Nihilism (from the Latin nihil, nothing) is a philosophical position which argues that existence is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. Nihilists generally assert some or all of the following:
- Objective morality does not exist; therefore no action is logically preferable to any other.
- In the absence of morality, existence has no higher meaning or goal.
- There is no reasonable proof or argument for the existence of a higher ruler or creator.
- Even if a higher ruler or creator exists, mankind has no moral obligation to worship them.
The term nihilism is sometimes used synonymously with anomie to denote a general mood of despair at the pointlessness of existence.
Movements such as Dada, Futurism, and deconstructionism, among others, have been identified by commentators as "nihilistic" at various times in various contexts. Often this means or is meant to imply that the beliefs of the accuser are more substantial or truthful, whereas the beliefs of the accused are nihilistic, and thereby comparatively amount to nothing (or are simply claimed to be destructively amoralistic).
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 For while Nietzsche could be accurately categorized as a nihilist in the descriptive sense, he never advocated nihilism as a practical mode of living and was typically quite critical of nihilism as he construed it. His later work displays a preoccupation with nihilism. Nietzsche characterized nihilism as emptying the world and especially human existence of meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. He hints that nihilism can become a false belief, when it leads individuals to discard any hope of meaning in the world and thus to invent some compensatory alternate measure of significance. Nietzsche used the phrase 'Christians and other nihilists', which is in line with his low estimation of Christianity in general.
Another prominent philosopher who has written on the subject is Martin Heidegger, who argued that "[the term] nihilism has a very specific meaning. What remains unquestioned and forgotten in metaphysics is being; and hence, it is nihilistic."
Nietzschean nihilismWhile few philosophers would claim to be nihilists, nihilism is most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche. In most contexts, Nietzsche defined the term as any philosophy that results in an apathy toward life and a poisoning of the human soul—and opposed it vehemently. Nietzsche's deep concern with nihilism was part of his intense reaction to Schopenhauer's doctrine of the denial of the will. Nietzsche describes it as "the will to nothingness" or, more specifically:
Stanley Rosen identifies Nietzsche's equation of nihilism with "the situation which obtains when 'everything is permitted.'" Nietzsche asserts that this nihilism is a result of valuing "higher", "divine" or "meta-physical" things (such as God), that do not in turn value "base", "human" or "earthly" things. But a person who rejects God and the divine may still retain the belief that all "base", "earthly", or "human" ideas are still valueless because they were considered so in the previous belief system (such as a Christian who becomes a communist and believes fully in the party structure and leader).In this interpretation, any form of idealism, after being rejected by the idealist, leads to nihilism. Moreover, this is the source of "inconsistency on the part of the nihilists". The nihilist continues to believe that only "higher" values and truths are worthy of being called such, but rejects the idea that they exist. Because of this rejection, all ideas described as true or valuable are rejected by the nihilist as impossible because they do not meet the previously established standards.
In this sense, it is the philosophical equivalent to the Russian political movement: the leap beyond skepticism — the desire to destroy meaning, knowledge, and value. To Nietzsche, it was irrational because the human soul thrives on value. Nihilism, then, was in a sense like suicide and mass murder all at once. He considered faith in the categories of reason, seeking either to overcome or ignore nature, to be the cause of such nihilism. "We have measured the value of the world according to categories that refer to a purely fictitious world". He saw this philosophy as present in Christianity (which he described as 'slave morality'), Buddhism, morality, asceticism and any excessively skeptical philosophy.
As the first philosopher to study nihilism extensively, however, Nietzsche was also quite influenced by its ideas. Nietzsche's complex relationship with nihilism is most evident in the following well-known quote:
While this may appear to imply his allegiance to the nihilist viewpoint, it would be more accurate to say that Nietzsche saw the coming of nihilism as valuable in the long term (as well as ironically acknowledging that nihilism exists in the world so has more gravity compared with categories that refer to a purely fictitious world). 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. Still, he did not consider all values of equal worth. Recognizing the chaos of nihilism, he advocated a philosophy that willfully transcends it. Furthermore, his positive attitude towards truth as a vehicle of faith and belief distinguishes him from the extreme pessimism that nihilism is often associated with.
A major cause of Nietzsche's continued association with nihilism is his famous proclamation that "God is dead." This is Nietzsche's way of saying that the idea of God is no longer capable of acting as a source of any moral code or teleology. God is dead, then, in the sense that his existence is now irrelevant to the bulk of humanity. "And we," writes Nietzsche in The Gay Science, "have killed him." Alternately, some have interpreted Nietzsche's comment to be a statement of faith that the world has no rational order. Nietzsche also believed that, even though he thought Christian morality was nihilistic, without God humanity is left with no epistemological or moral base from which we can derive absolute beliefs. Thus, even though nihilism has been a threat in the past, through Christianity, Platonism, and various political movements that aim toward a distant utopian future, and any other philosophy that devalues human life and the world around us (and any philosophy that devalues the world around us by privileging some other or future world necessarily devalues human life), Nietzsche tells us it is also a threat for humanity's future. This warning can also be taken as a polemic against 19th and 20th century scientism.
