Power Nihilism is a ruthless yet entry-level application of logic to religious, moral and political superstitions of all kinds. Central to this exposition is the clarity given by the ‘is-ought gap’- something apparent to independent minds given to logical thought which is also commonly known to students of philosophy (themselves apparently often unable to come to this logical conclusion on their own) as Hume’s Guillotine. The idea is basically that one cannot derive absolute ‘oughts’ from ‘facts’, since the latter are simply ‘descriptions’, while the former are ‘prescriptions’. “The only ‘oughts’ that are cogent,” argues Stillwell, are those conditioned by a formula entailing the wish of an effect based upon causes (if one wants ‘A’ to come about, then ‘B’ ought to be brought about).
Nihilism is explained plainly and in a straightforward manner that makes it clear that this is no fatalism or mere skepticism. While one could argue that, independently of the faults or notions of the author, there is an impulse to truth here, the author himself argues that all striving and all impulse happen exclusively and ultimately on the basis of a Nietzschean Will to Power. That said, we can arrive at a compromise that distinguishes the resulting product from the intention or motivations of the author. What we mean by this is that the logical correctness, the cogency, of the book’s contents stand their ground on their own, independently of what motivated the author to write it (be that a gun to the head, a pleasurable lady, his allegorical Promethean shaking of chains, or simply a marketing move).
Emphasizing epistemology rather than ontology, Nihilism as explained in these pages treats what is apparent from facts, and what can be known, and addresses those with the pitiless scalpel of logic. There is no attempt whatsoever to pierce into discussions of the nature of reality itself; instead expressed is the author’s direct negation of an ontological nihilism in which we may surmise that such ontology is simply beyond the scope of a nihilistic position of the reason-based logical kind. Rather than try to simply guess, the Power Nihilist is driven to attain understanding that our knowledge of the world can only take us so far as to distinguish an impulse/a struggle for influence and the attainment of goals be it conscious or unconscious. This drive, explains Stillwell, is unavoidable as any decision taken by a creature is an effort to gain a manner of control over some condition.
A tinge of ‘Might is Right’ caveman rhetoric is to be found somewhere here, if merely as a self-contradictory conclusion, although it is probable that the reference was simply tongue-in-cheek. It would be illogical to award something a ‘right’ when one has just argued against the validity of such a term. So though one might possess might (fact), one cannot infer a right (desire). What appears to be true about that statement is merely contingent- for even if one has the might over some or other individual or groups, conditions in the universe are such that human beings are always at the mercy of some other force. This force need not be expressed in the manner of cataclysms but instead perhaps through unforeseen events that may thoroughly erase that “might” which never, in fact, afforded a “right.”
What is to be highlighted here moreover as a whole is the posture that entry-level Nihilism takes as a dissolving agent that reveals factual (to our admittedly limited power of confirmation) relations and forces us to see the universe according to these. Stillwell also makes it clear that in no sense is this an ontological nihilism as such that would necessarily derive materialism as itself derives a contradictory duality in order to deal with its fundamentally flawed position.
Slashing political and moral doctrines of all kinds, Power Nihilism makes it clear how all claims to rights and authority are vacuous. The stated reason for this slashing, and of course its logical consequence, is that all religion, political ideology and morality is of necessity derived from oughts, or based on them, and usually in an absolute way. And since all absolute ought has been logically (and quite easily) destroyed, it follows that all such ideas are inherently flawed. Alas, Stillwell makes it clear that- truthful/flawed or not- these are still loci of power as truthfulness is not at all a prerequisite for possessing power.
Recommended for those with the ability to dissect logically, with a penchant for simplified, academic treatises, and those for whom Brett Stevens’ own, broader and more nuanced Nihilism is beyond reach. If Power Nihilism seems something you got under your belt, then go for the latter. If Brett Stevens’ exposition of Nihilism appears unattainable or unsatisfactory, go for the former, so that the latter may later be better apprehended.
Tags: literature, might is right, nietzsche, Nihilism, power nihilism, Stillwell
32 thoughts on “James Theodore Stillwell III Power Nihilism: A Case for Moral & Political Nihilism”
People usually claim that not caring for their particular set of »oughts« will lead to $something_bad because there would be a cause-and-effect relation, eg, “Smoking kills so stop” (does this mean I’m then going to live forver??).
