Nihilism can seem self-stultifying. That fancy word means, roughly, making yourself stupid, and it is used to describe theories that fail on their own terms. A famous example is relativism of any stripe: one asks the relativist whether it’s only relatively true (true with regards to a particular culture, ideology, set of beliefs, etc.) that relativism is true. If it is, then why should we care about relativism, if we don’t inhabit the particular culture it’s true with regards to ? If it isn’t, then there’s at least one non-relatively-true truth.
Nihilism faces the same sort of problem. Provisionally defined, nihilism is the philosophical position that denies everything. But a particular species of philosopher will then ask: well, do you deny that you deny everything? In the same sort of way as above, either a positive or negative answer is troublesome.
My aim in this post, however, is to defend, in part, nihilism and nihilistic strategies. By looking at a particularly vibrant nihilistic tradition (found in the Russian intelligentsia of roughly the 1860s), I will extract some nihilistic positions with regard to thought and action, before showing both how they can be seen in life, especially online life, today, and how they actually chime with, and in some cases advance on, our best contemporary theories of thought and action.
Nihilism Then and Now
Let me begin with a strange story. On Boxing Day 2019, a lawyer, wearing a kimono, bludgeoned to death a fox in his garden in London. The lawyer, named Jolyon Maugham (pronounced Julian), played an important part in the public support for the UK movement to remain in the EU, going so far as to bring some lawsuits against the government. He goes, or went, under the banner #FBPE (follow back pro Europe) under which fought many like him, broadly speaking progressives with faith in the rule of law, democracy, and free speech, along with a concern for economic equality and a liberal respect for plurality. Maugham, I suggest, is a type: and let’s call him a parent. Across the pond, people like Paul Krugman or Steven Pinker might be (more famous) examples of parents.
Take an issue of the day — say Trump or Brexit or climate change. The parent’s position is clear: they are against it, and want to use, as far as possible, the institutions their societies allow them to express this dissent and to hold power unaccountable, namely democracy, the courts, the market (carbon taxes).
But there’s another perspective about these issues. Open up your Twitter feed and you will not have trouble finding people whose perspective on the current political scene is … different. These will be people devotedly anti-capitalist, disdainful of ‘libs’ and of ‘#theresistence’, of people with bumperstickers or avatars of the notorious RBG, or, indeed, of the #fbpe people. They express this disdain with memes and scatological humour, talk frankly and publicly about mental health, are deeply concerned for inequality, and ashamed (where it’s warranted) of their country’s foreign policy. These are people who get excited by the Verso sales, by Mark Fischer, by Corbyn or Sanders or Chapo Trap House. They occupy a tenuous position, adjuncting or patreoning or in grad school, struggling to get by on the margins of intellectual life. This is another type: call them children (I mean nothing pejorative by that).
The child’s position is also clear: they want the whole capitalist system to go away, and for some ill-defined socialist future to come, although in the short term they’ll be happy with the platforms of Corbyn or Sanders. They have little faith in their institutions, and so with those who have faith in them, and that faithlessness comes out as disdain and mocking. Those who have faith that the legal or political system, not to mention the market, will help us are, for these people, hopelessly naive. Trump and Brexit, not to mention climate change, are consequences of the status quo (of the crisis and the bailed out bankers, of the unsolved tragedy of the commons of globalisation). We need a new start: to tear down before we can build again.
When parents meet children, it’s often ugly. The fox affair was almost too perfect: here we have a bastion for Enlightenment rationality, someone who thinks the system works, revealed, off camera and away from the courts, as involved in the brutal and bizarre and senseless. But this is common. Open up Twitter and look at quote tweets of BBC journalists or Tory politicians, at current affairs translated into Simpsons memes or @dril tweets, and brutal, bizarre, and senseless captures, I think, an attitude that today’s children have to the world they have inherited. In the face of it, they think that everything delenda est, that we need to tear down the institutions and start again.
That we need to tear things down and start again, however, isn’t a new idea. And indeed nor is its presence against the backdrop of more conservative, if still progressive, forces. In 1860s Russia, against a liberal previous generation, a group of people arose who called themselves nihilists. They were studiedly rude — although they didn’t have Weird Twitter and Microsoft Paint to criticise their elders with memes, they could dress inappropriately and be rude to their elders. And they wanted, as we will see, to tear the cherished liberal institutions and ideology down, while not having too clear an idea of with what to replace it.
My aim in the first bit of this essay is better to understand our contemporary types by comparing them with their Russian ancestors. I will argue we today are well viewed, in the big picture and the small, as sorts of nihilists. I’ll then argue that nihilism is actually a respectable intellectual position and one which, while perhaps not a viable complete worldview, can actually make a lot of sense as a theory of thought and inaction in certain circumstances.
In order to do this, I will concentrate mostly on two novels, Turgenev’s 1862 Fathers and Sons, which presents us with an extremely well-defined picture of the nihilist in the form of its protagonist Bazarov, and Dostoevsky’s compulsively readable Notes From Underground of a few years later, which presents us with something like the nihilist reduced to absurdity. In both works, I will argue, the figure of the nihilist, while at first seeming absurd and somewhat useless, can actually be seen to be enacting rational ways of behaving in a hostile world.
