“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Reflections on nihilism as a belief system

Levi Bryant initiated a string of blog posts on nihilism with his “axioms for a dark ontology.” Attempts at Living followed HERE, and Bill Rose Thorn HERE. Both of them accept Bryant’s ontological purposelessness, but raise the important issue of developing a “post-nihilistic praxis” (see this great post by Michael/Archive Fire from last year on what comes after nihilism, and this more recent post at his new home, SyntheticZero). I do not accept Bryant’s axioms, of course (he and I have argued about this several times over the years). I think religious institutions and spiritual experiences will always be intrinsic to human individual and social reality, even if they are called by other names. Without a sense of cosmological orientation brought forth through the sort of mythospeculation shared by all religious traditions, human civilization simply would not be possible. I think the axiomatic approach Bryant articulates reflects a certain literal-mindedness that makes the religious imaginary inaccessible to him. Certainly, this literal-mindedness infects not only those of a more materialist persuasion, like Bryant, but also those of a religious bent. When religion becomes dogmatic, based upon lists of unassailable axioms and commandments written on stone tablets, the creative life of the human socius is threatened. An education in the power of imagination is the best cure for either form of literalism.

My dismissal of Bryant’s “dark ontology” is not a dismissal of the merits of immanence in philosophy. My recent essay, “Worldly Religion in Deleuze and Whitehead: On the Possibility of a Secular Divinity” (accepted by the 9th International Whitehead Conference later this year–hopefully I can find the funding to get to Poland! for a PDF of the essay, click HERE), is an attempt to articulate a philosophy of religion compatible with modern standards of belief and practice. Religion, like science, is about more than just belief in certain propositions, of course. Both religion and science are complex assemblages which include ritual practices (meditation, prayer, experimentation) and communal experiences (liturgy, peer review). Certainly, the aims of science are different from those of religion (one is largely descriptive, the other largely prescriptive), but from my Jamesian pragmatic perspective, the philosophical test of each is not to ask about the truth or falsity of their propositional claims (can we please be done with the dogmatic representational image of thought already?), but to ask about the effects of their practices on living organisms and their (noetical and physical) habitats.

Nihilism of the sort expressed by Bryant in terms of axioms like “there is no meaning to existence or anything in the universe” is itself already a sort of religious response to human life, a mythopoeic way of coping with the mystery of being, even if it is in this case a scientistic religious response whereby the epistemic limits of the scientific method have been hypostatized into a mechanistic-materialistic ontology. There is no reason to construe the facts of science in the atheistic, anti-teleological way that Bryant does. There are other interpretations of contemporary scientific cosmology, most notably that offered by Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy of organism (for a PDF of this essay, click HERE).

{Update: check out the discussion surrounding Bryant’s dark ontology over at the Integral Post-Metaphysics blog.}



69 responses to “Reflections on nihilism as a belief system”

  1. arranjames Avatar


    I don’t have time to comment at the moment in full at the moment but the idea of a ‘post nihilist pragmatics/praxis’ was Michael’s over at Archivefire. We’ve had a bit of a back and forth over it, developing it a little.

    On the question of a post-nihilist spirituality, speaking only for myself, I think we could recognise the truth of Levi’s assertion of strong atheism whilst also recognising that in a world were the only meaning is that which we construct means that we could retain spirituality. In this connection, I am reminded of Simon Critchley’s notion of the faith of the faithless. After nihilism the question is no longer whether form of life x is true or not, but simply whether it is a way of coping-with the world that does the least damage to the flesh of the world. If a collective spirituality were to emerge that performed the function of a life affirming delusion then why not go with it? Yet what is true in Levi is that whenever religions or spiritualities want to invoke some transcendental condition, some world beyond the flesh, they have betrayed the necessity of coping. It is not accident that so many religions have made life harder for their followers, even to the extent of denigrating the only thing we have: our bodies.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Arran, I’ve also been impressed with Critchley’s work. Bryant and I had an exchange concerning his approach about a year back (https://footnotes2plato.com/2012/08/15/experiments-in-political-theology-research-methodology-and-dialogical-blogging/). What I take away from Critchley is that religiosity of one sort or another is a pre-condition for political organization. In experimenting with the radical political implications of certain streams of anarchic Christian mysticism, he is highlighting the performative and transformative dimensions of religious practice, rather than the credal dimension of religious propositions. His retrieval of the theology of the medieval heretical sect of “free spirits” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brethren_of_the_Free_Spirit) allows us to see the way that there is nothing inherently anti-body or anti-eros to Christian spirituality (so long as we are willing to acknowledge that the Church hierarchy has never been the sole authority of Christ’s teachings). My statement above about the importance of imagination in these matters also resonates quite well with Critchley’s perspective, especially when he writes of Christ that he “is the incarnation of love as an act of imagination, not reason, the imaginative projection of compassion onto all creatures” (p. 5). It is precisely the “fictional force” of such an image of Christ that leads me to defend the political significance of religion against Bryant’s outright dismissal.

      1. arranjames Avatar

        I’ve also enjoyed Critchley’s work…less his anarchist mysticism (although I do like the anarchomysticism of Gustav Landauer) and more the stuff in Very little.. wherein he discusses Adorno’s position that we ought to think the impossible for the sake of the possible.

        On Christianity and the body, there is a more historically grounded line that we could take. When we look at early Christianity, when the soon to be orthodoxy was still competing with the various gnostic sects, the orthodox Christianity appears as a veritable celebration of the body and of eros. It is the gnostics who turn the body into the corrupt prison of the immaterial scintilla, the spark of divinity, and who, in various strands, proclaim the evil of sex and sensual pleasure.

        Critchley’s retrieval of the Brethern is also not that dramatic outside of strictly philosophical circles… anarchism is quite open about its debt to those figures, and Raoul Vanigiem, every anarchist’s favourite situationist, has written a good treatment of their movement.

        The “fictional force” is precisely what I’m interested in as well, with the question of how is it possible to construct fictions that serve to organise our lives, fictions that we knew to be such but nonetheless retained all their potency?

        I also seem to recall an argument made by Levi in the past on his blog that we should read religions not simply in terms of their content but also in terms of their material organisation power. I liked this idea, that it is better to think of a church gathering from the perspective of how it organises a community, how it provides social rituals that mark the world as meaningful, and how it links this community to that through the broader Church organisation. It seems Levi is now unwilling to recognise this level, or if he does still recognise it it is only to say that it is not enough. Which is odd to me. If you are a materialist then surely the only thing that matters is the materiality of a faith; in a sense, I think this question is one of its effects and affects, and how it helps and hinders the ability of collectivities to cope with being alive.

      2. Levi Avatar

        Hi Arranjames,

        No, I still hold that religions are socio-political institutions. It’s one of the “axioms” is state in the second follow-up post. This is one of the reasons I get worked up about these issues at all. What interests me is how these institutions function politically and socially, what effects they have. If it were just a matter of privately held beliefs, then I wouldn’t have a problem with it, in much the same way that I tend not to get too worked up about astrology. The thing that gets me so worked up about “weak theology” or that religion is really just a set of symbols is that I think it really muddies the discussion and makes it difficult to analyzes these political effects.

        Let’s call these folks “symboligists”. What does the symbologist believe? The symbologist holds that the stories of religion don’t have any referential truth, that they’re not a metaphysics or a theory of reality, but that they’re just a bunch of symbolic stories like allegories that teach us moral truths, draw our attention to existential dimensions of our existence, teach us about love and hate, generate meaning, and all the rest. As someone who has spent a great deal of time with ethnography and literary criticism I can accept all of this! This is certainly how I read these stories.

        The problem with the symbologist is that they go one step further and say this is what religion is. In doing this, they miss the fact that 1) symbolist interpretations of religion like Levi-Strauss’s interpretations of myth are secular “deconstructions” of religion (they show that religion isn’t really about what believers think they’re about at all), and 2) that the vast majority of believers treat their religious beliefs as ontologies or theories of reality, not mere symbols. It thoroughly distorts what living religious belief is for the majority.

