Thursday, May 15, 2008

Nihilism

An argument:

1. Nothing has any objective value.
2. Therefore (a) (1) has no objective value
3. Therfore, (b) (1) should not be believed
4. Therefore, (c) (1) should not be acted on, acted out.
5. Therefore (d), nihilism is irrelevant. If it is true, it cannot be known to be true; neither can it be lived out consistenly.

14 comments:

pgepps said...

depends on suppressed premises

SP1) the significance in discourse of any utterance depends on its "objective value."

SP2) utterances of no "objective value" should not be believed

and a governing belief that one could meaningfully construe 2,3,4 while asserting 1 under the influence of the terms as defined

Beitler said...

I've come to see Nietzsche, and the Postmoderns, as akin to a certain young boy on the kickball court in my grade school. This kid would run into the middle of the game, take the ball, and sprint to the far-off reaches of the playground--all so that no one else could enjoy the structured and exhilarating game of kickball.

The objective rules of kickball were too oppressive for him, so he vetoed the possibility of the game in general.

But what does one do when there is no game with objective rules to play? When balls fly around the playground in every direction at once?

Sarah Scott said...

Excellent argument! Meaninglessness does not allow for any meaning whatsoever.

pgepps said...

beitler, Nietzsche might have been the kid you talk about, but he would have applauded the bully who always had to be pitcher, and who always turned the game into dodgeball.

And here's the question: if the "structured and exhilirating game of kickball" keeps getting turned into a brutal game of dodgeball by the gaggle of bullies even Christian schools nurture, then might not someone trying to run off with the ball seem, well, more sympathetic?

My sympathies with Matthew Arnold's Philistines are exceedingly limited, having grown up as an asthmatic in a Christian K-12....

Kevin Winters said...

This will probably be deleted, but let me say that this will be my only post here: I think beitler's analogy would be better put as some so-called postmodernists (qualifications are good to use) are just trying to say that not every activity is kickball, meaning that it is not the case that everything we do is structured by kickball's rules, values, and goals, and thus we are not restricted to kickball and can in fact engage in other activities as well (ones with their own structure, rules, values, and goals).

Jarick said...

Just a cursory review of the purpose of philosophy destructs Nihilism. The fact that we are trying to describe the world and attribute some order speaks to worth and value. And what is the purpose of a philosophy if it is not meant to be both normative and positive? Nihilism can offer no prescriptive or ideals. At its best it's only an observational phenomenon; as a philosophy it is useless.

I got more out of the first part of Mere Christianity than an entire college course on philosophy. It actually has purpose and meaning.

pgepps said...

There's another key problem, here. "Nothing has any objective value" could be a definition of nihilism, if one already construes the outcome of any "normative" and "positive" enterprise as either "objective" or nihilating.

But if God has incarnated and inscribed and illuminated His Word for us and to us, then we need not reach after illusory objectivity; God and other people may engage one another in normative, positive discourse, and such an intersubjectivity will be Truth where God speaks and is repeated faithfully.

Beitler said...

pgepps, Nietzsche was right to say that sometimes we need to take the ball away. But he was wrong to say that all balls should be taken away forever.

Objective or nihilating: I agree with this dichotomy. God incarnated Truth; He didn't leave the business of truth up to the human mind. That would indeed be nhilating, because autonomously generated "truth" degenerates into nothingness. This is because "subjective truth" separates human thought from external referents. The result: no purpose, no origin, no explanation for existential darkness. In short, nihilism.

Remember the vastness of objective truth. It can contain all joy, sorrow, all healthy curiosity. "Objective" is not a prison.

Kevin, please provide an example of a postmodernist who believes in objectively true rules. Mere subjective truthfulness will never accommodate rules; only whims.

pgepps said...

beitler, to cut a possible long-way-'round short, I'll just say that Nietzsche, while brilliant, "hath a devil." That's frequently how I introduce him in conversation, by way of disclaimer. Same goes for Derrida.

I hold no brief for nihilism. I simply think that nihilating enterprises (I'm being shockingly informal, I suspect) don't suffer that much from their infidelity to the "objective"--nor do our efforts to be faithful to Christ gain that much from fidelity to the "objective."

