What Is Nihilism?

History, Profile, Philosophy and Philosophers

Window with shutters on the house of Rue Catherine Ségurane 38, first quarter of Friedrich Nietzsche, Nice, Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur, France, Europe
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The term nihilism comes from the Latin word ‘nihil’ which literally means “nothing.” Many believe that it was originally coined by Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev in his novel Fathers and Sons (1862) but it probably first appeared several decades earlier. Nevertheless, Turgenev’s use of the word to describe the views he attributed to young intellectual critics of feudal society generally and the Tsarist regime, in particular, gave the word its widespread popularity.

Origins of Nihilism

The basic principles which underlie nihilism existed long before there was a term that attempted to describe them as a coherent whole. Most of the basic principles can be found in the development of ancient skepticism among the ancient Greeks. Perhaps the original nihilist was Gorgias (483 to 378 BCE) who is famous for having said: “Nothing exists. If anything did exist it could not be known. If it was known, the knowledge of it would be incommunicable.” 

Important Philosophers of Nihilism

Is Nihilism a Violent Philosophy?

Nihilism has been unjustly regarded as a violent and even terroristic philosophy, but it is true that nihilism has been used in support of violence and many early nihilists were violent revolutionaries. Russian Nihilists, for example, rejected that traditional political, ethical, and religious norms had any validity or binding force on them. They were too few in number to pose a threat to the stability of society, but their violence was a threat to the lives of those in power.

Are Nihilists All Atheists?

Atheism has long been closely associated with nihilism, both for good and for bad reasons, but usually for bad reasons in the writings of critics of both. It is alleged that atheism necessarily leads to nihilism because atheism necessarily results in materialism, scientism, ethical relativism, and a sense of despair that must lead to feelings of suicide. All of these tend to be basic characteristics of nihilistic philosophies. 

Where Does Nihilism Lead?

Many of the most common responses to the basic premises of nihilism come down to despair: despair over the loss of God, despair over the loss of objective and absolute values, and/or despair over the postmodern condition of alienation and dehumanization. That does not, however, exhaust all of the possible responses — just as with early Russian Nihilism, there are those who embrace this perspective and rely upon it as a means for further development.

Was Nietzsche a Nihilist?

There is a common misconception that the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was a nihilist. You can find this assertion in both popular and academic literature, yet as widespread as it is, it isn’t an accurate portrayal of his work. Nietzsche wrote a great deal about nihilism, it is true, but that was because he was concerned about the effects of nihilism on society and culture, not because he advocated nihilism.

Important Books on Nihilism

  • Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev
  • Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoyevsky
  • Man Without Qualities, by Robert Musil
  • The Trial, by Franz Kafka​
  • Being and Nothingness, by Jean-Paul Sartre
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Cline, Austin. "What Is Nihilism?" Learn Religions, Sep. 16, 2021, learnreligions.com/what-is-nihilism-history-250581. Cline, Austin. (2021, September 16). What Is Nihilism? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-nihilism-history-250581 Cline, Austin. "What Is Nihilism?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-nihilism-history-250581 (accessed March 27, 2023).