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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751

Abstract

VAN TONGEREN, Paul. On Nihilism: Nietzsche's "Here and now" or our own?. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2017, vol.57, n.1, pp.50-61. ISSN 2224-7912.  http://dx.doi.org/10.17159/2224-7912/2017/v57n1a5.

If philosophy claims to be an analysis of the here and now, it should also reflect on the preconditions of a description and diagnosis of the present. One of the challenges presented by such an analysis is the risk of repeating the prejudices of the present in the description thereof. In this article, I attempt to address this challenge by presenting Nietzsche's description and interpretation of nihilism in such a way that the topicality of that description comes to light. Nietzsche distinguishes at least three different stages or forms of nihilism. The first one is also called pessimism, or more precisely: the pessimism of the tragic Greeks. It is an awareness of the absurdity of life and reality without becoming completely befuddled by it. The history of European culture from Socrates up to Nietzsche's 19th century is the period in which a second form of nihilism emerges. Unable to affirm the absurdity of reality, people started to devalue it and to interpret it in the light of a truer reality. This ultimate reality was conceived as meaningful and intelligible, and it showed the reality of our sensual experience to be unreal, only apparent and contingent. This schema is nihilistic because it denies the reality of our sensual world. It was introduced first and foremost by Plato's philosophy and then "democratized" in Christianity. But it dominated all of European culture (science, morality, religion and art) for 2500 years. The third stage or form of nihilism is associated with "the death of God", i.e. the erosion and eventual demise of the core concept upholding the protective structure that was built by the second phase of nihilism. The death of God is what Nietzsche foresees as coming to pass in the two centuries to come. His theory of nihilism is a description of this future. It proves not to be too difficult to present Nietzsche's description of this future in such a way that we recognize our present. There are at least three reasons why Nietzsche calls nihilism a European phenomenon. Firstly, Europe represents a great plurality of cultures and peoples. This situation could lead to greatness if it manages to maintain the tension and conflict among all the different tendencies. It is more probable, however, that the conflict and tension will be wiped out and that the collected plurality will lapse into a weak and ugly mixture or into indifference. Secondly, nihilism is already present in the two main roots of European culture: Greece and Christianity. In Greek mythology we learn that the world only emerged out of chaos by violent acts, and Christian theology interpreted the Jewish creation myth as a creation out of nothing. Chaos and nothingness are more fundamental than order and meaning. The third reason for calling nihilism a European phenomenon has to do with the strength and success of the second phase of nihilism: it has become so established that its very foundations may be questioned, without risking discrediting it as such. That is also the reason why the death of God is hardly understood, and the least of all by those "who don't believe anymore". All three reasons seem not to be limited to European culture, or the scope of European culture seems to be much broader than the borders of the European continent. If Nietzsche's predictions are indeed applicable to our present conditions, and if therefore we can gain some insight into ourselves by looking in the mirror of this 19th century European philosopher, it suggests that temporal and spatial distance is needed for self-critique. Here we are reminded of Nietzsche's saying that "whoever wants to know how high the towers in a town are, [should] leave[.] the town."

Keywords : nietzsche; nihilism; analysis of the here and now; europe.

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