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Nihilism & Personal Identity

What is Nihilism? To the armchair scholarly young adult, an aesthetic above all else. Cashmere jumpers, turtlenecks, tweed blazers, sipping a coffee in a cigarette smoke-filled lazy cafe by the river, watching the people come and go (" . . . talking of Michaelangelo") with bitter resentment, for they have yet to take off their rose-tinted glasses and see the meaninglessness and absurdity of our world.

Aesthetics aside, what exactly is Nihilism? Stemming from the Latin 'Nihil' meaning nothing, this philosophy "labels all values as worthless." It's pessimism and skepticism taken to uncomfortable maximals. With a notable "impulse to destroy," Nihilism's key themes are "epistemological failure, value destruction, and cosmic purposelessness."

Nihilists believe there can be no personal identity over time; the very "self" does not exist.

Before you start searching for aesthetically pleasing quote wallpapers about not existing, keep in mind you can't even say, "I do not exist," because I reinforces a persisting self and affirms your existence, which doesn't comply with the Nihilistic dismissal of loyalties to any self, personal, idea, or meaning.

The slightly exaggerated (I'm giving the benefit of the doubt by hoping it's an exaggeration) description of our pseudo-nihilists in coffee shops is not just for humor; as I've mentioned, I'm seeing people take to philosophy more for the aesthetic of it rather than for the value system alignment and personal doctrine agreement. The aesthetics by which we live heavily reflect who we are at any given moment. Although the aesthetic might not be an accurate reflection of the morals within, it certainly reflects something as to why one might be attracted to that particular aesthetic in this particular moment. In other words, the philosophies we live by (aesthetic or doctrinal) are closely tied to our personal identities.

Understanding what a multifaceted subject this is, I reached out over e-mail to UIC philosophy professor Marya Schechtman, a well-known and regarded scholar whose main areas of reserach include personal identity, practical reasoning and bioethics.

We had to start with a definition. What exactly is personal identity?

"Wow!" Schechtman wrote back. "That is an extremely big question, and one that I am not going to be able to answer completely. One of the things that makes this topic endlessly fascinating is that there are so many very different questions that are described as questions of personal identity, ranging from extremely abstract, metaphysical questions to very concrete and practical ones.

"Metaphysically, questions are about what it takes for a person at one time to be literally the same object or entity as a person at another time. I think that I am the same person as the person in this picture of a 10th birthday party, but what makes me the same as the little girl in that picture? Is it having the same human body? That is typically how we reidentify people - using things like fingerprints or DNA. But we seem to often judge that people could come apart from their bodies. Many spiritual traditions believe that a soul or spirit can leave the body and that if that happens, I leave my body. If this can happen, then I am not identical to my body. If I am the same person as the 10-year-old in the photo, it is not because we have the same body, but because we have the same soul or spirit . . .

"But very often when we talk about personal identity, we are not talking about whether an entity at one time is literally identical to an entity at another time. Instead we are asking about what someone is really like. Which are the core features or characteristics that make her the specific person she is, not in the metaphysical sense, but in a more psychological or moral sense. This is the kind of identity most of your subsequent questions seem to be about. But even within this subcategory there are a lot of different notions of identity. There are identities we adopt and identities we are born with and identities we are given by others; there is an identity we have because of our personal history, and the identities of identity politics. There are all kinds of 'identities' and we all have multiple identities of multiple kinds, which is what makes things so complicated - both for philosophers studying personal identity and for all of us living our lives."

I was curious as to why some people struggle to construct a meaningful personal identity, and Schechtman referred to her previous answer about the multi-dimensionality of personal identity.

"Some people struggle, however, not because they are conflicted or lack support, but just because, for whatever reason, nothing seems meaningful or important to them. This could be because of a medical condition like depression, or it could be because of metaphysical reflections on the contingency and finitude of the universe. This, of course, would be closely connected to your questions about Nihilism.

"Some people are in circumstances in which putting together a coherent identity is difficult because different demands or dimensions of their personality are deeply opposed to each other, and so they find themselves with very serious conflicts about who to be. Some people give the Greek tragedies as examples of these kinds of conflicts, in which two absolutely central parts of a person's personality pull in opposite directions, so there is no good way to construct an identity without denying something very important to you.

"But you don't have to go to Greek tragedy. We see things like this all the time. People often face conflicts between career and family, traditions they cherish and new values that are at odds with them, and things of that sort.

"In most cases we can find ways to make it work, making compromises that allow us to pursue multiple meaningful projects. Sometimes, however, the conflict is too intense, and this can lead to a crisis. Think for instance, of Gauguin deciding he needs to leave his life in France to pursue his painting.

"In other cases, it is difficult to develop a meaningful identity not because of an internal conflict, but because the circumstances are undermining in one way or another. Someone may find themselves in a circumstance in which their deepest dreams or values or characteristics are ridiculed or detested, making it hard to accept and pursue them.

"I think there is no doubt that social support is very important in developing an identity. Material conditions also matter. If I need to work three jobs to put food on the table for my children, this will limit the possibilities of self-expression.

"I can of course have a well-defined identity as a mother or hard worker but figuring out what I really want is just more difficult in such circumstances.

