Brendon Lemon is a stand-up comedian from Chicago who hosts a podcast called The Madness Continues. On the latest episode I talk with him about my book Laughing at Nothing, Scotland, comedy, 9/11, and all things nihilistic:
I’m honored to be one of those fifty-two interviewees; even if my name is misspelled and my academic affiliation is misidentified in the book.
My interview with Brian Whitney originally appeared on the Disinfo website in 2015, where my name and academic affiliation appeared correctly. I’m not sure what happened in the interim.
Great cover! Subversive is published by Headpress.
There is a contemporary turn taking place in attitudes about nihilism. Previous to the publication of my book Laughing at Nothing: Humor as a Response to Nihilism in 2003, it was unusual to find scholars arguing that nihilism is anything other than a bad thing. Traditionally, nihilism has been treated as a problem in need of a solution; something to be solved and “overcome.” Laughing at Nothing broke that mold, arguing for a humorous response to nihilism that involves the possibility of “nihilistic progress”: a vain, unending but positive aspiration toward superlative goals. At the time of its publication, Alena Dvorakova, writing in the British Journal of Aesthetics, criticized my position as one that was distinctively American; the implication being that Americans are somehow unique in their superficial optimism. Today, however, as attitudes have changed, it is no longer only superficial Americans who embrace and endorse nihilism. Nihilism has become an increasingly popular philosophy all over the world.
One of the recent British advocates of nihilism is James Tartaglia, whose book Philosophy in a Meaningless Life: A System of Nihilism, Consciousness and Reality, proposes a systematic account of how philosophy itself can be reinvigorated by embracing life’s meaninglessness. Argumentatively sophisticated, quirky, and often times very funny, Tartaglia’s book is a noteworthy addition to the growing body of literature that characterizes nihilism as something that may act as a stimulus to the active and ongoing pursuit of philosophical thought.
Tartaglia contends that the one issue uniting practical and theoretical branches of philosophy is the question of life’s meaning. It is, he writes, “the keystone of philosophy,” (p. 7) giving special ethical weight to issues that would otherwise be of mere speculative interest. This question, however, has come to be seen as something of an embarrassment in contemporary circles – especially in analytic philosophical debates where it has largely been dismissed as unscientific and associated with religion. When it is addressed, it is often treated as a social issue, involving the identification of particular goals or purposes that make particular human lives meaningful, rather than as a philosophical issue, addressing the ultimate purpose of human life in general. In his book, Tartaglia wants to refocus attention on the philosophical aspects of life’s meaning, and in so doing provide an unequivocal answer to the age-old question, “What is the meaning of life?” The answer, he tells us, is found in nihilism. Life has no ultimate purpose or meaning. But, he insists, this is not such a bad thing.
Tartaglia’s version of nihilism is of a very particular sort. It is related to the ontological condition of enframement. As humans, we live in a world where we must do things and pursue goals, and so we are naturally concerned with determining what sorts of goals and purposes we should pursue in order to make our lives full, valuable and meaningful. The ideals we aspire toward – both individual and social – erect the framework within which any life operates. They mark out the boundaries within which we identify and strive toward the fulfillment of our projects. “Activities can have a purpose within life because of the context provided by the framework,” (p. 48) Tartaglia writes, claiming that meaningfulness itself is, by definition, a function of purposeful, goal directed behavior. You cannot have meaning without some sort of objective that gives context to your activities. If you take away the objective, meaning evaporates.
