Let’s distinguish six attitudes to “nothing means anything”:
Full-strength nihilism: Nothing is meaningful at all. Period.
Nihilism Lite™: OK, maybe some things are “meaningful” in some trivial sense, but not really meaningful. Those meanings don’t count! Therefore, everything is awful.
Miserabilism: Everything is awful, so nothing means anything.
Existentialism: Nothing is objectively meaningful, but subjective meanings are real.
Materialism: There are no higher meanings, but mundane goals like food, safety, sex, power, money, and fame seem meaningful to us, due to evolution.
The complete stance: Meaning is neither subjective nor objective; meanings are real but nebulous; this is fine!
All these might be called “nihilism,” but they are entirely different in their implications, and in their rational and emotional workings. I will devote a page, or several, to discussing each, separately. Here, I’ll summarize my treatment of each, with an eye particularly to seeing the distinctions between them.
Hardcore, full strength, 190-proof nihilism
Let’s say you stopped by the store on the way home from work to get cat food, because your spouse texted you to say that you’d run out. Getting cat food was your purpose for going to the supermarket. Purpose is one of the main dimensions of meaningness. Going to the supermarket was meaningful: if you forgot, your cat would go hungry and would suffer and complain. This meaning is not merely subjective, at least not in the sense that it’s just in your head. Your cat finds food meaningful, too. If you failed to feed your cat for long enough, it might seriously reevaluate your relationship, and there would be consequences. Your spouse might have something to say, too.
Hardcore nihilism insists that, no, actually, you had no purpose in going to the store. The supposed purpose was an illusion. There are no purposes at all.
This is basically just silly, and motivated only by stubbornness. I don’t believe anyone actually holds hardcore nihilism, although some people do try to argue for it publicly. It is a fallback position when you get backed into a corner by someone pointing out that, obviously, many things are meaningful; yet you want to continue to claim to be a nihilist. It’s logically consistent in a way that (as we’ll see) lite nihilism is not; but it requires defiance of all sense and evidence.
Lite nihilism grants the obvious, that some things are meaningful “in some trivial sense,” but insists that they are not “really” meaningful. The kinds of meaning that would actually matter don’t exist, so you might as well just kill yourself.
So you may agree that going to the supermarket was slightly meaningful, in some uninteresting sense; but you hasten to add that this does not imply that Life has an Ultimate Cosmic Meaning, or anything like that! Which is entirely correct. However, it is a different claim from “nothing means anything.”
Lite nihilism starts from the intelligent recognition that the kinds of meaning claimed by eternalism indeed do not exist. For example, meanings are not inherent, or eternal, or perfectly definite or certain. That means that the seductive promises of eternalism are harmful lies. It cannot deliver the benefits of total understanding and control that it advertises.
Lite nihilism’s error is the implication that the kinds of meaning that do exist are all trivial and inadequate. This conclusion is rarely (if ever) spelled out in detail. The typical pattern is to jump from “meanings don’t last forever” to “so everything is worthless,” without explanation. There is a powerful emotional logic to this, but is it correct? What exactly is wrong with non-eternal meanings?
What kinds of meaning do exist, once eternalistic delusions are stripped away? For what purposes, and in what ways, are they inadequate—if they are? These questions deserve careful investigation.
The distinction between 190-proof nihilism and the lite version is rarely made explicit, so we tend to switch between them as needed to make nihilism seem plausible. We can slide from “nothing is inherently meaningful” to “nothing is meaningful” without noticing we’re doing that. In fact, we do that deliberately, to pull the wool over our own eyes.
The promise of nihilism is “you don’t have to care.” This works only if there is no meaning at all. You obviously do care about feeding the cat, so only if that is negated could nihilism deliver any benefit. If you admitted mundane matters like cat food are meaningful, you’d effectively transition from nihilism to materialism. Materialism’s promises and emotional dynamics are quite different. The circumstances in which materialism seems attractive are not the ones in which nihilism is attractive, so you may want to avoid the switch.
So the idea here is to trick yourself into thinking that arguments for lite nihilism (or even materialism) are really arguments for full-strength nihilism.1
In “Why is Lite Nihilism mistaken,” I go through various properties that eternalism claims meaning has, and which lite nihilism rejects. (For example, meanings are not eternal, ultimate, or God-given.) For each, I explain why we should not be upset about meaning not working that way.