Turgenev’s book was extremely influential, and the subject of much critical attention. Many thought he had succeeded in capturing the mood of the 60s generation, most notably Dimitry Pisarev, who wrote a long review of the book, and which many took as something like a nihilist manifesto. The type of the nihilist, also known as ‘raznochinets’ meaning — interestingly, as we’ll see, ‘of various rank’, neither aristrocrat nor serf — lurks in the Russian literature of the time. In addition to Dostoyevsky, the final pages of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina gives us the hero Levin grappling with the austere nihilist worldview, and slightly lesser known figures and works, such as Chernyshevsky and his novel What Is To Be Done?, influenced Lenin.
(There is a lot of interesting stuff to explore here — exactly what are the links between the revolution and the nihilists? Can we recognize in the raznochintsy something like the precarious intellectual worker — the podcaster, the adjunct — struggling to fit in against a generation when tenure came easily, where one’s capacity to speak is determined by one’s location in Brooklyn and London? That’s for latter work.)
Fathers and Sons (I used the more gender neutral ‘parents’ and ‘children’ above, and indeed ‘children’ is the translation of the Russian word represented as ‘son’. Translators have thought that ‘fathers and sons’ better registers the generational dynamic Turgenev is interested in), is set in 1859, and in order to understand it, one needs to understand that period of history. Roughly, one could argue that the distinction between our contemporary parents and children is owing to the divisive events of 2016, which neatly separated progressives into those who wanted to wind the clock back to before Trump and Brexit without getting rid of the whole edifice of neoliberalism, and those who thought the rot went deeper.
I think something similar can be said here. The relevant date is 1848. Not for nothing did Marx and Engels felt able to write in that year that “a spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism,” because 1848 was indeed a year when it seemed that most all of Europe was undergoing some uprising or other.
There was no uprising in Russia in 1848. According to Isaiah Berlin, on whom I’m relying for most of my history here, Russia’s 1848 didn’t come til the start of the 20th century, but at least part of the reason for this was because, some twenty years ago, a failed uprising, the so-called Decembrist revolt, had been quashed. Because of this, and nevertheless fearful of contagion, the tsar of the time, Nicholas, tightened the already short leash he had, disapproving of people taking trips to France, maintain an oppressive police state, and imposing a very harsh regime of censorship. At the risk of extrapolating too widely, those coming of age at roughly this time could be forgiven for thinking the older generation had bequeathed them the punishment set aside for revolutionaries without any of the actual, you know, revolution. And as we will see, the ideology of the older generation somewhat favoured a conservative acceptance of socio-political equalities that, reasonably enough, later people found hard to bear.
So let’s consider that ideology. What was intellectual life like in Russia in, say, 1840? A single, particularly representative figure, Vissarion Belinsky, will help us tell the tale. Belinsky was by times an idealist, romantic, reformist, and also something of a radical, a proto-nihilist — his changes of mind give one something of a bellwether for the midcentury Russian intelligentsia (an originally Russian word, incidentally). But it’s his early, Romantic phase, that is particularly relevant for us.
Hegel was big in Russia at the time, along with the rest of the German romantics. There are two or three particularly pertinent features of this Romanticism for us: an idealist conception of reality; a corresponding irrational, anti-empiricist epistemology, and — relatedly — a reverence for art, and non-empirical ways of understanding the world.
First, as to the conception of reality. I quote Berlin’s summary:
Reality is not merely organic but unitary…its ingredients are not merely connected by causal relationships — they do not merely form a pattern or harmony so that each element is seen to be ‘necessitated’ by the disposition of all other elements — but each ‘reflects’ or ‘expresses’ the others; for there is a single ‘Spirit’ or ‘Idea’ or ‘Absolute’ of which all that exists is a unique aspect. (139)
This idealistic system encouraged a sort of soft-heartedness and resignation. If all is one unified organic system, it’s worthless to complain about one’s lot:
Previously you were the victim of unexplained chaos, which rendered you indignant and unhappy, a prisoner in a system which you vainly tried to reform and correct…But now you acquired a sense of yourself willingly and eagerly participating in the cosmic enterprise: whatever befell necessarily fulfilled the universal, and thereby your own personal, design (143)
Next, this metaphysics encouraged an anti-scientific, artistic way of seeing. You could only understand the oneness of reality:
by a species of inspiration the depth of which is the measure of human genius, from which springs myths and religions, art and science. This led in the conservative direction of eschewing everything analytical, rational, empirical, everything founded upon experience and natural science (122)
If one wanted to know reality, one had to turn to Goethe, Shakespeare, Pushkin (on whom more later). For Belinsky, per Berlin, art played a role in life that perhaps we can barely understand (159).
