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See also: Nihilism



Probably borrowed from French nihilisme, German Nihilismus, or Late Latin nihilismus + English -ism (suffix forming the name of a school of thought, system, or theory); the French, German, and Latin words are derived from Latin nihil (indefinite nothing), from nihilum (nothing), from ne- (prefix negating the principal meaning) + hīlum (a trifle; not in the least). The English word is cognate with Italian nichilismo, Spanish nihilismo, Russian нигили́зм (nigilízm, philosophical doctrine grounded on negation of one or more meaningful aspects of life; emptiness; lack of education and cultural refinement).[1]



nihilism (countable and uncountable, plural nihilisms)

  1. (usually uncountable) The view that all endeavours are devoid of objective meaning.
    Synonym: existential nihilism
    • 1863, John C. Peters; F[rederick] G. Snelling, “Section I. Of Medicine as a Science and as an Art; Its Objects and Its Extent.”, in Principles and Practice of Medicine, New York, N.Y.: William Radde, [], OCLC 1051563331, page 124:
      This classification should have led to the discovery and study of remedies which act specifically upon the various textures and tissues of the body, such as the cellular, serous, mucous, parenchymatous, fibrous, gelatinous, &c., but it did not, except in the most imperfect manner—so imperfect, in fact, that most pathologists, despairing of finding such remedies, at one time sank into all the peurilities[sic – meaning puerilities] of the "expectant mode" of the French, or the nihilisms of the German.
    • 1906 January–October, Joseph Conrad, chapter II, in The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale, London: Methuen & Co., [], published 1907, OCLC 270548466; The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (Collection of British Authors; 3995), copyright edition, Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1907, OCLC 1107573959, page 15:
      But there was also about him an indescribable air which no mechanic could have acquired in the practice of his handicraft however dishonestly exercised: [...] the air of moral nihilism common to keepers of gambling hells and disorderly houses; [...]
    • 1938, Norman Lindsay, Age of Consent, Sydney: Ure Smith, published 1962, page 154:
      Anger at the system turned to anger against art. Damn that foolery too, which took, but never gave. A promise of achievement always withdrawn; an assurance of dignity and ease for ever vanishing over the skyline. The virus of communistic nihilism simmered within him, wishing to submerge all effort in an easily filled belly.
    • 1983, Dave Marsh, “[Review of XTC’s album Go 2 (1978)]”, in Dave Marsh and John Swenson, editors, The New Rolling Stone Record Guide: [], 2nd edition, New York, N.Y.: Random House/Rolling Stone Press, →ISBN, page 560:
      [T]he band members sweat hard enough to earn their pretensions, and maybe even their nihilism.
    • 2004, Cornel West, “Nihilism in America”, in Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight against Imperialism, New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, published 2005, →ISBN:
      [W]hat is most terrifying—including the perennial threat of cowardly terrorists—is the insidious growth of deadening nihilisms across political lines, nihilisms that have been suffocating the deep democratic energies in America. In Race Matters, I examined the increasing nihilism in black America as the "lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness."
  2. (usually uncountable) The rejection of, or opposition to, religious beliefs, (inherent or objective) moral principles, legal rules, etc., often due to the view that life is meaningless (sense 1).
    Synonym: moral nihilism
    • 1882 September, W. Henry Thompson, “Texts for the Times: The Relation between Holiness and Worship”, in Wesleyan-Methodist Magazine, volume VI (Sixth Series), London: Wesleyan-Methodist Book-Room, [], OCLC 5640798, page 692:
      [T]he dire portent of Nihilism, which some persons regard as little more than an extreme protest against absolutism in Government, [...] is an execrable conspiracy against all religion and morality.
    • 1891 May, Emil Blum, “Russia of To-day”, in B[enjamin] O[range] Flower, editor, The Arena, volume III, number XVIII, Boston, Mass.: The Arena Publishing Co., OCLC 974729051, page 659:
      Seen through all these glasses Russia is judged, or rather misjudged, by the western world; no wonder, therefore, that it is believed to be a barbarous country, governed by tyrants, inhabited by a savage population; a mixture of indolence, ignorance, despotism, and nihilism, without one of the redeeming features of culture or civilization.
