What is the meaning of life? Isn’t that the question that philosophy is supposed to answer? Maybe, maybe not. But philosophy can help us talk about how we get ourselves into situations of “meaning” and “meaninglessness.” Against the threat of meaningless existence offered by a nihilistic worldview—an attitude that declares finding meaning in this world to be impossible—philosopher Simon Critchley propounds a theory of what is common: “the acceptance of meaninglessness as the achievement of the everyday or the ordinary.” Accepting that meaning can’t be offered to us from on high, but rather that we have to make it for ourselves, points the way out of nihilism’s trap. As Critchley will demonstrate, this is very much related to questions of ethics, and “the good,” in a secular society.
This interview was conducted at various times and places and via various media between March and June 2003. Media included email, cassette tape, barely decipherable handwriting, and good old face-to-face conversation. Questions were answered in and from places including New York, San Francisco, and diverse locales all over Europe where Critchley seems to be relentlessly traveling. Oh, and Iceland. Times included 1:19 a.m., 3:54 p.m., 2:33 a.m., and my favorite, 11:11 PST. Simon Critchley is a professor of philosophy at the University of Essex in England, and directeur de programme at the College International de Philosophie in Paris. In January 2004 he will join the graduate faculty of the New School University in New York. When it comes to punctuation he is very fond of ellipses. He is the author of five books, most recently On Humour (Routledge, 2002).
JILL STAUFFER: You have said that philosophy begins in disappointment. What does that mean for philosophers, for human beings, for philosophy?
SIMON CRITCHLEY: There are lots of stories about how philosophy begins. Some people claim it begins in wonder; some people claim it begins in worry. I claim it begins in disappointment. And there are two forms of disappointment that interest me: religious and political disappointment. Religious disappointment flows from the realization that religious belief is not an option for us. Political disappointment flows from the fact that there is injustice—that we live in a world that is radically unjust and violent, where might seems to equal right, where the poor are exploited by the rich, etc. So for me philosophy begins with these experiences of disappointment: a disappointment at the level of what I would think of as “meaning,” namely that, given that there is no God, what is the meaning of life? And, given that we live in an unjust world, how are we to bring about justice?
JS: I suspect that you will encounter little resistance with regard to the assertion that the world is unjust, but some might find the “given” that there is no God displeasing, or at least un-“given.”
SC: Haven’t you heard? God is dead.
JS: Oh, I’ve heard. But tell me what you mean.
SC: Nietzsche writes that nihilism is the experience where the highest values have devalued themselves. Where the question “why?” finds no answer. This can also be linked in Nietzsche to the problematic of the death of God. The thought in Nietzsche is not that the highest values have been devalued through some sort of general skepticism. No, Nietzsche’s thought is much deeper. It is that the highest values have devalued themselves—it is a reflexive verb he uses. This is what he means by the death of God. It is not the fact that God has somehow been killed or has popped his clogs or slipped off behind the scenery, but rather that we have killed him. That’s Nietzsche’s full remark: “God is dead. We have killed him.” The way history has worked out, Nietzsche tells us, is that the highest values in which we believed—namely, God, immortality of the soul, and whatever—have become incredible to us. We cannot believe in them. Why? Because Christianity, for Nietzsche, is driven by a will to truth. What I mean is that Christianity is not a fable for a Christian. It is not just a nice story about the creation of the world and some rabbi who got murdered by the occupying Roman authorities a couple thousand years ago. No, for the Christian, the Christian story is true. There is a will to truth at the heart of Christianity. What the Christian realizes, in Nietzsche’s account, is that the “true” world, the world of heaven, immortality, God, is untrue. It has been disproved by reason itself, by science, the will to truth. What is nihilistic for Nietzsche is the following situation: The Christian realizes that what he or she has taken to be true is in fact untrue. God is dead. And we have killed him. That drives people to declarations of meaninglessness, radical meaninglessness. It is the position that is expressed philosophically, for Nietzsche, in the work of his onetime favorite philosopher, Schopenhauer. The point of Nietzsche’s work is to refuse the nihilism of the present—his late-nineteenth-century present.
