The term nihilism (Latin nihil, "nothing" ) generally refers to an orientation that is based on the negation of all existence, knowledge, values ​​and social order. He has also been used polemically in Western history, such as the rejection of church and religion. Colloquially does nihilism mean the negation of all positive ( rarely also the negative ) approaches.

Word origin

1733 Friedrich Lebrecht Goetz mentioned the word Neinismus or nihilism as a literary term. Many years later tried the theosophical mystics Obereit, Immanuel Kant to undermine hypostatization knowledge of the subject to guarantee by a speculative method, which he in 1787 gave the name of nihilism. In Obereit nihilism refers to the necessary methodical annihilation of a natural world certainty, so that the openness of a vacuous consciousness arises. As absoluteness of negation in the philosophical sense nihilism was first used in 1799 by Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi in a letter to Johann Gottlieb Fichte, in which he objected to his philosophical system.

Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev, the Russian poet gave the word nihilism in 1862 with his novel Fathers and Sons in the trailer socially revolutionary ideas nihilists were called pejorative meant a political content. As a result, the term gained wide public attention and some Russian anarchists took him to the self-designation. The initially as a pupil of Arthur Schopenhauer ( "Nothing " is the last word of Arthur Schopenhauer's major work The World as Will and Representation ) confessing Friedrich Nietzsche was referring to the use of the term in Turgenev in terms of the "Russian nihilists ", referring to the phenomenon of devaluation of the highest, meaning-giving values ​​of the people of a cultural community. In Nietzsche's work Beyond Good and Evil is of a " Russian Nihilin " the speech, a pessimism, " does more than just say no, no will, but [ ... ] No does. " ( Beyond Good and Evil, Sixth Main piece: We scholars, No. 208)


In the philosophical sense nihilism referred teachings ( ethical nihilism ) or the inventory deny either the existence of a reality ( metaphysical nihilism ), the validity of a moral law, any truth (logical nihilism ). In modern philosophy, the term nihilism is little used because of its ambiguity and defamatory taint. Its different meanings in the course of intellectual history can moor at what is in the negative:

  • A comprehensive or partial meaning of life
  • A sense of world history
  • Identifiable facts
  • Moral commitment, values, etc.

In the first and second cases, nihilists deny that any religion, ideology, philosophical, or political teachings may have to live the right way and therefore reject any form of commitment. Can be seen as a motivation for action to be problematic here the maintenance of meaning. In the third case is epistemological skepticism, in the fourth to protest the rejection of social values ​​and norms through to amorality.


Although today the term is often used against atheists ( and especially against Nietzsche's philosophy ), Nietzsche himself had used him, among other things against the Christian religion, which he described as the core branded nihilistic, since Christianity the physical world and the will to power in favor a non-existent, imaginary ideal refuse. For Nietzsche, nihilism is a decadent development of Western culture, which he traced back to Socrates (cf. the Socratic insight into the not-knowing, " since human wisdom is very little only worth or nothing "; Apology, 23a). Later leaves, according to Nietzsche, the absoluteness of Christian metaphysical values ​​arise with its belief in the afterlife destructive, schizoid people, which is reflected in opportunism, mediocrity, weakness ( " slave morality " ) or the unscrupulous exploitation of other expresses. However, the nihilism of Nietzsche is a historically and psychologically necessary transitional stage, and as Nietzsche seeks its overthrow through the " revaluation of all values" and the Superman from Thus Spoke Zarathustra on. Used for this purpose, the driving force of the will to power, which drives the eternal recurrence. Although located in the eternal recurrence of the same, the greatest possibility of nihilism, at the same time but also the salvation, because the eternal return can the "superman " to bring forth. This overcomes nihilism by saying yes to this same inevitable fate, expressed by the notion of amor fati ( " love of fate ").

Nietzsche nihilism especially formulated with these arguments:

  • There is nothing to do with morality: moral values ​​have no absolute validity, but are useful or useless only in a particular situation.
  • There is nothing to do with the truth: undoubtable values ​​, objective and eternal truths are not recognizable. Truth is always subjective. " That there is no truth gives; that there is no absolute nature of things, not a "thing in itself" gives - this is itself a Nihilism, namely the extreme " ( discount Vol 12, p 351; Friedrich Nietzsche: The Complete Works, Critical study edition in 15 volumes. Edited Colli / Montinari, 1980)
  • God is dead: There is no overarching, eternal instance. Man is thrown back on himself. " What is Nihilism? . Fact that the supreme values ​​entwerthen itself " ( discount Vol 12, p 350; Friedrich Nietzsche: The Complete Works, Critical study edition in 15 volumes, edited by Colli / Montinari, 1980)
  • The eternal return of the same: history is not finalistic, there is no progress and no goal. " Let us in its most terrible form of the thought: existence as it is, without meaning or goal, but inevitably recurring, without a finale into nothingness :" the eternal return ". This is the most extreme form of nihilism: the nothing ( the " meaningless " ) forever " ( discount Vol 12, p 213; Friedrich Nietzsche: The Complete Works, Critical study edition in 15 volumes, edited by Colli / Montinari, 1980)! .


