Paradox of nihilism

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The paradox of nihilism is a family of paradoxes regarding the philosophical implications of nihilism, particularly situations contesting nihilist perspectives on the nature and extent of subjectivity within a nihilist framework. There are a number of variations of this paradox.


While there are several derivative examples of the paradox of nihilism, they generally fall on the lines that nihilism itself has drawn to demarcate different sections of the philosophy. The two basic paradoxes are reflective of the philosophies of nihilism that created them; metaphysical nihilism and existential nihilism. Both paradoxes originate from the same conceptual difficulty of whether, as Paul Hegarty writes in his study of noise music, "that the absence of meaning seems to be some sort of meaning".[1]

Metaphysical nihilism[edit]

Metaphysical nihilism is based around skepticism that concrete objects, and the self which perceives them, actually exist as concrete objects rather than as abstract objects. It is not a far stretch, in the framework of this theory, to assume that these objects do not exist at all. The philosophy can most succinctly be summed up using the model proposed by British philosopher Thomas Baldwin in his 1996 paper[2] on the subject which is referred to as subtraction theory. It holds that for a possible world with finite objects, any one or more of those objects may not have existed, and their non-existence does not mean that something equivalent exists in their place. Therefore, it is entirely possible that a world with no objects exists.

The paradox arises from the logical assertion that if no concrete or abstract objects exist, even the self, then that very concept itself would be untrue because it itself exists. Critics often point to the ambiguity of Baldwin's premises[3] as proof of both the paradox and of the flaws within metaphysical nihilism itself. The main point made argues that a world is itself a concrete object, and whether it exists or does not exist is irrelevant because in both instances it would disprove subtraction theory. In the case of its existence, subtraction theory fails because there is still a concrete object; if the world does not exist, subtraction theory fails because the truth of the world is revealed via subtraction theory, which itself exists, and therefore negates Baldwin's conclusion that a world with no objects can exist.

Existential nihilism[edit]

Existential nihilism is the philosophical theory that life has no inherent meaning whatsoever, and that humanity in an individual and collective sense has no purpose. That is to say, while objects have the capacity for purpose or meaning, there is no universal truth that guides these individual purpose. Thus, without a universal purpose, all meaning objects could have does not exist, and the idea of any purpose or meaning attributed to something is untrue. If this is taken as a given, then existential nihilism holds that humans are compelled to make up meaning for themselves and others in the absence of a universal, unilateral meaning in order to spare themselves from the negativity surrounding the inevitability of death. Existential nihilism explores both the nature of this invention and the effectiveness of creating meaning for oneself and others, as well as whether the latter is even possible. It has received the most attention out of all forms of nihilism in both the literary and popular worlds of media.

Like metaphysical nihilism, existential nihilism stumbles when it comes to the nature of its conceptual existence. Common precursors to the paradox ask questions like Hegarty's,[1] implying that if universal truth does not exist to give meaning to life and nothing is therefore objectively true, existential nihilist theory would then be the universal truth it claims does not exist. Therefore, existential nihilism is at best an extremely flawed interpretation of the universe and at worst entirely untrue, as a theory which contends that nothing objective exists must necessarily then be subjective. In this case it is either untrue or has meaning, which would mean that there is a universal meaning (derived from the logical conclusion that the universal truth is nothingness) or even some meaning, which would be contrarian to the original claim.

Nihilist response[edit]

Existential nihilists will refute this as a play on words by critics to blur the distinction between universal truth and the entire conception of truth. They would argue that the fact that a person edited an article about nihilistic paradoxes is objectively true (though epistemological nihilists and metaphysical nihilists would both question this) since the article was edited by someone, but that the editor and action itself has no more "universal" meaning than the existence of disease or the creation of life via sex. It is unfair, existential nihilists would argue, to denigrate a philosophy which simply denies the absence of universal truth in a moral sense (the idea that there is a moral God or Gods who designed the world and people with an innate morality and purpose) as one that happily rejects meaning without consideration for the logic of the universe.

Secondly, it isn't a paradox in the sense that all truths result in the Münchhausen trilemma, and every truth claim can be traced back to an axiom, circular argument, or infinite regress.

