First off, it’s important for me to preface by saying a few things.
A) I am a nihilist (the real kind, not the painting your nails black kind) and therefore the purpose of none of this is to convince you. The main reason I am doing this is because it’s good practice for me to formulate these ideas and see if they work.
B) please try and approach this argument with as little predisposition as you can. I am going to invoke post-modernism and if the discussion deteriorates into the effects of that on things I know you hate (like tumblr feminism or otherkin movements) we won’t get too far. So please don’t bring those into the discussion.
C) This is now an ideas safe zone. I’m going to be saying some stuff that pisses people off so anyone joining this debate, please be considerate to its integrity before sounding off because something pissed you off. You’re free to challenge anything I say obviously, because public forum, but please don’t do so out of rage.
D) these four.,.requests come from the fact that I’ve been having these discussions offline and online for the past four years. If you want this to be constructive, I usually find its imperative you follow them. That being said, feel free to ignore any of them if you think it will benefit the discussion. Let’s get to it.
Why Not Humanism
At the basis of humanism lie three basic ontological (the theory of what is) and epistemological (the theory of knowledge or what can be known) presuppositions:
1) Humanity is a thing which exists, a subjective basis on which traits rest. That is, no matter who you are, there is something human about you. This is self evident since without a common human basis (called strata in professional texts) there’s no humanism. If we are all just transient, social traits then there are no humans.
2) The core that is human is both rational and free. It is rational because without rationality there can exist no true humanity. If that human core is simply random, capricious and emotional we are once again left with a chaotic core which can’t be the basis of any movement which seeks to say something about “humans”. It is free in the sense that it has the ability to choose between different options, even if its outer extensions like the body are coerced. This stems back to stoicism and the idea (present in the modern age mainly in Kant) that even if you will be killed, you can still choose how to act. You can choose to die rather than do something and thus, you are forever free. Perhaps fucked, but free.
3) That strata, the core of the human subject, is inherently moral. Humanism believes that in order to do good in the world, even if some of them believe that little good is to be had (aiming for you here, Nate), is to be done via a connection to this human basis. By tapping into the human side of us and, more importantly, discovering it, we can do good. Think of all those humanist sob stories or what you would yourself consider to be good acts: being kind to one another, enabling others’ humanity, learning to live with who they are, etc. In short, in order to do good it’s important to act as rational and free, to discover what those things and to slough away the layers of transient traits (like race, place, religion or creed) and connect to the hidden, submersed, human core inside of us.
That’s it for how post modern philosophy sees humanism. Next comment will actually be getting into the critique.
Now, the process of discovering this self, that inherent, rational, free, eternal core of humanity is the problem. Post modernism doesn’t bother to argue any of the above three points and say they are wrong in the ontological sense (that is, they don’t actually exist) but instead look at the politics and power plays they were created under and says: “These all serve terrible, vicious and hegemonic things. They serve the choke hold that society has on us”. I promise to follow up the theoretical discussion of this critique with real life examples.
So, we already saw how being a humanist has a lot to do with knowledge. The idea is to know thyself (that’s a Socrates quote btw and no accident), to discover, illuminate and better understand your core humanity. In order to understand how that is done IN THE WEST (super important) we need to look at the techniques of knowledge, the method of discovering things about the self, that is available to western subjects now and in the past (about 400 years for reasons I won’t go into here). We see two main techniques to do so: Science (including within it medicine, biology, chemistry and everything else you might include here) and Confession (including religion, psychology, education and some other, more obscure techniques). To understand how these techniques relate to humanism one example is almost always utilized and that is sex. I will use it as well because it’s easier but you can use many examples: economics, happiness, success etc.