    • a. 2007, Ronald G. Goetz, “Postliberal Theology and the Camel’s Nose”, in Rebecca Clancy and Larry Mattera, editors, Clear and Definite Words, Eugene, Or.: Pickwick Publications, Wipf and Stock Publishers, published 2010, →ISBN, page 101:
      Most Christians cannot embrace such radical extremes as the current nihilisms that deny all spiritual and ethical truth. How can a Christian look to Jesus Christ and deny that there is truth? He is the truth.
    • 2010, Christopher L. Fisher, “John Zizioulas: The Correlation of Divine and Human Personhood”, in Human Significance in Theology and the Natural Sciences: An Ecumenical Perspective with Reference to Pannenberg, Rahner, and Zizioulas (Princeton Theological Monograph Series), Eugene, Or.: Pickwick Publications, Wipf and Stock Publishers, →ISBN, part 1 (Human Significance in Theology), footnote 85, page 166:
      [Robert] Jenson observes that treating "other animals like humans is also to treat humans like other animals … Anthropological nihilism [seems] relatively harmless in … the 'animal rights' movement, but has been tested in frightful adult practice," e.g., Nazi socialism, or modern anthropological nihilisms evident in abortion on demand, euthanasia, and infanticide.
  3. (usually uncountable, politics) The rejection of non-proven or non-rationalized assertions in the social and political spheres of society.
    • 1988, William Dean, “Preface”, in History Making History: The New Historicism in American Religious Thought (SUNY Series in Philosophy), Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, →ISBN, page ix:
      As with the original American historicists, they accept only historical references and deny all extrahistorical references, including those implicit in idealism and positivism. [...] They deny both authoritarian and subjectivistic nihilisms, and they affirm the responsibility of the subject.
  4. (uncountable, psychiatry) A delusion that oneself or the world, or parts thereof, have ceased to exist.
    • 2009, Tim Bayne, “solipsism”, in Tim Bayne, Axel Cleeremans, and Patrick Wilken, editors, The Oxford Companion to Consciousness, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, →ISBN, page 608, column 2:
      Individuals with schizophrenia often cycle between nihilistic and solipsistic moods—when in the grip of nihilism they appear to have lost experiential contact with their very existence, [...]
    • 2009, Arjan W. Braam, “Religion/Spirituality and Mood Disorders”, in Philippe Huguelet and Harold G. Koenig, editors, Religion and Spirituality in Psychiatry, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire: Cambridge University Press, →ISBN, page 97, column 2:
      Melancholia is the most typical and classical presentation of depression with several compelling features such as impoverishment of emotional life and delusions of nihilism or guilt.
  5. (uncountable, Russia, politics, historical) Alternative letter-case form of Nihilism (a Russian movement of the 1860s that rejected all authority and promoted the use of violence for political change)
    • 1867, Eugene Schuyler, “Preface”, in Ivan Sergheïevitch Turgenef [i.e., Ivan Turgenev]; Eugene Schuyler, transl., Fathers and Sons [], New York, N.Y.: Leypoldt and Holt, OCLC 1320657, page vii:
      The Government took up the word, and used nihilism to stigmatize all revolutionary, and ultra democratic and socialistic tendencies; and we have seen it play its part in the recent investigations into the attempted assassination of the Emperor.
  6. (countable, uncountable, philosophy) A doctrine grounded on the negation of one or more meaningful aspects of life; in particular, the view that nothing in the world actually exists.
    Antonym: antinihilism
    • 1839, William Ingalls, A Lecture on the Subject of Phrenology not Opposed to the Principles of Religion; nor the Precepts of Christianity, Boston, Mass.: Dutton and Wentworth, [], OCLC 15089921, pages 42–43:
      This great metaphysician [John Locke] considered, our ideas were derived from sensation and reflection; and preserved the distinction between these two sources of knowledge with great care; but by a perversion of his theory, his followers reduced them to sensation alone;—which by a necessary gradation leads to materialism, atheism and nihilism.
    • 1872, T[homas] R[awson] Birks, “On Religious Nihilism”, in The Scripture Doctrine of Creation, with Reference to Religious Nihilism and Modern Theories of Development, London: The Christian Evidence Committee of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge; [], OCLC 230731803, page 6:
