Nietzsche on Nihilism: A Unifying ThreadSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Nihilism is one of Nietzsche’s foremost philosophical concerns. But characterizing it proves elusive. Nihilists, antecedently, might seem to be those who have lost their sense that anything matters and fallen into existential despair. But for Nietzsche, Christianity itself is also a thoroughly nihilistic outlook, and it involves no such despair. Or take another example: It might seem that nihilists are life-negating, condemning the world and wanting, in some sense, to escape it. But what of the “last man,” utterly satisfied with the comforts of this world? This broad condition of nihilism comes in markedly different psychological guises, ranging from fervor, to contentment, to despair. What ties them together? Nihilism, on the view I elaborate here, centrally involves one’s being unmoored from the most important values, namely those values that confer a higher meaning on existence. Yet not just any values will do here, even among those (such as the values of Christianity) purporting to confer such a meaning. The values in question need (at least by Nietzsche’s lights) to be the right values, conferring the right meaning—values celebrating existence, not condemning it, and celebrating its higher aspects, not mere animal contentment and satisfaction. The unifying thread of Nietzschean nihilism, on my reading, in fact turns out to be structurally similar to the familiar idea of it that we get in a number of other 19th century thinkers and authors. Nihilism, for them, is a crisis involving coming unmoored from the most important values that give meaning to human life. Where Nietzsche differs from them is not in his account of what nihilism fundamentally is, but rather in his evaluative outlook, and the most important values he sees nihilists as having come unmoored from.