Real Nihilism: Finding the Truth through Vattimo’s Philosophy

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By John Mancini, Rhode Island University

The following was a college essay written by John Mancini. It has been edited and approved by Paul Gillett. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us. The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Clarifying Catholicism, nor of everyone affiliated with Clarifying Catholicism. We welcome respectful responses in the comments below.

What do I know for certain? How do I know that? Can I ever be sure? Such questions lead us to doubt what we have been told, and what we have been told has been credited as the “truth” — truths like God is the creator of the universe; Jesus is the Son of God; the world must be treated with respect because it is good. All it takes to prove these claims false, however, is for one to show that God does not exist — or for one to simply come to this realization on his own. If we take God out of the equation of life, all of the above truths crumble: There is no creator of the universe; Jesus is not the Son of God; the world is not good and does not need to be treated with respect. This is what Gianni Vattimo says is happening in our current times. God is being removed from the modern conception of life and with Him meaning and truth. As a result, people do not know what to believe anymore because they feel they cannot trust anything; the one deity they thought they could trust ended up being a lie. What is interesting about Vattimo’s claim, however, is that he views this as a good thing; it is good that we, as a people, are “killing God,” as Nietzsche would put it. After presenting why Vattimo believes this by focusing on key points from his book, Nihilism and Emancipation, I am going to tell why I, a devout Catholic, also believe that killing God remains the right move for society.

Before I get into Vattimo’s — and then my — reasoning for why God’s being dead is beneficial for human beings, allow me to elaborate on a couple of key concepts I included above. “Killing God” merely refers to the phenomenon of rejecting the notion of truth as a whole, or in Vattimo’s terms, “first principles” (Vattimo, 9). Such principles find their groundings upon metaphysics, which for this paper will refer to the study of Being or the study of things in themselves. Being remains the ultimate enemy to Vattimo. It suggests that there remains something, i.e. Being, to study in all things, and to apply some Thomistic metaphysics to this inquiry, one of the key qualities of Being is that it is true; there is something about Being which can be known. In this way, everything, on a metaphysical level, has one “definition,” or can only be truly understood in one fashion. The issue, here, says Vattimo, is that such a view inspires violence among individuals. When people believe they have the answers regarding truth, and so believe they know something for what it is, i.e. metaphysically, they will contend that they are right so adamantly that they disregard other viewpoints. This phenomenon is mainly due to metaphysics’s blatant circularity: If metaphysics tells us that it is the study of Being and that Being is true, then it tells us through itself that it is true. Consequently, people who adopt a metaphysical stance necessarily believe they are right. This is fatal to Vattimo, as it will not leave any room for proper philosophical dialogue or discussion — because we will supposedly have all the knowledge we need — especially when he considers that metaphysics is based on lies due to its circularity (Vattimo, 10-12).

Now, in stating that metaphysics is a lie, Vattimo does not seek to provide us with an argument for atheism in Nihilism and Emancipation — at least not directly, anyway. By proclaiming metaphysics a lie, he rather suggests that this science takes itself too seriously. As I stated prior, metaphysics and the study of Being bears a nature of truth, which is, again, where Vattimo takes issue. Vattimo wants us to question whether we truly need metaphysics to properly live; must we know the things presented from this science to live our lives well, or can we look to some other science and achieve the same goal? An affirmative answer to the latter question is what Vattimo seeks to illustrate: If we conclude that one can follow a non-metaphysical way of life just as well as one following a metaphysical way of life, then we will rather view each life as mere interpretations, the latter of which says there lies something beyond science to study and further interprets itself as true (Vattimo, 20). This, then, causes metaphysics to collapse in on itself, as we know that it is only through this interpretation that it is true — and so it is a lie. Hence, that is how Vattimo advises we address metaphysics: View it as an interpretation, an aperture through which we can see the world. In fact, this is his advice for how we should view all cultures: as mere interpretations of viewing and so navigating the world, and it remains imperative that we recognize that no interpretation is better than another. This sounds incredibly relativist at first glance, so I am going to show why this is not, as Vattimo illustrates that relativism is itself just another interpretation.

