Philosophically Thinking Through Nihilism: A Reclamation of Embodied Thought For Enhancing Cultural Practices (P. 2/2), by Prof. James Magrini

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Philosophically Thinking Through Nihilism

The crucial question for those concerned with nihilism thus becomes: Is there still left in our practices some remnant of the nonobjectifying practices that were presumably extant in fifth-century Athens before the cultural collapse that is expressed and furthered by Socrates and Plato?” ~ Dreyfus                                                                                                

In response to this pressing question I now attempt to explicate what Dreyfus terms “nonobjectifying” practices as an active response to the nihilistic condition within which now find ourselves. This final section focuses on two aspects of our lived world and the values, which are inextricably bound up within our worldly existence: (1) the practices and “forms of life” we share that demand the rethinking of our privileged modes of epistemological links to the earth and others, which includes rethinking philosophy’s role in elucidating and contributing to the development and sustaining of our cultural practices, and (2) the attitude we adopt in relation to science and technology that is the crux of nihilism, and how that relationship might, and indeed, needs to be rethought and recast in terms other than a relationship of divine reverence and servitude. According to Dreyfus, as long as we continue to think in terms of explicit views of truth and objectifying models for values over implicit shared concerns, we will not “find anything that has authority for us and elicits our commitment” (512).

For Dreyfus, nihilism manifests on two fronts: the epistemological front and axiological front, as related to values of a transcendent and transcendental nature, and, as he states, such a belief in objective values represents “the last stage of a tradition that begins with theory and ends with nihilism” (Ibid., 512). To build on what was introduced earlier, when we place our undying, unequivocal trust in scientific explanation, science becomes our religion “in the very important sense that we think science tells us what reality is” (Ibid., 519). By means of scientific objectification, when reconceptualizing and recontextualizing entities, we produce a “reality independent of our interests and concerns, independent of our everyday, and therefore intrinsically and necessarily meaningless” (Ibid., 519). When we grant this view, or mode of world-disclosure, a place of absolute privilege, we lose sight of the importance of practices, factical lived world experiences, which neither require nor admit of objective verification, as products of reason and rationalization. The absolutist drive for objective epistemological certainty draws us beyond modes of embodied dwelling, beyond our authentic communal experience of the world. Dreyfus terms the structures organizing our embodied communal experiences cultural paradigms, and claims that they resist all attempts at objectification, for we cannot understand these structures, which are implicit and contextual, in the same manner as we understand a “world picture” or historical “mindset.” This is because a “mindset” is a “table of values or a belief system,” it is an objective and abstract conceptualized schema that “suggests that somehow what people live in terms of is in their minds” (Ibid., 512).

Wittgenstein will be helpful when thinking about human practices that resist being understood in categorical terms because they unfold in terms of language games. As Wittgenstein contends, the speaking of a language, while requiring and possessing rules and a grammar, is more importantly “part of an activity or a form of life” (23). The meaning that depends on agreement of usage is not explicit or objective, which can be pointed out in terms of transcendent truth residing outside the unfolding of the activity of communication itself. Rather agreement is for Wittgenstein always already expressive of a form of life, where meanings are present but are often times implicit, difficult, and ambiguous because the language games that give us a form of life resemble an ancient city, with its “maze of alleys and plazas, old and new houses, and houses with additions from various periods; all this surrounded by a number of new suburbs with straight, regular streets and uniform houses” (18). In this example there is no single “blue-print” or zoning map that might produce one overarching (and correct) view of the landscape and architecture, and beyond, there is no zoning map, no matter how thorough and detailed, that provides reasons as to why the city functions as a fecund value-laden place of dwelling.

A language game is not merely composed of propositions expressing veritable certainties. There are countless types of sentences for Wittgenstein, with “countless different kinds of use of what we call ‘symbols’. ‘words,’ ‘sentences.’ And this multiplicity isn’t something fixed, given once and for all; but new types of language, new language games, as we may say, come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten” (21). Against discourse that expresses exclusively matter-of-fact knowledge, language can also be non-propositional in nature, hypothetical in nature – expressing moral, aesthetic, and emotional truths, because it is really about the way in which various locutions function within the form of life and work together, thus, to reiterate, there is a resistance in Wittgenstein’s philosophy, as Schulte points out, to the

“[p]hilosophical practice of seeking the characteristics common to everything that might be called a language “game.” According to Wittgenstein, this striving to formulate the “essence” of a thing – that is, common characteristics deemed to be necessary and sufficient for its existence- has led us astray again and again. Also misleading is the uniform and homogeneous appearance of the written word, which disguises the fact that words cannot all be understood according to some one schema” (111).