"Similarly, the more opportunities you are exposed to the more likely you are to find what really moves you. The idea isn't that you can't have an identity without money or social support, just that the task of building an identity is much easier if you have the time, space, and support to explore different ways of being."

I mentioned Nihilism growing in popularity among my fellow college students, and I was curious how this might affect not just their worldview but also their identities.

"There are a number of different definitions of 'nihilism,' but I'm thinking that here you mean something like the view that there are no real values or truths, and no ultimate meaning in the universe.

"If this is the case, I think you are right, as you seem to suggest, that this attitude or set of beliefs is closely connected to identity. A sense of meaning comes from a feeling that we know who we are, how we fit into the world, and how we are contributing to it. Identity is closely connected to pursuits that one finds meaningful and valuable. If part of my identity is being a mother, then I think my children are important and raising them is important and meaningful. If part of my identity is being a philosopher, I think that reflecting on philosophical questions and communicating what I learn is important and valuable. If I cannot see anything valuable and important to do or be, it is difficult to get a handle on who I am.

"But it goes the other way as well. I was not aware that Nihilism is increasingly popular among young people, but I'm not surprised. We are certainly at a complex moment in world and U.S. history. Particularly here in the U.S., we seem to be at a moment of great flux during which fundamental questions about who we are as a nation and who we are as people is being called into question. We are discovering that there are deep divisions and that at the most basic level we do not have consensus on what is right and wrong and how we should live. Certainly, all of this is likely to make us question whether there really are any objective values or meanings. That people can see things so differently and that institutions we had taken for granted are in danger of being undermined makes the whole foundation seem questionable. Since what we find meaningful is so often connected to these institutions, such a time will invite nihilism and identity crisis.

"This has obviously happened before. Much Existentialist philosophy is a reaction to the erosion of institutions and divisions in Europe. One particular strand, for instance, worries about the fact that after a long period in which the teachings of the Church were more or less taken for granted, that institution was being seriously questioned for the first time.

"Other strands responded to WWII and the disaster and chaos it caused. These are obviously different from the situations in which we find ourselves now - I am not trying to equate them - but in times of turmoil and change the values and systems that had given us a settled picture of meaning are suddenly no longer solid, and Nihilism and identity crisis are rather natural responses. It is difficult, but sometimes this chaos can lead to very positive change over generations."

I brought up how Nihilists don't believe in personal identity persisting over time.

"Many philosophers (and recently some neuroscientists) have argued in one way or another that identity is an illusion; that there is no 'self' that continues over time. There are a wide variety of responses to this, depending upon exactly what's being asserted.

"If the claim is that there is no thing that continues, to many people this might not matter much if it leaves our experience and values unchanged. But if the claim is that we have no real nature and should not seek consistency or coherence over the course of our lives, many people will obviously find this troubling. I know I do, and much of my work on personal identity is directed to trying to understand the sense in which we do remain the same over time, despite all the changes we undergo.

"It is interesting, though, to ask why this should trouble us. To those of us who are troubled, it seems obvious, but it turns out to be difficult to say just what we lose if it turns out there is no self.

"And it's worth remembering that some Asian and other spiritual traditions also see the self as an illusion, one which causes a great deal of suffering by fixating us on the past and future and preventing us to experience the present in its fullness.

"The illusion of a unified self is also seen as keeping us from experiencing our deeper connection to the universe as a whole. This is not a form of nihilism, since many of these traditions see a great deal of value and meaning; it is just that these do not occur at the level of the self and do not require identity.

"So being a nihilist is not the only way to deny a persisting self. That said, I do believe that there must be some notion of a persistent self even to get questions like the ones we are discussing off the ground. The question of how identity is connected to value and meaning just turns out to be really complicated."

Why do people face an identity crisis? How does one overcome it?

"People have identity crises because there is flux in their environment or conflict in their deepest interests, values, and desires, or just because they have a period in which they cannot see a clear, meaningful path.

"What we call an identity crisis often emerges when one discovers a new aspect of oneself or reinterprets a longstanding one so that there is a conflict that was not there before (think of the fashionista coming to see her industry as oppressive, or a college student confronted by new ideas that cause him to rethink long-held values, or changes in society that make you question the religious convictions that had guided your life).

"Overcoming such a crisis usually requires both reflection on what one thinks, and attention to how one feels so that one can either find a way of reconciling the conflicting values or setting off in a new direction.

"Again, support from others and the time and space to do this can be helpful. And, of course, rejecting the notion of identity altogether and espousing nihilism is another way of overcoming an identity crisis and one, it seems, that is especially popular these days."

No meaning to life? Are all values completely arbitrary? No absolute morals? Maybe for some. But for me, I'm suddenly tingling with the familiar sensation of an identity crisis again . . .


Previously by E.K. Mam:
How Studying History Made Me A Stoic.

* Dear High School Students And Recent Graduates . . .

* Tunes To Remedy Any Existential Crisis.

* Flex You.

* Simply Cynicism.

* Suffering With Stoics & Cynics.

* Machiavelli's Prince Charming.

* The Jolie Laide Of Philosophy.

* The Tao Is To Chill.


Comments welcome.


Posted on September 26, 2020

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BOOKS - All About Poop.


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