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Nihilism

NIHILISM.

In a history that spans more than two and a half centuries, the term nihilism has been employed to denote a wide range of phenomena. It has been variously used to express contempt or horror on the one side, approval and admiration on the other. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it has almost always been an emotional and axiological term, frequently employed to cut off debate on a moral issue by representing a particular position as absolute, totalizing, and extreme.

Early History of the Term

The word nihilism is constructed from the Latin nihil, "nothing," and the Greek suffix ism. In the compendious Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie (Historical dictionary of philosophy), Wolfgang Müller-Lauter gives 1733 as the earliest known date for the occurrence of the German Nihilismus and notes the rise of the word nihilisme in France at the end of the eighteenth century.

From the late eighteenth century through the first half of the nineteenth century, nihilism followed a course that scholars have already traced in considerable detail. Enemies of German idealism threw the term at Immanuel Kant and Johann Gottlieb Fichte, for example, protesting against the emptiness of a philosophy that denies the possibility of any reliable contact with the world of things in themselves. As European thought increasingly moved toward dispassionate, secular explanations of religious belief (holding, for example, that such belief is a natural and predictable product of human consciousness or that it reflects a natural, human tendency to generate myths), those seeking to defend traditional faith increasingly leveled the charge of nihilism against secularizing thinkers. David Friedrich Strauss (18081874), the famed and much reviled author of Das Leben Jesu: kritisch bearbeitet (18351836; The life of Jesus: critically examined), one of the nineteenth century's many biographies of Jesus, and Ludwig Feuerbach (18041872), the equally noted author of the skeptical Das Wesen des Christentums (1845; The essence of Christianity), were both accused of propagating nihilism. Max Stirner (pseudonym of Johann Caspar Schmidt; 18061856), author of the primary gospel of egoism, Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (1845; The ego and his own), and pre-Nietzschean messenger of the death of God, has been described as an early nihilist. All such thinkers, it was felt, had reduced to nothing (nihil ) both faith and its transcendent object.

Nihilism in Russia and As a Russian Export

The term nihilism (nigilizm in Russian) had been used in Russia early in the nineteenth century, but it burst on the scene with particular force and with an entirely new meaning in January 1862, when Ivan Turgenev (18181883) published Fathers and Sons. Turgenev's hero, Evgeny Vasil'evich Bazarov, is a man of science, a member of the new generation who has decided that, at least in theory, nothing in the universe lies beyond the explanatory power of the empirical method. He is, in a word, a nihilist. As his callow young friend puts it to members of the older generation (the "fathers"), a nihilist is a man "who approaches everything from a critical point of view who does not bow down before any authorities, who does not accept a single principle on faith, no matter how much respect might surround that principle." Bazarov dissects frogs (the better to understand human beings), denies the value of artistic expression, and is predictably flummoxed when he finds himself hopelessly in love, that is, in a condition that completely defies the very foundation of his materialist worldview.

If nihilism, as Turgenev's hero understood it, comprised both a thoroughgoing materialism and a thoroughgoing anti-aestheticism, it was already possible to find both in the apostle of the new progressive generation, Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky (18281889), who would gain notoriety in 1863 as the author of the didactic novel What Is to Be Done? In his master's thesis, The Aesthetic Relation of Art to Reality (1855), Chernyshevsky had denied the existence of beauty as an autonomous quality in art, saying that beauty can be nothing more than life itself. And in The Anthropological Principle in Philosophy (1860), he had reduced human freedom and, for that matter, human distinctiveness, to nothing, arguing that individual freedom is an illusion as much in humanity as in the lower forms of animal life. Chernyshevsky would add a third feature to the definition of nihilism in What Is to Be Done? The idealized characters in his novel behave in accordance with an odd amalgam of utilitarianism and enlightened egoism, thus reducing traditional ethical values to nothing.

