Doesn't nihilism contradict itself?

I mean, and correct me if I am wrong, nihilism say there is no meaning and no value to it all.

But saying so it is making an affirmation which has value and meaning. I therefore think that absolute nihilism shouldn't even exist, because not having value and no meaning it would be something not existing. I think.

  • 8
    Does an affirmation necessarily have meaning? If the theorems of formal logic qualify as affirmations, then don't we know of affirmations which have no meaning at all? May 4, 2013 at 22:31
  • "absolute nihilism shouldn't even exist" True. But then we wouldn't know about nihilism....
    – Vector
    May 6, 2013 at 0:12
  • 2
    I can't really agree with the first comment that tautologies have no meaning. But clearly there are things with no significance. What right do you have to declare the choice of what does or does not hold significance for someone else's philosophical position? To the degree one's world-view is subjective, nihilism is never self-contradictory.
    – user9166
    Jun 23, 2019 at 16:11

7 Answers 7


Yes, it does contradict itself. But that doesn't make it any less useful as a philosophical position as many nihilists will tell you. Nihilism may be better understood as an aesthetic rather than a properly mature philosophical position (which explains its singular attraction to certain kitted out in black adolescents).

Consistency is not everything. After all the Liars Paradox contradicts itself yet Goedel was able to spin out a major innovation in mathematical practise in the 20th century, or as Nietzsche (portentously) put it - 'very well, I contradict myself'.

However all of the above is probably a banalisation of the nihilistic proposal; a modern exponent of this tendency is Ray Brassier. In Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction he makes a mature and considered defence of this position. In this interview he says:

Very simply, nihilism is a crisis of meaning. This crisis is historically conditioned, because what we understand by ‘meaning’ is historically conditioned. We’ve moved from a situation in which the phenomenon of ‘meaning’ was self-evident to one in which it has become an enigma.

He marks the point where this begins to happen:

The emergence of modern mathematized natural science around the 16th Century marks the point at which this way of making sense of ourselves and our world begins to unravel. It does not collapse all at once, but it begins to lose its official theoretical sanction in the discourse of theology once the new science starts chipping away at the latter’s basic conceptual underpinnings. Over the course of a few centuries, the longstanding assumption that everything exists for a reason, that things are intrinsically purposeful and have been designed in accordance with a divine plan, is slowly but systematically dismantled, first in physics, then in chemistry, and eventually in biology, where it had held out longest.

But he concedes its a position that has been rehearsed before:

Of course, ‘nihilism’ in its broadest sense, understood as the predicament in which human life and existence more generally are condemned as ‘meaningless’ (i.e. ‘purposeless’), certainly predates the development of modern science (think of Ecclesiastes). But the emergence of modern science lends it a cognitive import it did not previously enjoy, because where pre-modern nihilism was a consequence of a failure of understanding – “We cannot understand God, therefore there is no meaning available to creatures of limited understanding such as we” – modern nihilism follows from its unprecedented success – “We understand nature better than we did, but this understanding no longer requires the postulate of an underlying meaning”. What has happened in this shift is that intelligibility has become detached from meaning

He moves distances himself from existentialists by moving further than they dared:

existentialists thought it was still possible for human consciousness to provide the meaning that was absent from nature: existence may be meaningless, but man’s task is to provide it with a meaning. My contention is that this solution is no longer credible, because a project is now underway to understand and explain human consciousness in terms that are compatible with the natural sciences, such that the meanings generated by consciousness can themselves be understood and explained as the products of purposeless but perfectly intelligible processes, which are at once neurobiological and sociohistorical.

However, in another interview he states However he isn't a positivist or a physicalist:

I would like to maintain a commitment to science’s ultimate epistemic authority while resisting the dogmatic temptation to enthrone the entities, mechanisms and structures postulated by contemporary science as ultimate realities.

He concedes that science cannot explain what is ultimate:

But the relationship between science and metaphysics is complicated: science says nothing about how to tell the difference between what is and what is not ultimately ‘real’.

Given his commitment to the objectification of human experience he has an:

antipathy to what Quentin Meillassoux calls ‘correlationism’—the doctrine, especially prevalent among ‘Continental’ philosophers, that humans and world cannot be conceived in isolation from one other.

