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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".