What Is Nihilism?

A philosophy that seeks to understand the meaning of life—or lack thereof.

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What Is Nihilism?

Nihilism

Nihilism is a family of views that works around the shared premise that there is no inherent value, meaning and order to life (independent of the value/meaning we create).

You’ll usually hear something like “everything is meaningless” when discussing nihilism in mainstream culture. But, while this statement is true, it is an oversimplification of the philosophy. In truth, there are multiple variations of nihilism with their own unique positions and views.

The Historical Context Of Nihilism

As a philosophy, nihilism rejects the value and meaning society places on people, objects, and life. The exact origin of the term is uncertain, but scholars have been able to pinpoint it to the 18th century.

From there, nihilism became a popular topic within philosophical circles. Some of the most important thinkers are listed below.

Friedrich Jacobi

He was a German philosopher who first coined the term following The Enlightenment — a period of intellectual movement that emphasized skepticism, reason, and individualism.

During this period, many scholars rejected traditional religious, political, and social ideas in favor of rationalism. As a devout believer, Jacobi feared that rationalism would devalue the human sense of self (through explaining away religion) and lead to nihilism. Therefore, most of his work critiqued it.

Søren Kierkegaard

He was a Danish theologian who would later become regarded as the “Father of Existentialism” by many academics. As the first existentialist philosopher, he focused his work on thinking through the implications of nihilism — he called it “leveling.”

Kierkegaard was religious, and as a result, he believed that leveling was a bad thing; he believed in the intrinsic value of human life. He thought that despair was the key to human experience and that anxiety was a sign of our freedom.

He believed that the only way to work through these two things was through acceptance of the absurdity of reality and living life through faith (or having the courage to try to make a meaningful existence).

Ivan Turgenev

While Friedrich Jacobi was the first to use the term within the philosophical realm, it wouldn’t garner much attention until its use in the 1862 book Fathers and Sons by Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev.

He used the term to explore the cynicism felt by 19th-century Russian youth regarding previously established traditions, philosophical ideas, and authority. From here, the term was appropriated by Russian political movements, and it was associated with their revolutionary activity. This led to Russian nihilism, which was more concerned with reevaluating preexisting societal ideals.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche was a German philosopher whose writing had an enormous influence on Western philosophy.

Usually known for his statement “God is dead,” he believed that the consequences of this were both terrifying and freeing. This realization was the state of nihilism, and he thought it was unavoidable.

However, he also believed that it was the bridge to a new way of being and that it is pivotal to work through the fear and develop a new and meaningful worldview.

Five Theories Of Nihilism

When it comes to discussing nihilism in contemporary society, two leading theoretical practices are usually referenced — existential and cosmic nihilism.

However, while these may be the most common, there have been various positions explored and the term is regularly used in a variety of contexts. It is because of this that nihilism is seen as a vague and ambiguous term.

In reality, nihilism can be found in five main forms, and these are as follows:

Existential Nihilism

Existential nihilism can be defined as the philosophical position that there is no intrinsic value or meaning to life. Regarding life within the universe, existential nihilists believe that human life is insignificant and without purpose.

Therefore, it is up to individuals themselves to create meaning in their lives through their own freedom of choice.

Existential nihilism is commonly associated with destructive, impulsive behavior and suicide. However, more recently, it has seen a resurgence in mainstream culture and contemporary work.

It is important to note that while existential nihilism does overlap with existentialism, it is not the same thing but a different (yet similar) branch of philosophical thought. For instance, existentialism deals with the ways to address the lack of intrinsic meaning in the world. In contrast, nihilists do not, due to their rejection of their being, there isn't any meaning to be found. 

Cosmic Nihilism (Cosmic Pessimism)

Cosmic nihilism is seen as the more hyper-rational branch of thought, which states that there is no meaning for the truth to be found in the universe.

It takes this one step further by also saying that any meaning created by human beings — such as love, family, freedom, and joy — is a fiction used as a coping strategy while we wait to die. Due to this, it is usually referenced as the next step after atheism.

Ethical Nihilism (Moral)

Ethical nihilism broadly states that there is no such thing as an objective right or wrong. It is commonly also referred to as “moral nihilism” and is a family of three main views:

  • Amoralism: The total rejection of all moral principles and a determination to live life without morality.
  • Moral subjectivism: The position that all moral judgments are purely individual, arbitrary, and subjective. Under moral subjectivism, morality is decided by the person; therefore, it is based on personal opinions, feelings, and tastes. As a result, there is no absolute “right” or “wrong,” and moral judgments don’t require rational justification or criticism.
  • Egoism: The view that the only obligation someone has is to themselves. In this line of thought, an individual shouldn’t experience moral concerns about any behavior that doesn’t tarnish their private interests.

Epistemological Nihilism

Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that is concerned with the theory of knowledge. Epistemological nihilism, therefore, can be defined as a form of philosophy that states firstly that knowledge doesn’t exist. And secondly, if it did, it is unobtainable to human beings, so its existence is redundant. Therefore, it is associated with extreme skepticism.

Political Nihilism

Political nihilism is a form of nihilism that argues that in order for future improvements, all present social, political and religious institutions need to be destroyed. They believe that these systems are so corrupt that there is no hope of reformation.

What Is Existential Dread?

When talking about nihilism, it is common to hear someone reference the term “existential dread.”

Existential Dread

Existential dread refers to the negative feelings experienced by an individual when they begin to question their purpose in the world, the meaning of life, and what comes after death.

Existential dread is usually linked to nihilism due to it being seen as a response or consequence of engagement to questions around the meaning of life. That said, you do not have to be a nihilist to experience it. Should this existential dread intensify, it can lead to something called an existential crisis or existential anxiety.

For existentialists, an existential crisis is considered a necessary, complex journey of awareness and growth. However, for those not intending to start that journey, it can arise surprisingly during periods of instability and exacerbate mental health problems. Leading to symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation, to name a few.

While there are no specific treatment options for people experiencing an existential crisis, there are options available to help with some of the symptoms, such as medication (antidepressants in particular), cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), self-care activities, and mindfulness.

A Word From Verywell

You don’t have to be a full-blown nihilist to experience nihilistic thoughts; it is normal to question the meaning of life and all of the suffering that people experience.

Being a nihilist or having nihilist thoughts isn’t a negative thing. As detailed above, many nihilist theories say that it is up to the individual to create their own meaning.

Remember, nihilism can lead to meaningful worldviews, so perhaps our actual value comes from leading a healthy and happy life. For example, some people believe they create meaning by paving the way for future generations! Others view the futility of existence to be a more significant incentive to find love and happiness. The choice is yours!

11 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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