Recensions et comptes rendusPhilosophie

Nolen Gertz, Nihilism (The MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series). Cambridge MA, The MIT Press, 2019, 13,7 × 21,3 cm, 224 p., 21,90 $USA, ISBN 978-0-26253-717-9

  • Matthew Allen Newland

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  • Matthew Allen Newland
    State University of New York at Jefferson

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Cover of Le bon pasteur : une métaphore parlante pour un <em>leadership</em> d’aujourd’hui ?, Volume 74, Number 2-3, May–December 2022, pp. 161-456, Science et Esprit

Nolen Gertz’s Nihilism is intended, according to its back cover, to offer an “examination of the meaning of meaninglessness: why it matters that nothing matters.” As a part of the Essential Knowledge series, Gertz’s book is intended to offer a concise and accessible introduction to the topic, and on the whole it succeeds. The book is focused and highly readable, clearly written for those new to the topic and in need of a clear idea of what the concept means. On the other hand, the brief length and broad scope of the topic can make the book somewhat overwhelming; the bewildering amount of material, thinkers, and their ideas, and readers’ lack of familiarity with these could make it all somewhat confusing. My familiarity with such figures as Socrates, Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant, for example, made the chapter of the book covering them quite easy to follow (if I had been reading about these people for the first time, it might have been more difficult to process and recall the provided information). The sheer breadth and depth of human thought certainly becomes apparent over the course of the chapters, as so many people have made so many insightful contributions to conversation (which continues right up until the present day). Throughout the book, Gertz presents nihilism as a tendency from which nearly all of us suffer: a denial of reality and truth. He would portray nihilism as both positive and negative (depending on how this denial is used): is some vital truth being denied in order to avoid it, or may we deny what we see in order to test its reality? The chapter in which Gertz describes the questions and responses of philosophers throughout history demonstrates the different aspects/ways nihilism has manifested itself in human thought. A brief overview of the chapters comprising the book will now be presented, along with the different conceptions of nihilism discussed by the thinkers covered in the book. This will both show the various meanings “nihilism” has held over the centuries, and a comprehensive, clear understanding of what “nihilism” means can be put forward as a result of this comparison. Chapter 1 (“Why Does it Matter that Nothing Matters?”) begins with an assessment of nihilism in the contemporary world, observing how commonplace and “mainstream” it has become (citing the comedy of Jerry Seinfeld and the success of such films as The Big Lebowski (1998) as examples, showing the presence of nihilistic worldviews in popular culture). Gertz also discusses how nihilism has been so successful at establishing itself as the mainstream, default perspective of our age by considering how media, rather than academia or politics, have paved the way for the attitudes so prevalent in our time. Chapter 2 (“What is the History of Nihilism?”) traces the evolution of nihilism from Socrates to Plato (with Socrates’ efforts to demoralize the confidence of the people of Athens in their ideas, and Plato’s’ story of the cave, and the doubts it inspires regarding reality and truth). The chapter then leads to Descartes (whom Gertz identifies as an unwilling nihilist, doubting while seeking certainty), and then David Hume (who, in contrast with Descartes, accepts the impossibility of certain knowledge, responding to the challenge of nihilism by playing backgammon with his friends). The idea at the heart of all these examples is doubt in the face of uncertainty: the nihilism of each of these philosophers comes from rejecting the certainty of the world and of appearances, in order to find something more real/true behind it (with the exception of Hume, who realizes that there is none to be found). Gertz’s …