The Ultimate Crisis of Civilization: Why Turn to Philosophy?, #4–Nihilism, Castoriadis, & The Radical Enlightenment.

By Arran Gare



This is the fourth installment.

But you can also read or download a .pdf of the complete essay HERE.

Arran Gare is an Australian philosopher known mainly for his work in environmental philosophy, philosophy of science, philosophy of culture, and the metaphysics of process philosophy.

He currently holds the position of Associate Professor in the Faculty of Life and Social Sciences at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, and is the co-founder and editor of the journal Cosmos and History.

You can read more about him and his work HERE and HERE.



The Crisis of Philosophy and the Humanities

The Two Cultures and the Triumph of Scientism

Continuing the Struggle Against Nihilism

Castoriadis and the Challenge of the Radical Enlightenment

Reconfiguring the History of Philosophy After Kant

Speculative Naturalism, the Radical Enlightenment and Ecological Civilization


Continuing the Struggle Against Nihilism

My third book, Postmodernism and the Environmental Crisis (1995), was a response to what appeared to be the final crisis of the civilization of modernity, a crisis engendered, it was argued, by the looming global ecological crisis, accentuated by the growth of transnational corporations and the globalization of the economy destroying the middle class dream in affluent countries. The incredulity towards metanarratives, taken to define postmodernity, was shown to equate to the collapse of belief in progress which, as Nietzsche pointed out, had taken the place of God in the modern world. ‘Postmodernists’ responded to this crisis in two different ways. Deconstructive postmodernists embraced the fragmentation of culture as liberating, the constructive postmodernists argued that we now have to rebuild the sciences, overcome the division between science and the humanities, and redefine progress through process metaphysics. The most influential philosophers embraced by deconstructive postmodernists were Foucault and Derrida, who were strongly influenced by Nietzsche and Heidegger, philosophers devoted to diagnosing the nihilism of modernity. Their diagnoses, that modernity is characterized by the will to power turned against itself, or that through enframing the world to reveal it only as standing reserve to be exploited, offered some direction for overcoming this nihilism. However, the development of their ideas by Foucault and Derrida, at least as appropriated by deconstructive postmodernists in USA, amounted to an assault on the arts and humanities. Deconstructive postmodernists helped cripple opposition to the nihilistic implications of mainstream science. To defend the humanities and support the constructive postmodernists, a synthesis of the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Paul Ricoeur, influenced by the same philosophers who influenced Foucault and Derrida, was shown to provide an alternative and more creative and more defensible response to the disorientation generated by the postmodern condition. Drawing up work of Mikhail Bakhtin, Alasdair MacIntyre and David Carr to further develop Ricoeur’s work on narratives, a new, dialogic environmentalist grand narrative was proposed and defended.

Despite success in predicting the future, there was a certain naivety in the conclusions of each of these books. It was assumed that if it could be shown that nihilism is not objectively valid but follows only from highly questionable and ultimately defective assumptions, if it could be shown that major thinkers of the past had been misinterpreted and their ideas were far more profound, critical and illuminating than their followers appreciated, if attention were drawn to great thinkers and the implications of their work spelt out, then as people became more aware of the precarious situation humanity is now in, these arguments would be welcomed as part of a struggle to create a less belligerent and more ecologically sustainable global civilization. This optimism was not justified by the arguments of these books, however, which pointed out that orthodox Marxists and deconstructive postmodernists were not really challenging the assumptions of the dominant culture of modernity. In this regard, there was a peculiar affinity between orthodox Marxists and deconstructive postmodernists that only became fully apparent as neoliberalism increased its stranglehold on countries and the world’s dominant institutions. The proponents of each, despite the claims of the philosophers they purported to be inspired by, were not only aligned with, but shared the same assumptions as neoliberals, and in fact, in furthering their own interests were strengthening the dominant order. So, it should not have been surprising that, as Alain Supiot noted, in the European Union, former Eastern European communists and many Western Marxists allied themselves with neoliberals against social democrats, social liberals and traditional conservatives in their efforts to impose markets on every facet of life (Supiot, 2012). And Theodore Dalrymple noted in Our Culture, What’s Left of It (2005, p.14), ‘there has been an unholy alliance between those on the left, who believe that man is endowed with rights but no duties, and libertarians on the right, who believe that consumer choice is the answer to all social questions.’

