All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated


In a history that spans more than two and a half centuries, the term nihilism has been employed to denote a wide range of phenomena. It has been variously used to express contempt or horror on the one side, approval and admiration on the other. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it has almost always been an emotional and axiological term, frequently employed to cut off debate on a moral issue by representing a particular position as absolute, totalizing, and extreme.

Early History of the Term

The word nihilism is constructed from the Latin nihil, "nothing," and the Greek suffix ism. In the compendious Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie (Historical dictionary of philosophy), Wolfgang Müller-Lauter gives 1733 as the earliest known date for the occurrence of the German Nihilismus and notes the rise of the word nihilisme in France at the end of the eighteenth century.

From the late eighteenth century through the first half of the nineteenth century, nihilism followed a course that scholars have already traced in considerable detail. Enemies of German idealism threw the term at Immanuel Kant and Johann Gottlieb Fichte, for example, protesting against the emptiness of a philosophy that denies the possibility of any reliable contact with the world of things in themselves. As European thought increasingly moved toward dispassionate, secular explanations of religious belief (holding, for example, that such belief is a natural and predictable product of human consciousness or that it reflects a natural, human tendency to generate myths), those seeking to defend traditional faith increasingly leveled the charge of nihilism against secularizing thinkers. David Friedrich Strauss (18081874), the famed and much reviled author of Das Leben Jesu: kritisch bearbeitet (18351836; The life of Jesus: critically examined), one of the nineteenth century's many biographies of Jesus, and Ludwig Feuerbach (18041872), the equally noted author of the skeptical Das Wesen des Christentums (1845; The essence of Christianity), were both accused of propagating nihilism. Max Stirner (pseudonym of Johann Caspar Schmidt; 18061856), author of the primary gospel of egoism, Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (1845; The ego and his own), and pre-Nietzschean messenger of the death of God, has been described as an early nihilist. All such thinkers, it was felt, had reduced to nothing (nihil ) both faith and its transcendent object.

Nihilism in Russia and As a Russian Export

The term nihilism (nigilizm in Russian) had been used in Russia early in the nineteenth century, but it burst on the scene with particular force and with an entirely new meaning in January 1862, when Ivan Turgenev (18181883) published Fathers and Sons. Turgenev's hero, Evgeny Vasil'evich Bazarov, is a man of science, a member of the new generation who has decided that, at least in theory, nothing in the universe lies beyond the explanatory power of the empirical method. He is, in a word, a nihilist. As his callow young friend puts it to members of the older generation (the "fathers"), a nihilist is a man "who approaches everything from a critical point of view who does not bow down before any authorities, who does not accept a single principle on faith, no matter how much respect might surround that principle." Bazarov dissects frogs (the better to understand human beings), denies the value of artistic expression, and is predictably flummoxed when he finds himself hopelessly in love, that is, in a condition that completely defies the very foundation of his materialist worldview.

If nihilism, as Turgenev's hero understood it, comprised both a thoroughgoing materialism and a thoroughgoing anti-aestheticism, it was already possible to find both in the apostle of the new progressive generation, Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky (18281889), who would gain notoriety in 1863 as the author of the didactic novel What Is to Be Done? In his master's thesis, The Aesthetic Relation of Art to Reality (1855), Chernyshevsky had denied the existence of beauty as an autonomous quality in art, saying that beauty can be nothing more than life itself. And in The Anthropological Principle in Philosophy (1860), he had reduced human freedom and, for that matter, human distinctiveness, to nothing, arguing that individual freedom is an illusion as much in humanity as in the lower forms of animal life. Chernyshevsky would add a third feature to the definition of nihilism in What Is to Be Done? The idealized characters in his novel behave in accordance with an odd amalgam of utilitarianism and enlightened egoism, thus reducing traditional ethical values to nothing.

