Nihilism as a philosophical position is the view that the world, and especially human existence, is without meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. It is more often a charge leveled against a particular idea than a position to which someone is overtly subscribed. Movements such as Dada, Deconstructionism, and punk have been described by various observers as "nihilist". Nihilism is also a characteristic that has been ascribed to time periods: for example, Baudrillard has called postmodernity a nihilistic epoch, and some Christian theologians and figures of authority assert that modernity and postmodernity represent the rejection of God, and therefore are nihilist.
Prominent philosophers that have written on nihilism include Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. Nietzsche described Christianity as a nihilistic religion, because it removed meaning from this earthly life, and focused instead on a supposed afterlife. He also saw nihilism as resulting from the "death of God", and insisted that it was something to be overcome, by returning meaning to the earth. Heidegger described nihilism as the state where "there is nothing left of Being as such", and argued that nihilism rested on the reduction of Being to mere value. Philosophy Portal
The term comes from the Latin 'nihil', meaning "not anything". The Oxford English Dictionary gives 1817 as its earliest use in English, and Alain Rey's Dictionnaire historique de la langue fran?aise (rev. ed. 1995) gives 1787 as the first use of the word in French, noting that nihiliste was used in 1761, though in a religious sense of 'heretic' that is now obsolete. Rey also argues that the Russian equivalent nigilizm that appeared in 1829 was an impulse to penetration of the term into modern language.
The Latin indefinite pronoun nihili ('nothing') is a reduced form of nihilum, a term that derives from ne-hilom, an emphatic form of the negation ne by means of hilum, meaning 'the slightest amount' and of uncertain origin.
Nihilism in Philosophy
Though the term nihilism was first popularized by Ivan Turgenev (see below), it was first introduced into philosophical discourse by Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743–1819), who used the term to characterize rationalism, and in particular Immanuel Kant's "critical" philosophy in order to carry out a reductio ad absurdum according to which all rationalism (philosophy as criticism) reduces to nihilism, and thus it should be avoided and replaced with a return to some type of faith and revelation. (See also fideism.)
Friedrich Nietzsche's later work displays a preoccupation with nihilism. Book One of the posthumous collection The Will to Power (a highly selective arrangement of jottings from various notebooks and from a surceased project began by Nietzsche himself, then released by his sister,Elisabeth F?rster-Nietzsche is entitled "European Nihilism," which he calls "the problem of the nineteenth century." Nietzsche characterized nihilism as emptying the world and especially human existence of meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value.
Though some deride it as nihilistic, postmodernism can be contrasted with the above formulation of nihilism in that nihilism tends toward defeatism/fatalism, while postmodern philosophers tend to find strength and reason for celebration in the varied and unique human relationships it explores. Nihilism can also readily be compared to skepticism as both reject claims to knowledge and truth, though skepticism does not necessarily come to any conclusions about the reality of moral concepts nor does it deal so intimately with questions about the meaning of an existence without knowable truth.
Nihilism in Ethics and Morality
In the world of ethics, nihilist or nihilistic is often used as a derogatory term referring to a complete rejection of all systems of authority, morality, and social custom, or one who purportedly makes such a rejection. Either through the rejection of previously accepted bases of belief or through extreme relativism or skepticism, the nihilist is construed as one who believes that none of these claims to power are valid, and often that they should be fought against. From a nihilist point of view, the ultimate source of moral values is the individual rather than culture or another rational foundation.
Postmodernism and the Breakdown of Knowledge
Postmodern thought is colored by the perception of a degeneration of systems of epistemology and ethics into extreme relativism, especially evident in the writings of Jean-Fran?ois Lyotard and Jacques Derrida. These philosophers tend to deny the very grounds on which Western cultures have based their 'truths': absolute knowledge and meaning, the accumulation of positive knowledge, historical progress, and the ideals of humanism and the Enlightenment. Though it is often described as a fundamentally nihilist philosophy, before entering a brief discussion on postmodern thought it is important to note that nihilism itself is open to postmodern criticism: nihilism is a claim to a universal truth, exactly what postmodernism rejects.
Lyotard and Meta-narratives
Lyotard argues that, rather than relying on an objective truth or method to prove their claims, philosophers legitimize their truths by reference to a story about the world which is inseparable from the age and system the stories belong to. Lyotard calls them meta-narratives. He then goes on to define the postmodern condition as one characterized by a rejection both of these meta-narratives and of the process of legitimization by meta-narratives.
In lieu of meta-narratives we have created new language-games in order to legitimize our claims which rely on changing relationships and mutable truths, none of which is privileged over the other to speak to ultimate truth. It is this unstable concept of truth and meaning that leads one close to nihilism, though in the same move that plunges toward meaninglessness, Lyotard suspends his philosophy just above its surface.