        Now why is it that symbologist approaches muddy the social and political discussion. The vast majority of believers say “my belief is a theory of reality”. Symbologist says “belief is a set of symbols”. Some issue like climate change comes up and the climate change activist groans about how religious politics is interfering with our ability to respond to climate change. “Those folks believe they know how the world will end and therefore don’t see climate change as a real issue and even think it’s a heresy to suggest it could substantially impact the world.” The symboligist smugly responds to the climate change activist by saying “you’re getting it all wrong, these are just a set of symbols for their people, you’re too “literal ‘minded’ about what religion is!” That’s where the problem lies. Its one thing to say that we can read religion symbolically, it’s quite another to say that this is what it is for the vast majority of people.

  2. Jason Hills Avatar


    Bryant is thrashing within the grips of the ascetic will, as Nietzsche described it.

    Good post.

  3. larvalsubjects Avatar

    Hi Matt,

    What you say here is fully consistent with the sort of atheistic naturalism and materialism that I endorse:

    I think religious institutions and spiritual experiences will always be intrinsic to human individual and social reality, even if they are called by other names. Without a sense of cosmological orientation brought forth through the sort of mythospeculation shared by all religious traditions, human civilization simply would not be possible. I think the axiomatic approach Bryant articulates reflects a certain literal-mindedness that makes the religious imaginary inaccessible to him.

    The nihlistic materialist like myself can concede that humans are wired in such a way that they are ineluctably mytho-poetic meaning protectors and hold that these stories we tell are false as theories of reality. Who among us– including hard-nosed naturalists like mysef –doesn’t have thoughts like “god is punishing me” when bad things happen or have thoughts about what a random encounter with someone who later becomes the love of your life might mean or how they might be part of a plan? We’re wired to find meaning and purpose in everything. We’re pattern recognizing critters. This is why, for example, we see faces in the bark of trees sometimes or dragons in clouds. This, however, is a far cry from saying that there really is a face in the bark of that tree, that we really are being punished, etc.

    In suggesting that people such as myselves are “literal minded” about religion, I take it that you’re criticizing the way in which folks like mine treat these mytho-poetic creations as theories of relation (rather than as meaning generating machines or something). The thing is, the vast majority of believers themselves treat these things as theories of reality. I recall a conversation with a Christian fundamentalist friend of mine after a bad spate of weather here in Texas. When I made an allusion to climate change, she smirked and responded “I don’t worry about that because I know how the world is going to end.” This wasn’t the first time I’ve heard such sentiments. For people such as her, her beliefs aren’t just a meaningful myth that helps to explain life in the world, they’re a full-blown theory of reality. The case is the same with U.S. policy with respect to Israel and end of times theology. Examples could be multiplied indefinitely.

    One of the most common strategies among those enlightened sorts that are sympathetic to religion is to argue, as someone like Caputo does, that these are just potent myths that help people find meaning. But you can’t wave away the fact that for the vast majority of believers, these aren’t just meaningful stories, but are full-blown theories of reality that inform how they treat others, the policy they support, they lifestyles they lead (e.g., driving a big-ass truck with a v-12 engine because they “know” that climate change is bs and that the world will end as described in revelation), and so on.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar


      I grant that many Christian fundamentalists treat their beliefs as a set of theories about reality, as though religious propositions could somehow replace scientific descriptions. I spent many frustrating hours arguing with members of the “Campus Crusade for Christ” back in college, and I’ve continued to engage critically with literalist believers and intelligent design supporters on YouTube. I recognize the severity of the problem, especially as regards the fundamentalist influences on US environmental, foreign, and educational policies. I am not as sure that this sort of fundamentalist approach to religion is really as dominant as you argue. Perhaps this is the case among many traditional Christians in America, but more and more people are also discovering post-Christian forms (or more liberal Christian forms like the Episcopal Church) of spirituality that are perfectly consonant with scientific fact. I know your metaphysical interpretation of scientific facts differs from my more Whiteheadian understanding, but perhaps we can at least agree that these facts require interpretation–that the facts of contemporary physics, chemistry, biology, and cosmology themselves leave open questions of meaning and purpose.

      I’m a bit confused as to how you can agree with the notion that we human beings are “ineluctably mytho-poetic meaning protectors” while at the same time arguing that all such mythopoeia is false because science says so. How is it that scientific theory-making is immune to our “ineluctably mytho-poetic” natures? How are you as a nihilist/materialist metaphysician able to step outside the constitutive fictions of human sense-making to pronounce upon the truth of meaninglessness? Isn’t your pronouncement still just another form of mythopoeia, albeit of the self-annihilating sort?

      1. Levi Avatar

        I don’t think this sort of literalism is restricted to fundmamentalists. I only give the example of fundamentalists because it’s particularly clear. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that all believers share the beliefs of fundamentalists such as end time theology. I think the vast majority of believers really do think there’s an entity called god that has unique powers that can violate the laws of nature, believe that souls survive death, believe that prayer can have real effects in the world (not just psychological ones), believe that jesus literally rose from the dead and that the red sea was parted, etc. For most, these things aren’t mere symbols. They’re events that took place.

        I’m not sure why you find it confusing for me to both recognize that we’re ineluctably story-tellers, while also holding that the vast majority of story tellers. You seem to ignore my example of nicotine fits. The absence of nicotine in my system ineluctably makes me grumpy and think that other people are behaving like assholes. Nonetheless, it’s not that people are really behaving like assholes but that my mind has created a sort of illusion. Likewise with our tendency understand nature in terms of myths. Mythological thinking served a vital evolutionary function. Thinking about being in terms of motives and plots allowed me to predict the behavior of other people, determining whether they would be friends, enemies, or potential mates. Unfortunately, our brains were wired not just to do this in terms of other human beings and animals, but in terms of all beings. So when an earthquake happens, our primitive mind assigns a motive to that event: the earth is angry with us for mixing meat and dairy and is punishing us. Of course, nothing of the sort is true. Rather, pressure built up between tectonic plates, one plate slipped, and we happened to be in the way. The mere fact of telling stories doesn’t entail that they’re accurate or true representations of the world.

        As for why we should side with the non-narrative accounts of science over these stories? Because it works and has been the most predictive theory of reality we’ve yet come across. Why isn’t science guilty of mythopoetic thought? It’s constantly threatened by it- which is why we need good critiques –but it’s also devised a methodology that helps it to overcome our tendency of cognition to explain the world in terms of anthropomorphic illusions.

      2. Matthew David Segall Avatar


        I’m glad you are not reducing all religion to the sort of literalism we’re both trying to critique (you from a scientific standpoint aimed at religion, me from a spiritual standpoint aimed at scientism). Regardless of what the majority of “believers” may think about the ontological status of their religious propositions (neither of us can offer anything but anecdotal evidence on this point), what I’ve been attempting to do in our discussion is shift us away from the sort of representationalist paradigm that would construe religion in terms of “true v. false” belief. Deleuze does thematize the modern turn away from certainty toward belief, but his discussion of belief is set in a pragmatic context where what is most important is not whether the object of the belief is fabricated or factual, but whether the effect of the belief is life affirming or nihilistic. A belief in the divinity of Jesus may be totally fabricated, but from my perspective, this is irrelevant. The important question to ask is how the “fictional force” of such a belief works to transform individual and social behavior and experience. The important question to ask is not “is religion true?” but “what does religiosity make possible?” I know this is part of the way you want to analyze the question of religion, as well. You tend to emphasize the negative effects. I recognize that certain expressions of religiosity are socially, politically, and ecologically damaging. But I also recognize other expressions of religiosity that have positive social, political, and ecological effects (e.g., Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, who just yesterday spoke at our commencement here at CIIS). It is not at all obvious that the negative outweighs the positive; and even if it did, I question whether it is really possible to purify ourselves of religiosity, be it of the traditional, pre-modern sort or the modern, scientistic sort. Myth and symbol are inextricable features of human cognition, whether we are scientifically trained or not. I know of no scientific theory that is utterly free of narrative structure. Even mathematical formalisms share the metaphorical structure of poetry in their use of an “=” sign. I am not trying to equate scientific with mythic modes of experience; I think the scientific method is a sort of technological and empirical refinement of our innate story-telling capacities.