Nietzsche advocated a remedy for nihilism's destructive effects and a hope for humanity's future in the form of the Übermensch (English: overman or superman), a position especially apparent in his works Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Antichrist. The Übermensch is an exercise of action and life: one must give value to their existence by behaving as if one's very existence were a work of art. Nietzsche believed that the Übermensch "exercise" would be a necessity for human survival in the post-religious era. Another part of Nietzsche's remedy for nihilism is a revaluation of morals — he hoped that we are able to discard the old morality of equality and servitude and adopt a new code, turning Judeo-Christian morality on its head. Excess, carelessness, callousness, and sin, then, are not the damning acts of a person with no regard for his salvation, nor that which plummets a society toward decadence and decline, but the signifier of a soul already withering and the sign that a society is in decline. The only true sin to Nietzsche is that which is — against a human nature — aimed at the expression and venting of one's power over oneself. Virtue, likewise, is not to act according to what has been commanded, but to contribute to all that betters a human soul.
Nietzsche attempts to reintroduce what he calls a master morality, which values personal excellence over forced compassion and creative acts of will over the herd instinct, a moral outlook he attributes to the ancient Greeks. The Christian moral ideals developed in opposition to this master morality, he says, as the reversal of the value system of the elite social class due to the oppressed class' resentment of their Roman masters. Nietzsche, however, did not believe that humans should adopt master morality as the be-all-end-all code of behavior - he believed that the revaluation of morals would correct the inconsistencies in both master and slave morality - but simply that master morality was preferable to slave morality, although this is debatable. Walter Kaufmann, for one, disagrees that Nietzsche actually preferred master morality to slave morality. He certainly gives slave morality a much harder time, but this is partly because he believes that slave morality is modern society's more imminent danger. The Antichrist had been meant as the first book in a four-book series, "Toward a Re-Evaluation of All Morals", which might have made his views more explicit, but Nietzsche was afflicted by mental collapse that rendered him unable to write the later three books.
Postmodernism and the breakdown of knowledge
Postmodern and poststructuralist thought deny 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 the ideals 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 organisations 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 that the real world is composed of. The uses of meaning was an important subject in Baudrillard's discussion of nihilism:
Self-consistency and paradoxNihilism is often described as a belief in the nonexistence of truth. In its more extreme forms, such a belief is difficult to justify, because it contains a variation on the liar paradox: if it is true that truth does not exist, the statement "truth does not exist" is itself a truth, therefore showing itself to be inconsistent. A formally identical criticism has been leveled against relativism and the verifiability theory of meaning of logical positivism.
A more sophisticated interpretation of the claim might be that while truth may exist, it is inaccessible in practice, but this leaves open the problem of how the nihilist has accessed it. It may be a reasonable reply that the nihilist has not accessed truth directly, but has come to the conclusion, based on past experience, that truth is ultimately unattainable within the confines of human circumstance. Thus, since nihilists believe they have learned that truth cannot be attained in this life, they look upon the activities of those rigorously seeking truth as futile. Of course one may add that nihilism is a self fulfilling prophecy, as without making any attempts to attain the truth one is presumably less likely to find it.
Extreme versions of nihilism would maintain that the truth of logical propositions cannot be known, so the fact that nihilism leads to a contradiction isn't a problem, since contradictions are only problematic for those who accept logic. The classification of nihilism as a 'belief' can also be contested, as believing one is a nihilist would constitute believing in something and having a belief, a position incompatible with some interpretations of nihilism.
In art, there have been movements, such as surrealism and cubism, criticised for being nihilistic, and others, like Dada, which openly embrace it. Generally, modern art is criticised as nihilistic for not being representative, e.g. the Nazi party's Degenerate art exhibit. In some Stalinist regimes, modern art is seen as degenerative, and official rules for "aesthetic realism" are established to halt its public and artistic influence.
Literature and music thematically deal with nihilism, especially contemporary literature and music, wherein the uncertainty following modernism's demise is explored in detail. The character Rorschach, from Alan Moore's graphic novel Watchmen, is a borderline nihilist who says: "We are born to scrawl our own designs upon this morally blank world", observing that existence: "Has no pattern, save what we imagine after staring at it for too long"; however, Rorschach abides moral absolutism, as reflected in his journal.