The metaphysics can be understood as the real nihilism, as far as the being caught up in the spotlight and being disregarded. Martin Heidegger sees Nietzsche's philosophy a historical high point of nihilism, as Nietzsche 's philosophy, a metaphysical principle - the will to power - based lege. ( Heidegger's confrontation with Nietzsche's will to power, however, is done on the basis of a book that was compiled partly distort the meaning of Nietzsche's estate. ) According to Heidegger, Nietzsche has the essence of nihilism that this is based on metaphysical thinking, misunderstood. Now, if Nietzsche try to overcome nihilism, let him do so by the mere reversal of metaphysical phrases, which he, however, remain arrested still in the metaphysical thinking.

Heidegger uses this in his history of Being thinking. According to Heidegger, the philosopher of her time have always just being " match " can, by having brought it up. Nietzsche had thus brought the nihilism of language which characterizes his and our " his historical era ."

In his critique of technology Heidegger interprets the essence of technology as a manifestation of Nietzsche meant by the will to power. Thus, the spread of nihilistic thinking, the will to power would be in the art show. The industrialized and technological society of our time, Heidegger situates his history in the era of being forgotten. The overcoming of nihilism is for Heidegger in the " twist " of metaphysics. A task which corresponds to a total of intention of Heidegger's life's work.


Karl Popper denies the utter futility of life, as he says, one can create the meaning of life itself, so that only parts of life were meaningless.

A common criticism raised against nihilism, if it is interpreted as a universal skepticism, its use is claimed that one could actually see anything, is that it would be applied to itself lead to self- negation, because then you really can not see that one can not see anything. Partial skepticism remains generally spared from this reproach.

Conversely, the non-inverting, but postulated worldviews is held that they were without their basic assumptions void collapse. So ask about theism represents an attempt by the ( axiomatic ) Adoption of a God, which as such is not open to criticism, from to prove himself. In this respect all beliefs are tainted not consistent theories which either themselves presented their universality in question or could not prove from an external point of view. In particular, many under the Münchhausen trilemma hold ultimate justifications for not possible. Apel, Hösle and Kuhlmann claim, however, that this can not apply to the special case of " reflexive ultimate justifications ", otherwise no survey of validity claims would in principle be possible or this would contradict itself, which would also apply to a "total " nihilism.

Such attempts to construct an alleged self-contradiction or self-negation of the universal skepticism and this exploit to a ( reflexive ) ultimate justification, however, are in for much criticism. Even philosophers who are not closely related to the philosophical skepticism or nihilism (eg Stegmüller ), this experiment have given several reasons a rejection. So could, among other things as a universal skepticism be connected to a logical skepticism, so that classical logic is rejected and therefore no longer applies the law of excluded middle, thus no longer a contradiction is constructible. Universal skepticism, nihilism and associated relativistic conceptions could be counteracted only by ultimately performative arguments ( see retorsion ).


Some conservative Christian movements throw their opponents in front of nihilism, since they are not based on religion, which alone could provide justifications for meaningfulness. Secular trends as materialism deny this, however. As a self-designation in the religious sense, it can also simply mean that deliberately ignorant position to the existence of supernatural phenomena nihilism. From nihilists in this sense, both the affirmative as the negative attitude to God is rejected as attitude of faith (see Agnosticism ).

Buddhism has often been accused of being a nihilistic doctrine. This referred to his concept of nirvana, which, however, has little to do with nihilism, because nirvana is not, as is often assumed, a place of nothing but the Buddhist ideal of the end of suffering. The background is here to look for in a lax translation history ( " Nirvana " to "nothing" ), as well as in metaphysical simplifications, as far as the sentence " There is no knowledge and [ ... ] nothing to achieve " etc. ( Heart Sutra ) as ( the object of meditation or the work process ) can top as focusing on the being interpreted by any final finding is exceeded by reduction of a further horizon ( "In addition, moreover, to the nearest shore, highest wisdom "; heart Sutra Mantra ). Shunyata ( emptiness ) can according to mean the absence of adhesions and distortions of the ego by the radical differentiation of the extra- or supra-mundane self as non-self as well as the most general at each particular ( also to human existence ). Shunyata refers to the insubstantiality of all phenomena as a result of its dependence on conditioning factors.