What we can then observe is that these thinkers are called nihilistic, but do not see themselves as such: it would be absurd for a Christian to claim to be a nihilist. Therefore, a "nihilist" is seemingly nothing but a sort of anathema, which some authors cast on an opposite doctrine. In other words: there is no manifesto of nihilism, in which the meaning of this doctrine would be clarified once and for all, and it is not a school of thought that some thinkers explicitly adopt.
If it is true that almost no one claims to be a nihilist, it is strange to give importance to such a notion, which is used most of the time as an insult, rather than a consistent idea. Lastly, the definitions of nihilism given above do not confirm its consistency, but reduce it to other doctrines, whose meanings are much clearer: Christianity, pessimism, scepticism… Accordingly, it may be asked what additional information does nihilism provide for these doctrines, and if it is not, here again, an empty shell without any proper meaning.
I now propose to examine this equivalence: Can nihilism be equated with pessimism or scepticism?
b) Is nihilism a form of pessimism?
Nietzsche, in his fundamental study of nihilism, seems to maintain that both doctrines are just one and the same. I call pessimism the axiological doctrine which states that nothing commonly considered as valuable has a real value, and that man should be overwhelmed by sadness, malaise, and perhaps suicidal tendencies.
In fact, Nietzsche speaks explicitly of the problem concerning the relationship existing between both positions. He defines one as an essential moment of the other:
Pessimism as a preliminary form of nihilism 1. This idea is based on two arguments.
Firstly, a nihilist feels the above mentioned sentiments, which are typical pessimistic feelings. To begin with, weariness –all is vain:
A glimpse at man nowadays makes us tired—what is contemporary nihilism, if it is not that? . . .We are weary of man. . . . 2.
Nihilism does not only contemplate the "in vain!" nor is it merely the belief that everything deserves to perish: one helps to destroy. […] The reduction to nothing by judgment is seconded by the reduction to nothing by hand 3.
Secondly, Nietzsche identifies three causes of the development of nihilism in man, which all refer to pessimism.
At first, the discovery that the universe has no sense:
Now one realizes that becoming aims at nothing and achieves nothing 4, which leads to
the recognition of the long waste of strength, the agony of the "in vain" 5 (“die Qual des Umsonst”).
Then man ceases to believe that the multiplicity, or rather the chaos of beings, may be assembled together in a unity, by which man can recover a link to the whole, and thereby a certain value:
At bottom, man has lost the faith in his own value when no infinitely valuable whole works through him; i.e., he conceived such a whole in order to be able to believe in his own value" 6. Finally, man understands that the so-called truth (or real world) is nothing but fiction.
This entails the dissolution of the three categories -aim, unity and truth- upon which values are based according to Nietzsche, then of all values, and lastly, man becomes a nihilist:
The feeling of valuelessness was reached with the realization that the overall character of existence may not be interpreted by means of the concept of "aim," the concept of "unity," or the concept of "truth.". […] Briefly: the categories "aim," "unity," "being" which we used to project some value into the world -we pull out again; so the world looks valueless 7.
This leads us to ask this terrible question:
The nihilistic question "What for? 8.
Therefore, Nietzsche considers that nihilism is a form of pessimism, and finally we do not see any difference here between these two doctrines: nihilism seems to be nothing but a name without a proper meaning. We should only speak of pessimism. However, Nietzsche draws the opposite conclusion:
Pessimism is not a problem but a symptom, [its] name should be replaced by "nihilism" 9. It actually amounts to the same thing: if it is necessary to assign to nihilism the meaning of pessimism, it is because the former has no meaning when it is used by Nietzsche.
1. The Will to Power, Book 1 European Nihilism, 9
2. Genealogy of morals, 12
3. The Will to Power, Book 1 European Nihilism, 24
4. Ibid, 12 A
8. Ibid, 20
9. Ibid., 38