Ethical nihilism[edit]

According to Jonna Bornemark, "the paradox of nihilism is the choice to continue one's own life while at the same time stating that it is not worth more than any other life".[4] Richard Ian Wright sees relativism as the root of the paradox.[clarification needed][5]


Virgilio Aquino Rivas, in a paper asserting the political nature of faith in the Philippines,[6] locates the paradox in the "conservative attitude of Roman Catholicism" developed in reaction to Nietzschean nihilism. Rivas asserts that Catholicism, in its shifts towards a conservative political identity and actions concerning the contemporaneous sex abuse scandals of the Catholic clergy, "betrays a form of nihilism, that is, the forced oblivion of the real ambiguity and the paradox that inform the distinction between the secular and the sacred".[7]

Critical legal theory[edit]

In Critical Legal Studies (CLS) theory, the arguments used to criticize the centrist position also undermine the position of CLS.[8][clarification needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Hegarty, Paul (2006). "Noise Music" (PDF). The Semiotic Review of Books. 955 Oliver Road, Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada P7B 5E1: Department of Sociology, Lakehead University. 16 (1–2): 2. ISSN 0847-1622. Retrieved 4 April 2010. Failure/impossibility: noise is only ever defined against something else, operating in the absence of meaning, but caught in the paradox of nihilism – that the absence of meaning seems to be some sort of meaning.CS1 maint: location (link)
  2. ^ Baldwin, Thomas (1996). "There Might Be Nothing". Analysis. 56 (4): 231–238. doi:10.1093/analys/56.4.231. ISSN 0003-2638. JSTOR 3328513.
  3. ^ Efird, David; Stoneham, Tom (2005). "The Subtraction Argument for Metaphysical Nihilism". The Journal of Philosophy. 102 (6): 303–325. doi:10.5840/jphil2005102614. ISSN 0022-362X. JSTOR 3655532.
  4. ^ Bornemark, Jonna (2006). "Limit-situation: Antinomies and Transcendence in Karl Jaspers' Philosophy". Sats - Nordic Journal of Philosophy. 7 (2): 64. doi:10.1515/SATS.2006.63. ISSN 1600-1974. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-03-05. Retrieved 5 April 2010 – via
  5. ^ Wright, Richard Ian (April 1994). "The Dream of Enlightenment: An Essay on the Promise of Reason and Freedom in Modernity" (PDF). University of British Columbia. Retrieved 5 April 2010. But essentially these values can be negated by extending the same critical methods which Marx uses to negate earlier philosophical idealism and liberal bourgeois ideology. In other words, from a Nietzschean perspective, Marx's foundational principles are not sufficient to defend his humanistic values. Thus it can be argued that they still maintain the residue of the Christian ethics and Platonic metaphysics which have permeated western thought for several thousand years and which continue to provide modem thinkers with many of their illusory presuppositions. Nevertheless, one is justified in asking: Without such presuppositions, does not the critique of law, politics, or "this earth" lose its ultimate justification or meaning? How can one critique laws without holding on to a sense of justice? And herein lies the crux of the paradox of nihilism. If nihilism is the basis of human existence then all values are relative, and as such, particular values can only be maintained through a "will to power." (page 97) Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  6. ^ Rivas, Virgilio (January 2017). "THE ROLE OF THE CHURCH IN THE POLITICS OF SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION: THE PARADOX OF NIHILISM". ResearchGate. Retrieved 2019-09-05.
  7. ^ Rivas, Virgilio Aquino (2008). "The Role of the Church in the Politics of Social Transformation: The Paradox of Nihilism" (PDF). Политикологија религије (Politics and Religion). 11000 Beograd (Belgrade, Serbia): Centar za proučavanje religije i versku toleranciju, 27.marta 95 (Center for Studies of Religion and Religious Tolerance). II (2): 53–77. ISSN 1820-659X. Retrieved 4 April 2010.CS1 maint: location (link)
  8. ^ Belliotti, Raymond A. (1987). "critical legal studies: the paradoxes of indeterminacy and nihilism". Philosophy & Social Criticism. 13 (2): 145–154. doi:10.1177/019145378701300203. ... Critical Legal Studies Movement (CLS) ... CLS' view generates a "paradox of nihilism" which CLS has recognized and tried unsuccessfully to resolve. (subscription required)
    Belliotti, Raymond A. (25 January 1994). Justifying Law: The Debate Over Foundations, Goals, and Methods. Temple University Press. p. 169. ISBN 978-1-56639-203-7. Retrieved 4 April 2010. The argument supporting CLS' attack on centrist ideology, adhering as it does to social contingency, jurisprudential indeterminacy, and pervasive conditionality flowing from the fundamental contradiction, seems to preclude CLS from establishing a normative justification for its own vision. CLS' critical attack seems to cut the heart from all efforts to provide non-question-begging adjudication of epistemological and moral truth claims. This nihilistic paradox, in which CLS' critical attack is so extreme that it prohibits CLS from constructing persuasively its own alternative vision, ...