JS: So nihilism reigns if human beings think that there is no answer to the question of meaninglessness. And Nietzsche’s point, as I see it, is that human beings are the answer. The human possibilities of thought and action defeat nihilism. If we take them on.
SC: Yes. But our present is still nihilistic. Nietzsche claimed he would be born posthumously. People are acutely aware of the meaninglessness of their existence, and they try to cover this up in a number of ways. By returning to forms of traditional religion such as fundamentalist Christianity. Or by engaging in new forms of religion—New Age belief, whether that be yoga or sitting with crystals in your hands, finding your inner child, sitting under a pyramid, or whatever. All of these are examples of passive nihilism. You might also try what Nietzsche calls active nihilism, engaging in acts of terrorism or whatever. The idea here is that, given that nothing means anything, we might as well blow the whole place up. I would recommend neither passive nor active nihilism, both of which seek to escape from the “meaning gap” in our lives. The point—the point of Nietzsche’s philosophy, and of philosophy as such, in my view—is to think within that gap and work against nihilism. To use thought against the nihilism of the present.
JS: So God or other universal or absolute ideas cannot offer answers to the question of the meaning of life, and thus any answer has to come from within human life, which is finite and capable of error. What kind of answer can that be?
SC: Well, the answer is given in the question. The only answer to the question of the meaning of life has to begin from the fact of our human finitude, of our vulnerability and our fallibility. My personal belief that I’ve tried to argue for in my book Very Little… Almost Nothing—a winning title if ever there was one—is that we have to, in a sense, give up the question of the meaning of life, or at least hear it in a particular way. The formulation that I use in that book is “the acceptance of meaninglessness as the achievement of the everyday or the ordinary.” What I mean by that is that once we’ve accepted that the meaning of life is ours to make, we make meaning. Then we accept that we live in a situation, or, rather, that we inherit a situation of meaninglessness, and out of that meaninglessness we create meaning in relationship to the ordinariness of our common existence. I try to argue for a cultivation of the low, the common and the near—the everyday—as that in relationship to which we can make a meaning out of the meaninglessness of our existence.
JS: Law is often unjust. History and the present world are full of violence and unspeakable cruelty on one hand, and mass apathy with regard to the suffering of others on the other. If we make our own meanings, that means we are entirely free not to do so. Which also means that our connection to meaning—and to ethics—is minimal, fragile, and refusable. Is there reason to hope that good can emerge out of human affairs? Where is that hope of justice and meaning that philosophy at times can provide?
SC: A huge and very difficult question. And the answer that I will give will be unsatisfactory. We have to begin from the melancholy acceptance, at least as a possibility, that perhaps nothing good comes out of human affairs. The story that I was brought up with as a kid and which was implicitly the justification for mutually assured destruction—in the nuclear standoff between the United States and the former Soviet Union—is that we had got beyond the nastiness of war. Somehow the madness of mutually assured destruction at least had the virtue of not allowing for a repeat of the Second World War. That was arguably true. But if there is a feature that dominates the present, I would say there’s the fact of war and the horror and cruelty of war. I think that the activity of thinking is and always has been, and is now increasingly, a response to political horror. We live in dark times. The people who govern us are out of touch and act in accordance with agendas that I find increasingly dispiriting. So I’m deeply pessimistic about the present situation.
JS: But you are not luxuriating in a dispirited bath of nihilism.
SC: No. Far from wanting to give up, on the contrary—this goes back to your first question—philosophy begins in the experience of political disappointment, the fact of injustice. In the face of that fact, one can create. Ethically, legally. One can try and do something. The work of the antiwar movement or the antiglobalization movement I see as huge and powerful examples of the ways in which things can be done in the face of the horror of the present. I also see these actions as processes of thought, that is, as worthy of the name “philosophy.” So, although we live in dark times, and I’m pessimistic about the present situation, I’m still fantastically optimistic about what human beings can do in the face of that. But I’m talking about what human beings can do in groups, small or large, collectively. Not what governments can do. I am increasingly suspicious of the whole framework of the state and institutions such as political parties, and the whole apparatus of representative democracy, and I am more and more drawn toward more anarchistic tendencies where politics would be focused upon the manifestation of the people against the intervention of the state. In relation to the question of hope, I think the only hope we have is hope against hope. We hope for a better world. But of course we can do better than just hope. We can act in the world. We can act ethically, we can act well. We can try and construct laws, constitutions, that are just. We can engage in political activity, and in the activity of teaching and instruction. These are tremendous activities of hope. But that’s hope against hope, insofar as there is no metaphysical basis for my hope. I can’t root it in religious belief. There’s a lovely phrase of Gillian Rose’s, which she borrowed from somebody else, which goes, “keep your mind in hell and despair not.” I think of that a lot. Philosophy is keeping one’s mind in hell, in the violence and cruelty of the present, and not despairing, but going on, making, creating, affirming.
