Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol 7, No 2 (2011)

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Nihilism, Nature, and the Collapse of the Cosmos

David Storey


Though nihilism is a major theme in late modern philosophy from Hegel onward, it is only relatively recently that it has been treated as the subject of monographs and anthologies.  Commentators have offered a number of accounts of the origins and nature of nihilism.  Some see it as a purely historical and predominantly modern phenomenon, a consequence of the social, economic, ecological, political, and/or religious upheavals of modernity.  Others think it stems from human nature itself, and should be seen as a perennial problem.  Still others think that nihilism has ontological significance and issues from the nature of being itself.  In this essay, I survey the most important of these narratives of nihilism to show how commonly the advent and spread of nihilism is linked with changing conceptions of (humanity’s relation to) nature.  At root, nihilism is a problem about humanity’s relation to nature, about a crisis in human freedom and willing after the collapse of the cosmos, the erosion of a hierarchically ordered nature in which humans have a proper place.  Two themes recur in the literature:  first, the collapse of what is commonly called the “great chain of being” or the cosmos generally; and second, the increased importance placed on human will and subjectivity and, correlatively, the significance of human history as opposed to nature. 

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