After the publication of What Is to Be Done? nihilism as a term or attitude took three principal directions in Russia. First, in literary life, it nurtured the trend toward realism. Dmitry Pisarev (18401868), the young critic who in a favorable review of Fathers and Sons helped disseminate a positive image of Turgenev's hero, took Chernyshevsky's anti-aestheticism one step farther in the 1860s, devoting a series of essays to the "destruction of aesthetics" and to the promotion of a rigidly realist style in literature. Second, in political life, the term nihilism came to be used, often with hostile intent, to describe a group within the revolutionary movement characterized by its unscrupulous methods and its unprincipled aims. Fyodor Dostoyevsky helped popularize this sense of nihilism by offering up the savage caricatures of left-wing political operatives that we see, above all, in The Devils (also called The Possessed ; 1871). The chief "devil" in this book, Peter Verkhovensky, is a self-described nihilist notable for his desire to bring about terrible destruction and for his utter lack of concern about what might follow that destruction. As Peter Verkhovensky's real-life prototype, the notorious anarchist Sergei Nechaev (18471882), had written in the Catechism of a Revolutionary (1869), "The revolutionary disdains all doctrinairism and has repudiated all peaceful science. He knows one science only: the science of destruction." Third, the term nihilism came to be used, again in political life, in a sympathetic sense to denote the Russian revolutionary movement broadly speaking. The Russian revolutionary Sergei Mikhailovich Kravchinsky (18511895; better known by the pseudonym Sergius Stepniak), after fleeing Russia in 1878, spent much of his life publishingin English and Italianapologias for the Russian liberation movement that he broadly termed nihilism. And the anarchists Emma Goldman (18691940) and Alexander Berkman (18701936), both Russian immigrants to the United States, used the term nihilist in their memoirs to refer to the heroes of the Russian revolutionary movement, heroes that had inspired them to embark on their own revolutionary careers.

Nietzsche and Nihilism

Had it not been for Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900), nihilismthe word and what it came to designatewould no doubt have been very different from what it in fact became. We find an enigmatic reference to "nihilism according to the Petersburg model" (an apparent reference to Turgenev) in part 5 (1887) of The Gay Science, but the term occurs in his published writings mostly in connection with philosophies that Nietzsche views as world-or life-denying. In The Genealogy of Morality (1887), for example, he offers the term nihilism as a synonym for Buddhism, meaning a renunciation of the affairs of the world. In The Anti-Christ (1888), nihilism is essentially synonymous with "denial of life," and Nietzsche defines pity, the root sentiment of Christianity, as "the praxis of nihilism."

The bulk of Nietzsche's comments on nihilism, however, appear in unpublished writings (the Nachlass, or "literary legacy") from the 1880s. It is here that Nietzsche describes nihilism as a condition in which "the highest values devaluate themselves" and in which the answer to the question "Why?" is missing. There are two possible responses to this condition, Nietzsche explains in a notebook he kept in 1887. We may rise up in strength and recognize that existing goals are no longer adequate, establishing new values in place of the older ones, or we may resign in weakness ("Buddhism," as Nietzsche puts it), thus failing to generate new values. The first response is called "active nihilism," the second "passive nihilism."

There has been some debate over the years about whether Nietzsche himself was a nihilist. The debate is misguided. A cursory reading of what Nietzsche says on the subject shows that for him nihilism is alternately a lamentable and a potentially fruitful condition, but in either case a temporary one. Anyone inclined to construe the proclamation that God is dead as an expression of nihilism should remember that Nietzsche declared the religion whose God was allegedly dead to be itself a form of nihilism. Nietzsche's true legacy was the association of nihilism with values (their absence, their rejection, their synthesis). Future social commentators who invoke the term nihilism to mourn the loss of traditional morality may blame or not blame Nietzsche; what they wittingly or unwittingly owe him is a definition that is at least implicit in what they say.

