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The term nihilism was popularized by the writer Ivan S. Turgenev

Nihilism ( Latin nihil ' nothing ' ) generally denotes a worldview that denies the possibility of any objective order of being, knowledge, value and society . It was also used polemically , for example for critics of church and religion or political order. Colloquially , nihilism means the negation of all positive (and less often negative) approaches. Due to the conceptual orientation towards nothingness , nihilism contains an absolute priority for the individualthat only follows its instincts and inclinations and that everything is allowed. But if the nihilistic world view goes so far that even the individual is questioned as a constantly changing subjective experience, these drives and inclinations lose all meaning.

Word usage

In 1733 Friedrich Lebrecht Goetz mentioned the word noism or nihilism as a literary term. Several years later, tried theosophical mystic Jacob Hermann Obereit , Immanuel Kant hypostatization to undermine the subject of knowledge guarantors by a speculative method, which he in 1787 the name nihilism was. For Obereit, nihilism denotes the methodically necessary annihilation of a natural world certainty, so that the openness of a consciousness devoid of content arises. As absoluteness of negation in the philosophical sense was nihilism in 1799 for the first time by Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi in a letter to Johann Gottlieb Fichte used in which he objected to the philosophical system.

In his 1826 published writing about the freedom of the intelligence used Franz von Baader nihilism as a synonym for criticism, as one of the "destructive religious abuse of intelligence." Juan Donoso Cortés introduced nihilism as a term for the French socialists in his essay Attempt on Catholicism, Liberalism and Socialism in 1851.

Later on, nihilism was mostly used with polemical intent, for example in the Vormärz , when the Young Hegelians were often referred to as nihilists because of their atheism . The old Hegelian Karl Rosenkranz gave a more differentiated judgment . He respected the Young Hegelians Ludwig Feuerbach and Bruno Bauer, despite their dedicated atheism, as Hegelian thinkers, but not Max Stirner , whose book The One and His Own (1845) he described as the "tip of the one-sided subjective tendency" and as the "nihilism of all ethical pathos" condemned from where no further development is possible. It has been reconstructed that the student Friedrich Nietzsche , who valued Feuerbach and the “spiritually active time” of Vormärz, rejected this orientation in the fall of 1865 and abruptly turned to Schopenhauer's philosophy because he had previously been confronted with Stirner's nihilism. The Russian poet Ivan Sergejewitsch Turgenew gave the word nihilism a derogatory political content in 1862 with his novel Fathers and Sons , in which supporters of social revolutionary ideas were called nihilists . As a result, the term gained widespread public attention and some Russian anarchists adopted it as a self-designation. Friedrich Nietzsche, who initially confessed himself to be a pupil of Arthur Schopenhauer ("Nothing" is the last word of Arthur Schopenhauer's main work The World as Will and Imagination ), referred to the use of the expression by Turgenew with regard to the " Russian nihilists " and meant the phenomenon of one Devaluation of the highest, meaningful values ​​of the people of a cultural community. In Nietzsche's work Beyond Good and Evil there is talk of a “Russian nihilin”, a pessimism “who not only says no, wants no, but […] does no .”


In the philosophical sense, nihilism denotes doctrines that either deny the existence of a reality (metaphysical nihilism), the validity of a moral law (ethical nihilism), or the existence of any truth (logical nihilism). In modern philosophy, the term nihilism is little used because of its ambiguity and defamatory aftertaste. Its different meanings in the course of intellectual history can be determined by what is negated:

  • a meaning of life
  • a sense of world history
  • Existence of supernatural beings
  • recognizable facts
  • moral obligation, values ​​etc.

In the first and second case, nihilists deny that any religion , worldview , philosophical or political doctrine can show the right way to live and therefore reject any form of commitment. The maintenance of meaning as a motivation for action can be experienced as problematic here. The fourth case is epistemological skepticism , the fifth is protest , the rejection of social values ​​and norms and even amoralism .


