Posts Tagged ‘Nihilism’
Some problems in life are impossible to solve; instead, they need to be transcended. One famous example that our culture continues to struggle with is the question of whether life ought to be lived by the passion of faith or, instead, by the critical application of reason. It seems to be a sensible question, yet the very terms in which the question is asked renders any solution impossible. There is no object of faith, even the most tightly held, that is immune from rational doubt, and likewise, no rational position is held in the absence of a passionate reason for holding it. But the example need not be so philosophical as this. Another more “everyday” example would be the question of how one can equally meet the relational commitments of their spouse, children, family of origin, as well as those of their professional life. The aphorism “you can’t make everyone happy” may be true, but that doesn’t stop most of us from burning ourselves out or compromising our relationships while under the illusion that it isn’t. Unlike problems that can simply be solved by the application of technical knowledge, like fixing a pipe that is leaking, or finding shelter when it starts to rain, many of life’s problems require a change in us before they can be moved past.
This may seem obvious. We might think that the person who is stuck in a crisis of faith just needs to realize that the world is a bit more complicated than their ridged concepts will allow for. The one who is struggling to balance their relational commitments simply needs to learn to say “no” and prioritize their time in a way more in line with the limitations of their life. And we might add to this that a person who wants to lose weight needs to stop eating so much and exercise more, right? Why is it, then, that such advice, though it can be seen to be perfectly logical, simply does not result in any lasting change for most of us? In fact, for most of us, problems of this nature are impossible to solve without undergoing the loss of our life as we know it.
Introducing Robert Kegan
Robert Kegan’s developmental stages theory of adult human development is a contemporary model of human maturation that has shown itself to have enormous power when it comes to clarifying the dynamics involved in human maturation. In recent years he has gone further, and with the help of Lisa Laskow Lahey he has developed a whole program designed to stimulate psychological growth. His work is enormously complex and is developed across numerous books, so I will be making no attempt to here capture the breadth of his thinking. Instead I will seek to briefly give a snapshot of his developmental theory, then relate it to the concept of “the immunity to change” that he and Laskow Lahey have recently developed. In doing this we will see, from a formal perspective, how the fear of death that Becker introduced us to is not experienced as a single reality, but manifests in qualitatively different ways at different points in our developmental journey. The contrast that Becker set up between “living a lie” and “going mad” is thus shown to be a bit too stark, yet at the threshold of developmental change his characterization probably maps quite well to the experience. Kegan will help us see why.
Kegan’s Five Orders of Consciousness
The essence of Kegan’s theory is that at each of the five transitions he identifies there develops a capacity to take the reality we see, feel, and know through, and make it an object that we can critically reflect on. In this sense, the dynamics of growth involve and ever growing capacity to move what is “subject for us,” to an object of reflection. Kegan and his colleagues have developed a what they call a “subject/object” inventory, which is a test that is able to locate what stage a person is at on the basis of which elements of their experience they are able to reflect upon and which elements constitute their act of seeing. These latter elements Kegan calls one’s “culture of embeddedness.” Such elements are not open to critical evaluation, for they constitute one’s self-experience. To transcend all cultures of embeddness would amount to what Becker felt was impossible: to live an unrepressed life.
These stages begin with infancy. What is subject for the infant is “the now.” The psyche of the infant operates atomistically and immediately. To even speak of an object of reflection at this stage strains our language, for the infant remains largely undifferentiated from its surroundings. Beyond infancy, the child starts to differentiate and is able to reflect on immediacy as an object. This makes possible the construction of “durable categories.” Peek-a-boo is no longer the thrill it once was because Mommy or Daddy cease to “magically appear” when they emerge from behind their hands. The category “Mommy” or “Daddy” thus become durable. The realities beyond the impression are understood to persist in time and space. This stage typically characterizes early childhood.
Next comes the ability move the durable categories from being subject to object and therefore being able to think trans-categorically. Mom and Dad now not only endure in time and space, but are recognized to have their own independent point of view. This stage typically characterizes early adolescence but many people operate at this stage their whole life. Kegan labels this stage as “traditionalism” in In Over Our Heads, and “the socialized mind” in Immunity to Change.
