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Genealogy of Nihilism (Routledge Radical Orthodoxy) [Paperback]

Conor Cunningham

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Book Description

27 May 2002 0415276942 978-0415276948 First Edition
This text re-reads Western history in the light of nihilistic logic, which pervades two millennia of Western thought. From Parmenides to Alain Badiou, via Plotinus, Avicenna, Duns Scotus, Ockham, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Sartre, Lacan, Deleuze and Derrida, a genealogy of nothingness can be witnessed in development, with devastating consequences for the way we live.

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'This is an audacious work and it is difficult to do justice to the complexity of the argument or the subtlety of the terms invoked. However, this work also sparkles with simplicity ... Overall this is a dazzling performance ... It provides an important addition to the literature on nihilism.' - Marcus Pound, Reviews in Religion and Theology

About the Author

Conor Cunningham is a doctor of theology and teacher of divinity at the University of Cambridge. His previous academic interests have included the study of Law, Social Science and Philosophy, and he was among the original contributors to Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology (Routledge, 1999).

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This chapter examines some aspects of the work of Plotinus, Avicenna, Henry of Ghent, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. Read the first page
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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Getting out of our respective ghettoes 9 Jan 2006
By Eric Lee - Published on
A very important book in the Radical Orthdoxy series, and probably my favourite of those I've read so far. Conor Cunningham does a wonderful job not only in tracing back through the history of modern nihilism, but also of making sense of all the philosophical writings of the many key figures he surveys as he shows that the main feature of nihilism is the "nothing as something."

Cunningham begins with going back to Plotinus, showing that his theory of the One is very much a pagan one, drawing directly from Hesiod's Theogony which is a pagan myth of the creation of the world. From there he makes moves to Avicenna, Henry of Ghent, William of Ockham, and then, of course, to John Duns Scotus, the first Christian thinker to incorporate Plotinian and Avicennian ideas into his thought. Scotus to Spinoza, to Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida.

Contrary to Milbank's Theology & Social Theory, after reading each section I could think to myself, "I understand Scotus," "I understand Spinoza," or "I understand Hegel"; in Milbank's magnum opus, I often found myself lost in his murky language and his assumptions that I've read as much as he has. Cunningham does not fall back on this assumption and provides an overview with the understanding that readers may not have necessarily read each philosopher. He endnotes every section heavily, working through each philospher's thought, re-explaining it, and then each time offering an even further clarifying "in other words" to illuminate each philosopher's thought in light of his thesis of the nothing as something.

In the second half of the book called "The difference of Theology," he provides a final survey of nihilism, showing that it tries to make everything the same, creating an indifference to all difference. In so doing, he shows that modernity can no longer speak meaningfully, especially in the observation that it often cannot see any difference between a holocaust and an ice cream cone. On the other hand, Cunningham shows that theology does not want to get rid of difference but affirm it in love, making a very Trinitarian move.

The final chapter ties everything together beautifully, making two points. The first point is that the meontotheological logic of nihilism's nothing as something is actually very similar to theology's creation ex nihilo. Cunningham admits to stumbling upon this similarity not intentionally. The second point, based upon the first, emphases that as the gift of creation we are to be co-creators with God in the giving and receiving of the Church, we are to find and be love where there is hatred, find form in the formless, and therefore create something where there is nothing. This "co-creation" is not articulated in the sense that God needs us to be his "co-pilot", but in the sense that God is so indescribably loving that God creates (creation and thus humans as a part of that creation) and desires us to participate in that divine gift of love that gives.