Relativism does claim that all ideologies, cultures, religions, etc. are equal, but it does so from a viewpoint that is incompatible with Vattimo’s. He writes, “Relativism can perfectly well be described as metaphysical because only from a position solidly anchored in some universal point of view can we (should we) gaze on multiplicity as multiplicity” (Vattimo, 42). In other words, every point of view is equal only according to a specific point of view. Therefore, relativism is contradictory and self-refuting; everyone must adopt the same lens and know in what way everyone and every idea is equal. It is the classic, “Claiming there is no objective truth is an objective truth,” and that is the aperture provided by relativism. Vattimo, on the other hand, contends that all people should recognize that every interpretation simply serves to navigate the world. We cannot say in what way or for what reason one interpretation is equal to another because such a reason does not exist, nor does it matter. Again, we are assuming there is no truth, so we cannot definitively say how all things remain equal. That said, can we not say that Vattimo’s claim that everything is an interpretation is also just another interpretation? It would be quite contradictory for Vattimo to claim otherwise and, for this reason, he does not.

Vattimo knows that what he puts forth could fall prey to the things about which he is writing. His solution to this, or rather how he avoids this problem, is found in his prescription for how we should live amongst each other, so allow me to fully clarify this. Again, Vattimo encourages us to set aside first principles and the idea that we can know anything for certain to reduce violence. This follows, he believes, because doing so will allow us to come to a more proper formation of ethics, one that does not believe itself to be right. In diminishing first principles, Vattimo argues that a new level of respect will form among individuals; we will cease putting ourselves up on pedestals, recognize that we are all finite creatures, i.e. not truth-bearing, and that no one of us is better than the other — even in terms of rational beliefs. After initially accepting that we have no truth, we will see that all we have are different interpretations but that, at the end of the day, this is all they are: interpretations. So, to overcome this nihilist reality — very much inspired by Nietzsche — Vattimo says that the only thing left to do is to rationalize through philosophical dialogues. This idea of a philosophical dialogue is key for Vattimo: We must listen to each other and carefully consider what others have to say, so that we can rationally decide what parts of a faith, for example, make sense to follow and implement into our lives. In this way, Vattimo says it remains proper to view other cultures like “a ‘tourist’ in a history park” would, or as curious individuals seeking understanding, rather than immediately jumping to conclusions and judgments (Vattimo, 56). Once we understand people, it is then that we can judge and form conclusions about their cultures and ideologies but not in such a way that will promote violence, i.e. only to the extent of applying or not applying their ways to our own. Again, we cannot properly tell why their ways are wrong, nor can we say why we should not practice their ways, as this entails truth; we can only acknowledge that we do not want to engage in similar acts for whatever reason. At this point, we should have no problem engaging in philosophical conversations, as we will have the Platonic human wisdom of the only thing we know is that we do not know, resulting in a new, preferential, and peaceful way of life; we will all be in agreement regarding how we want to live (Vattimo, 46-48). Now, I want to emphasize that Vattimo does not claim that this will be the best way to live. Such a claim implies truth and would mean there is something objective for which future nihilists must strive. Therefore, the new way of life revolves around mere desire, one that could change at any moment for whatever nontruth-bearing reason. That said, how does this solve the problem that Vattimo’s argument is also a simple interpretation?

After fully studying Vattimo’s advice for how we should live, it is imperative to keep in mind that this remains his interpretation; it is how he believes we can best navigate the world. Accordingly, Vattimo does not maintain he holds all the answers regarding right and wrong or that this method remains objectively correct. He recognizes his humanity and finite nature, just as he wants us to do with ourselves. In essence, Vattimo wants us to acknowledge that he puts forth a simple interpretation so that we can question whether it makes sense to us to follow it? He thinks it does. Now, it is our turn to decide. With that said, we are ready to get into why I, a devout Catholic, agree with Vattimo that we should assume a position that there is no truth.

