Down the Sociological Road to Nihilism

This semester I am teaching a basic undergraduate class in social theory, and the text we use (Contemporary Sociological Theory and Its Classical Roots, The Basics, Ritzer and Stepinsky) presents many “key concepts” in the field. The “definition of the situation,” is one such concept. This idea comes to us via American Pragmatism, and means that “If people define situations as real then those definitions are real in their consequences.” The example given, one widely used, is a baseball game in which a defensive player mistakenly “defines the situation” as two outs when there is only one out. This leads, as we might expect when one is wrong about reality, to a catastrophe when said player catches a pop fly for what he believes to be the third out, and trots back to the dugout with the ball in his glove while his teammates scream at him, and opposing players round the bases in celebration.

Offered as a bit of methodological wisdom to budding ethnographers, the suggestion that we need to know where people are “coming from” is sound advice—common sense really—akin to not judging another man until we have walked a mile in his shoes. And if methodological advice was all that was at stake, we might safely agree and be on our way. But much more is at stake, and we are not safe, as we can see in what follows.

Having presented the idea, the authors immediately follow with: “This means that what really matters is the way people mentally define a situation rather than what the situation is in reality.” What “really matters” to whom, or to what? Why is what people think about reality more important than whether they are right or wrong about it? As we have noted, it matters to the sociologist trying to make sense out of social action. Point taken. But much more is going on here. The authors are also rearranging our thinking and reprioritizing our priorities. If I may translate, what really matters now, according to sociology, is not that we bring our minds into conformity with the way things are (i.e. that we know that there are two outs instead of one, or that the purpose of our minds is to know the truth of things), what matters is what we happen to think, whatever it is that we think, whether true or false, right or wrong. Indeed, with our minds refocused not on reality, but on our minds and whatever nonsense happens to fill them, anything at all is possible, and as we know all too well, eventually anything at all becomes permissible.

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What matters to man, according to these sociologists, is not that he uses his mind to distinguish what is true from what is false; what matters is what he thinks, whether true or false. What matters is what we think, even if what we think is nonsense. What matters, most critically, is that the student comes to know and embrace an understanding of freedom that is independent of any transcendent truth. This is the sociological path to nihilism, a path down which we have already made great “progress” over the past century or so. Implicitly, man is all that matters because we are the creators, not the creatures, and so we are free to create ourselves as we wish, and make ourselves what we will. God is dead, after all, and we are in charge.

Once we embrace freedom without truth, what stands between what is and what we want is not the truth of who we are, but a lack of power to create ourselves in our own image. But this freedom and autonomy is an illusion. Rejecting what the Creator has made of us means neither autonomy nor authenticity, but merely enslavement to someone else’s idea. Marxists reject God only to worship Marx. Feminists reject patriarchy only to embrace intrusive regulation and oppression by the state. And so as Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI maintained, when freedom is set free from truth the result is invariably tyranny. In my experience, this is a truth that most sociologists and social constructionists more generally refuse to accept. What they seem all too willing to accept is the subordination of truth to power, which is why over the last generation academia in general and sociology in particular has become ever more politicized, ever more dominated by unapologetic ideologues and propagandists.

And so we might extend the baseball game example to its inevitable conclusion. The baseball fielder, instead of acknowledging his error, insists his view was not wrong but merely “different,” and so equally worthy. He then convinces his teammates to join with him in overthrowing the ideas of the baseball ruling class, after which they set out to find lawyers, guns, and money sufficient to force the other team, the umpires, and the fans to see things their way.

This is a world of “realized nihilism” as David Bentley Hart put it in First Things (February 2011); a world that Nietzsche prophesized, and sociologists have enabled; a world “…in which all values have become subordinate to the demands of the human will.”

And this is now our world.

  • Clifford Staples

    Clifford Staples, Ph.D., is a sociologist serving as a Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

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