A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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2/ Review of extreme axiological positions


If it is true that it is no longer possible to reject this or that axiological position, values being unfounded, then the best decision is probably to listen to them; in any case, this is the only possibility left to us for the moment. It is a matter of listening and being aware of the activity that reigns in the axiological field, in other words, of examining the value judgements that people make on a daily basis.

The first thing that strikes us is that the axiological field is in a state of intense activity, in other words, a huge number of value judgements have been and are being made every day.
What seems decisive, then, is the surprising nature of their content; in other words, the fact that all things, including the most absurd and cruel, have been considered by at least some men to have value. We then realise that our own value judgements represent only an insignificant fraction of the possible axiological judgements, and we are inspired to discover these surprising axiological positions that we had perhaps not even imagined before.

I now propose to examine some of these axiological positions; these are the extreme axiological positions, because it seems to me that extreme positions are the most enlightening when it comes to examining a subject.


1) Nihilism


a) A catch-all term

It is a question of hearing the nihilist's interpellation, whose scandal must be brought to consciousness. The question arises: what is a nihilist and what does he have to say to us?

Nihilism is sometimes invoked as 'the current of thought' from which the study of values should triumph. A question arises in our minds: before trying to bring it down, shouldn't we listen to what a nihilist is saying to us, identify what nihilism is, and let ourselves be given the scandal of his idea? Indeed, I suspect that, in the absence of such listening, opposition to nihilism has so far missed its object.

How do we go about defining nihilism?

First of all, from a genealogical perspective, we can study the history of nihilism as a political and intellectual movement. We note that historically, the word only appears in 1761 in a religious sense, in 1793 in a political sense, and in 1800 under the pen of Hegel, in a metaphysical sense.
However, it was not really coined until 1862 by Turgenev in his novel Father and Son, although Nadezhdin is said to have used the word as early as 1830 1. The word was gradually used to designate the desperate terrorists, defended by Chernyshevsky in What is to be done? in 1862, who carried out attacks against the Tsar. These were unleashed after the Congress of Berlin (1878): the Tsar escaped two attacks, but succumbed to the third (1881), which triggered a great deal of emotion in Europe.

The term was then attributed to German pessimism, spearheaded by none other than Schopenhauer. The success of Schopenhauer's philosophy, as well as the terrorist attacks, propelled nihilism to the top of the list of fashionable terms. In Germany, as in Europe, there was a wide-ranging debate about what constituted pessimism. Nietzsche himself, as a disciple of Schopenhauer in his early works, was publicly classed as a "nihilist".
Zöckler, in his History of the Relations between Theology and Natural Science, describes Nietzsche as a "pessimistic nihilist". Nietzsche himself accuses Christianity, Buddhism and the thoughts of Socrates, Plato and Schopenhauer of being nihilistic.

The question then arose: did nihilism not exist before the term was coined? B. Saint-Sernin, for his part, sees nihilism contained in the Indian doctrine of non-existence (nãstitva), but also in Greek scepticism: Even if it is in fact artificial and historically questionable to apply a modern term to an ancient philosophical school, it is nevertheless useful, in order to understand nihilism as an ideal type, to consider the figure of Pyrrho. If we consider only the realm of ideas, ancient scepticism is in fact, if not nihilism, at least a doctrine that brings together most of the critical arguments used by nihilists 2. Finally, he also sees in the experience of the 'dark night' of the great mystics a kind of Christian nihilism.

As we can see, this historical investigation does not really tell us anything about the meaning of the concept of nihilism. What we do see is that many doctrines, which seem to have little in common, are described as nihilistic. The original, historical meaning of nihilism is a jumble of religious, political, philosophical and moral meanings... In the final analysis, it is perhaps a catch-all concept.


1. Cf. Dictionnaire d'éthique et de philosophie morale, PUF, Paris, 2004, article "nihilism".
2. Ibid.