© copyright 2000 AD, A. Maryniarczyk SDB, e-mail:maryniar@kul.lublin.pl
translated by Hugh McDonald: e-mail:hyoomik@vaxxine.com
Catholic University of Lublin

The Practical Consequences of Theoretical Nihilism

from nihilism to ecology

Aristotle wrote in the Protreptikos that it is the duty of the philosopher constantly to turn his gaze "to the nature of things and to the divine" so that "like a good helmsman who has made his life firm in the the eternal and unchanging, he will cast his anchor there."note 1 As long as philosophy does its duty and directs the human mind to the world of persons and things, it serves man and culture. When, however, philosophy rejects the task of reading the truth of the world of persons and things and redirects its attention to an analysis of consciousness, how the meaning of words is established, or a search for the conditions for valid cognition, it ceases to serve man and culture.

The antimetaphysical trend in philosophy that has persisted from positivism has proven deadly to philosophy. Instead of liberating philosophy and raising human thought to a higher level, it has given birth to nihilism. Vittorio Possenti's book, Terza navigatione. Nichilismo e metafisica (Roma, Amando, 1998), has taken on the problem of the crisis in philosophy today. It wakes up our philosophical understanding, making us aware that only when we are in contact with being do we become truly wise (recta ratio). While man today seems more interested in economic and social problems than in philosophy, still, as one of the "fathers of modern philosophy", Descartes, said: only a society which has good philosophers is truly rich. The philosophers may not necessarily be good or wise at the personal level, but they become good philosophers when they can direct "the gaze of the mind" to the nature of things.

Aristotle's warning, addressed to philosophers two and a half millenia ago, that " a small mistake in the beginning is large in the end" (parvus error in principio magnus est in fine), has been painfully confirmed in the philosophy and culture of our time. The small mistake of the fathers of modern and contemporary philosophy was the divorce of cognition and being. One of the consequences of this mistake was the trap of agnosticism, antirealism and ecology, which today lie in wait for man.

1. The Trap of Agnosticism

When human cognition is divorced from the truth of things, it is condemned thereafter to error. At the moment being and cognition are divorced, the foundation of philosophy crumbles. Philosophy loses the rationale for seeking a final answer to the question "why?". The value of all judgements and statements consequently appears to be equal. In this way, the philosopher slowly lapses into a terminal illness of thought, agnosticism.

Vittorio Possenti has analyzed the philosophical mind of our time, and he has shown one of its characteristic states, in which the reason wants to save itself, but must destroy itself. As Aristotle wrote in his book of aporiae, such a mind finds itself in constant entanglement.note 2 Skepticism and agnosticism destroy man in two ways: first in his activity, and then in his being. They destroy man in his activity because when man is deprived of purpose and meaning, his praxis is outside of all order. They destroy man in his being, because the term "man" no longer refers to any identifiable personal reality (Terza navigatione. p. 353).

Meanwhile, the philosopher should help others to understand the truth that is inscribed in the world of persons and things, and to reveal the meaning or purpose of their existence. Since this is the only way in which a man can master himself, as Aristotle wrote, "all of nature, as possessing reason, does nothing in vain, but always toward some purpose"note 3 it would difficult for man to proceed in any other way. The discovery of the rationality and purpose of being takes the foundation from under agnosticism and skepticism. The world of real beings stands open before us like a book in which the individual man and entire generations of men can read the truth and discover the purpose.

2. The trap of antirealism

Theoretical nihilism has principally sprung from antirealism, as V. Possenti observes. It is not surprising that this nihilism is a conviction that is imposed by the human mind upon really existing things. In its antirealist stance, nihilism resorts to the famous saying of Engels: "the thesis that all reality is rational is transformed according to all the trules of the Hegelian method into another thesis: everything that exists merits only to be subject to extinction". (F. Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the Twilight of Classical German Philosopy, Warsaw 1974, p. 27-8) Thus things are no longer seen as the vehicles of thought, from which the reason learns truth, but as deserving only extinction. In delivering all things to extinction in order to call them into being once more by his reason, man attempts to discover the meaning of his life. However, the process of "creating a new earth and a new heaven" has given birth to ecology. Ecology appears as the true son of nihilism.

