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Nihilism (from the Latin nihil, nothing) is the philosophical doctrine suggesting the negation of one or more meaningful aspects of life. Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. Moral nihilists assert that morality does not inherently exist, and that any established moral values are abstractly contrived. Subsequently there are no moral values with which to uphold a rule or logically prefer one action over another. Nihilism can also take epistemological, metaphysical, or ontological forms, meaning respectively that in some aspect knowledge is not possible or that contrary to our belief, some aspect of reality does not exist as such.
The term nihilism is sometimes used in association with anomie to explain the general mood of despair at a perceived pointlessness of existence that one may develop upon realizing there are no necessary norms, rules, or laws. Movements such as Futurism and deconstructionism, among others, have been identified by commentators as "nihilistic" at various times in various contexts.
Nihilism is also a characteristic that has been ascribed to time periods: for example, Jean Baudrillard and others have called postmodernity a nihilistic epoch, and some Christian theologians and figures of religious authority have asserted that postmodernity and many aspects of modernity represent a rejection of theism, and that such a rejection entails some form of nihilism.
Though the term nihilism was first popularized by the novelist Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883) in his novel Fathers and Sons, it was first introduced into philosophical discourse by Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743–1819). Jacobi used the term to characterize rationalism, and in particular Immanuel Kant's "critical" philosophy in order to carry out a reductio ad absurdum according to which all rationalism (philosophy as criticism) reduces to nihilism, and thus it should be avoided and replaced with a return to some type of faith and revelation. Bret W. Davis writes, for example, "The first philosophical development of the idea of nihilism is generally ascribed to Friedrich Jacobi, who in a famous letter criticized Fichte's idealism as falling into nihilism. According to Jacobi, Fichte’s absolutization of the ego (the 'absolute I' that posits the 'not-I') is an inflation of subjectivity that denies the absolute transcendence of God." A related concept is fideism.
With the popularizing of the word nihilism by Turgenev, a new Russian political movement called the Nihilism movement adopted the term. They supposedly called themselves nihilists because nothing "that then existed found favor in their eyes".
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) posited an early form of nihilism which he referred to as levelling. Levelling was the process of suppressing individuality to a point where the individual's uniqueness becomes non-existent and nothing meaningful in his existence can be affirmed:
Levelling at its maximum is like the stillness of death, where one can hear one's own heartbeat, a stillness like death, into which nothing can penetrate, in which everything sinks, powerless. One person can head a rebellion, but one person cannot head this levelling process, for that would make him a leader and he would avoid being levelled. Each individual can in his little circle participate in this levelling, but it is an abstract process, and levelling is abstraction conquering individuality.
– Søren Kierkegaard, The Present Age, translated by Alexander Dru with Foreword by Walter Kaufmann, p. 51-53
Kierkegaard, an advocate of a philosophy of life, generally argued against levelling and its nihilist consequence, although he believed it would be "genuinely educative to live in the age of levelling [because] people will be forced to face the judgement of [levelling] alone". George Cotkin asserts Kierkegaard was against "the standardization and levelling of belief, both spiritual and political, in the nineteenth century [and he] opposed tendencies in mass culture to reduce the individual to a cipher of conformity and deference to the dominant opinion". In his day, tabloids (like the Danish Corsaren) and corrupt Christianity were instruments of levelling and contributed to the "reflective apathetic age" of 19th century Europe. Kierkegaard argues that individuals who are able to overcome the levelling process are stronger for it and is a step in the right direction towards "becoming a true self". As we must overcome levelling, Hubert Dreyfus and Jane Rubin argue that Kierkegaard's interest, "in an increasingly nihilistic age, is in how we can recover the sense that our lives are meaningful".
It should be noted, however, that Kierkegaard's meaning of nihilism differs from the modern definition in the sense that, for Kierkegaard, levelling led to a life lacking meaning, purpose or value, whereas the modern definition posits that there was never any meaning, purpose or value to begin with.