Nihilism, as Tartaglia conceives it, denies the existence of meaningful final objectives and purposes, and thus it undermines the idea that the projects within human life can themselves be ultimately meaningful in the grand scheme of things. In order for life to be ultimately meaningful, there would have to be some sort of framework of goals toward which all of our worldly life goals are directed and by which they are justified. However, that framework of goals would, in turn need to exist within some sort of larger framework in order for it to be meaningful, and in turn, that larger framework would also have to exist within a greater framework, and so on. It seems to follow, then, that either there is a final contextual framework that itself exists for no meaningful reason, or there is no final meaningful contextual framework at all. In either case, life within the grand scheme of things lacks ultimate purpose, and thus meaning, and there is no final answer to the question of why we pursue our chosen life projects. Reality, when regarded as a whole, ultimately makes no sense and has no justification. It is groundless:
As such, in contemplating the fact of existence, we come to see that the sense we make of our lives must be ultimately groundless, since our actions can hardly have a purpose in the grand scheme of things, if the grand scheme of things has no purpose and is consequently no ‘scheme’ at all. (p. 36)
This is the “truth” of nihilism, according to Tartaglia: “there is nothing that we ever have to do.” (p. 21). This “truth” has over the course of history spawned a variety of “misguided coping strategies” (p. 41) – including religious devotion and existentialism, humanism, relativism and postmodernism – all of which purport to overcome or solve the problem of meaninglessness through various psychological, social or devotional means. However, none of these approaches to life are legitimate according to Tartaglia because as reactions against nihilism they deny what he takes to be a simple fact about reality: human life is ultimately meaningless, and nothing can change that fact. Nihilism, in this way, is not something that can be overcome. It can only be ignored, denied or accepted.
Even if the “truth” of nihilism is accepted, according to Tartaglia, there are no real practical consequences following from it for how we should live our lives. This is why he considers the issue of nihilism, in a practical sense, “boring.” (p. 7) It has no implications other than potentially freeing non-nihilists from their false beliefs and commitments to illusory final aims . The awakened nihilist is free to do whatever he or she pleases, and there are no positive directives or particular rules of conduct that are entailed by its acceptance. Since nihilism was the truth all along, life goes on just as it always did once this truth is understood.
What I have summarized thus far comprises only one aspect of Tartaglia’s argument in Philosophy in a Meaningless Life. To me, it is the most interesting part, although it does not occupy the majority of the book’s pages. The bulk of the work consists of another argument, loosely connected to the first, which defends philosophy as a tradition rooted in the question of the meaning of life and issues related to “transcendence.”
In Chapter 5, Tartaglia proposes “The Transcendent Hypothesis,” which he writes “is the key to the book” (p. 11). This hypothesis suggests that a world of time and space (what Tartaglia calls an “objective” world), is transcended when it is dependent upon another world that exists outside of that time and space. And further, if something outside of time and space exists, it cannot be studied by science, since science studies only the “objective” world within time and space.
Conscious experience, according to Tartaglia, transcends the objective world and thus itself is not part of the world of time and space. He makes heavy use of a dream analogy to establish his point. When we dream, our consciousness presents us with an objective world (a dream world) within which our own minds/brains themselves do not exist, but which depends upon our minds/brains for its objective existence. In this way, the dream world exists within consciousness, and thus consciousness transcends the dream world, exceeding the boundaries of dreamed time and space. This same relationship, Tartaglia suggests, may hold for all objective, time and space bound worlds (and not just dreams), and if it does, then this solves traditional metaphysical puzzles like the mind/body problem. If consciousness is always “outside” of the objective world of time and space, then it has no objective place within that world and so it would be spurious to try and explain causal interactions between physical objects and consciousness. Conscious experience would transcend the objective, physical world.
There are good reasons to believe this is true, according to Tartaglia. For one, to be conscious of an objective world, there must be a consciousness that is somehow orientated toward that world, rising above it in order to objectify and experience it. Experience itself, then, must exceed the objective world. Second, whether we are consciously introspecting on ourselves or perceiving things other than ourselves, experience itself is always direct (p. 120) and instantaneous, suggesting that raw, conscious experience is not bound by time or space. However, consciousness, in its operations, always necessarily processes and misrepresents experience in objective terms, since it is locked into the utilization of concepts like time, space and universals. In so doing, it creates an objective “picture of reality,” a representational falsification that “we cannot climb out..but we have no reason to want to.” (p. 121) And we should not want to climb out of our falsified picture of reality, according to Tartaglia because “we have no reason to think that the reality outside [consciousness] is any less meaningless than the reality within [consciousness].” (p. 121)
The general line of thought pursued here is very similar to what Kant argues in The Critique of Pure Reason; and even closer to what Schopenhauer argues in The World as Will and Representation (insofar as Tartaglia emphasizes the misrepresentation of reality as well as its ultimate meaninglessness). However, Tartaglia distances himself from Kant, claiming that whereas Kant “prioritizes the mind,” “the transcendent hypothesis prioritizes the objective world.” (p. 119) What he seems to mean is that for Kant representation is ultimately “mental,” while for Tartaglia, representation “need not be construed as mental.” (p. 119) So, in other words, Tartaglia is not committed to any particular claim about the fundamental nature of transcendent reality. It could be comprised of mind, matter, or something else. We can never know since it always transcends any sort of objective characterization.
