The uncanny absence of nihil –ism

Vivid Impressionist portrait of Nietzsche by Edvard Munch, 1906
Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche by Edvard Munch

It’s natural to assume nihilism is an –ism: a philosophy, an ideology, a conceptual framework, like communism, Buddhism, or rationalism. Then, like those eternalist systems, it would have famous proponents, books full of explanations, and maybe even schismatic subsects. But it doesn’t. This is surprising, and revealing.

Nihilizing” is a thing we all do at times: refusing to recognize meanings that are right in front of us. That is the active aspect of nihilism, considered as a stance, not a system. Stances are simpler, more fundamental patterns of thinking and feeling and acting than systems. They powerfully affect our ways of being, whereas ideologies are mostly just intellectual verbiage. When people talk about nihilism, often it is as if it were a system. Most people reject the imagined system; a few advocate it. Neither group notices that there isn’t one.

As a stance, both nihilism and eternalism—its opposite—are highly unstable. We slip back and forth, usually without even noticing. We fall into nihilism briefly—sometimes for as little as a few seconds—and then slip out again. It’s just that, in the moment, “nothing means anything, really” felt like a perfectly sensible way of looking at things. And so you did. And then you moved on. But something went wrong for a bit there—something you’d do better to avoid.

Committing to nihilism, deciding that you “are a nihilist,” is unusual, and typically a big deal. It’s a conversion experience, and the adopted identity may persist for years. It’s uncanny that you can go that long without noticing that there isn’t an –ism. That’s a feature of the peculiar cognitive distortions nihilism produces as a stance.

There are a great many books “about nihilism” written by academics: philosophers, cultural historians, and literary critics. Surely that’s where you’d go to find the –ism? But no. It turns out that few of them are about nihilism, even as a stance; they are about other topics. I’ll discuss them in the first section of this page.

You would think that, if nihilism were an –ism, there would be famous nihilists, but the only one most people have heard of is Friedrich Nietzsche. He is—not coincidentally—my favorite philosopher. The second section here explains why he wasn’t in fact a nihilist at all, but did write the most important books about nihilism as a stance.

The true theoreticians of nihilism are not academics, but talented amateurs writing on blogs and web forums. The last section is about them and their work.

Books with “nihilism” in the title

I read several dozen academic books “about nihilism” in preparation for writing about it myself.1 This confirmed that, like botulism, nihilism is not an –ism. There was much less to them than met the eye at first.

Nearly all the ones written in the past hundred years are actually books about books about nihilism. They mainly review the previous books. And since several like that have been published every year for decades, they are mostly books about books about books about … about books about nihilism.

When they are not about books, they are mostly about nihilists, rather than nihilism. There isn’t a nihil –ism for them to be about, and academics don’t know how to write about stances.

And the nihilists they discuss are all fictional! They review novels that feature supposedly nihilistic characters. These are storytellers’ attempts to imagine what it would be like to accomplish nihilism. A realistic portrayal would be boring and depressing: catatonia. So the characters commit colorful murders instead. That dramatizes the rage aspect of nihilism, but isn’t particularly realistic or interesting either.

When “nihilism” books discuss real people, it’s Nietzsche plus a few existentialist philosophers, and the books admit that none of them were actually nihilists. They were worried about how to avoid nihilism, instead.

Some authors come out either for or against “nihilism.” Most of them actually advocate or excoriate other related ideologies, not nihilism: existentialism, miserabilism, atheism, fascism, materialism, hedonism, or specifically-moral nihilism. The rare few that discuss nihilism itself treat it as a mere tendency, one that raises only a vague and hypothetical problem. I have found none that bother to engage seriously with nihilism in its own terms.

This is uncanny, don’t you think? Many philosophers and cultural historians say nihilism is the most important issue of the past century, but they never come to grips with the substance of it. Their “problem of nihilism” is how to respond to a threat they cannot locate—because it is not a coherent ideology. It is a psychological phenomenon, not a philosophical one.

No academic book explains why the many conceptual arguments for nihilism, as advanced by talented amateurs, are mistaken.2 I’ve had to do that mostly from scratch. Apparently this has no academic value,3 but these arguments matter because they stabilize the stance. When in the grip of nihilism as a psychological process, faulty “proofs” of meaninglessness suddenly seem compelling. My hope is that explaining both what’s wrong with each, along with its valid underlying intuition, will help afflicted readers extricate themselves.