Nihilism 1: Turgenev
With that background, let’s turn to Fathers and Sons. If you’ll permit me the romanticism, I’ll completely fail to present to you the brilliant artistry of the piece, the well-drawn and intriguing characters, the memorable scenes. But I can will present you the underlying argument it so vividly dramatises.
And that argument is simple and compelling. One can try to reject everything, but — and this sounds unbearably corny — you can’t reject feelings. Bazarov denies everything, scorns the idealistic romanticism of the older generation; and then falls in love, and that’s it.
In a bit more detail, but still stripped to its core, the story is this: Bazarov, a medical student and father of a country doctor (which means, importantly, that his position with regards to the high society of ideas is somewhat tenuous: just as Raskolnikoff in Crime and Punishment does German translations to fend off starvation, so Bazarov, although well-educated, is not well off; the comparison to today’s adjunct is, I think, very appropriate), goes, with his friend and acolyte Arkady, to visit the latter’s family. These pair of brothers, kindly old idealists and Romantics of the last generation, first welcome but then are increasingly put off by Bazarov’s rudeness and outspoken rejection of everything. Various set pieces play out, Bazarov meets and falls in love with the intriguing Anna.
But first, he meets the family. The kindly father is called Nikolai; Nikolai’s brother, an arch-Romantic, Pavel:
“[Bavarov] is a nihilist [nigilist]”, said Arkady. “A nihilist”, said Nikolai, “that’s from the Latin nihil, nothing, as far as I can judge; the word must mean a man who … who accept nothing”
“Say: who respects nothing”, said Pavel
“Who regards everything from the critical point of view…A nihilist is a man who doesn’t bow down before any authority, who takes not take any principle on faith, whatever reverence that principle may be enshrined in” [said Arkday]
I think we can take this as something like a definition of a big part of Russian nihilism. As the sceptical Pavel puts it: there used to be Hegelists, now there are nihilists (prezhde byli gegelisty, a teper’ nigilisty; the rhyme is about as good in Russian as English).
In a slightly later scene, Bazarov scandalises Pavel by saying that a good chemist is worth twenty poets, and condescendingly reports of Nikolai’s reading Pushkin:
What an idea to be a romantic [romantikom] at this time of day! Give him something sensible to read.
And suggests, for the sensible thing, a piece of pop science, something akin perhaps to Brian Cox or Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Recall Belinsky. For him, Pushkin represented something like the acme of Russian civilisation, ‘the creator of Russian literature, of its language, its direction, and its place in the national life’ (159), and thus, for Belinsky, in a sense the creator of Russia. Bazarov’s attitude is … different, and so for the Belinskian Pavel, his attitude is appalling.
(It’s worth pointing out that Pushkin is held in reverence by Russians to this day: as Shakespeare for Anglophones or Goethe for Germans, phrases of his have fallen into the language; again as Shakspeare for us, but also like Dante for the Italians, people say of him that he helped create the very language. And his Eugene Onegin, like Cervantes’s Don Quixote does for Spain, has claim to be the first novel. So: to criticise Pushkin is not a small thing, even today.)
His disdain doesn’t stop with the Russians, whose immiserated serfdom he also views with disdain (again, going against the received wisdom). He enveighs against
Aristocracy [aristokratizm], liberalism[liberalizm], progress [progress], principles [printsipy]…what a lot of foreign and useless words!
He goes on
At the present time, negation is the most beneficial of all — and we deny…
— What, not only art and poetry..but even…horrible to say…
— Everything, repeated Baxarov, with indescribable composure.
He goes on to say that they’ll abuse, destroy, that there is not a ‘single institution in our present mode of life, in family or in social life, which does not call for complete and unqualified destruction’.
There are several things worthy of our attention. Before getting to them, a reminder to keep your eyes on today’s people — this sort of dismissive attitude to markets or liberalism or West-Wing-scented democracy is very familiar. First is Bazarov’s manner: we see it a bit here with his ‘indescribable composure’ (imagine being in a shouting match with someone half your age who refuses to get riled). He answers ‘carelessly’, ‘with a short yawn’, ‘indifferently’, ‘with a lazy swallow of tea’; at other times, he is obstinately silent. He is, in short, in manner extremely undiffident and careless, and this is very notable (if you’ve read any Tolstoy, with its banquets and dances, its formal addresses and use of French, the comparison should be evident). I will place a lot of emphasis on this: apart from the passages quoted, he’s extremely reticent to get into discussion, something he marks with rudeness.
The second is that, as impressive (or not) as his diatribes might seem, there is more than a little bluster. His various claims that artists aren’t worth anything aren’t worth much: one doesn’t get the sense that he has ever tried to engage with the artists in question. Moreover as already indicated, he is interested in science. He spends his days finding rare flora and fauna and examining it, and intends on being a doctor. Against Pavel’s claim that this makes him incoherent, that he does believe or take on trust some things (such as the scientific method), he is, to my mind, unconvincing, claiming that he doesn’t believe in science simpliciter, as an overriding value, but particular scientific facts, such as the way frogs’ hearts work. But that’s still something, and surely he only believes what he believes about frogs because he believes in empiricism.
