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What is Nihilism? The Philosophy of Nothingness

Nihilism, a term often linked with despair and hopelessness, indeed conveys a bleak worldview. Yet, beneath this surface lies a complex philosophy with varied interpretations and potential for personal growth.

Nihilism has evolved through the ages, from Friedrich Jacobi’s initial theorization to its portrayal in Ivan Turgenev’s renowned novel ‘Fathers and Sons.’ This multifaceted philosophy encompasses various forms: cosmic nihilism, ethical nihilism, amoralism, moral subjectivism, and political nihilism.

Our exploration of Nihilism Philosophy will delve into these five main branches, discerning their unique beliefs and differences. Along the way, we’ll shed light on the often-overlooked correlation between these philosophies and mental health.

We’ll most intriguingly venture into the paradoxical quest for personal meaning within nihilistic thought – a seemingly contradictory endeavour that nonetheless holds promise.

Prepare to embark on a journey through the intricacies of this enigmatic philosophy as we challenge and expand our understanding of life’s purpose, or its perceived absence, in our dynamic world.

The essence of nihilism, a lone figure on an endless plain, scattered ruins of old structures, an overwhelming sense of desolation and insignificance

Key Takeaways

  1. Nihilism is a complex philosophical concept with multiple branches, including cosmic nihilism, ethical nihilism, amoralism, moral subjectivism, and political nihilism. Each branch offers unique interpretations of values and meaning in various aspects of life.

  2. Nihilistic philosophies can significantly influence mental health. For instance, political nihilism, associated with the rejection of societal norms and values, can lead to feelings of existential dread, anxiety, depression, and even trauma, particularly in times of uncertainty.

  3. Despite its potential for adverse psychological impact, some people find solace and self-understanding within nihilistic beliefs. Hence, mental health professionals should be aware of the nuances within nihilistic thought and their potential effects on mental well-being.

  4. Engaging with nihilism doesn’t necessitate abandoning morality. On the contrary, branches like amoralism and moral subjectivism challenge the existence of objective morality, suggesting instead that ethical principles can be subjective or even illusory. However, this doesn’t exclude the possibility of personal ethics grounded in empathy and understanding.

  5. Despite its bleak reputation, nihilism can foster personal growth and offer fresh perspectives on life. By accepting the absence of inherent meaning, individuals can engage in self-exploration, creating their purpose and adopting an open-minded approach toward different ideas and experiences. This perspective can be a powerful tool for introspection and self-improvement.

Origins of Nihilism: A Journey Through Time and Literature

Let’s take a trip back in time, shall we?

Philosophical Beginnings

The seeds of nihilism were sown in the philosophical musings of the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Gorgias, who contended that nothing exists, and even if something did exist, it could not be comprehended or communicated to others​ [1]​.

Despite these early inklings, the term ‘nihilism’ was not coined until the late 18th century by German philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, who used it to criticize the determinism of Baruch Spinoza’s philosophy​ [2]​.

Nietzsche and the ‘Death of God’

However, Friedrich Nietzsche truly brought nihilism to the forefront of philosophical discourse. Nietzsche declared the ‘Death of God,’ suggesting that Western society’s traditional values had collapsed, leading to a moral vacuum and a sense of life’s meaninglessness​.

Literary Reflections

In literature, nihilism found expression in Ivan Turgenev’s novel ‘Fathers and Sons’ where the character Bazarov was described as a nihilist, rejecting established norms and beliefs. This portrayal sparked widespread discussion about nihilism’s implications and societal role​.

20th Century and Beyond

In the 20th century, existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus grappled with nihilistic themes, exploring the tension between life’s inherent absurdity and the human quest for meaning. More recently, postmodern thinkers have wrestled with nihilism in response to the fragmentation and relativism characteristic of our contemporary era​.

The Evolution of Nihilism

The evolution of nihilism, thus, has been a journey through time and thought, mirroring society’s shifting beliefs and the individual’s struggle to find meaning in a seemingly indifferent universe. Its exploration continues today as we seek to understand our place in an ever-changing world.

Exploring the Five Core Types of Nihilism: A Deep Dive

Alright, let’s dive in.