It’s easier to start with confession since its ties to sex are easier for people to see since the attack on them took place in the 70’s and was widely successful. The idea here is that whether in church (yes, christians are humanists), on the proverbial psychologists couch or in school, the idea for the past 400 years is that there is a human way to have sex, a free, rational, healthy way to think of sexuality and to have sex. Healthy fits in here in a very interesting sense and explains exactly how this works: when psychologists came to approach homosexuality at the end 19th century, they had no choice but to define it as sick, unhealthy, perverse. The healthy human was heterosexual, rampantly male or demurely woman. The interesting thing here is that the dichotomy of humanity was maintained: the sick was also mad, irrational, not free and amoral if not evil (in this case). In christianity it’s even more blatant: the evil is twisted, non human, mad, insidious, homosexual and female. The good is rational, pure, free, moral and male.
But my important point for you Nate, since you’re not a chrisitian or a big psychologist to my knowledge, is about science. Science, claiming complete objectivity (I am not saying that science is not objective but that it has non objective dimensions to it. This is a mistake many people make about post modernism). Science does the exact same thing. Medicine for example approached homosexuality exactly like psychology did: as a disease, a sickness which needs to be treated. This also happened in biology, chemistry and even in math (try finding some original reactions to Ada Lovelace and the language used there. Math was perceived as a woman that needs to be tamed by man and thus an unfitting occupation for a woman. That is, there is an essence to math which is feminine).
The idea is that irrationality, religion or sexism is not the issue here: the idea that presupposing a human core to people allows you to catalog people who don’t fit that core to be inferior, lesser, non human, is the point. And from there, the road to committing atrocities against them is very, very short. This is where people usually lose their shit: the Nazis were only able to do what they do, to enlist a complete nation to the destruction of race(s), homosexuals, degenerates and political dissidents (remember they killed those too, not just jews) was by humanism. In the list above we see the exact conflation between “wrong” and “non human”, between “right” and “human”. Homosexuals are “wrong” sexually and thus non human. Degenerates are “wrong” mentally and thus “non human”. Political dissidents are “wrong” intellectually and are thus “non human”. Other races are “wrong” racially and thus “non human”. If you want references to Nazi texts on these issues I’d be happy to give them.
But we’re obviously not dealing with Nazism here. My next comment will look at more modern iterations of humanism and how they work to affect people by dehumanizing them.
Ok, this is my last comment. So, for me and you the problem is obviously not a Nazi regime but the far more subtle ways in which humanism works. The main thing it does is set ways that are right to be and then continues to repress, outcast and demonize the ways that don’t fit that. If you need a quick reminder, it does that because: it needs a certain way to be human, it needs to equate that certain way to be with being true, good and rational. The perfect example for such an approach is with the discussion about happiness and depression.
Happiness, especially in secular human circles but also in others, is considered to be the natural (read: human) way to want to live. You can see examples of that everywhere: in the things that people share on FB, in the writings of prominent humanists and with your friends. But the most important aspect of it is how people react to people who don’t fit the plans. If you haven’t, try replying to “how are you?” with “terrible” and see how quickly you get shoveled off, patronized or objectified (in the sense that people will quickly try to understand your pain as similar or lesser than theirs). Try talking to people about death, depression or sadness and see how they react. Hell, you saw that in that discussion on Kyle wall: be a beacon of light! Stop being so negative! Spread joy and happiness or what not.
Scroll through I Fucking Love Science or Humans of New York and you’ll see what I’m aiming at (I know you already know Nate, this is aimed towards others reading these comments): we are one with the stars! Don’t be sad because you are an amazing natural process! Look at how sweet this child is, you are sweet too! These are all humanists concepts. In the first, you are something: stars, crazy biological accident, the universe experiencing itself, whatever. And it’s always tied with this general cheeriness and optimism. In the other, look at how similar we all are! Look at this happy couple or even at this sad, dejected man and draw beauty and hope from their stories! Even when Brandon does focus on pain and misery, which has become rarer as the page grows, he does so from a constructive point: don’t accept that this is the common factor of humanity (which is not my stance but a lot closer), see this as what you shouldn’t be, what you should strive to rise above.
As a person who defines himself as sad and sometimes depressed, I face these issues every day. Try crying in front of strangers, try having wounds in a public area (physical wounds), try talking to people about failure, pain, loss or any other ways to see the world which do not presuppose a basic fact about humans: that to be human it to be productive, happy, active and instilled with energy.