3. The trap of ecology

One of the paradoxes of the civilization and culture of today is that technical and scientific progress, while it has been regarded as the greatest purpose and highest good, has become a trap. This progress has given rise, and continues everywhere to give rise to dangers that threaten humanity. It is not surprising that progress has nurtured its own worst enemy, sometimes even a mortal enemy, the ecologist.

When we investigate the reason for this situation, we understand more and more clearly that an erroneous understanding of reality underlies the devastation and destruction of the natural environment. The creators of the technology and culture of today have received this erroneous understanding in their education.note 4 The starting point for a truly humanistic ecology and the base for all the efforts of the ecologist should be a return to a proper understanding of the world of persons and things, plants and animals, and this understanding should be untainted by ideologies that claim to be based in science.

3.1. The need for ecological thinking

The need for an ecological understanding of reality, free from any theoretical deformations, arises from the crisis of contemporary science and technology. The crisis is event when we see that many of the products of science and technology involve a disproportionate risk of destruction to man's natural environment and his existence. There are many reasons for this. One reason is that the idea of progress has been divorced from the act of knowing reality in order to understand it, and this act is the true foundation for man's practical activity and personal development.

We should note that the idea of progress was already known to the ancient philosophers, and it was associated with the whole of man's life and activity. For example, Plato spoke of progress (greek epidosis, prokope) in the formation and education of the young,. Aristotle spoke of the progress (growth) that we see in the cultivation of plants and in the creation of works of art. Cicero spoke of progress (progressio) in the liberation of man and humanity from tyranny, and in the development of virtue. However, as Krapiec observes:

Progress itself never appeared as a fixed mandate for man, but was always seen as a secondary result of man's development. This remark concerns man's internal culture, his virtues. The man himself must develop or cultivate the virtues, and the state should help him in this task. Man's task is "animicultura" - the cultivation of the human soul - which is corresponds to the greek term paideia, to which ancient thinkers devoted so much attention.note 5

The ancient world and medieval Christianity both accepted this understanding of the idea of progress, as the movement toward man's ""optimum potentiae". Progress was expressed as the attainment of greater and greater perfection of reason and will in acts of decision in the choice of the good. The perfection that was the sign of such progress was expressed in action that was firm, prompt and performed with pleasure ("firmiter, prompte ac delectabiliter").

This does not mean that Christian philosphy and theology restricted the idea of progress only to the development of the human person. However, this development should be the guarantee of rationally based relations between men and of man to nature. The biblical command: "Make the earth subject to yourself" is not so much about man becoming lord over the earth as it is about man transcending that which is "earthly". God's command to "make the earth subject to yourself" means that we should not surrender ourselves to the "earth" but transcend it and make everuthing that is "earth" subject to the human spirit.note 13

The crisis in the idea of progress is also connected with the desire make human life easier at any cost. From this we have the drive to make new inventions, and we see scientific goals subordinated to merely practical goals. Of course, there is nothing wrong in the idea. However, the problem arises when the technological culture begins to have dominion over man, when things instead of serving man subordinate man to themselves. We see this in the dehumanization of culture, in such things as the pollution of the basic human environment in which man lives, develops, and learns to know and understand himself and the world surrounding him.

The crisis in the idea of progress is also connected with its divorce from the world of things and from man, and the transfer of this idea into the sphere of an obligation that exists merely in our consciousness. Kant was one of the first to introduce the idea of progress into philosophy, and he associated it with the sphere of obligation (sollen).

"That which should be done" by man is knowable. Values are knowable, and these make their appearance as "obligations" that are to be realized by man. All culture is nothing but the realization of values, and these are "obligations" of human action. Man's progress properly consists in the realization of such obligations.note 7

This interpretation of the idea of progress engendered a crisis in morality and a distortion in our understanding of man and his activity. When man was divorced in his cognition and action from the "truth of things", he was condemned to "establish" the truth for himself. Philosophy and science were treated as mere instruments for man to set himself in order. This sort of instrumentalization of science also entailed the instrumentalization of man. One external sign of the crisis in this understanding of the idea of "progress" is the catastrophic destruction of man's natural environment. Man himself has become an instrument; he is both the one manipulated and the one who is doing the manipulating.

