NIHILISM AND THE POSTMODERN IN VATTIMO’S NIETZSCHE
I. Modern Nihilism
For Nietzsche, writing in the second half of the nineteenth century, nihilism is a disease of the modern age—specifically, the modern European age. It infects European society and culture generally, as well as every individual. Nietzsche’s diagnosis of nihilism is also prophetic. He tells us, ‘What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism’ (Nietzsche 1968, p.3).
For Nietzsche, as well as its present, modern manifestation, nihilism has its roots in history and extends into the future. Nihilism has a typology; it is ambiguous and manifests itself in various forms that we may see as possibilities in its historical development. 2 Nietzsche identifies the historical origins of nihilism in a particular interpretation of the world: the Christian-moral one.
This interpretation gives meaning to human life by positing objective grounds of value beyond Man in the form of God the Father, the divine legislator of value, the ‘spider of finality and morality which is supposed to exist behind the great net and web of causality’ (Nietzsche 1996, p.92). For Nietzsche, most of philosophy is also part of the Christian-moral interpretation of the world. It follows this model by positing a "true world," a metaphysical world that lies behind this physical world of mere appearances.
This "metaphysical" interpretation, while providing value in one way, is nihilistic because it devalues this world, the world in which we live, by understanding it as only having value in relation to another, better world. This form of nihilism is called "religious nihilism."
The Christian-moral interpretation of the world carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. This is because one of its primary values is truth. When the quest for truth is applied to the Christian-moral interpretation itself, it is eventually revealed to be untrue. This has occurred historically through the development of human knowledges, particularly the sciences, which have replaced religious explanations of the world with secular ones.
The desire for truth has led to a widespread desire to restrict our knowledge claims to that which can be empirically verified and to be sceptical towards anything else.
Thus, God, the "true world," etc.—every claimed transcendent source of value beyond Man—is seen to be a myth. This is the second stage of nihilism, which Nietzsche calls "radical nihilism," and is characterised by Nietzsche’s famous proclamation ‘God is dead.’
At this stage, transcendent sources of value are seen to be lacking, but the world cannot be seen as valuable on its own. There are no other categories of valuation but the old categories, yet nothing in this world lives up to them. The radical nihilist is one ‘who judges of the world as it is that it ought not to be, and of the world as it ought to be that it does not exist.’ (Nietzsche 1968, p.318).
Radical nihilism contains two possibilities: the passive nihilism of accepting a meaningless world in despairing resignation, or the active nihilism of seeking to destroy what remains of the traditional categories of valuation. Active nihilism—the useful form of radical nihilism (as opposed to passive nihilism)—is the attempt to destroy all values, including those that were attached to the "true" world.
Nietzsche’s attacks on traditional religious, moral, and philosophical values such as God, metaphysics, truth, pity, compassion, humility, and the distinction between good and evil, can be seen as active nihilism in action.
Active nihilism leads to accomplished or "complete nihilism," that which is attained when no values whatever remain. Complete nihilism is the completed destruction of all values, but is paradoxically also the overcoming of nihilism.
From the position of complete nihilism, it is possible to leave nihilism behind and actively create new categories of valuation that will be wholly affirmative and free from nihilism. The absence of all traditional, transcendent values allows a new era in which new values may be posited, values that are immanent and apply only to this world.
These new valuations rest on the secure foundation of our disillusioned creative abilities, and apply to actual reality. In the historical sense, this constitutes a new era of valuation and human flourishing after nihilism has been overcome.
According to Nietzsche, modernity is characterised by the advent of radical nihilism. The history of the next two hundred years will be the history of an increasingly radicalised active nihilism. The crucial point of what I am calling the modernist interpretation of Nietzsche is the possibility of overcoming nihilism, the conviction that there shall come a time in history when nihilism shall be left behind. 3
After modernity—a time Nietzsche predicts to arise a hundred years from now—nihilism will be overcome and human culture will be reinvigorated by new categories of valuation, a "revaluation of all values."
II: Postmodern Nihilism (Interpretation based on Nietzsche by Gianni Vattimo, see weblink/RR)