To summarize, I don’t think you are necessarily all these things. There is a way to be a good humanist but it’s really rare and even if you are one, you subscribe to an ideal that is usually used to undermine, objectify and physically and socially ostracize huge swaths of people. This medium is limited and I haven’t been able to say all I wanted to say and some points aren’t completely made but the idea is this: the first step to regimenting, subjugating and attacking others is to suppose something human and then measure themselves against it.
A few things I like to do at the end of these.
A) points unraised: political humanism, the ties of all of this to power, role of policy, schools and factories, prisons, knowledge and power and a lot more.
B) inb4: “what is the alternative?” “You can’t compare people to Nazis” “Don’t be so depressing” “Why do you over think things?” “I can’t believe you said science isn’t objective”.
C) Further reading: Michel Foucault, “History of Sexuality”, Sartre “Existentialism and Humanism”, Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Genealogy of Morality”.
I’m done, thanks for playing.
Oh man, I forgot one important point. Humanism is also utilized for subjugation and power plays in communities we deem as weak or marginalized. For example. try and find material about how the homosexual community first treated the demand to be included by bisexual and transgender people. Every power structure, whether it is marginalized or not in the general community, uses these concepts of a right or wrong way to be in order to exercise power on its subjects. Think of the Gatekeepers of Nerdom, think of right and wrong ways to be geeks.
Begin Nihilism Point One
Now, as to why I am a nihilist. The first way to recognize if someone is a worth your time as a nihilist is whether he has a hard time explaining why he is. Notice I didn’t say “bad” or “wrong” nihilist. There’s no “no true scotsman” fallacies in nihilism because there’s no “scotsman” and that’s exactly why explaining why I’m a nihilist is so hard because what the fuck is nihilism? The problem that complicates the answer further is that the only answer I can give you is “what is nihlism to me”. Therefore, the popular joke “nihilism means nothing to me” is actually very astute and, therefore, funny. There exist similarities between nihilists and even streams of nihilism but “we” (kek) just don’t like to put an emphasis on those similarities but on differences, because that’s where “we” (lol) think that productivity comes from.
And that’s the first important point about nihilism. Nihilism doesn’t “state” anything. It doesn’t say what doesn’t exist or does exist (for me. for me. Last time I’m going to say that, just imagine it at the end of every line). A nihilist who tells you “nothing is real!” is missing the point. How the fuck you know that nothing is real? That’s the same as saying that everything is real. Nihilism instead simply chooses to look at things which other streams of thought choose not to look to. Instead of asking how something is or why something is it asks “is it?”. Is this thing which I have grown to believe, indeed BEEN grown to believe, is real and power and tangible actually real and power and tangible? Does love, happiness, success, “right choices”, “wrong choices”, end goals, friendship, sadness (yes, nihilism attacks “bad” things as well), hatred, do all those things actually exist? Less in the ontological sense of “do the concepts I have in my head correspond to actual objects in reality” (one of the basic definitions of truth) but are the values, emotions and power over my life these things hold, are they actually real or just a construct that serves internal goals of myself, external goals of people around me and an overall structure of society?
Once you start to ask these questions, you realize that the answer to basically every single thing you see around you is “No. There is no necessity. No part of my life, none what so ever couldn’t be otherwise”. All the parts of you that tell you imperative things are lying. The easy ones go first: “I’m a Democrat. I like roleplaying games. I remember this period of my life fondly”. These are gross over generalizations and they’re the first to fall. You agree with SOME ideas of the Democratic party but you actually hate them like you do everyone else. You like SOME roleplaying games but the vast majority is drivel. That period of your life was mostly shit and it’s only nostalgia that glosses over the bad parts and embellishes the good. If all these things are simply constructed, tailored, fake, made to fit, then why hold on to any of them?
One of my closest friends once told I’m actually a seeker of enlightenment in disguise. I’m looking for something certain. The problem is, I’m really shit at lying to myself. Most seekers seek for a while (by the way, “seekership” is a professional psychological/historical/sociological definition. I recommend Theodre Adorno’s “The Stars Down to Earth” for more information, it’s free online) and quickly came to realize that no certainty exists. So they settle. They ignore the glaring holes and discrepancies in one ideology or way of thought and stick to it. I can’t. I’m just bad at lying to myself, I always have been and it’s not something I’m proud of. I obsess over details, pick apart my own theories and generally give myself a really hard time.
Ideologies are relatively easy to lose. The harsh stuff begins when you look at the basic truths you speak to yourself inside yourself and pick them apart. “I’m smart. My goal in life is to study. If I work hard, I will be successful. I want success”. Once you start giving these things a hard look and see how easily they crumble, how easily their genesis can be located at an occurrence in your childhood or a quirk of your personality, how much you don’t live up to them in your daily life (this one is especially hard), you understand that they too are just stories. To drive this first point home let me say that it has a lot to do with studying philosophy. You are basically handed the tools of your own demise, the gears and wrenches necessary to break up every idea and find the contradictions and flaws inside of them. Once you’ve studied for three years (that’s when most earnest students of philosophy fall apart) you’ve passed through so many theories you thought were RIGHT and then so how they were not only WRONG but holy shit so fucking wrong how could I have believed in this for a second, you start to understand that all ideas, self concepts and social ideas are basically just that: stories. Stories with flaws that unravel the narrative once poked at hard enough.
End Nihilism Point One.
Begin Nihilism Point Two
Now, the nihilist will be the first to tell you that the effect of intellectual inquiry on personal life and emotions is seriously over rated (another one of those stories). No one sinks into nihilism and the harsh places it brings to you because they read a book or thought a thought (although Nietzsche comes close to doing that if read correctly). There’s usually a personal dimension to it and that’s no different in my case. I had a relationship of 11 years, from highschool to just about a year ago, that ended abruptly, three months after we moved in together. We grew up together, our personalities were molded around each other. Her love and my love for her is one of the oldest emotional memories I have. We endured a lot together: high school, which was simple for neither of us, army service (mandatory here in Israel), the pressure of getting into the academy, first finding a job, leaving our parent’s houses and much more. And if it was one of those things that would have broken us, things would be different. Make no mistake, dwelling on the dramatic negative is still idealism or humanism. Believing in tragic breaks, in the fantasy of the spectacular doomed hero, is not nihilism.
Nihilism is understanding how these things usually end and that’s with a whimper (yay literary reference). The love simply died out, from her side. I was an idiot, captured in the narrative and conception that our love was idealistic, eternal, ephermal, ever present, non dependent on our actions. Furthermore, I was enraptured by who I was: an intellectually powerful man on the fast road to academic success. That demanded, note: that self same ideas of success, power and self-worth that we are taught at every corner, the idea demanded that I be quick, harsh, intellectually brutal and sharp. Over a year, I grew distant without noticing it while she suffered. I became quick to thought and words, never once considering how it affected her. And why? Because nothing was wrong on my end. I was doing the “right thing” and in the story I, I alone don’t think I place the blame on others or “society”, built for myself she would understand and love the man I was becoming.
That was of course folly. None of the things I believed were necessary, that success and intellect were afforded respect, were correct. It ended up blowing up in my face, from out of nowhere. We had a tense period, nothing too special, and then she simply got up one day and said “I can’t do this anymore” and left. By that time, the chewing away at the foundations that Point One described was already well under way. Her leaving, being severed from this source of confidence, security and love for the first time in 11 years, broke everything. What should a man who believed completely and utterly in someone and then had that someone walk away believe in? What thing could ever hope to even mimic the emotions, understanding and solace I felt with her? Nothing. And that drove the point, the intellectual point, home: nothing is secure. Nothing is real beyond your actions, the stories you tell yourself and the beliefs you yourself fabricate.
End Nihilism Point Two.