Nihilism is often associated with the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche , who provided a detailed diagnosis of nihilism as a widespread phenomenon of western culture. Though the notion appears frequently throughout Nietzsche's work, he uses the term in a variety of ways, with different meanings and connotations, both positive and negative. One general way in which he describes nihilism is "as a condition of tension, as a disproportion between what we want to value (or need) and how the world appears to operate.". When we find out that the world does not possess the objective value or meaning that we want it to have or have long since believed it to have, we find ourselves in a crisis. Nietzsche asserts that with the decline of Christianity and the rise of physiological decadence, nihilism is in fact characteristic of the modern age, though he implies that the rise of nihilism is still incomplete and that it has yet to be overcome. Though the problem of nihilism becomes especially explicit in Nietzsche's notebooks (unpublished in his own life), it is mentioned repeatedly in his published works and is closely connected to many of the problems mentioned there.
Nietzsche characterized nihilism as emptying the world and especially human existence of meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. This observation stems in part from Nietzsche's perspectivism, or his notion that ‘knowledge’ is always by someone of some thing: it is always bound by perspective, and it is never mere fact. Rather, there are interpretations through which we understand the world and give it meaning. Interpreting is something we can not go without; in fact, it is something we need. One way of interpreting the world is through morality, as one of the fundamental ways in which people make sense of the world, especially in regard to their own thoughts and actions. Nietzsche distinguishes a morality that is strong or healthy, meaning that the person in question is aware that he constructs it himself, from weak morality, where the interpretation is projected on to something external. Regardless of its strength, morality presents us with meaning, whether this is created or 'implanted', which helps us get through life. This is exactly why Nietzsche states that nihilism as "absolute valuelessness" or "nothing has meaning" is dangerous, or even "the danger of dangers": it is through valuation that people survive and endure the danger, pain and hardships they face in life. The complete destruction of all meaning and all values would be tantamount to suicide or mass-murder.
Nietzsche discusses Christianity, one of the major topics in his work, at length in the context of the problem of nihilism in his notebooks, in a chapter entitled 'European Nihilism'.. Here he states that the christian moral doctrine provides people with intrinsic value, belief in God (which justifies the evil in the world) and a basis for objective knowledge. In this sense, in constructing a world where objective knowledge is possible, Christianity is an antidote against a primal form of nihilism, against the despair of meaninglessness. However, it is exactly the element of truthfullness in christian doctrine that is its undoing: in its drive towards truth, Christianity eventually finds itself to be a construct, which leads to its own dissolution. It is therefore that Nietzsche states that we have outgrown Christianity "not because we lived too far from it, rather because we lived too close". As such, the self-dissolution of Christianity constitutes yet another form of nihilism. Because Christianity was an interpretation that posited itself as the interpretation, Nietzsche states that this dissolution leads beyond skepticism to a distrust of all meaning.
Stanley Rosen identifies Nietzsche's concept of nihilism with this situation of meaninglessness, where "everything is permitted"." According to him, the loss of "higher", metaphysical values which existed in contrast with the "base" reality of the world or merely "human" ideas give rise to the idea that all human ideas are therefore valueless. Rejection of idealism thus results in nihilism, because only similarly transcendent ideals would live up to the previous standards that the nihilist still implicitly holds. The inability for Christianity to serve as a source of valuating the world is reflected in Nietzsche's famous aphorism of the madman in the Gay Science. The death of God, in particular the statement that "we killed him", is similar to the self-dissolution of Christian doctrine: due to the advances of the sciences, which for Nietzsche show that man is the product of evolution, that earth has no special place among the stars and that history is not progressive, the christian notion of God can no longer serve as a basis for a morality.
