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Donald Douglas

Navigating Past Nihilism

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Posted on December 6 2010 4:00 pm

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Cross-posted from American Power Blog.

Back during the racist Pale Scot episode, BJKeefe rejected David Horowitz’s equation of leftist ideologies with the doctrines of epistemological nihilism. Of course such references are common, so I responded in the comments:

The left has recycled Soviet Marxism-Leninism, giving a pass to the murder of 100s of millions. When those apologies for totalitarianism — what leftist refer to as “actually existing socialism” — become a defense of a failed ideology, all you have left is utter nothingness, hence nihilism.

In response, BJ babbled something about my attempting to “twist the definition of nihilism to fit your own preconceived notions.”

Well, actually not, according to Merriam-Webster:

1a : a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless b : a doctrine that denies any objective ground of truth and especially of moral truths.

2a : a doctrine or belief that conditions in the social organization are so bad as to make destruction desirable for its own sake independent of any constructive program or possibility b capitalized : the program of a 19th century Russian party advocating revolutionary reform and using terrorism and assassination

I tend to focus on the rejection of moralism (1b), which is clear in my longstanding discussion of the anarcho-socialist and the neo-communist left, but also the left’s ideology of death and destruction (2b).

No doubt there’s a long body of Western philosophy that examines the impact of nihilism on scientific developments and social thought. Thus, folks into these more refined discourses on nihilism — that to which I suspect BJKeefe alludes, but does not elaborate — may find the discussion from Sean Kelly interesting, at New York Times, “Navigating Past Nihilism“:

“Nihilism stands at the door,” wrote Nietzsche. “Whence comes this uncanniest of all guests?” The year was 1885 or 1886, and Nietzsche was writing in a notebook whose contents were not intended for publication. The discussion of nihilism ─ the sense that it is no longer obvious what our most fundamental commitments are, or what matters in a life of distinction and worth, the sense that the world is an abyss of meaning rather than its God-given preserve ─ finds no sustained treatment in the works that Nietzsche prepared for publication during his lifetime. But a few years earlier, in 1882, the German philosopher had already published a possible answer to the question of nihilism’s ultimate source. “God is dead,” Nietzsche wrote in a famous passage from “The Gay Science.” “God remains dead. And we have killed him.”

There is much debate about the meaning of Nietzsche’s famous claim, and I will not attempt to settle that scholarly dispute here. But at least one of the things that Nietzsche could have meant is that the social role that the Judeo-Christian God plays in our culture is radically different from the one he has traditionally played in prior epochs of the West. For it used to be the case in the European Middle Ages for example ─ that the mainstream of society was grounded so firmly in its Christian beliefs that someone who did not share those beliefs could therefore not be taken seriously as living an even potentially admirable life. Indeed, a life outside the Church was not only execrable but condemnable, and in certain periods of European history it invited a close encounter with a burning pyre.

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