        What confuses me about your approach is that, as Jason and others have pointed out, you seem to ignore the important ground that was laid (or perhaps the ground that was demolished) by Nietzsche’s philosophical hammer. I’m sure you’re familiar with his short piece on the “true world” becoming a fable. If this “true world” is no longer tenable, what are we left with? Not the apparent world, surely, since the meaning of “mere appearance” is scrambled unless there is an original truth that appearance is a better or worse attempt to copy. So what are we left with? We are left with two choices: nihilism or affirmation. The latter choice requires admitting that we are world-creators as much as world-discoverers, that all our scientific knowledge is but another genre (extremely powerful form) of poetic expression. Affirmation means accepting the participatory nature of all our supposed reflective knowledge, that it cannot grant us access to a ready-made reality waiting to be “truly” or “falsely” represented since knowing is always already performative. Knowing calls forth the realities it desires to know. So let us not pretend that “truth” has any meaning. It died along with God. What is left for us is art. Philosophy can only remain alive today as aesthetics.

      3. bobby richards Avatar
        bobby richards

        the choice is not between nihilism and affirmation. nihilism cannot be thought in the singular because there are types or pluralities of nihilisms (low to high). the highest form of nihilism according to Nietzsche is an ‘accomplished nihilism.’ in many ways Sloterdijk and Vattimo represent this accomplished type. the accomplished nihilist affirms having passed thru dark negativity, melancholy and despair (a punk nihilism, an adolescent nihilism). once the stage of accomplishment is achieved, the next stage can unfold from this. it is the next stage where the novel or new can unfold into becoming — from subjects who are disciplined. Nietzsche was so far ahead of everyone else, yet too distant from our present to grasp what can now unfold. we are the people he was calling to, and it’s up to us to unfold a future that is sane. there are many intimations in the zeitgeist that are affirmative, but from where i stand none present the radical image that i think many of us desire.

      4. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        Perhaps I should have said that the choice is between negation and affirmation. My point is that “critique” is no longer enough. We need to step into a post-critical form of affirmative/constructive philosophizing.

      5. Levi Avatar

        @arranjames may 18, 1:15 post:


        I guess my view here is that our beliefs matter. I’m certainly all for making causing cause on politics with my religious friends like Matt, despite the fact that we have different ontologies. Sometimes you get these atheists that are purists that seem to hold that if someone doesn’t share the same ontology they should be radically excluded. I’m not like that. Utilitarian that I am, I don’t think it necessarily matters if we share the same motives so long as we propose similar courses of action and produce similar outcomes. For example, a Christian might hold that torture is inherently wrong because humans have an intrinsic dignity granted by God. Another person might hold that torture is wrong because it doesn’t work and it intensifies hostility and resistance to the state that uses torture. Here my sympathies would lie more with the Christian than the latter person (because the latter person would seem to be led to the conclusion that if a workable form of torture were found and it could be kept secret, we should use it). Nonetheless, I would make common cause with both the Christian and the vulgar utilitarian on this issue because we’re all fighting torture and seeking to get it abolished. The fact that we have different motives or theories about why torture is wrong is really irrelevant in this case.

        Nonetheless, I do think we can’t simply ignore belief or treat it as irrelevant because the actions we engage in are based on what we believe. For example, I wash my hands and clean my counters with hot water because I have the belief that unclean surfaces contain germs which, in turn, cause sickness. If it’s true that we– in part –act based on our beliefs, then it follows that there’s no such thing as a private belief because while the belief itself might be “between your ears”, your actions are there in the world and those actions affect others. For me there’s going to be a sliding scale of the degree to which supernatural beliefs are destructive. For example, I think astrology is pretty harmless unless a president or general is basing decisions on it. I think end times theology is hugely destructive. I think the idea of faith is pretty destructive to the social fabric because it leads people to say “fuck you” to others by continuing to hold to beliefs when evidence to the contrary is present (e.g., “global warming is nonsense because I revelation tells me how the world will end, scientists be damned.”). My feeling is that wherever we outrightly deny reasons based on faith we’re assaulting the social fabric or corroding it. I think such things make baby Jesus cry because that’s no way to love your neighbor (you love your neighbor when you entertain their reasons and give them reasons they can share). Nonetheless, I’m not going to get too worked up about faith because in most cases it’s pretty harmless. Belief in the immortality of the soul and the afterlife is generally pretty harmless too, except when it leads people to sacrifice their life in war or acts of terrorism because they think they’ll be rewarded. I also feel sorry for those who have such beliefs because they often suffer a lot of psychological anxiety out of fear of damnation or don’t get busy making the best life they can here because they think it’s that afterlife that matters, but that’s their affair.

        I guess I’m saying we have to look at the specific beliefs and contexts in question. Would I prefer a world without any superstition that only thought in terms of physical causation and social constructions? Sure. But that’s not going to happen any time soon and most of the time these are merely matters of heated and entertaining discussion over coffee, not life or death issues that require a revolution.

      6. Levi Avatar

        @jason may 18, 10:08


        I don’t disagree with what you’re saying at all vis a vis semiotics. This is one of the reasons I’ve been trying to develop what I call a “borromean critical theory” that thinks the interaction and interpenetration of the semiotic, the material, and the phenomenological. Of course there has to be a semiotic that leads a person to experience these people as assholes and those events as irritating, rather than another set of events. What I’m trying to get at is that it’s not these people nor the events themselves that cause our irritation. The cause of our irritation is our neuro-transmitters being a mess when we’re withdrawing from nicotine, causing all sorts of problems in cognitive processing. When a person realizes this, it significantly changes how they relate to the world in these states. Rather than getting in a fight with the “asshole”, for example, they say to themselves “this person only appears to be an asshole to me and I’m really finding them irritating because my neuro-transmitters are a mess.” Whee the person that is unaware of this might get in a fight that ends a friendship, the person that’s aware of how their brain chemistry is screwing with them might restrain their response and thereby preserve the friendship. It’s not that the person ceases to experience the irritation– they still experience everything they did before –but that they respond to it differently because they’ve theorized the cause of their irritation in a different way.

    2. arranjames Avatar

      If the problem is one of these being theories that prompt ethical and political comportment then the critique isn’t really about the theory. Plenty of atheists drive big ass trucks and know that climate change is bullshit without resorting to shit about revelation. Indeed, they might just be happy to say “its got to end sometimes” or “yeh, but crap is a ways off, it won’t effect me”. Of course, they would be wrong on that last judgement, while the first is ludicrous. The point is that delusional conviction is in operation in both the religious and the areligious cases. It is delusion that is the proper way of thinking about these problems for the simple reason that it names and attempts to explain how it is that people can make attributions and hold beliefs in direct contradiction of evidence and provide reasons for why this might be functional-adaptive. It also points out that attempting to endlessly critique the content of these theories is utterly pointless as delusional beliefs are not amenable to such a critique.

      It seems to me that there is also a subtle distinction in your comment about how these theories might be mythopoetic meaning generators (which I think they certainly are) and how people make use of these generators. So there is a question of what religion “is” and how it is put to use. Well, it seems to me that this parallels quite nicely the interminable debates on technology opened up by Heidegger and continued in the present day by people like John Zerzan: is technology neutral or is it always weaponised? That is, is technology (however these thinkers conceive it) to be understood as unproblematic in itself but only problematic from the perspective of how and by whom it is utilised. This latter account calls for critical thinking and empirical observation, while the former is generally the position of luddites (indeed, John Zerzan would include religion in technology, along with all forms and supports of symbolic culture).

      Is there a danger that in dismissing religion as a false, whilst recognising it as having some mythopoetic value, you are conflating the issue of religion itself (which doesn’t really exist, given the divergences between various form of religion and spirituality) and the use that people make of it. In the end, is religion to be blamed for people’s inability to come to terms with ecological disaster, a pretty major existential issue to actually confront and take on board, or is it that, following this confrontation and avoidance, religion is used as a way to retroactively make sense of the problem. If it is the latter, then it is fully within the orbit of delusional thought.