By “miserabilism” I mean the view that everything is awful.2 Thinking that everything is awful is depressing, and depression frequently leads to nihilism. Nihilism also leads to depression, and depression leads to thinking that everything is awful, so all three of these support each other. In experience, “everything is awful” and “everything is meaningless” feel similar, and they usually come at the same time.
However, “everything is awful” is actually an entirely different statement from “everything is meaningless.” In fact they are incompatible, because “awful” is a value judgment—a meaning—and nihilism denies all values. “Everything is awful” can inspire us to work to make things better; it is a potentially powerful source of purpose. By declaring that everything is awful, which is a fixed meaning, miserabilism is technically a species of eternalism! Nevertheless, I’ll discuss miserabilism further in the section on nihilistic depression.
The materialisticstance, which rejects “higher” meanings but affirms mundane purposes, is often described as “nihilistic.” Materialism does not meet the book’s definition of “nihilism”—denial of all meanings—but it does have some of the same emotional dynamics. Seeing through eternalist claims about higher meanings hits you with the same feelings of loss as nihilism’s denial of all meanings.
Still, materialism is different enough from nihilism that I devote a separate chapter to it.
I use “existentialism” to mean the idea that meanings must be subjective because they are not objective.3 Then you could either say that subjective meanings are just fine, so there’s no problem; or you could say that subjective meanings are no damn good, so everything is awful.
The “no damn good” conclusion makes existentialism slide into miserabilism and then lite nihilism. This is what historically happened to existentialism as a cultural movement in the mid-20th century. As existentialists worked out the implications of a subjective theory of meaning, it looked increasingly inadequate and unworkable and led to individual and group rage, intellectual pretentiousness, depression, and angst—the four emotional characteristics of nihilism. As a movement, existentialism collapsed half a century ago.
Many intelligent non-philosophers accept the premise that meaning must be subjective, but don’t see why this should be a problem, and advocate an optimistic existentialism. This stance is now rare among academic existentialists.
I think a subjective theory of meaning cannot, in fact, be made to work. Existentialism collapsed for good reasons. The subjective theory of meaning is factually wrong, and trying seriously to make it work leads to nihilism inevitably.
What kinds of meaning do exist, once eternalistic delusions are stripped away? For what purposes, and in what ways, are they inadequate—if they are?
This book, Meaningness, could be summarized as an investigation into these questions. It suggests that meaningness is nebulous, which accounts for what’s right in nihilism’s rejection of eternalist meaning. It suggests also that meaningness is patterned: real, concrete, and functional. These patterns are adequate; the nebulosity of meaningness does not imply there is anything wrong with the universe. We can’t get the kinds of meaning some may want, but we can get the kinds we need. Certainty is not possible, but knowledge is; total control is not possible, but strong influence is; complete understanding is not possible, but incrementally better ones are.
Since the complete stance agrees with lite nihilism’s analysis and rejection of eternalism, it might be considered a species of nihilism by some. In fact, I sometimes think of it as “joyful nihilism”—although it strongly disagrees with nihilism’s central claim that “nothing means anything.”
Going through that analysis in detail takes one a fair way toward explaining the complete stance. Upcoming pages will explain why lite nihilism is right to reject eternalism’s characterization of meanings as objective, eternal, inherent, ultimate, and so forth; but wrong to insist that meanings that lack these properties are no good. Accepting both parts of that is tantamount to adopting the complete stance.
1.This is an instance of the “motte and bailey” pattern of fallacious rhetoric. Usually rhetoric is designed to convince other people, but nihilism is mostly something you try to convince yourself of.
2.I have given “miserabilism” this meaning by fiat for the purpose of this book. The word is not widely used and doesn’t seem to have a clear definition. “Pessimism” is often used for everything-is-awful-ism in philosophy, but the everyday meaning of “pessimism” is restricted to the future. Miserabilism is about the present (or near future, as opposed to the long term).
3.“Existentialism” is not a precisely-defined term. The way I’m using it here is not entirely standard, but it’s roughly in line with some traditional uses.