Sunday, November 19, 2006

Word of the Day

Possibly one of the most important words related to what many, including myself, see as "what is wrong in the world" is the word "nihilism:"
The term nihilism (from the Latin nihil, meaning "not anything") was popularized by the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev in his novel Fathers and Sons (1861), to describe the views of an emerging radical Russian intelligentsia. These consisted primarily of upper-class students who had grown disillusioned with the slow pace of reformism. The primary spokesman for this new philosophy was D. I. Pisarev (1840-1868) who articulated a program of Revolutionary Utilitarianism and advocated violence as a tool for social change. Pisarev was cast as Bazarov in Fathers and Sons much to his own delight; he proudly embraced his new status as a fictional hero and villain.

The word quickly became a catch-all term of derision for younger, more radical generations, and continues in this vein to modern times. It is often used to indicate a group or philosophy the speaker intends to characterize as having no moral sensibility, no belief in truth, beauty, love, or whatever else the speaker and his presumed audience values, and no regard for the current social conventions.
Since then, the meaning of the word has undergone countless "twists" and has been associated with (in the form of reinterpretation, misinterpretation, and refutation) numerous political and philosophical movements such as anarchism and Marxism:
As a Russian political philosophy, marked by the questioning of the validity of all forms of authority and a penchant for destruction as the primary tool for political change, nihilism finds its roots in 1817 with the foundation of the first Russian secret political society under Pavel Pestel. Partly as a reaction against the coronation of Tsar Nicholas I who was seen as an absolutist, especially after the comparatively open reign of Tsar Alexander I, it culminated in the Decembrist Revolt of 1825. Later, anarchist and freemason Mikhail Bakunin developed nihilist thought in opposition to Karl Marx's political philosophy, which Bakunin saw as inevitably leading to a totalitarian state.

Nihilist political philosophy rejected all religious and political authority, social traditions and traditional morality as standing in opposition to freedom, the ultimate ideal. In this sense, it can be seen as an extreme form of anarchism. The state thus became the enemy, and the enemy was ferociously attacked. After gaining much momentum in Russia, the movement degenerated into what were essentially terrorist cells, barren of any real unifying philosophy beyond the call for destruction.
Nietzsche's concept of the Ubermensch:
Many high-ranking Nazis, including Alfred Baeumler, admired parts of Nietzsche's philosophy and sought to adapt it to fit their own visions of super-human beings and an Aryan "master race" (Herrenvolk). The biologicalisation of the concept of Übermensch was criticized by Martin Heidegger's Nietzsche,[3] because this biological interpretation significantly departed from Nietzsche's original ideas. Perhaps most importantly, Nietzsche believed that a human being of any race could become an Übermensch. Thus, while Nietzsche did believe in superior and inferior people, there is no evidence to suggest that he believed superiority and inferiority were determined by race. In The Case of Wagner and Nietzsche Contra Wagner, he bitterly criticized the German artist, partly because of Wagner's pan-Germanism and antisemitism. It is widely thought that Nietzsche's sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who was an avowed anti-semite, and Peter Gast contributed greatly to this misconception by deliberately misrepresenting his work. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari proved this in the 1960s when editing, for the first time ever, Nietzsche's complete posthumous fragments. The Nazis themselves reinterpreted and appropriated elements of many philosophical and religious texts, including Nietzsche's.
Post-modernism and De-construction:
Postmodern thought is colored by the perception of a degeneration of systems of epistemology and ethics into extreme relativism, especially evident in the writings of Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jacques Derrida. These philosophers tend to deny the very grounds on which we base our truths: absolute knowledge and meaning, the accumulation of positive knowledge, historical progress, and the ideals of humanism and the Enlightenment. As it is often described as a fundamentally nihilist philosophy, it may be important to briefly examine postmodernism here.

Lyotard and meta-narratives

Lyotard argues that, rather than relying on an objective truth or method to prove their claim (logic, empiricism, etc.), philosophies legitimize their truths by reference to a story about the world which is inseparable from the age and system the stories belong to. Lyotard calls them meta-narratives (similar to language games in Wittgensteinean terminology). He then goes on to define the postmodern condition as one characterized by a rejection both of these meta-narratives and of the process of legitimization by meta-narratives.

In lieu of meta-narratives we have created new language-games in order to legitimize our claims which rely on changing relationships and mutable truths, none of which is privileged over the other to speak to ultimate truth. It is this unstable concept of truth and meaning that leads one close to nihilism, though in the same move that plunges toward meaninglessness, Lyotard suspends his philosophy just above its surface.

Derrida and deconstruction

1. Rejection of the law of the excluded middle
2. Perfect communication is impossible – meaning is not absolute.
3. non-self-identity: author’s intentions don’t match meaning in works
4. complexity: excluded middle forces model of simplicity onto a complex world
and in today's world, moral relativism:
* Our sense of the moral status of a person's actions, especially in Western society, seems to depend to a great deal on the economic status of the person in question. While it may be argued that this is its self immoral and should be changed, if morality in practice cannot meet its own standards or is to some degree unattainable, it would seem to lack adequate foundation.
* Without a standard base on which to build a system of morality (God, law, ideals of freedom, justice, etc.), what is right and wrong is to some extent arbitrary.
* As our knowledge of other cultures increases, it becomes more and more apparent that there is little ground for claims that human beings have some innate tendency toward specific concepts of good and evil.
* The ideal of democracy taken to its logical extreme suggests that, insofar as society is concerned, right and wrong are defined by majority rule, not by absolute, eternal and unchanging laws of right and wrong. This leaves only one moral standard: "do what everyone else wants you to".
* The supposed primacy of the individual and individual freedom in Western societies, especially America, when taken to its logical extreme leaves only one moral standard: "do what you think is right". Since what some people believe to be right varies in the extreme with what others may think is right, this leaves morality not only relative but undiscussable.
So what are we to take away from all of this? Regardless of the classical meaning of the word nihilism, "belief in nothing" (based on its etymologic origin in Latin), many, from Nazis to Marxists to anarchists to anti-establishmentarians have confused it and misinterpreted it to suit their particular agendas, which in recent history has been put into play by those who desire to destroy the West in general and the United States in particular (perhaps the only notable exception being the islamofascists who certainly believe in "something"). This is especially true with anarchists who originally were at odds with nihilism but now are perhaps the loudest advocates of "believe in nothing" as they seek to "bring it all down, man." This shows that they don't really know what they believe which identifies the paradox of nihilism: A "belief in nothing" is a belief in something.

Thoughts? Comments?
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ADDENDUM: While the connection between nihilism and Nietszche's Ubermensch was made, the relationship between nihilism and Nietszche himself may not be that clear. If you're curious about that, this link should help. Go here for more analysis of the historical background on moral relativism.

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