from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition.

  • noun Philosophy The doctrine that nothing actually exists or that existence or values are meaningless.
  • noun Relentless negativity or cynicism suggesting an absence of values or beliefs.
  • noun Political belief or action that advocates or commits violence or terrorism without discernible constructive goals.
  • noun A diffuse, revolutionary movement of mid-19th-century Russia that scorned authority and tradition and believed in reason, materialism, and radical change in society and government through terrorism and assassination.
  • noun Psychiatry A delusion, experienced in some mental disorders, that the world or one's mind, body, or self does not exist.

from The Century Dictionary.

  • noun In metaphysics, the doctrine that nothing can really be known, because nothing exists; the denial of all real existence, and consequently of all knowledge of existences or real things.
  • noun In theology, same as nihilianism.
  • noun Total disbelief in religion, morality, law, and order.
  • noun Originally, a social (not a political) movement in Russia, in opposition to the customary forms of matrimony, the parental authority, and the tyranny of custom. In this sense the word was introduced by Turgeneff in 1862. See nihilist, 3.
  • noun Later, a more or less organized secret effort on the part of a large body of malcontents to overturn the established order of things, both social and political.

from the GNU version of the Collaborative International Dictionary of English.

  • noun Nothingness; nihility.
  • noun The doctrine that nothing can be known; scepticism as to all knowledge and all reality.
  • noun (Politics) The theories and practices of the Nihilists.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.

  • noun philosophy Extreme skepticism, maintaining that nothing has a real existence.
  • noun ethics The rejection of all moral principles.
  • noun politics (capitalized by protagonist Turgenev) A Russian anarchistic revolutionary doctrine (1860-1917) holding that conditions in the social organization are so bad as to make destruction desirable for its own sake, independent of any constructive program or possibility.
  • noun The belief that all endeavors are ultimately futile and devoid of meaning.
  • noun Contradiction (not always deliberate) between behavior and espoused principle, to such a degree that all possible espoused principle is voided.
  • noun The deliberate refusal of belief, to the point that belief itself is rejected as untenable.

from WordNet 3.0 Copyright 2006 by Princeton University. All rights reserved.

  • noun the delusion that things (or everything, including the self) do not exist; a sense that everything is unreal
  • noun a revolutionary doctrine that advocates destruction of the social system for its own sake
  • noun complete denial of all established authority and institutions


from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

[Latin nihil, nothing; see ne in Indo-European roots + –ism.]

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

From German Nihilismus, itself from Latin nihil ("nil, nothing") + German -ismus '-ism', coined in 1817 by German philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, but repeatedly 'reinvented'.


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  • “The term nihilism is sometimes used … to denote a general mood of despair at the pointlessness of existence.”

    Wounded Trust, Lost Revenues 2009

  • But stunney clearly admitted that moral anti-realism, in fact moral nihilism, is logically indefeasible strictu sensu since, inter alia one cannot demonstrate strictu sensu that there are conscious beings other than oneself.

    Carry-Over Thread 2007

  • The old canard that lack of religion leads directly to nihilism is as cheap and insulting as my remarks above.


  • To most people, the notion that an apocalyptic nihilism is taking root in this nation's children will seem alarmist.

    The Apocalypse of Adolescence 2002

  • To most people, the notion that an apocalyptic nihilism is taking root in this nation's children will seem alarmist.

    The Apocalypse of Adolescence 2002

  • For all the bleating of the strident that this makes for "moral relativism" or, in the weighty but sadly empty words of Stephen Harper, "nihilism" - nothing turns on it.

    Gen X at 40 2008

  • ROFL — nihilism is the doctrine that all values are baseless, so Abb1 bitches that there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats “it’s either the sanctity of this, or the sanctity of that …”

    Matthew Yglesias » Why Two Parties? 2009

  • They've come up against reality, or the president has come up against reality, and so now they're just looking for another outlet for that sort of, you know, vague youthful--they would call idealism, I would call it nihilism.

    President Gingrich? 2011

  • Shakespeare, grandest of entertainers, also is the wisest of teachers, though the burden of his teaching may be nihilism, which is the lesson of King Lear.

    Bloom and Reading « So Many Books 2006

  • “And that is called nihilism,” Bazarov repeated again, this time in a particularly insolent tone.

    Fathers and Sons 2003


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  • The legacy of Nietzsche

    October 6, 2007

  • Coined, presumably, by Ivan Turgenev in his novel Fathers and Sons (1862).

    January 2, 2008

  • The word itself is older; OED2's first citation is from 1812. The destructive sense may well date from Turgenev.

    January 3, 2008

  • Thanks, mollusque. I think it was Turgenev who first used it in the sense of a political philosophy; I am pretty sure that it was from his use of the word in his novel that it came into use among Russian anarchists (or their opponents) and from them, more generally, into European political polemics.

    January 3, 2008

  • Reading Fredrick neitchze AntiChrist - where the author points out that Schopaneour has nihilism.

    Good Learning for Today

    August 12, 2013