For Nietzsche, nihilism is the result of the conviction that there are no absolute truths and values. This results in a "belief in absolute worthlessness, that is, meaninglessness." (KSA XII, 513)

"Let us think of the thought in its most terrible form: existence as it is, without meaning or goal, but inevitably recurring, without a finale into nothingness:" the eternal return ". That is the extreme form of nihilism: nothing (the "meaningless") forever! "

- KSA XII, 213

Nietzsche viewed nihilism genealogically as the result of a historical process that spanned from ancient Greece to Christianity. The loss of belief in a god, as it was taught in antiquity by Socrates and Plato, in Judaism and then in Christianity, leads to a destruction of the traditional worldview and thus a devaluation of all previous values. “What does nihilism mean? That the highest values ​​are devalued. ”(KSA XII, 350) With the philosophy of Kant the end of religions and metaphysical belief was ushered in. For the sciences, too, this means that they no longer have a secure foundation. There is no longer any absolute truth. “That there is no truth; that there is no absolute nature of things, no "thing in itself" - this is itself a nihilism, and indeed the most extreme. ”(KSA XII, 351) Accordingly, there is no longer any standard for morality. Nevertheless, nihilism in its full form would be the realization of the pursuit of truth and truthfulness. Nietzsche not only wanted to remain destructively in pessimism like Schopenhauer, but was looking for a perspective to overcome nihilism.

The history of nihilism can also be seen as a process from the loss of the old (pre-Socratic) values ​​through which the true world became a fable, to metaphysics and to the Judeo-Christian forms of a dogmatic religion. The story of the overcoming of dogmas in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment follows a “logic of decadence”, a decline in values ​​and a transition to slave morality . The result is disorientation and ambiguity, the highest expression of which is nihilism in its pure form. According to Nietzsche, a foundation of meaning can only be found through new values ​​that are not developed out of the mind, but are achieved through a voluntary affirmation of the world. "He who no longer finds the great in God does not find it at all [...] and must either deny it or create it himself". (KSA 10, 32) Instead of God as the idea of ​​the ground of the world, Nietzsche puts the idea of eternal return , the idea that everything that has happened has already happened infinitely often and will return infinitely often. The one who succeeds in creating new values by revaluing all values is the man of the future, the superman , at the same time antichrist and overcomer of God as well as anti-minihilist and conqueror of nothing. The action of the new person follows the driving force of the will to power and overcomes nihilism by saying yes to inevitable fate, expressed by the concept of amor fati ("love of fate").


Metaphysics , too, can be understood as actual nihilism, insofar as being comes into focus and being is not taken into account. Martin Heidegger sees Nietzsche's philosophy as a historical climax of nihilism, since Nietzsche bases his philosophy on a metaphysical principle - the will to power. (Heidegger's discussion of Nietzsche's will to power , however, is based on a book that was compiled from Nietzsche's estate in a partially distorted manner.) According to Heidegger, Nietzsche misunderstood the essence of nihilism, that it is based on metaphysical thinking. If Nietzsche tries to overcome nihilism, he does so by the mere reversal of metaphysical propositions, with which, however, he still remains stuck in metaphysical thinking.

Heidegger takes this up in his historical thinking. According to Heidegger, the philosophers of their time were only able to “correspond” to being by bringing it up for discussion. Nietzsche would thus have brought up nihilism, which characterizes his and our "historical epoch".

In his criticism of technology , Heidegger interprets the nature of technology as the manifestation of the will to power meant by Nietzsche. Accordingly, a spread of nihilistic thinking and the will to power would show up in technology. In terms of the history of being, Heidegger locates the industrialized-technological society of our time in the epoch of being forgotten . For Heidegger, the overcoming of nihilism consists in the "twisting" of metaphysics. A task that corresponds overall to the intention of Heidegger's life's work.


Karl Popper denies that life is completely meaningless, since he believes that one can create the meaning of life oneself, so that only parts of life remain meaningless.

A frequently voiced criticism of nihilism, if it is interpreted as universal skepticism by means of which it is asserted that one cannot actually see anything, is that it would lead to self-negation when applied to oneself, since then one cannot recognize that one is can't see anything. Partial skepticism is generally spared this reproach.

