PHIL 730.001 – Advanced Studies in Metaphysics

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Instructor: Thomas Hofweber. This course meets T 4:00 – 6:30 p.m. in CW 208.

Nihilism and the limits of revision: Our conception of ourselves and the world contain many things we take to be true, but that are up for revision: we might be wrong about them and if so we should revise what we think. But there are some things where it is difficult to imagine how we could give those up. Nihilism in various forms is an extreme view that something at the core of our thinking is systematically false. Some forms of nihilism are so radical that its hard to fathom how they could possibly be true. They seem borderline incoherent at some level, but nonetheless they are defended by some philosopher or other.

The goal of this seminar is to consider three extremely radical forms of nihilism, to understand what motivates them, to formulate them properly, and in particular to assess whether they can be refuted and what would follow if they could be ruled out. The three nihilisms are (imprecisely characterized):

1) Ontological nihilism: nothing exists

2) Nihilism about everything normative: there are no reasons, nothing you ought to do or believe, etc.

3) Nihilism about content: no sentences or utterances have any meaning, no one has any propositional attitudes like beliefs, etc.

These characterizations of nihilism are not necessarily the best ones, for reasons we will discuss. We will also discuss forms of nihilism that hold, for example, that although there are some things we ought to do and that matter, what this comes down to is so thin that nothing really matters in a more proper and substantial sense.

Each of those three debates has a small, but separate literature, and we will be able to read a good part of it. However, the issues that arise with each are often very similar: how to properly state nihilism, whether it is coherent, whether it can be refuted, how significant it would be if it turned out to be true, what it would show for the status of content, or normativity, or existence, if the relevant nihilism could be guaranteed to be rules out.