It is now more than a century since Friedrich Nietzsche observed that ‘nihilism, this weirdest of all guests, stands before the door.’ Nietzsche was articulating what others were dimly aware of but were refusing to face up to, that, as he put it, ‘the highest values devaluate themselves. The aim is lacking; “why” finds no answer.’
Essentially, life had lost its meaning. Nietzsche also saw the threats this posed to the future of civilization. Much of the greatest work in philosophy since Nietzsche wrote has been in response to the crisis facing us that Nietzsche diagnosed.
Although the word ‘nihilism’ was seldom used, the struggle to understand and overcome nihilism was central to most of the major schools of twentieth century philosophy: neo-Kantianism and neo-Hegelianism, pragmatism, process philosophy, hermeneutics, phenomenology, existentialism, systems theory in its original form, the Frankfort School of critical philosophy and post-positivist philosophy of science, among others. William James, John Dewey, Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead, Edmund Husserl, Max Scheler, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Ludwig Wittgenstein are just some of the philosophers who grappled with this most fundamental of all problems.
Nietzsche, along with these philosophers, influenced mathematicians, physicists, chemists, biologists, sociologists and psychologists and inspired artists, architects, poets, novelists, musicians and film-makers, generating a much broader movement to overcome nihilism. McGilchrist’s work builds on this anti-nihilist tradition, a tradition which is facing an increasingly hostile environment within universities and is increasingly marginalized.
Although he does not characterize it in this way, The Master and his Emissary can thus be read as a major effort to comprehend and overcome the nihilism of the Western world.