David Foster Wallace and Nietzschean Nihilism
September 5, 2010

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The further I’ve dug into Nietzsche, the more puzzled I’ve become when reading other philosophers discuss “Nietzschean nihilism.” All I’ve read so far suggests that Nietzsche had very strong moral intuitions, although perhaps in pointing this out I’m missing what is meant by the word “nihilist.” We’re used to talking about “nihilists” as people with no moral intuitions (or at least no moral intuitions that don’t conveniently work to their advantage), but perhaps it would be more accurate to call Nietzsche a nihilist who does not view his moral intuitions as corresponding to intrinsic, mind-independent properties of the universe. If that’s nihilism, then there’s nothing inherently amoral about it—just anti-moral realism.

Mostly I’ve been thinking about this concept of Nietzschean nihilism in direct relation to Nietzsche himself, but of course its influence extends far beyond his own work alone. For example, last week, philosopher Sean Kelly wrote of David Foster Wallace’s philosophical project that “the saving possibility for the culture that Wallace proposes is ultimately predicated on a kind of unlivable Nietzschean nihilism.”

Wallace (pictured) is, as regular readers of the blog know, among the most significant influences on my own philosophical project; so my immediate response to Kelly’s post was knee-jerk dismissal. But once I started thinking about nihilism in this light, and what it might mean to be not just a nihilist but a Nietzschean nihilist, I started to understand what his argument for that position might be (or at least, how I would put the argument; I’m going to have to wait to read Kelly’s book to find out if we’re truly talking about the same thing).

One clue to why Wallace might be called a Nietzschean nihilist lies in another post from last week, this one by Matt Feeney at The American Scene. A chunk of the post is dedicated to discussing this DFW quote:

If you can think of times in your life that you’ve treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves. To treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend. Or a tiny child of ours that we absolutely loved more than life itself. And I think it’s probably possible to achieve that. I think part of the job we’re here for is to learn how to do it. I know that sounds a little pious.

(Aside: The quote comes to us from David Lipsky’s interviews with Wallace, published as Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which I reviewed for Wunderkammer.)

Feeney says that the above passage “sounds like the sort of apotheosis of the self as a therapeutic object that is widely and mostly well-derided around these parts,” and goes on to exonerate Wallace on the grounds that he was clinically depressed. But I think he fundamentally misunderstands what Wallace—who was, after all, as sharp a critic of self-involved pop-psychology and shallow self-validation as anyone. The kind of self-love he advocates here doesn’t necessarily require self-indulgence. After all, one tries not to be overly indulgent to a small child one loves, because it isn’t healthy for him. Instead, we try to instill the child with a sense of how to remain healthy and well-adjusted throughout his whole life—and we consider the teaching of strong moral principles to be an essential part of that instruction.

If this love of the self as a path to the good is nihilism, then I think Kelly is accurate in describing it as Nietzschean nihilism. It is, in other words, glorification of the will to create, and to create one’s own kind of virtue, but in a way that, if done properly, leads to familiar moral intuitions about how to treat others. As Nietzsche himself writes in Thus Spoke Zarathustra’s Part Two (which I started earlier today): “Learning better to feel joy, we learn best not to hurt others or to plan hurts for them.”

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Being-For-Itself
August 16, 2010

Cover: 1964, 7th printing of Nausea; New Direc...
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Right now I’m about a third of the way through Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, and so far I’m finding it to be an immense pleasure. Effectively, this is the first time I’ve been able to really engage with Sartre’s fiction; I read the original text of Hui Clos (No Exit) in high school French, but given that French was never my strong suit I probably would have gotten more out of reading the Wikipedia synopsis. As for his straight philosophy (specifically Being and Nothingness), I found it maddeningly cryptic and elliptical. I wanted to grapple with the ideas he was proposing, but the presentation made much of it incomprehensible to me.