Conversely, the not negating, but postulating world views are held up, they collapse without their basic assumptions in themselves. Theism , for example, represents the attempt to prove oneself through the ( axiomatic ) assumption of a God, which as such cannot be criticized. In this respect, all world views are tainted with the flaw of inconsistent theories that either question their general validity themselves or cannot prove it from an external point of view. In particular, according to the Münchhausen Trilemma , many believe that ultimate justifications are not possible. Apel , Hösle , Holz and Kuhlmann claim, however, that this cannot apply to the special case of “reflexive ultimate justifications”, as otherwise no validity claims would be possible in principle or these would contradict themselves, which would also apply to “total” nihilism.

Such attempts to construct an alleged self-contradiction or self-negation of universal skepticism and to use this for a (reflexive) ultimate justification, however, are in strong criticism. Even philosophers who are not close to philosophical skepticism or nihilism (e.g. Wolfgang Stegmüller ) have rejected this attempt for several reasons. Thus, among other things, a universal skepticism could be connected with a logical skepticism, so that the classical logic is rejected and thus the principle of the excluded third no longer applies, which means that no contradiction can be constructed. Universal skepticism, nihilism and related relativistic conceptions can ultimately only be counteracted by performative arguments (see retorsion ).

Hans Jonas sees the cause of nihilism in a lack of a natural philosophy adapted to modern scientific knowledge .


Some conservative Christian currents accuse their opponents of nihilism because they are not based on religion , which alone can provide reasons for meaningfulness. Secular currents like materialism , however, deny this. As a self-designation in the religious sense, nihilism can only mean the consciously ignorant attitude towards the existence of supernatural phenomena. Nihilists in this sense reject both the affirmative and the negative position towards God as a belief (see agnosticism ).

The Buddhism has often been accused of being a nihilistic doctrine. This referred to his concept of nirvana , which has little in common 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 to be sought 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 be achieved” etc. ( Heart Sutra ) like Above can also be interpreted as a concentration on the being (the object of meditation or the work process), in that every possible final knowledge is exceeded by setting a further horizon ("Beyond, beyond, to the next bank, highest wisdom"; Sutra mantra). Shunyata (emptiness) can accordingly mean the absence of attachments and rejections of the ego through the radical differentiation of the external or transcendent self as anatta (non-self) as well as the most general of the particular (including human existence). Shunyata points to the insubstantiality of all phenomena due to their dependence on conditioning factors.


As therapeutic nihilism a scientifically oriented direction of the medicine is referred polemically which evaluates the complete description of diseases higher than therapeutic interventions. This term, coined by CA Wunderlich , was used in the 19th century, after supporters of the aforementioned direction largely dispensed with the therapy methods that had been customary up to that time, mainly based on the outdated humoral pathology, such as bloodletting or laxatives , and advocated a scientifically more modern, pathologically-anatomically based disease term . Above all, the Austrian physician Joseph Dietl demanded in 1845 that therapy should be of secondary importance until the pathological-anatomical and chemical understanding of the disease was complete and rational intervention could be justified.