DadaThe term Dada was first used during World War I, an event that precipitated the movement, which lasted from approximately 1916 to 1923. The Dada Movement began in the old town of Zürich, Switzerland known as the "Niederdorf" or "Niederdörfli," which is now sporadically inhabited by dadaist squatters. 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 and labeling them art, thus undermining ideas of what art is and what it can be. The "anti-art" drive is thought to have stemmed from a post-war emptiness that lacked passion or meaning in life. Sometimes Dadaists paid attention to aesthetic guidelines only so they could be avoided, attempting to render their works devoid of meaning and aesthetic value. This tendency toward devaluation of art has led many to claim that Dada was an essentially nihilist movement; a destruction without creation. War and destruction had washed away peoples' mindset of creation and aesthetic.
Perhaps the most commonly referenced portrayal of Nihilism in contemporary film is 1999's Fight Club, in which the unnamed narrator's disillusionment with the search for meaning in a consumerist, emasculated society results at first in the antagonist (Tyler Durden) winning him over to a philosophy of antipathy, self-mutilation, and outright animosity towards life. Durden's Nihilism is blurred, however, by the Existentialist flavor of his rebellion against society. His credo that "It is only after we have lost everything that we are free to do anything" reflects a Sartrean insistence on the infinite responsibility of free will, while his desire for common men to rise up and overthrow the shallow values of society is reminiscent of Nietzsche's discussion of master-slave morality.
John Malkovich's character in the 1993 movie In the Line of Fire espouses an outlook on life that could be seen as nihilistic over a telephone conversation with a secret service agent played by Clint Eastwood. Malkovich's character, a would-be presidential assassin, describes life and death as lacking any intrinsic justice and being random and meaningless, and gives his motive for the assassination attempt as being "to punctuate the dreariness".
A more fatalist treatment of Nihilism can be seen in the later I ♥ Huckabees, which includes Nihilism among other theories to develop the film's take on life in general. A similar use of Nihilism as a study in futility and meaninglessness can be seen in Jim Jarmusch's 2005 film Broken Flowers.
The 1998 movie The Big Lebowski written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, without treating Nihilism as a serious thematic concern, uses several Nihilist characters as comic narrative devices. Three black-clad men with German accents confront protagonist "The Dude" (Lebowski) claiming "We are Nihilists, Lebowski. We believe in nothing. Yeah, nothing." Also, upon being told that a man on a chair that is floating in a pool with a bottle of Jack Daniels next to him is a Nihilist, "The Dude" responds "Oh, that must be exhausting." This satirical treatment of Nihilists is in contrast with one of the earliest Nihilist characters in cinema, "Animal Mother" in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. Animal Mother is a machine gunner who believes victory should be the only object of war, is contemptuous of any authority other than his own, and rules by intimidation.
- Nietzsche, Friedrich (1886). [ftp://ibiblio.org/pub/docs/books/gutenberg/etext03/bygdv10.txt Beyond Good and Evil]. Project Gutenberg eText.
- Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science
- Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spake Zarathustra. Project Gutenberg eText.
- Nietzsche: Nihilism (Volume IV), Martin Heidegger, Harper & Row, San Francisco, CA, 1982.
- Nihilism, The Root of the Revolution of the Modern Age, Eugene (Fr. Seraphim) Rose, Fr. Seraphim Rose Foundation, Forestville, CA, 1994,1995.
- Martin Heidegger and European Nihilism, Karl Löwith, Columbia University Press, New York, NY, 1995.
- Nihilism Before Nietzsche, Michael Allen Gillespie, University Of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1996.
- Nihilism: A Philosophical Essay, Stanley Rosen, St. Augustine's Press (2nd Edition), South Bend, Indiana, 2000.
- Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld, Thomas S. Hibbs, Spence Publishing Company, Dallas, TX, 2000.
- Genealogy of Nihilism: Philosophies of Nothing & the Difference of Theology, Conor Cunningham, Routledge, New York, NY, 2002.
- Laughing at Nothing: Humor as a Response to Nihilism, John Marmysz, SUNY Press, Albany, NY, 2003.
- I Wish I Could Believe in Meaning: A Response to Nihilism, Peter S. Williams.
- Nihilism and the Sublime Postmodern: The (Hi)Story of a Difficult Relationship, Will Slocombe, Routledge, New York, NY, 2006.
- Catholic Encyclopedia: Nihilism
- Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Nihilism
- Center for Nihilist and Nihilism Studies
- "Elisha Shapiro's ongoing conceptual art exploration of Nihilism"
- Nihilism's Home Page: "Exiting The Circus Of Values"
- "Fathers and Sons" by Ivan Turgenev, the first novel about Nihilism.
- "Nihilism, Modernism, and Value" by John Fraser
- "Modernity and Nihilism"—A religious ethicist's argument that secular history and modernity represent Nihilism
- "Nihilism and the Postmodern in Vattimo's Nietzsche", Ashley Woodward
- "Nihilism, Anarchy, and the 21st Century"
- "Nihilism: The Root of the Revolution of the Modern Age" by Fr. Seraphim (Eugene) Rose
- Nihilism: Mastering the Crisis
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