Nihilism: A Review

What’s in a name?

In this particular case, far more than is initially conveyed by the title “Nihilism: A Philosophy Based in Nothingness and Eternity.” Initial examination led me to believe that the work would be another work within the pessimistic tradition, but that quickly changed as it became easy to see that Stevens’ work is actually one of a tempered, but stoic, optimism.

Stevens begins his collection of essays with a tip-of-the-hat to phenomenology. Like the Idealist philosophers, Stevens recognizes that we can never experience a thing as it actually is, but rather that we are hopelessly dependent upon and limited to that which we can understand through our senses. At the level of the individual, this creates an impermeable gap between The-World-As-It-Is and The-World-We-Experience. We construct a mental map of The-World-We-Experience, and most of us try to refine that mental map of reality as we age and experience more. But we are social creatures, and this process gets corrupted by shortcuts that we take in building a society. We create institutions and structures that interpret and enforce a view of reality for us, who provides us with an accepted intentionality that further removes us from the truth of The-World-As-It-Is. Stevens’ contribution here is to point out how our own society has structured itself with these layers of intentionality to the point that we rarely deal with The-World-As-It-Is at all, but rather that we normally interact with the illusion we’ve socially constructed. As Heidegger might say, we are all living an inauthentic dasein. So how do we rise above this inauthenticity, above The-World-We-Experience and to instead concern ourselves with authenticity and The-World-As-It-Is? Stevens believes that answer to be nihilism.

While most people take “nihilism” to merely mean the lack of inherent meaning in the world, Stevens instead uses it as a mindset. Nihilism most often leads those who believe in it to Fatalism, but Stevens sees it first and foremost as a “bullshit eliminator,” a way of looking at the world and seeing past the illusions that have been built around you by the socialization process. Treating nihilism as a mindset means to realize that most of what people put their effort and energy into are essentially spooks, and urges you to instead look beyond these spooks into The-World-As-It-Is. He outlines many ways that we do the former, and makes suggestions on how we can transition our thinking towards the latter.

Ultimately, Stevens rejects the Idealism of previous philosophers and instead notes that inherent truth (or meaning) does not exist; all that does is a world external to ourselves which experiences an objective reality, regardless of how we experience it.

As a nihilist, I recognize that meaning does not exist. If we exterminate ourselves as a species, and vaporize our beautiful world, the universe will not cry with us (human anticipation of this result is a condition called the pathetic fallacy). No gods will intervene. It will just happen and then — and then the universe will go on. We will not be remembered. We will simply not be.

[…]

A tree falling in a forest unobserved makes a sound. The forest may not recognize this as a sound because a forest is many life forms interacting, not organized by some central principle or consciousness. They just do what they do. In the same way, playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to a bowl of yeast will not elicit a response. The insensate remain unobservant, much like the universe itself.

Stevens thus embraces ontological realism, and otherwise argues that while we can never fully be sure that The-World-We-Experience is The-World-As-It-Is, if our mental maps allow us to survive and thrive over a long enough time period, we thus must have an accurate (or at least advantageous) understanding of external reality. Thus, to Stevens, the question of epistemological realism is ultimately answered by the evolutionary fitness of an individual (he also extends this to societal-level phenomenon, with civilizational attainment serving as a stand-in for evolutionary fitness for these phenomena).

Stevens is also rightly concerned with tearing down the association most people have between nihilism and fatalism. He argues that fatalism is in many ways merely a rationalization of laziness & selfishness, a wholly defeatist perspective:

…since truth isn’t inherent, there is no point in trying at all because, as the fatalist will say, “nothing has meaning, so nothing will have meaning for [me] personally.

He goes on to say that:

Fatalism & selfishness will be eternally popular because they’re so similar. Don’t reach out into the world and challenge yourself; you’re fine just the way you are! Don’t strive for anything. Don’t grow. Just be, and you’re equal and we’re all happy. If people still aren’t convinced, hide the idea behind the idea that nothing ever changes and there’s no point in doing anything, except for living for your own material comfort and convenience.

This view is the philosophy of decay, of death; it is the rationalization of Nietzsche’s Last Men. While fatalism & nihilism have the same origin point, they differ radically in outlook. Stevens’ nihilism is, in many ways, a Nietzschean affirmation of life; the rejection of objective truth in favor of a subjective attempt at understanding The-World-As-It-Is.

Critiques:

While Nihilism is a great, easily digestible work written in a fun style, I have two main critiques of the work. The first is that socialization, the collective illusions that we all participate in (The-World-We-Experience), will never disappear. Societies of any scale will have to integrate individual illusions into a cohesive framework that members can reasonably work within. This means that as a society scales, the collective mental map of reality gets further and further from The-World-As-It-Is. This process is inevitable.

The second critique is one of style. Nihilism is a collection of essays written over the course of several years (beginning in 2004, I believe). It is broken up into three primary focuses, “Nihilism”, “Realism”, and “Transcendentalism.” Within each chapter, the essays are seemingly presented in no particular order. I know that my thoughts & writing changes with time as I think, observe, and experience more things. In lieu of a random assortment of essays, as the order appears to an outsider like myself, I would suggest a thematic sorting or a chronological sorting so that the thoughts presented are done in a more logical order. Perhaps there is an order, and I merely missed it; in that case, consider this point moot.

Overall, Nihilism is a worthy read for those who are interested in learning more about nihilism proper, especially for those who might enjoy or gain insight from a look at how socialization leads to dualism, which is antithetical to nihilism. I’d definitely recommend reading Stevens’ book to clarify any misconceptions or misunderstandings you might have about nihilism, or even just for an easy afternoon read. Don’t judge this book by its cover – it’s far more optimistic than one might think!