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A painting of a nihilist by Ilya Repin

Nihilism is a way of thinking which rejects concepts, meaning, or life.[1] It is a philosophical position or condition. Nihility means "nothingness", and "nihil" is the Latin word for "nothing".[2] Nihilism can mean the belief that values are meaningless ideas. It can also mean the belief that nothing has any meaning or purpose.[3] In fact, there are many different beliefs that can be called nihilism. The German thinker Friedrich Nietzsche wrote many things about nihilism. What he wrote is often called the most important explanation of nihilism. Nietzsche wrote that nihilism comes from questioning traditional values until they fall apart. This is called "value destruction".[3]

The Russian thinker Mikhail Bakunin inspired a lot of nihilists because he believed this kind of destruction was good.[4] The word "nihilism" was then made popular by a Russian novel called Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev. The hero of the story is a nihilist named Bazarov.[5] Some other Russian thinkers such as Dmitry Pisarev also wrote good things about this kind of destruction.[6] Russian nihilism inspired many revolutionaries, such as Sergei Nechaev and Vladimir Lenin. The Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky was almost also a nihilist. But he became an anti-nihilist after ten years in exile. He wrote about nihilism in many novels such as Crime and Punishment.[7][8] The people who assassinated the Russian emperor, Tsar Alexander II on 13 March 1881, are often thought of as nihilists.[9]

Nietzsche thought value destruction could not be avoided, even though it has bad results. He also thought Christianity was a source of this value destruction, and was therefore a kind of nihilism. According to the French writer Gilles Deleuze, he thought Christianity was nihilistic because it was life-denying, meaning it has a negative and unhealthy attitude towards living.[10] Religious thinkers have instead thought that nihilism comes from rejecting religion. Some parts of Buddhism have also been called a kind of nihilism, even though other parts strongly reject nihilism. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the word "nihilism" was mostly used against people who rejected religion or believed in nothing. Either way, nihilism is often seen as a word for life-denying beliefs.[11]

Important terms[change | change source]

  • anti-nihilismAnti-nihilism means to be against nihilism. It was also a genre of Russian literature in the 19th century. Examples of people who have been called anti-nihilists are Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoevsky,[8] and Friedrich Nietzsche.[12] But in one way or another, many anti-nihilists have ended up helping nihilism.
  • life-denying — If something is life-denying it means it has a negative and unhealthy attitude towards living. It is the opposite of being "life-affirming". Gilles Deleuze says that the process "of denying life and depreciating existence" is what Friedrich Nietzsche calls "nihilism".[10] Nihilism is often seen as a word for life-denying beliefs.[11]
  • value destructionValue destruction means destroying the values that people take for granted. This is by questioning traditional values until they fall apart. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that nihilism is "not only the belief that everything deserves to perish". Instead, it also makes an effort to destroy.[3] This is also called the devaluation of values, which means losing the worth of those values. It is also called negation, which means denying something or cancelling it out.[13]

Origins[change | change source]

The word "nihilism" comes from "nihil", which is the Latin word for "nothing". But the exact origins of the word "nihilism" are unclear. In the Middle Ages the word was used for some kinds of heresy.[5] Around the time of the French Revolution, it was a word for the destruction of Christianity and traditional European values. It was used in many European countries.[14] Soon, the word was also used in English. It probably came from the French, German, or Late Latin form of the word.[15]

"Nihilism" first became a philosophical word in German philosophy, and then in Russian philosophy. These two studies of nihilism were combined by Friedrich Nietzsche.[16]

German nihilism[change | change source]

Jacob Hermann Obereit was a main anti-nihilist of the late 18th and early 19th centuries

