This course will examine philosophical elucidations of and responses to the problem of nihilism. Nihilism represents the philosophical articulation of the meaning crisis. The meaning crisis is the loss of connection to oneself, others, and reality. This connection is realized in a coherent and transformative manner that makes life worth living in the face of all of its frustrations, futility, and failures. 

While there are important historical, religious, and scientific drivers of the meaning crisis this course will concentrate on the philosophical dimension of nihilism and how philosophers have explicated it and tried to provide a viable response to it. For the thinkers we will consider, the rise of nihilism has been considered as bound up with the death of God, which is not simply a religious phenomenon.

It is a comprehensive loss of the sense of a deeper or more ultimate sense of reality that grounds a sense of sacredness that, in turn, provides deep orientation for life and the affordance of the deep connectedness so central to meaning in life. 

This loss of an ultimate reality that grounds sacredness has, in turn lead to a diminishment of the possibility of strong transcendence. Strong transcendence is the process of self-transcendence that is more than psychological improvement but is also a transformation that has significant epistemological and ontological import. Without a sense or conception of the possibility of strong transcendence the notions of enlightenment, wisdom, and virtue lose much of their aspirational significance and a drift into nihilism becomes possible. 

This course will explore how a philosophical examination and response to nihilism can provide us with a philosophical framework for responding to the meaning crisis that undergirds the cultivation of meaning in life, wisdom, virtue, self-transcendence, and a transformative connection to a transformed and viable sense of sacredness within our current cultural, secular, scientific worldview. 

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The course will cover four thinkers through a book for each thinker. However, I will supplement each book with relevant material from other work by the specific author under consideration and relevant material from cognitive science. The first philosopher will be Tillich and his book will be The Courage to Be. The second philosopher will be Stanley Rosen and his book will be Nihilism: A philosophical Essay.  The third philosopher will be Nishitani Keiji and his book will be The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism, and the final philosopher will be D. C. Schindler and his book will be Love and the Postmodern Predicament.  We will spend two weeks on each philosopher. 

Note: While this course will make use of Christian and Buddhist thought, this course is not arguing for a particular religious tradition. It will be exploring the sense of sacredness of the role of the sacred within meaning in life and the cultivation of wisdom and virtue. 

John Vervaeke invites you

Your Teacher: Prof. John Vervaeke

John Vervaeke, PhD is an award-winning professor at the University of Toronto in the departments of psychology, cognitive science and Buddhist psychology.

John is the author of the highly acclaimed lecture series “Awakening from the Meaning Crisis” and “After Socrates.”

Introducing "Beyond Nihilism"