- Psychological Nihilism, Passions, and Neglected Works: Three Topics for Nietzsche Studies
In the last two decades or so, Anglophone Nietzsche studies have discussed extensively Nietzsche’s views on metaethics, naturalism, free will, art, and morality, among other topics. More recently, substantial work has been produced on his philosophical psychology, which had long been a neglected area. What should come next?
A topic that I think is in need of philosophical reappraisal is Nietzsche’s diagnosis of nihilism. “Nihilism” is one of those terms that, though it appears only a few times in his published works, is immediately associated with Nietzsche’s philosophy. However, apart from Bernard Reginster’s seminal contribution (The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006]), the topic of nihilism has not been at the center of sustained debate of late (not, at least, in Anglophone Nietzsche studies). Now, Nietzsche uses the term “nihilism” in different ways, so let me make explicit which notion interests me here. Roughly, it is the notion of nihilism Nietzsche uses to pick out what he perceived to be the most fundamental feature of the psychological condition of his contemporaries. It is, as he puts it in a note from 1887, nihilism understood as a “psychological state” (KSA 13:11, p. 46).
So what does Nietzsche say about nihilism in this sense, and why do I think it is a relevant and timely issue? It seems to me that psychological nihilism—as I refer to it—has both a phenomenological and a cognitive side. On the one hand, Nietzsche describes it as a complex affective condition—in [End Page 266] the note mentioned above, he speaks of the “feeling of worthlessness,” which he takes to involve affects like “frustration” and the loss of “courage” (KSA 13:11, pp. 46–47). (This comes close to what Reginster calls the “despair” aspect of nihilism; see The Affirmation of Life, 28.) On the other hand, as revealed by the very notion of worthlessness employed in this note, Nietzsche takes psychological nihilism to ensue when one fails to find meaning in one’s life, or in the world as such. What strikes me as particularly important in all this is the fact that Nietzsche does not take psychological nihilism to be a stable and definite state. Rather, he characterizes it as a distressing condition to which different individuals react in divergent ways. In other words, this condition typically triggers a range of complex and varied psychological dynamics (on this, see again The Affirmation of Life, chap. 1). This, in turn, has two consequences that highlight the relevance of this issue. First, it ramifies into several important aspects of his mature thought. Second, though Nietzsche’s diagnosis of psychological nihilism is based largely on his critical assessment of nineteenth-century European society and culture, I strongly suspect it continues to be instructive a century and a half later. Let me illustrate both points with an example.
Part of what I have called the cognitive side of nihilism understood as a state of mind concerns the way it relates to the psychology and epistemology of belief. As we saw, psychological nihilism results from the failure to find meaning in one’s life, or in the world as such. Nietzsche perceived this as a major threat to European culture in the late nineteenth century, due to the fact that belief in the traditional values of Christian morality was rapidly vanishing. If one could no longer rely on these values to find meaning in one’s life, or in the world as such, where was one supposed to look? Was there anything at all one could rely on to orient oneself in one’s search for meaning? That is why Nietzsche points out a crucial connection between the variety of reactions the state of psychological nihilism can trigger in different individuals, on the one hand, and the epistemic practices they adopt (or keep adopting), on the other hand. (An epistemic practice is here understood as including both one’s conscious attitudes and reasoning, and the unconscious dispositions they are rooted in.) Aptly titled “Believers and their need to believe,” GS 347...