Now that you read the previous chapter, Status, let us switch gears. Time to abandon the ironic tone and the hyperboles. On with some analysis. While Status raises valid points, it obscures them in nihilism. The reader is not drawn to the arguments but to the overall negativity.
Nihilism can be understood as a way of interpreting phenomena that is characterised by the following connatural tropes:
- Binary thinking. Everything is parsed through a rigid duality with no space for permeations or permutations in between the extremes.
- Forced homogenisation. To fit into the mould of perfectly symmetrical extremes, all things must be brought under a common denominator. Conceptual uniformity makes blanket statements possible.
- Juxtaposition between the actual and the ideal. Actuality is compared to some ideal, only to be found wanting. The ideal is, by definition, perfect. Reality is not. Which results in a cycle of self fulfilling negativity.
The approach in Status conforms with these. There is no nuance. The possibility of there being combinations of positive and negative elements—with “positive” and “negative” being relative to the benchmark used—is dismissed at the outset. The topic under discussion is presented in overly broad terms, so as to treat it as monolithic. That makes it possible to pass general judgements about it. And, true to nihilism, the overarching pessimism is the end product of deep seated, yet misplaced idealism. Things are not perfect, therefore, the rationale is, they are absolutely terrible.
For instance, consider Status’ statements against society’s hypocrisy. Do they concern the entirety of society, some average, a select few? Are they about everything society does, some aspects of collective experience, or certain special cases? And then, is this supposed hypocrisy contingent on circumstances that condition the behaviour of situational agents and patients? Can there be instances where it is not present? Furthermore, is it true hypocrisy or a form of social convention which remains consistent throughout and is not misunderstood by the members of the social whole as something entirely different than what it is supposed to be?
Nihilism adopts a scorched earth approach. All or nothing, which all too often means just the latter. As such, the nihilist may be starting from a sound or seemingly innocuous principle, say a lofty ideal, only to ultimately work against it.
The nihilist inevitably becomes dogmatic. For that is what the defence of an absolute system of normative claims on reality entails. They work backwards from a conclusion. This is to be contrasted with ideals that derive from inquiry into the commonalities among the multitude of phenomena. The patterns, the abstract structure. The nihilist’s ideals are preconceived notions that are forced upon reality. And the nihilistic outburst is the expression of the inner realisation of the conflict between one’s view of the world as it ought to be and the world as it actually is and can be.
From a political perspective, the nihilist has no direct contribution to make. Extreme idealism can, at best, only keep a fringe group focused on a narrowly defined task or utopia as an opposition force that will never be in a position to implement its view. Ideals are not implementable as such. Nihilism is the opposite of the capacity to govern, as that presupposes the kind of practicality that recognises the complexity of things, their heterogeneity, and the possibility of incremental reforms that add up to a bigger change. As such, the nihilist is actually struggling between all that is ideal and nothing that is real. Which leaves them with the latter.
As for the theme of this book, human’s self worth, the nihilist unwittingly becomes the agent of the most extreme form of human exceptionalism. This is typical among those who harbour nothing but contempt for the world, as discussed in the first chapter of this book. Now consider a less obvious example to reinforce the point: the misguided Malthusian ecologist who truly believes that the planet’s only hope is for humanity to go extinct. They are assuming that they are the most enlightened of the species, both because they are not preoccupied with their own survival, as all living things, and due to humanity’s ostensibly unique inability to adapt to evolving circumstances. Furthermore, they commit the error of every other theory that subscribes to the concept of the decontextualised human. Humanity can be removed from the ecosystem and everything else will remain in tact. That is the claim that humans are not inextricably bound up together with the rest of the ecosystem. Which is a weird view, to say the least, when it is well known that removing any one of the species from its ecosystem will disturb the local equilibrium, often with far-reaching ramifications. This is where the dogmatic part of nihilism is fully fleshed out. They just know.