We may point to the pollution of human thought by various a priori constructed theories and scientific ideologies as one of the most basic sources of the crisis in the idea of progress. As a result, science no longer teaches us to understand and investigate the world of persons and things that surrounds us, but rather is concerned with manipulating these objects. This has contributed to the commercialization of science, where science is subordinated to immediate practical goals and not the search for the truth. As Martin Heidegger said, thought and knowing have ceased to be for man "the home of being".note 8 Science, technology and culture, which should have been man's liberation, have subjected man to themselves. It is most paradoxical, said Heidegger, that:

Technology is more and more ripping and uprooting man from the Earth (...) Man has already been uprooted. Our relations are already merely technical (...) The uprooting of man taking place today is already the end, unless once more thought and poetic activity do not come to power, a power without violence (..) Our human experience and history (...) shows that everything essential and great arises only from man being at home somewhere and rooted in a certain heritage (...) The world cannot be what it is and as it is through man, but neither can it be so without man (...). I see the essence of technology in what I have called an "out-fit" (Ge-Stell) - a frame, a stand), an expression often ridiculed and perhaps unfortunate. The domination of the setting or outfit means that men has been set in place, burdened and challenged by the power that comes to light in the essence of technology, a power man does not rule. All that thought asks for is help in understanding this.note 9
According to Hiedegger, it is the task of science and philosophy today to help in this understanding.note 10

3.2. The need for knowledge with understanding

The purpose of the above outline of the problematic is to lead us to the point where we can ask how to leave this crisis and to point to some concrete proposals. Some philosophers of our day see a way out by returning to the full truth concerning man and the world. Two fundamental truths about man and the world should especially be recognized.note 11 The first is the fact of man's transcendence with respect to the world of nature. From this it follows that man cannot be treated as a mere means for political, economic or scientific activities. The second truth concerns man's taking responsibility "for" and "before" the world. This responsibility "for" requires taking resposibility for the human acts whereby man brings about changes in the world, and this applies especially to the domains of science, technology and art. The responsibility "before" indicates responsibility before one's fellow man and ultimately before the Absolute Person - God. Man cannot in anyway shirk this responsibility and no one can dispense him from it.

Along with these truths, a no less important task is a return to responsible practices in science. Science can be responsibly cultivated only when it is concerned with really existing things and is verified by things. There is no place in responsible cognition for the manipulating of facts, but only for their clarification. Particular real objects are not treated merely as an occasion for verifying scientific hypotheses that have been formulated a priori, but they are a "book of knowledge" about the world.

We see that the pollution in the understanding of reality that has stolen into the mentality of the scientist of our day is one of the basic sources for the devastation of the natural environment.note 12 We should remind ourselves that the problem of ecology cannot be resolved unless men have proper intellectual formation and understand reality. The chief source of the pollution of the natural environment is the man who is polluted within. The man without intellectual or moral virtue is responsible for pollution; without the intellectual and moral formation of man, it will be impossible to bring any lasting order to the environment. Without intellectual and moral order, there is no order in activity. Everything that man does must come from a source of activity that is as pure and developed as possible, and such is the virtuous man.

The chief task of ecological thought is that we should consider the world of person, plants, animals and things in honest, fundamental and neutral terms. The ancient philosophers called this sort of fundamental relfection prote philosophia and ta meta ta physika (or metaphysics). Such a reflection was primarily concerned with investigating the ultimate causes for the existence of beings and their universal properties, and it provided suitable tools for gaining knowledge and understanding of things.

This type of philosophical reflection upon the world of persons, animals, plants and things seems to be needed now today. Pollution, as it appears in the devastation of our forests, water, air, and earth, and also in such spheres of man's life as science, art, morality, religion and politics, is the result of our forgetting and distorting the proper understanding of reality. If the creators of science and technology have overlooked or forgotten the fundamental truth about the world, they have inherited their attitude chiefly from modern and contemporary philosophy.