Indeed, we can go further to extract our first important philosophical consequence. We can see in Bazarov the extreme difficulty of sustaining a thoroughgoing nihilism. What makes the work such a great exemplar of philosophical fiction is its dramatisation of it. After all, why reject liberalism, progress, art — why reject principles? Bazarov has a reason, based on the German positivist materialism he has encountered:
“No such thing as principle exists. That you seem never to have divined. Instincts only exist, and upon them everything depends.”
“Thus. We will take myself as an example. Owing to the nature of my instincts, I am prone to deny — I am prone to deny because my brain is so constituted. In the same way, if you were to ask me why I am interested in chemistry, and why you like apples, I should reply that the same reason holds good in each case — that our respective instincts are what they are. In other words, there exists between your instincts and mine a certain affinity. Deeper it is not given us to probe.”
Now, intellectually, this is hard: the analytic philosopher will glibly retort: well, is it not a general principle that there are just instincts? But more interesting is that it’s difficult to live with. Apples and chemistry are just so many feelings, that Bazarov the medic understands, and there’s nothing else. But then he meets Anna. Bazarov likes women, and treats them with a cavalier brash attitude that will be familiar. But for real feeling, he has no room:
Bazarov had a great love for women, and female beauty, but love in the ideal, that is, romantic, sense, he called lunacy, unpardonably foolishness.
Of course — it’s simply science:
of what do the so-called mysterious relations between a man and a woman consist? As physiologists, we know precisely of what they consist. And take the anatomy of the eye. What in it justifies the guesswork whereof you speak? Such talk is so much Romanticism and nonsense and unsoundness and artificiality. Let us go and inspect that beetle.
But already when he first met Anna, his body betrayed him:
Bazarov only bowed, and a last surprise was in store for Arkady; he noticed that his friend was blushing.
This is crucial. All the philosophical certainty in the world can’t prevent blushing. Even knowing all about the circular system, the blood vessels in the cheek … you can’t stop it. Your face will give you away, no matter what you say. While he corrects himself and continues with the ribald tone
what a magnificent body…I’d like to see it on the dissecting table
It’s too late, he’s fallen in love, become one of those whom he formerly scorned:
In conversations with Anna, he expressed his calm contempt for all romanticism, but when he was alone he recognised, with indignation, romanticism in himself
He confesses his love, it is unrequited, and I won’t spoil the ending.
Now, for analytic philosophers this might call to mind a famous criticism of utilitarianism by Bernard Williams. Utilitarianism, recall, is the idea that in determining the morality of an action one needs to consider all its consequences, and if the good consequences outweigh the bad ones, you should do the thing. But in totting up the consequences, utilitarianism doesn’t obviously have room for the fact that in doing a thing, it is you yourself who is doing it. In the famous trolley case, it doesn’t have room for the thought that not being responsible for the death of someone is a property the loss of which, for oneself, cannot be compensated by any amount of good consequences for others. My being responsible for someone’s death is entirely different, even if identical in the utilitarian calculus, to your so being. The utilitarian, it is thought, can’t account for this, and so alienates us from our actions, treating our agency, for good or bad, as just one other thing to be held in the balance when assessing what we should do, at the cost of our moral integrity.
Bazarov is also alienated. He too is pushed into a position that levels distinctions: between liking applies and liking chemistry, and between love. But in his case, as in Williams’, the alienation will keep reminding you of the unsatisfactoriness of the utilitarian calculus: after the reasoning is gone, the remorse, the blushing, the heat-sickness will remain.
Turgenev’s book, then, is a masterful dramatisation of the moral-psychological unworkability of this particular species of alienation, and that’s the first main lesson I want to draw in this piece. However, in a later section, I will argue that Bazarovian nihilism can, in certain circumstances — -such as we find ourselves in today — actually serve useful purposes. Before doing that, I want to consider another very famous engagement with Russian nihilism from the time, Dostoevsky’s 1864 Notes From Underground, which will help us understand how the nihilist should act on the world.
Nihilism 2: Dostoyevsky
Notes From Underground, although published only two years after Fathers and Sons, and on a similar theme, is as if from a different world. While Turgenev’s work falls quite clearly into high 19th century realism, skilfully executed and controlled, Dostoyevsky’s work is … different. Manic, half-comedic, absurdist, it is uneven, sometimes unsatisfying, and apart from its protagonist its characters aren’t particularly compelling. But the protagonist it has is one of the great characters of literature, whose monologue famously begins:
“I am a sick man… A spiteful man. I’m an unattractive man…”
And goes on, at about novella length (45,000 words), to present perhaps the best work of philosophical fiction yet produced.
The theme of the book is irrationality. Dostoyevsky abhorred the rationalistic nihilism of the 1860s, and in his underground man presents us with an embodiment of anti-rationality, both in word and deed. Or, at least, he attempts to: I will later argue that the underground man, for all his caprice and inconsistency, in fact is well-understood as enacting a strategy of irrational rationality, one that should be familiar to contemporary game theorists.