Consider: Marxist and Hegelian historicism provide the fullest expression of the meaning we characteristically assign to "objective."

Incarnation is quite another thing, though. "Though he were a son, yet was he perfected by the things he suffered," for example, comports ill with Truth Incarnate being a matter of achieving objectivity on our part.

"objective knowledge" seems, to me, a chimera; on no conceivable grounds could the knowing of a knower be thus related to the being of the known (as the modification of the noun, the rendering of the thing).

"objective reality" is either redundant (if you believe God guarantees the truthfulness of at least some of our perceptions) or a mere assertion that "objective knowledge" not only may be but is presently obtained.

...but of course it would be silly to say that no one can play ball, or that play with no rules would be ideal. No serious person, least of all Nietzsche or Derrida, actually does so in the event. Many a reader gets that, though, and misses the baited traps a little deeper in.

Kevin Winters said...

I pray Dr. Groothuis will permit me another post to respond to Beitler's request:

If "objective" means "exists apart from human affairs," then I would say it is an oxymoron: "rules" only exist if they are "followed" by some being, in this case a human being.

However, if you are referring to rules as constitutive of the game in question, i.e. that the game in question wouldn't be what it is without those rules, then I can provide many examples:

Martin Heidegger's Being and Time is an extended analysis of the transcendental foundation (in a quasi-Kantian sense, though obviously modified) of experience, thought, and even philosophy itself, which ground he designated as being-in-the-world. This being-in-the-world is constituted by its practical and normative relation with beings (which he grounds in 'truth' in a threefold sense, one of which is correspondence [though this threefold sense wasn't clearly articulated until his post-1930 work]). John Haugeland, a long-standing and very well known Heideggerian, aptly describes this in the section "Truth" in his Having Thought: Essays in the Metaphysics of Mind which is a very good Heideggerian analysis. Either way, the relation of practical norms (some of which are codified in rules, but not all) to man's truthful relation to beings is basic Heideggerian understanding (and if you have that understanding you will also understand the two senses of "understanding" used in that last sentence, both of which are intended).

Jacques Derrida, the supposed father of the destruction of all thought (according to one misunderstanding of the term 'deconstruction') states in (the unfortunately ignored text in Evangelical discussions of Derrida's thought) Limited Inc:

"The law and the effects with which we have been dealing, those of iterability for example, govern the possibility of every logical proposition, whether considered as a speech act or not" (92-93).

Iterability, then, is an essential component of speech acts and logic, not left up to "[m]ere subjective truthfulness". He even goes so far as to agree with Searle's "objection" (which Derrida says is "one of Sec's ["Signature Event Context"] most insistent themes"): "The iterability of linguistic forms facilitates and is a necessary condition of the particular forms of intentionality that are characteristic of speech acts" (105).

In his "Reply" in the same text Derrida says unabashedly, "It is impossible or illegitimate to form a philosophical concept outside this logic of all or nothing... [following a small statement about deconstructing the term 'concept'] But it is true, when a concept is to be treated as a concept I believe that one has to accept the logic of all or nothing. I always try to do this and I believe that it always has to be done, at any rate, in a theoretical-philosophical discussion of concepts or of things conceptualized" (117). Of course, one would not have ever thought that Derrida thought this reading one of the many texts supposedly speaking of or critiquing deconstruction.

The relation of norms that constitute something's (in this case we're talking about a game, right?) essence is central to Foucault's understanding of power. In a small work written in 1983 (about a year before his death) as an Afterword to Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow's excellent Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (much better than Gary Gutting's "Foucault," in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy), Foucault, reiterating that his work is an extended examination of the question of the constitution of the self, not power per se, speaks about the "form of power...which categorizes the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognize and which others have to recognize in him" (212). This is followed by a very brief analysis of how this "form of power" came about historically that parallels very closely Charles Taylor's analysis of the "sources of the self" (in which the categories of individual, identity, and law play central roles) in his aptly titled Sources of the Self (which, interestingly enough, places itself against Foucault; I think this is a misunderstanding of Taylor's and Dreyfus/Rabinow show a strong connection with one of Taylor's other works on page 164). Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge (a very Heideggerian work) is itself an attempt to describe the norms that make knowledge of various kinds possible.