In 1733, the German writer Friedrich Lebrecht Goetz used the word "nihilism" as a literary term.[17] Swiss esotericist Jacob Hermann Obereit also used the word in 1787, German thinker Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi did in 1799. This is where it first became part of philosophy. The belief that no one can know true reality is what Obereit called "nihilism". He used this definition to call the German thinker Immanuel Kant a nihilist. This was because Kant said people cannot be certain of real things, but can only be certain about their experience of real things. Jacobi also used this definition to say Kant and his followers were nihilists. For example, he famously called the German thinker Johann Gottlieb Fichte a nihilist.[16] Jacobi thought both the humanism and German idealism that had come out of the Age of Enlightenment were kinds of nihilism. According to him, these so-called rational philosophies were the complete opposite of rational.[18]

Around 1824, the German journalist Joseph von Görres used the word "nihilism" in a political way. He said that to reject social structures is nihilism.[19] But the word "nihilism" almost died out during this time.[20] For example, the German thinker Max Stirner is called one of the first true nihilists but he never used the word.[3][21] He wrote most of his works in the 1840s.

Russian nihilism[change | change source]

Dmitry Pisarev was a main Russian nihilist of the 1860s

Russian nihilism was an early kind of nihilist philosophy. It was also a broad cultural movement that mixed with some revolutionary movements.[3][22] Russian nihilism is often wrongly called a kind of political terrorism because of this.[5] Its main interest was to destroy traditional values, especially in art and religion. Its main philosophers were Nikolay Chernyshevsky and Dmitry Pisarev.[22] It also rejected the belief in free will and God. Unlike German nihilism which came from German idealism, Russian nihilism was strongly against idealism.[8]

The Russian writer Nikolai Nadezhdin was probably the first to use the word "nihilism" in Russian publication. He first used it in 1829 by calling scepticism the same as nihilism. This same meaning was later used by the Russian writer Vasilij Bervi. The Russian journalists Mikhail Katkov and Vissarion Belinsky also used the word. Katkov said nihilism created a threat of revolution because it rejected all morality.[5] Belinsky used the word in a more neutral way.[8] But the word was still not popular at the time.[20]

The Russian thinker Mikhail Bakunin is often called the father of Russian nihilism. In 1842, he wrote: "Let us therefore trust the eternal Spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unfathomable and eternal source of all life. The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!". Then in the 1850s and 60s, the theory behind Russian nihilism started to form.[8] Originally it was a philosophy of scepticism towards morals and truth. It was in 1862 that the Russian author Ivan Turgenev made the word "nihilism" popular. He used it in his novel called Fathers and Sons to describe the attitude of the younger generation.[5][23] The nihilists in the book say they are people who "deny everything", who do "not take any principle on faith", and who think that "at the present time, negation is the most useful of all".[7][24] Even though Turgenev was more of an anti-nihilist, many young people started to call themselves "nihilists" because of this book.[8]

For Pisarev, nihilism was mostly philosophical and not political. He thought extraordinary people should free themselves from rules and morals. He thought anyone who did this would be above ordinary people.[7] But later, Russian nihilism became more and more political. It inspired many revolutionaries such as Sergei Nechaev and Vladimir Lenin.[16]

Nietzsche[change | change source]

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a lot about the problems of nihilism

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote many criticisms about nihilism that have become known as the most important explanation of nihilism. Even though Nietzsche was very critical of nihilism, he has similarities to earlier nihilists such as Dmitry Pisarev and Max Stirner.[7][21] Because of this, he is sometimes called a nihilist and sometimes called an anti-nihilist.[12] His explanation of nihilism combined the German and Russian meanings of the word, and also went further.[16]

When Nietzsche asks the question "What does nihilism mean?", he gives the answer "That the highest values devalue themselves. The aim is lacking; 'Why?' finds no answer."[25] According to Nietzsche, nihilism is when someone thinks the world as it is should not exist, and the world as it should be does not exist.[26] For example, some religions think the world is wrong as it is, and should be perfect instead. He also says nihilism is "not only the belief that everything deserves to perish". Instead, it also makes an effort to destroy.[3]

Related pages[change | change source]

References[change | change source]