This notion of cultural paradigms of meaning might be understood in terms of what I have previously highlighted in both Empedocles and Nietzsche, namely, that the human is always already immersed in the world of her experience, and she comes to understand, interpret, and discourse about her existence through a multi-perspectival view of the world that is fluid and nonobjectifying, wherein science is but one (albeit indispensable) mode of seeing and knowing. Following Nietzsche, this turn from objectifying the world must not be thought in terms of the passive nihilistic move to look inward in the effort to make the subjective realm of consciousness the solipsistic gold standard for true Being, for such a reverse of the metaphysical binary simply furthers “the nihilistic dichotomy between the inner and the outer” (Dreyfus, 518). In attempting to renew “our heritage and nonobjectifying practices,” we should avoid making our “saving practices explicit in our attempt to preserve them,” i.e., we must resist the Platonic temptation to “make a list of our values, since that would just turn whatever still has a grip on us into mere meaningless objects” (Ibid., 514). One way to grasp this notion of nonobjectifying practices is through the image of the forms of life expressed specifically in great participatory cultural founding works of art. Following Heidegger’s lead, Dreyfus references the now-famous example of the Greek temple, which opened the world and earth for the ancients when they came to worship at the site of the god, as a paradigmatic work of art the temple

“[f]irst fits together and at the same time gathers around itself the unity of those paths and relations in which birth and death, disaster and blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decline acquire the shape of destiny for human being” (Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, 42).

Dreyfus, drawing on Heidegger, also employs an example of Greek tragedy as serving a similar function for the Greeks in the fifth century. For example, in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, as opposed to conceptualizing an objective truth for the Greeks, which was given in terms of a mode of disclosure that gave the spectators actual truth about their existence, showing truth as explicit, as actual, i.e., already worked out in advance, the tragedy revealed implicitly the understanding of the Greeks’ various cultural practices by organizing and capturing them, and through a process of re-presentation, showed them as potential truth, which was communal and dynamically in transition, in the process of developing and evolving. Aeschylus did not want to “state propositions or justify their beliefs,” rather he produced a “drama in which they were participants,” which represented a “paradigm of their way of life,” and thus the tragic poet “helped them focus and preserve the practices of his age” (517). Tragedy served up cogent possibilities for acting in terms of the Greeks’ common experience of life, and this was not scant entertainment as the theater is today, conceived in its most vile and pernicious form as an exercise in rote escapism, rather the tragedies of the Greeks represented the aesthetic spectacle par excellence wherein

“[t]he battle of the new gods against the old gods is fought. The linguistic work, originating in the speech of the people, does not refer to this battle; it transforms the people’s saying so that now every living word fights the battle and puts up for decision what is holy and what is unholy, what is great and what small, what brave and what cowardly, what lofty and what flighty, what master and what slave” (Heidegger, PLT, 43).

The communal linguistic practices of the Greeks formed a complex mode of dwelling where meaning was furthered and shared without the drive to make it explicit, which would have destroyed their factical and lived cultural value, and this relates to what was stated earlier about Nietzsche and the drive to understand objectivity in terms that are fluid and malleable, which speaks authentically to the ambiguous nature of human existence. Clearly, dwelling in the state of perpetual questioning with respect to the human’s finite and limited access to knowledge presupposes the tragic consciousness. This is what Vernant refers to as “tension and ambiguity” in Greek tragedy and this might be directly related to Dreyfus’ notion of nonobjectifying practices, wherein our philosophical inquires produce more questions than answers. There is, Vernant argues, an essential ambiguity inherent to the extant practices in fifth century Athens, for “man’s relationship to the world was at once social, natural, divine, and ambiguous, rent with contradictions in which no rule appears definitively established, one God fights another, one law against another and in which, even in the contents of the play’s action, justice itself shifts, twists, and is transformed into its contrary” (32). For the most part, meanings in tragedy unfold in such a way that the main player is unaware of what is happening. The tragic reversal and downfall is “unsuspected by even those who initiated them and take responsibility for them, is only revealed when it becomes a part of an order that is beyond man and escapes man” (Ibid., 17).

