No Exit From Darkness: The Philosophy Of True Detective

No Exit From Darkness

The Philosophy of True Detective

By Guillaume A.W Attia (Editor-In-Chief)

July 15, 2015         Picture: Steve Chan/Behance


On the surface, HBO’s critically acclaimed 2014 mini-crime drama series, True Detective, has all the familiar features of a successful murder investigation story: a macabre killing pointing to a defiant and intriguingly psychologically complex killer, an experimental partnership between two charismatic but apprehensive detectives at the peak of their professional careers, authorities under extreme public pressure to ensure the safety of the community, and the increasingly disturbing suspicion that a single act of artistic madness may unravel a series of sinister slaughters with much more far-reaching and nefarious consequences than initially anticipated by our courageous protagonists. It is doubtful however, that this sole recipe (albeit laced with gratuitous violence, nudity and sex), not to mention the award winning cinematography of the lead director Cari Foji Fukanaga, fully accounts for the impressive popularity of True Detective’s Season 1.

HBO: True Detective Season 1

As a number of commentators have judiciously observed, what makes this show exceptional – what separates its narrative from other popular crime shows that repackage this recognizable formula- is that it “features so prominently a dark philosophy which suggests that humanity is an error of evolution and ultimately meaningless, and that we should stop reproducing”. All three of these ideas— error theory, nihilism, and anti-natalism—have their roots in the traditional canon of Western philosophy, as well as the work of contemporary academic philosophers. They are amongst the many seemingly queer ideas that are strategically introduced at various points in the story for both cinematic and contemplative purposes. The successful marriage of horror fiction, detective crime drama and philosophy, is the product of an original design by its executive producer & writer, Nic Pizzolatto: “before I came out to Hollywood, (…) I knew that in my next work I would have a detective who was (or thought he was) a nihilist”. And thus the show’s main character and fan favourite— Rustin Cohle—was born.

HBO: Introducing Cohle

Pizzolatto reveals that the philosophy Cohle espouses in the earliest episodes of the show “is a kind of anti-natalist nihilism”. Yet, apart from a reference to nihilist Friedrich Nietzsche in episode 4, Cohle does not actually call himself a ‘nihilist’. During the very first meaningful conversation with his partner, Martin Hart, Cohle asserts that he is, in philosophical terms, “what’s called a pessimist”. As David Cartwright explains in his opening essay, pessimism as a strict philosophical doctrine is most closely associated with the German thinker Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer believed that human existence must be a mistake. In his mind, because the inherently meaningless life of sentient creatures predisposes them to intolerable amounts of suffering, this world is the worst of all possible worlds. Consequently, the notion that a human life does not come to experience this miserable life, cannot be considered a harm. One might think for practical reasons that this is an undesirable and unhelpful worldview, but, as Joshua Dienstag wants to argue, there are good reasons to be a pessimist. Good enough at least, to compel the elusive writer Thomas Ligotti to exposit this philosophy in frightfully compelling works of literature. Having been greatly influenced by Ligotti’s ideas, Pizzolatto describes his “nightmare lyricism” as enthralling and visionary; and his most philosophical work “The Conspiracy Against The Human Race (Hippocampus Press, 2010)” as “incredibly powerful writing”. In his estimation, nobody has “expressed the idea of humanity as aberration more powerfully than (…) Ligotti”. James Trafford articulates the ominous influence of Ligotti’s philosophy on the narrative fabric of Pizzolatto’s creative masterpiece. As great a writer as Ligotti is, Pizzolatto nonetheless confesses that from the perspective of a reader, his work was “less impactful as philosophy than one writer’s ultimate confessional”. For a more academically rigorous & systemic exposition of anti-natalism, the view that human beings should not procreate, one would have to read, as Pizzolatto evidently did, David Benatar’s “Better Never To Have Been (Oxford University Press, 2008)”. Benatar contributes to this symposium by clarifying the nature of anti-natalism in light of theoretically inconsistent and potentially misleading behaviours by Rustin Cohle.

