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What we then see is that these doctrines have hardly called themselves nihilist (it would be absurd for a Christian to call himself a nihilist), but that it is an anathema that is hurled by an author at a competing doctrine. In other words, there does not really seem to be a manifesto of nihilism, in which the meaning of this doctrine would be specified, and from which it would be claimed. It seems strange, then, to give any credence to a notion that hardly anyone claims to be, and which is used as an insult rather than as a notion with any real substance.
Finally, the definitions of nihilism that we have just mentioned do not make it a consistent concept, but all relate it to other doctrines, the meaning of which is much clearer: Christianity, pessimism, scepticism, etc.
One wonders then what additional meaning the term nihilism really provides, and whether it is not, once again, an empty shell with no meaning of its own.

It is this assimilation of nihilism to pessimism and scepticism that I now propose to examine, in an attempt to grasp whether it has any legitimacy.


b) Is nihilism a form of pessimism?

It is Nietzsche who, in his fundamental study of the phenomenon of nihilism, seems to equate nihilism with pessimism. By pessimism, I mean the axiological doctrine which asserts that nothing considered to have value really does, and which sinks into a feeling of sadness, malaise and perhaps suicide.
In fact, Nietzsche explicitly addresses the problem of the relationship between these two positions: first of all, he makes one an essential moment of the other: Pessimism as a preliminary form of nihilism 1.

This idea is based on two arguments.

First of all, it is the classic feelings of pessimism, as we have just indicated, that nihilism provokes. First and foremost, weariness - everything is in vain: A glimpse at man nowadays makes us tired—what is contemporary nihilism, if it is not that?... We are weary of man… 2.
Secondly, pure and simple suicide: 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.

On the other hand, Nietzsche identifies three causes of the formation of nihilism in the human mind, all of which relate back to pessimism.

Firstly, the realisation that the universe has no meaning: 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").
In the second stage, we cease to believe that the multiplicity, or rather the chaos of being, can be subsumed under a unity through which man can rediscover a certain link to the Whole, through which he would find 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, we come to understand that what we took to be the truth, what we considered to be the true world, is nothing but a fiction.

With the dissolution of the three categories on which, according to Nietzsche, all value rests - purpose, unity and truth - all value dissolves and man becomes nihilistic: 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 man to formulate this terrible question: The nihilistic question "What for? 8.

As we can see, nihilism is equated with pessimism, and in the end it is no longer clear how these doctrines are distinct: nihilism would be nothing more than a name with no meaning of its own, and should simply be called pessimism. Nietzsche seems to have reached the opposite conclusion: Pessimism is not a problem but a symptom, [its] name should be replaced by "nihilism" 9 but in fact this amounts to the same thing: it amounts to conferring on nihilism the content of meaning of pessimism, because the former has none, in Nietzsche's use of it.


1. The Will to Power, Book 1 European Nihilism, 9
2. On the Genealogy of Morals, 12
3. The Will to Power, Book 1 European Nihilism, 24
4. Ibid, 12 A
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.,
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid, 20
9. Ibid., 38