Nihilism and Meaning Come Together

by CT on June 2, 2014

In “Against Philosophical Appeasement” ( ) Anthony and Mary Mansueto write a magnificent indictment of nihilism, which starts as follows:

“Nothing is harder for this sceptical age than to believe that the universe ultimately has meaning –except, perhaps, the idea that such a belief is not only warranted, but is in fact commanded, by reason. And yet, there is no greater obstacle to the struggle for social progress and social justice than gnawing doubt about the question of ultimate meaning. Hope, both individual and collective withers and the highest objects of our love dissolve like so many phantoms or mirages. […] Unable to find an adequate ground for their moral ideas, people become incapable of judging –and thus of seeing injustice. Unable to find an adequate ground for hope, they become incapable of action on behalf of the Good.”

This leads into a fascinating analysis of the relationship between society and religion with the aim of re-stating and recovering meaning in social life. Where this philosophical work fails is in the assumption that there is an ultimate meaning:

“What nihilism does is to undermine the possibility of any criticism of the market order and to make the search for ultimate meaning in terms of which criteria for judgement might be formulated into an object of ridicule, a neurotic obsession of those who are too weak to face the darkness of the abyss, to risk themselves in action in the knowledge that everything ends in absolute loss.”

But this is a philosophical false step, as there is really no way to address or to name “ultimate” realities or the “totality” as some idealist thinkers would have it. We can presume there is the absolute because there is the relative, but the two are inseparable and there is no way to determine where the absolute begins.

If Mansueto is right in considering that a religion which is resigned not to find an Absolute God is a form of “practical Atheism” we could also say that his formulations are rooted in the belief that there is a language which can encompass, comprehend the meaning of the Absolute, that the Absolute can be named and not only pointed to. This represents a religion where human beings become god-like (at least in thought) and are capable of acting like god or the gods.

The Absolute and the Relative, together with Identity and Difference must be grasped in their interdependence and co-determination. At the level of human action this means that our actions will always remain relative, discontinuous and incomplete (not at all god-like). And it also means that any hope of finding meaning has first to explain the causes of this double articulation of the human mind: this impossible entanglement of abstract and concrete, absolute and relative, subject and object which we experience simultaneously as our power and our limit. If anything, the mystery resides in this articulation, and not on any of its extremes taken separately.

Therefore, while it can be said that a “market pricing” centred society will always generate the loss of meaning, it is not reasonable to postulate that meaning cannot exist in the presence of commodity exchange. This, and the “market pricing” relational model can coexist with other modalities which preserve and generate meaning, for example those of “community sharing” and “authority ranking” studied by the anthropologist Alan Page Fiske.

(See: )

Far from disqualifying Mansueto’s work I recommend the reader to study his work to find numerous and powerful ideas for the renovation of social thinking. Above all, I retain Anthony and Mary Mansueto’s call to “find meaning” within our world, a call which is not only opportune but more and more urgent as our societies face a global era of unpredictable change.

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