The basic question for nihilism (as I understand) is "Why do I exist?" As they try to deny it.

I was wondering that this is not a well defined concept. The argument is as follows, I exist and so I can ask the question of "Why do I exist?". If I didn't existed then I won't be able to ask the question of existence. Isn't this a very vague question and hence doesn't make any sense without my (our) existence?

Is this why the nihilist reject it? Please correct me if I went in a wrong direction.

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    See Nihilism: "Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. " Commented Oct 18, 2021 at 6:37
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    Nihilists, as commonly understood, deny knowledge and values, or even justified beliefs, so they would not be definitively answering the question of existence, even in the negative. The source of it is usually despair at finding a firm basis for justification, especially of the meaning of life and moral values, that comes from pessimistic perspectives on history and life, and judging existing attempts at it as oppressive or nefarious in some way.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 18, 2021 at 6:55
  • "As they try to deny it." Who is "they"? What is "it" ?
    – armand
    Commented Oct 18, 2021 at 9:46
  • Antithought perhaps?
    – J D
    Commented Jul 16, 2022 at 16:14

1 Answer 1


I would argue that Nietzsche is a philosopher of nihilism, not a nihilist. He saw the loss of the old values (god being dead), and the lack of candidate replacement values. I made the case the abyss for Nietzsche is nihilism: Trying to Understand Quote by Nietzsche in the transition from old to new values (the tightrope over the abyss).

Durkheim the foundational sociologist, gives us a less hyperbolic picture, and the research to back it, of the same thing. In his work on suicide, he coined the modern meaning of the term anomie - loss of personal and social meaning, that leads to social decoherence, and suicides.

Durkheim's work on religion, gave pretty much the first definition that could be applied beyond Abrahamic faiths, to Shinto, Buddhism etc.

A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden-beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them

-Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life

'Monster theory' interpretation which began with Tolkein, interprets mythological narratives as expressing cultic shifts and other social dynamics. And in this light we can make more sense of Nietzsche's monsters like the dragon 'Thou Shalt': What did Nietzsche mean by monsters and the abyss? And more generally his placing his hopes to overcome nihilism through heroic figures, living out mythologising narratives. We have returned to a 'marketplace' of religions & philosophies, where the threat of murder for heresy and apostasy is not enough to prevent people innovating around ways to support social cohesion.

I like James C Scott's language on this, that there is a 'metis', a craft of living well together, which we accrue given enough time, but that rapid social change challenges the legibility of that craft between generations, if there isn't time to translate utility of the old metis to new generations. Discussed here.

Nihilism should be understood as the recognition meaning and values cannot simply be found, or imposed, by a religious book, or a process of abstract reasoning. It is existential, we have to look to our own lives themselves, and confront the lack of inherent or external meaning. We take for granted social truths and social salience landscapes as real, but the above understanding of anomie, religion, and social cohesion, can help us to understand how not just the personal process of meaning-making, but the social one too can become conscious, and dynamic, rather than rely on mythologising it's objectivity or antiquity.

  • Yes, even in the absence of external belief or value systems, people can still choose to see life as having value. It seems like a process of maturation to me, realizing that although one is not the center of everything, there is still a world. I like the idea of metis.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 20:33
  • @ScottRowe: I wonder what you think of this answer about Nietzsche on pain: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/91866/… Meaning is a spook, like pleasure, or happiness, or value. It doesn't tell you where to go, it's part of a story afterwards about why you went there. You can choose, but also you can wait in the absence of frantically trying to impose value, meaning, anything. And just see what grabs you, if anything. For me, that's nihilism. "Without music, life would be a mistake." The seriousness of a child at play.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 21:35
  • I remember in the book "Mutant Message Down Under" when her feet hurt so much but she had to keep walking, she thought of how she used to tell people with strong pain, "put your mind on something else."
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 16, 2022 at 14:07
  • People do many valuable things besides music that are nonverbal. Words are basically a black hole that minds fall in to. That includes any formal attempt to define mental systems.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jul 16, 2022 at 14:10
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    @ScottRowe: We can wait quietly for the world to speak.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jul 16, 2022 at 14:35

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