Nihilism and Nietzsche "To the clean are all things clean" — thus say the people. I, however, say unto you: To the swine all things become swinish! Therefore preach the visionaries and bowed-heads (whose hearts are also bowed down): "The world itself is a filthy monster." For these are all unclean spirits; especially those, however, who have no peace or rest, unless they see the world FROM THE BACKSIDE — the backworldsmen! TO THOSE do I say it to the face, although it sound unpleasantly: the world resembleth man, in that it hath a backside, — SO MUCH is true! There is in the world much filth: SO MUCH is true! But the world itself is not therefore a filthy monster! -Thus Spoke Zarathustra
While few philosophers would claim to be nihilists, nihilism is most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche defined the term as any philosophy that, rejecting the real world around us and physical existence along with it, results in an apathy toward life and a poisoning of the human soul — and opposed it vehemently. He describes it as "the will to nothingness" or, more specifically: A nihilist is a man who judges of the world as it is that it ought not to be, and of the world as it ought to be that it does not exist. According to this view, our existence (action, suffering, willing, feeling) has no meaning: the pathos of "in vain" is the nihilists' pathos—at the same time, as pathos, an inconsistency on the part of the nihilists (The Will to Power, section 585, Walter Kaufmann). In this sense the philosophical equivalent to the Russian political movement mentioned above: the irrational leap beyond skepticism — the desire to destroy meaning, knowledge, and value. To him, it was irrational because the human soul thrives on value. Nihilism, then, was in a sense like suicide and mass murder all at once. He saw this philosophy as present in Christianity (which he describes as slave morality) , Buddhism, morality, asceticism and any excessively skeptical philosophy.
Nietzsche is referred to as a nihilist in part because he famously announced "God is dead!" What he meant by this oft-repeated statement was not that God has passed away in a literal sense, or even necessarily that God doesn't exist, but that we don't believe in God anymore, that even those of us who profess faith in God don't really believe. God is dead, then, in the sense that his existence is now irrelevant to the bulk of humanity. "And we," he says in The Gay Science, "have killed him." Nietzsche also believed that, even though he viewed Christian morality as nihilistic, without God humanity is left with no epistemological or moral base from which we can derive absolute beliefs. Thus, even though nihilism has been a threat in the past, through Christianity, Platonism, and various political movements that aim toward a distant utopian future, and any other philosophy that devalues human life and the world around us (and any philosophy that devalues the world around us by privileging some other or future world necessarily devalues human life), Nietzsche tells us it is also a threat for humanity's future. This warning can also be taken as a polemic against 19th and 20th century scientism.
Nietzsche advocated a remedy for nihilism's destructive effects and a hope for humanity's future in the form of the übermensch, a position especially apparent in his works Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Antichrist. The übermensch is an exercise of action and life: one must give value to their existence by behaving as if one's very existence were a work of art. Nietzsche believed that the übermensch "exercise" would be a necessity for human survival in the post-religious era.
Another part of Nietzsche's remedy for nihilism is a revaluation of morals — he hoped that we are able to discard the old morality of equality and servitude and adopt a new code, turning Judeo-Christian morality on its head. Excess, carelessness, callousness, and sin, then, are not the damning acts of a person with no regard for his salvation, nor that which plummets a society toward decadence and decline, but the signifier of a soul already withering and the sign that a society is in decline. The only true sin to Nietzsche is that which is against a human nature aimed at the expression and venting of one's power. Virtue, likewise, is not to act according to what has been commanded, but to contribute to all that betters a human soul.
Nietzsche attempts to reintroduce what he calls a master morality, which values personal excellence over forced compassion and creative acts of will over the herd instinct, a moral outlook he attributes to the ancient Greeks. The Christian moral ideals developed in opposition to this master morality, he says, as the reversal of the value system of the elite social class due to the oppressed class' resentment of their Roman masters. Nietzsche, however, did not believe that humans should adopt master morality as the be-all-end-all code of behavior - he believed that the revaluation of morals would correct the inconsistencies in both master and slave morality - but simply that master morality was preferable to slave morality.
Nihilism, Self-consistency, and Paradox
Nihilism is often described as a belief in the nonexistence of truth. In its most extreme form, such a belief is difficult to justify, because it contains a variation on the liar paradox: if it is true that truth does not exist, the statement "truth does not exist" is in itself not a truth, thereby showing itself to be inconsistent. A formally identical criticism has been leveled against relativism and the verifiability theory of meaning of logical positivism.
A more sophisticated interpretation of the claim might be that while truth may exist, it is inaccessible in practice, but this leaves open the problem of how the nihilist has accessed it. It may be a reasonable reply that the nihilist has not accessed truth directly, but has come to the conclusion, based on past experience, that truth is ultimately unattainable within the confines of human circumstance. Thus, since nihilists believe they have learned truth cannot be attained in this life, they look upon the activities of those rigorously seeking truth as futile. However, this interpretation is open to the same criticism as above, since, barring mystical revelation, the only way the "truth" of nihilism can have been learned is from within the confines of human experience.
