In this third installment of commentary on Giegerich’s fascinating essay, The End of Meaning and the Birth of Man, I will discuss Giegerich’s contention that, prior to the nineteenth century, mankind was in no position to question life’s meaning. The nineteenth century brought a shift in being that placed man in a position to view life as if from outside life.
…existence as such had become a vis-a-vis, as it were, which is the opposite of in-ness. Man now for the first time had a position to the world per se. The question of meaning is the mark of the modern period after the conclusion of the age of metaphysics at the beginning of the 19th century.
What occurred in the nineteenth century that brought such a “radical change in man’s being-in-the-world?”
Giegerich is saying that the end of man’s mythological mode of existence ended with the nineteenth century. Prior to this, humanity was fundamentally enmeshed in Nature, or “absolute in-ness,” as Giegerich calls it.
Man experienced himself primarily as a thread in the fabric of nature, without any arbitrary volition of his own (Heino Gehrts). Even where man interfered with nature, such as when tilling the soil, erecting a house, or, above all, in his sacrificial killings, these human interventions were, in a sense, decidedly not his own doings, doings, metaphysically speaking, on his own responsibility, but rather reenactments of exemplary acts originally performed by gods.
Giegerich enumerates five characteristics of this mode of existence:
1) All thinking and experience was handed down from the elders of past generations
2) There was no sense of individuality. All had their substance in the family, tribe, clan, etc. The person was merely an emanation of the group consciousness.
3) There was an inescapable dependence on Nature. Man was at its mercy.
4) People were resigned and submissive to the fate they had been handed.
5) People were devoted to something metaphysically larger than themselves.
An entire book could be written about the end of absolute in-ness, but here is the gist of it: the rise of egocentric man occurred in the nineteenth century. The “I” replaced Nature as the center of existence. By the time of Nietzsche, God was dead, and scientific positivism was the predominant mode of thinking. And, as if a portent of the twentieth century, Nietzsche was plunged into hopeless insanity. The Age Of Despair had commenced. It would not be long before over sixty million people would die in the bloodiest war in human history.
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