On Nihilism and Rationalism, Jacobi and Nietzsche

To say that a belief or ideas is nihilistic is to say that it radically depreciates what is perceived as having True value. For Friedrich Jacobi, who coined the term to defend the Transcendent, the rationalism of Kant’s critique was nihilistic, because it subverted man’s capacity to grasp, through faith, the Transcendent, and therefore, the otherworldly grounds of Value. For Nietzsche, who flipped the term to attack the idea of the Transcendent and attack the Faith, a clinging to the Transcendent was nihilistic, given Kant’s critique and European man’s post-Enlightenment situation, because it undermined man’s capacity to Bleibt der Erde treu, the naturel d’être, and, therefore, the very grounds for creating sacred values.

Both Jacobi and Nietzsche, of course, have been called Irrationalists, because, in their separate ways, both saw Rationalism, and the Cult of Reason, as nihilistic; for both, one simply cannot come to Value through reason alone, as many a man of the Enlightenment thought. For Jacobi, the highest value was given and to be understood; accordingly, the light of reason, with its conjured conceptual distinctions, was blinding. For Nietzsche, the highest value was created and to be birthed; accordingly, the light of reason, with its creativity dispeling dissections, was caustically bleaching.

For a brief discussion the concept of nihilism refer to Woolfolk (1990):

The idea of nihilista has been associated, for the most part, with two closely related but opposing theoretical approaches. The older approach has identified nihilism with the denial of either Christian faith or Platonic reason — in effect, with the negation of visions of a transcendent reality. Nihilism results from rejecting the idea of a suprasensible world standing metaphorically above or behind everyday existence. The first systematic theorist of this approach was the Bavarian philosopher of religion Franz von Baader (1970; Benz, 1949). During the twentieth century, it has continued in the writings of such varied theorists as Masaryk, Thielicke, Rosen, and most recently Allan Bloom, but its most profound, if equivocal, representative is still Dostoevsky….The second, younger — and today more prevalent — understanding of nihilism is closely linked to the name of Nietzsche, who was the first and most brilliant theorist to turn the idea of nihilista decisively against both Platonic reason and Christian faith. In contrast to theories that defend visions of a transcendent reality, nihilism’s origins are located in the acceptance rather than the rejection of such visions. The Nietzschean perspective has continued in different forms through Heidegger (1982) and Camus (1956), and may be readily identified in the work of many contemporary theorists such as Goudsblom (1980), Warren, and Schutte. (Other theorists, especially early sociologists such as Comte and Durkheim, and later Alfred Weber, represent more ambiguous middle positions that do not fall neatly into either camp.)…There are similarities in the two theoretical approaches, for at the heart of both is a vision of a desacralized world. By the term desacralized, I refer to a symbolic and experiential world in which, to use the deceptively simple formulation of both Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, “everything is permitted.” To know what is sacred is to know what is not to be done, nor even imagined. Such understandings of forbidden knowledge are stipulated in every culture. In a desacralized world, recognitions of what is not to be done would become apocryphal because they would either be lost, as in Dostoevsky’s vision, or revealed to be a fiction, as in the case of Nietzsche’s theory. Such a world in which “everything is permitted” may be impossible to realize, so perhaps it is best to leave the expression between quotes. But the premonition and image of a desacralized world is ineliminable from both perspectives. And as Max Weber knew, it is images of the world that have frequently acted as “switchmen” determining the tracks along which action has been pushed by ideal and material interests”

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5 Responses to On Nihilism and Rationalism, Jacobi and Nietzsche

  1. authordreamer says:

    Hmm… didn’t quite get it how Nietzsche was said to be a genius in turning nihilism against christianity and plato. can you enlighten me?

  2. Chuck says:

    I’m not exactly sure what you’re asking. Perhaps you could clarify.

    As for Nietzsche, Christianity, and Plato — I am going to assume we agree that there was such a thing as traditional Western Civilization, in some fuzzy sense, and that the values and world perspective of it, and the people living in it and their ways, were shaped by a mix of Hellenic and Christian thought. At least in the way we might say there’s a Chinese civilization and the values are somewhat shaped by Confucian, Buddhist, and taoist thought — or a greater Middle East, etc. And I am going to assume that some Western values and some aspects of the Western world perspective were particular to the West.. I mean that in this sense and this sense. Saying that seems silly, but you would be surprised at the amount of people I run into who have 0 sense of history.

    Anyways, Nietzsche came about at a time when numerous social, cultural, and intellectual revolutions were calling these values, ways and this world perspective into question. Galileo, Descartes, The French philosophes, Kant, and Darwin, growing affluence and the ensuing demand for social changes, The French Revolution, and, overall, the general erosion of the last vestiges of Christendom.

    The erosion of the traditional values and world perspective, which accelerated in the 1800’s was causing an existential vacuum. Which is why at this time we see the birth of existentialism. and we also see a flurry of alternative systems: nationalism, Marxism, Darwinianism, positivism, and so on.

    Anyways, one particular Western way that was pushing this erosion along was a penchant for ruthless rational, logical inquiry — and a persistent, zealous demand to find and accept the ‘Truth.’ This was the same thing that led Socrates to mock many of the traditional beliefs of his contemporaries, the Christians to crusade against the heathens, and the medieval Europeans to rip the garbs off of mysterious nature and plunder her. And one particularly Western perspective was the belief that the particular Western perspective was True in some objective sense.

    Friedrich Jacobi considered a certain type of this inquiry to be nihilistic because it was undermining the Truth. Every Truth was being deconstruction and subjected to relentless scrutiny. Every Natural relation was being challenged. Every boundary was being tested. Every Yahweh spoken of in vain. .
    Nietzsche looked at things different. He concluded that the traditional western Truth was really mythos. Moreover, that there really was no objective Truth; and further that the conception of an objective Truth, was also a creation, a mythos, based on a mix of Christian and Hellenic thought.

    Accordingly, the problem wasn’t a nihilistic inquiry. The problem wasn’t how Kant was thinking or how protoliberals and other free thinkers were thinking. Since there is no objective Truth, all intellectually honest inquiry will necessarily be nihilistic. The problem was the concept of “Truth,” that is objective values and perspectives.

    Nietzsche’s goal was to replace that with a concept of Truth as something created, that is art.. That would be the “turning nihilism against christianity and plato.” Since, Nihilism refers to a loss of or lack of Truth. The goals was to lose the idea of Truth, and so get rid of the problem of lack. Maybe one could say that Nietzsche was the True Western Buddha. Accordingly, the problem of having no Truth is a problem of expecting to have Truth.

  3. Pingback: Jung on the Superficiality of Western Man « Occidental Ascent

  4. social says:

    Can you explain more about Max Weber’s middle ground position and the world view as switchman?

    • Chuck says:


      The quote was: “Not ideas, but material and ideal interests, directly govern men’s conduct. Yet very frequently the “world image” that have been created by ideas have, like switchmen, determined the tracks along which action has been pushed by the dynamic of interest.”

      Weber’s point was that world-views, per se, don’t motivate behavior but rather shape how motives are realized. So, assume some base level motivational factors — perhaps, something out of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. These motivations will be realized differently under different world-views. For example, many people desire a form of immortality. This desire for self-continuation is a motivational factor and its realization — or how the desire is fulfilled — is shaped by the way in which the world is understood. If you understand self-continuation in terms of Ethnic Genetic Interest, you will might behave differently than if you understand it in terms of an immortal soul and some form of Judgment hereafter.

      The cited author’s point was that shifts in world-views — independent of shifts in the actual world — can be dynamite because they lead to shifts in how we seek to fulfill our base needs.

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