Nihilism and the Twentieth Century's Ills

From 1936 to 1946, Martin Heidegger (18891976) wrote the component parts of what became a two-volume study of Nietzsche. A simple glance at the chapter and subchapter headings will show to what extent nihilism, in Heidegger's eyes, was fundamental to Nietzsche's thinking. World War II and the period immediately preceding it were an appropriate backdrop for Heidegger's sense that we must view Nietzsche's nihilism in the broader context of what he calls "the end of metaphysics" in Europe. He defines this end as "the beginning of a taking-seriously of that 'event,' 'God is dead.'" As Heidegger sees it, nihilism is one of five "principal headings" (Haupttitel ) in Nietzsche's thought, the other four (with which it is inseparably connected) being the revaluation of all prior values, the will to power, the eternal recurrence of the same, and the superman. If Heidegger's comments on Nietzsche's nihilism are partly a comment on the contemporary European situation, they are also partly a comment on his own earlier work. In his chapter on the five principal headings, for example, Heidegger defines what he calls Nietzsche's "classical nihilism" as "that bringing-to-completion of nihilism in which nihilism considers itself to be released from the necessity of thinking precisely that which its essence constitutes: nihil, nothingas the veil of the truth of the Being of that-whichis [ des Seins des Seienden ]." A passage like this is probably helpful more to the student of Heidegger's Being and Time (1926) than to the student of nihilism.

World War II and the entire history of totalitarianism in the first half of the twentieth century provoked one of the most forceful uses of nihilism as a moral and political term. In 1951, Albert Camus (19131960) published L'homme révolté (Man in revolt; translated into English as The Rebel ). As Camus put it in the first few pages of his book, "If our age easily allows that murder can have its justifications, it is because of that indifference to life that is the mark of nihilism." The central question becomes whether it is possible to offer a rational justification for murder, as is done in this "age of ideologies." Nihilism has to do with values, as it did for Nietzsche. When Camus comes to show the inner contradiction in "the absurd" (his term for the attitude born of nihilism or "absolute negation"), he has this to say: The absurd is a contradiction "because it excludes value judgments while still wishing to preserve life, whereas to live is itself a value judgment. To breathe is to judge." One might argue that this position represents a petitio principii (begging the question), but even so, it is obvious that, to Camus, it serves as a palliative in a world still reeling from the Stalinist purges and the horrors of the Holocaust.

Outside Russian revolutionary circles, nihilism has been a term whose alleged exponents rarely embrace it, particularly because it is seldom used favorably. Some scholars have attempted to classify it into several subtypes. Donald A. Crosby, in The Specter of the Absurd, sees five types of nihilism: political (essentially the Russian revolutionary sort), moral (in which all moral judgments are rejected as individual or arbitrary), epistemological (in which all truth claims are seen as purely relative), cosmic (in which the cosmos is seen as meaningless), and existential (in which human existence is seen as pointless). Karen L. Carr, in The Banalization of Nihilism, proposes a similar taxonomy. In her view, there are five types of nihilism: epistemological ("the denial of the possibility of knowledge"), alethiological ("the denial of the reality of truth"), metaphysical ("the denial of an independently existing world"), ethical ("the denial of the reality of moral or ethical values"), and existential or axiological ("the feeling of emptiness and pointlessness that follows from the judgment, 'Life has no meaning'").

With categories as broad as these, nihilism can be applied to a host of phenomena associated generally with a loss of values or centeredness. One might even say that nihilism as a label became so popular in the second half of the twentieth century that it was often left unspoken. A famous issue of Time magazine in 1966 posed the question "Is God Dead?" in stark red letters against a black background on its cover. In the article, whose immediate inspiration was the rise of the "deathof-God theology" practiced by a particular group of American theologians, John T. Elson reflected on his age as "a time of no religion," cited Søren Kierkegaard (18131855) and Nietzsche as prophets of modern godlessness, and offered this comment on modern art: "From the scrofulous hobos of Samuel Beckett to Antonioni's tired-blooded aristocrats, the anti-heroes of modern art endlessly suggest that waiting for God is futile, since life is without meaning."

Listening to my teacher revived the ghastly sight: the bleeding body, the piercing shrieks, the distorted faces of the gendarmes, the knouts whistling in the air and coming down with a sharp hissing upon the half-naked man. Whatever doubts about the Nihilists I had left from my childhood impressions now disappeared. They became to me heroes and martyrs, henceforth my guiding stars.

source: Emma Goldman, in Living My Life (1931), on learning of the flogging of peasants in Russia.