But that’s for later. First to the book. The first quoted sentence is already highly instructive. Note the word ‘spite’ (the Russian is zloy; zlnoynost’ is the noun, which is etymologically bad-ness; interesting, in my dialect (Northern Ireland English), to do something out of badness means, roughly, to do something from spite)). Spite, I take it, is a game-theoretically interesting attitude.
But what is spite? Well, some examples. You’re shopping for a gadget and lo, there’s the last one. You reach for your wallet — not there, you left it at home! Someone comes along, asks you have you seen it (everyone wants one). You tell him it’s down the aisle, and as he walks away you hide it behind some unattractive socks, to pick up later when you have the cash on you.
This isn’t spiteful. A bit dickish, yes, but not spiteful. In this circumstance, the other’s gain of the gadget would be your loss. It’s a zero-sum situation. By contrast, imagine a slight variant: you see the gadget. This time, though, you don’t want it — you don’t care at all. The person comes, asks, but you still tell him it’s down the aisle, still hide it, to be lost forever. This is spite. He doesn’t gain, and nor do you. But he loses. Roughly, this is a negative sum gain, where value is destroyed. They are not the sort of games we should play, but here, in the very first line (and throughout — search for ‘spite’ in the text and you’ll get many results), we see the underground man indicate that he’s a player of negative sum games, and my claim is that this perverse fact is a way to understand his behaviour.
What sort of behaviour? Well, he invites himself to the going away dinner of an acquaintance, even though he’s not wanted and can’t afford it; he insults him, making fun of his lisp; he challenges him to a dual. He stews for weeks about walking headlong into an officer on Nevsky prospect (incidentally, a great example of a paradigm coordination game that he characteristically messes up), buying fancy clothes he can ill afford, chickening out, panicking, eventually doing it and going flying. Most importantly, after being treated compassionately by someone (a sex worker, the less said about the portrayal of which in Dostoyevsky’s work the better), perhaps the only person nice to him (certainly the only person nice to him we see), someone who comforts him in distress, as she’s leaving his house, he hands her (unwanted) money “from spite,” in order to solely to upset her (but at the same time having no desire to do so).
The overall appearance is of something like a sitcom character, incoherent, manic, somewhat laughable, but especially, somehow, contemporary. But what makes the novel especially worthy of our attention is that the underground man acts in this incoherent way intentionally, as a sort of revolt against the meaningless of life he finds in the nihilist’s all-consuming despotic utilitarian rationalism. Dostoyevsky’s underground man, both in word and deed, is meant to be a compelling counterexample to that philosophy.
We introduced utilitarianism above. One of Dostoyevsky’s big concerns centres on the calculations it enjoins us to perform — say, whether it’s better to work for a small non-profit for senior citizens in your developed world or trade crypto derivatives (successfully) and donate 10% of your money for buying mosquito nets for Africa (to borrow a famous example from the so-called effective altruism literature).
We can begin to make those calculations today. Modern day utilitarians, for example, will attend to the QALYs, quality-adjusted life years, of various charitable interventions, and work out which leads to the preservation of the greatest number of them.
The first part of Notes is a diatribe against this whole line of thought. The thought is that making decisions in this way, Dostoyevsky thinks, strips us of an important part of what it is to be human; just as in the Bazarov case, it is alienating. In the face of scientistic view according to which we can work out morality from facts, he writes:
‘we have only to discover these laws of nature, and man will no longer have to answer for his actions and life will become exceedingly easy for him. All human actions will then, of course, be tabulated according to these laws, mathematically, like tables of logarithms up to 108,000 and entered into a calendar…everything will be so precisely calculated that there will be no more deeds or adventures in the world’
It may sound like Dostoyevsky is making a point about free while, but it’s somewhat clear from the surrounding texts that the laws of nature he means are laws about what he calls “human advantage”, what makes our lives go best. The point is that once we know what is most advantageous for humanity and ourselves (say, by looking it up in a QALY table), we’ll be bereft of the crucial desire to choose, because the only thing we can rationally do is the high scoring one. In this line of thought, he anticipates interestingly the famous comments of Hanna Arendt who (in her essay ‘Truth and Politics’) claimed that in politics truth has
a despotic character … Facts are beyond agreement and consent, and all talk about them — all exchanges of opinion based on correct information — will contribute nothing to their establishment. Unwelcome opinion can be argued with, rejected, or compromised upon, but unwelcome facts possess an infuriating stubbornness that nothing can move except plain lies. The trouble is that factual truth, like all other truth, peremptorily claims to be acknowledged and precludes debate, and debate constitutes the very essence of political life.
In morality, too, truth has a despotic character, Dostoyevsky can be seen to argue, taking choice and deliberation away from us. As he memorably puts it, summing up:
‘Ech, gentlemen, what sort of free will is left when we come to the little table [of logarithms of the laws of advantage] and arithmetic, when it will all be a case of twice two makes four? Twice two makes four without my will. As if free will meant that!’
