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What Is Existential Nihilism?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 23, 2024
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Existential nihilism is a conceptually unique philosophical viewpoint that includes a few primary elements related to twentieth century conventions in social sciences. In its most basic sense, this viewpoint combines existentialism, which is often described as a kind of philosophical disorientation, with nihilism, which can be most easily described as a lack of belief systems. These two elements combine to create a philosophy that many find excessively negative, but that corresponds to twentieth century European and world history in many concrete ways. As existential nihilism is not the exclusive province of philosophers, it is also used in some modern literature, and by many individual intellectuals as a way to express themselves relative to the world around them.

The basic philosophical concept of existentialism involves an outlook about the world that views defining the “purpose” of a society and its history as absurd or meaningless. Some might describe this philosophy as a theory of existence without meaning, hence the term existential nihilism. Some also associated it with the term “angst,” which, in a general way, can interfere with social function because of its disorienting or distracting characteristics.

The other basic philosophy, nihilism, is more concretely described as, quite simply, believing in nothing. This involves rejecting various societal mores and customs, as well as religious beliefs, leaving the individual with a defined lack of an orienting belief system. Some experts see existential nihilism as related to a simple rejection of patriotism, religion, and other established ideas that tend to heavily influence or bias the behavior of the average citizen.

Taken as a whole, existential nihilism could be described as a combination of lack of purpose and a lack of belief. Existentialism itself often indicates a failure to take certain action or direction because of a sense of purposelessness. An academic studying the philosophy of existential nihilism might say that it arises from “not doing anything” and “not believing anything.” In general, it is related to historical, philosophical, and social iconoclasts who proposed radical ideas about life in society. Some of these individuals attained a great deal of fame, while others did not, but many historians and others who study traditional philosophies lump a large portion of the philosophies practiced by these individuals into a general category that might be labeled existential nihilism.

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