      This view may be styled Religious Nihilism. It affirms that Theism, or faith in an Almighty and All-wise Creator, Pantheism, and Atheism, are alike mere guesses in the dark, and that nothing is or can be known of that mysterious Something, which is the origin of the universe.
    • 1894, John M‘Clintock [i.e., John McClintock]; James Strong, “Nihilism”, in Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, volume VII (NEW–PES), New York, N.Y.: Harper & Brothers, [], OCLC 3813805, page 91, column 2:
      Nihilism is the result of continued and extreme philosophical scepticism [...] Among the first developments of Greek philosophy we find the nihilism of Georgias, one of the Sophists, and a contemporary of Socrates. He taught (1) that nothing exists; for if anything were, its being must be either derived or eternal; but it cannot have been derived, whether from the existent or from the non-existent (according to the Eleatics); nor can it be eternal, for then it must be infinite; but the infinite is nowhere, since it can neither be in itself nor in anything else, and what is nowhere is not.
    • 1999, Angèle Kremer-Marietti, “Nietzsche’s Critique of Modern Reason”, in Babette Babich and Robert S. Cohen, editors, Nietzsche, Theories of Knowledge, and Critical Theory: Nietzsche and the Sciences I (Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science; 203), Dordrecht: Springer Science+Business Media, DOI:10.1007/978-94-017-2430-2, →ISBN, page 88:
      Psychological nihilism is a vulgar reaction to the difficulty of knowing the world, but it is also a way of reacting to the fear of nihilism. What is more, the vulgar threat of nihilism is overcome by [Friedrich] Nietzsche's authentic antinihilism. And yet false categories of information induce psychological nihilism, since we only value, as Nietzsche argues, a fictitious world.
    • 2014, Bülent Diken, “Nihilism, Revolt, and the Spectacle”, in Nitzan Lebovic and Roy Ben-Shai, editors, The Politics of Nihilism: From the Nineteenth Century to Contemporary Israel (Political Theory and Contemporary Philosophy), New York, N.Y.; London: Bloomsbury Academic, Blooms Publishing, →ISBN, page 82:
      If, in its origin, nihilism is a will to escape from the immanent "chaos" to a transcendent, illusory world, with modernity, or, with the "death of God," this originary nihilism divides itself into two: radical and passive nihilism. [...] There is therefore a strange symmetry between the two nihilisms, between (Ahab's) willing nothingness and (Ishmael's) annihilation of will.
  7. (countable) Something that is regarded as meaningless.
    • 1842 April, R. F. Brancassine [pseudonym; Hughes R. P. Fraser Halle], Critical Letters on Scribbleomania. [...] Letter 1st, London: Houlston and Stoneman, OCLC 468990425, page 8:
      This mock reasoning proves that those deliberately making use of it are, during the process, insane; inasmuch as they are attempting to reason by means of suppositions, by means of nihilisms, negative quantities.
    • 1868 April, Charles Henry Merrill, “The Practical Influence of the Ideal. []”, in George A. Blanchard, Franklin P. Wood, and John K. Lord, editors, The Dartmouth, volume II, number IV, Hanover, N.H.: Students of Dartmouth College; [], ISSN 0199-9931, OCLC 191224707, page 134:
      At one fell swoop such persons would away with the idle songs of the poets, away with our heroes in fiction, away too with the examples left us in the lives of great men. For it substantially amounts to this; if they have no influence in moulding thought and directing action, they are in the economy of intellect mere nihilisms, dead forces, and when read or studied can of themselves be the occasion of neither good nor evil.
    • 2003 April 13, Lorraine Adams, “Regarding the Pain of Others: By Susan Sontag: Farrar Straus Giroux. 131 pp. $20 [book review]”, in The Washington Post[1], Washington, D.C.: The Washington Post Company, ISSN 0190-8286, OCLC 638319713, archived from the original on 24 August 2020:
      She [Susan Sontag] has honored beauty and justness, and she has chronicled how they were almost extinguished in the most devastatingly genocidal century to date. Without her, the dead Iraqi child on al-Jazeera would be just one of many, a signpost pointing toward the twin nihilisms of inevitability and ignorance.

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  1. ^ nihilism, n.”, in OED Online Paid subscription required, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, September 2003; “nihilism, n.”, in Lexico,; Oxford University Press, 2019–2022.

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From French nihilisme.


nihilism n (uncountable)

  1. nihilism