Aeon Magazine

Whence comes nihilism, the uncanniest of all guests?

Where does nihilism come from? It is the result of changing labour and social organisation – not academic debate

Friedrich Nietzsche was most famously concerned with the problem of nihilism. All societies, in his view, rely on implicit value judgments. If the foundations of these are lost, he predicts terrible consequences: widespread apathy or violent, fanatical attempts to reclaim a sense of purpose, or perhaps both. We talk about values a lot, and we know they do something, but we have little idea how. Compounding this is uncertainty over their loss. Nihilism is not a choice or intellectual commitment, but a thing that comes upon you. As Nietzsche put it in 1885: ‘Nihilism stands at the door. Whence comes this uncanniest of all guests?’

Part of the answer comes from understanding how values connect to knowledge and action. In Seeing Like a State (1998), the political scientist James C Scott classifies knowledge in two ways: epistemic knowledge, which can be quantified, theorised and transmitted in abstract, and metis (from the classical Greek), which concerns knowledge gained from practical experience, such as personal relationships, traditions, habits and psychological states. Metis governs local experience: farming the family’s land, for example, rather than agronomic study. We all recognise it; it’s why we hire for experience. For instance, Jane and Martha have identical diplomas, but if Jane’s first shift was on Tuesday and Martha’s was in 1970, then Martha will have certain tricks and habits to expedite her work. Still, it’s not easy to quantify just what that is: Martha has metis, and metis can’t easily be reproduced. If it were trainable, it would have been in Jane’s training.

Scott’s genius is to compare metis to local traditions. Over a long enough time, habits and behaviours are selected for and passed down, just as evolution selects helpful traits. A successful group will institutionalise an irreducibly complex set of cultural tools that relate to its environment. Since these are metis, and not epistemic, they won’t always be obvious or quantifiable. Scott recounts dozens of examples of customs that might appear backwards, confused, unscientific – yet when they’re banned or discouraged, productivity collapses. He calls this the problem of ‘legibility’. 

Epistemic theories rely on isolated, abstracted environments capable of taxonomy, but these are far removed from the dynamic, interconnected systems of nature and human culture. Metis, by contrast, develops within complex, ‘illegible’ environments, and thus works with them. But that also means its application is limited to a specific act, rather than a broader theory. Outsiders want to know why something works, but locals will explain it in a language unintelligible to them.

These practices and traditions are, of course, more than work experience. They’re used to efficiently solve political problems. In The Righteous Mind (2012), the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes Balinese rice farmers who needed to coordinate irrigation along a river. Since they were politically divided into small familial units – called subaks – they needed to rely on means older than governance to ensure cooperation:

The ingenious religious solution to this problem of social engineering was to place a small temple at every fork in the irrigation system. The god in each such temple united all the subaks that were downstream from it into a community that worshipped that god, thereby helping the subaks to resolve their disputes more amicably. This arrangement minimised the cheating and deception that would otherwise flourish in a zero-sum division of water. The system made it possible for thousands of farmers, spread over hundreds of square kilometres, to cooperate without the need for central government, inspectors and courts.

This still occurs. A 2017 paper by the economists Nathan Nunn of Harvard University and Raul Sanchez de la Sierra of the University of California, Berkeley mentions gri-gri, a magical powder that witchdoctors manufacture. In 2012, following a period of widespread banditry and state insecurity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, gri-gri came to a village elder in a dream. Applying this powder made the user bulletproof, and it worked so well that neighbouring communities swiftly adopted it. The reason was simple: groups fight better than individuals, and more people will dare to fight if they believe they are bulletproof. Hence, a village using gri-gri was more likely to survive.

Gri-gri and water temples are kinds of metis, but they require belief in larger structures: respectively, magic and gods. However these structures first developed, it’s critical that they rest on more than mere faith or tradition. Shared values provide conviction for greater actions, but those values are certified by the success of those actions. Gri-gri’s success is an empirical testament to magic, and its utility inclines one towards trusting more activities by witchdoctors. Nunn and Sanchez de la Sierra point out that

many of [the spells] appear to provide individuals with a greater sense of security and confidence, which could serve to … reduce their anxiety and thus improve their performance. For example, most of the spells provide protection, whether it be from drought, disease, attacks on the village or even to harm potential thieves – and thieves also believe in their efficacy, which acts as a deterrent. 

In other words: these practices and institutions serve several different roles, all bound up in one another. This intermingling exacerbates the problem of legibility.

When we discuss changing values, we often think top-down: a new and persuasive ideology that took hold for intellectual reasons. What Scott and the adoption of gri-gri suggest is the opposite: the motive force of values requires a degree of certainty that is dependent on action. It was gri-gri’s empirical demonstration that allowed it spread it to neighbouring villages, not its poetry. The inverse to this is also important: we can improve on a specific task, but other roles need time to sediment and evolve. Trade the temples for a government, and you have zero-sum bickering. Explain the game theory behind gri-gri, and no one will fight with it. The utility of a cultural institution first allows adoption, but its maintenance allows metis ample time to tinker and perfect.

If we’ve lost faith in certain values, then I doubt this was because of academic debates. The 20th century profoundly changed labour, technology and social organisation in the Western world. It’s hard to imagine that this didn’t change metis, or render older forms of metis irrelevant. While the values of metis might still be desired – or even identified with – they lack the same certainty they once had. Nothing can prove them and thus justify the higher claims. ‘Faith without works is dead,’ as the Bible said, but faith without metis is unbelievable.

A top-down view of value implies that we can simply create new reasons for living, that the ideology itself is its own proof. But if values come bottom-up, then man’s quest for meaning cannot be separated from his labour. They are the same.

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