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Summary Article: Nihilism
from Encyclopedia of Philosophy & the Social Sciences

Nihilism is derived from the Latin term nihil, meaning nothing. At its core, nihilism is the claim that existence has no meaning. This entry charts the history of the notion of nihilism and shows its importance both for philosophy and for social inquiry.

The most influential version of nihilism is existential nihilism, the claim that there are no ultimate values. Ultimate values are those values that give life, and existence itself, meaning. The claim that existence is meaningless is sometimes taken to be the central premise of existentialism of this sort. The term nihilism can also be used in an epistemological and a moral sense. Epistemological nihilism is a form of radical scepticism that denies that anything can be known. Moral nihilism is the metaphysical claim that there are no objective moral values. The nihilistic claim that life has no meaning is often twinned with one of two normative responses: either that one should withdraw from life and active engagement in it or that one should defy life by adopting a form of violent protestation against its absurdity, as suggested in the French existentialist writer Albert Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus.

At the end of the entry, we shall mention two forms of nihilism in recent analytic philosophy, mereological nihilism and metaphysical nihilism.

The concept of nihilism plays a prominent role in many philosophical and literary works from the middle of the 19th century onward and may be regarded as one of the distinguishing traits of modernity. In particular, nihilism is often regarded as one of the perceived effects of secularization on European culture. Nihilism's prominence in social thought owes as much to literary and cultural criticism as it does to systematic theorizing. This in part explains the concept's heterogeneity.


The German philosopher F. H. Jacobi, in an open letter to J. G. Fichte in 1799, claims that Fichte's philosophy of Absolute Idealism is “nihilistic” because it denies the existence of anything outside the transcendental Ego. As God (according to Jacobi) cannot be posited by Fichte's “I,” Fichte's philosophy denies God and is therefore a kind of nihilism. Jacobi concedes that Fichte's system is intellectually rigorous; his concern is with the potentially deleterious effects that belief in such a philosophical system may have on its proponents. His critique of nihilism as reason pushed to destructive limits was a recurring theme in its subsequent development. However, the term nihilism really gained widespread recognition through its use in the Russian author Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. Bazarov, the main character of the novel, exemplifies an extreme form of critical positivism (scientism), subjecting all beliefs and received opinion to critical scrutiny and doubt. Turgenev's ambivalence toward Bazarov is partially determined by his reaction to the Russian anarchist and Young Hegelian thinker Mikhail Bakunin, whom Turgenev met in Berlin in 1840. Bakunin had attained great notoriety for extolling creativity through destruction. The perceived link between nihilism and the social and political movement of anarchism (and to some extent socialism) was strengthened by another famous Russian, Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose work The Devils (1872) drew inspiration from the activities of the revolutionary nihilist Sergei Nechaev. Nechaev's notorious Catechism of a Revolutionary, published in 1869, called for the complete destruction of both the state and society. Peter Verkhovensky, the main character of The Devils, participates in various assassinations and other acts of political violence. Dostoevsky's critical appraisal of the nihilistic spirit as bound up with violent and destructive acts of rebellion against society had a crucial impact on the development of Friedrich Nietzsche's understanding of nihilism.


Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) is the most influential figure in the subsequent understanding and elaboration of nihilism at the end of the 19th and for much of the 20th century. Despite the fact that Nietzsche published very little on nihilism, many of his numerous notebook entries dealing with nihilism appeared in a posthumously published work, The Will to Power, put together from his notes by his sister and others. This volume proved extremely influential in the subsequent understanding of both nihilism and Nietzsche's own philosophy.

For Nietzsche, modern nihilism is the absence of all overarching (ultimate) values and is the inevitable outcome of a thorough recognition of the death of (the belief in) God. For Nietzsche, modern moral systems such as Kantian deontology, utilitarianism, socialism, and Marxism merely carried on what he called the Judaeo-Christian “morality of compassion” in a secular form. They, like Christianity, are moralities of compassion in that they are essentially concerned with alleviating the suffering of humanity. Nietzsche argued that without the authority of God's command these moralities of compassion will eventually lose their grip on us and we, modern Europeans, will be left without any overarching values. This may aptly be called the “nihilism of disorientation.” It is the kind of disorientation that has often been noted (e.g., by Sigmund Freud) to accompany the great conceptual revolutions instituted through the discoveries of Copernicus (the earth is not the center of the universe), Charles Darwin (humankind is not the product of, and hence the center of, divine creation), and Freud (man's conscious ego is not his ruler and the center of his being). It is this disorientation, the lack of ultimate overarching, centring values, that Nietzsche presciently pronounces as “the history of next two centuries.” The emphasis on overarching values is crucial, for, as Nietzsche himself claims, life inevitably involves values. For instance, in reading this essay you are expressing a value; you are, at the moment, valuing reading it above, say, watching television. In his Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche paints a vivid picture of the “last men,” who value their families, their careers, and their small happiness but ask, “What is a star?” and blink. If nihilism really involved the absence of all values, as opposed to only the absence of overarching values, it would be incompatible with life (but see Nietzsche on affective nihilism, below). The basic Nietzschean argument that life inevitably involves values is that life itself is nothing but a collection of drives, and each drive, through its aims, assigns instrumental values to things, according to the thing's ability to satisfy the drive's aim. Thus, our hunger drive places a high value on food, say the croissant before us, and little value on, for instance, the pretty curtains in our study. What the nihilist lacks are overarching values that give meaning and provide a narrative structure to all existence. This Nietzschean idea was influential in works such as Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West. The post-Christian West, “disenchanted” in Max Weber's words, is arguably a culture in decline as its members have lost belief in the central organizing values that fortified and gave vitality to their culture.