So part of Dostoyevsky’s critique is that it would be bad for human beings if we acted like that. But a second point, and one which he enacts in the behaviour I listed above, is that even if we could — even if we had the table of advantage all worked out — we wouldn’t. The reason for this is:
“There must really exist something that is dearer to almost every man than his greatest advantage, a most advantageous advantage which is more important and more advantageous than all other advantages, for the sake of which a man if necessary is ready to act in opposition to all laws; that is, in opposition to reason, honour, peace, prosperity — in short, in opposition to all those excellent and useful things if only he can attain that primary, most advantageous advantage which is dearer to him than all”
He goes on
“one’s own free unfettered volition, one’s own caprice, however wild it may be, one’s own fancy worked up at times to madness — is that very “most advantageous advantage” which comes under no classification and against which all systems and theories are continually being shattered…what man wants is only independent volition, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead”
While rhetorically impressive and interesting, we must ask, as a point of fact — is that really what we all want? It doesn’t seem to work out too well for the underground man. However, I will claim that this requirement of an irrational core actually makes quite good sense when we appeal to contemporary game theory. In order to do that, we turn from the exposition, to the evaluation of Russian nihilism.
The Truth In Nihilism
I want to move now from description to evaluation. What should we make of Russian nihilism?
You might think: not much. After all, neither Bazarov nor the underground man seem like exemplars. In both cases, it seems, we witness the psychological untenability of nihilism, its inability to account for love and free will, the fact that the underlying rationalism crowds out moral value and feeling and alienates us from our actions.
And it gets worse. It might be worth drawing a distinction between two types of nihilism, two types of extreme denial. On the one hand, one might deny because one thinks meaning has been lost. The paradigm example might be the reluctant atheist, perhaps the existentialist coming to terms with a world without God, or the postmodernist after the Holocaust (such as Lyotard) who thinks that there are no more meta-narratives such as an overarching belief in progress. The point here is that the lack of moral values results from an absence of something higher than can make things significance. A rightly famous passage from Camus’s Myth Of Sisyphus perhaps gives voice to this when he complains about how “in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger” (my emphasis).
But Bazarovian nihilism is different. Moral value, aesthetics, love — for Bazarov, these have been undermined by the domineering presence of science. Positivistic science, with its claim to explain everything, leaves no room for the romantic ideas of the previous generation. If atheistic or postmodern nihilism is on account of a deficit, and presents us with a barren landscape, positivist nihilist results from a surplus, from our picture of the world being so entirely captured with the vocabulary of the sciences that we have no room left for other things.
Some tools from contemporary philosophy of language help make this critique. Increasingly philosophers are concerned with the value, both moral and prudential, of our concepts. Thus philosophers like Sally Haslanger want to know if our race and gender concepts are the best they could be for the purposes of heading off misogyny and racism. Philosophers like Miranda Fricker are concerned with what they call hermeneutic (but which we could just as well call conceptual) injustice. Hermeneutic injustice happens when a given group lacks the concepts necessary to make sense of a bit of their experience — to use the famous example, before the concept of ‘sexual harassment’ was coined women were unable properly to focus on, make sense of, and communicate about various unpleasant things that happened to them at work and on the street. Conceptual engineers (like Haslanger) want to improve our conceptual repertoire, and of the reasons we can see the value in this is that it could remedy hermeneutical injustice. (This is all a bit rough, I beg the cognoscenti’s pardon.)
One way of understanding the nihilist is that they do themselves a hermeneutic injustice by allowing themselves only concepts from science, only instinct, for example, in making sense of the world. This results in a literally distorted worldview, making parts of the world opaque to them.
The text bears this out: we’ve seen a couple of times Bazarov explicitly equate romanticism with nonsense or foolishness. Talking about his failed would-be affair, he says
“That’s all…”, Bazarov was on the point of saying his favourite word ‘romanticism’ but checked himself and said ‘nonsense…’
I think this is significant. Romanticism, including romantic love, is a sort of conversational dead-end for the nihilist: faced with it, he must say ‘nonsense!’, because he can’t translate it into the naturalistic concepts acceptable to him. And so when then love comes to him, he is impoverished: his nihilist wordview prevents him for making sense of his reality.
I think one can argue that our contemporary Very Online person has the same problem. By looking with contempt, almost seemingly alike, on the liberal lawyers and the Brexiteers, they deprive themselves of the resources needed to make both sense and, possibly, alliances that will further goals. While nihilism, a destruction as a preface to rebuilding, is superficially attractive, the difficulties it causes in our ability to understand ourselves and the world should make us think twice about whether it’s worth the cost.
Despite this — despite the psychological difficulty of it, the absurdity, the fact that it conceptually impoverishes us — I nevertheless think that the nihilist, both then and now, is onto something. In fact, I think that nihilistic strategies — rudeness, incoherence, the appeal to nonsense — are in fact rational in certain well-defined cases. There is an important truth to nihilism, one that dovetails, and even advances on, some contemporary work in philosophy of language and decision theory. In order to see that, though, we need to discuss that work some more.