Beyond traditionalism comes the ability to move trans-categorical thinking from subject to object and therefore develop the capacity to think in terms of a system or complex. One is now able to operate from the standpoint of their own personal ideology. One attains the capacity to have a system of values distinct from Mom, Dad, and the culture at large. One can, for the first time, “be true to one’s self.” Kegan calls this stage “modernism” in In Over Our Heads, and “the self-authoring mind” in Immunity to Change. Research has shown that achieving this stage constitutes the developmental task that most of us (about 58% of the middle-class, college educated, people studied) currently face.
The last of Kegan’s five stages he calls “postmodernism” in In Over Our Heads, and “the self-transforming mind” in Immunity to Change. What characterizes this stage of mental complexity is the ability to hold one’s ideology out as an object of reflection and therefore develop the capacity to think trans-systemically. “Being true to one’s self” is here recognized as one conditioned option among many. The limits of one’s personal ideology are no longer felt as a threat. Mom and Dad are able to be forgiven for their own limited point of view. Less than one percent of all people studied have achieved this level of mental complexity.
Subjective Transcendence and the Fear of Death
Once this subject-object pattern of growth is seen, it is easy to understand how the fear of death appears in the normal course of our developmental journey. These transitions in which a whole way of knowing oneself and the world becomes dislodged and is looked at presents an enormous increase in potential perspective, but at the same time life as one had to this point known it is “lost.” All the familiar stepping stones are pulled from ones feet and a sort of nihilism washes over the self. Is it any wonder that, in view of Becker’s work, we frequently resist our own growth? Sometimes its easier to live with our impossible problems than it is to grow through them. Sometimes it’s not. But the paradox is that in order to move beyond the problem, one must cease to address it directly. Such problems are like the voice of a friend that you can hear beyond a high wall, but cannot yet see. In such a case, staring more intently at the wall is no solution. In the next section we will consider Kegan and Laskow Lahay’s attempt to facilitate growth when our impossible problems become too much to bear.
This post is a continuation of a series in which I make use of the blogosphere to motivate my dissertation free-writing. For context, read the short summary of my work here. There you will also find a table of contents with links to all the posts in this series.
 This phrase by Kegan and Laskow Lahey beautifully disambiguates the fear of death that Becker introduced us to. As we will see, the experience of losing our life “as we know it” that occurs at the thresholds of developmental growth triggers the very same self-protective strategies that Becker identified. Kegan, 2009, 241.
True to style, Radiolab recently produced an especially stellar episode on the obscure topic of nihilism (the view that life has no meaning or purpose). And apparently, they did such a good job with it that Glenn Beck picked it up and did an episode of his own on the matter. Beck thinks that Radiolab is endorsing nihilism (and also that they are a part of a progressive movement to seed the public mind, apparently). In thinking this, Beck entirely misses the real thrust of Radiolab’s episode, which is a shame because he could likely benefit from a bit more “nihilism.” Allow me to explain.
The Paradox of Serious Nihilistic Denial
My own work centers on the classical insight that the fulfillment of life comes only after a certain kind of death (e.g. Mt. 16:25, Mk. 10:42-45). This entire blog, is one long meditation on this single monumental truth. So when I heard this episode by Radiolab, I could hardly stay in my seat. “They’re on to it!”, I shouted to my somewhat startled wife as we were cruising down the interstate. “On to what?”, she asked. “This is what I’m writing my dissertation on!”
Here I must clarify. I’m not writing my dissertation on nihilism. But then again, Radiolab’s episode was not really on nihilism either. Their episode was on the draw of nihilism, and that ends up pointing to something much larger. They noticed a trend in popular culture to valorize nihilism. Specifically, they noticed how the cover of Eugene Thacker’s philosophy text In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy vol. 1 had made its way into popular culture (appearing on tee-shirts and even inspiring a character on the program True Detective). The question (because Radiolab is always about the question) was: why?
