Do Nihilists Dream of Suicidal Sheep?


Earlier in the semester I posed the question if inquiry is a ‘moral act’? I meant this to be a provocative assertion to encourage thinking about the intent, or ‘why’, of the act of anthropological research, and hopefully, foster discussion among the diverse members of the seminar.

There was a great deal of response to this assertion around the water-cooler; much more than I anticipated. Opinions were diverse. But many shared a similarity in that they proceeded from a practice of ‘reasoning from the exception’, i.e. what would be a case of ‘immoral’, or ‘amoral’, inquiry. Many of the examples provided situated on the motives of the researcher – self-aggrandizement, advancement, or the more generous, simple curiosity. Others pointed out that inquiry could be considered a part of ‘human nature’; a quality of the ‘sapiens’ matched with the homo. And therefore its practice didn’t require an ethical motive, just an act of Being.

In several of these discussions the figure of the solitary thinker was put forth. A love of knowledge leads to an inquiring gaze. The world dissolves in this moment of object and observer, thesis and antithesis, as the act of knowing in itself, assumes primacy. Metaphorically, we could call this moment of solipsistic knowing, as a ‘Diogenes event’: Alexander, the Polis, the crisis of the Persian Empire, all of these things are irrelevant to the improvement of the logos of the individual thinker.

Yet is this a fair characterization? Was the operation of logos in the subject Diogenes ‘individualized’ in the modern sense? If Heraklitus’ logos is a universal, a flame in being, to which all participate, and all (potentially) have equal access to, perhaps the experience of thought for Diogenes was something similar: he as subject, did not exist in himself, but as Subject, a universal, a form of Being, a eudaimonia of Anthropos. If so, then Being in the Stoical sense may have served a different purpose then just the tranquility of self, and the avoidance of pain, but as an exemplar of the logos, and of the possibility of the human.

Or to ask a different question, is the act of speaking knowledge divorced from the act of inquiry? Is inquiry, as we are concerned as anthropologists, or the inquiry meditated upon by John Dewey, a solipsistic affair that begins and ends in the privacy of one’s own thoughts? Or is the pedagogical element of the inquiry – the negotiating of problem spaces, the assemblage of concept-objects, the act of warranted assertibility, the attempts at remediation – are all these also a part of inquiry? If so, then inquiry would include a much more dynamic and robust relationship to the world than merely the passive observer’s eye. It would include an active affect of engagement. Something that I would call ‘care’.

Caring about the world for anthropology is nothing new. From Malinowski’s attempts to use anthropological knowledge to ameliorate and intervene in colonial practices, to Boas’ cry for a ‘salvage anthropology’ to save the ‘disappearing practices’ of the marginal. Meade’s ‘Coming of Age’ was at least partly motivated by concerns of gendered practices at home, and she didn’t hesitate to speak vociferously from her ‘anthropology expertise’ on a wide variety of domestic issues. Benedict used anthropological practices to aid the US war effort. And contemporary ‘activist anthropology’, Marxist and otherwise, proceeds from an assessment of ‘injustices’ through an analysis of power relations towards a set of tactical appraisals for redress. Yet in each of these cases it could be argued that the utility of the anthropological knowledge, its effect and positioning in the ‘world’, was considered extrinsic to the act of inquiry itself. We know simply because we love knowing.

That is a suspicious position, perhaps criminal in its naivety. Foucault has indicated time and time again the problematic position of the assumed subject; its formulation, rupture, reformulations, or heterotopia, provide the substance of much of his work. In particular, in “Hermeneutics of the Subject” Foucault deliberately, and playfully, juxtaposes various traditions of knowing with the problem of caring for the self, showing (convincingly) that the act of knowing has been tied to the problem of self-formulation through a wide variety of Western practices. It is only as we approach ‘the modern’ that the act of knowing becomes a practice of techne and method, apparently divorced from the problems of subjectivity.

When I originally posited my question I was thinking from an observation made by Fukuzawa Yukichi. He is an interesting Japanese thinker; not in the matter of originality of problems, but as a very influential ‘interpreter’ of the West. His life goal following the ‘opening’ of Japan was to interpret and explain the West, as practice, life, thought, to the newly formed ‘Japanese people’. His ‘An Outline of a Theory of Civilization’ was an attempt to explain the ‘meaning’ of the West, through a critique, and pedagogy, of the concept of civilization and modernity. One of the points he raised was that the West functioned, not in relation to an imaginary of the past as the ‘traditional’ societies, more specifically Japan and China, did, but operated through an obsession to the future. Everything from production quotas in factories, to the building of schools and libraries, was done as an act in anticipation of its future effect. And he argued that it was a sense of obligation to the future - a feeling of intense duty to the ‘descendants’ - that motivated much of the activity of ‘society’. Famously stating that the ‘evaluation’ of a society or nation cannot be done in the present, but must always be put off to the future (‘a thousand years hence’).

However there is another thinker that also speaks to this issue. Nietzsche was deeply concerned by the appearance of nihilism in Western thought. Nihilism for Nietzsche, as found in the writings of Russian novels of the 1850s and 60s in particular, was an attempt to reject inherited systems of values – legal, aesthetic, moral – in exchange for a commitment to an empirical materialism to explain all questions of human experience. In Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, one character proclaims, “A decent chemist is twenty times more useful than any poet” (Danto 2005: 12). Positivistic science had become the vehicle for challenging metaphysics and tradition.

