Thursday, December 09, 2010

Nietzsche Was Not a Metaphysical Nihilist?

I saw these mints in Boston this summer.

Harvard philosopher Sean Kelly defines "nihilism" as: "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." ("Navigating Past Nihilism") Kelly says this kind of nihilism "finds no sustained treatment in the works that Nietzsche prepared for publication during his lifetime." Which implies that many of us who have said that nihilism was very important to Nietzsche in the sense that Nietzsche struggled with it and strove to overcome it are not exactly right.

I'm listening. Initially I'm thinking that it seems unlike Nietzsche to give a "sustained treatment" of anything. Or, perhaps, we need to define "sustained treatment."

Kelly's new and forthcoming book, co-authored with the great philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, is All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. About this book Charles Taylor says: "Fascinating insights about the search for meaning in our time, and the threat of nihilism. All Things Shining raises fundamental questions about the religious and ethical developments of humanity since the Axial Age. This book tackles big issues, ones that really matter in our lives today." I'm still slow-cooking in Taylor's brilliant A Secular Age.

Philosopher Albert Borgmann says: “There is a world out there that is as concealed as it is crucial to the good life. Dreyfus and Kelly have lifted the veil with pedagogical skill and striking insights. It's a world of things shining that can lend grace and depth to our lives. The book is itself a shining thing.” Whoa! I deeply respect Borgmann, having worked through some of his texts, to include his brilliant Power Failure: Christianity and the Power of Technology.

I'm noting these reviews by a couple of really good thinkers, and concluding Kelly and Dreyfus's book will be a must-read. Now back to Kelly's article on Nietzsche and nilhilism. Here are the bullets as I see them.
  • When Nietzsche famously said "God is dead" he "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." That seems on target for me. Surely the "God" whom Nietzsche thinks has expired is the Judeo-Christian theistic God, who in my mind is the metaphysical foundation of value as understood in Europe at the time of Nietzsche. As Kelly says, at that time, a life well-lived was a Christian 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."
  • Today in North America and Europe "religion no longer plays this role." Kelly is right again! While he doesn't use this term, the fact is that we now live in (in North America and Europe) a post-Christian culture. Whether or not we live in a post-religious culture will depend on how we define "religion." Surely, I think, there remains great and (for all practical purposes) universal metaphysical interest.
  • "God is dead, therefore, in a very particular sense. He no longer plays his traditional social role of organizing us around a commitment to a single right way to live. Nihilism is one state a culture may reach when it no longer has a unique and agreed upon social ground." I think Kelly is correct that, interpreting Nietzsche, God is "dead... in a very particular sense." But I would want to consider Nietzsche's nihilism as also possibly the idea that a culture or all cultures may have no social ground whatsoever. That would make things very bleak indeed. And if that were true then there's no "navigating" around it, and we are, as Nietzsche said, afloat on a sea with "an infinite horizon."
  • Kelly writes: "The threat of nihilism is the threat that freedom from the constraint of agreed upon norms opens up new possibilities in the culture only through its fundamentally destabilizing force." I don't think so. I need more evidence that what Nietzsche meant by nihilism meant only this. (Call this Nihilism 1.) I think Nietzsche can be read to mean the loss of a metaphysical foundation for "norms" at all. (Call this Nihilism 2.) Re. milder form of nihilism that can be navigated around Kelly says there is the opening up of  "a new sense of freedom." If this means we're without agreed-upon cultural norms but are now off on an adventure to discover some new ones, OK. But if the stronger version of nihilism is Nietzsche's meaning, then there is a kind of condemned-to-be-free situation but, as the "parable of the madman" can be read to say, we're on an adventure to nowhere.
  • But Kelly wants to read Nietzsche on Nihilism 1. He interprets Nietzsche from that viewpoint. So he can write:"Perhaps Nietzsche was wrong about how long it would take for the news of God’s death to reach the ears of men.  Perhaps he was wrong, in other words, about how long it would take before the happiness to which we can imagine aspiring would no longer need to aim at universal validity in order for us to feel satisfied by it.  In this case the happiness of the suburbs would be consistent with the death of God, but it would be a radically different kind of happiness from that which the Judeo-Christian epoch of Western history sustained."
  • Following an idea from Melville, Kelly thinks (and this is his godless hope): One can aspire "to find happiness and meaning, in other words, not in some universal religious account of the order of the universe that holds for everyone at all times, but rather in the local and small-scale commitments that animate a life well-lived.  The meaning that one finds in a life dedicated to “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” these are genuine meanings.  They are, in other words, completely sufficient to hold off the threat of nihilism, the threat that life will dissolve into a sequence of meaningless events.  But they are nothing like the kind of universal meanings for which the monotheistic tradition of Christianity had hoped.  Indeed, when taken up in the appropriate way, the commitments that animate the meanings in one person’s life ─ to family, say, or work, or country, or even local religious community ─ become completely consistent with the possibility that someone else with radically different commitments might nevertheless be living in a way that deserves one’s admiration."
  • With this possibility one thereby avoids the two extremes of "the monotheistic aspiration to universal validity, which leads to a culture of fanaticism and self-deceit, and the atheistic descent into nihilism, which leads to a culture of purposelessness and angst." Then, in a surprising move, Kelly says we can call this new option "polytheism." Because "there are nevertheless many different lives of worth, and there is no single principle or source or meaning in virtue of which one properly admires them all." I just find this odd and misleading.
Can one be happy without God? I believe so. Can one live an admirable life without God? To some degree, I am sure, especially if Nihilism 1 is true. But if Nihilism 2 is true the idea of living an admirable life strikes me as strange and desperate.

Finally, it is significant that recently J.P. Moreland and Dallas Willard have written on what it means to live life well. I expect them both to engage in this discussion soon.