Let me begin by first declaring that I am in fact completely apathetic about this very topic which I am going to discuss, for I am indeed a Nihilist about Nihilism as well as a Nihilist about everything else.
1.What is Nihilism? (I am just ranting on so please excuse the lack of structure here. I numbered my paragraphs only to create a false sense of orderliness )
In the purist sense, Nihilism is the belief that the subject in question is meaningless. Existence, morality, politics, truth itself—all of these subjects can be touched by nihilism. A person who holds a nihilist belief is called a ‘nihilist’. Even in these three brief definitions—which will not hold up to proper scrutiny, but are a strong starting point—we are already thrown into contact with controversy, the limits of language, the limits of thought, the limits of logic and paradox.
Nihilism is an extremely complex subject that is distinctly human: It flirts with paradox on all sides, contains great weight, and yet at times seems so difficult to understand that humour seems to be the only way to discuss it. It is deeply related with the absurd, for good reason: the topic itself, like life, is extremely important—but the conclusion that it demands is hard to live with.
Nihilism is not always existential nihilism; that is merely its most important application. The term ‘nihilism,’ which is loaded with political, historical and social baggage, can most intuitively be replaced with ‘nothing.’ A question that yields a nihilistic answer is a denial. To ask ‘What is the meaning of life?’ and receive the reply ‘Nothing’ is the ultimate denial. For this reason, the nihilist in history has been construed as the ultimate pessimist. In fact, in the hands of clumsy, muddy thinkers, the two have become totally conflated.
Why is it that the concept of philosophical nihilism cannot seem to part from the obfuscatory stereotypes it has become sewn to? Pessimism, violent anarchism, teenagers, adolescence—even, inexplicably, evil itself. This is a gross turn of events which has made one of the most important subjects in human life nothing but an absurd concept that signifies nothing but a morose young individual, dressed in black.
With the sharpest scalpel I can find I wish to separate Nihilism from its unfortunate association with evil and pessimism. Nihilism is most certainly not something that only depressed people conjure up. In fact nihilism almost always precedes depression. The reason for this is because whilst nihilism is commonly defined as a ‘belief,’ the impact of beliefs on those who hold the belief is rarely taken into account.
It is true that there is a relationship between the philosophical position of nihilism and a certain sensibility. What most thinkers who have broached the topic have failed to understand is that the relationship between nihilism, which is a belief, and the actions of the person who holds that belief, are not causal. That is, there is no necessary connection between nihilism and the stereotypes with which it is associated. It is quite possible to be a nihilist who enjoys life. This remarkable state of affairs is possible only when you realise that a belief does not automatically define one’s mood or action; there is an entirely separate question, which I could explore at length (despite not being bothered) about how to live with a belief.
The relationship between a philosophical belief and the effect of the person who holds it is one of the key concepts that the bastardisation of nihilism has made impossible—and I would like to address this. Part of the problem is that those people who have examined the concept of nihilism have balked at the prospect of its paradoxicality. The argument, which is usually over before it has even begun, is this: ‘If (existential) nihilism is the claim that nothing is true, and you claim that nihilism is true, then nihilism is self-defeating.’ With that, people usually cease their discussion of nihilism and move on to other shades of existentialism. What these people have missed is that their crude summary of nihilism misses several points. They have overlooked the fact that the issue of what truth could even be, and the relationship between truth and the contingent nature of our species’ reason and application of logic, is precisely what the nihilism doesn’t take for granted. To say that ‘nihilism is a paradox; therefore it is false’ does not make nihilism impossible: it makes nihilism more convincing. Nihilism is not merely a dissociated belief, but an ultimate condition.
2. Nihilism as Condition
The relationship between philosophy and its effect on the philosopher finds its ultimate significance in the case of nihilism. Of the many reasons why this is so, three stand out.
First, there is no other philosophical belief which has historically been seen as so powerful in defining the character of the person who holds it. The total dissolution of any difference between someone who holds a nihilistic belief of any kind and a laughable stereotype has led the moral nihilist (sometimes simply referred to as amoral) as ‘evil’; the political nihilist as a violent anarchist; the existential nihilist as a danger to society and to himself; and the more general, and most absurd caricature of all: the nihilist as suicidally depressed. The issue is not whether there is a relationship between nihilism and a desire to destroy. Nor will any reasonable thinker claim that nihilism does not lead to depression. It surely does. Understanding why this is so, rather than assuming that the answer is obvious, is the key to changing the way philosophy works—and through this achievement, changing life for those who hold such extreme beliefs. It should already be clear, however, that there is something in-between the belief and the actions of the person who believes it.