Nihilism’s multifaceted nature becomes apparent in its five main forms. Each branch of nihilism shines a different light on the concept of intrinsic value or the lack thereof in various life aspects. Here’s an in-depth look at each:

Cosmic Nihilism

Cosmic nihilism asserts that the universe, devoid of inherent purpose or meaning, leaves us in a position to create our significance.

Informed by Friedrich Nietzsche’s existentialism and Albert Camus’s absurdism, cosmic nihilism tackles the existential question of finding meaning in an indifferent universe. In the cosmic nihilist’s view, our existence and the universe around us are devoid of objective significance.

Ethical Nihilism

Ethical nihilism refutes the existence of objective morality, suggesting our ethical compass is a societal construct rather than an inherent truth. Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously announced the “death of God,” was a key proponent of this form, urging a reassessment of morality without divine law.

This form highlights the complex issues surrounding moral responsibility and the function of ethics in society.


Amoralism presents a radical perspective, denying the existence of morality outright and deeming all moral principles as illusory or irrelevant. Philosophers like Max Stirner, who prioritized individual self-interest over societal norms, have endorsed this stance.

Amoralism, while misunderstood, doesn’t endorse immorality but instead questions the validity of moral judgments.

Moral Subjectivism

Moral subjectivism acknowledges the existence of morals but ascribes them to individual subjective experiences. This stance, rooted in the works of David Hume and other empiricists, views morality as a product of human sentiment rather than an objective fact.

According to this view, moral judgments are inherently subjective, differing across individuals and cultures.

Political Nihilism

Political nihilism, often linked with anarchism, terrorism, and radical movements, rejects societal values and meaning within the political context. Originating in 19th-century Russia, political nihilists sought to overthrow established societal structures in pursuit of a utopian society.

This philosophy advocates for dismantling existing oppressive political and societal structures, paving the way for newer, fairer systems.

By examining these different forms of nihilism, we gain diverse insights into our perceptions of meaning, morality, and societal structures.

These branches pose provocative questions that may be disconcerting but offer fresh perspectives for personal growth and societal progress.

Each of these perspectives on nihilism provides a unique lens through which to view our understanding of meaning, morality, and societal structures. While they raise challenging and often uncomfortable questions, they also open new possibilities for personal and societal development.

Are you feeling intrigued by these different forms? Learn more about each form here.

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Explaining Amoralism and Moral Subjectivism

Let’s dive into the fascinating world of amoralism and moral subjectivism, two branches of nihilism that challenge conventional wisdom by rejecting all moral principles based on personal opinions, feelings, and tastes.

But what exactly sets them apart?

Key Differences between Amoralism and Moral Subjectivism


This intriguing stance denies the existence of any such thing as objective morality altogether. Active nihilists, as they’re called, believe that morals are nothing more than human constructs with no inherent value or truth behind them.

Moral Subjectivism:

In contrast to amoralists, moral subjectivists acknowledge the existence of morals but argue that they stem solely from subjective individual experiences rather than universal truths or standards.

In other words, according to moral subjectivists, what is right for one person may be wrong for another – it’s all a matter of perspective.

Exploring Personal Morals in a Nihilistic Worldview

If you are intrigued by these concepts and wonder how they can fit within your worldview, consider exploring their implications further through reading materials like Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil.”

Remember, embracing nihilism doesn’t mean abandoning all sense of morality. Embracing nihilism can be a way to expand and evolve your moral code by pushing back against societal conventions and forging your path.

Finding Balance between Nihilistic Thought and Personal Morality

Gaining equilibrium between nihilistic thought and one’s morality may seem intimidating, yet remember that compromise is achievable. By exploring amoralism or moral subjectivism, you can learn to appreciate the diversity of human experiences while still maintaining a sense of personal ethics grounded in empathy and understanding.

Intrigued by these concepts? Well Beings Counselling is here to help guide you through this philosophical journey.

Political Nihilism's Influence on Mental Health

This particular form of nihilism has been historically associated with anarchism, terrorism, and other radical movements.

Psychology Today explains that political nihilists reject all forms of authority and political institutions and establish social norms in favour of chaos or anarchy.

The Connection Between Political Nihilism & Existential Dread

The rejection of societal values can lead to existential dread – a deep sense of unease about the lack of meaning in life.=

This feeling may intensify during instability or uncertainty, such as economic crises or global conflicts.