What about Nietzsche?

By the late 1800s, educated elites understood that Christianity and rationalism, the West’s two main eternalist systems, were deeply flawed and probably unfixable. It was polite to go through the motions of pretending to believe, but increasingly many didn’t. That may be fine for us, they thought, but what if the masses catch on? There was no plausible third ideology. “Nihilism” was the possibility that pious morality and sober rationality would no longer keep the rabble’s base instincts in check, and the nihilist apocalypse would ensue.

Nietzsche was not polite—one reason I love him. He proclaimed the death of God (meaning that no one takes Christianity seriously anymore) and the rise of Dionysus (the anti-rational god of drunken revelry). At times he described himself as “a nihilist,” by which he meant not that everything is meaningless, but that he actively rejected the available eternalisms. He also condemned “nihilism,” understood as apathetic unwillingness to take problems of meaningness seriously. He particularly included Christianity and “Apollonian” rationalism in that.

Nietzsche’s intention was to develop a new, positive alternative. “Active nihilism,” which he praised as the project of destroying religion and rationalism, was merely a step toward that goal. Unfortunately, he had a complete and permanent mental breakdown before he worked out what the better alternative might be. He was not a systematic thinker, and probably would not have advocated a new eternalist system. On the whole, he may best be classified as an existentialist—as many historians do. He exhorted the courageous individual to create their own original values, in defiance of society.

Nietzsche is easy and fun to read: straightforward, vivid, and outrageous. He was brilliant; the best philosopher of all time, in my opinion. He also frequently contradicted himself, couldn’t assemble a coherent theory, and much of his writing is quite wrong. He was crazy. His best work was done in the year before his catastrophic psychotic break, and you can tell he was on the edge of losing it. His thinking shows all the emotional dynamics of nihilism, and all its characteristic cognitive distortions.

Nevertheless, all the books about books about books about nihilism are a lineage of working out implications of his thinking.4 The impression that there’s some worked-out theory of nihilism probably derives from the misunderstanding that Nietzsche must have produced one, because he was such a towering genius.

And, when amateurs try to develop a personal theory of nihilism, it’s generally obvious that Nietzsche is their main source—although they may have read only summaries, or skimmed his clickbait titles (Beyond Good and Evil, The Antichrist, The Will to Power) rather than seriously working through his writing. You could not do so and mistake him as saying that everything is meaningless.

Amateurs are the true theoreticians of nihilism

My explanation of nihilism in this chapter draws primarily on amateur, non-academic sources: blogs, internet forums, and self-published books, plus in-person conversations, pop culture, and my personal struggles with it. These sources reflect ways laypeople understand nihilism, which is significantly different from philosophers’ views. They better reflect the trouble with it we all get into at times.

I am highly sympathetic to this amateur work! These are genuine attempts to take nihilism seriously, which academics have never bothered to do. Since nihilism—as a stance—is a common and dire problem, this is important. Laypeople feel they have to work it out for themselves, because the pros refuse to do their job. On the other hand, it’s naive: meaning is pervasive, so nihilism is false, and it’s impossible to make sound arguments for it. I respect the attempt, even if the results are at best silly, and often creepy.

The arguments of amateur nihilists articulate ways intelligent people in the grip of the nihilistic stance try to maintain it, in the face of the obviousness of meaning. I do that nihilizing sometimes, and you probably do sometimes too.

Examining the details can help us stop.

  1. 1.Here, as throughout the book, I’m using “nihilism” to mean specifically what philosophers call “existential nihilism,” i.e. “everything is meaningless,” which is also what non-philosophers almost always think “nihilism” means.
  2. 2.There are a few good philosophical journal articles that address individual arguments. I cite some later.
  3. 3.To be fair to individual academics, the fallacies are in each case obvious, if you are not emotionally motivated to believe them. Academia gives no credit for pointing out the obvious, even when no one has gotten around to doing it previously. Unfortunately, this leaves many important matters unspoken.
  4. 4.They usually also cover Søren Kierkegaard, an earlier existentialist Christian who worried about nihilism and had some minor influence on Nietzsche, plus various earlier Russians who didn’t. Kierkegaard is super tedious. I haven’t read the Russians, who sound even more so.