      1. arranjames Avatar

        Should have said, the above comment is addressed to Levi.

      2. Jason Hills Avatar
        Jason Hills

        I’m with you on those points, arranjames.

      3. arranjames Avatar

        Levi also asks why it is, in reference to religions, that defenders of mythico-poetics of religion, if they also have materialist-naturalist tendency, ‘Why aren’t they busily deconstructing them ?’

        There is a profoundly stupid answer this question that I have been repeating in a lot of these kinds of conversations. It comes from my practice in psychiatric nursing and is a pretty basic concern. Even if we could effectively deconstruct delusion (which we can’t, unless the delusional subject is already questioning the delusion themselves) it would remain true that one must never remove a support system without having something to replace it with.
        If we just deconstruct religion (as if no such deconstruction already exists) then we better have something else to offer people, otherwise they will linger in nihilism. Indeed, as Terror Management Theory shows, if we just challenge belief without anything better to offer, all you get is a reactivation of that belief but in a more aggressive form. Religious fundamentalism is a symptomal response to a perceived attempt to “cure” religiosity.

        Levi also asks:

        ‘If it is true that these stories or theories of reality are just potent literature, why do they still continue to privilege sacred texts which have historically caused so much mayhem. If religion was really just great literary works all along, why not instead find mytho-poetic meaning in great literature like Kafka, comic books, television shows, films, paintings, music, and so on?’

        To risk another stupid answer: because they are good stories and because our history means that we’re more ready to accept readings of these texts as being of great significance than we are Kafka (outside certain circles) or the Ice Age movies. Really, the question should be reversed. If you feel that the Bible etc. are just stories then why prohibit the reading of them, why react hysterically against them?

        I also find it interesting that in Levi’s post this is responding to, he says that once we learn that nicotine changes the brain we no longer attribute our frustration with people to their being “a bastard” but to our nicotine craving. Yet it is also the case that under Levi’s own materialism that we can’t have direct contact with our own body: we can’t know that we’re experiencing nicotine cravings and we can’t really claim that we know for sure that this other person isn’t “a bastard”… hell, maybe both are true. Or maybe the bastard gets let off the hook because I’m afraid of confrontation. In this way, the scientific discourse might be getting used in exactly the same way as mytho-poetic thought. The point here is to emphasis the hypthen and it’s second term. Why is mytho-poetic thought the only kind of poetic thought we can think? Couldn’t it also be true that there is a use of scientific discourse that results in a scientifico-poetics?

        Anyway, I’ll stop banging on about it 🙂

      4. Levi Avatar


        I don’t disagree with anything you say here. My position is not that religion is responsible for our inability to respond to climate change. That would be overstatement and absurd. It contributes, but then there are other forms of religiousity that are also passionate about climate. There are two distinct issues here: On the one hand, there’s the philosophical issue about what sort of theory of reality we ought to advocate. Matt and I have different theories of reality and we have a lot of fun discussing them, but at the end of the day it’s not like we’re at each other’s throats over these things (at least I think we’re friends and would be delighted to hang with each other were we ever in the same neck of the woods).

        On the other hand, there’s the social and political issue of how certain religious institutions (not all) are functioning in United States politics. That’s the one that really worries me as on the one hand I see a pretty powerful segment of the population (sadly high protestantism and liberal catholocism is a minority position) building the foundations for neo-fascism, and causing all sorts of mischief in economic politics, social issues, climate policy, etc. The question there is how to address this. I’m not personally convinced that debunking belief– as folks like Hitchens, Dawkins, etc. –like to do is the way to go there, as with beliefs like these there are 1) all sorts of psychological mechanisms that render people indifferent to criticism, and 2) it forgets that people often hold these beliefs not because they believe them, but because they’re conditions for the possibility for membership in that particular group of family relations, friendships, amorous relations, business relations, etc. To abandon your belief or statement of belief is to be exiled from the community upon which your whole network of social relations (and therefore life meaning) are organized. The Dawkins of the world completely fail to see the sociological dimension of religious belief.

      5. arranjames Avatar

        The philosophical issue about what theory of reality we ought to be putting forward is an important one, of course. I just don’t see that religious people are putting forward their religion as a theory of reality most of the time. If they are, so what? I ask so what because the political issue is one that we can both disentangle. Rather than continue the critique of religion why not seek to radicalise it? Here, I’m thinking of someone like Manuel Castells and his response to the anarchist “no borders” movement. He states (I think on the documentary disc that comes with the film Children of Men) that if you really want an end to borders you ought to call for more borders. In this way we could say people who use religion politically are not being religious enough. The demand wouldn’t be that they capitulate their religiosity but instead that they live up to their faith in a full blooded manner. This is just a suggestion, I don’t think it would really work anymore than the critique would.

        Given your reply, I’m just a little lost as to why the critique of religion has to be so virulent. There is something hysterical about it. “I know that you won’t give up your religion but give up your religion!” Perhaps I’m misreading you, though.

        And just to say, I’m likewise not trying to engage in a shouting match…I think this is an interesting topic and I get a lot from your writing.

      6. Jason Hills Avatar
        Jason Hills

        Matt and Levi,

        The mythic is not an “illusion.” Science *is* narrative.

        To help make Matt’s point, think on Levi’s example. “Asshole” cannot make sense without some semiotic to give it meaning. Yes, in theory we can reduce “asshole” to merely physical correlates, but in doing so we cannot recapture the value statement being made precisely because meaning cannot be reduced to *objective* or determinate physical correlates. The symbol cannot be rendered arbitrary without destroying its meaning and therefore the value of the symbol as symbol, which by the way is not its referent.

        In conclusion, we can neither rid ourselves of the mytho-poetic nor treat any particular mytho-poesis as arbitrary without destroying the basis of meaning, and science and religion along with it. The difference between these is in what kind of narrative they are, and obviously, contemporary science is concerned with the prediction and control of nature, while religion is not.

        But you should know all this already; you just don’t accept it and want to reduce everything to an unsoiled purity, a world without myth or stories, while being unable to realize that science would be destroyed in the process. That’s why I accused you of an ascetic will, Levi, because its problematic is analogous to yours. You would destroy everything for the sake of a pure foundation and cannot cease the destruction even when it destroys your own arguments.

  4. billrosethorn Avatar

    Nice post Matt. Then after reading Levi’s comment I’m thinking “dang this is a tough one.” You have indeed characterized me well as adhering to the ontology of purposelessness, but only under the given terms: subjective belief in an object or world. I take seriously Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of god as uprooting any belief one may claim and one must go through a nihilistic (once called existential) reevaluation (nice word for breakdown) that leaves both monotheism and identification with anything beyond null. I feel this across the socius and evangelicals are largely a reaction to this void and the limping along of passed-down rituals.

    But it’s the same with science and the objective world: its cosmologies and dreams of a unified theory are largely a reaction to the loss of the world they are trying to hold onto. A grand theory of the universe just as much as a belief in God needs a single world to be the backdrop or ground upon which to experiment. So the big deal is that with nihilism or after nihilism, both belief and the world of objective science are gone. Levi wants the world after nihilism. I see this as impossible since the nothing must go both ways toward the subjective and the objective simultaneously – like Aion in The Logic of Sense.

    What we are left with is myth, the greater accuracy of scientific theories & cybernetics, the earth & territory, desire & power, and probably more.

    1. Jason Hills Avatar
      Jason Hills


      I would disagree. Even Nietzsche saw this, which he addressed in his concepts of the “ubermensch” and master morality (in ethics). Nihilism is the fate of the slavish, of the person without the strength of transformative creativity to perform a transvaluation. Nietzsche’s point is meta-theoretical; as long as we are slavish we cannot move beyond nihilism regardless of whatever theory we have. We must address that first, and that’s precisely what existentialism does. Existentialism is a path beyond nihilism, not nihilism itself.

      One way to interpret Matt’s point is to not that any philosophy that ignores, or even tries to destroy, the mythic and imaginative is just performing a nihilistic act. Nihilism can be either the absence of value or meaning, or the performative negation of such whenever it arises. Right now, we’re seeing a lot more of the latter.