Despite the fact that Cohle explicitly states that he is a ‘pessimist’, that does not negate the truth that some of his sayings are consistent with the musings of nihilists such as Friedrich Nietzsche. We find in the movie’s banner, for example, words which, if we are to believe Randolph Mayes’ interpretation, allude to Nietzsche’s moral psychology. More overtly, Lawrence Hatab draws parallels between Cohle’s episode 5 talk of time as a ‘flat circle’ of interminable repetitions, and Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence. It is also during a similarly philosophically charged episode 3 that Cohle points towards what Evan Thompson identifies as “the illusion of self”: “that you, yourself… all your life… was all the same dream, a dream that you had inside a locked room, a dream about being a person”. Cohle goes on to say just after he utters those words, that “like a lot of dreams, there is a monster at the end of it”. The monster we encounter in True Detective is none other than the towering figure of Errol Childress, a person so morally abhorrent that it inescapably forces a self-proclaimed ‘naturalist’ like Cohle to reflect on the nature of what Peter Brian Barry best describes as “extreme moral vice”.

But lack of virtue is not only found in the depraved activities of the show’s main antagonist, it is also manifested in less horrid form in the lives of the two detectives fighting the outrageous evil on the loose in Louisiana. This disturbing sense that human beings have all fallen short of a moral standard of sort is what, according to Cohle’s suspicions, explains the booming success of psychiatry and religion: “Everybody knows there’s something wrong with them. They just don’t know what it is. Everybody wants confessions. Everybody wants some cathartic narrative for it. The guilty especially oh, but everybody is guilty (…) The ontological fallacy of expecting a light at the end of the tunnel. That’s what the preacher sells. Same as the shrink”. John Depoe responds to this dismissal of theistic moral psychology by offering a plausible Christian account of human guilt, and Stephen Evans & Matthew Wilson defend the theistic vision of morality grounded in the commandments of God.

The last two essays of this issue ask whether Cohle’s narrative arc suggests that he has adopted an ethic of resignation in the face of a world full of gratuitous suffering, and if so, why does he not resolve to suicide? Comparing Cohle’s outlook to the philosophical viewpoint of Arthur Schopenhauer, Sandra Shapshay offers surprising answers to these two questions, and in the process, reveals the complexity of Cohle’s character- a point also emphasized by Pizzolatto:  “I wouldn’t want any viewers (…) to reduce Cohle to an anti-natalist or nihilist. Cole is more complicated than that (…) Cohle may claim to be a nihilist [which he does not] but an observation of him reveals otherwise. Far from “nothing meaning anything” to him, it’s almost as though everything means too much to him (…)”.

In all, the range of philosophical ideas on display, both Eastern and Western, makes True Detective “revolutionary television”. As Wall Street Journal writer Michael Calia recognizes, “Millions of viewers are hearing Cohle’s worldview weekly, and many might just find that it makes some kind of troubling sense”. The objective of this symposium is to demonstrate that it in fact does.


Article #1: What is Pessimism? The Philosophy at The Heart of True Detective by David Cartwright (University of Wisconsin-Whitewater)

In this brief piece, Cartwright articulates the deep metaphysical grounds of Arthur Schopenhauer’s pessimism, why he thought that it was the most unkind fate to be a human, the despair of sexual love, and Schopenhauer’s redemptive strategies for confronting the wretchedness of life. Friedrich Nietzsche, once enthralled by Schopenhauer’s philosophy, later viewed himself as Schopenhauer’s antipode. Cartwright presents Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the nihilism behind Schopenhauer’s pessimism and contrasts this with Nietzsche’s “pessimism of strength.”