Castoriadis and the Challenge of the Radical Enlightenment

Contrary to a confused prejudice still dominant today — and which is at the basis of the contemporary version of classical “liberalism” — the capitalist imaginary stands in direct contradiction to the project of emancipation and autonomy. Back in 1906, Max Weber derided the idea that capitalism might have anything at all to do with democracy… Capitalism subordinates everything to the “development of the forces of production”: people as producers, and then consumers, are to be made completely subordinate to it. The unlimited expansion of rational mastery — pseudomastery and pseudorationality — as is abundantly clear today — thus became the other great imaginary signification of the modern world, powerfully embodied in the realms of technique and organization. (Castoriadis 1997b, p.61)

Communists, as opposed to Marx who often said that all he knew was that he was not a Marxist, have simply embraced the capitalist imaginary of (pseudo-)rational mastery of nature and people. People are evaluated as producers. What communists created in the Soviet Union, Castoriadis argued, was bureaucratic capitalism. Consequently, former communists are entirely at home in a world dominated by neoliberals who have created a new form of bureaucratic capitalism run by corporate managers promising rational mastery of the world by intensifying competition, applying scientific (Taylorist) management principles, quantifying all work activities and forcing workers to compete with each other for employment while heavily in debt and without a security net. Supposedly radical postmodern intellectuals who have no interest in promoting democracy are tacitly supporting this same imaginary, looking at it from the perspective of consumers rather than producers. They cannot see any role for an education in the humanities, the education designed to cultivate the virtues of people so that they can take their place in and uphold the liberty of self-governing communities, taking responsibility for themselves, their communities and the future. Consequently, they condemn those who attempt to foster such virtues as elitists who transgress the freedom of individuals to have their own preferences, consume what they like and live lives of self-indulgence.

By invoking the Ancient Greeks, Castoriadis was really calling for a new renaissance, that is, a ‘rebirth’ of the quest for autonomy. But his is only the latest of a whole series of such quests, of which the Florentine Renaissance, which gave birth to the humanities and civic humanism, was only one. In modernity, there is a suppressed tradition, the ‘Radical Enlightenment’ that has struggled to uphold this quest against the atomism, utilitarianism and instrumentalists thinking of the dominant ‘Moderate Enlightenment’, and it has not been powerless. It has effected a sequence of renaissances. Currently, each of these has attracted historians concerned to rescue democracy as the very meaning of this term is being destroyed by misuse of the term. These renaissances are required because from the very beginning, the quest for autonomy had powerful opponents who were very often successful in suppressing it. This is one reason why history is so important to the emancipatory social imaginary; as a means to recover and inspire the suppressed quest for autonomy, and also to expose the illusions and decadence that follows its suppression. Its opponents are hostile to or contemptuous of history, or try to neutralize it, along with the humanities and arts generally, for the very same reason. In ‘The Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy’, Castoriadis (1997a, pp.267–289) showed that philosophy itself is a product of the quest for autonomy. It is when people question and take responsibility for their beliefs and institutions that philosophy emerges, and it becomes indispensible to a democratic society. Democracy requires notions of justice and truth, and the quest to define and advance them and to reach consensus is a condition of the possibility of effective collective decision-making and solidarity in action. Science itself, when it is understood as more than instrumental technological knowledge, is a byproduct of this search for truth. The quests for justice and truth have always been a threat to tyrants and oligarchs, although they still want the payoffs generated by these quests.

Once the social imaginary of rational mastery is understood, its sinister side soon becomes apparent. People themselves become objects to be manipulated and controlled. Effectively, they are to be conceived of as, and then rendered, totally predictable, devoid of real life, and with the quest for rational mastery, this is how not only humans but the whole of nature is understood. This social imaginary of rational mastery cannot acknowledge real life, and insofar as there appears to be life, it is committed to transforming it into something lifeless, for instance, transforming animals into machines for converting low priced grass into high priced flesh, or if possible, carrying out this process without living animals as intermediaries. This explains the peculiar ambiguities in the policies of neoliberal (or neoconservative) governments, their commitment to reducing producers into efficient, low cost transformers of low priced materials into high priced products, and then if possible, replacing them altogether through advanced technologies. Even as consumers, people are to be made into predictable instruments of the economy; their preferences and decisions are controlled by advertisers. In the most recent form of capitalism, advertising is important for goading consumers into accumulating debt, which effectively enslaves them and makes them far more controllable (Lazzarato, 2015). And they are expendable. If developments in robotics replace people while advances in medical technology extend the lives of the ruling elites indefinitely, people who reproduce themselves will no longer be needed.

