Existentialism vs. Nihilism

Instructor: Joshua Sipper

Dr. Sipper holds a PhD in Education, a Master's of Education, and a Bachelor's in English. Most of his experience is in adult and post secondary education.

Nihilism and Existentialism are basically polar opposite philosophies. While nihilists are skeptical of everything, even their own existence, existentialists are interested in more closely examining existence, especially human existence.

Do You Exist?

Have you ever questioned something in your life deeply? Maybe you've delved into the existence of God or thought about the concept that maybe we're all just figments of someone's imagination or dream. These are thoughts and questions philosophers deal with on a regular basis; questions that require a great deal of thought and study to understand. However, there are two schools of thought that come close to defining the opposite ends of thought about human existence and will help us to understand the philosophy of being a bit more fully: nihilism and existentialism. These two philosophies go deeply into the most basic of human questions about what we see and experience. Is it all an illusion or can we trust what we see and experience? How do we determine what's real and does it matter? These are some questions explored in the philosophy of being.

Nihilism and Existentialism are philosophically opposing forces.
Opposing Forces

History and Comparison of Nihilistic and Existential Thought

Nihilism became popular during the 19th century and was made more visible through the writings of novelist Ivan Turgenev. Philosophers have promoted this idea in one form or another for millennia with Parmenides of Elea (c. 515 - 450 B.C.) documenting the concept of change being impossible because of the non-existence of what is real. Buddha was also well-known for his ideas concerning the illusion of existence or that while things around us might seem real, we are all living in an illusion and must try to escape it or be translated to a higher reality. These ideas filtered down through history to the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 - 1804) whose ideas about existence led him to hypothesize that the individual person is at the center of all his or her understanding. This supports the idea of solipsism or the view that only you exist and what you see and experience are just figments of your imagination. While this view might seem impossible to hold, there are those who do attempt to live as solipsists. As the joke goes, We take good care of our solipsist, because when he goes, we all go.

Existential thought is mostly about human existence and meaning. This philosophy explores many areas including: human free will, life choices, struggling against individual nature, fighting for life, irrationality, and personal responsibility. While no belief system, religion, or political system can lay exclusive claim to the philosophy of existentialism, many philosophers of varied backgrounds agree on its basic tenets. or instance, Kierkegaard, a religious philosopher, Nietzsche, an anti-Christian, Sartre, an atheist, and Camus an atheist, all agree that existentialism is about the search for true meaning and believe that human beings never have complete lives because of suffering, poverty, death, and other non-flourishing occurrences. Mostly, however, existentialists believe firmly in free will and individuality and are strongly against imposing one's system of beliefs on others.

Philosophers like Immanuel Kant have long discussed the difference between nihilism and existentialism.
Immanuel Kant

Types of Nihilism and Existentialism

The major types of Nihilism are metaphysical nihilism, mereological nihilism, partial nihilism, and moral nihilism.

Metaphysical nihilism is the hypothesis that nothing exists and that everything is an illusion. This hypothesis is summed up in the children's song Row, Row, Row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, life is but a dream.

Mereological nihilism states that objects do not exist, but only atomic and subatomic particles. In this philosophy, what we experience are not object and things, but the ideas we attribute to them.

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