There is one reason why I accept Vattimo’s view, found in chapter two from Nihilism and Emancipation. In this chapter, “Philosophy and the Decline of the West,” Vattimo illustrates just that: the decline of the West. The “West,” for Vattimo, refers to European states, but for this paper, it will further refer to the United States, as I feel it majorly applies to us, Americans, as well. In essence, Vattimo points to the idea of progress as an objective standard and deems it inherently harmful. Again, this sounds very relativist — and it certainly is — but, in a way, he is right. “Progress” is what has led the West to branch out and expand its influence all over the world; the West believes it is right and that it has the right way of life. If one believes he is correct, then he will desire to share his revelations with everyone — and this is exactly what has happened to the West: We travel the world promoting our influence and promoting that we have the correct way of life (Vattimo 27-28). The problem with this is that other states — consisting of other cultures and ideologies — do not agree, and this is why Vattimo believes first principles lead to conflict: When different ideologies disagree with each other, and so do not agree upon a proper way of life, divisions occur, promoting tension. I argue that this explains why, when the US travels overseas to the Middle East, for example, spreading Western democracy, it is met with terrorism and other violent acts. We are traveling the world with our universalist pretensions that we are right, and they are wrong, using the excuse that we seek to “correct” the world. This has been agreed upon by several political scientists, the most notable one being Samuel Huntington in his The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order. With that said, I believe the worldly conflicts intensified by the West’s universalist pretensions cause people to take a more relative approach to morality and ethics; if we only make matters worse by promoting what we believe is right, then perhaps this means that what we believe is not right or at least no better than the other ways of life receiving our influence. Such a conclusion is to what Vattimo refers by stating that the West is declining. When people come to agree that the way of life in the US compares to those in other parts of the world, then truth seems to disappear. We suddenly do not have an objective standard for which to strive; we are not “a shining city upon a hill” — we are not progressive. Truth and objectivity only disappear, however, to the extent that there being no truth, no proper way of life, remains as the only objective truth — and so we fall into relativism, which, due to its apparent self-refutation, has led us to where we are today: nihilism. People do not know why one ideology should be considered better than another or why one should practice a specific faith over another. We have lost any moral groundings because we agree that there is no truth.

Now, in stating this, I have introduced something else that Vattimo includes, that being the “decline of the West” not only refers to the deterioration of Western influence around the world but the deterioration of metaphysics, itself. Why does the West think itself correct? What tells the West that it has the proper way of life? The answer is that the West tells itself that it is correct. Western ideologies and ethics, being founded upon Christianity, i.e. a metaphysical tradition, self-justify their own beliefs, as is the tendency of metaphysical inquiries, and so do not have any real justifications at all (Vattimo, 30). People have further recognized this, and, again, question what truly gives them the right to claim they are correct. Thus, the West declines because of Vattimo’s reasoning: We think we know the truth, so we invade foreign territories, who also think they know the truth, and tell them what we “know.” We, however, have no method of proving this to them, but, more than that, they do not want to listen; for they already know the truth and so are not in need of any cleansing. Consequently, conflicts arise, prompting people to question whether they have any right to prescribe a way of life to others, when theirs only leads to violence and does not even have proper justification in itself. So, why do I believe this current, “postmodern condition,” as Vattimo calls it, requires that we formally kill God (Vattimo, 3)?

As has been shown, parading oneself as having all the answers only turns people away. So, if we truly want to make progress — notice the irony in using this term — and work towards a functioning society, we must agree that we know nothing and that there is no truth — at least none of which we know. Before I move one, I must be clear that I am not recommending that we all simply pretend to know nothing, as this often becomes a form of mockery and is incredibly counterproductive. I recommend that we literally adopt the lens that we truly know absolutely nothing as it concerns truth and knowledge — other than, of course, that we know nothing. This is no doubt going to pose a difficult task for my Catholic counterparts, as we are told that we have the truth in the form of the Bible and God’s Word. What I shall now illustrate, however, is that claiming to know nothing and claiming that we have not been told the truth is not counterintuitive to the Catholic faith. Here is why: “Knowing” for human beings is different than “knowing” for God. God, being the final cause, is the perfection of all action. In this regard, only He truly knows, and what He knows is truth and Being. This is similar to Vattimo’s idea that “[o]nly God could be authentically relativist,” as only God stands from a perspective where he knows what is good and evil and is determinant in this regard (Vattimo, 42). Now, if we admit that only God knows, then to say that we, too, know is to say that either we are God, in all His infinite perfection, or at least like Him in this respect, i.e. that we are omniscient. Neither of these, however, are true according to Christianity. So, if we are not God and are not omniscient, how can we say that we properly know anything? Necessarily, this is going to bring up the issue of divine revelation, where God formally speaks and shares His truth with whoever is listening. Here, too, however, we still admit that we know nothing. Notice, it is God’s truth that is being shared; it does not suddenly become our own simply because we retain it in our memories. Further, the truth that God shares is only understood by us, in our limited perfection, up to a point. Can we, then, say that we know what has been said if we do not know it to the extent that God does? Truth in itself is full, as God is full, and God is truth. Therefore, if we do not have fullness in what we know, then it is not truth. This does not mean, however, that we are lied to by God. It merely means that if we are to tell others that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that we understand this in its entirety through earthly reason, we are lying. We do not know that Jesus is the Son of God. As we stand, we cannot know. Thus, we do not, even as Catholics, truly know anything, and there has been no truth revealed to us. Now that I have shown why it is possible — and even practical — for Catholics to admit that there is no truth and that we do not know anything, allow me to return to why this is crucial for the postmodern condition, as I minorly differ from Vattimo here.