Nihilism in Art
There have been various movements in art, such as surrealism and cubism, which have been criticized for touching on nihilism, and others like Dada which have embraced it openly. More generally, modern art has been criticised as nihilistic due to its often non-representative nature, as happened with the Nazi party's Degenerate art exhibit.
Nihilistic themes can be found in literature and music as well. This is especially true of contemporary music and literature, where the uncertainty following what some perceive as the demise of modernism is explored in detail. 
The term Dada was first used during World War I, an event that precipitated the movement, which lasted from approximately 1916 to 1923. The Dada Movement began in the old town of Zürich, Switzerland known as the "Niederdorf" or "Niederd?rfli," which is now sporadically inhabited by dadaist squatters. The Dadaists claimed that Dada was not an art movement, but an anti-art movement, sometimes using found objects in a manner similar to found poetry and labeling them art, thus undermining ideas of what art is and what it can be. At other times Dadaists paid attention to aesthetic guidelines only so they could be avoided, attempting to render their works devoid of meaning and aesthetic value. This tendency toward devaluation of art has led many to claim that Dada was essentially a nihilist movement; a destruction without creation.
Because they attempted to undermine the way art was viewed in the 20th century, the dadaists chose to name their movement after a baby phrase to show the way their anti-art was shaking everything up. Several myths regarding the invention of the name "Dada" exist, including that it was a form of mockery against the Russian Tzara, who is widely viewed as the father of the movement (in Russian "da, da" is "yes, yes", a name that still offers no indication of the art that bears it). (Tristan Tzara (nee Samuel Rosenstock), French poet (born in Romania) who was one of the co-founders of the Dada movement (1896-1963).
Nihilism in Literature
Although the word nihilism is of recent historical vintage, the attitude it represents is not, as is seen in a famous passage near the end of Shakespeare's Macbeth — though Macbeth is not speaking of universal collapse or expansion but the brute and more immediate fact of human death: Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more; it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing. (Act 5, Scene 5)
In nineteenth-century culture, nihilism was given wide currency by the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev in his novel Fathers and Sons (1862) to describe the views of an emerging radical Russian intelligentsia. These consisted primarily of upper-class students who had grown disillusioned with the slow pace of reformism. The primary spokesman for this new philosophy was D. I. Pisarev (1840-1868) who articulated a program of Revolutionary Utilitarianism and advocated violence as a tool for social change. Pisarev was cast as Bazarov in Fathers and Sons much to his own delight; he proudly embraced his new status as a fictionalized hero and villain.
After its popularization in the character of Bazarov, the word quickly became a catch-all term of derision for younger, more radical generations, and continues in this vein to modern times. It is often used to indicate a group or philosophy the speaker intends to characterize as having no moral sensibility, no belief in truth, beauty, love, or whatever else the speaker and his presumed audience values, and no regard for the current social conventions.
In Germinal (1885), by émile Zola, the nihilist character Souvarine dramatizes the danger of nihilism when, in a climactic scene, he sabotages a coal mine and causes a catastrophic accident, then slips away. Souvarine's lack of belief, frequently expressed, is a foil to the optimistic socialism that fuels the coal miners' revolt.
In Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov mingles with nihilism, more specifically utilitarianism. Dostoevsky ultimately points out the emptiness of nihilism with the epilogue of the novel.
The works of Albert Camus can be read as a sustained engagement with nihilism.
The works of Samuel Beckett, especially the play "Waiting for Godot", exibit elements of nihilsm. This play has subsequently been made into a cinematic film which visually deals with the more pessimistic and cynical aspects of nihilism.
In contemporary literature, themes of nihilism can also be found in many of Kurt Vonnegut's books. Robert Stone, additionally, is a contemporary American novelist who has often thematized nihilism in his work. In A Flag for Sunrise (1981), for example, the anthropologist Holliwell is a protagonist struggling against his own nihilistic tendencies. Another American author who is commonly believed to deal with themes of nihilism is Chuck Palahniuk. In his 1996 novel Fight Club, for example, the ultimate goal of the book's 'project mayhem' is the destruction of modern civilization in order to rebuild humanity. Palahniuk, however, claims that he does not deliberately focus on the subject.
Nihilism in Music
Punk rock has often been regarded as taking a nihilistic and anarchistic view of the world around it. Another approach to nihilism has been taken by black metal and death metal, whose intentionally bizarre composition and morbid lyrics depict life's meaninglessness and a lack of absolute morals. Gothic Rock,Deathrock and No wave are closely genres that have all been known to raise Nihilistic issues.
However, the subcultures that have sprung up around these genres contain some unique social norms and mores. An example would be so-called Pit Etiquette. These are the rules of common courtesy that dictate behavior in mosh pits at concerts. The existence of these mores suggests that although lyrically and artistically a philosophy of nihilism may permeate these genres, the draw to their normally younger fan base may be based more on an illusion of rebellion than any real nihilistic beliefs.