Although religious thought attempts (illegitimately, according to Tartaglia) to address the nature of transcendent reality, Philosophy is the only discipline that rationally, systematically and thus legitimately concerns itself with transcendence. Since grand, philosophical questions about the nature of reality and the meaning of life are perennial human concerns not adequately addressed by either science or religion, Tartaglia comes to the conclusion that philosophy must remain a uniquely important area of study. While it can offer no final answers, has no practical consequences for life, and promises to discover very little about the true nature of reality, humans should continue to use philosophy in order to feed a natural desire to explore the realm of transcendence in the only way possible.
This second aspect of Tartaglia’s argument is pursued over the course of five chapters that involve some very complicated (and sometimes confusing) digressions into analytic debates about the nature of consciousness, time, space, and universals. In the end his conclusions are, by his own admission, “completely lacking in consequence for nihilism,” (p. 121) which is a topic that is only returned to in the Conclusion. For me, this made it feel almost as if I was reading two separate books: one on nihilism and another on transcendence. Indeed, there is a sense in which these two aspects of Tartaglia’s bok clash with one another, for as he himself suggests, the second argument opens up the possibility that there is a transcendent realm of meaning, and if this is possible then “nihilism might not be true.” (p. 179) Tartaglia dismisses this as a mere “idle possibility,” akin to worrying “how long is a piece of string?” (p. 180) or whether Heidegger’s death was faked (p. 171). However, I think this is an evasion on his part. After all, Tartaglia writes in the Introduction that the question of life’s meaning is in fact among the most important of perennial philosophical questions. To conclude that it is possible life really does have meaning, but that such a possibility is not worth exploring, undermines one of the book’s main theses.
Nonetheless, I tend to agree with most of the particular conclusions that Tartaglia reaches in Philosophy in a Meaningless Life, the majority of which are convincingly and carefully reasoned. The complaints that I have are matters of style and emphasis. First of all, as already noted, although there is a loose connection between the two main arguments presented in the book, to me it seems as if the connection between them is too loose. I picked the book up because I thought it was a work on nihilism, but was a bit disappointed by the detour into transcendence and the heavy emphasis on contemporary analytic philosophy. While Tartaglia does engage with some of the classic continental (or as he puts it “post-Nietzschean”) philosophers like Heidegger and Sartre, he doesn’t engage with any of the contemporary continental thinkers who have recently written on the topic of nihilism. I was eager to read more about nihilism, and to see the author engage more deeply with the contemporary scholarship on the subject.
Second, while I agree with Tartaglia that philosophy is a uniquely important discipline, I also feel as if he has overemphasized the boundaries between philosophy, science and religion. His intent is to to draw hard and fast distinctions between these various approaches to understanding, claiming that they are all fundamentally distinct. Religion is superstitious and irrational. Science studies the objective world. Philosophy studies the world of transcendence. But all of this fails to account for the simple fact that there are such things as the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of science. Philosophy itself, I believe, is most important as a way of thought rather than as a body of knowledge. Philosophy encourages us to raise new questions and speculations, and in so doing, it overlaps with other disciplines, pushing them further and further in their attempts to articulate the Truth. I agree with Tartaglia that there is no final end to the issues that philosophy addresses and that this is not a bad thing since it encourages us to continue using reason to address our orientation toward the world and to take part in a tradition that has produced important art, literature and other cultural artefacts. However I disagree with his claim that philosophy has no effect on religion or on science. We philosophize about both religion and science – as well as art and other topics – in order to develop and hone our understanding of the issues they are concerned with. Without philosophical questioning and speculation, these disciplines would become stagnant.
