Sunday, July 5, 2009

Values in the dark

Philosophically speaking, values are tricky customers. Deny their existence, and all hell breaks loose. A world bereft of values seems to be pointless. Moreover, if values do not actually exist, then what passes for them in social settings has to be the product of historical whim, something that is imposed rather than discovered. That way lies relativism, nihilism and the barbarity of power politics.

Philosophers have danced around for centuries, trying to avoid being pulled in the latter direction. But, their attempts to identity values as entities in their own right or give them a rational foundation have failed to pan out.

Some thinkers have accepted the hellish conclusion, and even tried to celebrate its consequences.

Machiavelli probably belongs in this company, though 'celebrate' is not the right term for his cool-headed approach. And, on some interpretations Nietzsche fits the bill perfectly. Hence, it should not be surprising that Pragmatists, who are deeply suspicious of traditional accounts of value, have tried to co-opt his writings.

But, for all his posturing, Nietzsche was insufficiently radical. And, he was less farsighted, even, than the apparently docile Dewey. Nietzsche tried to teach us how to whistle in the dark - just like he did. What we really need to learn is how to whistle darkly.