Although nihilism and its accompanying existential despair are hardly anything but a pose for Americans, as the language derived from nihilism has become a part of their educations and insinuated itself into their daily lives, they pursue happiness in ways determined by that language. There is a whole arsenal of terms for talking about nothingcaring, self-fulfillment, expanding consciousness, and so on, almost indefinitely.

source: Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (1987).

Many, however, have not hesitated to name the illness. In 1987, for example, Allan Bloom (19301992) published his assault on American higher education, The Closing of the American Mind. He titled Part 2 of that book "Nihilism, American Style," taking aim at a pathological condition he saw in America both inside and outside the academy: "value relativism." The ultimate culprit is none other than Nietzsche. As Bloom saw it, Nietzsche's target was not only God but modern democracy. Displaying Nietzsche's own fondness for unsubstantiated, sweeping claims, Bloom declares, "Nobody really believes in anything anymore, and everyone spends his life in frenzied work and frenzied play so as not to face the fact, not to look into the abyss."

The Future of Nihilism

If the word nihilism during the twentieth century was frequently used to denote the conditionand the accompanying feeling of despairthat arises when established and fixed moral values are missing, it is not surprising that it gained currency at a time when much of the world was dominated by ideologies that rejected such values or openly embraced destruction. At the turn of the century, a major political source of obsessive fear in Western Europe and the United States was anarchism. For much of the remainder of the century, it was fascism and communism. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it appeared to be Islamic fundamentalism. Whatever the phrase "Islamic fundamentalism" might be construed to mean, it is safe to say that, if it indeed represents a threat to the West, it is because of values that are perceived as alien, not because of the loss of all values. At this stage, nihilism as a term has perhaps become a mere relic.

See also Anarchism ; Atheism ; Existentialism .


Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Camus, Albert. The Rebel. Translated by Anthony Bower. London: H. Hamilton, 1953.

Chernyshevsky, Nikolai. What Is to Be Done? Translated by Michael R. Katz. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Crosby, Donald A. "Nihilism." In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward Craig. Vol. 7. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

. The Specter of the Absurd: Sources and Criticisms of Modern Nihilism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988.

Elson, John T. "Is God Dead?" Time 87, no. 14 (April 1966): 8287.

Goerdt, W. "Nihilismus." In Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, edited by Joachim Ritter and Karlfried Gründer. Vol. 6. Basel and Stuttgart: Schwabe, 1984.

Goldman, Emma. Living My Life. 2 vols. New York: Knopf, 1931.

Goudsblom, Johan. Nihilism and Culture. Oxford: Blackwell, 1980.

Heidegger, Martin. Nietzsche. Pfullingen, Germany: Neske, 1961.

Nechayev, Sergei. "The Catechism of the Revolution." In Apostles of Revolution, by Max Nomad. Rev. ed. New York: Collier, 1961.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Anti-Christ. In Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Penguin, 1990.

. The Gay Science. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House, 1974.

. On the Genealogy of Morality. Translated by Maudmarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1998.

Rosen, Stanley. Nihilism: A Philosophical Essay. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 1969.

Turgenev, Ivan. Fathers and Sons. Edited and translated by Ralph E. Matlaw. New York: Norton, 1966.

Steven Cassedy

views updated


The term nihilism appears to have been coined in Russia sometime in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. It was not, however, widely used until after the appearance of Ivan Turgenev's highly successful novel Fathers and Sons in the early 1860s. The central character, Bazarov, a young man under the influence of the "most advanced ideas" of his time, bore proudly what most other people of the same period called the bitter name of nihilist. Unlike such real-life counterparts as Dmitri Pisarev, Nikolai Dobrolyubov, and Nikolai Chernyshevskii, who also bore the label, Bazarov's interests were largely apolitical; however, he shared with these historical personalities disdain for tradition and authority, great faith in reason, commitment to a materialist philosophy like that of Ludwig Büchner, and an ardent desire to see radical changes in contemporary society.

