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Nihilism is a philosophical position which argues that the world, and especially human existence, is without objective meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. Nihilists generally assert some or all of the following: there is no reasonable proof of the existence of a higher ruler or creator, a "true morality" is unknown, and secular ethics are impossible; therefore, life has no truth, and no action is known to be preferable to any other.[1]

Nihilism is often more a charge leveled against a particular idea, movement, or group, than it is an actual philosophical position to which someone overtly subscribes. Movements such as Dadaism as well as Futurism[2] and deconstructionism,[3] among others, have been described by commentators as "nihilist" at various times in various contexts. Often this means or is meant to imply that the beliefs of the accuser are more substantial or truthful, whereas the beliefs of the accused are nihilistic, and thereby comparatively amount to nothing.

Nihilism is also a characteristic that has been ascribed to time periods: for example, Baudrillard and others have called postmodernity a nihilistic epoch,[4] and some Christian theologians and figures of authority have asserted that modernity[3] and postmodernity[5] represent the rejection of God, and therefore are nihilistic.

Prominent philosophers who have written on the subject of nihilism include Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. Nietzsche described Christianity as a nihilistic religion because it evaded the challenge of finding meaning in earthly life, creating instead a spiritual projection where mortality and suffering were removed instead of transcended. He believed nihilism resulted from the "death of God", and insisted that it was something to be overcome, by returning meaning to a monistic reality. (He sought instead a "pragmatic idealism," in contrast to the prominent influence of Schopenhauer's "cosmic idealism.") Heidegger argued that the term "nihilism has a very specific meaning. What remains unquestioned and forgotten in metaphysics is being; and hence, it is nihilistic,"[6] and that nihilism rested on the reduction of Being to "mere value."[How to reference and link to summary or text]


The term comes from the Latin nihil, meaning "nothing". The Oxford English Dictionary gives 1817 as its earliest use in English, and Alain Rey's Dictionnaire historique de la langue française (revised edition 1995) gives 1787 as the first use of the word in French, nothing that nihiliste was used in 1761, though in a religious sense of 'heretic' that is now obsolete. Rey also argues that the Russian equivalent nighilizm (нигилизм) that appeared in 1829 was an impulse to the penetration of the term into modern language.

The Latin indefinite pronoun nihili ('nothing') is a reduced form of nihilum, a term that derives from ne-hilom, an emphatic form of the negation ne by means of hilum, meaning 'the slightest amount' and of uncertain origin. [citation needed]

Nihilism in Philosophy

Certainty series:

Though the term nihilism was first popularized by Ivan Turgenev (see below), it was first introduced into philosophical discourse by Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (17431819), who used the term to characterize rationalism, and in particular Immanuel Kant's "critical" philosophy in order to carry out a reductio ad absurdum according to which all rationalism (philosophy as criticism) reduces to nihilism, and thus it should be avoided and replaced with a return to some type of faith and revelation. (See also fideism.)

Friedrich Nietzsche's later work displays a preoccupation with nihilism. Book One of the posthumous collection The Will to Power (a highly selective arrangement of jottings from various notebooks and from an incomplete project begun by Nietzsche himself, then posthumously edited and released by his sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche) is entitled "European Nihilism" which he calls "the problem of the nineteenth century." [citation needed] Nietzsche characterized nihilism as emptying the world and especially human existence of meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. He hints that nihilism can become a false belief, when it leads individuals to discard any hope of meaning in the world and thus to invent some compensatory alternate measure of significance.

Though some deride it as nihilistic, postmodernism can be contrasted with the above formulation of nihilism in that the most common type of nihilism tends toward defeatism or fatalism, while postmodern philosophers tend to find strength and reason for celebration in the varied and unique human relationships it explores.

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Nihilism can also readily be compared to skepticism as both reject claims to knowledge and truth, though skepticism does not necessarily come to any conclusions about the reality of moral concepts nor does it deal so intimately with questions about the meaning of an existence without knowable truth.
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In a very different vein than just given, contemporary analytic philosophers have been engaged in a very active discussion over the past few years about what is called mereological nihilism. This is the position that objects with parts do not exist, and only basic building blocks without parts exist (e.g., electrons, quarks), and thus the world we see and experience full of objects with parts is a product of human misperception. Jeffrey Grupp of Purdue University [7], argues for a doctrine of mereological nihilism, maintaining that there are no objects whatsoever which have parts. Grupp argues that nihilism is the standard position of many ancient atomists, such as Democritus of ancient Greece, Dharmakirti of ancient India, that it is the position held by Kant in his transcendental idealism, and that it is the position actually found in quantum observational physics.[8] The other contemporary mereological nihilists are not atomists (instead they advocate a slightly diferent theory, called simples), such as the mereological nihilists Trenton Merricks of the University of Virginia, and Peter van Inwagen of Notre Dame.

