A Reflection on Missing Axioms by Samuel Barnes
The Problem With Identifying Nihilism That Isn’t There
If nihilism can’t be lived, then nihilists are living out “something else.”
We learn from Samuel Barnes, the mind behind Missing Axioms, that it is impossible for us not to possess and exhibit values: as he puts it:
‘The human truth is that you have values, values which eminate from you explicitly and implicitly. Human beings can never be contentless. […] Values spew from us in every stride or stumble.’
Considering these eloquent and profound sentences, when we claim nihilism — that “nothing matters” — we claim something that cannot be lived: I can “tell” people that I am a nihilist, but I cannot “show” it (as expanded on in “The True Is Veiled in Blood” by O.G. Rose). Simultaneously, nihilism can absolve us from the responsibility to decide what we should live out. This being the case, when we claim nihilism, we leave ourselves vulnerable to having our values “choose us” versus we choose our values. It is likely that these values which “choose us” are ones “in the air,” part of the zeitgeist, and it is likely that they are shaped by the systems and powers of our day and age. Hence, nihilism makes us suspectable to Deleuzian “capture” (as discussed by Justin Murphy and Johannes Niederhauser)
‘Illusions are hydras, once dispelled multiple avenues of potential illusion spawn at the resolution of the previous’ — Barnes makes a point to warn us that when we defeat one illusion, we likely fall into another (he suggests that it might be “caves all the way up,” alluding to Plato). Indeed, nihilism may dispel some illusions from our lives, but if we think nihilism ends the need to consider values, then we simply trade one illusion for another. And if this new illusion makes us susceptible to “capture” (precisely in our confidence that we aren’t deluded), then perhaps we are worse off as a “nihilist” than as some religious zealot — hard to say.
I do not mean to suggest that nihilism necessarily lacks any “truth content” at all, and it is also possible for someone to ascent to no “Ultimate Metanarratives” while realizing that this doesn’t absolve him or her the responsibility to decide on values (this is someone who accepts the problem of “missing axioms,” as Barnes puts it). My point is only that if we think nihilism (as traditionally understood) is a valid option to “live out,” then we will be susceptible to “capture,” which suggests we might fall out of one illusion directly into another, all while thinking we are free of illusion as a (disenchanted) “nihilist,” problematically overconfident.
‘Illusion is necessarily connected to the tribe,’ Barnes warns, which suggests that if we try to live a “valueless nihilism,” we will likely fall under the control of “tribal leaders,” all while thinking that we are “disenchanted” and free of superstitious thinking. Overconfident as such, we perhaps became susceptible to manipulation and extremism, which hints at the work of Leo Strauss, as we will discuss.
Barnes notes that academia today is often concerned about “the problem of nihilism,” but since “valueless nihilism” isn’t possible (because we cannot avoid having values), Barnes doesn’t think the academics should be afraid: nihilism will always be cheap (like talk). However, what should concern academics is misunderstood nihilism, say in the case of what Leo Strauss called “German Nihilism.” Strauss here means something very different from what we traditionally associate “nihilism” with, mainly inaction, hopelessness, and even passivity. By thinking of “German Nihilism” this way, we leave ourselves completely defenseless to its advancements and render ourselves incapable of recognizing it before it’s too late.
Is there any harm in someone calling themselves a nihilist even if it is technically impossible? Yes, and here we begin to see why. If we think people today are (traditional) nihilists, we’ll assume they’ll be inactive and indifferent to the world, and so we may not take them seriously. But if people are actually “German Nihilists,” which generally means they want to restore their nation to “higher principles” or else “burn it all down,” then we will consider “inactive” the very citizens that are most likely to rise up against social institutions. Thinking these citizens “don’t care about anything” though, the institutions may carry on with business as they see fit, not caring what the citizens think, making the situation increasingly worse until the citizens refuse to take it anymore.
“German nihilism” is a state of mind where people either want “a life of great stakes” or “nothing at all,” and Leo Strauss saw this mindset manifest through the Nazi Party. If Barnes is correct that (traditional) “nihilism” is practically impossible, then when nihilism is supposedly spreading around the world, it likely isn’t the nihilism that usually comes to mind when we hear the word. Instead, it’s likely some kind of “lifestyle that exhibits values” (for again, as Barnes teaches us, we cannot avoid this), and if people are “nihilists,” that probably actually just means that they are desperate. And when people are desperate, people do desperate things.
Alright then, what must be done? Should we all start believing in Metanarratives again? Not necessarily: Barnes is not saying we need to give up the basic positions of nihilism, (mainly that life lacks a “preset essence” that we need to discover versus create, to allude to Sartre). Instead, Barnes wants us to stop believing that becoming a nihilist means we don’t have to decide “which values we live out.” To use Sartre’s language, Barnes wants us to acknowledge that if the world has no essence, we will still “practically” create one, and Barnes wants us to own and accept that reality. If we don’t, thinking we believe “life doesn’t matter,” we’ll still live like life does have values, and not conscious of how we do this, our “practical” efforts will easily be captured by systems, corporations, dictators, and so on.
‘Understanding the magnitude of judgement in reflecting upon your own explicit value(s) and implicit value(s), particularly how they so often diverge, you will notice various calls to alignment. The importance of aligning or values is made paramount by the fact that the time to act is limited by the hourglass of the human lifespan.’
Authenticity entails an “alignment” between what we say and what we do, our explicit and implicit selves. No, none of us can be perfect, authentic, or “aligned” all the time, but we can work to do better. If nihilists attempted to do this, realizing that they cannot both “say” and “show” what they believe, nihilists would likely realize they need to address “the problem of values,” and in so doing, make themselves less susceptible to “capture” and unintentionally fall into (something like) “German Nihilism.” Again, none of us can be perfect about this, but just being aware of the need for the effort can go a long way to helping us avoid being controlled or caught up in something “desperate.”
Barnes may argue that if nihilism is “off the table,” we will be forced to confront the “question of values” and do a much better job at owning our values, thus making ourselves less manipulatable and self-deceived. At the same time, it is indeed important for us to realize that we can never perfectly “align” our implicit and explicit selves (all the time), for then we are setting ourselves up for constant failure. And disheartened, we can become “desperate” for a change, and once we feel “desperate” like the “German Nihilist,” we can find ourselves vulnerable to “capture” as well.
If nihilism is off the table for us trying to be “imperfectly authentic,” we must all become more self-aware, self-critical, and even philosophical. We must become more thoughtful, for we must determine what values we’re “practically living” (even if we ultimately believe there are no essential or “preexisting” values). For Barnes, this can be a lifestyle of “missing axioms,” which though existentially challenging to accept, is necessary for us to avoid “capture” and slipping into (something like) “German Nihilism” without realizing it. But what exactly Barnes means by “missing axioms” is something I’ll let him tell you in his marvelous book.