I enjoyed this book. It is a superb summary of 20th century thought about God and godlessness, and the implications this holds for our view of ourselves, and how our behaviour can be grounded if there is no god to ground them in.
It shows how many people, across the world, and in many different fields- art, novels, philosophy, religion, theology, architecture, came to respond to Nietzsche's bold declaration that "God is dead, and we have killed him." It is a tremendous synthesis of many themes and currents of thinking, many of which are still active today.
It explains well the consequences of the death of "grand narratives" (although this view is itself something of a grand narrative...) and how people have learned to become more proximate and limited in their thinking. There's something to be said for this- it's an Aristotelian pragmatism- some reasonably justifiable action needs to be made now- as opposed to the often rather idealised Platonic forms of abstract ideas such as Justice, Health, Morality etc. Such ideas are fascinating, but get more elusive the more you try to define them completely and competently. God can be seen as the biggest Platonic form of them all- and in the twentieth century such large ideas came to be seen as untrustworthy, and indefinable. The logical positivists in Austria went as far as to say nothing meaningful could be said about God.
This book explains a lot about our current age and how we have arrived at where we are. It's a great book for history, and reflection, and also recognition of current limits to our thoughts and ideas.
It shows clearly that where we are now is not a complete intellectual ending, but this book is a good review of progress to date. It's written fairly and accurately, and without imposing any one viewpoint on the ideas it discusses. It's more like a map of relationships between ideas than an argument towards a particular outcome. It's a better book for using this writing strategy.
This book can be recommended to all those of us- whether theistic or atheistic- who want to understand where our current ideas have come from, and are willing to reflect on why we choose the particular ones we hold.
Watson has written a cornucopia of philosophical musings,taking in science,poetry, sociology,philosophy, literature,painting, religion. Changing the title from an earlier The Age of Atheism to The Age of Nothing,since we live in a post-Christian,post-secular,post-Modern age.Watson describes the response of modern Western societies and their intellectuals to the decline of religion.The sweep is marvellous,from Gibbon and Hume,the French Revolution,Kant,Hegel,the Romantics,biblical criticism,Marx,Schopenhauer,Lyell,Darwin,we get `the melancholy,long,withdrawing roar'of the sea of faith.Nietzsche's concept of nihilism,that there exists no perspective external to or higher than life itself,no transcendence,nothing metaphysical,there are no `objective' value judgements:there are no facts,"no truths,only interpretations".Life itself has only the meaning we can give it.Nietzsche also saw science in comparative terms, the enlightenment desire to know everything was life-denying, the heir of Christian belief in rigour and honesty.The world is a chaos of multiple forces that cannot be reduced to unity.For Nietzsche only through the `will to power' can we gain control over inanimate nature.We must live in the present more intensely.Though Nietzsche wrote Thus Spake Zarathustra in the 1880s,its influence wasn't felt until after his death (1900).His became the most popular work of philosophy in Germany in the1st World War. The pursuit of disinterested truth had been the highest philosophic value prior to Nietzsche. Nietzsche's incoherence has led to his vast appeal to such a wide variety of people, he had a superb, aphoristic style,which often got lost in translation.He is at the heart of the university curriculum in the humanities.
With the death of God comes the loss of objectivity:all that remains is our own perspective,and we must make of it what we can.Watson's encyclopaedic knowledge is amazing as he moves on through the whole range of literature in French,German and English,taking in the post-Impressionist and modernist painters and discovering interesting and idiosyncratic reaction to the news of God's death. He concludes that there is only one stand-in for God and that is the intense moments of experience.According to him,the most important influence in shaping this search for the sacred moment was Husserl,the founding father of phenomenology, who held that experience is the reality against which theories are tested.This idea was given lierary form by Robert Musil,and philosophical form by Martin Heidegger.On the way he gives a lot of weight to the poetry of Rilke and Wallace Stevens.Walt Whitman said evolution `betrayed a want of living glow,fondness,warmth'. We've come up against our own loss of enchantment and technological limitations. Science has opened up a world of wonder,but also not provided any more answers on how we should live our lives.The sense of the sublime and the infinite that comes from mathematics,also makes us fall back in on ourselves,explore our own individualities,phenomenologically.
However,the God-hungry atheism of the mid-20th century has a slightly quaint air today.The life-cult of DH Lawrence,the socialist progressivism of HG Wells,the naïve optimism of John Dewey,the existentialist nihilism of Heidegger and Sartre-all such religious substitutes have lost their appeal,and we're left with an encounter between evangelical atheists,who tell us that religious belief is nonsensical and wicked,and defenders of intelligent design who look around for the scraps that the Almighty has left behind.A Theory of Everything will not solve our modern dilemma.Freud's import has been immense with his psychologising of the theological instinct. In the new wasteland where were values going to come from? They can only come from basic appetites and instincts, which has led to the perversions of Nazism amongst other things.We've also seen the rise and fall of Communism and Maoism,as post-Christian atheistic beliefs.A return to God has come through a form of religious atheism.The idea for our survival is through love and relationships,forms of moral behaviour, as EO Wilson says,empirically grounded in our evolutionary history,linking the sciences and the arts and the humanities through `consilience' Humility in ethics,adaptation to the cosmos,and all of the life on the planet.I think a really important part of the book is how he covers the philosophy of politics,the democratic elements of a secular society through thinkers like Nozik,Dewey,Rorty,Dworkin and Habermas.This covers a real need in a world grown dangerous through the extremism of politicised religion in the fundamentalist Christian and Islamic worlds.Also the alliance between the White House and the state of Israel only exacerbates the problem of disbelief having real dignity.