If we take seriously what both Benjamin and Heidegger say about art and its potential to inspire new paradigms, we find that in the modern era art has lost its power, its aura, in the first instance, through the process of mechanical reproduction; while in the latter instance, art has lost its power to disclose cultural founding truth for appropriation (Ereignis) because modernity is the only era to be disclosed through the “enframing” mood of the Ge-stell of technology, and not through the truth-founding activity of great art. If great art is no longer, where might we turn to find inspiration to awake us from the nightmare of nihilism? Perhaps there is a way to envision philosophy in terms of an artistic endeavor, and this is what both Vallega-Neu and Alexander Nehamas propose. Vallega-Neu suggests that philosophy should “learn to understand itself as an art, as a creative activity that does not fabricate inventions but that draws its creative force from a life that remains its origin” (121). When practicing philosophy as a form of aesthetics, or poetics, we draw inspiration from the bodily dimension of thought, and move beyond the antiquated and disingenuous conception of philosophy as a science or purely analytic discipline. Philosophy holds the potential to be as art only when ceasing its attempt to complete with science for epistemological relevance.

Alexander Nehamas also views philosophy in terms of aesthetic activity, e.g., he writes that in Nietzsche we find philosophy as an art of living, which is termed an “aestheticist model” of philosophy. Within this model the “individual finds its central place,” however, this is not an individualist notion that is “egoistic or oblivious to others,” for its is focused on revealing and interpreting the social network structured by the cultural paradigms of meaning as related to contributing to the individual’s development, which unfolds as the individual shapes cultural practices as they in turn shape and inspire creative philosophical rejoinders from the individual (10-12). A form of philosophy that eschews conceptual certainty and embraces the flux, flow, and dynamic unfolding of human being, resembles a work of art in that

“[a]s in the acknowledged arts, there is no best work – no best life – by which all others can be judged. As in the acknowledged arts, that does not imply that judgment is impossible, that every work is as good as every other. As in the acknowledged arts, the aim is to produce as many new and different types of works – as many different modes of life – as possible, since the proliferation of aesthetic difference and multiplicity, even though it is not often in the service of morality, enriches and improves human life” (Ibid., 10)

Moving beyond Dreyfus, although this is certainly intimated within and inspired by his work, it is possible to state that philosophy represents a legitimate cultural form of what we might call a nonobjectifying practice, and it functions is such a way when understood in terms of a living and embodied aesthetic model. Such a conception and practice of philosophy would avoid limiting or binding its reflexive thought to the transcendental subject of the tradition in metaphysics, and should seek inspiration from “other fields of knowledge as well as from practices that are not only practices of thought (arts, physical activities)” (Vallega-Neu, 128). Thought that is sensitive to certain modes of being, immersed in our lived cultural practices, approaches these modes of being in a manner that is wholly consistent with the ontological unfolding of said practices. We must be clear about what Vallega-Neu means when employing the term “ontological,” for here she moves beyond the tradition in rendering the term. Vallega-Neu locates the ontological aspect of philosophy in the bodily dimension of our existence, which situates us within cultural practices in such a way that an intimate connection with being is established.

However, as she is careful to point out, this ontological notion of being is not to be conflated with the notion of “Being with a capital B,” rather she references “being as an event that is singular and multiple at once and that always occurs bodily” (Ibid., 122). For this ontological aspect of philosophy to be at once singular and plural it means that being manifests within singular, finite moments that are unique and unrepeatable; it also manifests in its plurality when human events are considered in terms of their interconnectedness. If we recall the example of tragedy these two aspects of being might be understood: The tragedy portrays its spectacle in terms of particular, distinct events, e.g., the tragic reworking of the myth of Orestes (and the house of Atreus), and at once it portrays the multiple and various strands of the cultural web within which Orestes’ story gathers meaning and makes sense. Indeed the tragedy itself (as art) functions in this manner, for although it is a particular work of art, as Vernant reminds us, “it is not only an art form, it is also a social institution,” and this indicates that tragedy is the loci of a variety of cultural forces, e.g., political, legal, civic, and aesthetic (32). [1]

If philosophy is to move beyond both the objectivism of science and technology and the subjectivism of passive nihilism’s retreat into the interiority of the consciousness, philosophy needs to embrace the human’s holistic immersion in its world and the embodied nature of its thought in order to find “openings through certain attunements to the world in which it arises, and it needs to find again an original commonality with other living and nonliving things’ (121). Eschewing the ontological difference, Vallega-Neu embraces an ontology of bodily being that is “fundamental and regional” in the following two senses: (1) it draws its thought from the attunement to concrete, factical ways of being, and (2) with respect to contemporary science, it neither claims to substitute the sciences nor explain them, nor provide ground for their operations. However, as she states,

“[philosophy] may explore the ways of bodily being peculiar to difference sciences and it may infuse the practice of science with certain sensibilities to issues of being. However, I must add that the moral value of these the moral value of these sensibilities would have to remain in question if we do not want to transform this ontology into an ideology that closes off the possibilities that ontological thought can open” (Ibid., 128).