David E. Cartwright is a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and Director of the North American Division of the Schopenhauer Society. He has published extensively on the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, authoring numerous articles and books on the German philosopher, including the biography Arthur Schopenhauer: A Biography(Cambridge University Press, 2010). He has served as editor and co-translator of a number of Schopenhauer’s books, including, with Edward E. Erdmann and Christopher Janaway, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason and Other Writings (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Article #2: Why Be a Pessimist Like Rustin Cohle? by Joshua Dienstag (University of California Berkeley)

What does Rust Cohle mean when he says that he is a pessimist “in philosophical terms”? In this essay Joshua Dienstag explains what it means to be a pessimist and why it makes Rust a ‘true detective’.

Joshua Foa Dienstag is Professor of Political Science and Law at UCLA. He is the author of Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit (Princeton University Press, 2009) which won the the Book Award for Excellence in Philosophy from the American Association of Publishers in 2006. He is also the author of Dancing in Chains: Narrative and Memory in Political Theory (Stanford University Press, 1997) and many articles on political theory, film and philosophy.

Article #3: The Philosophy of Thomas Ligotti by James Trafford (University for The Creative Arts)

Thomas Ligotti’s slow, patient, and suffocating irreverence for the world lives hardly beneath the surface of the densely coiled tissues of True Detective. As many commentators have pointed out, this is no more apparent than in the script and characterization of Rust Cohle. For Rust, reality is already a nightmare that is constructed inside the dream-space that forms conscious experience (and this is also exacerbated by Rust’s experience of the bleeding of non-sleep and dream-waking). However, this is not a simple-minded exercise in sloughing the scales from our eyes. In brief, the vision of life we purchase through Rust’s eyes is a mesmeric trap in an ongoing dream, a hallucinatory machine spinning through the void. Puppets without puppet masters: “To realize that all your life, all your love, all your hate, all your memories, all your pain, it was all the same thing. It was all the same dream, a dream that you had inside a locked room, a dream about being a person” (Rust). This article traces some of the lines of connection between True Detective and Ligotti’s work, with particular attention to the unhinging of “real” from its appearances, and of thought from its grounds in nature.

James Trafford is Senior Lecturer in Contextual Studies at University for the Creative Arts, Epsom. He has written widely on rationality, logic, and realism.

Article #4: ‘We Are Creatures That Should Not Exist’: The Theory of Antinatalism by David Benatar (The University of Cape Town)

Rustin Cohle, one of the lead characters in Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective is an anti-natalist. That is, he believes that it is wrong to bring children into existence. In this article, David Benatar outlines the basis for anti-natalism and distinguishes it from other features of Rust Cohle’s character.

David Benatar is Professor and Head of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He is the author of Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence (Oxford, 2006) and The Second Sexism: Discrimination Against Men and Boys (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

Article #5: ‘Man is The Cruelest Animal’: Where is The Viciousness in True Detective? by Randy Mayes (Sacramento State University).

Zarathustra’s famous assertion that “Man is the cruelest animal,” seems like an apt enough tagline for a show that entertains us with the fetishized torture, rape and murder of young lost women. Is the quotation any more than that? In this brief essay, Randy Mayes explores the possibility that it is.

Randy Mayes is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Sacramento State University. Professor Mayes’ main teaching and research interests are naturalism, moral psychology and the nature of rational inquiry. He has published work on the the concepts of explanation, privacy and cruelty.

Article #6: ‘Time is a Flat Circle’: The Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence by Lawrence Hatab (Old Dominion University)

In True Detective, Rust Cohle expresses a Schopenhauerian pessimism about the meaninglessness of existence. In one scene he depicts this view in terms of the Nietzschean idea of eternal recurrence, that everything in life repeats itself again and again forever. Lawrence Hatab argues that in Nietzsche’s thought, eternal recurrence was not in the end an expression of pessimism but a challenge to affirm existence in all its aspects.

Lawrence J. Hatab is Louis I. Jaffe Professor of Philosophy and Eminent Scholar at Old Dominion University. His research interests include Nietzsche, Heidegger, and ancient philosophy. He is the author of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2008), Nietzsche’s Life Sentence: Coming to Terms with Eternal Recurrence (Routledge, 2005), Ethics and Finitude: Heideggerian Contributions to Moral Philosophy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), A Nietzschean Defense of Democracy: An Experiment in Postmodern Politics (Open Court, 1995), and Myth and Philosophy: A Contest of Truths (Open Court, 1990). He is currently writing a book on language.