Coming back to the ultimate, he does concede that the epistemic excavation of science is far from everything:

That’s why I endorse a ‘transcendental realism’ according to which science knows the real but the nature of this ‘real’ is not strictly speaking objectifiable. The basic idea is that we know the real through objects, but that the real itself is not an object.

Essentially he reaffirms man & reason; and through this the objectification of man through reason. Hence his slogan - "I am a nihilist because I believe in truth".

In passing I just want to note that the title of his book refers to the poem Prometheus Unbound by the atheistic Poet Shelley who affirms the centrality of Man to Man; & Of course Buddhism - the extinction of subjectivity & the enlightenment of our objectivity.

Personally I disagree with his thesis that subjectivity can be objectified and his antipathy to correlationism.

  • maybe I still don't get nihilism completely but isn't his point more directed to an existentialist philosophy? BTW thanks for your answer.
    – sebataz
    May 8, 2013 at 14:35
  • Nihilism covers a fair number of viewpoints and is of ancient and modern provenance - I covered a few in my answer. Nihilism is associated with existentialism; its what its detractors accused it of - a descent into unmeaning. But of course Sartre denied it. He said man should his own meaning. Yes, one could say that Brassier takes existentialism one step further. May 8, 2013 at 14:51
  • i'm a bit confused as to what \ultimately real' and 'objectification' mean?
    – user38026
    Jun 20, 2019 at 17:25

No, there is no contradiction. The apparent contradiction arises from an equivocation on “value.”

The version of nihilism you express, that there is no value, makes the most sense if it asserts that there is no real value in the universe. When philosophers assert that position, that is typically what they mean. The alternative, that nobody values anything, is immediately refuted by experience.

In contrast, when we implicitly attach value to the assertion of nihilism in so far as we find it worth asserting, we are attributing value to that assertion.

One can consistently hold that while we attribute value to various things, we do so in a purely subjective way, and not as a reflection of any real, mind-independent value, since there is no such value in the universe. I can say that I like clouds shaped like pigs, and think they're great, but it doesn't follow from that assertion that they actually have value, in an objective way.

The position that does contradict itself in this way, the position that nobody ever values anything, is so contrary to experience that I have never heard anyone defend it.

One can certainly argue against popular forms of nihilism, but not because of this apparent contradiction.


An interesting question. Nihilism is a belief system as are ALL constructs we cannot prove or disprove or have no direct experience with yet we accept such belief systems as "true" or "real". Given that, every nihilist is unique in their translation-perspective. So, Nihilism can neither be contradictory, nor non-contradictory, but some nihilists might be.

My language will be contradictory because there is no meaningful language of the meaningless. I don't even think I'm a Nihilist because my form of it states that all that we perceive is an illusion, like a movie where we suspend our disbelief for a few hours and lose ourselves into the illusion of the characters in the film. But practically speaking we are just watching a light show projected upon a large screen, not unlike Plato's Cave.

I'm almost an absolute Nihilist, but I believe in awareness and I believe in Nothing. I don't know what awareness is exactly and I suspect that Nothing can only be experienced if that is the correct meaningless words to describe my perspective. Perhaps the easiest way to demonstrate my unique Nihilism is to express it to your question. Answers: There are no contradictions. There is no nihilism or nihilists. There is no internet or love or disease. There is Nothing. And then the multiple meanings statements: Nothing contains awareness. Something may exist as a contrast to Nothing, but Nothing has no contrast or any other quality, so it is just Nothing. My Nihilism states that which we perceive isn't and that which we cannot perceive is Nothing. There is no perception. There are practical benefits to my construct, which mostly have to do with not falling into any trance through attachment. To exit the trance, attain emotional detachment. You may still FEEL in regards to your detachment, you simply appreciate there is Nothing to attach to and never was.

  • Welcome to SE Philosophy! Thanks for your contribution. Please take a quick moment to take the tour or find help. You can perform searches here or seek additional clarification at the meta site.
    – J D
    Feb 26, 2020 at 17:52
  • Thank you for the warm welcome and helpful hints! Feb 26, 2020 at 18:04

You definition is incorrect, according to Heidegger, Contributions to Philosophy 72. Nihilism, page 109.

There actually are no external goals, but to pretend there are - rather than create your own - is the true nihilism, because it is an abandonment of the actual situation.

Thinking in terms of “goals” (the long misunderstood τέλος [“end”] in the Greek sense) presupposes the ἰδέα and “idealism”. Therefore, this “idealistic” and moral interpretation of nihilism remains provisional, despite its essentiality. In aiming at the other beginning, nihilism must be grasped more fundamentally as an essential consequence of the abandonment by being.