However, beyond this modern nihilism of disorientation, Nietzsche recognizes a deeper form of nihilism. This is evidenced by his repeated claim that Christianity itself is nihilistic. The Christian after all does not suffer from disorientation. Existence for him has great value as it is God's creation and, for the righteous, a gateway to the infinitely valuable external bliss of heavenly existence. Nietzsche argues, however, that this very proclamation of the value of the world to come serves to dis-value this, our worldly, existence. Christianity tells us that our natural worldly inclinations, our sexual drives, and our drives for power and dominance are affronts to God and need to be repressed if not extirpated if we are to gain entry to heaven. Now if we, like Nietzsche, equate life with our drives, we will see Christianity's rejection of the drives as a turn against life itself, what Nietzsche calls “the will turned against life.” For Nietzsche, the desire to quieten the drives is in fact the desire to be nothing, to not exist, akin to what Freud would later call the death drive.

This phenomenon of the will turned against life we might call affective nihilism. Unlike the nihilism of disorientation, it does not involve an endorsement of some proposition, for instance, the proposition that there are no ultimate values. It involves a psychological component: wholesale repression of the drives. This captures the nihil (nothing) of nihilism, since the drive to suppress or extirpate the drives is a kind of drive to nothingness; for, as we have observed, for Nietzsche, life is itself a collection of drives; thus, to eliminate the drives is to eliminate life itself. When Nietzsche heralds nihilism as the history of Europe for the next 200 years, what he is prophesying is that the affective nihilism of Christianity will come to be consciously expressed in the embracing of claims such as that of the nihilism of disorientation—that there are no ultimate values.

Other Senses of Nihilism

As well as its existential sense, nihilism can also be used in an epistemological and a moral sense.

Epistemological nihilism is a form of radical skepticism that denies that anything can be known. Taken literally, this appears to be paradoxical; if literally nothing can be known, then presumably this includes the claim that nothing can be known. So if epistemological nihilism is true, we cannot know that it is true. In the social sciences, epistemological nihilism is often closely associated with extreme forms of relativism, for instance, the claim that truth is always relative to a theory. Such claims face a similar philosophical problem, namely, that they are self-undermining. As the old joke has it, “Relativism is not true, relative to my theory.” A common, though disputed, charge (as leveled, e.g., by Jürgen Habermas) against philosophical postmodernism (as in Jacques Derrida), with its celebrated “incredulity toward meta-narratives” (as Jean-François Lyotard urged), is that it leads to relativism and nihilism.

Moral nihilism is the claim that objective moral values do not exist. One version of this view was given by the 20th-century Australian philosopher John Mackie, who argued that moral properties do not exist. The world as revealed to us by science does not give any grounds for attributing such properties to things, despite what our moral language would suggest. Ethical language is thus in systematic error, according to Mackie, and hence this variety of moral nihilism is called an error theory.

Finally, in contemporary discussions in metaphysics, there have been two areas in which the notion of nihilism has been employed but in a different way from the ones we have presented so far. Whereas the first of these metaphysical theses is explicitly non-intuitive, the second is not. First, there is the thesis of mereological nihilism, advanced by philosophers who reject the existence of any proper parts; that is, it amounts to the thesis that there are no composite objects or, in other words, objects with proper parts do not exist. Advocates of mereological nihilism assert that there exist only the smallest building blocks of reality, simples, which, however are, and remain, independent, forming no composite wholes. So strictly speaking, there are no composite things, such as, for instance, houses, but only material simples (subatomic particles) “arranged housewise.” Some nihilists of this sort, like Peter van Inwagen, admit living organisms as the only exception, allowing them to be composite wholes of parts that contribute to the organism's life. Second, there is the (quite intuitive) thesis of metaphysical nihilism, according to which it is possible that there could be no concrete object or that it is a possibility that nothing concrete existed. The thesis asserts a metaphysical possibility; it does not claim that there are no concrete things. Metaphysical nihilists support the thesis that an empty world is a possibility by an argument, the so-called subtraction argument (originally put forward by Thomas Baldwin).

See also



Relativisms and Their Ontologies

Further Readings
  • Baldwin, T. (1996). There might be nothing. Analysis, 56, 231-238. doi:10.1093/analys/56.4.231.
  • Camus, A. (1975). The myth of Sisyphus (O‘Brien, J. , Trans.). Penguin London, England.
  • Gillespie, M. A. (1996). Nihilism before Nietzsche. University of Chicago Press Chicago, IL.
  • Lowe, E. J. (2002). Metaphysical nihilism and the subtraction argument. Analysis, 62, 62-73. doi:10.1093/analys/62.1.62.
  • Mackie, J. L. (1977). Ethics: Inventing right and wrong. Penguin London, England.
  • Nagel, T. (1979). The absurd. In Mortal questions (pp. 11-23). Cambridge University Press Cambridge, England.
  • Nietzsche, F. (1967). The will to power (Kaufmann, W. , Trans.). Random House New York, NY.
  • Reginster, B. (2006). The affirmation of life: Nietzsche on overcoming nihilism. Harvard University Press Boston, MA.
  • Rosen, S. (1969). Nihilism: A philosophical essay. Yale University Press New Haven, CT.
  • van Inwagen, P. (1990). Material beings. Cornell University Press Ithaca, NY.
  • Weller, S. (2001). Modernism and nihilism. Palgrave Macmillan London, England.
  • Ken Gemes
    Chris Sykes
    © 2013 SAGE Publications, Inc

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