by George Stanciu
Old-World nihilism belongs to a handful of intellectuals persuaded by philosophical arguments that human knowledge, on the whole, is worthless as a reliable guide for living. Consider Heinrich von Kleist, the nineteenth century dramatist and short-story writer, who became intellectually unglued when he read Immanuel Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason. In a letter to his fiancée, Wilhelmine von Zenge, Kleist describes how he was crushed by Kant’s philosophical argument that the senses do not report the world as it truly is: “If everyone wore green glasses instead of eyes, they would have to judge that the things they saw through themwere green—and they could never decide whether their eyes showed them things as they are or whether something had been added that belonged not to the thing but to the eyes.” Kleist goes on to draw the obvious parallel with knowing. “We cannot decide whether what we call truth is truly the truth, or whether it only seems so to us. Ah, Wilhelmine, if the point of this thought does not strike your heart, do not smile at another, who feels himself wounded in the depths of his inmost soul. My only, my highest goal has fallen, and now I have none.”
Kleist concludes from Kant’s philosophy that a life dedicated to the pursuit of truth is meaningless. Neither he nor anyone else can penetrate the veil of phenomena; all attempts to grasp the meaning of the world and of human existence are futile. The impossibility of attaining truth renders human life pointless.
Despairing, restless, and without a fixed goal, Kleist wandered aimlessly about Europe for ten years. In bursts of creative energy, he wrote several masterpieces of German literature, before committing suicide at thirty-four. Kleist fired a bullet into his brain 124 years after Newton published thePrincipia and thirty years after Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reasonappeared. Kleist viewed Plato and Aristotle as ancient history; he, like most intellectuals of his day, assumed Kant had placed Newtonian mechanics on a secure foundation.
Kant claimed to effect a Copernican Revolution in the foundation for all the sciences. Copernicus shifted the viewpoint of astronomers from the Earth to the Sun. Similarly, Kant changed the viewpoint of philosophers from the objective, external laws of nature to the internal, fixed laws of how the human species perceives and understands the universe. Kleist despaired that after Kant science was no longer about the truth of things, for things-in-themselves were unknowable, but about the operations of the human mind.[*]
Kant’s Copernican Revolution reached its logical conclusion with Friedrich Nietzsche. In an 1873, unpublished essay, “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” Nietzsche begins with a sarcastic description of human arrogance: “In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge.” Then, the second greatest modern philosopher, or the first depending upon how you rank Kant and Nietzsche, goes on to compare the self-centeredness of the owner of the human intellect, who believes the world pivots around himself, to a mosquito: “But if we could communicate with the mosquito, then we would learn that he floats through the air with the same self-importance, feeling within itself the flying center of the world.” The human being like the mosquito can only see the world from limited perspectives. The only true perspective—that of God’s—is gone forever. If there are only multiple, diverse, and fluid perspectives, then Nietzsche asks, “What is truth?” and answers, “A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms.”
By the mid-twentieth century, all but a handful of philosophers had ceded truth to the sciences and agreed that philosophy paraded a “mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms” for truth. Albert Camus asserted, “All thought is anthropomorphic” and therefore “today people despair of true knowledge.” If all truth is manmade, then human nature must not exist. Hence, Jean-Paul Sartre declared, “Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards.” Philosopher Richard Rorty took the next obvious step when he argued that truth is an artifact: “Since truth requires sentences, since sentences are products of vocabularies, and since vocabularies are made by human beings, so are truths.”
With this view, philosophy has no answers to the fundamental questions about human life; indeed, it is mute about any question. Yet, philosophers today do not despair over their ignorance. It is difficult to imagine any person now committing suicide because of The Critique of Pure Reason or after reading “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense.” Philosophical speculations come and go, causing heated discussions in university classrooms and in academic journals, but with no effect on real life.
In the Sixties, the American academy embraced Old-World nihilism; as a result, the life of the mind for many academicians did not focus on the universality of human experience; and consequently, intellectual discourse eventually degenerated into an endless labyrinth of opinion. In an essay published by the American Council of Learned Societies, six eminent professors of literature proclaimed, “All thought inevitably derives from particular standpoints, perspectives, and interests.” Music, poetry, philosophy, religion, and ethics were believed to be mere expressions of personal opinions, individual perceptions, or particular cultural viewpoints.
Under the sway of the academy, high school and college students today learn that different cultures believe and teach different moral precepts and thus morality is merely cultural consensus at a particular point in time. To teach that certain moral principles are objective, natural, or universal and apply to every person is considered indoctrination, a violation of a student’s right to choose how he or she should live. In a national survey, forty-seven percent of eighteen- to twenty-three-year-old Americans agreed that “morals are relative, there are no definite rights and wrongs for everybody.” For these young adults, morality is the obligation to accede to parental teaching, the prevailing culture, or the political state, and thus is a disguised form of coercion.
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