... no one surmises that precisely this consideration — or, rather, its underlying attitude and comportment towards beings — is the genuine nihilism: the unwillingness to acknowledge the lack of goals.


It depends who you ask. Nietzsche meant nihilism not as a philosophical position one affirms or not, but rather as a diagnosis of contemporary culture. Nihilism means that the highest values have become worthless (value-less), because of the rise of science and the subsequent death of God. E.g. the christian values like feeling pity or turning the other cheek seem, in a darwinist way of thinking (which Nietzsche in his own way adopted), like strategies of a weak animal with a low position in the herd. Nietzsche reasons that the highest values give meaning to our life and because our highest values have lost their value, life itself has lost its meaning. Our existence appears worth- and meaningless (cf. the Lenzer Heide note).

So, nihilism for Nietzsche means that our existence is without value or meaning. Meaning in the sense of 'meaning of life' and not in the sense of 'meaning of a word'. One can still mean and value other things. For example, Nietzsche values nihilism as 'a process of purification': 'The value of such a crisis is that it purifies' ('Der Werth einer solchen Crisis ist, daß sie reinigt', loc. cit. 14). So there is no contradiction.

  • @jeroenk- Your focus on 'value' and Nietzsche's cleansing nature of nihilism are appreciated. Noting nihilism's relationship with existentialism brings to mind the birth of existentialism in Kierkegaard's 'Angst'. In his iteration (The Sickness Unto Death), angst is a psychological affliction, 'Fear at becoming oneself', not a philosophical position. The fear is in the form of a quaking existential fear of growing and becoming what we humans really are, spiritual creatures, not cousins of animals. It would not be fair to attribute K's angst to the nihilist, would it?
    – user37981
    Oct 16, 2020 at 4:08

I don't agree with your assessment, at least in my view of nihilism. I'm careful to say that nothing has objective and inherent value or meaning. The fact that I'm making an assertion about the universe that can (to a certain extent) be backed up by evidence gives it a truth value, but the truth value is not inherent to the claim but rather something that is built up or taken apart by the discussion of the issue. Furthermore, we (being humans) have a subjective view of how the world works and what things have value.

This, to me, is the basis of nihilism. It's not the fact that there is truly no value in the universe at all, but rather no inherent and objective value or meaning. I'm something of an agnostic nihilist in that I do not believe that there is any objective and inherent value or meaning in the universe, but I am not certain of this fact. In a way, I view the issue of nihilism or non-nihilism being a similar question to the God question where the positive claim (in this case, that there is inherent and objective meaning and value in the universe) has not met its burden of proof. At the very least, it hasn't for me.

In this view, nihilism hasn't contradicted itself; perhaps hard nihilism — which I'm defining as being the claim that there is absolutely no inherent and objective value and meaning in the universe — is self-contradictory by your assessment, but I don't believe that soft nihilism is self-contradictory.


It may be helpful to distinguish between ABSOLUTE or INTRINSIC or TRANSCENDENT meaning and HISTORICAL or CONTINGENT or IMMANENT meaning.

One can generate and/or appreciate contingent meaning by simply thinking or evaluating or discussing any matter germane to the human worlds of language and culture, while still maintaining that the meaning we generate or appreciate remains a finite, historical human affair and cannot ever be assumed or proven to be of ultimate or absolute significance.

Also, Nihilism comes in many forms. The question as posed appears to address ONTOLOGICAL or METAPHYSICAL nihilism principally. As one of the above answers has suggested, it may be worthwhile to consider the theoretical "usefulness" of the concept as it affects existing notions of morals and values (axiological Nihilism), taste (aesthetic nihilism), etc., in addition to the question of metaphysical meaning or value.

Finally, as a heuristic tool, the assumption of the basic hypothesis of nihilism can function as kind of baseline for critical thinking, as it take the Husserlian idea of "bracketing" all of one's presuppositions to an even deeper level of critical purity--as a preliminary to any contingent inquiry.

  • Welcome to SE. The comments you make may be interesting and important, but you don't explain them clearly enough. Also, it is really important that you explain how what you say answers the question. There is guidance on giving a good answer in the help pages.
    – Ludwig V
    Feb 20, 2023 at 18:50

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .