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Philosophy

A Critique on Optimistic Nihilism

There is this video on YouTube by the channel Kurzgesagt on optimistic nihilism[1], where the narrator explains the philosophy behind the optimistic nihilist. In short, the video explains how nothing has any intrinsic value, because in then ‘end’ nothing which we have built will exist. The French postmodern philosopher Jean-François Lyotard asked this same question in The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, where he asked what it means to give meaning when in a billion years or so the sun will explode and destroy everything humans have ever built. Kurzgesagt’s answer is to just do that what gives you meaning. Only you matter because you are the one who introduces the concept of mattering. It doesn’t matter in five hundred thousand years that you lied to your friend or cheated on your partner. If it matters to you then it matters, if it doesn’t matter to you, then it doesn’t. This is optimistic nihilism.

            There is quite a bit wrong with this philosophical way of living in my opinion. But it can be a very helpful way. You might still be ashamed of one thing you did during class when you were 8, but who cares? No one remembers this in five thousand years. You shouldn’t care either. But there is a shadow side to this coin. Who cares if you found the cure to cancer? We die anyway and in five thousand years, no one will care about the person who cured cancer, because humans might not even be around anymore. The problem with optimistic nihilism is that it makes this conceptual leap throughout the argument.

            But first let us investigate about what we mean by “nihilism”. Nihilism is a concept that gets thrown around frequently but not very consistently. A “nihilist” might refer to someone who is cynical or doesn’t value certain things. Nihilism claims that things have no intrinsic meaning and that the meaning we give to these things is actually meaningless. Being itself is meaningless.

            The first part that ‘things have no intrinsic meaning’, isn’t particularly special to nihilism and that alone isn’t enough to speak of nihilism. It can be reasonably accepted that things have no intrinsic meaning when humans aren’t around to attribute meaning to them. This, however, doesn’t imply nihilism. Nietzsche himself accepted that things didn’t have meaning objectively but only in perspective, but that doesn’t make Nietzsche a nihilist. Nihilism is something he vehemently fought against.

            The difficulty lies in the second part. The nihilist is someone who doesn’t give any meaning to anything. If she did then she would not believe that the fact that we give meaning to things is meaningless. We then come to a practical question: ‘Is it possible for the nihilist to actually exist?’ Sure, we can think that we’re nihilists and don’t give meaning to things or that that meaning is intrinsically meaningless, but do we actually do that? I don’t think the nihilist can practically exist, because we all give meaning to things by acting in this world and by giving meaning, we believe that that meaning means something. The nihilist who doesn’t believe that means something is put out of her place.

            There is also the problem of suffering. The nihilist might claim that nothing is meaningful, but she will still suffer in this world. This is something Schopenhauer wrote about. He saw the world as a hell and we the people we’re the victims but also the devils of this hell. Schopenhauer wanted a solution to this ordeal of suffering and his position is very much in line with the philosophy of optimistic nihilism.

According to Schopenhauer, the solution to suffering is to lessen it, or rather to increase our happiness. This is a laudable goal but a fundamental flawed one. Something Nietzsche saw in his critique of Schopenhauer. Suffering, according to Nietzsche, doesn’t disappear or cannot be lessened, it can only be transcended. We do this through the affirmation of life. Where Schopenhauer is saying no to life, by saying that we should lessen our suffering through hedonism, Nietzsche goes against this and claims that we should instead want that suffering to happen so we can overcome it and increase our ‘will to Power’. Power for Nietzsche wasn’t dominating other people by force (this is actually a sign of weakness for him), it is overcoming your suffering and becoming a stronger person as a result.

Here is an example. Say you want to join the army just like David Goggins wanted to do. This isn’t easy. You will have to perform physically stressing tasks and be mentally stable for all the hardship that is thrown your way. In short, you suffer. Schopenhauer might say, just don’t join the army. But what if you really want to become a soldier? That suffering is necessary to become one. Instead of giving up, you can give that suffering meaning by becoming the thing you want to become. By saying yes to that suffering, by wanting it, you transcend it and become a more powerful human being in the best sense.

This affirmation of life is Nietzsche’s answer to nihilism. Now let us return to optimistic nihilism. As I’ve tried to show (hopefully well), we cannot as human beings not give meaning to things when we bring them to our attention. Whenever we see something, it has a certain value. The second premise of nihilism is therefore unobtainable for us. The claim for optimistic nihilism is also therefore a naïve one. It believes that we can say that our actions don’t have meaning. They do, maybe not objectively, but they do, nonetheless.

And here lies the true optimism. Since our actions have meaning, that which you do is important. By walking down the street, giving change to a homeless person, or kicking a football back to some kids, you are putting meaning in this world. You give meaning to the positive and negative aspects of life. By being an actor in the world, you give the world meaning and that is really optimistic. But it also comes with a dark side. Your actions can bring evil in the world as well as good. You are responsible for whatever of the two you put into this world. And we should think carefully about what our actions might bring about.

I have tried to give an answer to the problem of nihilism people might face. This is probably not satisfactory, but I’m still trying to figure it out myself. Nihilism for me is an escapist term. People call themselves nihilists when they don’t want to face the world and acknowledge themselves as actors in that world. As Nietzsche would say, they reject life. I would rather say yes to life, even though it can be a hard motherfucker. But as Frank Sinatra would say: That’s life.


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MBRqu0YOH14&t=278s

By elenchusphilosophy

I'm a Philosophy student in Belgium, trying to talk and write about ideas of all kinds of sorts.

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