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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People Are Bad at Happiness
June 28, 2010

infinite jest
Image by dorywithserifs via Flickr

Earlier I argued that it’s a fool’s errand to make your life-long project a quest for personal satisfaction for its own sake. If you want to understand why, all you have to do is try and conceive of what such a project would look like.

By definition, we’re not talking about a project that seeks to directly better the lives of others. Nor is it one that aims towards any higher moral ends. This is a project that is either purely hedonistic or projects towards some other kind of self-affirmation: say, a carefully cultivated self-image or career goal.

So a goal like that is necessarily materialistic. A non-materialistic endeavor projects itself towards something larger than, and outside of, ourselves. If we’re not going to find fulfillment in moral virtue, religion, idealism, compassion or anything else, where does that leave us?

A lot of you probably share my belief that narcissism is morally monstrous, but that’s not really the argument here. I think the more salient point is that it is necessarily self-defeating, for the simple reason that it is impossible to satisfy. That’s because, when it comes to satisfying our own happiness, we’re notoriously bad at figuring out what works and what doesn’t. The things we think will raise our overall happiness in the long-term, usually don’t; after the initial endorphin rush dissipates, we’re just left with a higher threshold for maintaining our current happiness level.

David Foster Wallace’s great insight was making the link between a lot of the wildly disparate way in which we pursue happiness through material things: in Infinite Jest, he juxtaposes the pursuit of entertainment, career advancement, fame, and chemically altered states, suggesting that they all operate on more or less the same principle. A small measure of that book’s genius lies in how he demonstrates, with humor and compassion, that all of these things can dull our anxiety and suffering in the short term while really just crippling our ability to function normally without them in the long term.

A lot of self-help pop philosophy is focused on the question, “How do I find happiness?” But reflecting on this stuff has led me to reject the premise. I’m not so sure that happiness qua happiness is a reasonable or worthwhile lifelong goal. If you’re lucky, it’s the byproduct of pursuing a different, worthier project.

(I’m going to try and make this my last Infinite Jest/DFW-related post for a little while. For one thing, I don’t want this blog to become too one-note. But I’m also running out of non-repeated pictures to run at the top of these things.)

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Parsing the Philosophy of Infinite Jest
June 13, 2010

RIP David Foster Wallace
Image by Ryan via Flickr

Back, guys. And since before the weekend I wrote a little bit about David Foster Wallace and alluded obliquely to his influence on my own thought, I figured I should begin by clarifying a little bit.

As I’ve said before, literary criticism and philosophy are two great tastes that don’t necessarily always go great together—a philosopher can only critically analyze explicit arguments, and any work of literature that explicitly spells out some kind of unified thesis probably isn’t very good. This causes problems when trying to engage with literature from the perspective of academic philosophy.

Nonetheless, I think we can parse some philosophical ideas out of Infinite Jest, especially when it’s viewed in the context of Wallace’s other work.

Infinite Jest is about entertainment, and the ways in which we use it to try and satisfy a spiritual need which it can’t possibly fulfill. Kierkegaard talks about “idle chatter” as the thing which we use to distract ourselves from our own feelings of existential despair, and I think Wallace believes that the modern toys of distraction (which can mean anything from television to hard drugs) exist to do the same. The only problem is that these things don’t offer anything approaching a stable, permanent balm for that feeling of suffering and loneliness, but instead raise the threshold required to alleviate it next time around. That’s why you don’t see a great deal of correlation between material wealth and overall happiness.

What makes things significantly more complicated is that the cure, in many respects, can seem worse than the disease. Identification with various religions, philosophies, political ideologies and so on can be spiritually fulfilling in a way that mere entertainment isn’t, but they that effect is often only accomplished through a surrender of one’s critical faculties and individual identity. And while the 12th century Crusader hacking his way through Jerusalem may feel an enviable sense of serenity and certainty, there’s no getting around the fact that these things come attached to a values system that is brutish, cruel, myopic, and, well, Medieval.

I read Infinite Jest as Wallace’s attempt to strike some kind of balance between these forces, or at least interrogate what that would look like.

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David Foster Wallace, Philosopher
June 7, 2010

David Foster Wallace gave a reading for Booksm...
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Since we’re expanding of the mission of this blog a bit, I want to take some time to introduce one of my favorite non-academic philosophers, and probably one of my greatest influences as a writer: David Foster Wallace.

Wallace is, of course, most well-known as a novelist (Infinite Jest being his crowning achievement) and an essayist who wrote lengthy, footnote-laden reflections on everything from John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign to a lobster festival in Maine to the Academy Awards of hardcore pornography. But he was also, as this New York Times piece points out, a talented philosophy student as an undergrad, and even pursued a PhD in Philosophy at Harvard before dropping out.

I think it’s fair to say that even if Wallace never became a philosopher in the accredited, academic sense, his writing would not have been the same without that rigorous formal training in the field. Undoubtedly this is most obvious in his debut novel, The Broom of the System, which I haven’t read (and which Wallace himself dismisses); apparently the plot of the book is directly related to concepts about meaning borrowed from Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language.

But I think careful readings of Infinite Jest and Wallace’s essays on John McCain, pornography, cruise ships, talk radio and Dostoevsky reveal some sophisticated philosophical content that is both carefully thought out and incredibly significant in its implications. When I get around to articulating some of my own thoughts in the near future, fans of Wallace will likely be able to see his fingerprints all over them.

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