concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2009


Nihilism is a term for one of two opposed types of dualistic thinking (the other being eternalism), both of which need to be avoided to follow the Middle Way. As such it is an umbrella term for a range of actual beliefs. Though the term 'nihilism' is taken from the Buddhist tradition (where the Pali term is ucchedavada, also translated as 'annihilationism'), it has proved necessary to define the term differently from the traditional Buddhist definition of 'denial of an eternal self', in order to make the underlying insights it offers universally applicable in helping to delimit the Middle Way (see Buddhist errors page for more on this redefinition). It is also important to distinguish the sense of 'nihilism' in Middle Way philosophy from that in analytic ethics or in Nietzsche.

In Middle Way philosophy the defining characteristic of nihilism is taken to be the denial of moral objectivity based on the denial of any source of absolute moral knowledge. By denying the ethical foundationalism  of eternalism, nihilists instead affirm ethical coherentism , the belief that there is no moral justification beyond a coherent adjustment of individual or social desires. This belief does not take into account the ignorance of ultimate truth under which we operate, which does not justify us in definitely rejecting claimed sources of absolute moral knowledge (such as God), any more than it justifies us in definitely accepting them. The basic error found in nihilism, then, is that of letting an open doubt slip into definite rejection or denial, and thus rejecting the possibility that moral objectivity can arise out of agnosticism. Middle Way philosophy relies not only on appeals to moral coherence, but on a balancing of considerations of coherence with negative foundationalism (q.v.), the recognition of our lack of absolute knowledge followed through into consistent hard agnosticism about metaphysical claims.

The nihilist rejection of moral foundations is very often accompanied either by denial of freewill (implying determinism) or by denial of cosmic justice (implying subjectivism): this creates two philosophically distinguishable types of nihilist: the scientistic nihilist, who assumes that moral choice is a convenient fiction but gives value to deterministic explanation of the world, and the existentialist nihilist, who thinks of values as constructed by human choice alone rather than through an engagement with conditions. Psychologically, it is also often accompanied by either hedonism or alienation, either as we enjoy those experiences identified as pleasurable in our lives, or seek to defend those experiences ideologically, but in either case to the exclusion of wider values found elsewhere in our psyches. Politically, it tends to lead to the individualistic assertion of rights, or of group rights, as against the wider ideals that may also motivate government. For more details on all these features, see the Features of Nihilism in thesis

It is important to be even-handed in avoiding nihilism just as much as eternalism, although nihilists just as much as eternalists tend to appeal to agnostic arguments to support their case against the other side. For example, atheists criticising theists tend to use arguments which point out our lack of justification for believing in God, even though these arguments alone do not fully justify a belief that God does not exist, just as theists at their most convincing tend to point out the ways in which atheism is also dogmatic. Put together, these arguments add up to an argument for agnosticism, and for the value of agnosticism in addressing all the conditions pointed out by both sides. Nihilists routinely put forward good arguments, against God, freewill, cosmic justice, the soul or any other metaphysical beliefs associated with absolute claims about value, but they also over-interpret these arguments in using them to support opposed and counter-dependent metaphysical positions such as materialism, determinism, and atheism. By adopting this nihilist metaphysics, they shut us out from recognising those elements that are helpful and address conditions in eternalist philosophies and religions, and prevent us from understanding the basis of moral objectivity in human experience agnostically interpreted.

Nihilistic philosophies are influenced by the ancient Greek Sceptical and Aristotelian philosophies, but only become clearly nihilistic following the eighteenth century enlightenment. They include Hume and the tradition of analytic philosophy, including Wittgenstein, in the scientistic nihilist tradition, and Nietzsche and the existentialists, postmodernists and neopragmatists in the existentialist nihilist tradition. The classical American pragmatist tradition, standing somewhere between these two, also slips into subtle forms of nihilism in places, though there is also much praiseworthy non-dualism to be found, for example, in John Dewey, who in my judgement is the recognised Western philosopher who gets closest to the Middle Way. The crudest forms of philosophical nihilism can be found in logical positivism and in postmodernism, but we can also see nihilist assumptions reflected in the social trends towards relativism, individualism and consumerism. More details on the the nihilistic elements of all these philosophies can be found in chapter 4 of the thesis.

For a fully balanced picture, this article should be read in conjunction with the concept article on eternalism.

Links to further discussion

Features of Nihilism in thesis

Features of Eternalism in thesis

The classical roots of nihilism in thesis

Hume in thesis

Nietzsche in thesis

The Middle Way and science


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