Contemporary Philosophy Of Language
Much recent contemporary work in philosophy of language has taken a social and moral turn — it has been concerned not with technical questions about anaphora or epistemic modals, but with about how we use language to manipulate, deceive, and more generally attempt to exercise power over others. This work is underlain by the intuition that language is a tool that can be put to malign purposes.
In order to see this, it will be helpful to consider a particular theoretical framework. According to work originating with the MIT emeritus philosopher Robert Stalnaker, to understand how language works we need to attend to conversation. On his view, a conversation brings together some people who share some beliefs in common, and who attempt to increase their stock of shared beliefs by investigating the world. To take an absurdly simplified example, imagine we share a set of beliefs — it’s January, there’s a pandemic, and so on — and come together to chat. I believe, but you don’t, (i) that our area has had n new covid cases in the last week. You believe, but I don’t, (ii) that we have only m% of our hospital beds free. We both know (iii) that if there are more than n-1 new covid cases in a week, and fewer than m+1% available hospital beds, our area will go into stage 4 at midnight (iv).
Then a nice information-gathering conversation can occur. I utter what I know (i); you utter what you know (ii); putting it together with what we both know (iii), we add to our stock of knowledge something new (iv).
That’s all well and good, and perhaps accurate as an idealized model of how we communicate, but philosophers are increasingly sensitive conversation can be misused. Indeed, the very notion of a common set of beliefs is one of the main ways to undermine conversation.
The reason for this (which comes from philosophers like Rae Langton, Jason Stanley, and others, themselves building on various traditions in 20th century philosophy of language) is that certain pieces of language are common-ground-dependent: they only make sense if the common ground is a certain way. For example, it only really makes sense for me to say to you that I stopped running if it was already common ground that I used to run. That is, the word ‘stop’ presupposes that the thing stopped was something formerly done; if this is not the case, its use will be met with bafflement.
Well, ish. If you think about how such conversations will go, you might realize that when a hearer hears something which presupposes a bit of common ground, they will often simply add, no questions asked, the required presupposition to the common ground. If I tell you I stopped running, you might respond — wait! I didn’t know you ran. But you might just as well change your beliefs by silently coming to believe I ran.
But note — I didn’t say that I ran, or give you any reason to think I ran. I sort of smuggled it into the conversation. Admittedly, in such a low stakes case, it doesn’t matter, but there can be more sensitive examples. If I ask you ‘have you stopped lifting your dog’s hindlegs and pretending it was a vacuum cleaner?’ (a morally atrocious thing to do, of course), that’s a very hard question to answer. If you answer ‘yes’, well great, but you formerly did it. If you answer no, you still did it. It’s a yes/no question, but exploiting presupposition, it becomes unanswerable.
The lesson to be drawn from this is that sometimes you can affect the course of conversation even without putting forward claims. Philosophers are increasingly alive to the ways in which we do this, and claim that things like pornography and political propaganda work, in part, by exploiting presuppositions.
With that on board, I can now make the pro-nihilist point. The basic idea is that we take Bazarov’s yawns and rudeness and declarations of nonsense as common-ground-affecting communicative moves. Recent work has told us that one doesn’t need to assert something to affect the conversation. I think we can go further: one can affect the conversation by not contributing anything to it, by treating it with disdain. Failing to engage in conversation is a way to affect a conversation, just as asserting or presupposing something is.
Here’s how. A conversation assumes a common ground on the basis of which shared investigation occurs. In that sense, a conversation presupposes a sort of closeness, an overlap, between speaker and hearer. But one might not want to do that. One might treat one’s conversational partner as beyond the pail, not worth engaging with. If that were so, then it wouldn’t be a very wise conversational strategy to enter into conversation, and thus to take on a set of shared presuppositions. Rather, the better thing to do is just explicitly signal that you’re not in the conversation (even if, in fact, you are exchanging words). And the way to do that, I claim, is the Bazarov way, or again the way of the contemporary online person. You yawn, you write absurdities, you quote retweet with a @dril screen capture.
In this way, then, the obnoxious or absurd behaviour of our raft of nihilists can be seen not only as intelligible, but as advancing our understanding of the very hot topic of how to affect conversation without asserting things in it. And this, I claim, is the first truth in nihilism: sometimes rudeness and absurdity are the right way to respond.
The second main point I want to make requires less time (and indeed, I have much less expertise on the topic in question, so I’m going to say as little as possible so as to lower the chances of embarrassing myself). The underground man is a paradigm of irrationality. He presents as incoherent, nonsensical, unpredictable. But sometimes it can be rational to be irrational. My claim is that Dostoyevsky recognized this early.
This point is one well-recognized by children and game theorists, and somewhat well-recognized by philosophers and politicians. Let’s start with a simple example. You’re playing rock-paper-scissors, best of 10. What should you do, what’s most rational? The best answer is, as you’ll know if you’ve played before, is: act randomly. You certainly don’t want to follow any pattern, because your opponent will then be able to anticipate your move, and you’ll lose (though conversely, if your opponent follows in a predictable pattern, you should follow the pattern that beat theirs — randomness only works, to the extent it works, against good players).