An extreme statement by Pisarev of the nihilist position as it developed in the late 1850s and 1860s in Russia is frequently quoted: "Here is the ultimatum of our camp: what can be smashed should be smashed; what will stand the blow is good; what will fly into smithereens is rubbish; at any rate, hit out right and leftthere will and can be no harm from it" (quoted in Avrahm Yarmolinsky, Road to Revolution, p. 120). Bazarov echoes this idea, though a bit feebly, when he accepts a description of nihilism as a matter of "just cursing."

Use of the term spread rapidly throughout Europe and the Americas. As it did, the term lost most of its anarchistic and revolutionary flavor, ceasing to evoke the image of a political program or even an intellectual movement. It did not, however, gain in precision or clarity. On the one hand, the term is widely used to denote the doctrine that moral norms or standards cannot be justified by rational argument. On the other hand, it is widely used to denote a mood of despair over the emptiness or triviality of human existence. This double meaning appears to derive from the fact that the term was often employed in the nineteenth century by the religiously oriented as a club against atheists, atheists being regarded as ipso facto nihilists in both senses. The atheist, it was held, would not feel bound by moral norms; consequently, he would tend to be callous or selfish, even criminal. At the same time he would lose the sense that life has meaning and therefore tend toward despair and suicide.


There are many literary prototypes of the atheist-nihilist. The most famous are Ivan in Fëdor Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov and Kirilov in Dostoevsky's The Possessed. It was into Ivan's mouth that Dostoevsky put the words, "If God does not exist, everything is permitted." And Dostoevsky made it clear that it was Ivan's atheism that led him to acquiesce to his father's murder. Kirilov was made to argue that if God does not exist, the most meaningful reality in life is individual freedom and that the supreme expression of individual freedom is suicide.

Friedrich Nietzsche was the first great philosopherand still the only oneto make extensive use of the term nihilism. He was also one of the first atheists to dispute the existence of a necessary link between atheism and nihilism. He recognized, however, that as a matter of historical fact, atheism was ushering in an age of nihilism. "One interpretation of existence has been overthrown," Nietzsche said, "but since it was held to be the interpretation, it seems as though there were no meaning in existence at all, as though everything were in vain" (Complete Works, Edinburgh and London, 19011911, Vol. XIV, p. 480). Albert Camus later dealt with this historical fact at some length in The Rebel (1951).

The tendency to associate nihilism with atheism continues to the present. It is to be found, for instance, in a work by Helmut Thielicke titled Nihilism, which first appeared in 1950. During the course of the twentieth century, however, the image of the nihilist changed, with a corresponding change in the analysis of nihilism's causes and consequences. Professor Hermann Wein of the University of Göttingen wrote, for instance, that the members of the younger generation of his time tended to think of the nihilist not as a cynical or despairing atheist but as a robotlike conformist. For them nihilism is caused not so much by atheism as by industrialization and social pressures, and its typical consequences are not selfishness or suicide but indifference, ironical detachment, or sheer bafflement. The literary prototypes are not the romantic heroes of Dostoevsky but the more prosaic and impersonal heroes of Robert Musil's Man without Qualities (first volumes published 19311933) or Franz Kafka's The Trial (1925).

Moral Skepticism

If by nihilism one means a disbelief in the possibility of justifying moral judgments in some rational way and if philosophers reflect the intellectual climate of the times in which they live, then our age is truly nihilistic. At no period in Western history, with the possible exception of the Hellenistic age, have so many philosophers regarded moral statements as somehow arbitrary. For many Continental philosophers, especially the atheistic existentialists, moral values are products of free choicethat is, of uncaused, unmotivated, and nonrational decisions. The most notable statement of this view is in Being and Nothingness (1943) by Jean-Paul Sartre. In England and America, most philosophers tend to the view known as emotivism, according to which moral statements are ultimately and essentially products of pure social conditioning or brute feeling. The most noted, though not the most extreme, representatives of this position are A. J. Ayer and Charles Stevenson.

