David Foster Wallace and Nietzschean Nihilism
September 5, 2010

Taken from http://students.washington.edu/aegi...
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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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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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God Is Dead
June 20, 2010

Friedrich Nietzsche
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I’ve read very little Nietzsche, but this famous passage in The Gay Science left a very strong impression on me when I first read it. It’s the context for the philosopher’s infamous assertion that “God is dead,” and after getting that context I finally understood what he meant.

Many of you already know this, so I’m going to gloss it very quickly: Nietzsche is obviously not arguing that man literally murdered God. What he is instead suggesting is that man has surpassed and demolished an old, antiquated morality associated with our conception of God. And when the madman who brings this news realizes that he has “come too early,” this is because even the atheists who he tells this to do not grasp the implications.

This parable is, I believe, even more salient now than it was in Nietzsche’s time. And it carries special significance for this generation of Americans. Our parents, the boomers, are the ones who, in Nietzsche’s words, “killed God”—they are the generation of the hippies, the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, and the other various political and cultural upheavals that weakened the white, Christian, heteronormative patriarchy that until the past few decades has unquestionably dominated this country.

This isn’t to suggest that racism, sexism and other traditional forms of American elitism are dead—only that the cultural norms that tied them into some kind of comprehensive national narrative are. Even the political movement most concerned with ostensibly returning us to the old system—the Tea Party movement—is essentially a nihilistic movement, motivated more by self-interest, directionless rage and various racial and classist resentments than a cohesive vision of how America should be. They seek to essentially undo the undoable.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried. Just because the revolution already happened doesn’t mean it can’t still fail, and my biggest fear is that it will, for the reason that most revolutions fail: demolishing a cathedral is a lot easier than building a new one in the rubble. Tea Party nihilism is a monstrous ethical philosophy, and I’m no more satisfied by Nietzsche’s “master morality.” If this country is going to survive and flourish, we need to build a new, better morality. It is my conviction that the burden of doing so lies with my generation, and what scares me is that I don’t think we have either recognized or reacted to this burden.

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