  1. Crosby, Donald A. (1998). "Nihilism". Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Taylor and Francis. doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N037-1. ISBN 9780415250696. As its name implies (from Latin nihil, 'nothing'), philosophical nihilism is a philosophy of negation, rejection, or denial of some or all aspects of thought or life.
  2. "Nihility". Dictionary. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved November 4, 2020.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Pratt, Alan. "Nihilism". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Archived from the original on 2010-04-12.
  4. Edie, James M.; Scanlan, James; Zeldin, Mary-Barbara (1994). Russian Philosophy Volume II: the Nihilists, The Populists, Critics of Religion and Culture. University of Tennessee Press. p. 3.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 "Nihilism". Encyclopædia Britannica. March 13, 2020.
  6. Edie, James M.; Scanlan, James; Zeldin, Mary-Barbara (1994). Russian Philosophy Volume II: the Nihilists, The Populists, Critics of Religion and Culture. University of Tennessee Press. p. 65.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Frank, Joseph (1995). Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865–1871. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-01587-2.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 Petrov, Kristian (2019). "'Strike out, right and left!': a conceptual-historical analysis of 1860s Russian nihilism and its notion of negation". Stud East Eur Thought. 71 (2): 73–97. doi:10.1007/s11212-019-09319-4. S2CID 150893870.
  9. Hingley, Ronald (1969). Nihilists; Russian radicals and revolutionaries in the reign of Alexander II, 1855-81. New York, NY: Delacorte Press. pp. 87–126.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Deleuze, Gilles (1962). Nietzsche and Philosophy. Translated by Tomlinson, Hugh. London: The Athlone Press (published 1983). ISBN 978-0-231-13877-2.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Veit, Walter (2018). "Existential Nihilism: the only really serious philosophical problem". Journal of Camus Studies (2018 ed.): 211–232.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Haar, Michel (1985). The New Nietzsche: contemporary styles of interpretation. MIT Press. p. 6. ISBN 978-0-262-51034-9.
  13. "Negate". Definition of NEGATE. Dictionary. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved November 25, 2020.
  14. ter Borg, Meerten B. (1988). "The Problem of Nihilism: A Sociological Approach". Sociological Analysis. 49 (1): 1–16. doi:10.2307/3711099. JSTOR 3711099.
  15. "Nihilism". Home : Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2003.
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 Marmysz, John (2003). Laughing at Nothing: Humor as a Response to Nihilism. Albany: State University of New York Press. ISBN 9780791458402.
  17. Gloy, Karen (2014). "Nihilismus–Pessimismus". Zwischen Glück und Tragik (in German). Wilhelm Fink. pp. 145–200. doi:10.30965/9783846756454_007. ISBN 9783846756454.
  18. Giovanni, George di (2013-12-02). "Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi". In Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 ed.). Archived from the original on 2013-12-02.
  19. Harper, Douglas. "Nihilism". Nihilism | Etymology, origin and meaning of nihilism by etymonline. Online Etymology Dictionary.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Gillespie, Michael Allen (1996). Nihilism Before Nietzsche. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226293486.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Nishitani, Keiji (1990). McCormick, Peter J. (ed.). The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism. Translated by Graham Parkes; with Setsuko Aihara. State University of New York Press. ISBN 0791404382.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Lovell, Stephen (1998). "Nihilism, Russian". Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Taylor and Francis. doi:10.4324/9780415249126-E072-1. ISBN 9780415250696.
  23. "Fathers and Sons". Encyclopædia Britannica. March 27, 2020.
  24. Turgenev, Ivan. "Chapter 5". Fathers and Sons. Translated by Constance Garnett. A nihilist is a man who does not bow down before any authority, who does not take any principle on faith, whatever reverence that principle may be enshrined in.
  25. Wilkerson, Dave. "Friedrich Nietzsche (1844—1900)". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Archived from the original on March 31, 2019.
  26. Nietzsche, Friedrich. KSA 12:9 [60]