Existential nihilism

Existential nihilism is the philosophical theory that life has no intrinsic meaning or value. With respect to the universe, existential nihilism suggests that a single human or even the entire human species is insignificant, without purpose and unlikely to change in the totality of existence. According to the theory, each individual is an isolated being born into the universe, barred from knowing "why", yet compelled to invent meaning.[1] The inherent meaninglessness of life is largely explored in the philosophical school of existentialism, where one can potentially create their own subjective "meaning" or "purpose". Of all types of nihilism, existential nihilism has received the most literary and philosophical attention.[2]

Meaning of life

The idea that meaning and values are without foundation is a form of nihilism, and the existential response to that idea is noting that meaning is not "a matter of contemplative theory," but instead, "a consequence of engagement and commitment."

Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in his essay Existentialism and Humanism, "What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself." Here it is made clear what is meant by Existentialists when they say meaning is "a consequence of engagement and commitment".

The theory purports to describe the human situation to create a life outlook and create meaning, which has been summarized as, "Strut, fret, and delude ourselves as we may, our lives are of no significance, and it is futile to seek or to affirm meaning where none can be found."[3] Existential nihilists claim that, to be honest, one must face the absurdity of existence, that he/she will eventually die, and that both religion and metaphysics are simply results of the fear of death.[2]

According to Donald A. Crosby, "There is no justification for life, but also no reason not to live. Those who claim to find meaning in their lives are either dishonest or deluded. In either case, they fail to face up to the harsh reality of the human situations".[3]


Existential nihilism has been a part of the Western intellectual tradition since the Cyrenaics, such as Hegesias of Cyrene. During the Renaissance, William Shakespeare eloquently summarized the existential nihilist's perspective through Macbeth's mindset in the end of the eponymous play. Arthur Schopenhauer, Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche further expanded on these ideas, and Nietzsche, particularly, has become a major figure in existential nihilism.

The atheistic existentialist movement spread in 1940s France. Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness and Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus discussed the topic. Camus wrote further works, such as The Stranger, Caligula, The Plague, The Fall and The Rebel.[1] Other figures include Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida. In addition, Ernest Becker's Pulitzer Prize winning life's work The Denial of Death is a collection of thoughts on existential nihilism.

The common thread in the literature of the existentialists is coping with the emotional anguish arising from our confrontation with nothingness, and they expended great energy responding to the question of whether surviving it was possible. Their answer was a qualified "Yes," advocating a formula of passionate commitment and impassive stoicism.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Alan Pratt (April 23, 2001). "Nihilism". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Embry-Riddle University. Retrieved February 4, 2012.
  2. ^ a b David Storey (2011). "Nihilism, Nature, and the Collapse of the Cosmos". Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy. Retrieved February 4, 2012.
  3. ^ a b Donald A. Crosby (July 1, 1988). "The Specter of the Absurd: Sources and Criticisms of Modern Nihilism". State University of New York Press. Retrieved January 29, 2012.

In philosophy, "the Absurd" refers to the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any in a purposeless, meaningless or chaotic and irrational universe. The universe and the human mind do not each separately cause the Absurd, but rather, the Absurd arises by the contradictory nature of the two existing simultaneously.

As a philosophy, absurdism furthermore explores the fundamental nature of the Absurd and how individuals, once becoming conscious of the Absurd, should respond to it. The absurdist philosopher Albert Camus stated that individuals should embrace the absurd condition of human existence while also defiantly continuing to explore and search for meaning.Absurdism shares some concepts, and a common theoretical template, with existentialism and nihilism. It has its origins in the work of the 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who chose to confront the crisis that humans face with the Absurd by developing his own existentialist philosophy. Absurdism as a belief system was born of the European existentialist movement that ensued, specifically when Camus rejected certain aspects of that philosophical line of thought and published his essay The Myth of Sisyphus. The aftermath of World War II provided the social environment that stimulated absurdist views and allowed for their popular development, especially in the devastated country of France.

Alan Pratt

Alan R. Pratt is a Professor of Humanities at Embry-Riddle University. He is known for his research on existential nihilism and meaning of life.


Arbitrariness is the quality of being "determined by chance, whim, or impulse, and not by necessity, reason, or principle".Arbitrary decisions are not necessarily the same as random decisions. For example, during the 1973 oil crisis, Americans were allowed to purchase gasoline only on odd-numbered days if their license plate was odd, and on even-numbered days if their license plate was even. The system was well-defined and not random in its restrictions; however, since license plate numbers are completely unrelated to a person's fitness to purchase gasoline, it was still an arbitrary division of people. Similarly, schoolchildren are often organized by their surname in alphabetical order, a non-random yet still arbitrary method, at least in cases where surnames are irrelevant.

