Table of contents
1 Origins
2 Political philosophy
3 Nihilism in philosophy
4 Related articles
5 External links
6 References


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 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, 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.


  • Our sense of the moral status of a person's actions, especially in Western society, seems to depend to a great deal on the economic status of the person in question. While it may be argued that this is its self immoral and should be changed, if morality in practice cannot meet its own standards or is to some degree unattainable, it would seem to lack adequate foundation.
  • Without a standard base on which to build a system of morality (God, law, ideals of freedom, justice, etc.), what is right and wrong is to some extent arbitrary.
  • As our knowledge of other cultures increases, it becomes more and more apparent that there is little ground for claims that human beings have some innate tendency toward specific concepts of good and evil.
  • The ideal of democracy taken to its logical extreme suggests that, insofar as society is concerned, right and wrong are defined by majority rule, not by absolute, eternal and unchanging laws of right and wrong. This leaves only one moral standard: "do what everyone else wants you to".
  • The supposed primacy of the individual and individual freedom in Western societies, especially America, when taken to its logical extreme leaves only one moral standard: "do what you think is right". Since what some people believe to be right varies in the extreme with what others may think is right, this leaves morality not only relative but undiscussable.

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. As it is often described as a fundamentally nihilist philosophy, it may be important to briefly examine postmodernism here.

Lyotard and meta-narratives

Lyotard argues that, rather than relying on an objective truth or method to prove their claim (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.

Derrida and deconstruction

  1. Rejects the idea that dualistic oppositions can be meaningfully valued
  2. Perfect communication is impossible – meaning is not absolute.
  3. non-self-identity: author’s intentions don’t match meaning in works

Nihilism and Nietzsche

Though often called a nihilist, Friedrich 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. He describes it as "the will to nothingness" - in this sense the philosophical equivalent to the Russian political nihilism mentioned above: the irrational leap beyond skepticism, the desire to destroy. He saw this philosophy as present in Christianity and Christian morality, which he describes as slave morality, and in asceticism and 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 announcement was not that God has passed away in a literal sense, 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 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 and any other philosophy that devalues human life and the world around us, Nietzsche tells us it is also a threat for humanity's future.

Nietzsche strongly placed himself opposite nihilism, advocating a remedy for its 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.

Part of Nietzsche’s remedy for nihilism is the revaluation of morals – he hopes that we are able to discard the old morality of equality and servitude and adopt a new human ideal and goal: the encouragement of individuals able to shape their and others’ lives through their will.

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, and attributes it to the ancient Greeks. The Christian moral ideals developed in opposition to this master morality, says Nietzsche, 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.

Related articles

anarchism and violence, anti-realism, contextualism, cynicism, Paul Feyerabend, historical origins of anarchism, ontological distinction, paradox, post-structuralism, solipsism, Max Stirner

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