How Political Nihilism Affects Society & Mental Health

Individuals may struggle with feelings of disquiet, potentially leading to heightened unease, hopelessness or a sense of despair.

People with extreme political views are likelier to suffer from poor mental health.

  • Anxiety: Constantly questioning and challenging societal norms can create a heightened state for those embracing this philosophy.
  • Depression: The inability to find meaning within existing structures may lead some down a path where nothing seems worthwhile.
  • Trauma: Exposure to violence or other extreme events associated with radical movements can have lasting psychological effects.

However, it’s important to remember that not all nihilists experience these mental health issues.

Some may find solace in their beliefs and develop a more profound understanding of themselves and their world.

Seeking Help & Support for Mental Health Concerns

For those feeling overwhelmed by the seeming futility of life, professional assistance from a qualified therapist may be beneficial to provide direction and clarity.

Well Beings Counselling offers online counselling services tailored to your unique needs and experiences, guiding you through life’s complexities.

Nihilism as a Meaningful Worldview

It’s time to break the stereotype.

Nihilism may be perceived negatively due to its disregard for inherent significance, yet there is more than what appears on the surface. Let’s explore how embracing nihilistic thought can lead to personal growth and meaningful worldviews.

Overcoming Negative Perceptions of Nihilism

The first step is understanding that nihilism isn’t synonymous with extreme pessimism or hopelessness. On the contrary, it can be pretty liberating.

Active nihilists, for example, see passive nihilism as an opportunity for individuals to create their values and beliefs outside societal constraints.

Challenging conventional wisdom and questioning established norms opens us to new perspectives on human life.

Finding Personal Meaning through Nihilistic Thought

Rather than dwelling on the absence of inherent meaning in life, use this realization as a catalyst for self-discovery and exploration. Here are some ways to do so:

  1. Create your purpose by setting personal goals and pursuing passions that bring you joy and fulfillment.
  2. Embrace uncertainty by adopting an open-minded approach toward different ideas, cultures, and experiences. This will enrich your worldview while fostering empathy towards others.
  3. Cultivate gratitude by appreciating small moments of happiness amidst the chaos – after all, life is what you make of it.

Ultimately, nihilism can serve as a powerful tool for introspection and self-improvement.

Ready to explore nihilism in greater detail? Check out this comprehensive guide to active nihilism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

In embracing nihilistic thought, we free ourselves from societal expectations and create our meaningful existence – uniquely tailored to our needs and desires.

The key lies in shifting our perspective: rather than seeing nihilism as a bleak outlook on life, we view it as an opportunity for personal growth and enlightenment.

How We Can Help

If you are struggling with existential dread or seeking guidance on finding meaning in life, seek therapy services from Well Beings Counselling Center today. Our therapists care about your mental health and well-being and understand the importance of seeking therapy to improve your life.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Nihilism is a philosophical viewpoint that rejects or denies the existence of inherent meaning, value, or purpose in life. Fundamental tenets include cosmic nihilism (the belief that there's no objective meaning to human existence), ethical and moral nihilism (denial of absolute moral values), and political nihilism (rejection of prevailing social and political structures).

The five main forms of nihilism are:

  1. Cosmic Nihilism
  2. Ethical Nihilism
  3. Amoralism
  4. Moral Subjectivism
  5. Political Nihilism
An example of nihilistic thought can be found in Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of "God is dead," which suggests that traditional religious beliefs have lost their power as a source of truth and morality. This idea challenges established systems and encourages individuals to create their values.
Nihilists generally believe no intrinsic purpose or ultimate goal exists for humanity. They argue that life has no inherent meaning, so individuals must find personal significance through subjective experiences and self-created values rather than relying on external sources like religion or societal norms.

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Want online therapy? Start sessions instantly— Stress-free and easy to use.

Picture of Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen’s career began in Behaviour Therapy, this is where she developed a passion for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy approaches. Following a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Psychology she pursued a Master of Counselling. Pareen is a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC) with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. She specializes in CBT and Lifespan Integrations approaches to anxiety and trauma. She has been published on major online publications such as - Yahoo, MSN, AskMen, PsychCentral, Best Life Online, and more.

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