The Belief in Nothing: A Comprehensive Guide to Nihilism

In this video, we explore the history and continuing influence of the philosophy of nihilism, various methods to overcome it, and its relevance to the potential future of modern philosophy.


Out of nothing, somehow, everything emerged. Out of this everything, somehow, we emerged. Back into nothing, inevitably, we will, along with everything else, resubmerge. 

Sandwiched between two slices of apparent nothingness, what could possibly be this somethingness that we are aware of, that we are a part of? 

With no clear origins to call our back story and no grand end goal to strive toward and call our true purpose, we are left, individually and collectively, with all roads seemingly going the way of oblivion. If this is true, what can possibly be derived from everything other than nothing? 

All beliefs, all convictions, all valuations, swallowed up by the end everything, ultimately become nothing. Of course, many might not agree with the previous statements. 

But for those who do, for those who agree with them to at least to some extent, they are in or are at least approaching the realm of philosophy known as nihilism. 

Nihilism, as a general way of thinking, can arguably be traced back as early as the ancient Greeks, and likely even earlier. 

The actual term “nihilism,” however, was not properly conceived and defined until the 19th century, when philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi used it to criticize ideas and theories associated with the enlightenment era, rationalism, and transcendental idealism. 

Particularly, Jacobi feared that enlightenment rationality would lead to a sort of nihilism as a consequence of it explaining away religion and ultimately devaluing the human sense of self. 

Although Jacobi was the first to properly use the term, nihilism wouldn’t really garner any significant cultural recognition until it later appeared in the novel, Fathers and Sons, written by Russian author, Ivan Turgenev, in 1862. 

In which, Turgenev used the term and his characters to express the cynicism that the younger generation of 19th century Russia felt toward tradition, authority, and previously established intellectual ideals. 

The term nihilism would soon become associated with Russian revolutionary activity and would meld into what is now known as the Russian Nihilist Movement. 

Unlike what is more commonly accepted as nihilism today, however, the Russian nihilism of this time did not necessarily deny the possibility of concrete ethics, knowledge, or human meaning, but rather, focused on destroying and reevaluating preexisting ideals and traditions in order to create anew. 

The more common, modern concept of nihilism, however, goes quite a bit further. In general, depending on who you ask, there are four to six different forms of contemporary nihilism. This includes epistemological, political, moral, metaphysical, cosmic, and existential. 

What is most commonly referred to when discussing nihilism, however, is existential nihilism. Existential nihilism, which moving forward here will simply be referred to as nihilism, is the position that human life has no intrinsic meaning or value; and all values and meanings that humanity seeks or creates are baseless and without merit. 

Moreover, it also argues that humanity as a whole is without purpose or significance to the universe, and the universe is fundamentally chaotic, meaningless, and indifferent to us. 

The most notable figure associated with the contemporary form and development of existential nihilism is 19th-century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. 

Nietzsche was perhaps the first individual to publicly and properly assess the incoming wave of nihilistic thinking as a general and wide-spanning consequence of the modern world, noting that with the increasing collapse of religion and the metaphorical death of God, man would find himself without any external basis to derive his ultimate meaning and purpose from. 

“What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism […] For some time now our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe…” Nietzsche wrote. 

As time would progress and the effects of the enlightenment era became increasingly dominant, Nietzsche’s predictions would ultimately come true, and nihilism, in at least some form or another, would span the globe like a virus that feeds on the mind in the realm of the conceptual. 

Still to this day, nihilism seems to have only continued its endemic course—at least in some manner. The more we learn about the existence and the universe, the more we have realized it does not have much of anything to do with us. 

The more we dig, the farther away we become—the more nihilism wedges into the base of our being. With nihilism having and continuing to be, arguably, one of the leading philosophical issues facing the modern era, there are several notable philosophers and schools of thought that have made it one of their chiefs focuses to resolve. 

Early 19th-century philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, who slightly preceded Nietzsche, was arguably one of the first. 

Kierkegaard argued that, although life is filled with despair, uncertainty, and loomed by death, there remains the possibility for true meaning and purpose. 

The catch is, however, it is simply beyond our rational abilities to comprehend. And so, according to Kierkegaard, we must take a leap of faith beyond and despite rationality. 

Specifically, for Kierkegaard, this meant a leap of faith into the belief and trust in the Christian God. 

Arguably, however, this concept of the leap of faith can also be applied to any passionate, personal, and subjective belief that extends beyond logic and reason. 

However, the fairly obvious problem here is that it requires using reason to arrive at the conclusion to discard reason—essentially by force and the constraint of no alternative. 

It is not as if one necessarily is nor should be satisfied with their life’s meaning being derived from something that they cannot know nor comprehend. 

That is hardly a solution, but more of a surrender. Returning to Nietzsche, who attempted to tackle the issue within the secular realm, argued that nihilism isn’t exclusively harmful, and delineated it into two forms: passive and active nihilism. 

He argued that if one holds the position of passive nihilism, which he defined as the belief that there will never be any sort of satisfactory meaning in life and that all attempts are futile and illusory, then this would be a self-terminating form that is negative and destructive to man’s spirit. 

