Correction on Some Terms: Nihilism.

I realized recently that I have manged to get turned around on some philosophical terms, so I decided to write a post to publicly correct myself.

First and most pressing was my misuse of the term nihilism. Nihilism comes is several forms and, depending on the particular type of nihilism, the meaning can be subtly, but still significantly, different. That said, there are two primary groups which exist: the nihilism that refers to intrinsic values, and the nihilism that refers to knowledge claims.

In the knowledge claim camp we have most notably metaphysical nihilism and epistemological nihilism. Metaphysical nihilism questions the very notion that objects exist. This is the idea that we have no objective basis for anything at all. It is not the idea we can’t know anything. It’s the idea we can’t know anything for certain, because we lack any means for objectively proving that objects, including ourselves and even our thoughts, exist.

What is it when you reject all knowledge claims? There are two terms I’m familiar with. Epistemological nihilism and epistemological skepticism which can also be called true skepticism or hard skepticism. Epistemological nihilism simply is the extreme idea that we cannot have access to knowledge, or that you cannot know anything.

Now, moving on to moral nihilism and existential nihilism. Moral nihilism is the idea that there exists no inherent or objective source of morality with no action being inherently better then another. The extreme form of this being that there is no morality at all. I, for example, subscribe to moral nihilism, but I still think that morality relative to humanity and out planet is both useful and exists, but in the sense that it is a tool that we have created.

Existential nihilism is the idea that there is no intrinsic meaning to life. Not the idea that life in meaningless, but that it does not come with some meaning tagged on to it. Most moral nihilists subscribe to the idea that the only meaning in life is that which you attach to it, and those you make meaningful.

I’m sure most of you can tell that, while they are related to one another, each form of nihilism is subtlety different, and each makes it’s own unique argument. So, while Nihilism often gets a bad wrap, I for one subscribe to forms of moral, existentialist, and metaphysical nihilism, though the particularities are for another post.

I’d like to add a word which I had forgotten until recently. That word being Solipsism. The most famous phrase related to solipsism being “I think, therefore I am,” which was written by Descartes. If you subscribe to solipsism then, while you think that you cannot be certain about objects or other minds, you can at least be sure that (your) thoughts exist. The only real difference between solipsism and metaphysical nihilism is that metaphysical nihilism goes one step father and says you can’t be completely certain about anything, not even the existence of your own thoughts.


3 responses to “Correction on Some Terms: Nihilism.

  • joelvsbooks

    Excellent Sunday morning reading, thank you (I even took notes).


  • ijustgetbored

    Nietzsche, of course, is always first to come to my mind when thinking of nihilism (and you could certainly regard his as a forerunner to existentialism). Existential nihilism is very interesting to me because of its simultaneous insistence on creating meaning in a meaningless universe and the insistence on the fact that this created meaning has no inherent meaning. You must do, but that action has no meaning (but, to bring in Sartre, there is still responsibility– personal, universal, etc.). It really explodes into a quite complex situation.

    More fascinating (to me) than anything is the way Camus struggled with this facet of existentialism in his writing. When reading his fiction or nonfiction, his discomfort with the concept and difficulty accepting comes through clearly. I sometimes wonder if this very apparent struggle is one reason that Camus was popular with midcentury American writers and retains attraction even now. I’d cite his and Faulkner’s mutual admiration (their correspondence, their public remarks) as one example of this. Faulkner makes it clear (according to him, pretty much entirely on religious grounds– but of course Faulkner was excellent at shading his meaning behind a country-boy presentation) he doesn’t agree with Camus but responds to his work nonetheless. Particularly interesting is that Camus adapted Requiem for a Nun– which ends with a discussion of the need to believe in faith, while another character insists that they’re actually doomed. Faulkner seems to be struggling (in writing) in much the same way Camus is: faith versus rejection of “essence,” nihilism versus belief in inherent meaning, etc. This seems more interesting than a later novel like American Psycho: sleek, cool, and ultimately disconnected from any other discourse.

    I wonder how Camus would have evolved his philosophy had he lived. Sartre ended up all over the map; would Camus have, too, or would he have evolved differently? Unanswerable, but interesting. I tend to think that the way existential writing evolved in American fiction writing is more Camus-like, whereas the way nihilism has evolved is more evocative of early Sartre. (You’ll have to excuse me; I often mix philosophy and literature as a matter of habit)

    Liked by 2 people

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