Updated: Mar 5
Credit: Huck Magazine
What is Nihilism?
Nihilism is a philosophical school that argues all values, ideas, and beliefs that we have are baseless and ultimately have no meaning. This basic idea originates from our inability as a species to answer exactly why we are here, why we perceive things as they are, and why we attribute things as good or bad among other questions. It argues that eventually when you ask why something is that you will reach a dead end where there are no answers.
Nihilism is typically associated with the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who is most well known for his phrase “god is dead” which has gained traction in popular culture. While the phrase is often misinterpreted, the tenants of this philosophy are in clear rejection of religious faith and concrete knowledge itself. To those with nihilist beliefs, there is no basis or definitive proof for any God or really anything for that matter. This is due to its premise being rooted in radical skepticism, which argues that truly knowing anything is impossible.
Types of Nihlism
Not all nihilists are doom and gloom believers and there are many types within the core of this philosophy. There are four main types of nihilism within mainstream belief, each offering a different perspective on humanity’s meaning, moral systems, and society in total. Below is a breakdown of each of these subsections of the philosophy:
Epistemological Nihilism: This subsection of nihilism philosophy argues that there is no such thing as knowledge since there is no means for humans to obtain it accurately. The belief is most related to the belief system of anti-foundationalism in which there are no fundamental beliefs or principles to the attainment of knowledge.
Political Nihilism: Believes that in order for humanity to be prosperous that all political, social, and religious order must be destroyed. This idea was believed by Friedrich Nietzsche who argued that true enlightenment as a species would only be reached if we reach complete anarchy and come together as a species.
Ethical Nihlism: This form of Nihilism rejects the idea of an absolute ethical or moral standard and instead says that all of these systems are socially constructed and so should not be followed. It asserts that true freedom can only be achieved if we rid ourselves of these absolute principles.
Existential Nihilism: This type of Nihilism essentially believes that there is not an inherent built-in meaning to our lives. Instead, it holds that we determine our meanings by how we live our lives and our decisions as people.
Nihilism vs. Pessimism
Nihilism is often compared to pessimism due to their surface impressions both being quite negative. However, while Nihilism is the belief in nothing, pessimism is the belief that evil always overcomes good. At its core Nihilism completely disagrees with this idea purely because it believes that good and evil do not exist at all. While the philosophy can create a negative frame for thinking like pessimism does, it leaves morality open to interpretation rather than saying it can be defined. In a similar way, it also rejects the idea of cynicism, or the belief that no one can have intrinsically good motives, which many pessimists tend to subscribe to.
A Brief History of Nihilism
Nihilism has a complex history that has touched many periods throughout human history. From ancient times, through Buddhism and skepticism, the idea was given some frameworks but was not fully developed into a complete philosophy. Its ideas were not popular for some time as much of history had favored other frameworks of thought including religion, romanticism, and others who favored universal truths. However, during the 1800s the idea of Nihilism started to take shape in its earliest forms, becoming a growing philosophy within European nations and across the world. Below we will go into more detail about the history of this philosophy, its growing framework, and the core figures that developed it along the way.
Ancient Nihilist History
Mentions of nihilism can be seen as far back as the founding days of Buddhism during the life of the Buddha (563 B.C. to 483 B.C.). Through various sutras of his followers, or collections of different beliefs and sayings, the term of Nihilism was addressed. Particularly in the Apannaka Sutta, or “The Doctrine of Nihilism”, the Buddha said that ethical nihilists believed that giving produces no beneficial results, good and bad actions produce no results, and there is not a way to confirm reincarnation, nor does it happen. The Buddha’s belief that the self could not be defined also is related to the ideas in epistemological nihilism, rejecting ever having knowledge of himself due to the ever-changing nature of people and nature.
The roots of the Nihilist philosophy also have deep roots within ancient skeptic belief which constantly questioned whether something was truly knowledge. Particularly academic skepticism, named after the Academy in Greece, is well connected to Nihilism since it developed the argument that nothing can be known with certainty which is core to its principles. However, taking on this idea as a firmly held opinion was given scrutiny by many philosophers. A stoic named Antipater argued that to know that you know nothing means you know something. In response Carneades, a student at the Academy, argued that skepticism is a form of argumentation rather than belief. Instead, one assumes that they know nothing and will question other beliefs, which leaves the burden of proof on others.