No, but use of tobacco products in the face of the overwhelming evidence that doing so is strongly linked to dying of various cancers and debilitating illnesses is an implicit admission that you don’t value your life and therefore see yourself as a worthless person, regardless of the gay pipe fetishism some here possess. If a person does not value their convictions enough to value their life in pursuit of them, how can this person be respectable?
Life-affirmation is just as gay as pipe fetishism.
Rest assured I have no affirmation to offer for weak-willed specimens such as yourself!
A lot could be written about this, however, that’s a tangent I’ll avoid here minus stating that “Smoking kills so stop” (a quote, BTW) is factually wrong: Smoking doesn’t cause death and non-smoking doesn’t prevent it.
The text said
The problem with this is that all of them are or at least claim to be: In a society based on religion, people will seek to derive their normative statements (prescriptions of behaviour) from Deus vult in some way and in a society supposed based on reason and science, they’ll seek to construct scientifically looking justifications for the exact same normative statements, that is, they will claim that cause-and-effect relations would “objectify” there pre-existing preferences. What would be “good” or “evil” in the religious case simply becomes “true” or “false” for the other. As slightly parodistic example,
Hitler was a Nazi.
Hitler went to the toilet.
Trump goes to the toilet.
Ergo, Trump is a Nazi (or at least very similar to one in certain, important aspects I don’t care to elaborate on here).
Real-world bullshit science (readily employed by all parties dealing in absolutes) tends to be more complicated but it follows the same pattern.
It follows that the “cause and effect relation” is useless for determining whether a normative statement is cogent. People will make one up if they feel they need one.
I think the reviewer misunderstands a few things about Power-Nihilism. I am not arguing that ‘might is right’ in a normative sense. Rather, I argued in the book that power is the means by which ends are achieved, that prescription demands force.
This is merely describing a fact.
Also, power nihilism isn’t concerned with “ontological nihilism” as it is purely a meta ethical and political thesis.
Finally, I’m not so sure what you think is so “entry level” about power-nihilism?
Anyway, thank you for taking the time to read my book and for lending your thoughts concerning it.
Thank you for taking the time to read this review.
I should make it clear that I not only enjoyed but respect your work here.
Regarding ‘might is right’, I understand how you were phrasing it, but
the reference to that ‘right’ is implicit in that doctrine, even if it
is not in yours. This was to be found in the ‘additional’ section which
was originally extraneous to the book. This was my impression and my take
Regarding ontological nihilism, I expressed precisely the same. If you
read carefully, I clarified two times that Power Nihilism is all
about epistemology, and that the ontology is admittedly out of scope.
This was not criticism of your work, but description. In fact, most of
what I have written here is an echo of what you say in the book with
By “entry level nihilism” I mean to say that this is the Nihilism that
takes one only one step forward in to what Nihilism has meant to me:
namely, the dissolution and weakening of falsehoods; the rejection
of all illusion and lies, for they hinder us. I see a progression beyond
that in what I deem a more esoteric (though subtly so) take on
Nihilism that I have read exposed in Brett Stevens’ Nihilism,
which also echoes my own experience beyond the rejection of political
and moral forms.
Rest assured, Mr. Stillwell, that none of this is meant as an insult or
in an outright derogatory manner. It is only a direct statement that
there is something beyond this dissolving.
Please elaborate on ontological Nihilism! Fuck.
What matters to the definition of this Nihilism is an epistemological nihilism!
Ontology tries to pierce into the nature of being.
Nihilism applied to that would be an attempt to deny something about that nature of being.
Epistemology deals with the limits and extent of knowledge.
Nihilism applied to it only concerns an attempt to deny the overreaching of unjustified claims of knowledge.
In a way, epistemological nihilism is a necessary refutation of ontological nihilism.
Also, Heidegger would NOT be an example of Ontological Nihilism.
Materialism, on the other hand, is an example of ontological nihilism.
More specifically, atheism is so.