Arthur Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer ( SHOH-pən-how-ər; German: [ˈʔaɐ̯tʊɐ̯ ˈʃoːpm̩ˌhaʊ̯ɐ]; 22 February 1788 – 21 September 1860) was a German philosopher. He is best known for his 1818 work The World as Will and Representation (expanded in 1844), wherein he characterizes the phenomenal world as the product of a blind and insatiable metaphysical will. Proceeding from the transcendental idealism of Immanuel Kant, Schopenhauer developed an atheistic metaphysical and ethical system that has been described as an exemplary manifestation of philosophical pessimism, rejecting the contemporaneous post-Kantian philosophies of German idealism. Schopenhauer was among the first thinkers in Western philosophy to share and affirm significant tenets of Eastern philosophy (e.g., asceticism, the world-as-appearance), having initially arrived at similar conclusions as the result of his own philosophical work.Though his work failed to garner substantial attention during his life, Schopenhauer has had a posthumous impact across various disciplines, including philosophy, literature, and science. His writing on aesthetics, morality, and psychology influenced thinkers and artists throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Those who cited his influence include Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Wagner, Leo Tolstoy, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Erwin Schrödinger, Otto Rank, Gustav Mahler, Joseph Campbell, Albert Einstein, Carl Jung, Thomas Mann, Émile Zola, George Bernard Shaw, Jorge Luis Borges and Samuel Beckett.

Atheistic existentialism

Atheistic existentialism is a kind of existentialism which strongly diverged from the Christian existential works of Søren Kierkegaard and developed within the context of an atheistic world view. The philosophies of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche provided existentialism's theoretical foundation in the 19th century, although their differing views on religion proved essential to the development of alternate types of existentialism. Atheistic existentialism was formally recognized after the 1943 publication of Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre and Sartre later explicitly alluded to it in Existentialism is a Humanism in 1946.


Cosmicism is the literary philosophy developed and used by the American writer H. P. Lovecraft in his weird fiction. Lovecraft was a writer of philosophically intense horror stories that involve occult phenomena like astral possession and alien miscegenation, and the themes of his fiction over time contributed to the development of this philosophy.


The Cyrenaics or Kyrenaics (Ancient Greek: Κυρηναϊκοί; Kyrēnaïkoí) were a sensual hedonist Greek school of philosophy founded in the 4th century BCE, supposedly by Aristippus of Cyrene, although many of the principles of the school are believed to have been formalized by his grandson of the same name, Aristippus the Younger. The school was so called after Cyrene, the birthplace of Aristippus. It was one of the earliest Socratic schools. The Cyrenaics taught that the only intrinsic good is pleasure, which meant not just the absence of pain (as it did for Epicurus), but positively enjoyable sensations. Of these, momentary pleasures, especially physical ones, are stronger than those of anticipation or memory. They did, however, recognize the value of social obligation and that pleasure could be gained from altruistic behaviour. The school died out within a century and was replaced by the philosophy of Epicureanism.

Donald A. Crosby

Donald Allen Crosby (born 7 April 1932) is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Colorado State University, since January 2000. Crosby's interests focus on metaphysics, American pragmatism, philosophy of nature, existentialism, and philosophy of religion. He is a member of the Highlands Institute of American Religious and Philosophical Thought (HAIRPT) and has been a leader in the discussions on Religious Naturalism.


Dysteleology is the philosophical view that existence has no telos - no final cause from purposeful design. Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) invented and popularized the word "dysteleology"

(German: Dysteleologie).

Dysteleology is an aggressive, yet optimistic, form of science-oriented atheism originally perhaps associated with Haeckel and his followers, but now perhaps more associated with the type of atheism of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or Christopher Hitchens. Transcending traditional philosophical and religious perspectives, such as German idealism (including the philosophies of Hegel and Schelling) and contemporary New Age thinking, modern philosophical naturalism sees existence as having no inherent goal.


Existentialism () is the philosophical study that begins with the human subject—not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual. It is associated mainly with certain 19th and 20th-century European philosophers who, despite profound doctrinal differences, shared the belief in that beginning of philosophical thinking.

While the predominant value of existentialist thought is commonly acknowledged to be freedom, its primary virtue is authenticity. In the view of the existentialist, the individual's starting point is characterized by what has been called "the existential attitude", or a sense of disorientation, confusion, or dread in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world. Many existentialists have also regarded traditional systematic or academic philosophies, in both style and content, as too abstract and remote from concrete human experience.Søren Kierkegaard is generally considered to have been the first existentialist philosopher, though he did not use the term existentialism. He proposed that each individual—not society or religion—is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it passionately and sincerely, or "authentically".Existentialism became popular in the years following World War II, thanks to Sartre who read Heidegger while in a POW camp, and strongly influenced many disciplines besides philosophy, including theology, drama, art, literature, and psychology.