Game theory is ubiquitously used across the sciences, in economics, biology, and more. I want to present some very basic ideas in game theory to make the point that sometimes, the right action to do is, in a sense, the irrational one (philosophers perhaps underemphasis this, but there’s a famous, game-theory-inspired example in Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons about rational irrationality). The nihilist, then, acting just on a whim or a caprice, doesn’t necessarily act irrationality. As our discussion of language showed the reason behind the Bazarovian yawn or the Twitter meme, so we can explain the mess that is the underground man’s behaviour.
Consider this following, strange betting game — imagine playing it on a plane when you don’t have your phone. You and your Seatmate play a game with leftover travel money. The game goes as follows: You and Seatmate each have a large collection of euro coins and 50c pieces, and your Passed Out Friend supplies a third wad of coins. At each round, you pick (secretly) a coin, either a euro or a 50c, and then reveal, at the same time, which you picked. If you and Seatmate pick the same type of coin, you win a certain amount of money from Passed Out Friend’s pile (he’s rich, he won’t mind too much…), and Seatmate loses money, giving it to Passed Out Friend.
But how much is won and lost depends on the details. In particular, if you both pick heads, then you get 7 euro, and Seatmate has to give away 1 euro. If you both pick tails, then you get only 1 euro, while Seatmate loses 1 euro. On the other hand, if you pick different coins, Seatmate gets 1 from Passed Out Friend’s pile, while you have to lose 1 euro.
Not the most interesting game, I admit — but here’s a question: how should you play it? Note that there is, in a sense, no single best response. You might be tempted, thinking about the payoffs, to always play heads. But if you always play heads, Seatmate, who isn’t a fool, will simply always play tails, and you will lose every round. Similarly, if you always play tails, your seatmate will always play tails. So what should you do?
It’s non-obvious, but we can puzzle it out a bit. What you want to do is enact the strategy which leads to the greatest expected gain, and that’s determined by the payoff for the particular outcomes and how likely they are. So far might be familiar from standard decision theory (but if it’s not, it doesn’t matter. What I mean is that when you try to work out, say, whether to go left, where there’s almost definitely (95% likely) mild floods that will mess up your shoes (hurting you -3, on some scale), or right where there’s a 5% change of a tornado that’ll sweep you into the air (-100 hurtingly), you’d probably go for the definite wet feet rather than the unlikely hurricane because .95x-3 > 0.5x-100). Where things get interesting is when we have to take into consideration the behaviour of the other player.
The one thing we know is that there is no one strategy you should always carry out. So some non-zero percentage of the time you should play heads, and the rest tails. But how to work it out?
Well, consider the possibility of you playing heads. The p-percent of the time Seatmate plays heads, you’ll get 7, and the rest of the time (1-p)% you’ll lose 1. So the expected outcome is 7*p-1*(1-p). Now consider playing tails. The p-percent of the time Seatmate plays heads you’ll lose 1, but the (1-p)% they play tails you’ll get 1, so the expected outcome is (1-p)*1-p*1. Moreover, we know that these two expected outcomes must be the same (if one does better, one should play it), so we get
And if you’re better at algebra that I am you’ll see that p=0.2. What that means is that in this case, Seatmate, who can perform all these calculations as well as you, should play heads 20% of the time, and this will lead to the best outcome for them.
But the thing I want to emphasis is that there’s something random to this. Just like in rock-paper-scissors, the best you can do is to randomly perform a certain action a certain percentage of the time. On any particular occasion, nothing impels you towards one or the other course — the sophisticated and surprising maths behind decision making tells you to act randomly in a certain sense, and indeed tells you how best to act randomly (in this case, that Seatmate plays heads 20% of the time).
I think the applicability to Dostoyevsky is as so. He realizes the importance of randomness and irrationality at the core of human action. But he thinks that impugns theories like utilitarianism and positivism and the nihilism he thinks they foster. But I think that’s wrong: our best rationalistic theories of the world not only have room for, but positively encourage, the sort of behaviour Dostoyevsky takes to refute them. Just as with language, so with action, there is a truth in nihilism, whose strictures can be folded in to a rational view of the world and our interactions with it. Sometimes the right thing to do is dismiss a conversation as nonsense, signalling your rejection of a common ground you don’t like (this is the truth in no-platforming); sometimes the right thing to do is toss a coin to decide how to perform an action, even a very important action. If the nihilists are alienated and somewhat unpleasant, they recognize the core of irrationality that lies in rationality. Nihilism is not self-stultifying.
Note On The Text
The translations are mostly that of Constance Garnett, which is out of copyright and easily available online, as are the Russian texts. The translation has been silently corrected in a few places. The quotations from Berlin are all from his Russian Thinkers (Penguin, 1979). The other quotations are easily googleable, from freely available online texts.