A philosophical doctrine most prodigiously articulated by German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) first and foremost and then Martin Heidegger (1889–1976). Nihilists were also followers and sympathizers of the Nihilist movement, a cultural and political movement that emerged in 1860s Russia. Etymologically “nihilism” comes from the Latin nihil, meaning “nothing.” The earliest documented mention is that of the French nihiliste, in a 1787 French dictionary that references the use of the term in 1761 in a context where it meant “heretic.” The term was used by the German philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743–1819) in his critique of Immanuel Kant’s concept of speculative reason, instead of which Jacobi favored faith and revelation as instruments of understanding.
   The fundamental position of nihilism is that the world and human existence in particular have no meaning, which renders superfluous the notions of purpose, truth, or value. This Nietzsche applied to Christianity, which, according to him, had removed meaning from earthly existence and transferred it to a hypothetical afterlife. He saw the materiality of lived experience as the only means of recuperating meaning and nihilism as the ethical reaction to the realization that “God is dead.” Heidegger’s claim was that lived experience, “being in the world” as such, is no longer possible because all that is left, all that humans have left to operate with, is the illusion of value and the sense of life has been reduced to its exchange and appreciation.
   In literature nihilism was made popular by the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev (1818–1883) who used the term in Fathers and Sons, published in 1882 to characterize the attitude of the contemporary intelligentsia in Russian society. These intellectuals protested the social stagnation base of tsarist Russia and demanded reforms. Their social activism peaked in the 1870s with the creation of several secret organizations like the Circle of Tchaikovsky, Land and Liberty, and the People’s Revenge. From Land and Liberty emerged Narodnaia Volia, People’s Will, the first organized revolutionary party in Russia, from which the name of the movement, Narodik, and the philosophy of Narodism were derived. Eventually they did embrace terrorism as a revolutionary resource. Early in 1881, a group of young nihilists organized a plot to assassinate Tsar Alexander II who had already known several attempts on his life. The plot was carried out on March 13, near the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, when he was attacked with hand grenades and killed by Ignacy Hryniewiecki (1856–1881), a Polish mathematics student from Lithuania. The Poles, living in various areas occupied by Russia since the fourth Partition of Poland in 1795, were at the being subjected to Russification. Hryniewiecki was wounded and died in the attack. Following this incident nihilism was classified as a destructive ideology and associated with terrorism in a manner similar to anarchism.
   See also <>; <>.
    Cunningham, Conor. Genealogy of Nihilism: Philosophies of Nothing and the Difference of Theology . London: Routledge, 2002;
    Wilshire, Bruce. Fashionable Nihilism: A Critique of Analytic Philosophy . Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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