Finally, while I, like Tartaglia, consider myself to be a nihilist, I am not as confident as he is in the “truth” of nihilism. While he treats nihilism as a mere description of reality, I think of nihilism as something more complicated. It is a philosophical orientation toward the world rather than a final conclusion that is reached through the powers of philosophy itself. Perhaps because he does not engage with the full history of the concept of nihilism, Tartaglia adopts what I think is a rather thin definition of the phenomenon. And while I agree that the issue of human meaning and purpose is an aspect of nihilism, it is not the whole issue. Metaphyisical/ontological nihilism is one kind, but there are also moral, political, epistemological, existential, aesthetic, religious and other forms of nihilism that don’t fit neatly into Tartaglia’s account. Perhaps a more detailed engagement with the history of, and the contemporary commentary on, nihilism (as noted in my first criticism) would help to give more texture and nuance to the first line of the book’s argumentative strategy.
There is a lot more that I could comment on, but that is just an indication of how thought provoking and stimulating a read Philosophy in a Meaningless Life really is. In this book I feel as if I have encountered a kindred spirit with whom I could productively debate the meaning of life for quite some time.
The Existential Files is a fun and lively podcast hosted by doctors Louie Savva and Matthew Smith, two psychologists from the UK who conduct interviews and discuss issues ranging from positive psychology to the existence of God.
The podcasts can be found on iTunes, Sticher, Youtube, Cast Crunch or on The Existential Files website.
For a dose of refreshing despair and futility, you should also check out Louie Savva’s blog, Everything is Pointless.
Mathew Smith’s blog also features lots of interesting tidbits.
Roshni Nair writes about the International Day of Happiness from a nihilist perspective for the Indian newspaper Daily News and Analysis. My full interview appears on the website.
It looks like people are already getting all worked up over nothing!
In his writings, Friedrich Nietzsche consistently criticizes Buddhism, condemning it as a “nihilistic” belief system, and yet he also refers to himself as the “Buddha of Europe.” On certain points, the thoughts of Nietzsche come very close to articulating some of the same insights voiced by Siddhartha Gautama thousands of years earlier; particularly on topics such as the impermanence of the world and the rejection of substance ontology. On other points, such as his advocacy of self-assertion and the will-to-life, Nietzsche defines himself in direct opposition to The Buddha. So, what is the connection between Nietzsche and Buddhism? This complicated and sometimes confusing relationship is explored in close and subtle detail by Antoine Panaïoti in his new book Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy.
Panaïoti’s book is a version of his doctoral dissertation, written while he was a student at Cambridge University, but this should not scare potential readers off since there is nothing overly technical or difficult about the text. It is clearly written, well researched and easy to read. An interest in the subject matter is all that is necessary before diving into and enjoying this study.
Panaïoti’s initiating insight is that the fundamental connection between Nietzschean philosophy and Buddhism stems from their shared concern with the problem of nihilism. While the concept of “nihilism” is itself a complicated and difficult topic, Panaïoti summarizes the problem as one in which the world of becoming is viewed as both “unreal” and “not good.” (p. 21) In the thinking of the nihilist, the impermanent and changing world of flux that is apparent to our senses is neither real nor good precisely because it is not stable and permanent. A stable and permanent realm would be the only one that measures up to the nihilist’s standards for a “real” world; a world which Nietzsche and Panaïoti refer to as the wahre Welt (German for “true world”). Since such a “true world” apparently does not exist, the nihilist responds either by condemning all of reality as “not good” or by positing the existence of an unapparent world that is unseen and hidden, but valuable because it is eternal and unchanging.
This latter maneuver is an act of ressentiment against reality. While it is an attempt to move beyond nihilism, from the perspective of those like Nietzsche and Siddhartha who claim that the world really is characterized by impermanence, it is also an illusion (or as Panaïoti claims a delusion) that distracts us from the actual nature of reality. By looking for the “truth” in some hidden, illusory realm, humans delude themselves and ultimately waste their lives hunting after phantasms and “spooks” (a term that Max Stirner playfully utilizes in his classic work The Ego and Its Own) rather than learning to embrace the world for what it is: a process of never-ending flux and change.