To reiterate, Vattimo claims that everyone agreeing there is no truth will lead to a functioning, peaceful society, where everyone uses rationality to decide what is the best way to live. In this way, we will adopt different aspects from all ideologies, knowing that simple labels do not matter, and promote equality amongst all people. I argue Vattimo’s position is true to a degree and seek to mitigate it in one respect. I have already written that there is no truth in the world. What I have also written, or rather suggested, however, is that there is truth to be discovered. To discover the truth, I believe we must look through Vattimo’s aperture: We must all assume we know nothing so that we can properly present all points of view — all ideologies — on equal footing to find some common ground. If we can find this common ground and find something upon which we all agree, then perhaps this means that there is some truth with regards to that aspect of life. An example of this is Plato’s Forms and the idea that we share in them being similar to the Christian idea that we share in God’s qualities. The overlap, and so possible truth, here, is that there is something beyond this world which grants us qualities like goodness, beauty, etc., and that they are shared with us. Perhaps, finding overlap is necessary to find certain truths in their fullness, as our current apertures could be blinding us to them. In other words, looking at an unseen truth from a different view could illuminate it in new ways and properly present it to us. Vattimo, as we know, would argue that there is no truth there but simply interpretation, i.e. we can interpret that we share in God’s goodness, beauty, etc., or interpret that we share in Plato’s Forms of the Good, the Beautiful, etc. If, however, according to this view, all people interpret one truth of life as being proper, then does it not become proper in itself and so true? Vattimo’s philosophy seems to suggest that we can live according to whatever interpretation we so desire but that we will find a way of life that proves suitable for all humans; if we all rationalize and listen to each other in philosophical dialogues, promoting peace and unity, then this unity will eventually act as one. Thus, at some point or another, I argue that, by engaging in Vattimo’s philosophical conversations, we will come to find one way of life remains the good, objective way of life and so adopt it universally. If all ideologies agree about one aspect of life universally, then must it not be true? So, while I differ from Vattimo in the sense that I believe there to be truth in this world, it seems to be in name only, as, for people to agree upon a way of life as Vattimo wants, they will have to strive for something objective and universally acceptable to all people. 

To conclude, I argue that killing God remains the proper move for our current society, as we are already seeing more and more people question why they have any right to demand anything of others. We seem to have lost what truth is and so do not know how to go about rediscovering it. Vattimo says there is no truth; there is nothing to rediscover. I, however, argue that there is something there but that it can only be found if we set aside our universalist pretensions, found in whatever metaphysical inquiry we follow, so that we can, as Vattimo prescribes, philosophize about the world peacefully. When no one believes he has the truth — or at least the full truth — we will all be much more attentive to each other’s thoughts, hopefully finding some overlap, which is where I believe the full truth can be found. Thus, the ultimate reason we must kill God is to rediscover Him, and that is how we can find truth through Vattimo’s philosophy.

Edited by: Paul Gillett

Works Cited

Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations and Remaking of World Order. Touchstone 

Books, 1998. 

Vattimo, Gianni, and Santiago Zabala. Nihilism & Emancipation: Ethics, Politics, & Law.

Columbia University Press, 2004.

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