Term invented or popularized by Russian novelist Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev (1818-1883) in his novel Fathers and Sons (1861) for the rejection of all traditional values.
Literally meaning ‘nothingism’, the term can be applied to views saying that all knowledge is impossible, that all alleged metaphysical truths or values are illusory, or that ethical values cannot be given any foundation and so are arbitrary.
‘Nihilism’ has been applied particularly to a movement in Czarist Russia which held that any means were permissible in overthrowing the existing order (the value of overthrowing it being tacitly taken for granted), and to later offshoots and imitations of that movement elsewhere.
The term is in fact seldom used in modern English-speaking philosophy.
Nihilism (/ˈnaɪ(h)ɪlɪzəm, ˈniː-/; from Latin nihil ‘nothing’) is a philosophy, or family of views within philosophy, expressing some form of negation towards life or towards fundamental concepts such as knowledge, existence, and the meaning of life. Different nihilist positions hold variously that human values are baseless, that life is meaningless, that knowledge is impossible, or that some set of entities does not exist.
The study of nihilism may regard it as merely a label that has been applied to various separate philosophies, or as a distinct historical concept arising out of nominalism, skepticism, and philosophical pessimism, as well as possibly out of Christianity itself. Contemporary understanding of the idea stems largely from the Nietzschean ‘crisis of nihilism’, from which derives the two central concepts: the destruction of higher values and the opposition to the affirmation of life. Earlier forms of nihilism however, may be more selective in negating specific hegemonies of social, moral, political and aesthetic thought. Beyond Europe, elements of Buddhist scripture have been identified as among the earliest discourses and critiques of nihilistic thought.
The term is sometimes used in association with anomie to explain the general mood of despair at a perceived pointlessness of existence or arbitrariness of human principles and social institutions. Nihilism has also been described as conspicuous in or constitutive of certain historical periods. For example, Jean Baudrillard and others have characterized postmodernity as a nihilistic epoch or mode of thought. Likewise, some theologians and religious figures have stated that postmodernity and many aspects of modernity represent nihilism by a negation of religious principles. Nihilism has, however, been widely ascribed to both religious and irreligious viewpoints.
In popular use, the term commonly refers to forms of existential nihilism, according to which life is without intrinsic value, meaning, or purpose. Other prominent positions within nihilism include the rejection of all normative and ethical views (§ Moral nihilism), the rejection of all social and political institutions (§ Political nihilism), the stance that no knowledge can or does exist (§ Epistemological nihilism), and a number of metaphysical positions, which assert that non-abstract objects do not exist (§ Metaphysical nihilism), that composite objects do not exist (§ Mereological nihilism), or even that life itself does not exist