What is nihilism?

We explain what nihilism is, what was the origin of this famous term and what Russian nihilism consisted of.

  1. What is nihilism?

When talking about nihilism, usually refers to the denial of traditional forms of moral and religious values , or any form of thought that finds guiding principles to life. Formally, nihilism is a philosophical and also artistic current, whose fundamental axis was precisely the denial that existence has any intrinsic meaning.

The latter means the denial of any idea of ​​transcendence, order and mission in life , and can even be considered irrelevant, capricious, deep down as something superfluous or insignificant.

Forms of nihilism can be identified in countercultural currents such as punk culture or even anarchism , and sometimes the term was used derogatively by the more traditional sectors of society, to indicate that some person or movement lacked ethics or of scruples.

However, nihilism  is not comparable to any form of terrorism  or criminal denial of life (especially of others), nor is it really a belief “in nothingness.” Nor is it necessarily pessimistic.

It is simply the opposition to deterministic and / or hierarchical accounts that traditionally give human existence a mission  on Earth, a series of guiding commandments or some form of transcendent explanation, as religions do, for example.

  1. Origin of nihilism

The term “nihilism” comes etymologically from the Latin word  nihil  (“nothing”), and  was used for the first time in a letter from Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi to the philosopher Fichte , at the end of the 18th century, in which the ideas of Immanuel Kant were criticized .

The term then became popular thanks to the Russian writer Iván Turgenev in his novel  Parents and Children  (1862), in which he explains it as a political stance similar to anarchism : opposed to all authority and all forms of faith. The term spread quickly through imperial Russia, being frowned upon by conservatives and embraced instead by revolutionary sectors.

In the philosophical field, it is linked to nihilism with the work of two great German philosophers: Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. The first used that term to describe Christianity: by denying meaning to everyday life, preferring the promise of a beyond in which there is no suffering, no mortality, no suffering, Christian thought would have a great void in the center, which Nietzsche called “the death of God.”

For his part, Heidegger described nihilism as  a state of being in which there is no “nothing in itself” , which would be equivalent to reducing being to a mere value, to a thing. Heidegger saw that denial as the construction of a new starting point.

  1. Russian Nihilism

Russian nihilism is the name by which a generation of young artists from imperial Russia was known  (in full mandate of Tsar Alexander II). These took advantage of the granting of some civil liberties, such as the press, to lash out at the religious, moral and idealistic ideas held by the conservative class.

Thus, they proceeded to ridicule them and combat them through a  stark sincerity , using texts considered of “bad taste” and through a contemptuous and sustained provocation. These attitudes were the ones that inspired Turguenev for the generational portrait made in his famous novel  Parents and Children .

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