It is impossible to state here with reasonable detail and accuracy the positions so summarily described in the last paragraph, much less to discuss their logical merits. For an understanding of nihilism, however, it is important to note how these positions relate to the ideas of those to whom nihilism of this kind is anathema. As already indicated, the most vociferous antinihilists were originally theologians, like Dostoevsky, who feared that disbelief in God would lead to selfishness and crime. If, they argued, there is no divine lawgiver, each man will tend to become a law unto himself. If God does not exist to choose for the individual, the individual will assume the former prerogative of God and choose for himself. For these antinihilists the principal enemy would have been Sartre. The later antinihilists, however, tend to save their fire for the emotivists, whom they accuse of sanctioning moral indifference and mindless conformity. If all moral codes are essentially matters of feeling and social pressure, then no one would be better or worse than another. The wise man, like the Sophists of Plato's day, would simply adjust as best he could to the code of the society in which he happened to be living. John Dewey's fervid insistence upon critical individual intelligence as the prime agent of social and moral reconstruction places him squarely in the second group of antinihilists.

Whether belief in atheistic existentialism or emotivism does in fact have the kinds of consequences suggested above is not at issue here. The point is simply that antinihilists of the older variety do not regard conventional morality, especially in its other-regarding aspects, as adequately justified unless it has a cosmic or divine sanction, whereas more contemporary antinihilists do not regard any moral code as adequately justified unless there is some standard or touchstone more universal than pure feeling or social pressure to which it may be shown to conform. The pertinent question here is whether the antinihilists have a good case for these views.

It would appear that the demand for justification of conventional moral rules by appeal to a divine or cosmic power cannot be logically admitted without abandoning widespread and deeply felt notions about the nature of moral justification. If the higher power that presumably legitimizes our moral code is by definition good and just, an appeal to that power would involve us in a vicious circle. How would we know that that power was good and just unless there were some purely human ideas about the good and the just to which we felt entitled independently of that power's sanction? If, on the other hand, the presumed higher power is not by definition good or just, if, for instance, it were defined merely as a creator and sustainer of life, by what right could we appeal to it to legitimize our moral views? Might or power, even the power to create and sustain life, is not to be confused with right or legitimacy.

The demand that moral codes be justified by more universal standards than pure feeling or social dictate is, on the contrary, much more consonant with widespread, intuitive notions about the nature of moral justification. If social pressure is taken as the touchstone of morality, we once again court a confusion between might and right; if feeling is taken as the touchstone, we must apparently abandon not only the notion of a universal morality, feelings being notoriously fluctuating and individual, but also the notion that one of the functions of morality is to refine, direct, and control individual feelings. It may, of course, be the case that there is no universal morality and that whatever power morality possesses must derive from individual feeling and social conditioning alone. It would be surprising, however, if even the emotivists did not experience a certain chagrin that the truth in ethical theory should be so contrary to human hopes.

Meaningless of Life

Passing to the second meaning of the term nihilism, we find that the pertinent questions are less logical or technically philosophical than psychological or sociological. There are two questions here, corresponding to the two forms of antinihilism. Is it true that a loss of faith in God or cosmic purposes produces a sense of despair over the emptiness and triviality of life, consequently stimulating selfishness and callousness? Is it true that industrialization and conformist social pressures have trivialized life in a similar way, causing us to adopt an attitude of ironic detachment? A negative answer to these questions would appear to fly in the face of most contemporary social criticism and analysis as well as the testimony of most contemporary literature.

It is doubtful, however, whether a simple yes would be a proper response to the first question. When it is assumed that humankind needs a sense of divine or cosmic purpose in order to lead a rich and morally wholesome life, one is generalizing far beyond the evidence. The most that the evidence can be made to support is that relatively large numbers of people in certain societies at certain times have felt this need. No one who has read, for instance, Lev Tolstoy's account of his religious crisis in middle age could doubt the depth of his despair or the reality of his need for a vital relationship to an eternal being. One can reasonably doubt, however, whether that need and despair spring from universal and firmly rooted human aspirations. Some psychologists regard Tolstoy's conversion crisis as a symptom of involutional melancholia, and there are many who believe it to be a consequence of Tolstoy's social position as a member of Russia's decaying aristocracy.

