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Nihilism as a philosophical position is the view that the world, and especially human existence, is without meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. It was also an historically significant political movement in 19th-century Russia.

Table of contents
1 Etymological origins
2 Political philosophy
3 Nihilism in philosophy
4 Nihilism in art
5 Related articles
6 External links
7 References
8 Books on Nihilism

Etymological origins

The term nihilism (from the Latin nihil, meaning "not anything") was popularized by the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev in his novel Fathers and Sons (1861) 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.

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.

Political philosophy

As a Russian political philosophy marked by the questioning of the validity of all forms of authority and a penchant for destruction as the primary tool for political change, nihilism finds its roots in 1817 with the foundation of the first Russian secret political society under Pavel Pestel. Partly as a reaction against the coronation of Tsar Nicholas I who was seen as an absolutist, especially after the comparatively open reign of Tsar Alexander I, it culminated in the Decembrist Revolt of 1825. Later, anarchist and freemason Mikhail Bakunin developed nihilist thought in opposition to Karl Marx's political philosophy, which Bakunin saw as inevitably leading to a totalitarian state.

Nihilist political philosophy rejected all religious and political authority, social traditions, and traditional morality as standing in opposition to freedom, the ultimate ideal. In this sense, it can be seen as an extreme form of anarchism. The state thus became the enemy, and the enemy was ferociously attacked. After gaining much momentum in Russia, the movement degenerated into what were essentially terrorist cells, barren of any real unifying philosophy beyond the call for destruction.

Nihilism greatly resembled anarchism, though there are three main points of difference:

  1. Nihilism advocated violence as the best method to affect political change. This is not necessarily the case with anarchism (see Emma Goldman).
  2. Nihilism was characterized by a rejection of all systems of authority and all social conventions. This is not necessarily the case with anarchism. In fact, many forms of anarchism rely on the existence or creation of a strong community.
  3. As a political movement, nihilism was primarily a Russian phenomenon.

Nihilism in philosophy

According to the nihilist, the world and especially human existence are without meaning, purpose, comprehensable truth, or essential value. Nihilism in most of its forms can be contrasted with postmodernism in that nihilism tends toward defeatism, while postmodernism finds 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

Nihilism in its moral or ethical sense is a complete rejection of all systems of authority, morality, and social custom. Either through the rejection of previously accepted bases of belief or through extreme relativism or skepticism, the nihilist believes that none of these claims to power are valid, and often that they should be fought against.

On the subject of morality specifically, nihilism concludes that relativism renders the project of normative ethics, and the concepts of good and evil, meaningless - though not necessarily with the intent to follow this with any conclusions about society or authority, as there is no correct form for either social institutions or practical morality.


Epistemology and nihilism

As an epistemological view, nihilism represents an extreme form of skepticism or relativism with regards to the knowability of truth and the legitimacy of claims to knowledge. In this respect it is identical with skepticism, though while skepticism does not necessarily make any specific moral claims or represent a single worldview, nihilism cannot be divorced from its moral conclusions and outlook.

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-Francois 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.), philosophies 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 (similar to language games in Wittgenstein's philosophy). 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 Spake 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, Buddhism, Platonism, leftist 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. Some have taken this warning as a polemic against 19th and 20th century scientism as well.

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.

Another part of Nietzsche's remedy for nihilism is a revaluation of morals -- he hopes 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 one's nature, against human nature, a nature aimed at the expression and venting of one's power. Virtue, likewise, is not to act according to what has been commanded, but 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 masters.

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 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. This avoids the immediate contradiction, but still does not avoid the problem of how to evaluate the claim.

Nihilism in art

There have been various movements in art, such as surrealism, which have touched on nihilism, and others like Dada which have embraced it openly.


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.

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Related articles

anarchism and violence -- anthropology -- anti-realism -- contextualism -- cynicism -- deconstruction -- existentialism -- Paul Feyerabend -- historical origins of anarchism -- natural law -- ontological distinction -- paradox -- post-structuralism -- solipsism -- Max Stirner

External links


Books on Nihilism