Nihilism is expressed as the posterior rationalisation of a deeply rooted conviction that is unrealisable. The real does not match the ideal. The ideal cannot be realised. Crisis ensues and is then justified as certainty of nothingness, either in a holistic sense, or for the subject of inquiry.
Here are some common examples, with the proviso that they could be classified as over-reactions that tend to normalise over time:
- The “helpless romantic” who hates every one and every thing because they are not worthy enough and cannot deliver true love.
- The armchair revolutionary who ultimately functions as an anti-revolutionary by dismissing in advance every attempt at changing things as either futile or as yet another concealed effort to preserve the status quo.
- The naive Platonist who does not care about their hygiene or what happens in the world in general, since everything is supposed to be a fake representation of an unapproachable domain of absolute Forms.
The key element of nihilism is not the view that nothing exists or that nothing is real, etc. But rather that they are certain of such a state of affairs. Unlike variants of scepticism, the nihilist can only posit nothingness in the most dogmatic of ways as certainty of nothingness, which itself would be a clear sign of somethingness.
The sceptic can speak about the lack of meaning or of the nonexistence of various forms and categories of being, by following the analytical method alluded to in the chapter about Godlessness. The sceptic can examine all available knowledge/literature over a given subject to arrive at the conclusion that fundamental issues remain unresolved and that none of the presences that precondition the field of research concerned are, in fact, verifiable. This would be an analytical statement, not a conviction per se, but a reformulation of the stock of available knowledge or a general characterisation derived therefrom.
An analytical proposition can provide insight into hitherto unseen items, which would colloquially mean that we learn something new. And while that is a fair impression, analytics remain essentially tautological. We learn to represent—to reason, to talk about—the same things in new ways, and may have a clearer understanding of their abstract structure as a result.
The sceptic arrives at their position by studying what is “out there” while inquiring into the meaning or the interplay between the subject and the object. The nihilist formulates their view of what should be “out there” while claiming to know what is “in here”.
Perhaps it would be fecund to posit nihilism as a type of epistemological character; a defined way of dealing with episteme. That would make the comparison to scepticism more direct. A nihilist tends to express nihilistic views about every area or topic they are concerned with. They tend to be consistently nihilistic. Much like a sceptic tends to remain inquisitive and dubitative in every field of study.
Nihilism “puts the cart before the horse”, as the old adage goes. They get things in reverse, where reality must conform to the ideal and not vice versa. They misunderstand the role of ideals as (i) products of thought derived by discerning the common in the multitude, and (ii) as guides to human thought and action. The ideal is treated as the enemy of the good, rather than its general target. Hence, the rejection of every minute improvement or indication of positiveness, as decisively inadequate or altogether a distraction that obscures the underlying vanity of the whole venture, its worthlessness.
As for products of thought, it is worth addressing the Platonic notion of Ideals in themselves. The inescapable constraint imposed upon Platonic Idealism, or on other theories that presume a decontextualised “mind” or purely intellectual being, is that humans necessarily are part of the world, experiencing it through the faculties their natural condition has endowed them with. There is no human qua purely intellectual self, just as there can be no absolute “I think” without connection to the underlying natural condition.
It may then be the case that pattern is immanent. It is intrinsic to things. The fact that humans (and not only) can discern constants among the variables that constitute the totality of input to the faculties of sense and the intellect may just as well be because of a shared, built-in capacity to identify commonalities in all that is, to eventually abstract them and think of them as such. That means to be in a position to identify the “abstract structure”. As such, universals are not potentially recognisable by everyone because they must be objectively present, but rather due to a common way of arriving at them through the particulars. A shared process of parsing information, if you will.
This is where the nihilist errs lamentably. The ideals they hold are posited as objective categories that the world fails to comply with. There is no means of easing this tension other than examining its basic hypotheses. And, if that proves inconclusive, then the only honest conclusion is to recognise uncertainty for what it is and to remain open to the possibility that it might cease to be upon further, more comprehensive research.
Pedantic and inconsequential details for the dogmatists who have no time for leaving things unanswered…