Nietzsche observed that this turn towards nihilism was a continuation of the historical will to truth. The will to truth sought regularities in the world, and failing to find them had created a “realer” world of regularities modeled on the consciousness. Yet the will to truth was also driven by a need to accept reality as the foundation for all conceptions. As it pressed this issue it was forced to recognize its own hand, i.e. that of consciousness, in fabricating metaphysics. As the introspection of reason continued, in philosophy it realized to an ever greater extent that the orderly realities it observed were the products of its own conjecture. In response it sought external law-giving forces: deities or Nature. Yet these in turn must be noted as fabrications. “That we lack the least right to posit a beyond or an in-itself of things that might be ‘divine’ or morality incarnate” (The Will to Power: 3). In the end truth turns to itself to divine its own nature, and in doing so sees that the search for “Truth” is a desperate projection of the consciousness strung in a skein of language. “What then is truth?...truths are illusion which we have forgotten are illusions, worn-out metaphors now impotent to stir the senses, coins which have lost their faces and are considered now as metal rather than currency” (Beyond Good and Evil: 296).

This is the coming of Nihilism. It is to be the present and future of European civilization.

"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…. For some time now our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end, that no longer reflects, that is afraid to reflect.

A movement…in some future will take the place of the perfect nihilism – but presupposes, logically and psychologically, and certainly can come only after and out of it. For why has the advent of nihilism become necessary? Because the values we have had hitherto thus draw their final consequence; because nihilism represent the ultimate logical conclusion of our great values and ideals – because we must experience nihilism before we can find out what value these “values’ really had."
(The Will to Power: Preface)

For Nietzsche no other issue was as pressing for philosophy as to address the force of nihilism. Why had it come? And what was its meaning? Camus observes that the drive of Nietzsche’s writing as cultural physician, was to serve as diagnosis for the problem of nihilism (Ahern 1995: 15).

But before nihilism is faced in total, humanity turns to other comforts. As witnessed in the writings of the Russian nihilists, “having learnt not to believe in one authority, sought to find another”, in the guise of science (Nachlass: 554). However, Nietzsche argues that the problem with this new authority is that like the others it is a product of human consciousness and language, and also like the others, seeks to deny this connection in making pronouncements on the “real world” of “things-in-themselves”. Science is based in a currency of truth that rejects the interjection of external beliefs – save one, that science alone can produce “truth”. In the Gay Science Nietzsche argues that this is a facet of the fetishism of the real world and that, “…it is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests” (344).

This in turn is a denial of the process of the production of scientific knowledge, which Nietzsche observes is firmly rooted in the human perspective.

"The mechanistic world is imagined in the only way in which the eye and the touch can make a world understandable (i.e., as moved). And, so that it may be calculated, causal unities are invented…If we eliminate all these trappings, there remain no things, but dynamic quanta, in a relationship of tension with all other dynamic quanta…the will to power is not a being, and is not a becoming. It is a pathos…."
(Danto 2005: 200)

Thus for Nietzsche the problem of science is to stop allowing it to speak as “truth”. The problem of science is “to view science through the lens of art, and art through the lens of life” (The Birth of Tragedy: 2). In short to recognize science as fictio of a point of view – rooted in life. Knowledge will be produced not in understanding the “real” world, but in understanding the relationships among these points of views.

"Let us introduce the refinement and rigor of mathematics into all sciences as far as this is at all possible, not in the faith that this will lead us to know things but in order to determine our human relation to things. Mathematics is merely the means for general and ultimate knowledge of man."
(The Gay Science: 246)

With this step the historical problem of truth – the two-world metaphysics of the “real” and the perceived – can be addressed and eliminated. And with this step, the problem of Nihilism can be faced. For when the real world is eliminated, the problem of the meaning of the “apparent” world too dissolves. “What world is left ? The apparent world perhaps?...But no! With the real world we have also abolished the apparent world!” (Twilight of the Idols: 5:6). Now there is only the world of experience and relationship.

If the will to truth – the ‘desire’ of inquiry – leads mankind into the myriad traps of nihilism – the denying of subjectivity, the fetishizing of a transcendental material world, the metaphysics of truth – the solution for Nietzsche is to focus on a new form of inquiry, one that embraces ‘our human relation to things’. And that all the factors of this statement - the human, the relations, the things – are malleable, historical, contingent, is not something to be feared, but to be celebrated, as the only possibility of knowing.

Which brings us back to inquiry as care. The act of knowing is a relationship, not just between subject and object, but between these aforementioned heterotopic figurations, that includes subject as subjectivity, and human as self and alterity. The care of inquiry then is an investment in the act of knowing, and the act of knowing is much more than a mental exercise of solipsism, but is an investigation of the possibility of meaning of the positioning of subjectivity in the fluid.

In a word, care is salvational. The act of inquiry is to glimpse, and position assemblage of these parts, and through doing so an engagement with the world is fabricated in which object and subject and world are actively negotiated. In doing so, the meaning of each is confronted, and relationships are expressed.

As such, inquiry is the most moral of acts.