After the publication of What Is to Be Done? nihilism as a term or attitude took three principal directions in Russia. First, in literary life, it nurtured the trend toward realism. Dmitry Pisarev (18401868), the young critic who in a favorable review of Fathers and Sons helped disseminate a positive image of Turgenev's hero, took Chernyshevsky's anti-aestheticism one step farther in the 1860s, devoting a series of essays to the "destruction of aesthetics" and to the promotion of a rigidly realist style in literature. Second, in political life, the term nihilism came to be used, often with hostile intent, to describe a group within the revolutionary movement characterized by its unscrupulous methods and its unprincipled aims. Fyodor Dostoyevsky helped popularize this sense of nihilism by offering up the savage caricatures of left-wing political operatives that we see, above all, in The Devils (also called The Possessed ; 1871). The chief "devil" in this book, Peter Verkhovensky, is a self-described nihilist notable for his desire to bring about terrible destruction and for his utter lack of concern about what might follow that destruction. As Peter Verkhovensky's real-life prototype, the notorious anarchist Sergei Nechaev (18471882), had written in the Catechism of a Revolutionary (1869), "The revolutionary disdains all doctrinairism and has repudiated all peaceful science. He knows one science only: the science of destruction." Third, the term nihilism came to be used, again in political life, in a sympathetic sense to denote the Russian revolutionary movement broadly speaking. The Russian revolutionary Sergei Mikhailovich Kravchinsky (18511895; better known by the pseudonym Sergius Stepniak), after fleeing Russia in 1878, spent much of his life publishingin English and Italianapologias for the Russian liberation movement that he broadly termed nihilism. And the anarchists Emma Goldman (18691940) and Alexander Berkman (18701936), both Russian immigrants to the United States, used the term nihilist in their memoirs to refer to the heroes of the Russian revolutionary movement, heroes that had inspired them to embark on their own revolutionary careers.

Nietzsche and Nihilism

Had it not been for Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900), nihilismthe word and what it came to designatewould no doubt have been very different from what it in fact became. We find an enigmatic reference to "nihilism according to the Petersburg model" (an apparent reference to Turgenev) in part 5 (1887) of The Gay Science, but the term occurs in his published writings mostly in connection with philosophies that Nietzsche views as world-or life-denying. In The Genealogy of Morality (1887), for example, he offers the term nihilism as a synonym for Buddhism, meaning a renunciation of the affairs of the world. In The Anti-Christ (1888), nihilism is essentially synonymous with "denial of life," and Nietzsche defines pity, the root sentiment of Christianity, as "the praxis of nihilism."

The bulk of Nietzsche's comments on nihilism, however, appear in unpublished writings (the Nachlass, or "literary legacy") from the 1880s. It is here that Nietzsche describes nihilism as a condition in which "the highest values devaluate themselves" and in which the answer to the question "Why?" is missing. There are two possible responses to this condition, Nietzsche explains in a notebook he kept in 1887. We may rise up in strength and recognize that existing goals are no longer adequate, establishing new values in place of the older ones, or we may resign in weakness ("Buddhism," as Nietzsche puts it), thus failing to generate new values. The first response is called "active nihilism," the second "passive nihilism."

There has been some debate over the years about whether Nietzsche himself was a nihilist. The debate is misguided. A cursory reading of what Nietzsche says on the subject shows that for him nihilism is alternately a lamentable and a potentially fruitful condition, but in either case a temporary one. Anyone inclined to construe the proclamation that God is dead as an expression of nihilism should remember that Nietzsche declared the religion whose God was allegedly dead to be itself a form of nihilism. Nietzsche's true legacy was the association of nihilism with values (their absence, their rejection, their synthesis). Future social commentators who invoke the term nihilism to mourn the loss of traditional morality may blame or not blame Nietzsche; what they wittingly or unwittingly owe him is a definition that is at least implicit in what they say.

Nihilism and the Twentieth Century's Ills

From 1936 to 1946, Martin Heidegger (18891976) wrote the component parts of what became a two-volume study of Nietzsche. A simple glance at the chapter and subchapter headings will show to what extent nihilism, in Heidegger's eyes, was fundamental to Nietzsche's thinking. World War II and the period immediately preceding it were an appropriate backdrop for Heidegger's sense that we must view Nietzsche's nihilism in the broader context of what he calls "the end of metaphysics" in Europe. He defines this end as "the beginning of a taking-seriously of that 'event,' 'God is dead.'" As Heidegger sees it, nihilism is one of five "principal headings" (Haupttitel ) in Nietzsche's thought, the other four (with which it is inseparably connected) being the revaluation of all prior values, the will to power, the eternal recurrence of the same, and the superman. If Heidegger's comments on Nietzsche's nihilism are partly a comment on the contemporary European situation, they are also partly a comment on his own earlier work. In his chapter on the five principal headings, for example, Heidegger defines what he calls Nietzsche's "classical nihilism" as "that bringing-to-completion of nihilism in which nihilism considers itself to be released from the necessity of thinking precisely that which its essence constitutes: nihil, nothingas the veil of the truth of the Being of that-whichis [ des Seins des Seienden ]." A passage like this is probably helpful more to the student of Heidegger's Being and Time (1926) than to the student of nihilism.

