As Bernard Reginster
argues in his seminal text The Affirmation of Life
, “nihilism is the central theme of Nietzsche’s philosophy” (2006
, p. 21). As a multifaceted phenomenon with affective, cognitive, and socio-cultural components, however, it has proven surprisingly difficult to offer a comprehensive account of what exactly the problem of nihilism is
for Nietzsche—and, therefore, what potential solutions to this problem could look like. In part, this difficulty follows from the fact that, while something properly called “the problem of nihilism” animates and permeates so many of Nietzsche’s most critical works, he rarely calls this problem by its name: Nihilismus. Thus, though one happens upon possible symptoms or consequences of this problem in nearly every one of Nietzsche’s
works—one senses the specter of nihilism at every turn—a comprehensive account of nihilism remains difficult to construct.
Indeed, although Nietzsche
makes reference to nihilists [Nihilisten] in two separate notes from 1880 (KSA 9:4, ) and mentions nihilism [Nihilismus
] in an 1881 letter to his dear friend, Heinrich Köselitz
(BVN-1881, 88), Nietzsche’s explicit mentions of nihilism [Nihilismus
] occur with much more frequency in his private notes from 1885 onward. Though he discusses the problem of nihilism in some of his late published works including Beyond Good and Evil
(1886), the fifth book of The Gay Science
(1887), The Genealogy of Morality
(1887), and The Antichrist
(1888), the problem of nihilism in Nietzsche is more explicitly examined and hashed out in his Nachlass
These features of Nietzsche’s analysis of nihilism—its generally late appearance, its relegation to his personal notebooks—might lead one to believe that Nietzsche deals with the problem of nihilism only in his philosophical maturity, and that he did not consider his thoughts on the matter sufficiently mature so as to warrant publication or promotion. But as Charles Andler
suggests, the increase in explicit mentions of Nihilismus in Nietzsche’s late work and notes is less a sign of a new interest or emphasis, and more likely a result of Nietzsche’s increased familiarity with the term following from his reading of Paul Bourget’s Essais de psychologie contemporaine (Andler
as cited by Müller-Lauter 1999
, p. 41). Indeed, Nietzsche’s adoption of Nihilismus
as a technical term (as well as his increased references to Pessimismus and Decadence) in his later works allows him to designate a particular kind of phenomenon to which he has been attending to all along.
picks up on this when he notes that, though it was a “problem [Nietzsche] was always working towards” (Gemes 2008
, pp. 460–461), the problem of nihilism was a problem “initially unbeknownst to [Nietzsche]” (ibid., p. 460). Although he is not yet aware of nihilism as a particular kind
of problem in his early work, then, the problem of nihilism still animates much of this work. Additionally, even when Nihilismus is not explicitly mentioned
, Nietzsche’s analyses of the struggle between life-denial and life-affirmation and the world-denial implicit in what he calls the christlich-moral<ischen> interpretation of the world (KSA 12:2) indicate his supreme concern with nihilism and its dangers.
Outline of the Book
In what follows, I offer a comprehensive account of a particular kind of nihilism
, that “most profound form of nihilism” (Gemes 2008
, p. 462) with which Nietzsche is concerned: affective nihilism. Understanding the affective dimensions of Nietzschean nihilism, however, requires one to first understand what constitutes nihilism for Nietzsche. Thus, I begin by examining the problem of Nietzschean nihilism generally. First, I explain the account Nietzsche offers his readers of the historical development of nihilism as the specific phenomenon he hopes to problematize and, eventually, overcome. Though nihilism is understood by Nietzsche generally as life-denial (as I demonstrate in the third chapter), he believes the problem of nihilism as it is actually lived by nineteenth-century Europeans to have a very specific historical development, involving certain critical socio-cultural formations and systems of belief. In other words, the history of life-denial, of nihilism, has a very particular shape.
examines three recent characterizations of Nietzschean nihilism: those of Paul Van Tongeren (2018
), Bernard Reginster (2006
), and Andrew Huddleston (2019
). Although each of these accounts is a helpful and illuminating addition to the literature on Nietzschean nihilism, I argue that none of them, taken alone, gives a satisfying account of Nietzschean nihilism. For this reason, I offer an account of my own in Chapter 3
. There, I argue that thinking nihilism most broadly as life-denial or the negation of life [die Verneinung des Lebens] allows Nietzsche’s reader to find a commonality in the various kinds of nihilism he discusses throughout his work.
After Chapter 3
, I turn towards a particular kind of nihilism: nihilism as a feeling-based phenomenon, or affective nihilism. It would be quite impossible, however, to understand Nietzsche’s framing of nihilism as a complex affective condition if one did not first understand what exactly Nietzsche believes affects to be and how they function to (1) excite or inhibit the drives, (2) motivate behavior
(by inclining and disinclining the individual who experiences them), and (3) shape evaluative orientations. For this reason, I offer a Nietzschean account of affect in Chapter 4
In Chapter 5
, after a close examination of the function of affect in Nietzsche, I focus in more closely on the main topic of the book: affective nihilism. In this chapter, I explore Nietzsche’s account of nihilism as a psychophysiological disorder that infects the affective nihilist, weakening her will and disengaging her from her goals and interests.