Article #7: ‘A Dream Inside a Locked Room’: The Illusion of Self by Evan Thompson (University of British Columbia)

In episode 3, “The Locked Room,” Rust Cohle (Protagonist) explains that your life, all your subjective experiences, are “a dream… inside a locked room, a dream about being a person.” In his view, we are creatures who “labor under the illusion of having a self.” These ideas—that all of life is a dream, that we might think we’re awake when we’re really dreaming, and that the self is an illusion—are some of humanity’s oldest and most enduring philosophical thoughts, in both Eastern and Western traditions. So too is the question of whether transcendence—deliverance or awakening from the dream—is possible, especially at the moment of death. This question consumes Cohle, and is a driving question of the whole first season of True Detective.

Evan Thompson is Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He specializes in cognitive science and the philosophy of mind, as well as Indian and Buddhist philosophy. His books include Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy (Columbia University Press, 2014), and Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind (Belknap Press, 2010).

Article #8: ‘Like a Lot of Dreams, There is a Monster at The End of It’: Naturalism, Evil and The Moral Monster by Peter Brian Barry (Saginaw Valley State University)

Rustin Cohle appears to adopt a philosophical position shared by at least very many philosophers and fans of True Detective. On the one hand, Cohle seems be a thoroughgoing naturalist, as evidenced by his rejection of various supernatural beings and entities. But Cohle also speaks freely about the existence of “monsters”, a term often used to refer to putative evil characters like Errol William Childress and Reggie Ledoux. Is this position tenable? It would seem not, but only if a particular conception of moral monstrosity–of evil personhood–is taken for granted. There is a perfectly coherent conception of the evil person that is consistent with naturalism that allows us to understand what makes someone not just bad, but evil, and allows for the existence of moral monsters.

Peter Brian Barry is Professor and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Saginaw Valley State University. After earning a Master’s Degree at both the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Bowling Green State University, he completed his Ph.D. at the University of Florida. His recent work is in social and political philosophy and moral psychology, especially the philosophy of evil. He is the author of Evil and Moral Psychology (Routledge, 2012) and the forthcoming The Fiction of Evil (Routledge, 2016). More information can be found at

Article #9: ‘Everybody Knows There is Something Wrong With Them’: Guilt, Christian Metaphysics and The Doctrine of Sin by John DePoe (Marywood University)

True Detective portrays a dark side to human nature. These characterizations work as a prompt to ponder a number of philosophical issues related to the metaphysical nature of sin as traditionally understood in the Christian tradition. Not only is the act of sin discussed, but the doctrine of original sin or a human sinful nature is considered. Finally, Cohle’s criticism that religion commits the “existential fallacy” is examined in light of human nature.

John DePoe is an assistant professor of philosophy at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He teaches and writes about epistemology, metaphysics, and philosophy of religion. Some of his most recent work explores philosophical topics related to the mind-body problem, the teleological argument for the existence of God, and whether naturalism is self-refuting.

Article #10: ‘Can You Imagine If People Didn’t Believe, The Things They’d Get Up To?’ Ethics & Divine Command Theory by Stephen Evans & Matthew Wilson (Baylor University)

In the 3rd episode of True Detective Martin Hart suggests that, without belief in God, people would have less or perhaps no motivation to be good.  This essay takes an in-depth look at an ethical view known as “Divine Command Theory,” which would explain moral obligations as grounded in God and thus support Detective Hart’s remark.  Evans & Wilson explain the theory, offer a number of clarifying remarks, and identify some common misconceptions about it. For example, they argue that a divine command theory does not imply that God could command what is terrible or that it makes morality arbitrary.  They conclude with some remarks on how a Divine Command theorist might respond to the philosophical pessimism of Rustin Cohle.