One such reaction to the loss of meaning is what Nietzsche calls 'passive nihilism', which he recognises in the pessimistic philosophy of Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer's doctrine, which Nietzsche also refers to as Western Buddhism, advocates a separating oneself of will and desires in order to reduce suffering. Nietzsche characterises this ascetic attitude as a "will to nothingness", whereby life turns away from itself, as there is nothing of value to be found in the world. This mowing away of all value in the world is characteristic of the nihilist, although in this, the nihilist appears to be inconsistent:
A nihilist is a man who judges of the world as it is that it ought not to be, and of the world as it ought to be that it does not exist. According to this view, our existence (action, suffering, willing, feeling) has no meaning: the pathos of 'in vain' is the nihilists' pathos — at the same time, as pathos, an inconsistency on the part of the nihilists.
– Friedrich Nietzsche, KSA 12:9 , taken from The Will to Power, section 585, translated by Walter Kaufmann
Nietzsche's relation to the problem of nihilism is a complex one. He approaches the problem of nihilism as a deeply personal one, stating that this problem of the modern world is a problem that has "become conscious" in him. Furthermore, he emphasises both the danger of nihilism and the possibilities it offers, as seen in his statement that "I praise, I do not reproach, [nihilism's] arrival. I believe it is one of the greatest crises, a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity. Whether man recovers from it, whether he becomes master of this crisis, is a question of his strength!". According to Nietzsche, it is only once nihilism is overcome that a culture can have a true foundation upon which to thrive. He wished to hasten its coming only so that he could also hasten its ultimate departure.
He states that there is at least the possibility of another type of nihilist in the wake of Christianity's self-dissolution, one that does not stop after the destruction of all value and meaning and succumbs to the following nothingness. This alternate, 'active' nihilism on the other hand destroys to level the field for constructing something new. This form of nihilism is characterised by Nietzsche as "a sign of strength", a wilful destruction of the old values to wipe the slate clean and lay down ones own beliefs and interpretations, contrary to the passive nihilism that resigns itself with the decomposition of the old values. This wilful destruction of values and the overcoming of the condition nihilism by the constructing of new meaning, this active nihilism could be related to what Nietzsche elsewhere calls a 'free spirit' or the Übermensch from Thus Spoke Zarathustra and the Antichrist, the model of the strong individual who posits his own values and lives his life as if it were a work of art.
Many postmodern thinkers who investigated the problem of nihilism as put forward by Nietzsche, were influenced by Martin Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche. It is only recently that Heidegger’s influence on nihilism research by Nietzsche has faded. As early as the 1930s, Heidegger was giving lectures on Nietzsche’s thought. Given the importance of Nietzsche’s contribution to the topic of nihilism, Heidegger's influential interpretation of Nietzsche is important for the historical development of the term nihilism.
Heideggers method of researching and teaching Nietzsche is explicitly his own. He does not specifically try to present Nietzsche as Nietzsche. Rather he tries to incorporate Nietzsche's thoughts into his own philosophical system of Being, Time and Dasein. In his Nihilism as Determined by the History of Being (1944-46) Heidegger tries to understand Nietzsche’s nihilism as trying to achieve a victory through the devaluation of the, until then, highest values. The principle of this devaluation is, according to Heidegger, the Will to Power. The Will to Power is also the principle of every earlier valuation of values. How does this devaluation occur and why is this nihilistic? One of Heidegger’s main critiques on philosophy is that philosophy, and more specifically metaphysics, has forgotten to discriminate between investigating the notion of a Being (Seiende) and Being (Sein). According to Heidegger, the history of Western thought, can be seen as the history of metaphysics. And because metaphysics has forgotten to ask about the notion of Being (what Heidegger calls Seinsvergessenheit), it is a history about the destruction of Being. That is why Heidegger calls metaphysics nihilistic. This makes Nietzsche’s metaphysics not a victory over nihilism, but a perfection of it.