Sorry for this being so long, but simply saying that some (again, qualifications are good) so-called postmodernists accept the existence of constitutive norms (of which "rules" are but one example) would probably not be enough. So, yes, I think all the above would accept the "rules" of kickball as "objective" (or constitutive) elements of the game such that the game itself would not be what it is without those rules (or simply would not be at all). But, again, these rules are not universalizable to other games, so other games are possible and even the rules of a particular game are open to change (i.e. games often, or at least can evolve over time).

Beitler said...

Pgepps, I respect, and I believe I understand, what FN and JD were trying to do. But it seems to me that you are a bit cavalier on one point. Remember that the meaning you entrust to language is based on words corresponding to reality; thoughts corresponding to some reality. It is worth trying to find a true viewpoint; and I believe one can be found.

Kevin, I was using the kickball as a metaphor for much more; I meant that Nietzsche stole greatly from humanity by precluding purpose, origins, and answers about the human condition.

My favorite JD and MF books were Ear of the Other, Plato's Pharmacy, and Foucault Live. Excellent windows into the men they were...

Kevin Winters said...

Again, if Dr. Groothuis will allow another response to Beitler:

Yes, I understand that and you will notice that what I wrote extended well beyond the bounds of mere kickball: the very possibility of experience (Heidegger), the written word, logic, and speech acts (Derrida), and the essence of being a self (Foucault). So I wonder where my response failed in adequately addressing your request. It is clear that norms (again, of which rules are one example) are important for these thinkers.

On your clarification that you were referring to Nietzsche, your request to me extended to "an example of a postmodernist" who accepted the existence of "objectively true rules," not merely Nietzsche. I provided that.

But even with Nietzsche, I don't see where he "preclud[es] purpose, origins, and answers about the human condition." What is a genaeology except a search for origins? His example of the Ubermensch and the will to power (properly understood not as mere exertion of will but of setting up a context of meaning) certainly requires purpose, though not one constituted by 'rules' (remember he was a classicist and a virtue ethics and epistemology pervades his writing). As for the human condition, he was also a psychologist and the condition of being "human, all too human" is certainly central. I think what you mean is that he doesn't accept the existence of "purpose, origins, and answers about the human condition" that you agree with...

Liam said...

Kevin:

While I appreciate your scholarly writing, acumen, and interest in primary sources, you betray a deep misunderstanding of fundamentalism.

We have a particular rhetorical strategy. Our caricatures only reflect our impressions and observations. Describing postmodernism in a certain fashion is important: it saves souls, it keeps up the enrollments at fundamentalist churches, it makes it easy to publish with joke publishing houses, and it more easily manipulates our audience. A thourough analysis of primary sources (see especially Dr. Groothuis incisive writeup on Neuro-science) is not only boring, but exceptionally hard work. We measure success in swoons not by scholarly acceptance.

Secondly, we are insecure. You cannot change our opinion. You'll never see an admission of ignorance or paucity of intellect. We've recently gone on the offensive in this respect, though. Wheaton college now ranks among the top 100 of colleges and schools like the Bible Institute of Los Angeles has sent a few students to good philosophy programs, etc... We now make up a solid 1% of the intellectual progress as measured by publications in top journals, faculty at good schools, and graduates of Ivy League schools. And we are growing like a kicked snowball with unstoppable inertia.

Tom said...

Doug,

I hadn't paid much attention to this argument when you first posted it, so sorry my comment is late. But it seems to me that (3) doesn't follow from (2). At most, (2) implies "Therefore, it is not the case that (1) should be believed." For if (1) should be believed, then I suppose it has epistemic value and that would contradict (1), at least assuming epistemic value is "objective value."

Now if you make the change in (3), you then must change (4) similarly ("It is not that case that (1) should be acted on"). But then your final conclusion won't follow.