The problem of the pollution of knowledge and the deformation of our understanding of the world came from the imposition of a priori theories and scientific methods, which have subordinated the good of the world of persons, plants, animals and things to utilitarian ends. The consequence was a deformation of our understanding of reality, and in turn, the formulation of improper laws and principles of action. The further consequence of this has been the devastation both of the world of nature and the world of persons.

Metaphysical knowledge is aimed primarily at knowing the beings of the real world. In metaphysical investigations ito the natural environment, we do not stop at a mere description of the effects of the pollution of rivers, the air, lakes, the sea, or of culture and knowledge, but we seek out the ultimate and objective (and thus concrete) causes for this state of affairs.

When we speak of causes, we do not merely include the immediate perpetrators of pollution, such as a particular factory or a human individual. There may be more basic causes, sometimes hidden, such as the false or distorted understanding of reality, or the model of culture and civilization that has been imposed upon reality, and these have been inherited both by contemporary science and technology. Hence, on the one hand, the cause of the devastation of the natural environment is a false image of science, according to which all endeavours in the field of knowledge must have utilitarian ends, and this is most clearly the case in the technologization of scientific knowledge, where science is harnessed to industrial ends. On the other hand, the cause of devastation is a false understanding of the world of persons and the things that man who creates science and technology has at his command. He sees the world merely in terms of commercial values, and by his activity he contributes to the dehumanization of the world. Meanwhile, the world is man's natural environment and it needs to be treated responsibly.

4. The return to the ethos of the philosopher

The realistic cognition, which can break the chain of the dehumanization of man's natural environment that man himself has brought about, must be directed primarily at the discovery of the truth, the good and the end of the universe. The cognition in question will supply us with knowledge of why and what things are, what the purpose of their existence is, and what man is. It is thus different from the sort of knowledge that is directed to merely practical ends.

In this way in the ancient world there arose the ethos of the philosopher as the eternal seeker of the truth, and the ethos of philo-sophia as theory, which has the sole purpose of discovering the truth that is within things. Although, as we read in the first book of Aristotle's Metaphysics, "all men by nature desire to know",note 13 we are not all going to bear the name of philosopher, but only those who make efforts to take possession of knowledge about the first principles of the universe. That science which investigates the first causes of the universe rules over the other sciences. Thus it was called prote philosophia - the first philosophy - and also called metaphysics.


1. Arystoteles, Protreptikos, frg.,50.
2. Met., 995 a 24-35.
3. Protreptikos, frg.22.
4. cf. M. Krapiec, Idea "postepu" w krzywym zwierciadle ekologii (The idea of progress in the crooked mirror of ecology), in Czlowiek w kulturze (Man in Culture) 2(1994), p.17-28.
5. M.A. Krapiec, Idea "postepu" w krzywym zwierciadle ekologii, op.cit., p.17.
6. Ibid., p.19.
7. Ibid., p.21.
8. M. Heidegger, List o "humanizmie,(M. Heidegger - Letter on humanism) in: Budowac, mieszkac, myslec, (Build, Dwell, Think) trans. (to Polish from German) J. Tischner, Warsaw 1977, p.76ff.
9. Tylko Bóg moze nas jeszcze uratowac. (Only God Can Save Us) a conversation in the Spiegel with Martin Heidegger., 23 Septemper, 1966. trans. (German to Polish) Z. Mazurczak, in: "Filozofia". The Periodical of the Philosophical Circle of Students of KUL, # 2(1978) s.9-43.
10. cf. M. Heidegger, List o "humanizmie, trans. (German to Polish) J. Tischner, in: Budowac, mieszkac dzialac, Warsaw 1977 s.76-128.
11. A. Krapiec, Idea "postepu"w krzywym zwierciadle ekologii, op. cit., p.24.
12. cf. M. Krapiec, Znaki i rzeczywistosc (Signs and Reality), in: Czlowiek w kulturze(Man in Culture), 4-5(1995), p.13ff.
13.Met, 980 a 22