Responses to Meaninglessness” (1992) Karen Carr distinguishes between:

  1. Epistemological nihilism (the denial of the possibility of knowledge)
  2. Alethiological nihilism (the denial of the reality of truth)
  3. Metaphysical or ontological nihilism (the denial of an independently existing world)
  4. Ethical or moral nihilism (the denial of the reality of moral or ethical values)
  5. Existential or axiological nihilism (the feeling that life has no meaning).

Some forms of nihilism imply other forms of nihilism. For example, if one denies the possibility of knowledge or truth then this renders the idea of normative ethics void. On the other hand, one can believe that there is an objective world of which true knowledge is possible but also hold that all moral preferences are subjective and life has no objective meaning. In fact, the desire for knowledge and truth can turn against the idea of an objective morality. As Nietzsche observed: “But among the forces cultivated by morality was truthfulness: this eventually turned against morality, discovered its teleology, its partial perspective–and now the recognition of this inveterate mendaciousness that one despairs of shedding becomes a stimulant.”

The main concern of Carr’s book is whether nihilism is considered a “crisis” with transformative and redemptive powers (as per Nietzsche or Karl Barth) or instead a “rather banal characterization of the human situation” that needs to be welcomed and celebrated as an antidote to dogmatism, a view she associates with the writings of Richard Rorty and contemporary deconstructionists and  anti-foundationalists. Carr herself does not welcome this “joyous affirmation” of nihilism because she believes that such an anti-dogmatic position produces the paradoxical effect of reinforcing “dominant social beliefs and practices of our culture” and the “absolutization of the dominant power structures of the culture to which we belong” because it cannot appeal to any critical (objective) standard outside of itself.

Carr’s position is puzzling for a number of reasons. It is not clear at all that nihilism would have the effect of reinforcing existing power structures. Most power structures and cultural norms are in fact based on residual beliefs about objective morality. It is also not clear why an abandonment of truth would have a reinforcing effect instead of a transformative effect. Carr herself writes that “one is left with simply the blind assertion of one’s private will; if the particular community to which one belongs does not support one’s will, one simply finds (or creates) a community more sympathetic to one’s tastes.” But this scenario of continuous power struggle and creating one’s own communities sounds rather dynamic, not static.

What she really appears to fear is a situation where critical thinking with universalist aspirations is replaced by a more individualist Hobbesian perspective in which “disagreements…deteriorate into contents of power.” A more cynical (or “nihilistic”) observer may point out that this has always been the condition of mankind and that the kind of critical perspectives that she feels are needed have always been rhetorical tools in power struggles and lack credible cognitive merit.

She approvingly quotes Thomas McCarthy who writes that “critical thought becomes aestheticized and privatized, deprived of any political or social implications. There can be no politically relevant critical theory and hence no theoretically-supported critical practice.” But is this a defect or a virtue of nihilism? Is this a disease or a cure? This assessment basically captures a modern, scientific, view of the world where morality and culture are an emergent property of evolution and politics can be best understood in a “contractarian” framework where individual preferences, coordination, and bargaining create moral and cultural conventions, an outlook that might be considered a major improvement over religion, or the vacuous nature of most “critical theory.”