Nausea personalizes and makes concrete Sartre’s existentialism, which is a great way to clarify both the structure of his phenomenology and his own feelings on its implications. Given that he is one of the great giants of existentialism, and I’m probably one of the last American philosophy majors to unself-consciously identify as an existentialist, the clarification has been invaluable.

I’m particularly interested in the book’s treatment of one of the author’s key concepts from Being and Nothingness: being-for-itself. In the latter work, Sartre argues that consciousness is the being-for-itself because it is that which can observe itself. Because it has that ability, it is, itself, nothing; any of its features can be discarded or remolded at a moment’s notice. The fact that we are, ourselves, nothingness surrounded by (for lack of a better word) thing-ness is profoundly disturbing to us. This comes up a lot in Nausea, in various forms: Roquentin, the main character, is unsettled by the fact that his own reflection in the mirror doesn’t signify anything to him. As a professional historian, he reads up on the fictional (I think) Marquis de Robellon, and is disturbed by the Marquis’ seeming fluidity of character. Robellon, it seems, has embraced the nothingness at his core and set out to simply be whatever he needs to be in any given situation.

I’m of two minds about being-for-itself. On the one hand, I’m something of a soft determinist: I believe that we spend about 99.9999% percent of our lives blindly reacting to external stimuli in predictable, far from unique ways. In fact, I’d argue that this is empirically true; go ahead and ask a political scientist or behavioral psychologist if we’re all the precious little snowflakes we think we are. To the extent that our behavior seems determined by our deepest inner selves, that is because we are remarkably talented at rationalizing our own actions.

On the other hand, I think this feeling of essential emptiness is a good description of one of the fundamental anxieties of self-consciousness; and considering Sartre’s existentialism is founded in phenomenology, the philosophy of describing the character of one’s experiences, that makes all the difference.

Take, for example, my fear of heights. I rarely feel agitated when I’m gazing through a thick pane of glass or over a high railing, but climbing a ladder or standing anywhere near an unprotected ledge can be profoundly distressing. Intellectually, I understand that the only way I’ll fall is if I let go of the ladder or walk off the ledge, two things which I have no interest in doing; on a visceral level, I experience letting go or walking off as real options. That I would never do such a thing is sort of beside the point. The point is that I’m being presented with the choice, and the only things preventing me from making the wrong choice are hardwired self-preservation and my incomplete, shallow perception of myself and what I’m like.

We block out most of these choices just to get through the day without being paralyzed by anxiety. But I think realizing that we are, at our core, not really anything in particular can also liberate us from those of our own habits and behaviors we dislike. That there is a behavioral or physiological element to those habits and behaviors—one which Sartre downplays far too much—makes breaking them one of the most difficult things you can do. Yet doing so can also be the most profound disclosure of your own freedom and agency.

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Against Critchley’s Passive Nihilism
July 21, 2010

Simon Critchley
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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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Love and Ambiguity
May 30, 2010

French philosopher and novelist Simone de Beauvoir
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It’s been a few days, but I promised Jess I would get to this, and I’m a man of my word. Let’s talk about the phenomenology of love as outlined in Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity.

Beauvoir, like most existentialists, rejects the notion of inherent, objective value, arguing that something only has value to us in the moment that it is snatched away from us. When a thing is in one’s own hands, it is merely a tool to be used and taken for granted; but before we possess it, we can covet it, and when it is taken away we can miss it. For Beauvoir, the same thing applies to love.

In loving another person, we project towards the goal of being one with that person, of being “completed” by each other. Of course, that will never happen, and the object of your love will always remain a separate consciousness, a country with unexplored territory. This is something to be grateful for.

Why? Because, as Beauvoir says, to completely merge with a loved one would make that love impossible. It would be the end of the project toward which love projects. To be in love is to feel the exquisite ache of desiring something that is always just out of reach, but also the joy of continually inching closer to that goal.

Paradoxically, to love someone is also to wish for that person’s freedom. That’s because it is only the freedom of the object of your love that gives the project of love meaning. Only a free consciousness can freely reciprocate that love, and only a free consciousness can forever elude the possession towards which love projects but never reaches.

