A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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2/ Review of extreme axiological positions

If I am right in saying that it is no longer possible to reject such and such axiological positions and that values are unfounded, the best thing to do is probably to listen to these doctrines, without dismissing them a priori. It is, anyway, the only approach we can adopt for the moment. The point is to listen to and understand the intense activity prevailing in the axiological field, viz. to examine the judgments of value which we make every day.

We can firstly see that a vast number of judgments of this kind are commonly made.
What is decisive in this case is the surprising character of their content, in other words, the fact that all things, even the most absurd or cruel, have been considered, at least by some men, as having a value. Therefore, we can understand that our own judgments of value are just an insignificant fraction of all possible axiological judgments, and as a result, the desire arises to discover these surprising axiological positions that we may not have thought of.

I propose now to examine some of these axiological positions. More specifically, the extreme positions, for I think they are the most enlightening ones.

1) Nihilism

a) An umbrella term

We have to listen to the nihilistic provocation and let this scandalous theory reach our consciousness. The following question then arises: What is a nihilist and what does he have to say?

Nihilism is sometimes considered as the line of thought that the study of values must defeat. However, should we not have an in-depth understanding of this doctrine before refuting it, and for this reason, let nihilist thinkers express themselves? For I suspect that this is the reason why this theory has not yet been disproved.

How can we define nihilism?
Firstly, from a genealogical perspective, we may study the history of nihilism as a political and intellectual movement.

Thus, we remark that, historically, the word appears for the first time only in 1761 in a religious sense, in 1793 in a political sense, and in 1800, it is used by Hegel, in a metaphysical sense.
However, it was only really popularised in 1862 by Tourgueniev in his novel Fathers and sons, even if Nadejdine is said to have employed this word in 1830 1. This term was gradually used to designate terrorists, defended by Tchernychevsky in What is to be done? in 1862, who committed attacks against the czar, in particular, after the congress of Berlin (1878). The czar escaped twice, but died in the third attack (1881), a tragedy which left a strong impression in Europe.

Afterwards, the term was used to describe German pessimism, whose leader is no other than Schopenhauer. Due to the success of his philosophy and the attacks, “Nihilism” became a fashionable term. In Germany and more generally in Europe, a wide debate was opened in relation to the characterisation of pessimism.
Nietzsche, as a disciple of Schopenhauer in his first books, was considered as a nihilist. For example, Zöckler, in his History of relations between theology and science called Nietzsche a “pessimistic nihilist”. Nietzsche himself accused Christianity, Buddhism, as well as the doctrines of Socrates, Plato and Schopenhauer of involving a certain form of nihilism.

The following question has been raised: Did nihilism exist before there was a specific word for it? B. Saint Sernin considers that nihilism is already present in the Indian doctrine of non-existence (nãstitva) but also in Greek scepticism: Even if it is artificial and historically questionable to use a modern term to refer to an ancient philosophical school, it is, however, useful to consider the figure of Pyrrho, if we want to understand nihilism as an ideal type. Ancient skepticism is not in actual fact a form of nihilism but a doctrine integrating most arguments used by nihilists 2. Lastly, in the “dark night” experience developed by great mystics, we can identify a form of Christian nihilism.

We can see that this historical investigation does not provide a clear picture of the meaning of the concept of nihilism. Firstly, a lot of doctrines, which do not have much in common, are qualified as nihilistic. The initial historical meaning of nihilism is a blending of its religious, political, philosophical or moral meanings. Maybe it is nothing but a catch-all concept in the end.

1. Cf Dictionary of ethics and moral philosophy, art. « nihilism »
2. Ibid.