      1. billrosethorn Avatar

        Hello Jason,
        I’m wondering what exactly you disagree with me on. I’ve been saying that the important thing comes after nihilism and not in its assertion, full stop. I agree w/Nietzsche that it is the result of a slavish mentality that must be overcome with vital joy, but as for existentialism, I think it didn’t do enough go beyond that mentality.

        When that dark thought enters, there is a tendency to reactively project it in a desire for destruction and also a tendency to internalize it and shrivel up. Active nihilism has its uses at times, but passive N is counter to life.

    2. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Hey Bill,

      I suppose I read “the death of God” as a necessary stage in the incarnation of the Logos. This is an imaginal process, an ongoing psychological event occurring in the collective unconscious (to use Jungian language), not necessarily a historical event. God died into earthly time, thereby transforming into the purely immanent spiritual love of the human community. This community is still “to come,” of course. And personally I see no reason to believe that its coming is somehow necessary or assured. There is no transcendent, all-powerful deity who might miraculously bring about peace on earth. Such a religious imaginary has become impossible after the death of God. What we’re left with is a radically contingent situation where it is up to humans to freely decide to follow Jesus’ example, or not. Unlike the old god Yahweh’s supernatural omnipotence, Jesus’ only power is love, which as Whitehead suggests, operates slowly and in quietness, if at all.

      As for your critique of cosmology, I agree. There is nothing necessary about order. Chaos is always threatening to undue or to radically transform the so-called “laws of nature” studied by physicists. I still think we need to articulate “grand theories” in order to provide civilization with a cosmopolitical imaginary background. We can do this while still recognizing the open-endedness of such theorizing. Cosmology is always an ongoing adventure, never a fixed destination.

      1. billrosethorn Avatar

        Interesting thoughts. Only one point of possible contention: if god died into earth would he bring along with it his morality? Being the Nietzschean that I am, Jesus’s love would be the love of the slave, only now with no metaphysical support. Universal Love tends to make me cringe, and I opt for the more nomadic tribal love in finite friendship.

        Oh, and I’m also down with grand theories, but Fantastic ones not Universal ones.

      2. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        The kind of love I’m talking about is only universal in the sense that it applies to enemies as well as friends. It is not meant to be an abstract embrace, but the quite personal, singular embrace of those who it is not easy, or indeed, impossible to love. Its not a love for “humanity,” but of individual persons in all their flawed and idiosyncratic particularity. Its an infinite task whose impossibility doesn’t take away from its radical political implications. As Critchley unpacks, it points toward a kind of post-individualist democracy, a democracy of “dividuals” who find their own freedom and identity only in ecstatic encounters with others (think Levinas).

      3. billrosethorn Avatar

        For sure. The encounter with the other (friend or enemy?) as the site of ethics. I Gotta read Totality and Infinity soon.

      4. arranjames Avatar

        I find it interesting that the death of God is thought of as incarnating Logos. For the Stoics, from whom Nietzsche does some cheeky appropriations, Logos and God were identical. Yet for them God is to be understood as a fully material or, better, corporeal principle. God is this weird body that is in amongst all bodies. The famous example is a drop of wine in the sea that is mixed with the entire ocean, but no longer visible or separable. Yet in the Stoic physics there is nothing to suggest that God and the world were ever separate; God is in the world, they are the original thinkers of God’s immanence such that Spinoza would take up. The interesting thing in terms of these debates is that the death of the Abrahamic God doesn’t really touch the Stoic God. In a way, the Stoic God is already dead from the start- insofar as it never stood apart from its creation. I tend to think of this Stoic God as a name for the ontomorphogenesis of things: God names the emergence of the different and varied bodies of the material, corporeal realm. So the death of God is what opens us to the possibility of seeing God. Nihilism can produce its own awareness of the divinity of the world itself.
        From such a perspective, atheism and theism become silliness. A non-theism (in a non-Laurellian sense) seems like the correct response to the question of God.

  5. bobby richards Avatar
    bobby richards

    Two comments:

    1) Bryant’s version of post-nihilism does not satisfy Nietzsche’s requirements for an accomplished nihilism (one that sets the stage for the appearance of the Overman, if not Overhumanity). Bryant’s version is half-baked and needs be put back into the oven of critical thought. He mistakes nihilism for nihilisms of which the accomplished type is the higher path (the one that sets the stage for the spiritualized radically imaginal). Bryant & Co are still trapped in their non-transparent mythology of de-mythologizing, and thus generate inadequate and fadish avant garde ontologies.

    2) As to my own #1, and as to all of these disputes and debates between frameworks of thought: ‘any thought which refers to the unknown something entails a semantic antimony due to the limits of its own expressibility: if it is expressed, then it does not express the content it claims to have grasped. However, this antimony only arises if we restrict language to its function of expressing propositions. This is exactly what Holderlin and Schelling try to avoid with their recovering of a sub-semantical (a-semic) dimension preceding discourse.’ (Markus Gabriel)

    1. Jason Hills Avatar
      Jason Hills

      That antimony can be avoided in large part through recourse non-representational thinking. Of course, that also requires a greater sacrifice than ,most are willing to give.

    2. Levi Bryant Avatar
      Levi Bryant

      How exactly did Nietzsche become an authority or standard in all this? Why should we accept his psychology or proposals as to what the response to nihilism ought to be? You need arguments there.

      Additionally, all I’ve said is that existence is without meaning or purpose. I haven’t said we should go kill ourselves or not care. I’ve said there are no *transcendent* guarantees or supports, and that any meaning that exists arises from sentient beings. That’s perfectly in keeping with nietzsche’s response to nihilism: living without the need for skyhooks and not falling into despair over it.

      1. Jason Hills Avatar


        How is Nietzsche not relevant? And who said he was *the* authority? You’re dodging the issues: I mention Nietzsche precisely because we as continental scholars should all already know the basics of that line of thought: it’s a shared starting point though not necessarily the ending point. Rather than begin that, you threw it back on me and evaded the chance to have a productive discussion vis-a-vis Nietzsche. What little you have said is old news, and we’ve already long since argued about how that it not sufficiently adequate.

        I am concerned about supporting Matt’s good work and less about engaging with yours. I’ve already done than for a good deal of time and not longer have an interest in it. In fact, you can go ahead and ignore me, and I’d think that’s great.

        In conclusion, I think Matt’s last paragraph is an excellent response to the issue. Humans need narrative structures to render the world meaningful, which they also need to do in order to survive. Much of Matt’s work is on the ontological basis of this and the implications, especially for religion, unless I am mistaken.

      2. bobby richards Avatar
        bobby richards

        As to existence, it is what appears in a field of sense determined by transfinite pluralities of domains of sense. One man’s noumenal is another man’s phenomenal. One woman’s jouissance is another one’s ananda.

        If Matt is thinking or imagining with Schelling and Steiner, then he’s ultimately proposing that our faculties of sense and sense-making could use some centauric developments, or at least be revived from dormant states.

        Wittgenstein understood that the background mythologies of any sense-making are a given: the given of the myth (or the myth of the given).

        Your philosophy is fundamentally just as invested in its historicized mythology as any other domain of sense. It’s just that i don’t find it all that interesting, remarkable or useful. Sorry, it’s just not a fabulation that appears to make sense in my field of sense.

        btw: Nietzsche became an authority because he thought more clearly and deeply about it than others.

    3. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      “Bryant & Co are still trapped in their non-transparent mythology of de-mythologizing” <— precisely.

  6. Levi Bryant Avatar
    Levi Bryant


    I’m just stating that merely citing a figure is not an argument. What’s required is a discussion of why his psychology is true, how it can be defended, and why we should accept his account of the overman. Simply referring to what someone said is not philosophy but intellectual history. You have a bad habit of “arguing” this way, which is why you’re not a philosopher but an intellectual historian. In this regard, you’ve never engaged with my work because your rejoinders have never been anything more than claims that I dontbsharevthe views of this or that philosopher (usually pierce), never why one or the other of these positions is *true*. What’s the *argument*, not “what did y believe (who cares in the absence of demonstration?)”.

