Monday, October 17, 2005

What is Nihilism?

ni·hil·ism ('ə-lĭz'əm, nē'-) pronunciation

  1. Philosophy.
    1. An extreme form of skepticism that denies all existence.
    2. A doctrine holding that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated.
  2. Rejection of all distinctions in moral or religious value and a willingness to repudiate all previous theories of morality or religious belief.
  3. The belief that destruction of existing political or social institutions is necessary for future improvement.
  4. also Nihilism A diffuse, revolutionary movement of mid 19th-century Russia that scorned authority and tradition and believed in reason, materialism, and radical change in society and government through terrorism and assassination.
  5. Psychiatry. A delusion, experienced in some mental disorders, that the world or one's mind, body, or self does not exist.

[Latin nihil, nothing + –ISM.]

ni'hil·ist n.
ni'hil·is'tic adj.
ni'hil·is'ti·cal·ly adv.

This article is about the philosophical position. For the Russian political and revolutionary movement, see Nihilist movement.

Nihilism literally means belief in nothing. As a philosophical position, nihilism is the view that the world, and especially human existence, is without meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. It is more often a charge levelled against a particular idea than a position to which someone is overtly subscribed. Movements such as Dada, Deconstructionism, and Punk have been described by various observers as "nihilist". Nihilism is also a characteristic that has been ascribed to time periods: for example, Baudrillard has called postmodernity a nihilistic epoch, and some Christian theologians and figures of authority assert that modernity and postmodernity represent the rejection of God, and therefore are nihilist.

Prominent philosophers that have written on nihilism include Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. Nietzsche described Christianity as a nihilistic religion, because it removed meaning from this earthly life, and focused instead on a supposed afterlife. He also saw nihilism as a natural result of the realization that "God is Dead", and insisted that it was something to be overcome, by returning meaning to the earth. The latter described it as the state where "there is nothing left of Being as such", and argued that nihilism rested on the reduction of being to mere value.

Etymological origins

The term comes from Latin nihil, meaning "not anything", through the Russian "nigilizm". The Oxford English Dictionary gives 1817 as its earliest use in English, and Alain Rey's Dictionnaire historique de la langue française (rev. ed. 1995) gives 1787 as the first use of the word in French, noting that nihiliste was used in 1761, though in a religious sense of 'heretic' that is now obsolete. The Russian nigilizm to which the term owes much of its modern impetus first appears in 1829, according to Rey.

The Latin indefinite pronoun nihil ('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.

Nihilism in philosophy

Though the term nihilism was first popularized by Ivan Turgenev (see below), it was first introduced into philosophical discourse by Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743-1819), 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.

Friedrich Nietzsche's later work was obsessed with nihilism. Book One of The Will to Power, which consists of an arrangement of selections from Nietzsche's notebooks from 1883 to 1888, is entitled "European Nihilism," which he calls "the problem of the nineteenth century." Nietzsche characterized nihilism as emptying the world and especially human existence of meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value.

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

Nihilism in ethics and morality

In the world of ethics, nihilist or nihilistic is often used as a derogatory word 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, and often that they should be fought against. From a nihilist point of view, the ultimate source of moral values is the individual rather than culture or another rational foundation.

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 we base our 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 (logic, empiricism, etc.), 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!

-Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Project Gutenberg eText

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" — in this sense 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 and Christian morality, which he describes as slave morality, and in 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 was not that God has passed away 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 really don't 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." Nietzsche also recognized that, even though he viewed Christian morality as 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 Also Sprach Zarathustra and The Antichrist. The ubermensch 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 ubermensch "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. 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.

The nihilist paradox

Nihilism is often described as a belief in the nonexistence of truth. In its most extreme form, 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 in itself not a truth, thereby proving itself incorrect. 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 skeptic or nihilist has accessed it.

Some would proffer that the nihilist has not accessed truth directly, but has come to the conclusion that truth is ultimately unattainable within the confines of human circumstance. Thus, since the nihilist knows truth cannot be attained in this life, he/she looks upon the activities of those rigorously seeking truth as futile.

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 criticised 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 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. At other times 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.

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. (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 fictional hero and villain.

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. 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 Emile 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.

The work of Albert Camus can be read as a sustained engagement with nihilism.

In contemporary literature, themes of nihilism can also be found in Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and many of Kurt Vonnegut's books. 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. 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. Palahniuk, however, claims that he does not purposely focus on the subject.

Nihilism in Music

Punk rock has often been regarded as taking a nihilistic and anarchistic view of the world around it. Another approach to nihilism has been taken by Death Metal, whose intentionally bizarre song structures and morbid lyrics depict life's meaninglessness and a lack of absolute morals.

However, the subcultures that have sprung up around these genres contain some amount of unique social norms and mores. An example would be so-called "Pit Etiquette". These are the rules of common courtesy that dictate behavior in mosh pits at concerts. The existence of these mores suggests that although lyrically and artistically a philosophy of Nihilism may permeate these genres, the draw to their normally younger fan base may be more based on an illusion of rebellion than any real nihilistic beliefs.

See also

External links


  • Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi [1] ( entry by George di Giovanni on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich (1886). Beyond Good and Evil ( Project Gutenberg eText.
  • 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, l994,l995.
  • Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld, Thomas S. Hibbs, Spence Publishing Company, Dallas, TX, 2000.


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