Heidegger, in his interpretation of Nietzsche, has been inspired by Ernst Jünger. Many references to Jünger can be found in Heidegger’s lectures on Nietzsche. For example, in a letter to the rector of Freiburg University of November 4 1945, Heidegger, inspired by Jünger, tries to explain the notion of “God is dead” as the “reality of the Will to Power”. Heidegger also praises Jünger for defending Nietzsche against a too biological or anthropological reading during the Third Reich.
A number of important postmodernist thinkers were influenced by Heidegger's interpretation of Nietzsche. Gianni Vattimo points at a back and forth movement in European thought, between Nietzsche and Heidegger. During the 1960s, a Nietzschean 'renaissance' began, culminating in the work of Mazzino Montinari and Giorgio Colli. They began work on a new and complete edition of Nietzsche's collected works, making Nietzsche more accessible for scholarly research. Vattimo explains that with this new edition of Colli and Montinari, a critical reception of Heidegger's interpretation of Nietzsche began to take shape. Like other contemporary French and Italian philosophers, Vattimo does not want, or only partially wants, to rely on Heidegger for understanding Nietzsche. On the other hand, Vattimo judges Heidegger's intentions authentic enough to keep pursuing them. Philosophers who Vattimo exemplifies as a part of this back and forth movement are French philosophers Deleuze, Foucault and Derrida. Italian philosophers of this same movement are Cacciari, Severino and himself. Habermas, Lyotard and Rorty are also philosophers who are influenced by Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche.
Postmodern and poststructuralist thought question the very grounds on which Western cultures have based their 'truths': absolute knowledge and meaning, a 'decentralization' of authorship, the accumulation of positive knowledge, historical progress, and certain ideals and practices of humanism and the Enlightenment. Jacques Derrida, whose deconstruction is perhaps most commonly labeled nihilistic, did not himself make the nihilistic move that others have claimed. Derridean deconstructionists argue that this approach rather frees texts, individuals or organizations from a restrictive truth, and that deconstruction opens up the possibility of other ways of being. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, for example, uses deconstruction to create an ethics of opening up Western scholarship to the voice of the subaltern and to philosophies outside of the canon of western texts. Derrida himself built a philosophy based upon a 'responsibility to the other' Deconstruction can thus be seen not as a denial of truth, but as a denial of our ability to know truth (it makes an epistemological claim compared to nihilism's ontological claim).
Lyotard argues that, rather than relying on an objective truth or method to prove their claims, philosophers legitimize their truths by reference to a story about the world which is inseparable from the age and system the stories belong to, referred to by Lyotard as meta-narratives. 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 legitimation 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." This concept of the instability of truth and meaning leads in the direction of nihilism, though Lyotard stops short of embracing the latter.
Postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard wrote briefly of nihilism from the postmodern viewpoint in Simulacra and Simulation. He stuck mainly to topics of interpretations of the real world over the simulations of which the real world is composed. The uses of meaning was an important subject in Baudrillard's discussion of nihilism:
The apocalypse is finished, today it is the precession of the neutral, of forms of the neutral and of indifference…all that remains, is the fascination for desertlike and indifferent forms, for the very operation of the system that annihilates us. Now, fascination (in contrast to seduction, which was attached to appearances, and to dialectical reason, which was attached to meaning) is a nihilistic passion par excellence, it is the passion proper to the mode of disappearance. We are fascinated by all forms of disappearance, of our disappearance. Melancholic and fascinated, such is our general situation in an era of involuntary transparency.
– Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, "On Nihilism", trans. 1995
Nihilism has many definitions and is thus used to describe arguably independent philosophical positions.
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Moral nihilism, also known as ethical nihilism, is the meta-ethical view that morality does not exist as something inherent to objective reality; therefore no action is necessarily preferable to any other. For example, a moral nihilist would say that killing someone, for whatever reason, is not inherently right or wrong.