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“Bracketing” and The Second Sex
May 29, 2010

Le Deuxieme Sexe
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Fortuitously, the day on which I was planning about writing about Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophy of love as articulated briefly in The Ethics of Ambiguity also happens to be the day that the New York Times decides to run a review of the newest translation of her landmark feminist work, The Second Sex. I haven’t read The Second Sex, but it’s the work that Beauvoir is most well-known for, so I was curious to learn a little about the content.

Here’s what I learned: If the passages excerpted in the review are any indication, then The Ethics of Ambiguity is the better of the two, by far. Here’s a taste from the review:

 Females of all living species are “first violated … then alienated” by the process of fertilization. Derogatory phrases like “the servitude of maternity,” “woman’s absurd fertility,” the “exhausting servitude” of breast-feeding, abound. (How could they not, since the author sees heterosexual love in general as “a mortal danger?”) According to Beauvoir, a girl’s first menstruation, which many of us welcomed with excitement and pride, is met instead with “disgust and fear. ” It “ inspires horror” and “signifies illness, suffering and death.”

Yeeeeah. Wow. But the misstep I find most intriguing is when Beauvoir insists that, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” That sounds a lot like Sartre’s argument—which I criticized yesterday—that biology plays no causal role when it comes to sexual desire. Nor, Beauvoir argues, does it play any causal role when it comes to gender identity. Even if you think gender is fluid and malleable (which I do), that seems kind of absurd.

And it’s absurd for the same reason. Beauvoir and Sartre both, I think, ignore the lessons of the existentialist’s best friend: the phenomenologist.

Phenomenology is a philosophical tradition very closely tied to existentialism; so much so that many major works of phenomenology contain pretty major traces of existentialist thought (such as in Heidegger’s Being and Time), and vice versa (such as in Sartre’s own Being and Nothingness). This cousin to existentialism concerns itself with the study of being-in-the-world, or the organizational features of our experience of the world. Most works of phenomenology do this without making any judgments about the character of the world itself.

Husserl, one of the fathers of phenomenology, called this “bracketing,” by which he meant setting aside questions about the world around us. For example, a phenomenologist might describe the experience and sensation I have of typing out this blog post on a keyboard and staring at a screen, but he is describing it only as it exists in my head, without making any judgments about the nature of the actual keyboard or screen … or, for that matter, about whether they even exist at all.

Existentialism works best, I think, when it, too, brackets these questions. That’s because, while existentialist notions of the nothingness and infinite freedom of consciousness don’t seem to bear out from empirical study—human beings are fairly predictable and causally determined, by and large—it is an incredibly potent description of the phenomenological experience of being a person.

So Beauvoir and Sartre are correct to a certain extent. Sartre is correct that one doesn’t experience sexual desire as a purely biological sensation (what would it even mean to have a sensation like that?), and Beauvoir is correct that one experiences the behavior and social conventions we attach to gender identity as completely conscious, voluntary things that we could shed at a moment’s notice. But just because we experience the sensation of freedom, doesn’t mean we are free in anything beyond the phenomenological sense.

Update: Okay. Maybe I’m just digging myself deeper, but I feel like I need to clarify some things. So for the record, here’s what I was not doing in the above post:

1.) Offering a critique, in any way, shape, or form, of feminism.

2.) Offering any meaningful critique of the whole of The Second Sex. (It’s no sleight to say that it’s not as good as The Ethics of Ambiguity on a conceptual level, because The Ethics of Ambiguity is damn near perfect.)

3.) Dismissing Beauvoir (who, I should stress again, is one of my favorite philosophers).

4.) Suggesting that gendered behavior is solely the result of rigid biological determinism.

This post was meant mostly as a critique of existentialism. For that critique, I took as a premise that while much of gender is fluid and culturally constructed, biological/physiological factors are not completely irrelevant. That doesn’t just apply to gendered behavior but to a whole host of different character traits; I just chose to focus on gender specifically because it seemed timely with the review coming out today.

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