Second, nihilism is the most extreme position: as in all logical matters, the best way to prove something is to tackle the superlative form so that one’s conclusions can trickle down to lesser matters. If you wish to prove something about the effect of belief on human wellbeing, the best possible approach is to tackle the most extreme believes of all. Nihilism certainly is that: the ultimate example of all-or-nothing thinking.
Third, of all the beliefs that affect human life, nihilism has the most dramatic results. Whether you believe that your red is my blue may lead you to stare at various coloured objects for a long time; whether you believe that all life is objectively meaningless is liable to lead to more dramatic actions. Among them, suicide. There is no question that even the most esoteric and unusual philosophical belief does have an affect on human behaviour and well-being—which in turn affects everything humans have an impact on, from their children to the environment to world war. By examining the impact nihilism has on the person who believes it, we will throw considerable light on the impact all beliefs of all kinds have.
The reasons for tackling the subject of nihilism, then, are clear: because it is the most extreme philosophical position one can hold, the lessons we learn here can be applied, to different degrees, to all other beliefs. Yet there is more to it than that. Nihilism is a particularly important issue because it has been so poorly treated in history. The only truly remarkable individuals to have tackled the subject have often come to an untimely demise, which has only increased the enigmatic nature of the subject. Nihilism surely is enigmatic, and a nihilist is an enigmatic individual—but the presence of enigma does not mean illogic, any more than it signifies evil. In fact, nihilism is one of the most universal beliefs there are. I believe it is written directly into the human condition—and there, in that phrase, we see a critical concept which has been completely overlooked in the history of nihilism.
Nihilism is not merely a belief: it is the set of emotions, physiological states and tendencies that follow from the belief that the subject at hand is meaningless.
The inability to recognise this fact is the crucial error that all thinkers who have dismissed nihilism have built upon, never to recover. It explains why dismissing nihilism as paradoxical, illogical, or some kind of adolescent growth are all utterly reductive. Naïve, even. The reason why should be intuitive: whilst it is possible to believe that there is a noumenal realm which we can never perceive and continue on with life, it is not possible to encounter nihilism and simply continue. Whilst all beliefs have the potential to change one’s life, certain beliefs—because of their wide scope and ability to undermine what has been tacitly accepted throughout one’s life—are much more likely to totally dissociate a thinker from their existence. Nihilism is the ultimate example of this.
3. Alternative definition of a Nihilist
I wish to put forward a definition of nihilism that makes it explicitly clear that nihilism is not merely a belief. Indeed, I believe it is imperative that the definition of nihilism goes so far as to make it clear that someone who is affected by nihilism need not even believe it is definitely true. To be a nihilist, you need only be affected by the idea that it might be ‘true.’ More precisely, you are a nihilist if you feel that the assumptions about what truth is are questionable, and that they do not support the definitions we currently use. If you are compelled, in any sense, to the idea that the subject at hand—including, most importantly, objective moral truth and any kind of objective meaning to life—is impossible using the tools and methods of the society in which you live, you are engaged with the nihilistic problem. If you are ‘a nihilist,’ you are simply someone who accepts that these questions are of the utmost importance. It is one of the most tragic ironies of our culture that some people dismiss nihilism as the position of ‘claiming that the statement “there is no truth” is true.’ The point is that the nihilist feels that truth is not what you think it is. Because truth itself is under suspicion, it makes no sense to dismiss nihilism as a logical error; nihilism runs deeper than that kind of word game. The problem is that the effects of nihilism are directly related to its subject-matter: the foundations on which we build our lives. The issue of truth, belief, and the way in which all human action is built on these key elements, makes clear the relationship between nihilism and the real spirit of philosophy as questioning everything:
Nihilism is the epitome of philosophical inquiry, because it questions everything—including itself.
I will stop for now because I want to sleep and work hard (for my day job) tomorrow