In conclusion, there is indeed a necessity for conceptual thought in our world, moments wherein we “say” what life is through propositional discourse, arguing for and demonstrating instances of truth that have been thought out in advance. There is also a need for modes of thought, as is consistent with literature, poetry, and the arts, wherein forms of perceptual and intuitive knowledge emerge, fluid ways of understanding wherein we attempt to “show,” through poetic interpretive gestures, what life is like and at once intimate what it might become when our world as a system of meanings and practices is illumed by the practice of philosophy. We should adopt a resolute attitude toward truth-as-potential, to be worked out through collaborative engagements and discourse of a heuristic nature within the ever developing constellation of nonobjectifying cultural practices. When philosophy approaches the world and the human being in terms of a work of art, a multiplicity of interpretations emerge, but only through our participation in and dialogue with the work. In such activities, meaning (as truth) is released from its penal servitude to objective epistemological truth with a capital “T.” Philosophy, understood as an ontological and artistic nonobjectifying practice, represents a perspective onto the world highlighted by a “bodily openness and closure of our lives to beings and events in their multiple and encroaching rhythms” (Vallega-Neu, 128). This view of philosophy has been expressed by Liminal Analytics researcher David Metcalfe in terms that relate to Krell’s insights that began this meditation, namely, that there is a pressing need in this day and age to bring philosophy “back out of the academy and into reality,” for as Metcalfe argues, and quite correctly, philosophy should not propose “isolated theories that can merely distinguish folks for tenure,” but rather philosophy, if it is authentic, should seek to foster the growth of ideas “that can be used by everyone.”

Works Cited:

Barrett, W., The Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy, New York: Double Day Books, 1990.

Dreyfus, H., “Knowledge and Human Values: A Genealogy of Nihilism,” in: Teacher’s College Record, Vol., 82 (Spring), 1981, pp. 507-520.

Freeman, K., Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Heidegger, M., Early Greek Thinking, tr. D. F. Krell, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.

Heidegger, M. Poetry, Language, Thought, tr. A. Hofstadter, New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

Kirk, G. S., Raven, J. E., Schofield, M., The Pre-Socratic Philosophers (Second Edition), New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Lambridis, H., Empedocles: A Philosophical Investigation, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1976.

Langer, S., Philosophy in a New Key, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Nietzsche, F., The Pre-Platonic Philosophers, tr. G. Whitlock, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006.

Nietzsche, F. The Gay Science, tr. W. Kaufmann, New York: Vintage, 1974.

Nietzsche, F. The Will to Power, tr. W. Kaufmann & R. J. Hollingdale, New York: Vintage, 1967.

Nehamas, A., The Art of Living, Berkeley: University of Berkeley Press, 1998.

Peters, F. E., Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon, New York: New York University Press, 1967.

Schiefelbein, S., The Incredible Machine, Washington D.C.: The National Geographic Society, 1986.

Schulte, J., Wittgenstein, tr. W. Brenner & J. Holley, New York: SUNY Press, 1992.

Thomson, I., Heidegger on Ontotheology, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Thomspn, I., “Interpretation as Self-Creation: Nietzsche on the Pre-Platonics,” in: Ancient Philosophy, Vol. 23, 2003, pp. 195-213.

Vallega-Neu, D., The Bodily Dimension of Thinking, New York: SUNY Press, 2005.

Vernant, J. P., The Greeks, tr. C. Lambert & T. Lavender, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Vernant, J. P., Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, New York: Zone, 1990.

Wittgenstein, L., Philosophical Investigations, tr. G. E. M. Anscombe, New York: Macmillan, 1958.


[1] Vallega-Neu offers a poignant illustration of this notion of the duplicity of being, here focused on the “singularity” and “plurality” of being, in the following manner: “Being is plural when we consider different things and events in their singularity and interconnectedness. A tree is, and in that being of the tree there is a leaf that shivers in the wind. There also is the human being that watches the tree and shares the wind that blows through it. There is also a caterpillar moving along a leaf that remains unseen by the human, as well as the distant noise of a nearby highway, hardly perceived. The thinking at play in this description also is, it hap[pens as the movement of the caterpillar happens and the blowing of the wind. But, in distinction to these events, thinking moves toward an articulation of what comes to awareness in sharing the space of being with other things and events” (122).

James Magrini teaches Western philosophy and ethics at College of Dupage in Illinois and publishes on philosophy, art, and education in such journals and periodicals as Philosophy Today, Philosophical Writings, Education, Philosophy, and Theory, and American Atheist.

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