That NYT essay by Dr. Kelly, chair of Harvard’s Philosophy dept, keeps percolating up in my mind. I’ll take a crack at deciphering it over the next few days, time permitting. Sure, he’s writing for a popular audience, so he’s not going to get all technical, but at least we can hope for some level of clarity from somebody with a job as a professional thinker. Since he can’t very well plead ignorance, we must honor him by assuming he means what says and isn’t just confused. Until proven otherwise. So:
The discussion of nihilism ─ the sense that it is no longer obvious what our most fundamental commitments are, or what matters in a life of distinction and worth, the sense that the world is an abyss of meaning rather than its God-given preserve ─ finds no sustained treatment in the works that Nietzsche prepared for publication during his lifetime.
Rather than being a positive assertion – life is meaningless – Nihilism, in the hands of Kelly becomes, first, “a sense that it is no longer obvious what our most fundamental commitments are”. So, right off the bat, we’re sensing instead of thinking. Then, “the sense that the world is an abyss of meaning rather than its God-given preserve”. Hmm. I had sensed a certain terrible nobility in Nihilism, a certain motivating despair. Kelly’s nihilism seems more likely to make one pine and sigh than to curse the world, shake a fist at Destiny and remake the moral and social landscape by sheer force of Will. Or kill yourself, one or the other. I’ve sensed better of nihilism than Kelly senses.
The evocative and poetical phrase “the world is an abyss of meaning” is, as someone like Kelly might say, redolent with historical associations. He is standing the abyss on its head. If there is no BIG meaning, by which Kelly means no objective imperatives to any objective truth or morality, then calling the world an abyss of meaning equates the search for meaning to falling into an abyss. Are we to suppose there actually is meaning in the abyss, dark night of the soul style? And that, somehow, we are tempted to, nay, many actually willingly, fling ourselves in? He does seem to be describing belief in an objective order as a sort of insanity, so that those who insist on it might find themselves at the bottom of a deep well out of which they cannot climb. They have meaning at the cost of life.
No, Kelly thinks of any claim to have discerned an objective moral order that can then be applied – gasp! – to others as well as ourselves is delusional. In other words, appropriate to Kelly’s undergrads, the only objective moral truth is that there are no objective moral truths. The abyss is just a hole in the ground.
At least in this little essay, Kelly is discretely silent on the topic of objective reality in general, focusing instead and disparagingly on the notion of objective morality. But, really, in the big picture, those two ideas – that we can know something of the world, and know something of how to behave – have only very uncomfortably been separated. The idea that there’s a ‘we’ that can sense ‘something’ is functionally the same as the idea that that same we can sense some moral order. Sticking with Kelly’s preferred approach of sensing (as opposed to thinking) – this general, mystical feeling that there is purpose and meaning in life that comes with living well is never present in a clear-thinking person who also hold that objective reality in general is unknowable. The opposite state is attempted more often – believing that, while physical reality is knowable to some extent, moral reality is a fiction (or, as commonly explained these days, an illusion based on the results of natural selection). Among those who speak up, only a tiny percentage of such thinkers take their position at all seriously – if you did, the last thing you’d waste your breath on is trying to convince others to behave as you do. That’s a hobby for people who feel they’re *right*, damn it!
Philosophy at Harvard, on the evidence here, has devolved into glorified academic self-help of the I’m OK, You’re OK school. Kelly is using his pulpit (and drafting Nietzsche and Melville) to say, essentially: in a truly civilized society, nobody bothers about what the truth in morality is. Rather, they just try to get along and look to the admirable as their guide. So, you needn’t feel bad about your evil, stupid, cruel, traitorous behavior, because it is “no longer obvious what our most fundamental commitments are”. And what would we abyss dwellers imagine those commitments to be? Spouse? Divorce them if you sense it would be a good idea. Parents? Dump ’em in a nursing home at your earliest convenience. Children? Abort them, or, if that fails, stick in day care and let the state raise them for you in school.
Just do your best to make it admirable. Only a delusional, senseless man would do otherwise.