Some nihilists[who?] argue not that there is no morality at all, but that if it does exist, it is a human and thus artificial construction, wherein any and all meaning is relative for different possible outcomes. As an example, if someone kills someone else, such a nihilist might argue that killing is not inherently a bad thing, bad independently from our moral beliefs, only that because of the way morality is constructed as some rudimentary dichotomy, what is said to be a bad thing is given a higher negative weighting than what is called good: as a result, killing the individual was bad because it did not let the individual live, which was arbitrarily given a positive weighting. In this way a moral nihilist believes that all moral claims are false.
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Existential nihilism is the belief that life has no intrinsic meaning or value. It can stem from scientific analysis showing that only the physical laws contributed to our existence. With respect to the universe, a single human or even the entire human species is insignificant, without purpose and can make no real change in the totality of existence.
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Nihilism of an epistemological form can be seen as an extreme form of skepticism in which all knowledge is denied.
Metaphysical nihilism is the philosophical theory that there might be no objects at all, i.e. that there is a possible world in which there are no objects at all; or at least that there might have be no concrete objects at all, so even if every possible world contains some objects, there is at least one that contains only abstract objects.
An extreme form of metaphysical nihilism is commonly defined as the belief that existence itself does not exist. One way of interpreting such a statement would be: It is impossible to distinguish 'existence' from 'non-existence' as there are no objective qualities, and thus a reality, that one state could possess in order to discern between the two. If one cannot discern existence from its negation, then the concept of existence has no meaning; or in other words, does not 'exist' in any meaningful way. 'Meaning' in this sense is used to argue that as existence has no higher state of reality, which is arguably its necessary and defining quality, existence itself means nothing. It could be argued that this belief, once combined with epistemological nihilism, leaves one with an all-encompassing nihilism in which nothing can be said to be real or true as such values do not exist. A similar position can be found in solipsism; however, in this viewpoint the solipsist affirms whereas the nihilist would deny the self. Both these positions are forms of anti-realism.. But to say existence and truth do not exist, however, is to make a statement about existence and truth in general.
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Mereological nihilism (also called compositional nihilism) is the position that objects with proper parts do not exist (not only objects in space, but also objects existing in time do not have any temporal parts), and only basic building blocks without parts exist, and thus the world we see and experience full of objects with parts is a product of human misperception (i.e., if we could see clearly, we would not perceive compositive objects).
Political nihilism, a branch of nihilism, following the characteristic nihilist's rejection of non-rationalized or non-proven assertions, in this case the necessity of the most fundamental social and political structures, such as government, family or even law and law enforcement. The Nihilist movement in 19th century Russia espoused a similar doctrine.
It has been suggested[by whom?]that the show Seinfeld is a manifestation of nihilism in television. The very basis of the sitcom is that it is a "show about nothing". The majority of the episodes focused on minutiae. The view presented in Seinfeld is arguably consistent with the philosophy of nihilism, the idea that life is pointless, and from which arises a feeling of the absurd that characterizes the show's ironic humour.
The term Dada was first used by Tristan Tzara in 1916. The movement, which lasted from approximately 1916 to 1922, arose during World War I, an event that influenced the artists. The Dada Movement began in Zürich, Switzerland -known as the "Niederdorf" or "Niederdörfli"- in the Café Voltaire. 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. The "anti-art" drive is thought to have stemmed from a post-war emptiness. This tendency toward devaluation of art has led many to claim that Dada was an essentially nihilistic movement. Given that Dada created its own means for interpreting its products, it is difficult to classify alongside most other contemporary art expressions. Hence, due to its ambiguity, it is sometimes classified as a nihilistic modus vivendi.
A 2007 article in The Guardian noted that "...in the summer of 1977, ...punk's nihilistic swagger was the most thrilling thing in England." The Sex Pistols' "God Save The Queen", with its chant-like refrain of "no future", became a slogan for unemployed and disaffected youth during the late 1970s.
Nihilism is also expressed in some gangsta rap, as part of a "street code", but it is only one of many viewpoints or perspectives presented in such music.
Black metal and death metal music often emphasize nihilistic themes.