Modern Nihilist History
The term Nihilism was first used in the philosophy world by Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743–1819) who used the term to describe rationalism in relation to Spinoza’s idea of determinism. He criticized this idea rooted in rationalism by saying all attempts to rationalize the world ultimately fall into the absurd. Thus, he believed rationalism can be boiled down into the concept of nihilism and so we should extend ourselves towards some type of faith and revelation. Toward the end of Jacobi’s life, a new philosopher named Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) created the first form of Nihilism called leveling. This idea was more of a process and involved suppressing individuality to a point where an individual's uniqueness becomes non-existent and nothing meaningful in one's existence can be affirmed. While he created the idea, Kierkegaard argued heavily against this since he believed in the philosophy of life which puts finding meaning in life at the forefront of existence.
Towards the latter half of the 1800’s and early 1900’s, a movement born out of Nihilist principles arrived in Russia. Known as Russian Nihilism, the movement began around 1855 in the form of epistemological skepticism which questioned the existence of knowledge itself. However, the word nihilism was only popularized in 1862 in Russia and showed itself in the novel “Fathers and Son’s” which described that negation and value destruction was most necessary to make present conditions in Russia better. However, Russian Nihilism did not completely negate ethics or knowledge nor did it say life was meaningless in all cases. Its primary purpose was to upend the class system within Russia to dispose of titles and authority altogether. According to a leader in the movement Dmitry Pisarev, this would allow people to be rid of moral authority over others, allowing a greater and more enlightened masses to emerge.
In 1879, the face of modern Nihilism Friedrich Nietzsche began his philosophical research. Through his writings and research Nietzsche defined Nihilism as emptying the world and especially human existence of meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. He also noted the growing pervasiveness of this state through the falling popularity of Christianity in the Western world which was characterized by his famous phrase “god is dead”. He did not expressly support this idea as a correct state of existence, but he believed it would inevitably grow in society and cause it to crumble. However, he believed that once society was in ruin due to overcoming, this aversity would allow humanity to reach a higher plane of understanding and societal foundations, saving the human race. These ideas would go on to influence the creation of post-modern movements and the idea of moral relativism that exist to this day.
Nihilism’s Effect on the World Today
Nihilism can be seen everywhere across the world, especially in western societies. Many movements such as the “quiet quitting” movement where people give the bare minimums at work, and the overall growing hopelessness of youth often being attributed to Nihilistic beliefs. Especially with the growth of the information age, people are often overwhelmed by the vast amounts of information, making many question their knowledge and the meanings of their lives. With the growing complexity of our world, it has become much easier to adopt the belief of Nihilism and many youth have adopted it as a means to navigate the world around them. Systemic religions such as Christianity that provide a framework for intrinsic meaning have also become less popular over time in western nations. While Nihilism is only one of the many factors that cause some of these things, it is a well known philosophy in today’s times and does not seem like it will be going anywhere anytime soon.
Nihilism: Key Takeaways
Nihilism, while believed to be negative in many aspects, has many parts to it that can be learned from. Listed below are the most important themes to be aware of from nihilist philosophy and their application to the world today.
Question Everything: Not everything is as it seems to be, so it is best to remain somewhat skeptical before clinging to any belief system. The world is too complex to have any absolutes so it is best to keep an open mind and use reason and questioning to better inform yourself.
Do Not Make Harsh Judgments: You do not know everything and so it is best to observe and learn as much as you can before deciding on something. If you act too hastily and you more than likely will be burned by lack of knowledge. So, it is best to not judge someone, a situation, or yourself before examining it in as much detail as possible.
Meaning is Subjective: We all have our own experiences and values as people and due to this meaning can be derived in any number of ways. Your personal meaning of your life should as such are not determined by others or outside forces and should be of your will. The same can be said of how you view the world, but it is best to be open to as many possibilities as you can to have a greater perspective of the world.
Perfect Knowledge is Impossible: We are imperfect creatures, so it is only natural that our perceptions and our knowledge is imperfect. While this can be depressing to some, it can be a great opportunity to humble yourself and improve your knowledge where you can. So, in other words, don’t take life too seriously nor the people around you since we are nowhere near perfect and nor is our knowledge of things.