    Nor did I “dodge” the issue as you suggest. In the remainder of my comment I pointed out that nothing I said is inconsistent with how Nietzsche said we should respond to nihilism. You misconstrue nietzsche’s critique of nihilism. The slave response lies not in recognizing that the universe is meaningless, but in falling into despair over this. Ivevin no way suggested this.

  7. bobby richards Avatar
    bobby richards

    Levi, one more thing.

    i do share your ‘aversions’ to religions, and to spiritualities are they are practiced (for the most part). i’m not taking the side of spirituality or religion. when i use the concept ‘spiritualization’ i refer to practices relating to the opening of faculties of sense that are otherwise marginalized. i think the spiritual has to become as radically re-imagined as any other human activity or domain or framework. this does not entail an abandonment of cognition or critical thought, nor is it the abandonment tout court of antimonies and ‘representational’ modes of thought.

    ‘spiritual’ ‘mysticism’ etc. are dirty words because they imply the supernatural, which implies superstition and pre-Kantian metaphysics. the supernatural is only that which has not yet been naturalized and normalized as a trans-rational experience of sense. trans-rational does not necessarily mean irrational, arational, pre-rational. it means a wider and deeper field of sense, one which allows for wider and deeper existences to appear in the field of sense. they do not have to appear as theologies. the accomplished nihilist does not prematurely foreclose these possibilities, nor does she make sense of these actualities using prefabricated myths. the higher order Eternal Return is the ever-present Origin — that which does not allow prefabrication other than its use-value in imaginal/critical creating. this is its Will to Power.

    1. larvalsubjects Avatar


      I guess my question would be why retain words like spiritual and mystical when they have so much baggage? I certainly have the sorts of experiences you describe and value the things that you’re talking about, but it would never occur to me to call these things spiritual or mystical because I don’t think there’s any supernatural dimension to these things.

      1. bobby richards Avatar
        bobby richards


        I’d like to rid my conceptual frameworks of words like spiritual and mystical because, as you say, they carry so much baggage. but i’m at a loss for words. i’ll tend to use imaginal, spiritualized or numinous as substitutes, and also avoid supernatural with its connotations of pre-rational superstition. i’ll tend to define supernatural as an experience in the field of sense that initially appears as if from another domain altogether (and may be a shock or a supreme sense of well-being), but then becomes conceptually incorporated into one’s lifeworld or world-picture as one’s sense of Immanence adapts.

        and — i also agree to your ethics of argument. it’s just that i don’t have a lot of time to properly muster and craft the formal logics 🙂

      2. bobby richards Avatar
        bobby richards



        I’m not a philosopher. I use philosophical thought as feedstock for creative ideas because i find the disciplines of philosophy to be more interesting and remarkable than almost any other cultural activity. I’m Deleuzian and Nietzschean in that philosophies are irreducibly creative, and I’m Schelling-ian in that the unprethinkable and antinomic ‘substrate’ of mind, spirit, consciousness or whatever medium you call it is the ‘source’ of my ideas. it’s the excess of thought wherein i have to push my own limits of thought, in order to think fresh. i call this excess the imaginal or imaginative, and tho i highly value formal logic and argument, it only exists within my thought as a sub-domain of rule sets and language games, i.e. another way, but not the only way, to make sense.

        as such, Nietzschean concepts (invented) of overman, will to power, eternal return, etc. are modified by myself ad hoc to make sense of experience as it appears in my field of sense. rarely do i feel compelled to trace the geneologies of my thought within the bounds of the rule sets of doing western philosophy. my career, reputation or livelihood does not depend on it.

      3. bobby richards Avatar
        bobby richards



        therefore, what interests me is the mixtures of philosophies. what happens within thought when Nietzsche is mixed with Aurobindo? what happens when Deleuze is mixed with Hegel? what happens when Shankara is mixed with Schelling? What happens when Heidegger is mixed with Andy Warhol? how does Markus Gabriel counter Badiou’s set theoretical ontology or Quentin Meillassoux? why doesn’t anyone in western analytic or continental philosophy read R. Steiner, and incorporate what he thought into their philosophies with Whitehead? Why is Boehme’s esoteric thought not duly acknowledged as a key influence on Hegel who in turns influences Zizek, who in turn can only imagine an ‘event’ like the resurrection as strictly material? why does Badiou only limit ‘events’ to four categories of experience? why do philosophers feel so compelled to defend a material sense of the world? why are Augustine’s ‘mystical’ states accounted for as a poor diet or a neurotransmitter dysfunction? would genetic mutations like C667T or A1298C account for anarchistic, depressive nihilisms? and so on…

      4. bobby richards Avatar
        bobby richards



        therefore, it makes sense to me that if someone is committed to a faith in materialism, that they extend the logic all the way: they take into account genetic mutations, epigenetic factors, biotoxin levels, neurotransmitter diseases, etc. to account for the type of philosophy being philosophized. dig up Nietzsche’s body and sample his DNA and run it through the best PCR on the planet. if he had, for example, mutations 677, 1298, MAO and COMT it might explain his days of darker nihilism and, if his dietary journals can be reconstructed, it might explain his higher visionary days of an accomplished nihilism because, on those days, his intake of methylfolate and MB12 were adequate to his genetics. therefore, take the logic of materialism and the defense of scientism all the way. don’t stop short, or we all wind up with more half-assed philosophy.

      5. bobby richards Avatar
        bobby richards


        i’d never accuse you of ‘thrashing within the grips of an ascetic will.’ it’s a mis-apt statement, one that fails to delineate the Nietzschean ‘ascetic turn’ to a vitalist ascetic, an askesis in service of a vital or noble epimeleia (Sloterdijk is a good reference.)

        i see your philosophic cause as a noble and even inspired epimeleia (but not vitalist), tho parts of your axiomatically-rendered cause i find too limiting and narrow. thus, i take umbrage at the lock down quarantine of the ‘supernatural.’

        this is where i’d like more precise definition: 1) i agree that terms such as spiritual and mystical have run past their sell-by-date 2) i agree that religions as they are constructed are for the most part retrograde, esp in their idealogical forms 3) i don’t agree that ideologies of materialisms are the ‘answer’ or antidote. 4) so is there a concept that captures experiences you value that i tend to label as supernatural in the positive sense (relating to the post-Kantian idealist experience of nature, deity or formless mystical states)?

        as an example: Lacan’s jouissance is unequal to academic literature on transpersonal orgasmic states. the former for me is psychological, the latter mystical and therefore psycho-spiritual (and therefore supernatural).

  8. bobby richards Avatar
    bobby richards

    Levi and Jason:

    it’s a wonderful experience to be neither a philosopher nor an intellectual historian. you should try it sometime…

    1. larvalsubjects Avatar

      Probably so. I just think there’s an ethics to discussion and argumentation. It’s unethical to not provide reasons for the claims one makes, instead just appealing to an authority and claiming “you don’t share that authority’s position” as if that were sufficient to ground a claim. Jason basically characterized me as being a slave (ad hominem) and then proceeded to appeal to Nietzsche to “ground” this claim. To make matters worse, his appeal to Nietzsche wasn’t at all reflective of what Nietzsche says about nihilism. Merely claiming that existence has no meaning or purpose– a position that Nietzsche himself holds and which Jason fails to mention –does not, in Nietzsche, amount to a “slave morality”.

      The more poignant question is why we ought to support Nietzsche’s psychology at all. When asked this, Jason responded with yet another appeal to authority saying “we’re all trained in continental philosophy, and therefore take this as a given and a starting point.” This is a very strange claim on his part, because it suggests he thinks that Continentalists all hold that these things are true, that there are no rival positions in Continental thought, etc. Nietzsche’s diagnosis of slave moralities is grounded in his belief in the will to power. Does Jason really believe in the will to power as an accurate characterization of both life processes and psychology? Does he think, for example, that we ought to abandon most of modern evolutionary theory, genetics, and contemporary neurology and psychology because they don’t fit with Nietzsche’s account of will to power? If so, what is it that he thinks authorizes his rejection of all the empirical findings that support these things? Given other things Jason has defended elsewhere, I have a difficult time believing that he genuinely supports Nietzsche’s bio-ontology. At the very least, he owes us all an argument showing why these things are true and why we should endorse the existence of things like the will to power. Simply saying “daddy said or Peirce said is not an argument, it’s a citation.”