Nihilism in Ethics and Morality

Main article: Moral nihilism

In the world of ethics, nihilist or nihilistic is often used as a derogatory term referring to a complete rejection of all systems of authority, morality, and social custom, or one who purportedly makes such a rejection. Either through the rejection of previously accepted bases of belief or through extreme relativism or skepticism, the nihilist is construed as one who believes that none of these claims to power are valid. Nihilism not only dismisses received moral values, but rejects 'morality' outright, viewing it as baseless.

Postmodernism and the Breakdown of Knowledge

Postmodern thought is colored by the perception of a degeneration of systems of epistemology and ethics into extreme relativism, especially evident in the writings of Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida. These philosophers tend to deny the very grounds on which Western cultures have based their 'truths': absolute knowledge and meaning, the accumulation of positive knowledge, historical progress, and the ideals of humanism and the Enlightenment. Though it is often described as a fundamentally nihilist philosophy, before entering a brief discussion on postmodern thought it is important to note that nihilism itself is open to postmodern criticism: nihilism is a claim to a universal truth, exactly what postmodernism rejects.

Lyotard and Meta-narratives

Lyotard argues that, rather than relying on an objective truth or method to prove their claims, philosophers legitimize their truths by reference to a story about the world which is inseparable from the age and system the stories belong to. Lyotard calls them meta-narratives. He then goes on to define the postmodern condition as one characterized by a rejection both of these meta-narratives and of the process of legitimization by meta-narratives.

"In lieu of meta-narratives we have created new language-games in order to legitimize our claims which rely on changing relationships and mutable truths, none of which is privileged over the other to speak to ultimate truth." It is this unstable concept of truth and meaning that leads one close to nihilism, though in the same move that plunges toward meaninglessness, Lyotard suspends his philosophy just above its surface.

Nihilism and Nietzsche

'To the clean are all things clean' — thus say the people. I, however, say unto you: To the swine all things become swinish! Therefore preach the visionaries and bowed-heads (whose hearts are also bowed down): 'The world itself is a filthy monster.' For these are all unclean spirits; especially those, however, who have no peace or rest, unless they see the world FROM THE BACKSIDE — the backworldsmen! TO THOSE do I say it to the face, although it sound unpleasantly: the world resembleth man, in that it hath a backside, — SO MUCH is true! There is in the world much filth: SO MUCH is true! But the world itself is not therefore a filthy monster!

— Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

While few philosophers would claim to be nihilists, nihilism is most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche defined the term as any philosophy that, rejecting the real world around us and physical existence along with it, results in an apathy toward life and a poisoning of the human soul — and opposed it vehemently. He describes it as "the will to nothingness" or, more specifically:

A nihilist is a man who judges of the world as it is that it ought not to be, and of the world as it ought to be that it does not exist. According to this view, our existence (action, suffering, willing, feeling) has no meaning: the pathos of 'in vain' is the nihilists' pathos—at the same time, as pathos, an inconsistency on the part of the nihilists.

— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, section 585, Walter Kaufmann

In this sense it is the philosophical equivalent to the Russian political movement mentioned above: the irrational leap beyond skepticism — the desire to destroy meaning, knowledge, and value. To him, it was irrational because the human soul thrives on value. Nihilism, then, was in a sense like suicide and mass murder all at once. He saw this philosophy as present in Christianity (which he describes as slave morality), Buddhism, morality, asceticism and any excessively skeptical philosophy.

Nietzsche is referred to as a nihilist in part because he famously announced "God is dead!" What he meant by this oft-repeated statement has been the subject of much heated debate, because Nietzsche simply declared this position in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra without actually arguing for it. Some argue that Nietzsche meant not that God has died in a literal sense, or even necessarily that God doesn't exist, but that we don't believe in God anymore, that even those of us who profess faith in God don't really believe. God is dead, then, in the sense that his existence is now irrelevant to the bulk of humanity. "And we," he says in The Gay Science, "have killed him."

