The Meaning of Nihilism

I sometimes use the word “nihilism” in everyday speech. This creates a lot of problems. For some reason (which is actually immediately understandable), people take offense at being called “nihilists”. I think people in general take “nihilism” to mean something like a disbelief in all institutions, theories and facts. Nihilists think science is all bullshit, think there’s no point in voting. Nihilism is a kind of apathy. However, this is not the sense in which I ever employ the term nihilism (except perhaps if I’m discussing Russian literature).

The term nihilism in my training has a very technical meaning, which is understandable to anyone once clearly explained. It means the lack of belief in any inherent meaning in Being. For example, Hegelians thought being was something like “spirit”, an over arching power that holds sway over matter and thought, which comprises the dialectic of matter evolving, and eventually coming to know itself in human philosophical knowledge. Another example of a non-nihilistic framework is schelling-Freudian psychology, where a mythic origin of the universe is posited as a trawma experienced by God, a trawma which works itself out in human culture, and for Freud, in psychological trawma.

So, when I call people nihilists I do not mean that they do not have any beliefs, but rather that they believe only what they see – they are empiricists. They don’t believe in any kind of metanarrative, any over arching mythic order which could bring light on individual occurences. They don’t think the problem of humans coming to have knowledge of being in anyway “puts a rift” in being, and makes humans anything special in comparison to rocks. The “nihil” in nihilism is the annihilation of Being, the forgetting of the question of Being, the question of Spirit, which is always also the question of God. This is why nihilists are always essentially atheists, and non-nihilists always respect Gods, even if only as focal points for human culture and interaction, as hypotheticals.

Christians, and people of other religions, which turn God into a being amoung other beings, or even a supreme being, are nihilists inasmuch as they abstract a difference between being and God. “God in all things” – belief in being. However, if this becomes a mere slogan, and God becomes an abstract personal relationship, ousted from everyday life by commodity which is the turning of things into the infinitly replaceable images of themselves, God is already dead.

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