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16 - Nihilism, Pessimism, and the Conditions of Modernity

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 August 2019

Warren Breckman
Affiliation:
University of Pennsylvania
Peter E. Gordon
Affiliation:
Harvard University, Massachusetts
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Summary

Nihilism and pessimism are concerned with the conditions under which we make normative claims in a world that is inherently meaningless. Friedrich Nietzsche aptly summarized this problem in The Gay Science (1882, second edition 1887): “The total character of the world … is for all eternity chaos, not in the sense of a lack of necessity but of a lack of order, organization, form, beauty, wisdom, and whatever else our aesthetic anthropomorphisms are called … Let us beware of saying that there are laws in nature. There are only necessities: … Once you know that there are no purposes, you also know that there is no accident; for only against a world of purposes does the word ‘accident’ have a meaning.” Nihilism offers a glimpse into the fundamental paradox of normativity that is central to modern European thought at least since the later eighteenth century: There are no external authorities that safeguard the binding force of the normative commitments we make, both epistemically and morally, and yet we cannot escape, or deny, normative claims. We can live in a world without meaning, but we cannot live in a world without normativity.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2019

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