See also


  • Rudolf Eisler : Nihilism . In: Dictionary of Philosophical Terms . 1904.
  • Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi , Jacobi an Fichte (text 1799–1816 in comparison) ( Fichtiana series , n. 28). Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Filosofici - Press, Napoli 2011, ISBN 978-88-905957-5-2 .
  • Dieter Arendt: Nihilism. The beginnings from Jacobi to Nietzsche . Cologne 1970.
  • Elmar Dod: The scariest guest. The philosophy of nihilism . Tectum, Marburg 2013, ISBN 978-3-8288-3107-0 .
  • Elmar Dod: The scariest guest feels at home. The Philosophy of Nihilism - Evidences of the Imagination . Baden-Baden 2019, ISBN 978-3-8288-4185-7 .
  • Ludger Lütkehaus : Nothing . Haffmans, Zurich 1999, ISBN 3-251-00446-8 .
  • Seraphim Rose : Nihilism: the ideology of the Antichrist - The belief in nothingness as the source of doom . Edition Hagia Sophia, Straelen 2010, ISBN 978-3-937129-62-4 .
  • Winfried Schröder : Moral nihilism from the sophists to Nietzsche . Reclam, Stuttgart 2005.
  • Emanuele Severino : Essenza del nichilismo (1972) [German. over On the essence of nihilism , Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 1983].
  • Patrick Spät : Life - and the meaning of it all. Between nihilism and a spark of morality . Butterfly, Stuttgart 2013.
  • Federico Vercellone: Introduction to Nihilism . Wilhelm Fink, Munich 1998.
  • Winfried Weier: Nihilism . Schöningh, Paderborn 1980.
  • Taisen Deshimaru : Hannya Shingyō. The sūtra of the highest wisdom . Kristkeitz, Heidelberg 1988.
  • Johannes Scherr : The Nihilists . In: The Gazebo . Issue 11, 1885, pp. 14-15 ( full text [ Wikisource ]).

Web links

Wiktionary: Nihilism  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi: Works . Volume 3. Leipzig 1816, p. 44.
  2. Karl Rosenkranz: From a diary. Autumn 1833 to spring 1846. Brockhaus, Leipzig 1854, p. 132 f.
  3. ^ Letter to Raimund Granier, September 1865; quoted from Curt Paul Janz: Nietzsche . Volume I, p. 164.
  4. Bernd A. Laska: Nietzsche's initial crisis. In: Germanic Notes and Reviews. Volume 33, No. 2, Fall 2002, pp. 109-133 ( )
  5. Friedrich Nitsche: Beyond Good and Evil , Chapter Six: We Scholars , No. 208.
  6. ^ Friedrich Nietzsche: Nachlass , summer 86 - autumn 87, 5 [71]. In: Colli, Montinari (ed.): Complete works . Critical study edition in 15 volumes. 1980, vol. 12, p. 313
  7. ^ Elisabeth Kuhn: Nihilism . In: Henning Ottmann (ed.): Nietzsche manual . Metzler, Stuttgart 2011, pp. 293-298.
  8. ^ Friedrich Nietzsche: Genealogy of Morals. Section 27.
  9. ^ Wolfgang Röd: Friedrich Nietzsche . Section 7: Nihilism . In: Rainer Turnher, Wolfgang Röd, Heinrich Schmiedinger: Philosophy of Life and Existential Philosophy (The Philosophy of the Late 19th and 20th Century 3), History of Philosophy, ed. By Wolfgang Röd, Volume XIII. Beck, Munich 2002, pp. 100-104
  10. ^ Elisabeth Kuhn: Nihilism . In: Henning Ottmann (ed.): Nietzsche manual . Metzler, Stuttgart 2011, pp. 293-298, here p. 297.
  11. ^ Wolfgang Röd: Friedrich Nietzsche . Section 7: Nihilism . In: Rainer Turnher, Wolfgang Röd, Heinrich Schmiedinger: Philosophy of Life and Existential Philosophy (The Philosophy of the Late 19th and 20th Century 3), History of Philosophy, ed. By Wolfgang Röd, Volume XIII. Beck, Munich 2002, pp. 100-104, here p. 104.
  12. See for example Wolfgang Stegmüller: Metaphysik-Skepsis-Wissenschaft , 1969.
  13. Hans Jonas: Gnosis and modern nihilism. In: Hans Jonas: Organism and Freedom. Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, Göttingen 1973.
  14. Claudia Wiesemann : Nihilism, therapeutic. In: Werner E. Gerabek , Bernhard D. Haage, Gundolf Keil , Wolfgang Wegner (eds.): Enzyklopädie Medizingeschichte. De Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2005, ISBN 3-11-015714-4 , p. 1050 f.
  15. Erna Lesky : From the origins of therapeutic nihilism. In: Sudhoff's archive. Volume 44, 1960, pp. 1-20.