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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N037-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 12, 2024, from

Article Summary

As its name implies (from Latin nihil, ‘nothing’), philosophical nihilism is a philosophy of negation, rejection, or denial of some or all aspects of thought or life. Moral nihilism, for example, rejects any possibility of justifying or criticizing moral judgments, on grounds such as that morality is a cloak for egoistic self-seeking, and therefore a sham; that only descriptive claims can be rationally adjudicated and that moral (prescriptive) claims cannot be logically derived from descriptive ones; or that moral principles are nothing more than expressions of subjective choices, preferences or feelings of people who endorse them.

Similarly, epistemological nihilism denies the possibility of justifying or criticizing claims to knowledge, because it assumes that a foundation of infallible, universal truths would be required for such assessments, and no such thing is available; because it views all claims to knowledge as entirely relative to historical epochs, cultural contexts or the vagaries of individual thought and experience, and therefore as ultimately arbitrary and incommensurable; because it sees all attempts at justification or criticism as useless, given centuries of unresolved disagreement about disputed basic beliefs even among the most intelligent thinkers; or because it notes that numerous widely accepted, unquestioned beliefs of the past are dismissed out of hand today and expects a similar fate in the future for many, if not all, of the most confident present beliefs.

Political nihilism calls for the complete destruction of existing political institutions, along with their supporting outlooks and social structures, but has no positive message of what should be put in their place. Cosmic nihilism regards nature as either wholly unintelligible and starkly indifferent to basic human concerns, or as knowable only in the sense of being amenable to scientific description and explanation. In either case, the cosmos is seen as giving no support to distinctively human aims or values, and it may even be regarded as actively hostile to human beings. Existential nihilism negates the meaning of human life, judging it to be irremediably pointless, futile and absurd. Cosmic and existential nihilism are the focus of this entry.

Citing this article:
Crosby, Donald A.. Nihilism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N037-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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