Bertrand Russell went through a similar crisis earlier in life. He not only survived that crisis without reverting to faith in God or cosmic purpose; he also survived it, as his essay "A Free Man's Worship" (1902) attests, by deliberately espousing a world outlook that emphasizes the finitude and cosmic isolation of humankind. And no one who is familiar with the facts of his life would dare to suggest that the later Russell was less morally earnest than the young believer or less wholeheartedly and happily engaged in the process of living.

Those who attribute the nihilistic malaise of our time to industrialization and conformity are less vulnerable to the charge of overgeneralization. This is not because they limit their analysis to a given historical epoch, for they, too, are making an implicit generalization about universal human needs. Their point is that all people need, if they are to be whole and healthy, the sense that they can by a unique and personal effort contribute to the social process and that society will appreciate and reward this individual effort. This generalization is less vulnerable than the first simply because there is more evidence for it. Novels and biographies, ethnographic reports and individual clinical histories, not to mention commonsense attitudes of most men in all societies at all historical periods, tend to support it. And the issue raised by nihilism in this sense of the term is one of the great unresolved political and social problems of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Whether philosophers in their professional capacity are competent to contribute to its solution is a question we shall not attempt to answer here.

See also Atheism; Ayer, Alfred Jules; Camus, Albert; Chernyshevskii, Nikolai Gavrilovich; Dewey, John; Dostoevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich; Kafka, Franz; Life, Meaning and Value of; Moral Skepticism; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Pessimism and Optimism; Pisarev, Dmitri Ivanovich; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William; Russian Philosophy; Sartre, Jean-Paul; Stevenson, Charles L.


On Russian nihilism of the 1850s and 1860s, see Avrahm Yarmolinsky, Road to Revolution (New York: Macmillan, 1959), and Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons (New York, 1958).

For interpretations of nihilism reflecting a theological or religious point of view, see Helmut Thielicke, Nihilism (New York: Harper, 1961); Ernst Benz, Westlicher und östlicher Nihilismus (Stuttgart: Evangelisches, 1948); Nikolai Berdyaev, Sinn und Shicksal des russischen Kommunismus (1937); and Lester G. Crocker, An Age of Crisis (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1959).

For emotivism see A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic, 2nd rev. ed. (New York: Dover, 1952); Charles Stevenson, Ethics and Language (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1944); and Ingemar Hedenius, "On Law and Morals," in Journal of Philosophy 56 (1959): 117125.

For existentialist nihilism see Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956).

See also Friedrich Nietzsche, Will to Power, in Complete Works, edited by Oscar Levy (New York: Russell and Russell, 1964); Albert Camus, The Rebel (New York: Knopf, 1954); Hermann Wein, "Discussion on Nihilism," in Universitas 6 (2): 173182; C. F. von Weizsäcker, The History of Nature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), pp. 71ff.; Bertrand Russell, "A Free Man's Worship," in his Mysticism and Logic (London: Allen and Unwin, 1917), and "What I Believe," in his Why I Am Not a Christian (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), Ch. 3; Lev Tolstoy, "My Confession" and "What Is to Be Done," in Complete Works (New York, 1898), Vol. VII; and Hermann Rauschning, The Revolution of Nihilism (London, 1939).

Robert G. Olson (1967)

views updated


Nihilism is a 19thcentury Russian intellectual movement expressed in a party program of revolutionary reform and terrorism. The word is derived from nihil, "nothing," and was popularized by Ivan Turgenev's novel Fathers and Sons (1862). Russian nihilism has little in common with what is called nihilism in the West. It was born under the czarist absolutism that evoked a powerful revulsion and antagonism in all lovers of freedom and righteousness. A movement for the liberation of human beings from any sort of enslavement found its fullest expression, especially between 1860 and 1870, in nihilism, of which the chief protagonists were Nikolai G. Chernishevsky (182889), Nikolai Dobrolyubov (183661), and Dmitry I. Pisarev (184168). To them the struggle for the complete emancipation of individuality was the highest value. They were extremely hostile toward everything that they termed abstract and refused to grant value to any manifestation that had no social consequences. They waged a rude and relentless war against any kind of social, political, and religious "oppression." In the concrete, they renounced God, spirit, soul, state, church, morality, nationality, and "high" culture. They were earnest in their desire for the creation of a "new man" and the destruction of the old. Their consistency and tenacity in propagating their crude materialist and utilitarian philosophy was comparable with religious endeavor. Many nihilists carried selfsacrifice so far as to

volunteer to take the place of revolutionaries under sentence of death, lest the movement should be deprived of its leaders.