JS: So if we are not to be nihilists we must recognize that philosophy is atheism, a willing embrace of a world without a higher or outside order. But somehow that doesn’t consign us to a world that can only be as it is, without hope of something better.
SC: Yes. For me, there is a radical separation between philosophy—the activity of being a philosopher, someone who reflects—and a religious point of view. The philosopher is someone who doesn’t know, but who wants to find out. This is why Socrates was declared the wisest man in Greece. The inscription over the oracle at Delphi reads: Know Thyself. The truth is, we do not know ourselves. The wisest of us accept that we do not know ourselves. Philosophy is the inquiry into that situation. But the religious person knows what the meaning of life is.
JS: Religion or faith is a situation into which inquiry is not necessary.
SC: Yes. The religious person knows that God is in his heaven, or that everything will turn out well in the end, or that redemption will be possible, or that if they kill themselves in a suicide bombing incident, then they’ll get to sleep with seventy virgins or whatever. I do not feel entitled to such knowledge. I suppose I still hold out the possibility of religious experience. I’ve just never had one. Maybe one day everything will change. I’ll turn to Jesus, or Allah, or the Torah. And we’ll see. But for now, in the situation I’m in at the moment, all I can do is philosophize. In the absence of anything like God. If I had a religious experience, what I know for sure is that I would stop doing philosophy and would start doing religion, teaching classes in religion, preaching in a local church. That is fine and noble activity. But I do not feel entitled to engage in it. So for me philosophy is my fate.
JS: The philosopher doesn’t “know,” or she knows that she doesn’t “know herself.” The religious person trusts in something higher than human life, and so has a guarantee of something good in the end. So the philosopher’s ethics, hopes, or values are more fragile than a religious person’s. They are fragile and possibly will fail. But that is what we have if we are to change the world now instead of later. Only humans can act and change the world. But they might not do so.
SC: In your first question you asked me what the assertion that philosophy begins in disappointment would mean for philosophers and for human beings. I want to state that, at the level of method, I don’t want to make a huge distinction between philosophers and human beings. I think philosophy is the theoretical elaboration or elucidation of intuitions that are common to human beings. Philosophy just makes that manifest through a certain discipline of reflection. So philosophy, for me, is a way of relearning to look at the world, a world that is familiar to us, that we know, that is shared by all human beings and also by nonhuman beings. I think that when people are at their best, when they are thinking, reflecting, cogitating, then they are doing philosophy. So I don’t see philosophy as an academic enterprise. If I did, I think I’d slit my wrists and go sit in a bath and die like a good Roman. For me, philosophy is an activity of thought that is common to human beings. Human beings at their best. Or, to use the phrase of Stanley Cavell, “[P]hilosophy is the education of grown-ups.”
JS: The points about resisting nihilism and being grown-up seem to have something to do with what it means to live in a secular society, or in a society that can’t be ordered by belief in one idea, God, or order.
SC: That’s absolutely right. There’s a lot of debate about secularism among people who claim that we can no longer accept that we live in a secularist world… by people as clever as William Connolly, whose last book was called Why I Am Not a Secularist. One of the tendencies intellectually at present is a massive return to religion, usually in the guise of postmodernism. I think this is lamentable. To be honest I think it’s a little disgusting. Not that Connolly is disgusting, of course.
JS: Connolly’s book seems to me to be about how to be a good secularist instead of a bad one. At least according to his definitions. What is religion in the guise of postmodernism?
