Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Resisting Nihilism's Arrogance and Abandoning Understanding

So, recently I finished a book that I pretty much loved. I wrote about it before in a blog post. It was The Trouble With Being Born by E.M. Cioran. 212 pages of fantastic aphorisms. He is primarily a nihilistic philosopher.

The main thing I want to write about here is the relationship between nihilism and arrogance. I think a nihilistic worldview lends itself well to arrogance. It is easy to use it as a way to write people off, or to criticize them I am gonna talk about how this has been a somewhat consistent theme in my life. Then I am gonna talk about how Cioran and others give me a way to use nihilism as a path to compassion rather than arrogance.

So, nihilism and arrogance. What is that all about? Well, first I will lay out how it seems easy to use nihilism to lapse into a dismissive or arrogant world view. Second, I'll talk about how I think the conclusions of nihilism should lead you to a more compassionate view.

Nihilism and an arrogant world view:
Basic ideas of nihilism as I understand them. The world is without objective meaning. Human existence is one big accident. System's of meaning are socially constructed. Life is essentially pain. Ummm, I am having a hard time coming up with an in depth discussion of nihilism as a view. I suppose I have read a number of nihilist books but not really enough. But, regardless, it is a view that posits that their is a lack of meaning in everything, that everything is random and accidental, that life is defined by pain, and we may not even be able to access real truth or knowledge.

Sure, thats all good and fine. I suppose my knowledge of nihilism comes from Nietzsche, John Gray, Cioran, and Schopenhauer.

Now, how could this create an arrogant world view? Well, I guess I will start by saying that the nihilistic world view is in stark contrast to most of life within society. Mainly when it comes to the idea of meaning. Society seems to thrive on meaning. We need to assign meaning to things so that we can function. We have developed extremely elaborate religious institutions that have been explaining and assigning meaning to the world for millennia. We have legal and political institutions that have given meaning to our behavior and our interactions with others, given us a sense of morality. We also have scientific studies that have given nature meaning down to the smallest increment. Everything means something, or is a certain way.

And I guess nihilism is dangerous to these ideas because it asks: what if none of this means anything? And what if it isn't that way, but I have been indoctrinated into thinking about things in that way? In short, nihilism problematizes all of the meanings assigned by religion, law, politics, and science.

So how does this give rise to an arrogant world view? Well, seeing as how most of the world depends on at least one of these systems of meaning, it makes it easy to write people off, to attribute stupidity to them. When we see someone coming out of a church it is easy for us, being informed on nihilism, to say 'don't you know that religion is a historically constructed system of meaning? don't you see that it has nothing to do with your life and merely offers you a way of making sense of life's pain? why don't you just face the facts and stop living a lie?' So, since nihilism embraces the idea that life is an illusion, it, if misused, gives us liberty to attack other people's world view. Any system of meaning that guides someone, like politics, law, religion, or science, can be dismantled and shown to be incredulous. You can claim, almost universally, that any system of meaning is flawed and should be abandoned. I can see how It sorta gives you license to be critical of whoever you want whenever you want.

Religion is the most easily attacked, I think. But politics, law, and science, too, can be attacked by nihilism. Side thought: nihilism and historical study. Nietzsche was very historically informed, as is Cioran. John Gray frequently invokes history, and I believe Schopenhauer was too. So, what is up with the relationship between history and nihilism? Well, if you look at the historical record, more than anything else you find war, disease, general suffering, etc.. Things are okay for lots of people, life is good, but history definitely turns up more pain than anything else. Further, it is really easy to tie violence and pain to religion, just because religion has played such a role in human life for much longer than politics or science. So, I guess that is why religion was the first system of meaning to come under heavy scrutiny from the historically informed nihilists.

Later, other nihilists would made explicit claims about the systems of meaning that have been opened up by politics and law, science and technology. John Gray, for example, has some very interesting thoughts on science and technology. He argues that the Christian project of universal salvation has been taken up, in a modified form, by contemporary liberal humanists. Christianity, he claims, was the first belief system to offer salvation for all. Pagan religions never saw life as a process of salvation, but as a constant, something that would always involve discomfort. Buddhism saw things similarly, suffering is inevitable Buddha said. Gray claims that liberal humanists have placed their faith in science and technology to create panaceas for human pain, taking up the Christian project of universal salvation without even recognizing its origins. This isn't about abandoning science and technology. It is about finding its limitations, and recognizing the centrality of pain and irrationality. One quote from Gray's Straw Dogs, it demonstrates all of the above very concisely: "Today the good life means making full use of science and technology – without succumbing to the illusion that they can make us free, reasonable or even sane. It means seeking peace – without hoping for a world without war.... The good life is not found in dreams of progress, but in coping with tragic contingencies."