The statement is possibly a bit oversimplified, however, the only things power can accomplish are temporary submission or extinction: Someone whose afraid of being extinguished can be made to pay more or less elaborate lip service to whatever is supposed to be prescribed.
But this doesn’t always work: There’s an example from one of the Salem witch processes were a man preferred being pressed to death with heavy stones over pleading guilty to anything.
It’s also questionable if this is such a wise course of action: In October 1989, the people controlling the GDR celebrated 40 years of their socialism-by-force experiment, Honecker famously quipping “Den Sozialismus in seinem Lauf haelt weder Ochs noch Esel auf” (Neither ox nor donkey will trip socialism on its way, this being an allusion to the animals gathering around Jesus’ cradle). A month later, the Berlin wall fell and it all came to naught.
I take a shit twice a day.
Only once a week.
This review is obviously written by a new philosophy undergrad or some fresh fac who is for thr first time emercing themselves into ideas and beginning to think for himself. I can almost feel the excitement and ‘will to power’. However, it was confusing and failed to relay much in the way of content. I am at a loss as to what the book is about, beyond the is/ought gap which is a pretty old idea.
What, on earth, does ‘nihilism’ bring to this debate??
> “who is for thr first time emercing themselves into ideas and beginning to think for himself.”
Actually, the point is made that one can from a very young age (far younger than mine), come to the is-ought gap realization on one’s own without need for any philosophy courses. What is said and exemplified is in complete contradiction to your claim.
> ” it was confusing and failed to relay much in the way of content.”
While good, much of the content is a continuous exemplification and a referencing of other authors, which is the way with academically minded publications.
> “I am at a loss as to what the book is about”
The book is about Nihilism as a dissolution of all political and moral prescription, and furthermore as a realization of the fact that it is only Power of any manner that makes things happen, accomplishes things and materializes aims.
> “What, on earth, does ‘nihilism’ bring to this debate??”
There is no debate.
The is-ought gap is what it is, a fact, without the need for Nihilism.
Nihilism adapts an outlook taking said gap as a departure point.
“What we mean by this is that the logical correctness, the cogency, of the book’s contents stand their ground on their own, independently of what motivated the author to write it”
Saids who? Logical correctness only stands on its own ground if logic is a virtue to begin with. Are you expecting me to believe that James’s book has meaning simply because he wants it to have meaning? That’s absurd. Either the book contains something I absolutely OUGHT to know or it has no meaning whatsoever. I am not going to read books from authors who say things that are meaningless by their own logic.
“Central to this exposition is the clarity given by the ‘is-ought gap’- something apparent to independent minds given to logical thought which is also commonly known to students of philosophy (themselves apparently often unable to come to this logical conclusion on their own) as Hume’s Guillotine. The idea is basically that one cannot derive absolute ‘oughts’ from ‘facts’”
This doesn’t prove nihilism though. Hume’s Guillotine was meant to refute the types of moralities that were popular in Hume’s days: the “natural law” moralities that insist by studying the facts of nature you can derive what you ought to do. Those moralities are absurd because there is a potentially infinite number of contradictory moral rules you can invent by trying to derive what you ought to do from facts of nature. However, this doesn’t refute every conceivable form of morality. For instance, it doesn’t refute moral rules that are valid a priori; without reference to the facts of nature.
For example, “Truth is a virtue” is absolutely true without regard to the observable facts of nature. Why? Because there is no way to argue against the virtue of the truth. If you invoke the truth in order to argue against the virtue of truth you are contradicting yourself. If you invoke another value you are expected to prove how that value is a higher value than truth which is impossible because any claims you make in order to make your case would be meaningless unless they were TRUE claims.
Truth is truth, but saying it is “a virtue” is a leap in logic.
Substutute ‘virtue’ with ‘good’, then think about it again,
Both are made up or relative, not existing as facts.
Take your broken concepts elsewhere.
Lol, you are implicitly supporting the very conclusion you think you are arguing against.
Look up what a trascndental argument is.
Truth=good, is arguably one.
“Both are made up or relative, not existing as facts.
Take your broken concepts elsewhere.”
LOl a nihilist telling me I should do something is quite precious. You want to argue that everything is meaningless yet you go around trying to convey meaning. Such as the meaning in being logical, the meaning in being factual, the meaning of not invoking “broken” concepts.