      1. Jason Hills Avatar
        Jason Hills


        You misconstrue my intent profoundly, but that is what I have come to expect from you and is why I rarely discuss with you now.

        Since nihilism and science came up, I offered Nietzsche as a shared starting point for *discussion* such that we all might sketch out our agreements or disagreements on that basis. I never said or intended to say that we should all agree with Nietzsche; in fact I do not, and thus your subsequent comments are besides the point. (I would remind you that’s an informal fallacy that you commit a lot, as you usually pair it with a straw man argument as you have just demonstrated.)

        Levi, you claim that I make “appeals to authority,” when in fact I just try to start a conversation *somewhere.* But every starting point I’ve used in the many months we’ve known of each other, you treat that opening as if I were a slavish ideologue of whatever is mentioned.

        For everyone else, I am willing to discuss the point elsewhere. I blogged about it awhile back, and I would say that we do not need to accept Nietzsche’s proto-metaphysics to grasp the problematic that he addresses.

      2. Levi Avatar


        Let’s back up. If you really want to have a discussion, you have to begin by responding to others in productive ways. You left the gate by telling me that I was falling into a slave mentality (you started with an insult) and in subsequent remarks have engaged in little jabs like “that’s what I’ve come to expect to you”. You seem to be unaware of how the way you address me and others prompts responses like the middle finger. The problem with your initial comment was that it started by treating me as the referent. This discussion would have gone in an entirely different direction had you merely said something like “Following Nietzsche, I worry that nihilism leads to a slave psychology for reasons x, y, and z.” In that way you wouldn’t have been accusing me of being trapped in a slave psychology– and insulting thing to say anyone and one doomed to generate an argument (i.e., it’s trollish) –but would have been opening up a discussion about whether or not nihilism leads to a slave psychology, whether nihilism is true (Nietzsche thought it was!), and how we might avoid that slave psychology.

        Honestly Jason, I truly have no problem with you. I’m just very sensitive to civility. I don’t respond well to personal digs like the slave psychology thing, to suggestions that I’m ignorant and in need of being educated about the scholastics or Peirce, nor to little comments like “that’s what I’ve come to expect of you.” I think you really need to listen to how you talk to other people and examine how that might contribute to the responses you get. You like to demonize and belittle. Is it any wonder that I’d respond in touchy ways to such things? I would be delighted to put all that behind us and have real discussions that don’t have that tone. Civility and the absence of sneers from nowhere work miracles.

      3. Jason Hills Avatar
        Jason Hills


        I did not intend to malign you. I was merely rehearsing the Nietzschean basics and was waiting for you to offer a discussion. Instead, you took the initial laying out of a conceptual framework as a personal attack. At that point, having seen this many times before, I obviously had no patience for it and did not continue.

        I’m not even writing this for your benefit, because I have written these “hold up I didn’t mean THAT” before. I’m writing it for everyone else, who may not understand why I have no patience and seem a bit curt.

        Wait. OMG I just had a funny thought. I have given professional development seminaars on sensitivity and tolerance, and am highly rated by my students for cultural and religious sensitivity. I used to play in the local Saudi, Chinese, Nigerian, Mexican, and American soccer games when few other Americans would because they couldn’t handle the cultural differences, especially in a physical arena. OK, I just had to share with everyone.

        I’m sorry, Matt, but I’m going to block emails from this page since I could use a reprieve from the followups for awhile.

      4. Levi Avatar


        It’s a relief that you didn’t intend things that way. It’s difficult, however, to know how else one might respond to a comment like this: “Bryant is thrashing within the grips of the ascetic will, as Nietzsche described it.” That’s not a topic of discussion, but some sort of statement about my character and psychology; a pejorative one at that. In your research for sensitivity training I’m sure you’ve come across the general chestnut that when people object to something someone says the general rule of thumb is to listen to what they have to say and why they would think that, rather than simply rejecting their reaction as a misinterpretation. For example, if a woman in the workplace claims that some treatment of her or a joke was sexist, we don’t just dismiss that out of hand but try to understand her point of view. The first step towards empathy, I think, lies in recognizing that intention does not define meaning or that we are not masters of the effects of our own speech.

  9. […] Reflections on nihilism as a belief system (footnotes2plato.com) […]

  10. TJ Avatar


    1. “I just think there’s an ethics to discussion and argumentation. It’s unethical to not provide reasons for the claims one makes, instead just appealing to an authority and claiming “you don’t share that authority’s position” as if that were sufficient to ground a claim.” This is especially rich coming from you, Levi.
    2. You’ve got Caputo entirely wrong on that. Care to cite where he ever said that?
    3. You’re not a naturalist. Not even close.

  11. bobby richards Avatar
    bobby richards

    To all:

    i’m just now getting caught up on most of the threads relating to the original post on nihilism. also just read matt’s paper on deleuze and whitehead, the one calling to a people yet to come.

    my sense is that the general philosophic framework calling to a people yet to come is well established. there seem to be intuitions that these people will be spiritualized in a new sense, i.e. they will not necessarily become such by being shaped at all by practices heretofore called spiritual and constructed and marketed as such and such religion. i include all practices that have been imported into contemporary lifestyles or lifeworlds. these practices are, in effect, past their sell-by-date in terms of efficacy or ability to deliver on their promise of gnosis or enlightenments (which even begs the question about the contemporary lifeworld value of enlightenment itself, or the value of historicized forms of enlightenment and their claims to being ahistorical.)

    that is, the current exigency is to innovate practices of spiritualization from the Future.

    what is required are spiritualized practices that are fully embodied and embedded-in-the-world, ones that extend the current culturally-constructed experiences of Immanence into new territories of sense. the transcendent Other is merely a name for that which has yet to be embodied in the field of sense. the requirement seems to be to a) incarnate whatever is of inherent, imaginal, creative and pragmatic value relating to this (relative) transcendent Other (the territory not yet made intimate) b) incorporate it into critical thought, scientific knowledge, aesthetics, and ethics c) in order for the totality of ensuing behaviors to make sense in terms of planetary life and not death. by ‘life’ i mean respect for all life to the extent ‘all life’ can be conceptualized as the domain that includes the subsets of all bodies with and without organs.

    we are the people yet to come. if not us, then who? if not now, when?

    the theory is thought; what and where is the praxis?

    ‘for those that get it, no explanation is necessary. for those that don’t, no explanation is possible.’

  12. terenceblake Avatar

    “Bryant is thrashing within the grips of the ascetic will, as Nietzsche described it”.

    I think Jason was making a valid point here, neither dogmatic nor servile nor even lacking in civility. We should distinguish being critical from being uncivil. Jason was using a sort of imagistic conceptual shorthand to situate and qualify a certain problematic. In Continental circles this is done all the time, and you can’t understand a single word of such thinkers if you don’t understand this dance between concept and image. This allows one to say much in a few words.

    In the case of Jason’s statement, he manages to say concisely what I tried to express a little long-windedly in response to Levi’s recent pronouncements (http://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2013/05/17/dark-subjectivity-and-an-apodictic-hermeneutics-of-science-on-naturalism-as-nostalgic-pathos/). I think the refence to the ascetic will captures quite nicely the point that Bryant enounces a seemingly objective set of conclusions from science (“the only legitimate conclusions that can be drawn from the state of knowledge today”) but is in fact expressing a very subjective vision of the world and of science.

    This pulsation between image and concept is not just decorative but I think it has a quite important function – that of permitting communication across incommensurable paradigms. An analytic approach often insists on commensurability, and feels that remarks coming from a radically different frame of reference are somehow uncivil, aggressive, or even violent and also ridiculous or nonsensical. The Continental approach (but I would argue that this is the case for the pragmatists as well) just does not see such closure of and incommunicability between theories that are semantically very different, precisely because they see another pragmatic dimension that makes communication both possible and potentially fruitful (dare I say enjoyable?).

