Nihilism or Enlightenment? My Journey to Understanding the Point of Critical Thinking

Story by| Jan Bronauer, Contributing Writer

Illustration by| Xie Yihui, Staff Editor

*note* : This article contains citations which can be accessed at the end.

“Sometimes I wish you and your brother weren’t so smart because then you wouldn’t break your head over all these problems,” my mother once said to me. This was during a conversation when I had just returned home from my semester abroad, and when I was overflowing with new questions about the world. During that semester, I had learnt about the structural causes of issues such as racism, underdevelopment, or corruption, and I couldn’t help but wonder what I was to make of this newly gained awareness. The structural nature of these issues seemed to defy any feasible solution, and one way to cope with what I learned was to question the role which wealth, education and convenience play in our lives. But this was difficult in a society where convenience is worshipped and luxury is an essential good. At the time, many things in my life seemed in flux. It seemed as if critical thinking had turned on itself and debilitated me in the process.

Conversations with my peers confirmed that I am not the only one who has experienced such debilitation during their time at Yale-NUS College. In fact, the very purpose of the Common Curriculum is to promote “critical, creative and active thinking [1],” thereby inherently exposing students to the risk of feeling debilitated by what they study. But we cannot say that we have not been warned.

In Philosophy and Political Thought 2, Hannah Arendt cautions us that nihilism is “a danger inherent in the thinking activity itself [2].” She defines nihilism as the inversion, and not just the questioning, of the values in our society. As such, nihilism is a possible, but not inevitable, outcome of the thinking process [3]. More dangerous than nihilism, therefore, is non-thinking—that is, the absence of questioning our preconceived values [4]. If we fail to question the content of the values and rules in our society, we risk committing actions in the name of obedience which we did not mean to commit. Therefore, Hannah Arendt warns us that nihilism is a possibility of critical thinking, but that the more dangerous prospect is not to think critically at all.

Friedrich Nietzsche, by contrast, famously declared that “God is dead” and announced the hour of the great contempt, when our long-held values and beliefs are dissolved. This hour seemed near as I was talking to my mother about the beliefs and values I had come to question [5]. It seemed as if I started to lose the fabric that connected me with everyone around me. I was Lu Xun’s Madman; the pathological and the normal at the same time. I had shattered the true world which I had lived in throughout my childhood, and I was glaring into an abyss altogether devoid of truth. In his declaration, Nietzsche was not talking about the death of God Himself, of course, but about the realization that any true world is inherently an illusion. This realisation is the hour of the great contempt—the emergence of nihilism. But, unlike Arendt, Nietzsche tells us that “nihilism is a normal condition [6]” and even a necessary step towards enlightenment. It seems, then, that nihilism may be a desirable component of a liberal arts education after all.

Before jumping to this conclusion, we must understand that Nietzsche only refers to active nihilism as desirable, and explicitly rejects a passive, submissive and resigned kind of nihilism. In short, he condemns defeatism and praises vitality in embracing the uprooting of our values and beliefs. Ironically, this process of uprooting norms is the very ideal of the typical liberal arts student, but it seems to offer little purpose in the ‘real world’—a world where there is no truth to be found. This gives rise to the ultimate liberal arts contradiction: We are meant to work hard towards worldly success, yet we learn to undermine this very notion of success we are meant to work hard for.

After we become aware of this contradiction, we face a choice: Either we hold on to an illusion and achieve worldly success, or we live our life without any such success. Since I like to believe that a liberal arts education cannot possibly leave us at such an unfavorable crossroads, I propose that there is a third option: we embrace the illusion while remaining aware of its illusory nature. In other words, we maintain a subjective ‘real world’ while accepting that there is no true world.

At this point, let me answer why we should concern ourselves with this talk about truth in the first place? First, the earlier we experience the hour of the great contempt, the sooner we can reconcile the abolition of the true world with our own personal lives. This entails, for instance, realizing that our dream of becoming a politician, a banker, or a musician is our own original notion of success. In this way, we tailor our own life to ourselves. Yes, this tailor-made notion of success is an illusion, but it exists in our subjective ‘real world’ and is therefore inherently meaningful (insofar as our life itself is inherently meaningful).

Second, understanding the impossibility of truth makes us humbler and more resilient. For instance, if someone were to call us out for aspiring to be a banker, we can acknowledge their accusations because, in a way, they are right. There is no denying that chasing after anything in life—even living life itself—inevitably requires some degree of illusion. We cannot possibly defend our ambition as the ‘right’ thing to do because there simply is no ‘right’ thing to do. All we can say is that it is the right thing to do for us and at this particular point in time. This is clearly a subjective judgement, and so is the other person’s accusation against us. But who am I to say that my notion of success is more ‘right’ than theirs? Therefore, to be called out on our illusions must not surprise us; if it does, we have failed to identify the illusion as such.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, separating the true world from the ‘real world’ creates conscious subjectivity; that is, subjectivity which we are aware of but choose to hold on to. Perhaps we can agree that it is oddly liberating to read a novel which we are not required to read. At last, we can let ourselves devour the pages without calculation or the fear that we missed something important. What matters most is the feeling we get from ‘living’ through the plot. Life is similar. Even while knowing that things such as love, success, and joy are merely illusory pleasures, we can embrace the subjective impact they have on us. With the abolition of the true world, we have maintained a world of feelings that is untouchable, because it is subjective. Nobody can tell me whether or not I feel love for someone because this feeling is self-contained within me. The ‘real world’, then, is within each of us.

As disorienting as this time of debilitation was, I am ultimately grateful for it. I have grown more resilient and rooted in life—an illusory life, but a life nonetheless. Even if critical thinking turns on itself, who is it really that turns on our critical thinking? Correct, our critical thinking. The key is to overcome this endless process of mutual suspicion, to understand and accept the unknowability of truth, and to be satisfied with subjectivity instead. We came into this life wanting oranges, but life gave us lemons. This liberal arts education has taught me how to make lemonade.


[1] Yale-NUS College website, Common Curriculum, https://www.yale-nus.edu.sg/curriculum/common-curriculum/, Last accessed: 4 May 2020.
[2] Arendt, Hannah, Thinking and Moral Considerations, Social Research, 38:3 (1971: Autumn), p.435.
[3] Arendt, 1971, p.435.
[4] Ibid, 435-436.
[5] The Will to Power, Nietzsche, p.13.
[6] Ibid, p.17.

One thought on “Nihilism or Enlightenment? My Journey to Understanding the Point of Critical Thinking

  1. You go, Jan! Inspirational thinking. Reminds me of the Paradoxical Commandments, in which writer and scholar Kent Keith says things like, “Life may destroy in one night what you have spent years building. Build anyway.” The point is to recognize an absurdity and do (think, be) something anyway because it is ‘right’, however subjective ‘right’ is. Put your way, it feels at least more determined than defeatist. Thanks for sharing!

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