Alternately, some have interpreted Nietzsche's comment to be a statement of faith that the world has no rational order. Nietzsche also believed that, even though Christian morality is nihilistic, without God humanity is left with no epistemological or moral base from which we can derive absolute beliefs. Thus, even though nihilism has been a threat in the past, through Christianity, Platonism, and various political movements that aim toward a distant utopian future, and any other philosophy that devalues human life and the world around us (and any philosophy that devalues the world around us by privileging some other or future world necessarily devalues human life), Nietzsche tells us it is also a threat for humanity's future. This warning can also be taken as a polemic against 19th and 20th century scientism.

Nietzsche advocated a remedy for nihilism's destructive effects and a hope for humanity's future in the form of the Übermensch, a position especially apparent in his works Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Antichrist. The Übermensch is an exercise of action and life: one must give value to their existence by behaving as if one's very existence were a work of art. Nietzsche believed that the Übermensch "exercise" would be a necessity for human survival in the post-religious era.

Another part of Nietzsche's remedy for nihilism is a revaluation of morals — he hoped that we are able to discard the old morality of equality and servitude and adopt a new code, turning Judeo-Christian morality on its head. Excess, carelessness, callousness, and sin, then, are not the damning acts of a person with no regard for his salvation, nor that which plummets a society toward decadence and decline, but the signifier of a soul already withering and the sign that a society is in decline. The only true sin to Nietzsche is that which is against a human nature aimed at the expression and venting of one's power over oneself. Virtue, likewise, is not to act according to what has been commanded, but to contribute to all that betters a human soul.

Nietzsche attempts to reintroduce what he calls a master morality, which values personal excellence over forced compassion and creative acts of will over the herd instinct, a moral outlook he attributes to the ancient Greeks. The Christian moral ideals developed in opposition to this master morality, he says, as the reversal of the value system of the elite social class due to the oppressed class' resentment of their Roman masters. Nietzsche, however, did not believe that humans should adopt master morality as the be-all-end-all code of behavior - he believed that the revaluation of morals would correct the inconsistencies in both master and slave morality - but simply that master morality was preferable to slave morality, although this is debatable. Walter Kaufmann, for one, disagrees that Nietzsche actually preferred master morality to slave morality. He certainly gives slave morality a much harder time, but this is partly because he believes that slave morality is modern society's more imminent danger. The Antichrist had been meant as the first book in a four-book series, "Toward a Re-Evaluation of All Morals", which might have made his views more explicit, but Nietzsche did not survive to write the later three books.

Nihilism, Self-consistency, and Paradox

Nihilism is often described as a belief in the nonexistence of truth. In its more extreme forms, such a belief is difficult to justify, because it contains a variation on the liar paradox: if it is true that truth does not exist, the statement "truth does not exist" is itself a truth, therefore showing itself to be inconsistent. A formally identical criticism has been leveled against relativism and the verifiability theory of meaning of logical positivism.

A more sophisticated interpretation of the claim might be that while truth may exist, it is inaccessible in practice, but this leaves open the problem of how the nihilist has accessed it. It may be a reasonable reply that the nihilist has not accessed truth directly, but has come to the conclusion, based on past experience, that truth is ultimately unattainable within the confines of human circumstance. Thus, since nihilists believe they have learned that truth cannot be attained in this life, they look upon the activities of those rigorously seeking truth as futile. However, this interpretation is open to the same criticism as above, since, barring mystical revelation, the only way the "truth" of nihilism can have been learned is from within the confines of human experience. An attempt at reconciliation may be made in the following way:

To logically deduce that one cannot realise objective (certain) truth as opposed to subjective (assumed) truth, one requires logic. Logic is an artefact of the human mind, which is a finite, subjective apparatus of observation and "experience". Thus, from within the confines of "human experience", it is possible to be convinced (by logical and therefore subjective means) that it is not possible to realise objective truth. The nihilist, then, cannot profess to know something objectively and without bias, but he can submit that he is subjectively convinced that he will never be certain in his knowledge of anything. Therefore, nihilism is a type of cosmic agnosticism ( 'agnostic' meaning 'without knowledge' ) in which the nihilist merely admits that he can never be certain of anything, not for lack of evidence, but for the fallibility inherent to consciousness.

Nihilism in Art

There have been various movements in art, such as surrealism and cubism, which have been criticized for touching on nihilism, and others like Dada which have embraced it openly. More generally, modern art has been criticized as nihilistic due to its often non-representative nature, as happened with the Nazi party's Degenerate art exhibit.

Nihilistic themes can be found in literature and music as well. This is especially true of contemporary music and literature, where the uncertainty following what some perceive as the demise of modernism is explored in detail.