And your point is..what exactly? Is a “leap in logic” supposed to be WRONG or something? That’s a very moralistic thing to assume.
This is a strawman and you should know that by now. Judging from the review, the authors is not argueing for the universal denial of everything including gravity and he also doesn’t make an argument based on morals, eg, “goodness” or “badness” of something. Logic deals with rules to determining truthness or falseness of statements derived from other statements. There’s no “moral” requirement for caring about whether statements are true or false, it’s just sensible insofar real-world effects are concerned (and not, say, political or social usefulness in some group of people).
In this context, »nihilism« refers to the logical (or presumed to be logical) deconstruction of “accepted abstract truths and values” regardless of their function in some context, eg, argueing against a “state religion” like Protestantism in Prussia during Nietzsche’s lifetime despite it was considered to be one of the
essential supporting pillars “king and country”. A conservative (a real one, not a would-be right-wing would be “counter culture revolution” hippie) wouldn’t do this because he’d value the preservation of the established order of things more highly than any individual’s quest for “the truth” (however defined).
Both the results and the method can be criticized (it’s little more than making up plausible-sounding ‘alternate explanation’, after all) but that professional purveyors of confusion have chosen to coopt the term »nihilism« as label for whatever kinds of inherently useless speculations happend to butter their bread is not the fault of people using it to mean something different.
Deconstructing all accepted truths is not nihilism. That’s just being an individual.
You definition of »nihilism« is not universal. Nietzsche used a different one and – again judging from the review – the book probably uses the same: This would be rejecting traditional values as unfounded and negating the concept of ‘moral values’, arguing that these are nothing but principally arbitrary impositions-by-force and that there’s no inherent, qualtiative difference between “forcing people to be honest” or “forcing people to wear blue clothes”.
That’s something contemporaries of Nietzsche had regarded as »nihilims« because it denied the very foundations the established society at that time was built on, actually even the foundations of these foundations: Instead of proposing a new set of rule as to what was to be regarded as “good” or “evil” but sticking to the same basic tenet that people ought to strive for what is “good” and ought to shy away from what is “evil”, the tenet itself is declared to be meaningless: “Good” and “evil” are really the same, arbitrary ‘prescriptions’ of whoever currently has the power to enforce them, and there’s no reason for either behaviour except “lacking the power of effective opposition”.
This is still applicable to present society as notion of “good” and “evil” are still heavily fought over while the same basic tenet is tacitly assumed as given.
Not sure how that is any different to the nihilism I’m arguing against. Explain to me how believing all values are arbitrary and belief that all conflicts between arbitrary values are to be resolved through violence is precisely what I am not arguing against? I’m sorry but you don’t get to have those beliefs and then go around invoking the virtue of logic, reason, truth, etc as though they are not equally arbitrary virtues. That’s intellectual cheating.
“Logic, reason and truth” aren’t “virtues”. Logic is a system supposed to enable using reason to deduce or infer truthful information about the world from other, truthful information. This has been famously employed for decidedly amoral purposes in the past, eg, in Machiavelli’s Il Principe. Nobody’s telling you (or anyone) that you “ought” to care for logically deriving truths by reasoning, that’s entirely up to your discretion. People do so based on believing that it will be useful to them, not because they’ll harvest ‘virtuous behaviour’ points in this way.
““Logic, reason and truth” aren’t “virtues”.”
If being correct isn’t a virtue then I guess I have no moral duty to change my mind then by your own logic.
“People do so based on believing that it will be useful to them, not because they’ll harvest ‘virtuous behavior’ points in this way.”
Ah so you’re are correcting me not because truth is any kind of virtue but because it is somehow “useful” to you for me to be correct. Why? Why is is “useful” to you that I am correct? What goal does that serve? And why do you have that goal? Do you have that goal for a logical reason? Yes? No? If you have no logical reason for that goal then I do not need a logical reason to hold my beliefs and you have no business trying to correct me. If you do have a logical reason for that goal then I would like you to prove how that goal is a higher goal than truth.
Shouldn’t be necessary: I think this is wrong, BTW.
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