Against Critchley’s Passive Nihilism

Simon Critchley
Image via Wikipedia

One of the major catalysts for my increased philo-blogging was my deep dissatisfaction with New School Philosophy Chair Simon Critchley’s own attempts to bring philosophy to the masses, so I guess in a way it’s fitting that he would eventually pen something representing much of what my larger blogging project stands against. I am referring here to his paean to what he calls “passive nihilism“—a worldview that he and the usually worthwhile Philosophers’ Magazine apparently believe to be among the top 10 greatest ideas of our young century.

Critchley (pictured) writes:

The passive nihilist looks at the world from a certain highly cultivated detachment and finds it meaningless. Rather than trying to act in the world, which is pointless, the passive nihilist withdraws to a safe contemplative distance and cultivates his aesthetic sensibility by pursuing the pleasures of lyric poetry, yogic flying, bird-watching, gardening or botany, as was the case with the aged Rousseau (“Botany is the ideal study for the idle, unoccupied solitary,” he writes in the Reveries of a Solitary Walker). In a world that is rushing to destroy itself through capitalist exploitation or military crusades – which are usually two arms of the same killer ape – the passive nihilist withdraws to an island where the mystery of existence can be seen for what it is without distilling it into a meaning. In the face of the coming century, which in all likelihood will be defined by the violence of faith and the certainty of environmental devastation, Gray offers a cool but safe temporary refuge.

I’ve spilled a lot of digital ink railing against other, less finely delineated versions of that philosophy, so I won’t rehash the arguments here. Only the bullet points: It is morally and personally untenable, a sad attempt at justifying narcissism and apathy as an intellectually legitimate position.

I expect Critchley is trying to mount a preemptive defense against that charge when he describes nihilism as a temporary refuge, but it’s not much of a defense given he offers every indication in the rest of the essay that it should be a permanent one. After all, what’s the point of returning to the world of meaning and action if both are a waste of time at best and actively malicious at worst? If there’s no justification for doing anything at all, then there’s no reason to ever leave the comfy confines of one’s utter indifference about the world.

But more to the point, if we should all “simply learn to see the mystery as such,” and “not seek to unveil it in order to find some deeper purpose within,” then why the fuck is Critchley a philosopher? Isn’t seeking meaning and purpose kind of built into the job description? Passive nihilism reads less like a philosophy and more like an anti-philosophy that seeks to negate any attempts at a priori reasoning and introspection by throwing up its metaphysical hands and crying, “Unsolvable mysteries of the soul! Wakka-wakka!” It is, in other words, a philosophy that seeks to make even the most basic philosophical inquiries seem frivolous and naïve.

If nothing else, that outlook certainly explains Critchley’s mushy, facile attempt to define a philosopher in the pages of the Times. If I were a professional philosopher with this much contempt for the philosophical project, I might use it as an excuse to pen smug, empty crowd-pleasers too.

I can understand why the same newspaper that employs Maureen Dowd might subsidize this stuff, but The Philosophers’ Magazine? For real?

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