Scholars seek philosophical path to overcome nihilism

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-10-20

A display of books on famous philosophers at a bookstore Photo: Yang Lanlan/CSST

WEIHAI—Nihilism is a philosophical crisis that has emerged alongside modern Western civilization. It is also the “gaze from the abyss” that contemporary philosophy needs to face and overcome. A recent seminar on nihilism from the perspective of modern philosophy was held by the School of Philosophy and Social Development at Shandong University (SDU) in Weihai, Shandong Province.

Connotations of nihilism

In 1799, German philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi first proposed the concept of “nihilism” in his letter to Johann Gottlieb Fichte, where he denounced German idealism and even all speculative philosophies as “nihilism.” The consistent rationality of these philosophies subjectivizes and “nihilizes” objective reality, and the universal and necessary law they reveal deprives individuals of their free will.

For over two centuries following its introduction, philosophers have held varying interpretations of the connotation of this concept. However, they have shared a common concern regarding the potential risks of value disorder and even collapse brought about by nihilism. “Although nihilism contains certain honesty in the secular rational sense, when the world people really live in is divided by the fact-value dichotomy, the value will be groundless and the fact needs to be salvaged,” said Wang Heng, a professor from the Department of Philosophy at Nanjing University.

What is nihilism? Is it Nietzsche’s “death of God,” Heidegger’s “homelessness,” Albert Camus’s “absurdity,” or Gilles Deleuze’s “opposition to transcendental values”? Sun Zhouxing, a professor from the School of Philosophy at Zhejiang University, discovered from Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s nihilism that it manifests multiple meanings in the criticism of ontology, moral axiology, and metaphysic transcendentalism. From the perspective of future philosophy, the fundamental meaning of nihilism lies in the collapse of the natural human expression system.

Deconstruction of ontology

The emergence of nihilism symbolically represents the decline of the ideals of the Axial age. In order to contain and avoid nihilism, philosophers have explored different paths in advancing the development of intellectual history. Zhang Zhiwei, a professor from the School of Philosophy at Renmin University of China, noted that Heidegger’s entire academic career is marked by a contemplation of the notion that existence is nihilism, and he has attempted various approaches and modes of discourse. The most central aspect is his reflection on the ontological dimension of metaphysics, aiming to overcome nihilism from an ontological standpoint. Although Nietzsche revealed that nihilism is inherent in metaphysics, it cannot overcome nihilism. Heidegger, through his debate with Nietzsche, proposed a “logic of nihilism” that argues metaphysics confuses the distinction between being and beings. Metaphysics, which takes being as the object of thought, actually thinks about beings. The reason why being appears as non-being is that it conceals itself. Thus being is nihility.

In the opinion of Wu Zengding, a professor from the Department of Philosophy at Peking University, Heidegger’s re-inclusion of Nietzsche’s will to power into the framework of traditional metaphysics (especially ontology) is a misunderstanding of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Nietzsche did not inherit and probe ontology in a critical way, but rather abandoned ontology and related existential problems in a radical way, replacing it with genealogy. In the deconstruction of ontology, Nietzsche proves more thorough than Heidegger.

Transcending nihilism

In 1841, Schelling publicly expressed his criticism of Hegel’s speculative philosophy for the first time in a lecture in Berlin. He put forward a new concept of “reality,” initiating the trend of critiquing speculative philosophy. In the opinion of Feng Bo, a professor from the School of Philosophy and Social Development at SDU, Schelling’s critique of the philosophy of inevitability in his later years coincides with many of Marx’s propositions. Due to various limitations, the former did not get rid of speculative philosophy and solve the problem of nihilism.

Nihilism is the realistic dilemma of modern civilization and is embedded in the ideological framework of capitalistic logic. Liu Yu, a professor from the School of Marxism Studies at Zhejiang Normal University, believes that Marx’s dialectics of totality is a powerful weapon for overcoming nihilism. Nihilism is placed within the broader framework of historical materialism and the narrower critique of political economy, in the comprehensive criticism of capital logic as the “original” and ideology as the “copy.” This not only deeply reveals the fundamental source and emergence mechanisms of nihilism, but also presents a promising new vision of a new form of civilization—a community of free individuals. It offers an ultimate way for human society to transcend nihilism and alleviate the crisis of alienation.

As Liu Senlin, dean of the School of Philosophy and Social Development at SDU, pointed out in the general preface of Collected Translations of Nihilism Criticism, the problem of modern nihilism encompasses not only the crisis and reconstruction of the value system, but also the transformation of philosophical thinking and the adjustment of thinking modes.

Editor:Yu Hui

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