WHAT DOES IT MEAN to be a nihilist today? Could nihilism in fact represent the best chance for global democracy? For Gianni Vattimo (1936), an Italian philosopher, avowed Catholic, and former elected member of the European Union Parliament, a certain form of nihilism represents the future of social, political, and economic justice.
Vattimo willingly embraces the term nihilist — which is striking, given the public’s tendency to associate nihilism with banal relativism or even the tragic rejection of all values. But for Vattimo, nihilism entails the interpretation of a particular history that the West, and consequently, the rest of the world, continues to endure. Vattimo’s name for this history and its way of thinking is “metaphysics.” It represents a mode of thought that claims to achieve a definitive truth — in logic, mathematics, natural science, and even religion and politics — through a purportedly accurate description or formulation of reality. Nihilism as a historical event represents the weakening of that standard of truth over time and its substitution by the figure of interpretation — so much so that interpretation (or even the commonplace idea that truth is relative) has today become a koinè or common idiom. Nonetheless, the lingering desire for a definitive truth is a persistent reminder of that history’s ongoing, but never complete, unfolding. Vattimo understands his response to this tension as a nihilistic vocation, a form of philosophical hermeneutics (or theory of interpretation) that over the past five decades he has alternatively named “weak thought,” “the ontology of actuality,” and, most recently, “hermeneutic communism.”
Vattimo’s understanding of nihilism has its philosophical roots in the work of Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche. Both thinkers suggest that Western metaphysics has arrived at a point of crisis — namely, a crisis where the highest values neither can nor should be held as absolute or universal truths. Nietzsche captured this idea in his pronouncement that “God is dead!” For Heidegger, it takes shape as “the forgetting of the question of Being,” and results in the West’s misplaced faith in the truths achieved by science and technology. Both thinkers identify this point of arrival as a form of nihilism. But while Heidegger regards this outcome as a terrible crisis that requires the recovery of forgotten elements in the tradition, for Nietzsche it is an opportunity to move beyond the passive acceptance of nihilism and into the moment of its open possibilities — what Nietzsche calls an active or accomplished nihilism.
The effects of this history are perhaps best described by the not-so-uncommon feelings of confusion and alienation that typify the late-modern experience of a globalized world. It would not be outrageous to claim that over the past two hundred years, individuals and groups from vastly different backgrounds and cultures have experienced — for better and for worse — the shared effects of technological advancement, ever more effective and fluid forms of communication, the proliferation and homogenization of media outlets, the vicissitudes of a global market economy, the intrusive reach of information systems, the exchange and conflict of diverse social, cultural, and religious values, and so on. One could simply bemoan the negative consequences of these trends and long for simpler times. Or, one could embrace these changes as an indication of the world’s positive progress toward a more connected and ideal world. However, both responses — nostalgia for lost truths and the belief in progress — are symptoms of a reactive or passive nihilism that does not realize the potential for transformation heralded by the weakening of all values. An active or accomplished nihilism seizes upon this transformative potential exposed by accepting the chance for a new interpretation of our reality.
In the sciences and in philosophy itself, the biggest threat to an accomplished nihilism is what Vattimo calls the “temptation of realism” — which serves as the title of one of the essays in his latest volume, Of Reality. Vattimo claims that in their rejection of the history of nihilism and in their nostalgic quest for the simplicity of “facts,” realists today ironically “suffer from too little realism.” In other words, in order to support a notion of truth where a claim or proposition proves or adequately represents a state of affairs “out in the world,” one has to imagine a world outside of one’s own understanding and intervention. For Vattimo, this is tantamount to idealism. His target is therefore not only the recent movements (New Realism, Object Oriented Philosophy) that question the role of interpretation in philosophy, but also the more widespread desire that scientists and politicians “finally get it right” and “tell it like it really is” — namely, that they provide a definitive truth so we can find agreement, solve problems, and get on with our lives.
Nihilism cannot remove this desire for a definitive truth, but it can place that desire within a historical and theoretical context that articulates the conditions under which such a truth is acceptable, or even preferable. Take the appeal of science’s ability to solve complex problems and discover new knowledge. Vattimo’s nihilism is not a rejection of science and its truths, but a recognition of the creative engine that drives scientific inquiry. Against the charge of scientific or metaphysical relativism, Vattimo notes how major advances within the natural sciences depend upon a “methodological anarchism” that challenges the accepted procedures and truths of any reigning paradigm of knowledge. In order for this interpretation to work, one needs to understand that the validity of any experiment or knowledge can be judged “real” or “truthful” only because it recognizes that “the delimitation of the realm of importance is always already an interpretative act.” New knowledge is not discovered, but created within the bounds of what has already been understood as “reality.”