SC: The problem of secularism, the problem of the secular world, is that we haven’t achieved it yet. In my view, the problem of modernity is not that we have somehow got beyond modernity into postmodernity. On the contrary, we haven’t achieved modernity. Modernity would be the achievement of a secular form of life, and we haven’t got there yet. This is a position that I owe to my great friend Jay Bernstein. The philosophical task—and also the political, ethical, legal task—is the achievement of a secular society. If we think about something like the war in Iraq… this is an entirely religious war. And it does indeed correspond to a reactionary right-wing diagnosis of the present such as that of Samuel Huntington (The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order). The U.S.–Iraq conflict is a confrontation between two versions of religious metaphysics. That is what we have to get rid of. People are perfectly happy to reject the terrorist metaphysics of Al-Qaeda, but they should be equally active in rejecting the reactive metaphysics of George W. Bush, which has transformed political discourse into religious discourse, in particular through his careless use of categories such as “evil.”
JS: If there is no final authority that stands higher than what human beings create, how can we know what right and wrong are? What stability can categories of reason have? And what place can justice or ethics have in such a scheme?
SC: These are important questions. I think you are asking after a form of authority which is simply not available to us. If there is no higher authority than what human hands, brains, and bodies are able to create, then right and wrong are what we declare to be right and wrong. Ethics, justice, and law are not handed to us on Sinai on large tablets; they are things that we have to create for ourselves. We have to become grown-ups. The problem that is raised—the deep problem that is raised by your question—is what justification is there for one conception of right and wrong over another conception of right and wrong? The problem that giving up religious belief creates is the problem of moral skepticism: I say good, you say bad… or you say good, I say bad, virtue and vice spin and turn, moral language becomes increasingly ambiguous. How do we arrest that? Well, there are various means. Some people will want to base right and wrong in the life of a specific community. Which could be relatively large, like a nation-state, or it could be very small, as small as a monastery or a school. Other people will want to base right and wrong in a procedure of what philosophers call universalization, namely that the only norms we can act on justly are ones that all human beings could justifiably act on. And so on and so forth. Contemporary moral theory, dominated by the three standard theories of justification—deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics—is borne out of recognition that this is our situation. Now, my present work is on ethics, and I am trying to answer this question. I think that one has to recognize that there is a point at which moral argumentation breaks down. I’m calling my next book Ethics… My Way. And implicit within such a title is acceptance of the fact that I can try to produce as rational and coherent a theory of ethics as is possible, but in a sense I’m not going to be able to convince the skeptic. There’s a point where moral argumentation reaches a limit. What I can do is recommend a certain view to you in the most persuasive terms and hope that you accept it.
JS: Would you like to say more to recommend your view?
SC: The book on ethics is really a book against ethics, or against the way ethics is commonly talked about in universities. I think that ethics has become too focused on questions of justification. How we justify different norms of action, whether we do that by universalizing them if we’re a Kantian; or referring them to the greatest happiness, the greatest number, if we’re a utilitarian; or referring them to the virtues of a specific community if we are a neo-Aristotelian. I think this risks reducing morality to a sort of student party game that is at its most extreme in certain tendencies in applied ethics: “Hands up who thinks we should switch off the life-support machine!” Though there are also some better tendencies in applied ethics. For me, the issue is not so much justification as motivation, that in virtue of which a self can be motivated to act on some conception of the good.
JS: You want to focus on an individual’s commitment to ethics or to the good, whatever that might be, instead of beginning with the search for justification.
SC: Yes. That requires some sort of account of what we might call the existential matrix of ethics. So, for me, the basic question of ethics is: How does a self bind itself to whatever it determines as its good? And in order to answer that question I think we need a description and an explanation of the deep subjective commitment to ethical action, of what it really feels like for a self to be faithful to its beliefs. Commitment, which is a nicely old-fashioned and discredited concept, interests me greatly. So, Ethics… My Way is basically an argument for the committed ethical subject that explains why it is that we act morally. My core claim is that the ethical subject takes shape in relation to a felt demand, a demand that can take various forms. On my version of ethics, the subject is committed to a demand which is unfulfillable, one-sided, and radical; this is the demand that is felt in the presence of the other person, neighbor, or stranger, what Emmanuel Levinas calls “the face.”