In Chapter 6
, I describe affective nihilism specifically as a problem of agency
that takes two distinct forms: (1) will-weakness
as drive suppression and (2) will-weakness as involving the disintegration or fragmentation of the will. In order to overcome affective nihilism, then, one must both re-establish goals toward which she is directed by somehow stimulating the activity of her drives or integrating her will and move toward those goals
in action. Only when one is an effectual agent can one be said to have overcome affective nihilism. Thus, in order to overcome affective nihilism, the nihilist must undergo a profound personal transformation, enacting fundamental changes in her constitution as a complex of drives.
In Chapter 7
, I clarify both the scope of affective nihilism and the relationship between cognitive and affective nihilisms in Nietzsche. First, I explain that affective nihilism is not a condition from which all Nietzschean nihilists suffer. Indeed, as I point out, it is possible to be a cognitive nihilist who is not
suffering from affective nihilism. Then, I explain the relationship Nietzsche establishes between affective nihilism and nihilism’s cognitive manifestations, including certain beliefs, judgments, or epistemic practices (Riccardi 2018
, p. 267). In short, I demonstrate that Nietzsche believes nihilism as a cognitive phenomenon both results from
affective nihilism and potentially results in
Finally, in Chapter 8
, I identify and investigate potential Nietzschean strategies for overcoming affective nihilism. The three strategies I outline include (1) experimentation (with locales, ideas, texts, and contexts); (2) self-narration as a practice of self-knowledge; and (3) genealogical inquiry into the origins of one’s beliefs, values, and affective life. While the first strategy works potentially through the generation or production of new and stimulating first-order affects, the second strategy has the potential to work by generating second-order affects that lead to (1) negative evaluations of harmful affects (affects that ultimately function to weaken the will); and (2) positive evaluations of healthy affects (affects that ultimately function to strengthen and unify the will). Finally, genealogical inquiry into one’s own beliefs, values, and affective life potentially provokes transformative second-order affects (produced as one attempts to honestly face the origins of her affects, beliefs, and values) and presents one with the opportunity to learn a kind of affective mastery. Such strategies potentially enable the affective nihilist not only to overcome nihilism as a psychophysiological condition, but to maintain the conditions of their own affective flourishing. Furthermore, an empowered, strong-willed individual is likely to form life-affirming beliefs and engage in epistemic practices, thus overcoming nihilism in its cognitive manifestations.3
Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Nihilism
Below, as a bit of background, I sketch out Nietzsche’s genealogy of nihilism as a socio-cultural phenomenon, a particular problem plaguing nineteenth-century Europe that results in the widespread adoption of beliefs, attitudes, and norms that Nietzsche believes to be life-denying. I begin here because while Nietzsche’s analysis of the problem of nihilism in its many manifestations is exceptionally complicated, he does present a relatively clear and straightforward genealogy of European nihilism. In fact, Nietzsche understands the problem of nihilism as it is lived by nineteenth-century Europeans to have a very specific historical development, involving certain critical socio-cultural formations and systems of belief.
Those more familiar with Nietzsche’s reflections on nihilism, and especially on nihilism as a worldview or series of interrelated worldviews plaguing nineteenth-century Europe, are likely familiar with this developmental account. For those less familiar, however, understanding Nietzsche’s genealogical inquiry into nihilism as a worldview inhabited by nineteenth-century Europeans will be critical for understanding both the structure of life-denial and, eventually, the way that all of the varieties of nihilism Nietzsche introduces—nihilism as a cognitive phenomenon, nihilism as a socio-cultural phenomenon, and nihilism as an affective phenomenon—intertwine. In short, to understand Nietzschean nihilism in a comprehensive manner—and to imagine what the overcoming of nihilism might look like—one ought to attend carefully to the genealogy of nihilism Nietzsche constructs.
Below, I offer an abbreviated history of European nihilism as a socio-cultural phenomenon inextricable from Judeo-Christianity. Indeed, in his unpublished reflections on the nature of nihilism, Nietzsche specifies that nihilism is “rooted” in “one particular interpretation, the Christian-moral [christlich-moral<ischen>] one” (KSA 12:2). This picture, according to which there is an interpretation of the world characteristic of Christianity that dominates the cultural landscape of Europe at the time of Nietzsche’s life, provides us with our first glimpse into the specific socio-cultural phenomenon that Nietzsche calls European nihilism, here and elsewhere. As a socio-cultural phenomenon, European nihilism is historically contingent: its development depended on, and was made possible by, certain socio-cultural factors. Put simply, without the specific historical developments that led to the origin of Christian-moral ways of interpreting the world (as well as its eventual predominance), nihilism—as the particular phenomenon of “European nihilism [der europäische Nihilismus]” (KSA 12:5) that Nietzsche treats at such length in his work—might have been avoided.
In his late work and notes, Nietzsche offers an account of the development of European nihilism. According to Nietzsche, nihilism as a socio-cultural phenomenon specific to nineteenth-century Europe arises when those in educated European societies become conscious of the im...