Foucault's work also challenged the systems of meaning, the 'games of truth,' he calls them, that were enabled by politics, law, science, and religion. While Foucault was a professed Nietzschean, it isn't really appropriate to call him a nihilist philosopher. There are hints of nihilism, certainly. But he is doing something quite different. But his work still applies because it resembles nihilist philosophy in two ways. 1. He seems to believe that there is no objective meaning to the world, and treats science, religion, and law as competing forms of hypothetical knowledge. For Foucault, there is no difference between what a scientist says and a priest says, both are analyzed as forms of knowledge that facilitate certain forms of power relations, and certain forms of ethics. 2. Foucault uses a particularly historical method to show that these institutions are historically constituted and thus do not hold universal or objective knowledge. So, this resembles nihilism in that it uses history to problematize systems of meaning. It uses history to show that the world has an essentially constructed meaning, and most importantly, that politics and science, as well as religion can come under the scrutiny of nihilistic ideas. Again, Foucault should not be thought of as a nihilist. I am afraid this characterization isn't quite fair. More so, I do not think this is most important thing Foucault has to say. I'll have to write a post on him.

So, anyways, what I am trying to say is that all forms of knowledge, religious, political, legal, scientific etc., can come under the scrutiny of nihilist philosophy. It uses history to break down their claims to absolute truth. So, it is easy to see how it would lend itself to a view point that is arrogant. Nihilism has the potential to look like an all out assault on modern life, an attack on all meaning. By questioning the meaning of these seemingly universal institutions, it comes off as simple criticism, or as hopeless rejection of life. But I think that is missing a really important conclusion about the lack of meaning in the world.

Basically, if nihilism means to show that the world has no real meaning, and that all our forms of understanding are historically and socially constructed, then nihilism has to recognize itself as an equally historically and socially constructed point of view that has the potential to merely replace other forms of knowledge rather than enabling us to transcend them. Every form of knowledge just enables meaning. And while nihilism can let us ascribe meaning to the world that differs from religion or science, it would be better used as a way to escape meaning in itself. If we can learn to look at the world without words, if we can, even for moments, escape the constant labeling, the constant inner articulation of everything, then we might experience the real benefits of nihilism. If all we can do with it is shred other forms of knowledge with our jabber about the lack of meaning we are contradicting ourselves. We are using analysis to discredit the idea of meaning as a whole: we are producing meaning to discredit meaning. And this is necessary. It has to be done, you have to talk about it to get around it at all. But the real trick is not stopping with the analysis, but using it to find wordless space. Meaning is not produced just to discredit meaning, it is produced to transcend meaning. We shouldn't talk about the lack of meaning just to wallow in the pain of those revelations, but to realize that we can enjoy an existence that doesn't need meaning.

Two quotations to back this up.

E.M. Cioran said: "'For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened....' No sooner are they open than the drama begins. To look without understanding–that is paradise. Hell, then, would be the place where we understand, where we understand too much...."
Looking without understanding is the ultimate goal of nihilism. A very Buddhist idea. When we recognize the world as a game of truth, as a collision of systems of meaning, we allow ourselves to escape meaning altogether.

John Gray, on the last page of Straw Dogs, says 'why can't the purpose of life be just to see?'
Same idea. Why do we need meaning? Why do we need words to classify and govern our existence? Why do we need to talk about what we see and feel? Because it is fun, and satisfying, and helps facilitate understanding. But we shouldn't get lost in our production of meaning, we shouldn't take nihilism as a conclusion that provides understanding, but as a conclusion that helps us escape understanding.

So, then, I think nihilism presents us with two challenges, with two new ways of looking at the world: It challenges us to recognize that our ethics, our institutions, and our lives are historically and socially constructed, and in essence, devoid of objective meaning. And second, it challenges us to try and transcend meaning, it challenges us to exist without it, to exist without words.

1 comment:

  1. "realize that we can enjoy an existence that doesn't need meaning" Spot on. I tried to tell this to someone something like this the other day, they just though I was a depressed, arrogant jackass for even suggesting there probably aren't any truly objective meanings to anything. That objectivity probably doesn't exist. I'm okay with that, and feel it can lead to a much happier existence, but they didn't agree. Like, at all.