JS: This will sound metaphysical to many, but for Levinas it is the most concrete demand. How else could I feel distress at harm others undergo that I have done nothing to cause? An ethical commitment affects me prior to my ability to decide to take it on.
SC: Right. The face of the other makes an overwhelming demand upon me, which I can never hope to meet but which prompts my ethical action in the world. In my view, ethical action is taken in the face of infinite responsibility, a responsibility that I can never fully discharge, a responsibility that pushes me on to try and do more, not just for this particular other in front of me, but for all others in the world.
JS: That challenges conceptions that would claim that we have duties only if we consent to give up freedoms. “If I owe something to you, it is because I chose to.” But what you’re describing is a weightier demand. It can be ignored, but it cannot be willed away—it isn’t subject to will or is prior to any possibility of willing.
SC: Ethics is a heavy load and it is always already political, it is always taken in a context where one is endlessly compromised in a play of struggle and power, what Gramsci called “hegemony.” At the end of the book, which I have not written yet (because it is such a difficult topic), I try and broach the question of the relation between ethical action and politics. I will let you know how it turns out.
JS: Are you still going to argue that meaning is found—or, more properly, made—in the common, the everyday?
SC: Yes. In fact, in this regard I’m also writing a book about poetry right now. It’s called Poetry… My Way.
SC: Sorry, only joking. The book is concerned with the question of meaning, and very much focused on this question of the everyday and the ordinary. The poet I’m writing about is the American poet Wallace Stevens, who I think is the most philosophically interesting poet to have written in English in the twentieth century. In many ways, the book is simply an elaboration of that claim: namely, why it is that Stevens is philosophically interesting. Stevens is trying to describe poetically how there is a world for us. How it is that we make a world in words. To quote Stevens, from “The Idea of Order in Key West,” he says of a female figure, a spirit that Stevens and his friend Ramon Fernandez observe walking along the shore of the Atlantic, “there never was a world for her / Except for the one she sang and, singing, made” and “She was the single artificer of the world / In which she in sang.” The point for Stevens is that we make the world in words. The world is what we make of it.
JS: He’s no nihilist.
SC: Ha. So I’m trying to think about the poetic construction of the world. I’m also thinking about how that world continues to resist us. There’s a theme in Stevens’s later poetry which is concerned with the resistance of things to the poetic imagination. The resistance of reality. I’m trying to pick out and describe that as best I can by following through the movement of Stevens’s later poems.
JS: I think most people think that reason and its categories are what rescue us from the blindness or irrationality of faith. But what you’ve been saying reminds us that such a belief—belief in the effectiveness and reliability of reason—is itself a faith, a faith in reason. Such a faith hasn’t let go of the need for faith in something with a final authority outside of human hands.
SC: It’s a good point. And it is one that we must borrow again from Nietzsche. I should say that Nietzsche isn’t my favorite philosopher. But I think he is powerful and incontrovertible in all sorts of ways. The point about reason in Nietzsche is that faith in the categories of reason is, as he says, the cause of nihilism. This could be linked to a thought inherited from Nietzsche through the work of Max Weber into the thought of the Frankfurt School, in particular Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. The thought here is that reason, which was that in which we had faith in the period of the Enlightenment—the eighteenth century—has undergone a reversal, an inversion, a dialectical transformation. The reason that was meant to be our salvation—to be, in Kant’s words, man’s freedom from his self-incurred tutelage—has become the means of our imprisonment. It has become the instrumental rationality, the bureaucratic rationality, that governs contemporary society. This is the version of rationality that was also discussed by Foucault in his idea that we live in societies of surveillance, discipline, and control.
JS: Turns out, reason has not set us free.
SC: The point is not to abandon reason, but to face up to what reason has become for us, and to imagine both new forms of rationality—more capacious forms of rationality, that would be capable of acknowledging the experience of communication, of dependence, of vulnerability. That is, of imagining emancipatory forms of reason. That’s not something that my work is particularly devoted to, but I think it’s a noble task, something we ought to take seriously. This would be an experience of reason where the opposition between reason and faith would begin to fall apart. A more capacious notion of reason would carry within it that stratum of experience that we normally associate with faith, the life of the passions, the affective emotional life, and so on and so forth.