The term Dada was first used during World War I, an event that precipitated the movement, which lasted from approximately 1916 to 1923. The Dada Movement began in the old town of Zürich, Switzerland known as the "Niederdorf" or "Niederdörfli," which is now sporadically inhabited by dadaist squatters. The Dadaists claimed that Dada was not an art movement, but an anti-art movement, sometimes using found objects in a manner similar to found poetry and labeling them art, thus undermining ideas of what art is and what it can be. The "anti-art" drive is thought of to have stemmed from a post-war emptiness that lacked passion or meaning in life. Sometimes Dadaists paid attention to aesthetic guidelines only so they could be avoided, attempting to render their works devoid of meaning and aesthetic value. This tendency toward devaluation of art has led many to claim that Dada was essentially a nihilist movement; a destruction without creation. War and destruction had washed away peoples' mindset of creation and aesthetic.

Because they attempted to undermine the way art was viewed in the 20th century, the dadaists chose to name their movement after a baby phrase to show the way their anti-art was shaking everything up. Several myths regarding the invention of the name "Dada" exist, including that it was a form of mockery against Tzara, who is widely viewed as the father of the movement (in Russian "da, da" is "yes, yes", a name that still offers no indication of the art that bears it). Tristan Tzara (see Samuel Rosenstock), Jewish poet (born in Romania; moved to France) who was one of the co-founders of the Dada movement (1896-1963).

Nihilism in Literature

Although the word nihilism is of recent historical vintage, the attitude it represents is not, as is seen in a famous passage near the end of Shakespeare's Macbeth — though Macbeth is not speaking of universal collapse or expansion but the brute and more immediate fact of human death:

Out, out, brief candle!

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more; it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

— William Shakespeare , Macbeth Act 5, Scene 5

In nineteenth-century culture, nihilism was given wide currency by the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev in his novel Fathers and Sons (1862) to describe the views of an emerging radical Russian intelligentsia. These consisted primarily of upper-class students who had grown disillusioned with the slow pace of reformism. The primary spokesman for this new philosophy was D. I. Pisarev (1840-1868) who articulated a program of Revolutionary Utilitarianism and advocated violence as a tool for social change. Pisarev was cast as Bazarov in Fathers and Sons much to his own delight; he proudly embraced his new status as a fictionalized hero and villain. [citation needed]

After its popularization in the character of Bazarov, the word quickly became a catch-all term of derision for younger, more radical generations, and continues in this vein to modern times. [citation needed] It is often used to indicate a group or philosophy the speaker intends to characterize as having no moral sensibility, no belief in truth, beauty, love, or whatever else the speaker and his presumed audience values, and no regard for the current social conventions.

In Germinal (1885), by Émile Zola, the nihilist character Souvarine dramatizes the danger of nihilism when, in a climactic scene, he sabotages a coal mine and causes a catastrophic accident, then slips away. Souvarine's lack of belief, frequently expressed, is a foil to the optimistic socialism that fuels the coal miners' revolt. [citation needed]

In Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov embraces a nihilist sort of utilitarianism. Dostoevsky ultimately points out the emptiness of nihilism with the epilogue of the novel. [citation needed] In fact, many of Dostoevsky's novels dealt with nihilism. Another major example of nihilism is found in The Possessed (or The Devils), in which Kirilov sees no solution to nihilism but suicide and ultimately kills himself. The main protagonist, Stavrogin, finally sees Kirilov's dilemma and follows suit at the end of the book with his own elaborate suicide. [citation needed]

The works of Albert Camus can be read as a sustained engagement with nihilism. [citation needed] Camus was highly influenced by the works and thoughts of Dostoevsky, even writing his own play based on Dostoevsky's novel, "The Devils". [citation needed]

Yukio Mishima is another example of engagement with nihilism. [citation needed]

Louis-Ferdinand Celine wrote several novels of a strongly nihilist bent, most notably Journey to the End of the Night. [citation needed]

The works of Samuel Beckett, especially the play Waiting for Godot, exhibit elements of nihilism. This play has subsequently been made into a cinematic film which visually deals with the more pessimistic and cynical aspects of nihilism. [citation needed]

In contemporary literature, themes of nihilism can also be found in many of Kurt Vonnegut's books. [citation needed] Robert Stone, additionally, is a contemporary American novelist who has often thematized nihilism in his work. In A Flag for Sunrise (1981), for example, the anthropologist Holliwell is a protagonist struggling against his own nihilistic tendencies. [citation needed] Another American author who is commonly believed to deal with themes of nihilism is Chuck Palahniuk. In his 1996 novel Fight Club, for example, the ultimate goal of the book's 'project mayhem' is the destruction of modern civilization in order to rebuild humanity. [citation needed] Palahniuk, however, claims that he does not deliberately focus on the subject. [citation needed] Nathan Tyree's Novel, Mr. Overby is Falling, is another current example of nihilism in literature. In that book the main character longs for the destruction of all society, so that the world can be cleansed of evil. [citation needed] Nihilism is also a common theme in the worldview and writings of horror author Thomas Ligotti, as well as Bret Easton Ellis[9][10].

