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Berserker's avatar

What exactly is nihilism?

Asked by Berserker (33506points) March 4th, 2017

I understand that it is a doctrine composed of views or beliefs that nothing has any meaning, and that what we as humans are and do has no impact on anything. There also seem to exist several types of things to dismiss under the spectrum, such as existential nihilism which I lightly describe above. There is moral nihilism which suggests that morality is just something we made up, there are many other kinds.
That’s a bit of what I don’t understand. Why so much detail on something that, in the end, says nothing has any meaning or value? It’s a little amusing.
I read a little on the history of nihilism, about how it was a thing in Russia in the 1860’s and became popular in the western world.

Nietzsche says that a nihilist judges the world not as it is but how it should be. What it seems to say to me is that nihilism is just being discontent about generally everything, so if it sucks then just bitch about it. Religion, morality, society, and their byproducts which we judge.

However, I think it is probably a lot more complicated than that, which is why I am asking. What exactly is nihilism, in a nutshell? Is it a big fancy philosophical doctrine or just an easy way to dismiss everything? Is it really associated with despondency and discontent, or is it educated observation?

Note that I am curious and not bashing nihilism, in fact from the little that I comprehend of it, my own thoughts and views on things seem to slightly revolve around it.

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3 Answers

Zaku's avatar

Nihilism itself is a type of thinking that can be applied in many different ways. It’s not just one specific system of belief that is applied in specific ways or to the same degree by everyone who uses it.

For example, it could be accurately labelled nihilism to respond to a question like “Is it bad to date two people at once without telling them about each other?” or “Is it wrong to use pirated media in a country where it’s not illegal?” that such moral judgements don’t have a universal agreed-upon truth to it. It’d be slightly more nihilistic to say that such moral judgements are invented and chosen with no possible absolute rightness to them.

“Why so much detail on something that, in the end, says nothing has any meaning or value?”
Because it does have value in how it offers fresh perspectives outside of conventional ones, and can lead to various benefits. Some examples:

Nihilism can be very useful to get people out of stuck limited thought patterns that they may not even realize they are stuck in. This happens very frequently in question forums such as here on Fluther. A nihilist might argue that probably these questions are popular because there are so many commonly unquestioned moral frameworks that have no basis in reality, but people tend not to realize they are fundamentally arbitrary.

However, a nihilist could still acknowledge that when people all agree on one set of moral values and behavior codes, that it can lead to a lot less disagreement and possibly less suffering, despite there not being any absolutely true reason to choose most moral codes over other possible moral codes.

In the case of historical Russian revolutionary nihilism, it could be useful to see that the system had become so corrupt and awful that it could be seen as positive to assassinate officials and force a revolutionary change. Similarly in modern politics, the rising sentiment that the existing system and politicians and media are largely full of meaninglessness are also a form of nihilism seeking abandonment of old value systems seen and meaningless.

Another reason for so much detail is that it’s a philosophy, and philosophers only need an idea to be interesting to them to go on in great detail about something.

“Is it really associated with despondency and discontent, or is it educated observation?”
Well both. It depends on the thinking it’s used with. Absolute nihilism can be annoying trolling or a philosophical exercise that may or may not provide insights. More moderately, it can be a way to move from dogmatism (where people don’t question their beliefs and moral codes and values) to moral choices that have some sense behind them. It can also be a way to step back from seeming moral paradoxes and notice one’s own unconsciously unquestioned ways of thinking and judging.

One related doctrine that is quite specific and that I have found very useful is Non-Violent Communication, which isn’t exactly nihilistic (but I think is related and is a good example where moderate nihilism is useful) in part involves developing the habit of noticing one’s own value judgements and looking instead to the needs behind them.

Berserker's avatar

Wow, thanks for the detailed answer. Modern nihilism seems to make a little more sense, but the system itself seems a lot broader than I imagined. If it is applied for so many different things (like your examples about morality and dogmatism) and not an umbrella to merely dismiss existence itself I guess it makes sense that there would be different “types” if you will.

It is not quite as I imagined, and I’m afraid I view it (perhaps a little less as of now) as an alluring, or charming idea which easily applies to people like me who are often angry or dissmissive about things. Reminds me of when I was a teen and into Laveyan satanism, but I only liked the shock value of it. (however that was true of most anyone who was into that, I think the only person who took it seriously was the founder himself)

Anyway from what you say about how it came to be in Russia, that particular example still seems to denote nihilism as a byproduct of someone’s lack of satisfaction with something. This is what keeps coming back to me so it seems false to think nihilism means nothing has any point or value because what it does is offer other alternatives, or tries to.

LostInParadise's avatar

The Russian nihilism movement is not the same as philosophic nihilism. Nihilism in the philosophical sense can be viewed as a reaction to the philosophy of David Hume. Hume observed that everything we know comes originally from a process of induction. By studying falling objects, the law of gravity can be inferred, but there is no guarantee that what holds today will be true tomorrow. Here is a somewhat opinionated description of five approaches that were reactions to Hume.

I personally favor a version of existentialism, not the extreme case of the article, but the belief that we have no true essence, that we are continually in the process of defining ourselves.

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