JS: Well, if the aim of such a rationality is to become capable of acknowledging the experiences of communication, vulnerability, and dependence, that seems to me to be very much related to your concern that ethics always ought to refer back to the ethical subject rather than jumping straight onto the bandwagon of universality or utility. Communication, vulnerability, and dependence (and their various failures) often wake us, at times forcefully, from the dream of universality. And a more capacious kind of reason, I would hazard, would make us re-view the world, perhaps phenomenologically. Should we talk about phenomenology and its possible relation to ethics?
SC: If you say so. Merleau-Ponty says that true philosophy consists in relearning to look at the world. Philosophy teaches us to look at the world again. It brings out at a theoretical level what all plain, common, ordinary people, in a sense, know already. That’s also a definition of phenomenology. Another formulation of the term would be to say that phenomenology is the unveiling of the pre-theoretical layer of human experience. We exist in a world, we exist practically in an everyday manner. Phenomenology is a philosophical method that tries to uncover that pre-theoretical layer of human experience and re-describe it. That, in a sense, sounds a little obscure and uninteresting. I’d sharpen it up by thinking about the relation between phenomenology and the scientific worldview. We live in a world that is dominated by science. And that’s not a bad thing—not at all. But one of the problems with the scientific worldview is that it leads human beings to have an overwhelmingly theoretical relationship to the world. For example, I no longer accept my being in the world practically and then try to describe that or elucidate that; rather, I see the world theoretically as colors and objects and representations which are fed through my retina into the brain.
JS: The theoretical version gets prioritized.
SC: Right. Then one can ask all sorts of neurophysiological questions about the nature of the brain, the nature of perception, and so on and so forth. That is important stuff. But what I want to stay with philosophically, and what phenomenology gives to us, is a sense of the obvious—that which is in front of our eyes, the below, the near, the common—[I want] to try and elucidate that. So phenomenology is a relearning of how we see the world in its presence, its palpable and practical presence.
JS: So the obvious is actually not so obvious. We don’t see it until we learn to look. Or what is nearest to us is often what is furthest from us in terms of our thinking, as Heidegger might say. Could we say that the difference between the scientific and phenomenological views is the difference between a theory of the world and an experience of the world?
SC: Well, phenomenology is not an empiricism. Empiricism would be another version of theory that phenomenology would want to reject. Phenomenology is about the uncovering of a layer of acquaintance with the world that we know but that, in a sense, we conceal through our scientific and theoretical activity.
JS: Right. We conceal the obvious in order to lay stress on other things. Could we say phenomenology is a living knowledge of the world?
SC: I think I would say that phenomenology is the power of reflection brought to bear on the fact of being-in-the-world.
JS: Philosophy begins in disappointment. Does philosophy end, and if so, how?
SC: Well, as I’ve already admitted, philosophy could end for me if I underwent a religious experience or became an anti-intellectual philistine. Perhaps those two alternatives would amount to the same conclusion. But, on the contrary: For me, philosophy does not end. I disagree, therefore, vehemently, with someone, like Richard Rorty, who would see the whole activity of philosophy as something we can consign to the past, so that we should engage ourselves in literary criticism, the writing of history and politics, instead of philosophy. Here, of course, Rorty follows David Hume. On the contrary. For me, because of the fact of something like political horror, because of the fact that the question of meaning still eats away at us, we require philosophy as a means of reflection and thought, which aims toward emancipating human beings from situations of unfreedom and pushing them toward the possibility of freedom.
JS: And it all comes down to us: human beings. We’re the cause of political horror, but also the possibility of its solution or end. And we’re also the only ones capable of creating meaning or further possibility for ourselves and others. Philosophy is the pursuit of possibility.
SC: Philosophy isn’t programmed into us, and a lot of the forces of our culture steadfastly work against it. Philosophy, for me, is a way of resisting the nihilism of the present by making, creating, affirming. By going on. In many ways, the philosophical motto here could be taken from someone like Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on; I’ll go on.” Or, as Pascal says (and this is a phrase that lives with me all the time), “Man is a reed, the weakest in nature; a virus, a vapor is enough to kill him. But man can think. And it is in this that our dignity consists. Let us strive to think well.” Philosophy is this striving to think well. To give that up would be to give up the most sizable portion of our humanity.