The problem that concerns both Nietzsche and Buddhists, then, is the problem of how to overcome aversion to an impermanent world in which nothing – including the “self” – remains stable. How is it that one can move beyond the crisis of nihilism, avoid ressentiment and salvage a sense of value and worth while still affirming a world that is neither constant nor lasting? Panaïoti argues that this is where the connection between Nietzscheanism and Buddhism lies, and it is in their responses to this question where we find points both of overlap and of divergence. Ultimately, however, the author argues that Nietzscheanism is more like Buddhism than Nietzsche himself recognized. Both systems turn out to be paths toward a sort of “great health” that will dismantle the delusions of ressentiment, allowing us actively to affirm and embrace an impermanent world. They are both philosophies that strive to confront and solve the problem of nihilism not by denying reality, but by recognizing it for what it truly is.
When the supernatural realm of the gods (or God) is rejected as a delusion, then it is only in the non-supernatural world that we can seek justifications for life. For this reason Panaïoti argues that in both Buddhism and in Nietzsche’s philosophy an appeal is made to the this-worldly standard of “health” as the most appropriate goal of aspiration. When God has died, one must look for more natural criteria against which to make valuations if one is to continue to embrace life rather than retreating from it, and in both Buddhism and Nietzscheanism this is precisely what is done. While superficially it may appear that there is a conflict between Nietzsche’s admonition to make the world’s suffering “greater than ever” and the Buddha’s admonition to eliminate the world’s suffering altogether, Panaïoti argues that at a deeper level both individuals are actually concerned with a similar project: the project of making people so strong and healthy that they no longer perceive the obstacles, challenges and consequent sufferings that occur during the course of living life as objectionable.
This is the meaning of the Nietzschean aphorism, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” (Twilight of the Idols: 8) From the perspective of healthy strength, the struggles of life are embraced as a necessary part of self discovery and adventure. It is only from the perspective of unhealthy weakness that people recoil from life’s challenges and surprises, according to Nietzsche. What an unhealthy person experiences as vile torment, a healthy person experiences as affirmative and invigorating. This, according to Panaïoti, is a message that is also taught in Buddhism, where healthy compassion is encouraged as a means toward enlightenment. The term “compassion” literally means “to suffer with,” and thus this central Buddhist virtue requires an engagement with the suffering of others, not in order to condemn reality, but in order to learn how to embrace and affirm it. Ultimately, in the state of nirvana, the Buddhist finally attains a “great health” that experiences joy through compassion. Joy and suffering become one, just as Nietzsche also taught, when we are able to understand suffering as an opportunity for spiritual growth rather than as some sort of supernatural punishment. So it is that both The Buddha and Nietzsche offer a similar solution to the problem of nihilism. In a world of impermanence, where nothing lasts and everyone grows old, gets sick and dies, we need not recoil or retreat from life. If we learn to value the virtue of spiritual health in the way that others have chosen to value God or heavenly salvation, we might be able to embrace the challenges and obstacles of this world as opportunities that spur us on to become more vital, potent and robust.
In the conclusion of his book, Panaïoti proposes “a new response to the challenge of nihilism” modeled on the insights of both Buddhism and Nietzsche, which he calls “great health perfectionism.” (pp. 212 – 229) Great health perfectionism is a form of idealism that asserts “a distinctive ‘healthy type'” (p 218) as the goal of aspiration. This ideal healthy type is not conceptualized as a positive “Good,” however, but rather as involving the “recovery from illness.” (219) As such, it is a kind of negative ideal that tells us what to avoid so that we can move toward becoming more and more healthy. I detect an echo of Epicurus here, who held that pleasure is not a positive quality in human life, but something that is approximated by the progressive elimination of pain. This would dovetail quite well with the Buddhist directive to withdraw from the suffering and pain of the world, but Panaïoti insists that if we pair these insights with Nietzsche’s philosophy, great health perfectionism will emphasize the creative and active aspects of striving toward, rather than withdrawing from, the perfection of health. It will, thus, express an active rather than a reactive ideal. In great health perfectionism, we are encouraged to constantly strive toward health by constantly moving away from sickness. Since the targets by which we gain our bearings are moving ones, the author seems to be suggesting that his philosophy will help us come to terms with the reality of impermanence while avoiding the despair of meaninglessness.