One of the more widespread effects of the history of nihilism is a general secularization of value in the realms of religion, ethics, and politics that may lead to moral nostalgia, fundamentalisms, and the efflorescence of identity politics. When values once held to be sacred and eternal are brought under radical questioning, nihilism not only reveals our affinity for those values, but also exposes our tendency to regard merely expedient values as unchanging and universally valid. Nihilism is thus not a reaction against, or rejection of, the ways that our lives are shaped by religion and politics, or even more broadly, socio-cultural forms and institutions. Vattimo’s point is rather that nihilism is first and foremost experienced within those realms as a symptom of that history. Philosophy is not what saves us from nihilism; rather, it provides a reflection on the conditions and conceptual forms that shape our experiences and values in the world. But the task for all of us — one that doesn’t need philosophy in the academic sense, but perhaps only to the extent that we, as human beings, strive to live lives of value — is to seek out ways to coexist that reflect the weakening, but not the erasure, of those values. If the world is telling us that there is no absolute truth, that people worship multiple gods, that cultural values are fluid, and that political forms arise from the diversity of those populations, the nihilistic vocation challenges us to develop ways of living that support those differences.
Vattimo does not suggest that hermeneutics — summed up in Nietzsche’s famous maxim “there are no facts, only interpretations” — is the most adequate description of what is going on, only the most reasonable. More than an awareness that his nihilistic theory of interpretation is itself only an interpretation, the criterion of reasonableness places Vattimo’s thinking in close proximity to pragmatic notions of truth, where what is true is what works. And what works for Vattimo is precisely a way of thinking about truth claims that responds to the challenge of an ever-shrinking world with finite resources that, paradoxically, supports an ever-increasing plurality of values and viewpoints. The multiplication of truths and the dissolution of foundations is freeing. “Truth” is now the discovery that there are no ultimate truths, and hermeneutics accomplishes nihilism precisely by seeking out a new rationality that resists either the fall back into new absolutes, or the negativity and despair that all has been lost.
Vattimo’s nihilism, then, is not only compatible with democracy, but supports it. As Vattimo argues in Nihilism and Emancipation: Ethics, Politics and Law (2003), democracies today manifest two key features of hermeneutics: the letting go of foundationalism, and the lively conflict of interpretations. But hermeneutics cannot be reduced to these two ideas alone; it must entail a philosophy of history as the advent of nihilism. This sort of rationality is neither foundational, nor simply anti-foundational, but “historical-narrative-interpretative” — and this for Vattimo is its profoundly democratic element. Critics have suggested that Vattimo’s support of democracy relies upon principles (such as care, charity, or non-violence) that have no rational basis other than his desire to assert them. But Vattimo argues that a democratic society requires no principle other than the interpretative moment that presents itself as a, and not the, narrative of the weakening of metaphysics. A thriving democracy is more than just a collection of disparate worldviews or relative truths: it requires that all voices have an opportunity to be heard and that no one voice premises its value upon the exclusion of some other. If basic democratic rights can no longer be grounded upon divine, natural, or universal claims, their defense must employ a rationality that accepts the history of nihilism as a call for respect — of interpretations, and of the right of all interlocutors to engage in the conversation. To deny that right to another is to deny it to all. And to guarantee such a right requires that the conditions for the exercise of these rights, and consequently the human conditions that support them, are also positively guaranteed.
If we accept Vattimo’s narrative of the history of metaphysics as nihilism and replace our desire for a definitive truth with the challenge of interpretation, it would nonetheless be naïve to think that this new philosophical outlook could resolve the violent crises facing us today. In fact, to desire a simple solution would merely reassert the false promises of metaphysics. Accomplished nihilism promises little more than an understanding of the conditions that shape our crises, and an opportunity to tackle these crises in a manner that encourages the participation of all those who have a stake in their resolution. Ironically, to be an accomplished nihilist requires one to accept that the work of interpretation will never be completed. And if one pushes Vattimo’s logic far enough, it is possible to glimpse the limits of this thoroughly Western narrative — a narrative that is perhaps just global enough to understand when it is time to cede its interpretation to those voices still clamoring for recognition beyond the horizon of metaphysics.
Robert T. Valgenti is associate professor of philosophy at Lebanon Valley College. His research interests include contemporary Italian philosophy, hermeneutics, biopolitics and the philosophy of food. He is also a translator of Italian philosophy, most notably Luigi Pareyson’s Truth and Interpretation (2013) and Gianni Vattimo’s Of Reality (2016).