See also


  1. Bazarov, the protagonist in the classic work Fathers and Sons written in the early 1860s by Ivan Turgenev, is quoted as saying nihilism is "just cursing", cited in Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Macmillan, 1967) Vol. 5, "Nihilism", 514 ff. This source states as follows: "On the one hand, the term is widely used to denote the doctrine that moral norms or standards cannot be justified by rational argument. On the other hand, it is widely used to denote a mood of despair over the emptiness or triviality of human existence. This double meaning appears to derive from the fact that the term was often employed in the nineteenth century by the religiously oriented as a club against atheists, atheists being regarded as ipso facto nihilists in both senses. The atheist, it was held [by the religiously oriented], would not feel bound by moral norms; consequently, he would tend to be callous or selfish, even criminal." (at p515)
  2. Kleiner, Fred S. and Mamiya, Christin J. (2005) . Gardner's Art Through the Ages, 12th edition, Wadsworth Publishing, page 980. Dada artists have self-characterized the artform in a way that lends easily to a characterization as nihilistic: Dada artists described the movement as "a phenomenon bursting forth in the midst of the postwar economic and moral crisis, a savior, a monster, which would lay waste to everything in its path. [It was] a systematic work of destruction and demoralization...In the end it became nothing but an act of sacrilege." Also noted in Kleiner is that Dada was "a revolt against a world that was capable of unspeakable horrors." Reason and logic had led people into the horrors of war; the only route to salvation was to reject logic and embrace anarchy and the irrational.
  3. 3.0 3.1 See, for example, Phillips, Robert: "Deconstructing the Mass", in Latin Mass Magazine, Winter, 1999. The author asserts, inter alia: "For deconstructionists, not only is there no truth to know, there is no self to know it and so there is no soul to save or lose." and "In following the Enlightenment to its logical end, deconstruction reaches nihilism. The meaning of human life is reduced to whatever happens to interest us at the moment ..." [1]
  4. For some examples of the view that postmodernity is a nihilistic epoch see Toynbee, Arnold (1963) A Study of History vols. VIII and IX; Mills, C. Wright (1959) The Sociological Imagination; Bell, Daniel (1976) The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism; and Baudrillard, Jean (1993) "Game with Vestiges" in Baudrillard Live, ed. Mike Gane and (1994) "On Nihilism" in Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glasser. For examples of the view that postmodernism is a nihilistic mode of thought, see Rose, Gillian (1984) Dialectic of Nihilism; Carr, Karen L. (1988) The Banalization of Nihilism; and Pope John-Paul II (1995), Evangelium vitae: Il valore e l’inviolabilita delta vita umana. Milan: Paoline Editoriale Libri.", all cited in Woodward, Ashley: NIHILISM AND THE POSTMODERN IN VATTIMO'S NIETZSCHE, ISSN 1393-614X Minerva - An Internet Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 6, 2002, fn 1. [2]
  5. See, for example, Christian Research Institute's, "THE POSTMODERN CHALLENGE: Facing the Spirit of the Age" by Jim Leffel and Dennis McCallum, refers inter alia to "...the nihilism and loneliness of postmodern culture..." [3]
  6. Korab-Karpowicz, W. J.: "Martin Heidegger", in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2006) [4]
  7. [5] Abstract Atom
  8. [6] Grupp, Jeffrey. "The R Theory of Time"
  9. [7]Thomas Ligotti's profile.
  10. [8]Bret Easton Ellis' profile.

Further reading

  • Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi [9]. entry by George di Giovanni on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich (1886). Beyond Good and Evil. Project Gutenberg eText.
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spake Zarathustra. Project Gutenberg eText.

Books on Nihilism

  • Nihilism, The Root of the Revolution of the Modern Age, Eugene (Fr. Seraphim) Rose, Fr. Seraphim Rose Foundation, Forestville, CA, 1994,1995.
  • Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld, Thomas S. Hibbs, Spence Publishing Company, Dallas, TX, 2000.
  • Laughing at Nothing: Humor as a Response to Nihilism, John Marmysz, SUNY Press, Albany, NY, 2003.

External links

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