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).
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 represent the rejection of God, and therefore are nihilistic.
Though the term nihilism was first popularized by the novelist Ivan Turgenev, it was first introduced into philosophical discourse by Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743 – 1819), who used the term to characterize rationalism, and in particular Immanuel Kant's "critical" philosophy in order to carry out a reductio ad absurdum according to which all rationalism (philosophy as criticism) reduces to nihilism, and thus it should be avoided and replaced with a return to some type of faith and revelation. A related concept is fideism.
Nihilism is often associated with the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose perspectivist view ("in so far as the word 'knowledge' has any meaning, the world is knowable; but it is interpretable otherwise, it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings" The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann) accorded with certain aspects of one reading of the position; the modern definition does not apply to him. Still, Nietzsche could be accurately categorized as a nihilist in the descriptive sense that he noted the "death of God" and the atrophy of traditional absolutist morality in his time. However, he never advocated nihilism as a practical mode of living and was typically quite critical of what he described as the more dangerous nihilism, the rejection of the material world in favor of a nonexistent "heaven". 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 consistent with Christianity in general as Nietzsche describes nihilism, though as nihilism is now commonly construed, Christian philosophy is its opposite. 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.
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 can be seen in his statement that "I praise, I do not reproach, [nihilism's] arrival. I believe it is one of the greatest crises, a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity. Whether man recovers from it, whether he becomes master of this crisis, is a question of his strength!". 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.
Nietzsche's philosophy also shares with nihilism a rejection of any perfect source of absolute, universal and transcendent values. 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.
He 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 their 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.
He 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.
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:
In art, there have been movements, such as surrealism and cubism, criticised for being nihilistic, and others, like Dada and Situationism which openly embrace it. The Situationist International (1957-1972) can be considered a good example of a political/social/artistic movement that was deeply rooted with nihilistic views and ideas. The Situationists abolished the earlier concepts of both Dada and surrealism by attempting to deconstruct the whole notion of 'art' as a separate form, subject or entity. 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.
Perhaps the most commonly referenced portrayal of Nihilism in contemporary film is 1999's adaptation of the book of the same title 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 (The Narrator, who, in the movie, is usually known as "Jack") winning him over to a philosophy of antipathy, self-mutilation, and outright animosity towards life. The Narrator'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 sleeping 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." The 2008 Batman film, The Dark Knight, portrays Joker as a moral nihilist, although this philosophy is greatly diluted by his schizophrenic and destructive nature.