Begin Nihilism Point Three (last one)
Yes, but WHY be a nihilist you might ask? What does it give me? Why shouldn’t I choose one of those convenient lies and adhere to them for the hope and comfort it gives me? First of all, you’re free to do that and I don’t judge you for it because nihilists don’t judge. Do whatever you want. For me, the benefit of nihilism is twofold: one is the freedom to make yourself beautiful (not discover yourself, MAKE yourself beautiful) and the other is what my good friend calls “the power of ‘meh'”. First of all, nihilism frees you from all constraints of action, within certain degree. No, nihilists don’t rebuke all morality because we were born in the same societies as you. Remember, we don’t really care about what IS, so we don’t care if there IS a right or wrong. All we want to ask is “why those rights and wrongs and not these rights and wrongs”. And the answer is: there is no reason. Pick one, live by it as long as it serves you and then discard it. A line I like to tell people: when I say I have no map you picture me lost, fraught, alone. However, not having map gives me great freedom; if there’s no road then I am free to go anywhere.
This is usually more freedom of thought than action. Again, we are all creatures of habit and I don’t jump around the streets yelling or singing songs. However, I do like to challenge people and their conceptions of properness in other ways. I speak about death publicly and often. I wrote a fucking weird…thing (here: https://ledaber.wordpress.com/the-demented-world/). I don’t dress to fit my prominent social groups (no metal shirts for example) and I sometimes go silent for minutes, just staring and thinking. People have immediate, physical reactions to these things. They recoil. And that lack of recoil, that ability to face any issue head on and truly think about what it means and how it feels is the first power nihilism gives you.
The second is the power of meh. This is basically a very powerful cure against anxiety. What should I vote? Where should I work? How should I look? How to spend my money? How to eat? All these questions are setup in a devious way: it seems like there’s an answer that would grant you an advantage over other answers. But that’s bullshitl circumstance and chance are tyrannical and when it comes right to down to it, there’s no real meaning to what you choose. You’ll probably suffer and be sad anyway, in the endless ways that humanity knows how to suffer and be sad. So, MEH. Who cares? We are all so tiny and pointless and stupid and funny, who the fuck cares what happens to any of us? Instead of letting that draw you down, just shrug, say meh, laugh a little at yourself and move on.
I’m running out of steam here, so let me tell you a story about Socrates, the first western philosopher (bullshit, but hey, that’s the narrative!). At the end of the Republic, Plato’s longest and some say most successful dialogue, Socrates has worn down his compatriots in the discussion, Glaucon and Ademantus. Finally, the agree to all his point about the human spirit, education, the state and the ideas of good, truth and beauty. Exhausted yet pleased, for they know their reward is close at hand, they ask Socrates “So, good Socrates! We’ve talked a lot about how to be good, how to know good, how to do good. But tell us, what is good?!”. With an implied smile, mostly in the tone of writing, Socrates answers “I would tell you but you would just laugh at me”.
What is nihilism? I honestly don’t know. It’s a degrading and constructive power to destroy and be free of mental constraints. It’s the ability to laugh and cry at who you are and what you can be and how beautiful and ugly everything is. It’s the shrug at the face of politics yet the dread at what these politics create. It can create a lot of things but it can also lead to stagnation. I don’t know, it’s a lot of things and my head hurts now and that’s it.
End Nihilism Point Three
Several things I have to add:
This is completely enabled by being a white man living in a well founded, western state. I acknowledge, don’t apologize for it and strive to do what I can for others in my society.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that nihilism has helped me. I’ve basically been in and out depression (as depression tends to be) for the past year and I am far from done. Far.
Let me remind you one last time that I am not here to proselytize. Be a nihilist or don’t. Have beliefs or don’t. I don’t really care because as long as you’re not actively forcing them on me, your beliefs really don’t matter me. Even if you were forcing them on me, oh well there’s no real difference between them and the dozen other things I’m forced to think or feel.
Thanks for the stage, I enjoyed this. Please comment if you have any questions or things to add.