    ANTI-OEDIPUS makes very effective use of this imagistic-conceptual method. It must have seemed very aggressive to closed-minded psychoanalysts, as it treated their profession as a new priesthood submissive to the “ascetic will”. So Jason’s allusion was well-chosen, evoking well-known arguments from Deleuze and Guattari, that they also trace back to Nietzsche. Nietzsche himself uses this same method and was felt to be offensive by the religious-minded of his day and after. I think Jason is quite justified in situating Bryant in this problem-context and even in feeling some amusement at his efforts (thrashing) to escape from its aporia.

    1. Levi Avatar


      Perhaps you could outline what, exactly, Jason’s criticism is. He suggests that I’m in the grips of the ascetic will as described by Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s ascetic will consists in a withdrawal from the world and life, and consists in renunciation of all life affirming characteristics. Can you indicate where I’ve suggested anything remotely calling for such a renunciation of life and the world? Wouldn’t I have to actually be defending such things to actually be in the “midst of an aporia”? All I’ve said is that there are no transcendent grounds that secure meaning. That’s not a renunciation of life, but, in Nietzsche’s terms, an affirmation of life insofar as, under his diagnosis, it was those transcendent values that devalued this world and life to begin with and I’m making the claim that value arises from life itself.

      1. terenceblake Avatar

        Hello Levi,
        Jason has now laid out his explanation of the background of his critique on my blog here: http://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2013/05/19/the-pulsation-between-image-and-concept-vs-analytic-literal-mindedness/#comment-3029

  13. […] “Bryant is thrashing within the grips of the ascetic will, as Nietzsche described it” (see comments section here) […]

  14. bobby richards Avatar
    bobby richards


    my sense is that Nietzsche’s ascetic will is an affirmation of life. his critique is directed to the christian ascetic will, one that denies earth in favor of the ‘transcendent realms.’ his affirmation in even the lower form of the eternal return is to say ‘yes’ to all ‘that was.’ his affirmation in the higher form of the eternal return is to say ‘yes’ to all that is becoming. he is against an affirmation that derives from the negation of a negation, but promotes pure affirmation in itself. his ascetic will is noble, not debased. he affirms earth and life.

  15. bobby richards Avatar
    bobby richards

    Furthermore, Nietzsche’s concept of the ascetic will has more to do with self-discipline (askesis) than masochistic self-mortification. it is much closer to the ascetic sense that Foucault was exploring in his lectures at the College de France (Hermeneutics of the Subject.) here, Foucault takes up the stoics and cynics and their modes of self-discipline, truth telling (parrhesia), and community formation (these practices were then incorporated into christian monastic disciplines with an earth/body denying inflection and emphasis). Sloterdijk also takes this up at length in his recent book ‘You Must Change Your Life.’

    1. bobby richards Avatar
      bobby richards

      From what i can tell about Matt’s project, it is the provision of a conceptual frame that incorporates or thinks Whitehead with Schelling (as well as with, perhaps, the hermetic version of Deleuze), then interjects Steiner as the practice agent into this frame. i could definitely be wrong about how he intends to deploy Steiner, but i presume it is the deployment of Steiner’s claim that new human (psychic and spiritualized) capacities can and should be developed. therefore i don’t read Matt as engaged in any retro-romanticism, but rather exploring how these thinkers are keenly (if not urgently) required for us to think and develop
      ourselves out of the abyss we’re in. the thesis appear to be related to a concept he’s calling ‘the etheric imagination.’ Nietzsche’s ascetic will would be a type of self-discipline required for this etheric imagination to be developed. i have quibbled in previous posts about the use of the concept ‘etheric’ because it is a very technical concept for me that relates to contemporary uses in the fields of holistic biophysics and theory formation relating to the biofield. i rather believe that Matt is after a bigger concept than etheric, one that would references the imaginal resources of ‘bodies’ or ‘light bodies’ not modeled in biophysics (but nonetheless fully grounded in the soma or physical body as embedded in earth existence and activism.)

      1. Matthew David Segall Avatar


        I really appreciate your reflections here. My project is very much as you describe it (i.e., Steiner as a practical deployment of the theories of Schelling and Whitehead). As for the concept of “ether,” I realize I’m articulating it in a way foreign to some more specific esoteric renderings. I chose to stick with the term because I believe certain parallels can be drawn between Whitehead’s post-Einsteinian cosmological ether theory and Steiner’s (admittedly sometimes wobbly, other times riveting) esoteric account of the etheric or living (naturans) dimension of human, earth, and universe.

      2. bobby richards Avatar
        bobby richards


        I do understand why you’re delimiting your project to yr use of the term ‘etheric.’ my own sense is that the kosmos we’re being called to imagine, fully incarnate as mature embodied subjects, and action-with-earth is not one delimited to fourth dimensionality (the ‘etheric being the lower third of this space or realm). rather, i see the task as one incorporating both fourth and fifth dimensionality into third dimensionality via our extension into these dimensions. it’s a task of hyperspatial practice, if you will, that includes the etheric as you so well describe it, but does not stop with the incorporation of the etheric into our imaginal anatomies. this will sound wooly to most of yr readers, but most of yr readers are not familiar with higher dimensional mathematical models of space/time and how they intersect with biophysics. nor are these readers conversant with the task Steiner set upon himself and felt, upon his death, had failed. Jean Gebser, Teilhard de Chardin and Aurobindo also take this thematic up. btw: i believe it was the american Henry Adams who modeled the ‘etheric’ as the next stage of human development (a contemporary with W James and CS Peirce).

  16. bobby richards Avatar
    bobby richards

    One last post for today.

    Nietzsche philosophized using what he himself called a ‘centauric’ consciousness: the fusion of analytic, synthetic, critical, imaginative, aesthetic, poetic, musical modes. i call this ‘imagination’ because it incorporates different modes operating in mind or consciousness simultaneously. i wouldn’t call it ‘etheric’ per se because it doesn’t (like Steiner) develop higher psychic capacities: clairvoyance, clairaudience, clairsentience. i personally find Steiner to be very uneven, and even wobbly in the period after he leaves the Theosophical Society. but there are lectures that are absolutely riveting and stunning, and he’s definitely onto something — as well as being, like Nietzsche, untimely. i commend Matt for taking on such a discredited and marginalized figure, because Steiner is rich with possibility if grasped properly by an acute and imaginative thinker.

  17. The Challenge of Nihilism | synthetic_zero Avatar

    […] Reflections on nihilism as a belief system (footnotes2plato.com) […]

  18. michael- Avatar

    i coined the term post-nihilist praxis (which i use in a technical manner) to signify a mode of operation: that which is possible on the other side of nihilism. After the transcendentalist delusion (the death of god) is relinquished what forms of creaturely life become possible?

  19. Upbuilding Links 6.5.13 | Re(-)petitions Avatar

    […] Bryant this week, I found the blog Footnotes 2 Plato intriguing along the way. He has two posts (1, 2) up reacting to the same posts I reacted to (and includes a couple of […]

  20. theurj Avatar

    Since you mentioned Steiner you might then be interested in this Ph.D. thesis by Gidley, who compared Steiner, Gebser and Wilber:

    Click to access Gidley,%20Evolution%20of%20Consciousness%20as%20Planetary%20Imperative%205,%202007.pdf

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Thanks for the reference, I’ll check it out. There aren’t too many philosophy dissertations on Steiner!

  21. Bill Nye the Science Guy vs. Ken Ham the Creationist Bloke | Footnotes 2 Plato Avatar

    […] and in fact way more destructive than that of creationism. It seems to me that we (the spiritual “post-nihilists,” if I may) need to shift the cultural conversation in a different direction, a direction as far away […]

  22. The Opportunity of Nihilism | synthetic zerø Avatar

    […] Reflections on nihilism as a belief system (footnotes2plato.com) […]

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