C. Stephen Evans (Ph.D., Yale University) is University Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Baylor University in Waco, TX. His published works have focused on Kierkegaard, philosophy of religion, and the philosophy of psychology. He has written fifteen single authored books, the most recent being God and Moral Obligation (Oxford University Press, 2013). Evans’ Natural Signs and Knowledge of God (also published by Oxford) in 2012 won the C. S. Lewis Prize for best book in philosophy of religion since 2007. Besides his work in philosophy of religion, Evans is known for his work on Søren Kierkegaard and on the relation between psychology and Christianity. He has published many professional articles and has received two Fellowships from NEH and a major grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Prior to coming to Baylor Evans taught at Wheaton College, where he held a joint appointment in philosophy and psychology; St. Olaf College, where he served as Curator of the Howard and Edna Hong Kierkegaard Library as well as a member of the Philosophy Department; and at Calvin College, where, besides teaching philosophy, he served as Dean for Research and Scholarship and was the inaugural holder of the William Spoelhof Teacher-Scholar Chair. He is a past president of the Society of Christian Philosophers. Evans is a native of Atlanta, Georgia, is married to Jan Evans and has three grown children. He is a member of Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas.

Matthew Wilson is a PhD student at Baylor University with interests in ethics, business ethics, and the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard. He holds a Master’s degree in the philosophy of religion from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and an MBA from Indiana University.

Article #11: The Ethics of True Detective: Resignation or Compassion? by Sandra Shapshay (Indiana University Bloomington)

Television critic Emily Nussbaum is right that “True Detective” Season One contains several plot twists that offer no payoff, and that the first season at least has a big gender problem–decrying the victimization of girls and women while treating all female characters as one-dimensional plot devices and eye-candy–but she is mistaken in her view that the philosophical reflections enunciated by Rust Cohle amount in the end to little more than “hot air.” In this essay, Sandra Shapshay suggest that Cohle’s philosophical ruminations do go somewhere: The profundity of the series lies in its handling of the theme of pessimism, pessimism in light of the great amount of evil in the world, and the variety of reasonable, practical responses to this doctrine.

Sandra Shapshay‘s areas of specialization include Schopenhauer, Kant, the history of aesthetics and ethics in 19th century Continental philosophy, and bioethics. She is currently working on a book on Schopenhauer’s ethics titled provisionally, “Degrees of Dignity: Schopenhauer’s Ethical Thought.” With Aaron Meskin and Steven Cahn she is also editing the second edition of Blackwell’s “Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology.” Recent publications include “Schopenhauer’s reception of Kant” (Bloomsbury Companion to Kant, 2nd edition. Ed. Dennis Schulting), “Schopenhauer on the Symbiotic Relationship between the Expressive Arts and Philosophy” Schopenhauer-Jahrbuch, “Contemporary Environmental Aesthetics and the Neglect of the Sublime” British Journal of Aesthetics, “The Problem and the Promise of the Sublime” in Suffering Art Gladly ed. Jerrold Levinson (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2013), and “Moral and Aesthetic Freedom in Schopenhauer’s Metaphysics” co-authored with Alex Neill, International Yearbook of German Idealism/Internationales Jahrbuch des Deutschen Idealismus, ed. Jürgen Stolzenberg & Fred Rush. She is also the author of the Stanford Encyclopedia Article on Schopenhauer’s aesthetics.

Article #12: ‘Form & Void’: Why Life Rather Than Death? by Sandra Shapshay (Indiana University Bloomington)

The protagonist of the first season of “True Detective,” Rustin Cohle, calls himself a ‘pessimist’ and embraces suicide in principle. By his own account, he does not kill himself only because he ‘lacks the constitution’ for it. In his pro-attitude toward suicide, Cohle parts ways with one of the most famous pessimists in the history of philosophy, Arthur Schopenhauer, who regarded suicide as a ‘futile and foolish act’. This essay explores the variety of views a pessimist might reasonably take on suicide and how these ultimately hinge on the rationality of hope.


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