Nihilism, Rejectionism/Existence-Repudiation and Anthropofugal Perspective (Introduction, part 8)

If one understands the concept “nihilism” – which may at first seem vague – to signify a noological[1] nihilism, then the meaning of this concept is as follows: There is nothing – and most especially there are no objective values or goals – worth living for. Looked at in this way, nihilism contains an anti-natalist impulse. This is the case inasmuch as, within a nihilist perspective, children too are necessarily disqualified as something worth living for. Moreover, noological nihilism cannot help but pose the questions: “Why bring about the entry into existence of a human being of whose life one can know with certainty that it will not be worth living or will remain without meaning or sense? Why “condemn” him or her to such a nihilistic existence?”

In his 1799 open letter to Fichte, Jacobi reproached his philosophical colleague with an idealism that he described as nihilism; he was alluding thereby to the fact that, for Fichte, the “I” was the only reality. Whereas this ontological nihilism à la Fichte (and à la Berkeley) does no more than declare that nothing outside the “I” is real, a nihilism that we might call “onto-ethical” propounds the position that it is better that nothing should ever have existed at all – including, in this case, each respectively cognizing “I” itself – and that it is ethically incumbent upon us to aspire to such a state of nothing at all’s existing any longer. A paradigmatic statement of this onto-ethical nihilism is to be found in Georg Büchner’s “Danton’s Death“, where we read that “nothingness has killed itself. Creation is its wound. We are its drops of blood.”

If we now proceed to a further differentiation internal to this category of onto-ethical nihilism, we arrive at a stance of existence-repudiation for which Ken Coates has coined the denomination “rejectionism”[2]. Existence-repudiators/rejectionists are all those literary figures with views prefiguring or approximating to antinatalism who, down the millennia, have exclaimed to the world in general: “Oh would that I had never been born!” And rejectionistic, or repudiating of existence, in this sense are quite particularly also certain religions such as Jainism, Hindu belief systems, or Buddhism, to whose lay adherents, nonetheless, procreation is permitted.

Onto-ethical nihilists and existence-repudiators can be said to take up a position approximating to antinatalism inasmuch as they negate and reject the existence of both world and humanity without thereby being anti-natalists. Thus, Eduard von Hartmann would be an example of an onto-ethical nihilist and rejectionist who nonetheless firmly and explicitly declares himself to be against antinatalism. That onto-ethical nihilism is by no means identical with antinatalism is very clear also from the recent substantial study “Nothing” authored by Ludger Lütkehaus, in which antinatalism plays as good as no role at all. Similarly, poetry and narrative literature abound with rejections of existence, without this necessarily implying that the figures in whose mouths these repudiations are placed – let alone the authors themselves who place them there – are anti-natalists.

Common, however, to onto-ethical nihilism and rejectionism is what Ulrich Horstmann, in his 1983 book Das Untier (“The Beast That is Not a Beast”), calls the “anthropofugal perspective”. By this he means “the perspective of Man’s speculative flight from Man himself…, the beast that is not a beast’s distancing of itself from its own being and from its own history” (Das Untier) The “anthropofugal” philosopher, according to Horstmann, is distinguished by the fact that – like a rocket which attains a velocity great enough to overcome Earth’s gravity and to reach outer space – he has achieved an intellectual “escape velocity” which enables him to break free of the gravity of “that ideological sphere of influence and force which holds ‘the beast that is not a beast’ with both feet on the ground of supposed facts and which prevents him from ever seeing past the horizon of these latter.”  (ibid. p. 9) If we add this further distinguishing factor of an anthropofugal perspective – i.e. the attaining of a humanistic intellectual “escape velocity” – into the differentiating analysis of nihilism and related stances that we have already undertaken, we arrive at the following picture:

Onto-ethical nihilist (ontofugal): “It would be better if the world as a whole did not exist!”

Rejectionist (existence-repudiator): “Oh would that I had never been born!”

Anthropofugalist: “It would be better if human beings did not exist.”

Anti-natalist: “Every action which leads to a further human being’s beginning to exist is morally questionable and it is morally incumbent upon us to cease to procreate, so that mankind as a whole dies out.”

Horstmann recognizes and states, indeed, with reference specifically to those mythological tales of Great Floods and other rescissions of the act of Creation, that “the ‘beast that is not a beast’ has always, in one way or another, admitted to itself that it would be better for it never to have been.” (10) Nevertheless, Horstmann remains, with his anthropofugal perspective, some way short and outside of antinatalism proper. We can recognize this particularly clearly from the fact that his concrete perspective explicitly eschews any moral vision. Instead, Horstmann has recourse to the idea of putting an end to all suffering by an amorally executed apocalypse brought about by weapons of mass destruction. Such a non-moral vision of apocalypse had already been presented at the beginning of the century by Albert Ehrenstein in his poem Der Kriegsgott (“The God of War”)

[…] Cease crying out to a God who does not hear. / Let your thoughts probe no further than this: / Some little under-demon rules this earth[3], / […] / This, though, remains: / After bloody flux and plague, / There may rise howling up in me a desire, / To put an end to you completely!”

[1] See the distinction drawn between ontological (there exists nothing outside the “I”) and noological nihilism by W. Weischedel.

[2] See Ken Coates’s study “Rejectionist Philosophy from Buddhism to Benatar”.

[3] Ehrenstein’s poem clearly draws here on the legacy of  >Gnosticism, for which the world we dwell in is ruled and governed not by a benevolent Creator but by a wicked Demiurge of a lower order than the Unknown God.

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