Materialism and atheism were at once preconditions and logical consequences of nihilist criticism and negation. The nihilists railed against the "unpractical" rigors of Christian morality. To them all things were lawful as long as they were useful for the individual. Their ethos was expressed in Chernishevsky's novel What Is to Be Done? (1863), recognized as the nihilist catechism. It emphasized love of truth; repudiated falsehood, embellishment, and exalted rhetoric; and rejected every sort of felicity that life offers. These principles were consistently followed in personal relationships and, above all, in friendship and in marriage. In nihilist circles friendship was based upon inexorable straightforwardness, and marriage was regarded as the truest of all relationships of life.

Nihilism adopted an attitude of suspicion toward "high" culture created by a privileged class and designed only for this class. Art as a manifestation of idealism was absolutely renounced. The nihilists aimed at annihilating aesthetics either in externals or in the forms of social intercourse. They patronized the natural sciences to which they looked for the solution of all problems. In economics they propagated utopian socialism. The negation of higher authority, scientific and artistic individualism, the spirit of absolute independence, the struggle against theological and theocratic idealism, the extreme radicalism, and, to a large extent, the anarchism of the nihilists anticipated communism in Russia.

Bibliography: t. g. masaryk, The Spirit of Russia, tr. E. and c. paul, 2 v. (2d ed. New York 1955). h. kohn, The Mind of Modern Russia (New York 1962). g. a. wetter, Dialectical Materialism: A Historical and Systematic Survey of Philosophy in the Soviet Union, tr. p. heath (New York 1959). n. a. berdi[symbol omitted]ev, The Russian Idea, tr. r. m. french (Boston 1962).

[c. c. gecys]

views updated

ni·hil·ism / ˈnīəˌlizəm; ˈnē-/ • n. the rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless. ∎ Philos. extreme skepticism maintaining that nothing in the world has a real existence. ∎ hist. the doctrine of an extreme Russian revolutionary party c.1900, which found nothing to approve of in the established social order. DERIVATIVES: ni·hil·ist n. ni·hil·is·tic / ˌnīəˈlistik; ˌnēə-/ adj.

views updated

Nihilism (Lat., nihil, ‘nothing’). The view that positive claims (in metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, religion, etc.) are false; or (in its own way more positively) that oblivion awaits humans after death and the cosmos in due course. ‘Nihilism’ is used of a belief refuted by Buddhism. In Theravāda, it is the false belief that the self is identical with the body-mind continuum and therefore perishes completely at death (Pāli, uccheda-diṭṭhi). In Mahāyāna it is the false belief that nothing exists at all (Skt., uccheda-dṛṣṭi) or that reality is an illusion (Skt., māyā). The opposite is Eternalism.

views updated

nihilism negative doctrines in religion or morals; extreme revolutionary principles involving destruction of existing institutions. XIX.
Also nihilist XIX. f. L. nihil (short for nihilum, for *nīhīlum, f. , var. of nē̌ (see NO3) + hīlum small thing, trifle) + -ISM, -IST.

views updated

nihilism the rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless; extreme scepticism maintaining that nothing in the world has a real existence. This was the doctrine of an extreme Russian revolutionary party c.1900, which found nothing to approve of in the established social order.

views updated

465. Nihilism

  1. Bazaroff and Kirsanov university students who have developed a nihilistic philosophy. [Russ. Lit.: Turgenev Fathers and Sons ]
  2. Possessed, The depicts political nihilism and genuine spiritual nihilism of Stavrogin. [Russ. Lit.: Benét, 809]
views updated

nihilism Doctrine of certain Russian revolutionaries in the late 19th century. It condemned contemporary society as hostile to nature and rejected non-rational beliefs. Nihilists demanded radical reform of government and society by violent means.