Understanding this, another feature of this social imaginary of rational mastery becomes intelligible. While opposed to the social imaginary of the quest for autonomy, it has co-evolved with it. Since the quest for rational mastery cannot present itself in its naked form without revealing its sinister side, it advances by appropriating the language of the quest for autonomy, disguising itself while neutralizing the language it has appropriated. Those moved by the social imaginary of autonomy are not totally disempowered by this strategy as they can then attempt to recover and further develop the original meaning of this language. Such a dialectic was evident in communist countries where opponents of managerialism, legitimating their claims through Marx’s philosophy, could point to Marx’s work, particularly to Marx’s ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844’ and the Grundrisse, to show that technological mastery of the world was not Marx’s main preoccupation; it was with emancipation and autonomy. Similarly, with the destruction of democracy by corporate powers with the complicity of liberals in USA promoted as the advance of freedom enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence. Michael Sandel (2005a, 2005b) and more rigorously, J.G.A. Pocock (1975) have pointed to the influence on the founding fathers of the republican philosophy of Renaissance civic humanism and what liberty meant to them — it meant freedom from slavery, and self-governance. However, those concerned with rational mastery deploy a range of other strategies to achieve their ends. The quest for truth is transformed and undermined, not by attacking it, but by equating it with scientific knowledge gained by applying the scientific method, elevating techno-scientists, including economists, into a priesthood whose claims to knowledge are placed beyond questioning by the general public, while simultaneously promoting extreme skepticism about all other claims to knowledge. While the social imaginary quest for technological mastery has had its committed defenders (most importantly, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and Herman Kahn), it often serves its proponents better to simply get rid of or cripple the work of those who effectively criticize their beliefs, while simultaneously allowing those whose ideas serve their interests to flourish. This is particularly effective when those augmenting the power of the power elites portray their work as radical, such as vulgar Marxists who promote a Hobbesian view of humans and the deconstructive postmodernists who, promoting skepticism about ideals, have undermined the humanities.

Neither Marxism nor postmodernism are now at the centre of intellectual debates. Nihilism (or the claim that all values are equal, which is nihilism in disguise) and cultural fragmentation are being actively promoted to free privileged elites from ethical claims and to subvert efforts to challenge the current state of society and its ecologically destructive tendencies. However, the success of the global corporatocracy has revealed the extent that proponents of the social imaginary of autonomy had advanced their cause, evident in the greater humanity and greater appreciation of all life achieved by European civilization, notwithstanding the advance of the mechanistic view of the world. Despite the subordinate position of this social imaginary, there had been an irregular, but slow advance of the quest for justice, liberty and democracy. Herder and Hegel had been right to identify this tendency to progress in freedom and humanity. With neoliberalism, these advances are being demolished faster than they can be put on the endangered list. Institutions such as universities that upheld higher values, that in the past educated the people who constrained markets and bureaucracies to serve the common good, are being subverted by transforming them into transnational business corporations, acknowledging no other ends than maximizing profitability and maintaining the conditions for this end. Institutions of government are being transformed into instruments to extend the global market and augment the wealth and power of transnational corporations, financial institutions and their managers. The redefining and marginalization of philosophy is part of the process by which not only philosophy, but the arts, the humanities and genuine science are being sabotaged. The niches where the broad intellectual work required to counter the fragmentation of culture and replace defective assumptions could be carried out, where people could assert themselves without fear of retribution, expose corruption and oppression and reveal new possibilities for the future, are disappearing. Without powerful public institutions strongly committed to truth, justice and liberty, the market is concentrating wealth and power, becoming a machine for destroying local and global ecosystems, on land, in the oceans, and in the air.

Defending speculative naturalism is therefore not merely a matter of presenting arguments in terms of the quest for truth. There is the deeper problem of defending the practice of pursuing the truth; that is, the practice of questioning received beliefs to reveal their deficiencies and then developing better alternatives. It is necessary also to defend the niches (or cultural fields) in society where truth can be pursued. This involves defending the autonomy of cultural fields from economic and political fields, defending the Humboldtian form of the university, defending the humanities and defending genuine science and its institutions as more than means to develop profitable or military technology to serve power elites. Defending the quest for truth and its conditions is central to defending genuine democracy and the public institutions required for its functioning, to maintaining control over national economies against efforts by transnational corporations and the global corporatocracy to subvert such control, and to defending civilization. It involves defending the social forms required for people to participate in the adventures of ideas and the political actions necessary to create and sustain an ecological sustainable world-order. Opposing nihilism is not just an intellectual exercise; it is itself political action and involves political struggle.


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Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.