Theological Nihilism and Italian Philosophy

By Schroeder, Brian | Philosophy Today, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Theological Nihilism and Italian Philosophy


Schroeder, Brian, Philosophy Today


In her provocative essay "Nihilism in Italy," Franca D'Agostini argues against the possibility of rendering a philosophically coherent position on nihilism. In short, nihilism, which is rife with logical contradictions, cannot be sustained as an actual theoretical position; rather, she claims, nihilism is properly understood philosophically as a method, or as a meta-theoretical attitude. D'Agostini's theoretical and hermeneutical analysis takes up the various forms that nihilism assumes in thinkingepistemological, ontological, axiological, theological, and logical-all of which are present in the philosophy of Nietzsche, arguably our most profound thinker of nihilism, as evinced by D'Agostini's rich and extended treatment. A central concern is whether Nietzsche is actually a nihilist and, if so, what type of nihilist, but it is not my intention here to take up this question that D'Agostini has already aptly discussed, nor is it my intention to shed further light on the Italian debate on nihilism, exemplified in large measure for her through the respective positions of Gianni Vattimo and Emanuele Severine. Rather than assume either a critical or analytic stance to the numerous questions and problems D'Agostini poses, I will offer instead a brief and considerably narrower line of thought in the hope of rendering a supplemental hermeneutic to her analysis of Nietzsche and Vattimo that will allow hopefully for a fuller grasp of what I consider the fundamental impetus of the latter's thinking on nihilism, that of nihilism's cultural unfolding.

Nietzsche of course offers his own classification of nihilism-psychological, historical, incomplete, complete, active, passive, extreme, cultural-most of which are engaged by D'Agostini to varying degrees. There is, however, a significant absence in this list that is crucial to providing a clue to the questions of whether and what kind of nihilist Nietzsche is. In his posthumously published notes, Nietzsche refers to an "ecstatic nihilism" which makes way for a "new order of life." This is not lost on Heidegger, whose monumental study on Nietzsche has added much to the current debate over nihilism in Italy and elsewhere. Heidegger connects this ecstatic nihilism with Nietzsche's more famous remark of nihilism as a "divine way of thinking" that points, in Heidegger's words, to "a historical movement that extends far behind us and reaches forward far beyond us."2 This is a crucial observation, and while Heidegger's interpretation of Nietzsche is controversial, there is some truth to his claim that Nietzsche marks the culmination of metaphysics, though not because his thought of the will to power is ultimately a "will to will," but because he stands, as the citation from Heidegger himself testifies, at the threshold of the old and the new, marking an absolute coincidence of opposites that he names the "death of God."

The issue at hand is that of the death of God and its attending "theological nihilism," to borrow D'Agostini's term. In turning my attention to this aspect of nihilism in Nietzsche, I will take up her discussion of Vattimo since the death of God assumes a prominent role throughout the corpus of his thinking, marked further by a significant appreciation of religion and theology in his later writing. In The Adventure of Difference Vattimo writes,

In Nietzsche, the statement "God is dead" has a much more literal meaning than is often believed. It is not the metaphysical proposition that God "does not exist," since this would still imply a claim to be referring to some stable structure of reality, some order of Being, that is, the real "existing" of God in the history of thought. Rather, it is the recognition of a happening, the happening in which Being no longer needs to be thought of as endowed with stable structures and ultimately with a foundation. . . . But strictly speaking, insofar as the statement "God is dead" indicates the end of the logic of the foundation which dominates metaphysics, it is one proposition among others capable of legitimizing the claim that Nietzsche is at one and the same time still a metaphysical thinker and a thinker who already announces "what comes after.

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