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Camden Philosophical Society Meeting

Tuesday, January 18 @ 4:00 pm 6:00 pm

At the Camden Philosophical Society’s next regularly scheduled meeting, on Tuesday, Jan. 18, at 4 pm, we will be starting a new series of discussions on the broad theme of “nihilism.” Is it something we should fear, accept or try to overcome?, asks Chuck Marecic, who will be leading the January discussion.   

The discussion will again be held primarily online, via Zoom. All are welcome to participate. Let us know by return emailing sarahmiller@usa.net and cmarecic@gmail.com if you wish to attend via Zoom. You will then receive an invitation on the morning of the meeting. Click on the “Join Zoom Meeting” link in that invitation at the time of the event. We are still hoping to go soon into hybrid mode, with most attending in-person but Zoom participation also available, but that has not proved possible as yet.

Chuck lays out the readings for the upcoming session and some of his thoughts about the topic:

Several months ago, I read an essay about Nihilism in Aeon Magazine. I was intrigued by how flexible, versatile, ambiguous,and relevant this concept can be. Is it a good thing or a bad thing? It sounds bad, but why? Is it avoidable? Is it necessary? Is it inevitable? Should we fear it, accept it, or overcome it? Is it even real? Or is it just another one of those philosophical concepts that wily academics devise to justify more ink, more rhetoric—a straw man, a canard? How could Nothing be something? Are we, denizens of the 21st century, drunk on too much nihilism or is it the tonic we desperately need to overcome our collective malaise? In short, the essay raised enough questions for me to want to explore the topic more thoroughly. My thought is to spend at least a couple of sessions diving into Nihilism, its historical roots and shoots. 

So, by way of introduction to the topic, I offer this passage from the novel Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev (1862; C. J. Hogarth trans. 1921):

“What exactly is your Bazarov?” he enquired of Arkady.

“What is he?” Arkady repeated smiling. “Do you really want me to tell you what he is, Uncle?”

“If you please, my nephew.”

“He is a Nihilist.”

“A what?” exclaimed Nikolai Petrovitch, while even Paul Petrovitch paused in the act of raising a knife to the edge of which there was a morsel of butter adhering.

“A Nihilist,” repeated Arkady.

“A Nihilist?” queried Nikolai Petrovitch. “I imagine that that must be a term derived from the Latin nihil or ‘nothing.’ It denotes, I presume, a man 

who—a man who—well, a man who declines to accept anything.”

“Or a man who declines to respect anything,” hazarded Paul Petrovitch as he re-applied himself to the butter.

“No, a man who treats things solely from the critical point of view,” corrected Arkady.

“But the two things are one and the same, are they not?” queried Paul Petrovitch.

“Oh no. A Nihilist is a man who declines to bow to authority, or to accept any principle on trust, however sanctified it may be.”

“And to what can that lead?” asked Paul Petrovitch.

“It depends upon the individual. In one man’s case, it may lead to good; in that of another, to evil.”

“I see. But we elders view things differently. We folk of the older generation believe that without principles” (Paul Petrovitch pronounced the word softly, and with a French accent, whereas Arkady had pronounced it with an emphasis on the leading syllable)—”without principles it is impossible to take a single step in life, or to draw a single breath. Mais vous avez changé tout cela. God send you health and a general’s rank, Messieurs Nihil—how do you pronounce it?”

“Ni-hi-lists,” said Arkady distinctly.

“Quite so (formerly we had Hegelists, and now they have become Nihilists)—God send you health and a general’s rank, but also let us see how you will contrive to exist in an absolute void, an airless vacuum. Pray ring the bell, brother Nikolai, for it is time for me to take my cocoa.”

Turgenev is often credited with bringing the concept nihilism to the attention of the reading public in the 1860s; however, from what I have researched, it had its philosophical origins a few decades earlier during the late German Enlightenment (1770-1810), particularly in the writings of Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi. While Jacobi is not widely studied today (even though his influence on 20th century philosophy is immense!), he was quite a force to be dealt with during his lifetime. Known for his tireless and forceful polemic, he often challenged (even as he admired) many of the influential Enlightenment figures such as Lessing, Mendelssohn, Goethe, Kant, Fichte, and Hegel; often persuading them to at least consider his objections to their philosophical projects. Some (Kant, Fichte, Hegel), even revised their philosophical projects in order to address or accommodate a few of Jacobi’s concerns. In one instance, he may even have contributed to Fichte’s getting fired from a teaching position at Jena during what became known as the “Atheism Controversy”. In the middle of the controversy, he published an open letter to Fichte complaining that Fichte’s Idealist philosophy could lead to an atheism (an “I” without a “Thou” in Jacobi’s view) based on nothing. This is where Jacobi first used the term “nihilism” to describe the nothingness that he believed grounded Enlightenment rationality. 

For our next discussion, I have provided three readings. The first and second readings describe Jacobi’s “non-philosophy” in contrast to the Enlightenment and Transcendental Idealism of his contemporaries. They are secondary sources, but I think that they give a good representation (and condensation) of Jacobi’s sprawling critique. Jacobi never developed a coherent philosophy per se. For the most part, his polemic style was more conducive to raising questions than providing answers. While reading these articles, focus on what Jacobi meant by nihilism and why he believed philosophical reason was by definition nihilistic.

F. H. Jacobi and Nihilism:

“Nothingness or a God”: Nihilism, Enlightenment, and “Natural Reason” in Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi’s Works; Stefan-Sebastian Maftei


The Death-Defying Leap from Nihilism to Transcendence: F. H. Jacobi’s Idea of Transcendence; Peter Jonkers


The third reading is actually a chronology of German Idealism. I do recommend looking at it because it helpfully situates Jacobi within his intellectual milieu.

German Idealism chronology:


Finally, I thought I would tack on this extra reading that provides more about Jacobi and Fichte. It is not essential for our next discussion, but it might be of interest to some:

Vitalism and System: Jacobi and Fichte on Philosophy and Life; Rolf Ahlers


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