on 10 August 2014
I would give this book an A for effort but only a C for attainment. Following Shakespeare, this book should really be called The Age of Nothing Does Not Come from Nothing. This is because it underplays the significance of the legacy of Christianity for providing the first phase of the age of nihilism with an invisible armature to support creative rivalry and to set standards of excellence in a range of disciplines. This is something Fergus Kerr's (1997) book Immortal Longings explores better than Watson. Kerr argues that modern philosophers, while aiming to attack Christianity on closer inspection show an indebtedness to it, hence my suggestion that Watson's book should have an alternative title. In this respect, George Steiner's (2001) The Grammars of Creation does a better job of describing the full effect of nihilism for creative disciplines in late- and post-modernity, which Steiner thinks are an exhausted footnote to Christianity and the early phase of modernism. Steiner's analysis suggests the second, later phase of nihilism does cash out as nothing coming from nothing. Has Watson adequately pondered this problem? For example, why are artists and composers who were born after 1950 incapable of rivaling those who worked in early modernity and before?
The book is also uneven in the way it switches from a descriptive to an evaluative account of nihilism, but without providing a rationale for so doing. An example is the way the author describes but does not evaluate the validity of Charlie Parker's account of his own jazz performances as intuitive, and his advice to others to "quit thinking' when playing jazz (see p.405), as though intuition floats free from thinking. However, research shows Parker's self-reporting to be at odds with his performances given his intuition rests firmly on an armature of thinking, albeit not the thinking associated with tuition in formal settings like conservatories but as carried out by exemplars of jazz from whom Parker deliberately learned to play, which is verified by Owens' (1995) research that shows Parker to be a `formulaic improviser'. Steiner (2001) identifies the same role for generative grammar in all the arts, and might be the reason why the the very nihilistic Dada movement disappeared up its own backside, given its creative grammar was depthless. In contrast, the generative grammar of "call and response" that Watson identifies as shaping the style of bebop does have deep cultural roots, which Watson fails to trace adequately back to Christian, black gospel music, where the preacher "calls" and the congregation "respond". This pattern of worship reflects the long tradition of the Christian practice of responding to Christ's calling.
The same criticism could be made of the way Watson seemingly approves of the logic of Christopher Hitchens' argument that institutions like libraries and having `lunch with a friend' can be just as fulfilling as attending church or engaging in prayer. Here we are presented with a false view of Christianity as just involving attending church or praying, and its corollary of a false choice that requires the conjuring trick of the argument of the excluded middle, as though going to church and having lunch with a friend are mutually exclusive, or that prayer must rival having studying in a library. What Hitchens' comment obfuscates is that institutions like libraries and the love of learning are in no small measure a legacy of Christianity. In the ancient world Christians were much admired by non-believers for their `love feasts', a weekly gathering to share food in common in celebration of the risen Christ.
The author repeatedly conflates Christianity with Platonism, so that the Christian understanding of life is equated by Watson with a kind of transit camp awaiting real fulfillment in the ghost-like state of the afterlife, which of course is sub-Christian given the central event of the Incarnation of Christ and the status of the embodied mind in community, individual identity, and promise of bodily resurrection promoted by Christianity. Christ's teaching of the Kingdom of God is not focused on some other world but doing God's will in this world. Given the length of Watson's bibliography, I find it puzzling that he fails to grip this distinct feature of Christianity.
Watson also tends to conflate Christendom with Christianity, which is a serious mistake given the two are very different. He never discusses Christ's distinct teaching of agape love, which many commentators have highlighted as the most important practice to emerge in Western culture in the last two thousand years. For example, Dreyfus' and Kelly's (2012) All Things Shining, which is a more nuanced treatment of the problems of nihilism, devotes a chapter to Christ's paradigm breaking teaching of agape love. Terry Eagleton's (2014) Culture and the Death of God is more insightful about Christianity's relationship to modernity than Watson's version.
Unlike Dreyfus and Kelly, Watson tends to focus on early modern phase of nihilism to the exclusion of the late- and post-modern outcomes that George Steiner thinks to be exhausted. This is why Watson's book could have been written in 1980 without altering much of its contents. The ongoing problem of nihilism requires a more up-to-date, perspicuous account by drawing on Kierkegaard's prophetic insight about the leveling condition that has come to afflict late- and post-modernity, which Kierkegaard believed to be a corollary of the expansion of the public sphere and the way the aesthetic sphere and the obsession with serial aesthetic experience has undermined commitment, notably the commitment required to consistently operate in the ethical and religious spheres (see Dreyfus' On the Internet, 2001).
Finally, Watson's promotion of nihilism only substitutes the `as if' view of life that Christianity claims to resolve by making it possible to believe in solution but without necessarily fully realising this in one's own life, with the `as if' narrative as told by Rorty, Dworkin, and others. Why should I or anyone else bother with Watson's ungrounded `as if' account of the meaning of life as condensed by poetry? That Rorty's or anyone else's view of poetry should matter to people is a leap of faith, an ungrounded assertion. In Wittgenstein's words: "All that philosophy can do is to destroy idols. And that means not creating a new one -- for instance as in "absence of an idol". Watson's book promotes worshipping the "absence of an idol".