This is an absolutely amazing book that is often overlooked in the Radical Orthodoxy series. I highly recommend it.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Provocative for all its problems 28 Aug 2013
By Steiner - Published on
In Genealogy of Nihilism, Cunningham interrogates a plethora of thinkers--ranging from Plotinus to Badiou!--and their variegated involvements with a logic of nihilism. At the core of the book, is the claim that throughout the course of the history of philosophy, the logic of nihilism has posits a concept of the nothing, as something. This is to say, that philosophies of the nothing, on account of their attempt to render the nothing as something, betray their own proximity to theologies of creation ex nihilo. Moreover, the key continental philosophies of nihilism, e.g. Fichte, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Derrida, operate according to a dualistic logic that is ultimately grounded in a monism that generates their movement and generation. As Cunningham writes, "The aforementioned quandary [aporetic dualisms of finitude] can be seened throughout the history of philosophy. We pay witness to it in the dualisms employed to cope with this aporia. For example: Lacan and Deleuze ground sense in non-sense; Derrida grounds the Text in the Nothing, which is said to reside outside it; Heidegger grounds Being in das Nicht; Hegel, finitude in the infinite, Fichte, I in Non-I; Schopenhauer, representation in will; Kant, phenomenal in noumenal; Spinoza, Nature in God, and God in Nature."
As Cunningham proceeds with an impressive survey of medieval thought, detailing the Pagan aspects of Plotinus' emanation and moving through accomplished discussions of medieval nominalism in thinkers like Avicenna, Ghent, Scotus, and Ockham, we are treated with an impressive demonstration of nominalism's tendency to render the nothing as something.
However, Cunningham's treatment of early modern thinkers like Spinoza, as well as of 20th century continentalists like Heidegger and Derrida are just rife with confusion. Regarding Spinoza's dual-aspect monism, Cunningham writes that in terms of the aproria [of dualisms of finitude], Spinoza "copes with it by generating the dualism God or Nature; God supplements Nature, while Nature supplements God. But the simultaneous movement between each betrays a monism, in terms of a single substance" (59). I can find no way to think of Spinoza's dualism of God and Nature in terms of a "supplement." Indeed, there is only the single substance, namely God, which is identical to nature. But neither concepts function in terms of a supplement--these distinctions are merely aspectival, not substantive. His analysis therefore suffers as he proceeds to relate Spinoza's monism to what he coins "Pan(A)Theistic Acosmim", a rather dubious term that incorrectly attributes transcendence to nature.
The section on Heidegger is interesting for its discussion on the relation of Celan's poetry to Heidegger, but the analysis still suffers from some flat-footed readings of Heidegger's work. Cunningham's basic reading is predicated on a fundamental mis-identification between Being and the Nothing. Heidegger makes no such identification. As Cunningham writes, "Dasein, in understanding death, can comprehend its own nothingness, and so begin to approach Being in an ontological manner, which means precisely, for Heidegger, to approach Being as nothing. (138) Ontology does not denote understanding Being on the basis of nothing--not in Being and Time, and not in any of the later work. Being as event is the event of co-propriation and the nothing is, if anything, the groundless ground of Being. It is important to follow Heidegger's strange machinery as his ontology captures the ways in which nothingness permeates the beings of the world, and the way in which Dasein's thrown projection discloses its ownmost possibility of no longer being possible.
It is for these reasons Cunningham's excursus into the regions of continental thought is plagued with misinformation. Despite such lapses, his study is valuable indeed for its ambition, its accomplished treatments of nominalism in medieval thought, its fine analysis of Hegel, and its provocative Trinitarian thesis.
4.0 out of 5 stars Can't agree with all of it, but well written and witty 8 Mar 2012
By LG - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Conor Cunningham is FAR easier to read that Milbank and other folks involved in Radical Orthodoxy. Often times, their (RO) interpretation of the history of philosophy is kind of confusing... it usually in different books and essays. This book, however, makes sense of all of it. Radical Orthodoxy and participation makes more sense after book than anything else I've read.
I believe, however, his historiography is off at moments. The conclusions of a thinker in the future do not equate to the negativity of said thinker... once can't say Plato or Aristotle is a cleaner philosophical construct than others. I think this is a bit inconsistent. Not to say that Cunningham doesn't have an answer, I just dont recall seeing it here.

either way, great read. Hard, but worth it... Cunningham writes with wit and teeth. There are moments where it's similar to poetry.
12 of 31 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars breaking news: god cures nihilism! 21 Nov 2011
By Benjamin Norris - Published on
I really did not enjoy this book. Cunningham identifies the "logic of nihilism" as a consequence of a univocity of a non-being that results from an un collapsible, dualistic aporia and reads this model into everyone from Plotinus to Badiou. According to Cunningham, the logic of nihilism cannot adequately "provide" (he develops a "technical" understanding of this term)a cosmological account. The solution to this problem? The trinity and the christian god.

The book is obscure, jargony and full of appeals to authority, most infuriatingly to the bible. It offers nothing new to the discourse on nihilism (like most contemporary books on the subject, excluding Brassier's work) and ultimately,unconvincingly and uninterestingly shows why nihilists (a category Cunningham reduces and abuses so heavily that it ends up applying to all philosophers who do not accepts christ as god in person blah, blah, blah...) and theologians cannot agree: Philosophers who do not accept god cannot give a satisfactory theological account of creation. He completely neglects the fact that nihilism is, in the hands of many, a weapon to be used against this kind of reductive and childish christian ideology.

Ultimately, this book is of a very low quality and a high price. Do not buy it unless you've already drank the christian cool-aid.
6 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Difficult, demanding -and truly brilliant! 3 Aug 2003
By Robert Butler - Published on
This is a difficult book, but truly superb - hence the difficulty! I had my doubts about "Radical Orthodoxy" but this book has removed many of them.
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