While I love the bulk of Panaïoti’s book and admire his scholarship, I have two related criticisms that are focused on his concluding ideas. First of all, his “new response to the challenge of nihilism” sounds to me very much like ancient Stoicism, and thus I think it is not really a “new” response at all. Second, in appealing to the ideal of “great health,” it seems to me that Panaïoti is not so much offering a “response” to nihilism so much as he is articulating a perspective that demonstrates his own further entanglement in the dynamics of nihilism; a situation, which as I will explain below, I do not really object to since I see nihilism less as a problem to be solved and more as an underlying condition of human existence.
First let me address the point that the author’s suggestions are not really “new” but actually a reiteration of ancient Stoic ideas. As Panaïoti describes it, great health perfectionism directs us to embrace the world and all of its challenges as a necessary backdrop to life’s unfolding drama. Furthermore, great health perfectionism encourages us to engage the world ironically, like actors on a stage. As I act in the world, I should retain an ironic awareness that I am simply playing my role in life and that, for this reason, it is not really “me” that is doing the acting at all. Additionally, great health perfectionism is for everyone; slaves as well as masters. Thus is avoids the elitism of Nietzsche’s philosophy and embraces the call to compassion of Buddhist philosophy. But what Panaïoti describes here are just the suggestions of the ancient Stoics, and the reason why I suspect he has arrived back at this position is directly attributable to his Buddhist reading of Nietzsche. Nietzsche himself was an admirer of the Stoics, but he interpreted Stoic ideas (and the doctrine of amor fati in particular) as manifestations of the master mentality. What Panaïoti has done, by way of Buddhist interpretation, is to strip Nietzsche’s account of its elitism and once again make Stoic doctrines applicable to all people. In Panaïoti’s reading, amor fati is not exclusively for masters, but a doctrine for slaves as well. Consequently, he arrives at an egalitarian philosophy that closely resembles the original form of ancient Stoicism. What is new appears old again!
Whether it is actually “new” or not, in regard to its content Panaïoti asserts that the only really pressing objection to great health perfectionism is what he calls the “saintliness objection.” (p. 229) This is the objection that his proposed ideal is so ambitious that it is impossible to reach. He responds to this “pressing” objection by stating that such an unreachable ideal provides a goal for human striving, and thus it is not so bad that it is unreachable, since it provides a path for continued and ongoing human aspiration. This is the focus of my second criticism. If aspiration toward the impossible is not such a bad thing, then what is the problem with nihilism in the first place? Recall that the “crisis of nihilism” erupts when the apparent world is rejected in favor of an unapparent world. When we strive after abstractions at the cost of this world, we denigrate and belittle this world in favor of an illusion, or as Panaïoti calls it, a “delusion.” This is the root of ressentiment, and it is precisely this sort of delusion that great health perfectionism is intended to combat.
But any form of “perfectionism” is subject to the charge of ressentiment insofar as it posits the goal of a perfect ideal as worthy of aspiration rather than simply counseling us to affirm the concrete, non-ideal world that we live in. If the conundrum of nihilism is initiated when an abstract, non-apparent reality is elevated and affirmed as more real or valuable than our actual, concrete, apparent reality, then I fail to see how encouraging us to pursue the superlative goal of “great health” helps to alleviate ressentiment or the problem of nihilism at all. It seems only to reinscribe the challenge within another set of values. As De Beauvoir puts it in her book The Ethics of Ambiguity, the nihilist is essentially a frustrated idealist precisely because the nihilist has come to the realization that abstract perfection of any kind is an impossible goal. The only way to eradicate nihilism, then, is to dissolve any notion of the “ideal” and to live only according to the “real.” In order to overcome nihilism, we have to kill Plato.
I don’t want to kill Plato. I’ve come to embrace nihilism, and so I personally do not see it as something that necessarily needs to be “overcome” or as a problem that needs to be solved at all. As I argue in Laughing at Nothing, there is not necessarily anything undesirable or destructive about nihilism. Nihilism is a situation in which one constantly strives toward unreachable goals, and though this striving may be at times unpleasant, if we cultivate the ability to appreciate the incongruous and absurd struggles of life, we can extract some form of amused pleasure out of the process while participating in a kind of progress that is eternal and ongoing, but which does not ever reach a final termination point. Panaïoti’s “great health perfectionism” has just this sort of structure to it, and so while I have no objection to the form of the idea, it seems neither new to me nor does it seem to really solve any problems. Rather, it is just one more illustration of how entrenched nihilism is in the very structure of human life.