However, if nihilism were to be used, or perhaps leveraged, as a way of destroying disagreeable ideals and beliefs imposed by collective influences, one could use the newfound negative space to create anew for themselves, and nihilism here would be more of a means to an end, rather than an end in it of itself.

Nietzsche called this active nihilism and argued that it allowed the individual to continuously adapt their life and form new authentic, personal meaning. 

Passive nihilism, however, is not without notable philosophical support as well. In many ways, it parallels the philosophical pessimism associated with Arthur Schopenhauer and Buddhism, whose solutions generally involve a sort of fatalistic, headlong acceptance of reality, detachment from desire, and the pursuit of earthly endeavors, acting with universal compassion, and the reduction of expectations in general. 

Following and largely inspired by the path of Nietzsche, another later response to nihilism was taken up by the philosophical movement known as existentialism. Existentialism was most notably formed and popularized in France in the mid 20th century by philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. 

Agreeing with the premise of nihilism, existentialism essentially argues that human life is in fact intrinsically without purpose or meaning. 

However, it goes onto argue, like Nietzsche, that through individual, existential freedom, and self-awareness, man possesses the ability to create his own purpose for himself through his choices and actions, thus rendering potential meaningfulness to life and theoretically resolving the nihilistic conclusion. 

“Life has no meaning a priori… It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.” Sartre wrote. 

Slightly deviating from Sartre, Camus argued that one should embrace the absurdity of the human condition as a means of solution. Specifically, the relationship between the human desire for meaning and resolution and the universe’s cold, meaningless silence. 

“Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” Camus wrote. 

Camus would refer to the active embrace of this absurd relationship as “revolt,” which essentially translates into living life without the need or dependence on consolation, and rather, rebelling against the implications of one’s mortality and existential limitations by living and trying and caring anyway, despite no real prospect for future hope or reason outside the present and passionate moments of life. “I establish my lucidity in the midst of what negates it. 

I exalt man before what crushes him, and my freedom, my revolt, and my passion come together then in that tension, that lucidity, and that vast repetition. Yes, man is his own end, and he is his only end. If he aims to be something, it is in this life.” Camus wrote. 

This position would ultimately form into what would become known as the philosophy of Absurdism. The problems with existentialism and absurdism are not necessarily hard to find. 

Even disregarding the likely faulty existentialist premise that man has free will, ultimately, if one finds life to be fundamentally meaningless, and if one desires a greater or absolute meaning to life beyond just their personal subjective imagination—which they cannot have—then how can one still find sufficient meaning? 

Can we truly make a sculpture of the world without any clay to sculpt with? Must we imagine the clay while we sculpt with nothing? In his book, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus suggested that we imagine Sisyphus, the king condemned to the futile work of eternally rolling a rock up and down a hill, happy. 

But what if he is not? Is imagining enough? Arguably, at least some portion of us want more than to imagine; want more than to push a boulder up a hill; we want to be a part of a grand, lucid objective purpose beyond ourselves; we want the boulder to go somewhere, to mean something. 

Of course, this isn’t necessarily the case for everyone. Perhaps for some, the leap of faith of Kierkegaard is enough. For others, perhaps the active nihilism of Nietzsche and existentialism, or the revolt and the absurd reasoning of Camus. 

Perhaps for others, the sort of detached asceticism or fatalism of Schopenhauer and Buddhism. Perhaps for some, it’s something else unmentioned. But perhaps still for some, the solution remains to be seen. Perhaps there is still room to do better. 

Of course, there have been many writers and thinkers that have followed the initial era of existentialism and nihilism, but arguably, these initial 19th and 20th-century methods seem to still remain the primary foundation and ceiling to our thinking toward nihilism. 

Humankind has defeated and eradicated diseases by the likes of Smallpox and Rinderpest, learned how to open itself up and fix its organs from the inside, tamed and mitigated elements of nature like bacteria and extreme weather, built 400,000-pound machines that fly through the sky like birds, and so, so much more, but yet, we still have not come anywhere close to explaining why we are truly here, or how to properly and robustly create a universal why, fundamentally, for anything. 

Perhaps, then, one of humanity’s great, oncoming future achievements will not merely be that of discovering new realms of the cosmos and laws of physics, or developing new digital technologies, or curing cancer and other major diseases, but also forming a new branch of philosophy, science, some combination, or whatever else has yet to come that helps provide an undeniably robust meaning to life without compromise, without blind faith, without self-imagining. 

At some point in human history, the philosophy of nihilism did not exist—nor existentialism, nor absurdism, nor any of the rest. 

At some point in human history, perhaps another new philosophy will emerge. In true nihilist form, we must admit we are not there yet and negate and destroy and rebuild until we are. It might be the case that we have zero significance in a universe of utter indifference. 

Or it might the case that we have fundamental significance in a universe destined to valuate itself highly and with grand gesture through us, with us, and because of us. If we don’t know, and perhaps can’t know, a sort of agnostic nihilism seems like the most appropriate response—at least for now. 

And if this is true, the possibility for new unwavering, objective meaning is, at least potentially, still on the table.

Author: Robert Pantano, owner- Pursuit of Wonder.

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