Definitions

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

  • n. Philosophy An extreme form of skepticism that denies all existence.
  • n. Philosophy A doctrine holding that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated.
  • n. Rejection of all distinctions in moral or religious value and a willingness to repudiate all previous theories of morality or religious belief.
  • n. The belief that destruction of existing political or social institutions is necessary for future improvement.
  • n. 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.
  • n. Psychiatry A delusion, experienced in some mental disorders, that the world or one's mind, body, or self does not exist.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

  • n. Extreme skepticism, maintaining that nothing has a real existence.
  • n. The rejection of all moral principles.
  • n. (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.
  • n. The belief that all endeavors are ultimately futile and devoid of meaning.
  • n. Contradiction (not always deliberate) between behavior and espoused principle, to such a degree that all possible espoused principle is voided.
  • n. The deliberate refusal of belief, to the point that belief itself is rejected as untenable.

from the GNU version of the Collaborative International Dictionary of English

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

from The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia

  • n. 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.
  • n. In theology, same as nihilianism.
  • n. Total disbelief in religion, morality, law, and order.
  • n. 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.
  • n. 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 WordNet 3.0 Copyright 2006 by Princeton University. All rights reserved.

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

Etymologies

Latin nihil, nothing; see ne in Indo-European roots + -ism.
(American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)
From German Nihilismus, itself from Latin nihil ("nil, nothing") + German -ismus '-ism', coined in 1817 by German philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, but repeatedly 'reinvented'. (Wiktionary)

Examples

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

    Wounded Trust, Lost Revenues

  • 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

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

    THE HALLS OF PENTHEUS -- PART FOUR

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

    The Apocalypse of Adolescence

  • 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

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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

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

    Fathers and Sons

  • The absurd and dangerous doctrine of nihilism, that is, the destruction of everything that constitutes society, penetrated into Russia by way of Germany.

    The Story of Russia

Comments

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

    August 12, 2013

  • 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

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

    January 3, 2008

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

    January 2, 2008

  • The legacy of Nietzsche

    October 6, 2007