What is Existential Nihilism? - Definition & Philosophy

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Not all philosophies promise a happy ending. In this lesson, we are going to explore the concept of existential nihilism, and see how it reflected major societal changes in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Pessimistic Side of Philosophy

For millennia, philosophers have sought to explore the moral and ethical truths of our lives in an effort to define the meaning of our existence. It's a tough question, and they've arrived at a wide number of optimistic and compelling conclusions. However, not everyone shares the belief that human existence is defined by some sort of quest for good.

Some theories are quite a bit more pessimistic. The pinnacle of this buzz-kill philosophy can be found in existential nihilism, which advances the hypothesis that life is meaningless. That's it. There's no grand meaning, no moral resolution, and no philosophical fulfillment. All human experiences, from love and joy to pain and suffering, are meaningless, and existence itself has no purpose. Contemplate that before you go to sleep tonight.

Existentialism and Nihilism

To understand this morbidly depressing philosophical stance, we need to understand where it comes from. Existential nihilism derives, first and foremost, from the nihilist camp of philosophy. Nihilism, at its core, states that moral values are baseless. All of our moral judgments and ethical standards are arbitrary, and on top of that, there is no way for humans to honestly know or communicate absolute moral truth.

This idea, advanced principally by 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, came out of a changing time in the world. Nietzsche lived in an era when modern science and the second great industrial era were colliding. Machines seemed to be replacing humanity, an extreme sense of competition was growing, and religion no longer seemed to be able to explain the moral world in which people lived. Although Nietzsche died before World War I, the horrifying experiences of industrial war (which utilized cruel, chemical weapons) seemed to confirm his ideas for many people. God was dead and morality was meaningless.

Friedrich Nietzche
Friedrich Nietzche

One response to Nihilism was a broad philosophy known as existentialism. The existentialists focused on the role of the individual person in assigning meaning to their existence through the act of sheer willpower. The existentialists noted that even people who lost moral grounding or came to see life as meaningless still tried to enjoy their lives. They found their own meaning through their agency as rational individuals and their own existence. While Nietzsche also influenced this ideology, the most influential figure was mid-20th-century thinker Jean-Paul Sartre. His studies on the nature of human existence helped define the modern existentialist ideologies.

Existential Nihilism

So, the Nihilists believed that there was no moral truth. When you overlay this with the existentialist emphasis on human experiences and stripping away of worldly illusions, you come to the conclusion that human existence is meaningless. We can understand this pessimism considering that world where religion was playing a decreasing role in motivating or restraining human actions, one horrible world war had occurred, a Great Depression was shaking the world, and a second world war seemed imminent. However, it's important to remember that although this term dates to the 20th century, the basis of this ideology is much more ancient.

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