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Does Philosophy Cause Nihilism?

by Rick Lewis

Philosophy is an activity. I used to say this with an air of self-satisfied originality whenever I was asked what philosophy was about. However, a friend recently pointed out, pointedly, that it says the same thing in my favourite reference book, the Bluffer’s Guide to Philosophy. Still, that doesn’t make it any less true.

It is impossible to read philosophy without thinking about what you are reading. In this respect philosophy is unlike history or astronomy. It is possible to read a well-written article about the rise of Napoleon, or the formation of stars, in a totally passive way, accepting without query the assertions of the author, and still quite genuinely learn something in the process. It is not possible to read a philosophy article in this way, though – you find yourself arguing mentally with the article’s author, because that is the only way to gain a full understanding of what he or she is saying.

The activity of questioning assumptions and criticising arguments to gain a deeper understanding is fundamental to philosophy, and has been since its earliest days. Philosophy involves the critical analysis of existing assumptions – things that people take for granted. This often includes assumptions about society: its institutions, values, customs and beliefs. Not surprisingly, this can make philosophers unpopular. Philosophy has been accused of causing nihilism, by undermining existing values and beliefs and failing to put anything useable in their place. Among the less reflective, this has been one of the most objectionable aspects of philosophy as a whole. Through their eyes, philosophers are very good at the destructive business of showing up the flaws and contradictions of everyday thinking, but when it comes to putting something new in their place, philosophers fall out among themselves and the result is that philosophy causes nihilism; the rejection of all values and beliefs as meaningless and unfounded.

The most famous thinker to be accused of this was Socrates. He saw himself as a gadfly; buzzing around annoying his fellow Athenians with his impertinent questions to stop them from becoming lazy and complacent. The grateful citizens put him on trial for impiety and corrupting the young, found him guilty and duly executed him. Even today, when a jury reaches an incomprehensible and perverse verdict, there is a tendency to want to ask them how they reached their conclusions. Steven Goldberg does so on page 5. Many of the people who condemned philosophy for under-mining decent values would have pointed triumphantly to Socrates’ friend Aristippus as an example of everything they loathed about philosophers – here was a man who used reason to justify a self-indulgent lifestyle. Many philosophers have looked down on Aristippus for the same reason. Dane Gordon, however, says they were all wrong about him and attempts to rehabilitate his reputation on page 15.

So what is nihilism like, and is there anything wrong with it? Mark Conard in his article about Pulp Fiction, says that Tarantino’s film is about nihilism – it paints a depressing picture of what happens when people try to live without a code of values.

Is it true that philosophy causes nihilism? It is certainly true that philosophy has helped to undermine religion; even philosophers who are Christians would surely accept that the mere act of questioning God’s existence has broken the automatic acceptance of the truth of religion which many people once had. And science, philosophy’s estranged offspring, has offered convincing alternative ways of explaining the natural world. By weakening religion philosophy may have contributed to nihilism. However, we should keep things in proportion. Some politicians and religious revivalists talk as if we are constantly teetering on the verge of a moral abyss. In fact, although society has become fairly secular, large numbers of people seems to be living purposeful lives and acting reasonably decently towards one another, with or without a formal moral code. Of course there are those who really don’t feel the pull of any values and who really are living Tarantino-style lives, only without the gangster glamour. But the problems there are probably due more to a breakdown in the mechanisms for transmitting values from one generation to the next (broken homes, crummy schools) rather than overexposure to the works of David Hume. Where there is a fundamental crisis of faith in a given set of values, philosophy may be part of the problem but must also be part of the cure. The cure for problems isn’t to stop thinking, but instead to think harder.

Our next issue will be rather different to this one. We are redesigning the page layout and the contents will also be revamped in various ways. Among other innovations, we will be starting a series of short articles introducing leading contemporary philosophers, those who have managed the rare trick of combining (a) being widely studied and discussed with (b) still being alive.

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