In seeking to answer this Simon Critchley suggested that nihilism is as old as human history itself. Jad went on to explain that you’ll see it crop up whenever social structures begin to come undone, either by cultural decay, natural disasters, or war. He points to Ivan Turgenev’s novel “Fathers and Sons” as the moment the term nihilism was coined. In that novel the son turns to the father and says “We base our conduct on what we recognize as useful. In these days, the most useful thing we can do is repudiate. And so we repudiate everything.” The father says, “Everything?” “Everything… with indescribable composure.” In our time, all we need to do is turn on the news and we are bombarded with what seems to be a nameless evil that continues to emerge from both without and from within our own culture. It makes sense, then, that this urge to repudiate should manifest yet again. But when asked if there was something more potent about it in our own time, Critchley said, without hesitation, “yes.”
Recounting a class he taught with Eugene Thacker on mysticism, he tells of how in the fourth century AD, there was a movement in which people began to leave the great city of Alexandria for the desert. Influenced by a Neo-Platonic philosophy (and its suspicion of material reality) and a desire to encounter the pure love of Christ, these people fled the seat of all culture and learning of their day for the desolation of the Egyptian desert where they engaged in ascetic activities of self-renunciation and prayer. They wanted a love that was pure, and so they left what they deemed was evil in the world and sought to purge the evil within themselves in the solitude of the desert. What struck Critchley was that the students were deeply captivated by this image in a way that undergraduates are not typically prone to be captivated. Something in these strange mystics and their practices of solitude and bodily mortification in an attempt to free their capacity for love was hitting them in a very deep place.
Notice this: We are not talking about nihilism anymore. We are talking about forms of denial and about forms of criticism, but this is not nihilistic denial. Nihilistic denial must deny even the seriousness of its own denial, but these mystics denied and criticized the world and themselves out of a yearning for a goodness and truth the surpassed the world’s (or their own) ability to fathom. They recognized that even the very best human goods are ambiguous. As Thomas Merton said, “The best, imposed as a norm, becomes evil.” Thus, even the very best in human culture is open to criticism.
Negative Theology: Denial and the Transcendent Good
Again, this is not nihilism. This is what theology calls apophatic, or “negative” theology. Negative theology speaks of God, the ultimate good (Goodness itself), by way of negating the elements of creaturely goods that fail to rise to the level of the ultimate good. For example, we know that justice is good. But we do not know what perfect justice looks like. We only know what human justice looks like. Thus by way of the apophatic method we would seek to get closer to speaking of perfect justice by negating all the ways human justice fails to rise to the level of perfect justice. This way of thinking is thus critical of all human attempts to say positively what perfect justice is, but it is not nihilism. It is the denial that any human (ourselves included) have a positive and adequate concept for our longings for perfect truth, goodness, and fulfillment. There is a pull within us that we can hear calling our name, but though we have names for it (fulfillment, justice, salvation, etc), we do not know its essence (a classic source for this style of theology is Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite who influenced almost all Western theology. Check out a marvelous passage of his here).
Rationalized Consciousness Sees the Apophtic as Nihilistic
Now, to the one who is convinced that they do have a positive and adequate concept for this deep goodness, apophatic criticism cannot be distinguished from nihilism. To their minds, their own concept is not open to criticism. They are convinced that they have the answer, thus any criticism is deemed not faithfulness to a transcendent good, but instead a merely corrosive attack. Beck seems rather obviously in this place. At the end of his episode he says “As this world devolves into chaos and depravity, people are searching for meaning. We have to provide them with truth on every platform possible.”
For him the matter is straightforward. “We” (as opposed to “the progressives”) have the truth and what is needed is simply to distribute it.
The Paradox Beyond the Alternatives
The desert mystics would see such truth, in spite of its divine claim, as being all too human. It is too bound up in the city and the world that they had abandoned. It represents the prison bars behind which eternal love lives, longing to be freed. This is why Christ was such a powerful figure for them. Not because, as Beck thinks, he came to impart an adequate concept of goodness, but because Christ, in a single move, exposed the evil of the world and a love beyond understanding by completely giving himself away. In this act, the ultimate nihilism and the ultimate meaning are one.
UPDATE: Since writing this I’ve been pressed on they way (in a previous draft) I affirmed Simon Critchley’s suggestion that nihilism goes all the way back. “Nihilism is a modern problem,” said my critic. I think that’s probably right. The examples the Critchley sites as nihilism prior to the modern era are in fact being conflated with other forms of criticism, including the apophatic criticism that I discussed in this paper. Thanks for the push-back, unnamed interlocutor.