One of America’s leading political theorists analyzes the nihilism degrading—and confounding—political and academic life today. Through readings of Max Weber’s Vocation Lectures, she proposes ways to counter nihilism’s devaluations of both knowledge and political responsibility.
How has politics become a playpen for vain demagogues? Why has the university become an ideological war zone? What has happened to Truth? Wendy Brown places nihilism at the center of these predicaments. Emerging from European modernity’s replacement of God and tradition with science and reason, nihilism removes the foundation on which values, including that of truth itself, stand. It hyperpoliticizes knowledge and reduces the political sphere to displays of narcissism and irresponsible power plays. It renders the profound trivial, the future unimportant, and corruption banal.
To consider remedies for this condition, Brown turns to Weber’s famous Vocation Lectures, delivered at the end of World War I. There, Weber himself decries the effects of nihilism on both scholarly and political life. He also spells out requirements for re-securing truth in the academy and integrity in politics. Famously opposing the two spheres to each other, he sought to restrict academic life to the pursuit of facts and reserve for the political realm the pursuit and legislation of values.
Without accepting Weber’s arch oppositions, Brown acknowledges the distinctions they aim to mark as she charts reparative strategies for our own times. She calls for retrieving knowledge from hyperpoliticization without expunging values from research or teaching, and reflects on ways to embed responsibility in radical political action. Above all, she challenges the left to make good on its commitment to critical thinking by submitting all values to scrutiny in the classroom and to make good on its ambition for political transformation by twinning a radical democratic vision with charismatic leadership.