World War II and the entire history of totalitarianism in the first half of the twentieth century provoked one of the most forceful uses of nihilism as a moral and political term. In 1951, Albert Camus (19131960) published L'homme révolté (Man in revolt; translated into English as The Rebel ). As Camus put it in the first few pages of his book, "If our age easily allows that murder can have its justifications, it is because of that indifference to life that is the mark of nihilism." The central question becomes whether it is possible to offer a rational justification for murder, as is done in this "age of ideologies." Nihilism has to do with values, as it did for Nietzsche. When Camus comes to show the inner contradiction in "the absurd" (his term for the attitude born of nihilism or "absolute negation"), he has this to say: The absurd is a contradiction "because it excludes value judgments while still wishing to preserve life, whereas to live is itself a value judgment. To breathe is to judge." One might argue that this position represents a petitio principii (begging the question), but even so, it is obvious that, to Camus, it serves as a palliative in a world still reeling from the Stalinist purges and the horrors of the Holocaust.

Outside Russian revolutionary circles, nihilism has been a term whose alleged exponents rarely embrace it, particularly because it is seldom used favorably. Some scholars have attempted to classify it into several subtypes. Donald A. Crosby, in The Specter of the Absurd, sees five types of nihilism: political (essentially the Russian revolutionary sort), moral (in which all moral judgments are rejected as individual or arbitrary), epistemological (in which all truth claims are seen as purely relative), cosmic (in which the cosmos is seen as meaningless), and existential (in which human existence is seen as pointless). Karen L. Carr, in The Banalization of Nihilism, proposes a similar taxonomy. In her view, there are five types of nihilism: epistemological ("the denial of the possibility of knowledge"), alethiological ("the denial of the reality of truth"), metaphysical ("the denial of an independently existing world"), ethical ("the denial of the reality of moral or ethical values"), and existential or axiological ("the feeling of emptiness and pointlessness that follows from the judgment, 'Life has no meaning'").

With categories as broad as these, nihilism can be applied to a host of phenomena associated generally with a loss of values or centeredness. One might even say that nihilism as a label became so popular in the second half of the twentieth century that it was often left unspoken. A famous issue of Time magazine in 1966 posed the question "Is God Dead?" in stark red letters against a black background on its cover. In the article, whose immediate inspiration was the rise of the "deathof-God theology" practiced by a particular group of American theologians, John T. Elson reflected on his age as "a time of no religion," cited Søren Kierkegaard (18131855) and Nietzsche as prophets of modern godlessness, and offered this comment on modern art: "From the scrofulous hobos of Samuel Beckett to Antonioni's tired-blooded aristocrats, the anti-heroes of modern art endlessly suggest that waiting for God is futile, since life is without meaning."

Listening to my teacher revived the ghastly sight: the bleeding body, the piercing shrieks, the distorted faces of the gendarmes, the knouts whistling in the air and coming down with a sharp hissing upon the half-naked man. Whatever doubts about the Nihilists I had left from my childhood impressions now disappeared. They became to me heroes and martyrs, henceforth my guiding stars.

source: Emma Goldman, in Living My Life (1931), on learning of the flogging of peasants in Russia.

Although nihilism and its accompanying existential despair are hardly anything but a pose for Americans, as the language derived from nihilism has become a part of their educations and insinuated itself into their daily lives, they pursue happiness in ways determined by that language. There is a whole arsenal of terms for talking about nothingcaring, self-fulfillment, expanding consciousness, and so on, almost indefinitely.

source: Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (1987).

Many, however, have not hesitated to name the illness. In 1987, for example, Allan Bloom (19301992) published his assault on American higher education, The Closing of the American Mind. He titled Part 2 of that book "Nihilism, American Style," taking aim at a pathological condition he saw in America both inside and outside the academy: "value relativism." The ultimate culprit is none other than Nietzsche. As Bloom saw it, Nietzsche's target was not only God but modern democracy. Displaying Nietzsche's own fondness for unsubstantiated, sweeping claims, Bloom declares, "Nobody really believes in anything anymore, and everyone spends his life in frenzied work and frenzied play so as not to face the fact, not to look into the abyss."

The Future of Nihilism

If the word nihilism during the twentieth century was frequently used to denote the conditionand the accompanying feeling of despairthat arises when established and fixed moral values are missing, it is not surprising that it gained currency at a time when much of the world was dominated by ideologies that rejected such values or openly embraced destruction. At the turn of the century, a major political source of obsessive fear in Western Europe and the United States was anarchism. For much of the remainder of the century, it was fascism and communism. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it appeared to be Islamic fundamentalism. Whatever the phrase "Islamic fundamentalism" might be construed to mean, it is safe to say that, if it indeed represents a threat to the West, it is because of values that are perceived as alien, not because of the loss of all values. At this stage, nihilism as a term has perhaps become a mere relic.

See also Anarchism ; Atheism ; Existentialism .

bibliography

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Camus, Albert. The Rebel. Translated by Anthony Bower. London: H. Hamilton, 1953.