Hegesias of Cyrene

Hegesias (Greek: Ἡγησίας; fl. 290 BC) of Cyrene was a Cyrenaic philosopher, the Cyrenaics forming one of the earliest Socratic schools of philosophy. He argued that happiness is impossible to achieve, and that the goal of life was the avoidance of pain and sorrow. Conventional values such as wealth, poverty, freedom, and slavery are all indifferent and produce no more pleasure than pain. Cicero claims that Hegesias wrote a book called Death by Starvation, which persuaded so many people that death is more desirable than life that Hegesias was banned from teaching in Alexandria. It has been thought by some that Hegesias was influenced by Buddhist teachings.

Moral nihilism

Moral nihilism (also known as ethical nihilism) is the meta-ethical view that nothing is morally right or wrong.

Moral nihilism is distinct from moral relativism, which allows for actions wrong relative to a particular culture or individual. It is also distinct from expressivism, according to which when we make moral claims, "We are not making an effort to describe the way the world is [...] we are venting our emotions, commanding others to act in certain ways, or revealing a plan of action.".Nihilism does not imply that we should give up using moral or ethical language; some nihilists contend that it remains a useful tool.


Nihilism (; from Latin nihil, meaning 'nothing') is the philosophical viewpoint that suggests the denial or lack of belief toward the reputedly meaningful aspects of life. Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism, which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. Moral nihilists assert that there is no inherent morality, and that accepted moral values are abstractly contrived. Nihilism may also take epistemological, ontological, or metaphysical forms, meaning respectively that, in some aspect, knowledge is not possible, or reality does not actually exist.

The term is sometimes used in association with anomie to explain the general mood of despair at a perceived pointlessness of existence that one may develop upon realising there are no necessary norms, rules, or laws.Nihilism has also been described as conspicuous in or constitutive of certain historical periods. For example, Jean Baudrillard and others have called postmodernity a nihilistic epoch and some religious theologians and figures of religious authority have asserted that postmodernity and many aspects of modernity represent a rejection of theism, and that such rejection of theistic doctrine entails nihilism.

Nihilism (disambiguation)

Nihilism is a philosophical doctrine suggesting the negation of one or more putatively meaningful aspects of life. It has several forms:

Existential nihilism, the theory that life has no meaning

Mereological nihilism, disbelief in objects with proper parts

Metaphysical nihilism, the belief that there is a possible world in which there are no concrete objects at all

Epistemological nihilism, disbelief in knowledge

Moral nihilism, disbelief in objective moral facts

Political nihilism, the rejection of the necessity of fundamental social or political structuresNihilism may also refer to:

Nihilist movement, a cultural movement in 1860s Russia

"Nihilism", a song by Rancid from their 1994 album Let's Go

Philosophical fiction

Philosophical fiction refers to the class of works of fiction which devote a significant portion of their content to the sort of questions normally addressed in discursive philosophy. These might include the function and role of society, the purpose of life, ethics or morals, the role of art in human lives, and the role of experience or reason in the development of knowledge. Philosophical fiction works would include the so-called novel of ideas, including some science fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, and the Bildungsroman.

Psychological horror

Psychological horror is a subgenre of horror and psychological fiction that relies on mental, emotional and psychological states to frighten, disturb, or unsettle readers, viewers, or players. The subgenre frequently overlaps with the related subgenre of psychological thriller, and it often uses mystery elements and characters with unstable, unreliable, or disturbed psychological states to enhance the suspense, drama, action, and paranoia of the setting and plot and to provide an overall unpleasant, unsettling, or distressing atmosphere.


Solipsism ( (listen); from Latin solus, meaning 'alone', and ipse, meaning 'self') is the philosophical idea that only one's own mind is sure to exist. As an epistemological position, solipsism holds that knowledge of anything outside one's own mind is unsure; the external world and other minds cannot be known and might not exist outside the mind. As a metaphysical position, solipsism goes further to the conclusion that the world and other minds do not exist. This extreme position is claimed to be irrefutable, as the solipsist believes themself to be the only true authority, all others being creations of their own mind.

Suicidal ideation

Suicidal ideation, also known as suicidal thoughts, is thinking about, considering, or planning suicide. The range of suicidal ideation varies from fleeting thoughts, to extensive thoughts, to detailed planning.

Most people who have suicidal thoughts do not go on to make suicide attempts, but suicidal thoughts are considered a risk factor. During 2008–09, an estimated 8.3 million adults aged 18 and over in the United States, or 3.7% of the adult U.S. population, reported having suicidal thoughts in the previous year. An estimated 2.2 million in the U.S. reported having made suicide plans in 2014. Suicidal thoughts are also common among teenagers.Suicidal ideation is generally associated with depression and other mood disorders; however, it seems to have associations with many other mental disorders, life events, and family events, all of which may increase the risk of suicidal ideation. For example, many individuals with borderline personality disorder exhibit recurrent suicidal behavior and suicidal thoughts. One study found that 73% of patients with borderline personality disorder have attempted suicide, with the average patient having 3.4 attempts. Currently, there are a number of treatment options for those experiencing suicidal ideation.

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