Theodor Adorno opens his treatise on negative dialectics with the statement that "[it] is a phrase that flouts tradition. As early as Plato, dialectics meant to achieve something positive by means of negation; the thought figure of the 'negation of the negation' later became the succinct term. This book seeks to free dialectics from such affirmative traits without reducing its determinacy."

The Guardian

Is there anything to be said for a synthesis of the negative which seeks to be positive but not distort the being or nihilism of the negative, meaning the lack of real value to things?

It does seem like a kind of felicity to me, in my raving.

3 Answers 3


Short answer: Oui. In Nihil Unbound Ray Brassier makes a case for the absolute validity, realism, and positive nihilism of the scientific project itself.

In its negations and development of the oft-maligned "view from nowhere" the scientific view steadily reduces our phenomenological picture of "man-in-the-world" into a smaller and smaller pointless blip within space, time, and evolution. Brassier focuses in particular on the capacity of science to conceive of and validate "truths" beyond the existence of science, meaning, or consciousness itself, such as the big bang or the extinction of the sun in 4.5 billion years. This is, he argues, a true escape from a subject-oriented ontology.

For Brassier this is the only undeniable value and true being of the eroding "human," to rid itself of the pitiful, clinging illusion of "man" and "self." At the same time, Brassier does retain a synthesizing form of the "rational subject" in his scientific naturalism and "transcendental realism." And there are others--Lyotard or Zen Buddhists, for example--who undertake an unsentimental, atoms-and-void post-humanism.


In a space without value, why would one choose dialectic or synthesis as an approach? The choice of a procedure is attributing value to the perspective it fosters, which denies any true sense of nihilism. Adorno is simply being abstruse. Valuing deconstruction is holding a value.

What we tend to call nihilism itself tends to be the attribution of value to freedom from constraint. Nietzsche is one of the first people folks tend to label nihilist. But he has a definite value system, to which he is so attached that he mocks the degree to which he ends up writing like a religious figure. Wittgenstein is another person whose thought gets labeled nihilistic, but language-games are repositories of meaning, and they represent an ingenious solution humans have made to being individualistic and social at the same time. Empiricism, Cynicism, Academicism and the other cousins of Stoicism are equally not nihilistic. Each has an attachment to a given value at its root, usually a variety of freedom, authenticity, or independence. As Sartre points out in his own defense, Existentialism is the ultimate Humanism.

So yes, there is a point to denying obsessionality, seeking authenticity, honoring detachment, and there are synthetic approaches which incorporate those aims. But no, there is not a point to any synthetic approach to nihilism, because approaching nihilism implies a vector of approach, which is, in itself, not free of presumed value.

This notion of a nihilism that still supports decisions about what is and is not reasonable procedure makes me think of an old New Yorker cartoon -- "We at St Aubrey adopt a totally neutral position on religion. If you say you are not Anglican, we whip you until you change your mind. But it is not a value judgement, it is simply a methodology."

  • I would agree that Adorno is not a nihilist, merely an abstruse pessimist. But Buddhism would appear to refute your claim, as might Schopenhauer, or the various suicidal thinkers like Paul Celan. Obviously, you cannot have "philosophy" or even "language" without "meaning" and thus "values." But there are many instances of philosophical thought moving on a trajectory towards "a space without value," approaching escape velocity, and leaving behind a contrail of words. Sep 11, 2015 at 16:17
  • 1
    Buddhism is dual. It values compassion as a synthesizing value, while aiming at freedom from reality. To the extent it is nihilist, it is not synthetic, and to the point it synthesizes value in compassion, it is not nihilist. But it is really not of one piece, as its ability to have sects that choose different emphasis between these two values indicates. Besides, if freedom from reality is a value, it is a value: freedom. So Buddhism has at least two values. One must attain freedom in a way that is compassionate (the reason escapes logic, so it is a religion rather than a philosophy)
    – user9166
    Sep 12, 2015 at 0:21
  • @NelsonAlexander (& pre) Schopenhauer is just Buddhism for Dummies (i.e. the whole West), and those in his off-thread don't really change that.
    – user9166
    Sep 12, 2015 at 0:22
  • I am certainly not making any value judgment about Schopenhauer's work. I agree that Buddhism does not fit into Western categories, but I consider it a kind of "hands-on" philosophy with many of the aims found in skepticism, from Ecclesiastes to Hume. But as far as I can tell, you are simply defining "nihilism" out of logical existence. That's a defensible argument, but I feel the concept has a real place in philosophical thinking and history, so worth grappling with. Sep 12, 2015 at 1:24
  • No, I am defining nihilism with goals out of existence. And I am doubting the possibility of formulating a philosophy genuinely without goals that will have any adherents.
    – user9166
    Sep 12, 2015 at 23:15

Nihilism I find to be more about semantics.

It has truth to it. But not in the sense it wants to convey. Nothing for me is not empty, false or untrue.

Nothing can be everything. I'm Indian and the basis of our philosophy is that this world IS an illusion. Maybe it's an illusion to over come. I think that to be true.

Whether it is true or not, doesn't matter to me. Living in India you see abject poverty and immense wealth. You see the worst in people. And when I moved beyond grieving for myself i realised that's what i wanted to see.

There is always another side. There are people who do the right thing, just because it is the right thing and in there minds there is no other way. I understand and think that to be what might be an honourable life.

And if there isn't anything else before or after, so what. I existed for a minutely small fraction of time. But when I did, I used what I had, my brain, and tried to do what I thought was right (most of the time). Why would it even matter? It doesn't, it was just my days went better that way.