Chernyshevsky, Nikolai. What Is to Be Done? Translated by Michael R. Katz. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Crosby, Donald A. "Nihilism." In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward Craig. Vol. 7. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

. The Specter of the Absurd: Sources and Criticisms of Modern Nihilism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988.

Elson, John T. "Is God Dead?" Time 87, no. 14 (April 1966): 8287.

Goerdt, W. "Nihilismus." In Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, edited by Joachim Ritter and Karlfried Gründer. Vol. 6. Basel and Stuttgart: Schwabe, 1984.

Goldman, Emma. Living My Life. 2 vols. New York: Knopf, 1931.

Goudsblom, Johan. Nihilism and Culture. Oxford: Blackwell, 1980.

Heidegger, Martin. Nietzsche. Pfullingen, Germany: Neske, 1961.

Nechayev, Sergei. "The Catechism of the Revolution." In Apostles of Revolution, by Max Nomad. Rev. ed. New York: Collier, 1961.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Anti-Christ. In Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Penguin, 1990.

. The Gay Science. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House, 1974.

. On the Genealogy of Morality. Translated by Maudmarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1998.

Rosen, Stanley. Nihilism: A Philosophical Essay. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 1969.

Turgenev, Ivan. Fathers and Sons. Edited and translated by Ralph E. Matlaw. New York: Norton, 1966.

Steven Cassedy

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nihilism

nihilism (nī´əlĬzəm), theory of revolution popular among Russian extremists until the fall of the czarist government (1917); the theory was given its name by Ivan Turgenev in his novel Fathers and Sons (1861). Nihilism stressed the need to destroy existing economic and social institutions, whatever the projected nature of the better order for which the destruction was to prepare. Nihilists were not without constructive programs, but agreement on these was not essential to the immediate objective, destruction. Direct action, such as assassination and arson, was characteristic. Such acts were not necessarily directed by any central authority. Small groups and even individuals were encouraged to plan and execute terroristic acts independently. The assassination of Czar Alexander II was one result of such terrorist activities. The constructive programs published by nihilists include the establishing of a parliamentary government; the programs were on the whole moderate in comparison with the revolutionary measures of 1917. Nihilism was too diffuse and negative to persist as a movement and gradually gave way to other philosophies of revolt; it remained, however, an element in later Russian thought.

See S. Rosen, Nihilism (1969); M. Novak, The Experience of Nothingness (1970); C. Glicksberg, The Literature of Nihilism (1975); D. A. Crosby, The Specter of the Absurd: Sources and Criticisms of Modern Nihilism (1988); D. M. Levin, The Opening of Vision: Nihilism and the Postmodern Situation (1988).

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Nihilism

Nihilism (Lat., nihil, ‘nothing’). The view that positive claims (in metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, religion, etc.) are false; or (in its own way more positively) that oblivion awaits humans after death and the cosmos in due course. ‘Nihilism’ is used of a belief refuted by Buddhism. In Theravāda, it is the false belief that the self is identical with the body-mind continuum and therefore perishes completely at death (Pāli, uccheda-diṭṭhi). In Mahāyāna it is the false belief that nothing exists at all (Skt., uccheda-dṛṣṭi) or that reality is an illusion (Skt., māyā). The opposite is Eternalism.

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nihilism

ni·hil·ism / ˈnīəˌlizəm; ˈnē-/ • n. the rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless. ∎ Philos. extreme skepticism maintaining that nothing in the world has a real existence. ∎ hist. the doctrine of an extreme Russian revolutionary party c.1900, which found nothing to approve of in the established social order. DERIVATIVES: ni·hil·ist n. ni·hil·is·tic / ˌnīəˈlistik; ˌnēə-/ adj.

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nihilism

nihilism the rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless; extreme scepticism maintaining that nothing in the world has a real existence. This was the doctrine of an extreme Russian revolutionary party c.1900, which found nothing to approve of in the established social order.

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nihilism

nihilism negative doctrines in religion or morals; extreme revolutionary principles involving destruction of existing institutions. XIX.
Also nihilist XIX. f. L. nihil (short for nihilum, for *nīhīlum, f. , var. of nē̌ (see NO3) + hīlum small thing, trifle) + -ISM, -IST.

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Nihilism

465. Nihilism

  1. Bazaroff and Kirsanov university students who have developed a nihilistic philosophy. [Russ. Lit.: Turgenev Fathers and Sons ]
  2. Possessed, The depicts political nihilism and genuine spiritual nihilism of Stavrogin. [Russ. Lit.: Benét, 809]

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nihilism

nihilism Doctrine of certain Russian revolutionaries in the late 19th century. It condemned contemporary society as hostile to nature and rejected non-rational beliefs. Nihilists demanded radical reform of government and society by violent means.

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