Nihilism appears in philosophical and theological literature in three distinct forms.
1. In its first form it is a certain theory of knowledge, of its nature and extent, and of the reality of existence. It is the doctrine that we can have no knowledge of real things or existences, that nothing can be really known, and in its extreme form it is a denial of all existence itself. Nihilism is the result of continued and extreme philosophical scepticism (q.v.). As philosophy has ever had an intimate connection with theology, and has always involved skepticism in a greater or less degree, soo nihilism in some form has accompanied the philosophical and theological thought of almost every age. Among the first developments of Greek philosophy we find the nihilism of Georgias, one of the Sophists, and a contemporary of Socrates. He taught
(1) that nothing exists; for if anything were, its being must be either derived or eternal; but it cannot have been derived, whether from the existent or from the non-existent (according to the Eleaticoe): nor can it be eternal, for then it must be infinite; but the infinite is nowhere, since it can neither be in itself nor in anything else, and what is nowhere is not.
(2) That if anything were, it could not be known; for if knowledge of the existent were possible, then all that is thought must be, and the non- existing could not even bethought of; but such an error would be as great as if one should affirm that a contest with chariots took place on the sea, which is absurd.
(3) That if knowledge were possible, it could not be communicated, for every sign differs from the thing signified; how can any one communicate by words the notion of color, seeing that the ear hears not color, but sounds? In contrast with this sophistic nihilism of existence, Parmenides, in the previous century, had made the reality of existence the leading tenet of his philosophy. Only being is, he taught, and of the one true existence we may attain convincing knowledge by thought. In the philosophy of Plato, which has exercised a large and lasting influence upon Christian thought, the Idea, his fundamental conception, is pure archetypal essence, having an objective and real existence, and not merely an existence in thought. In Plato's philosophy appears the logically legitimate recognition of a relation in the subjective conception to objective reality, which is the one refutation of all nihilism. But there were poetical, fanciful elements in his philosophy, which by some were transformed into scientific, dogmatic formulas, and led to a skeptical reaction, and to nihilism, such as that of Pyrrho. SEE PYRRHONISM. According to him, real things were inaccessible to human knowledge, and it is our duty to abstain from judging. His followers taught that "our perceptions and representations are neither true nor false, and can. therefore not be relied upon. The grounds of every proposition and its contradictory show themselves equally strong." But then all these principles, after being applied to the assertions of those: who believed ill the truth and reality of knowledge and existence, were finally to be applied to their own principles in order that in the end not even these should retain the character of truthful and fixed assertions; so that those propositions, in which they professed to assert truthfully the falsity or uncertainty of other propositions, were themselves equally false and untrustworthy. Thus this nihilistic skepticism destroys itself at last by its own principles. Augustine, early in his life, passed through a period of this skepticism, and subsequently, after having been led by Ambrosius to an acceptance of catholic Christianity, earnestly and convincingly argued for certitude in human knowledge as a necessary element in it. He urges as an introductory consideration that the possession of truth is one of our wants, that it is necessary to our happiness, as no one can be happy who is not in possession of that which he wishes to possess, and he who seeks the truth without finding it cannot be happy. In his De Beata Vita he lays down the principle, which has been so fruitful in philosophy, that it is impossible to doubt one's own living existence — a principle which in the Soliloquia, written immediately afterwards, is expressed in this form: Thought, and therefore the existence of the thinker, are the most certain of all things. This reminds us at once of the famous formula upon which Descartes found a solid place for his feet in the midst of nihilistic doubts: "Cogito, ergo sum." Augustine finds a foundation for all our knowledge — a foundation invulnerable against every doubt in the consciousness we have of our sensations, our feelings, our willing and thinking; in short. of all our 'psychical processes. He makes being, life, and thought coordinate. The existence of nihilism in the thought of the centuries subsequent to Augustine is evinced by the arguments with which theologians were constantly opposing it, and by the skepticism apparent in the writings of philosophizing theologians, as of Duns Scotus, who doubted in philosophy, but who yet in religion received the teachings of the Church on faith independently of philosophical reasoning. Descartes was led by comparing the different notions and customs of different nations and parties, by general philosophical meditations, and more especially by his observation of the great remoteness of all demonstrations in philosophy from mathematical certainty — to doubt the truth of all propositions received at second hand. He began his philosophizing with universal doubt, with a nihilism which refused to acknowledge the certainty of any presuppositions or traditional opinions. He then set himself at work to discover if possible one proposition which is fully certain and beyond all doubt. One thing in the midst of his universal doubt was certain, and that, he says, is the fact that I do really doubt, or, as doubting is a species of thinking, that I do really think; and therefore that I do exist. Even admitting the existence of a powerful being bent on deceiving me, yet I must exist in order to be able to be deceived. When I think that I exist, this very act of thinking proves that I really exist; Cogito, ergo sum. From the clearness and distinctness which belong to this first truth, and which alone make us assuredly certain of it, Descartes deduced clearness and distinctness of perception as a criterion of the truth and certainty of knowledge. Objection, indeed, may justly be made to this criterion of certainty; but the fact of existence, given to us even in universal doubt, as Descartes found it and formulated it, is one, at least, of the starting-points of real knowledge, and an impregnable fortress against doubting nihilism itself. With Hume, again, we find skepticism and the limitation of knowledge extending very nearly to pure nihilism. Knowledge consists in impressions and ideas or thoughts, all derived from the senses and from experience, and so subjective as to give us little or no knowledge of objective realities or existences. So the only reality that we know in the relation of cause and effect is simple, bare succession. There is in the idea no knowledge of a real necessary causal nexus, either in its nature or as a fact. We only know that certain things are connected according to a constant rule, and that is all that the idea of cause and effect can contain. "The ultimate grounds of things are utterly inaccessible to the curiosity and investigation of man." Kant, incited by Hume's skepticism, undertook, in his Kritik der reinen Vernunfft, a more thorough examination of the origin, extent, and limits of human knowledge than had hitherto been given. Its object was to establish the distinction between phenomena and real things, or "things-in- themselves." The latter have a real objective existence, but out of relation to time, space, or causality, and hence out of the realm of all experience. He ascribes to these real things the function of affecting the senses, and thus giving the material of thought or the substance of phenomena. In this was a realistic element, while in their independence of space and time there is an idealism (q.v.). As to phenomena, their substance is given through impressions on the senses, derived in some way from the things in themselves. But theforms under which we have a knowledge of these phenomena are a purely subjective product of the mind itself, by virtue of its spontaneity. They are forms of intuition, viz. of space and time, and forms or categories of thought, twelve in number, such as unity, reality, causality. As to the extent of our knowledge, in Kant's critique the things in themselves are unknowable for man. Only a creative, divine mind, that gives them reality at the same time that it thinks them, can have power truly to know them; they have neither unity nor plurality, nor substantiality, nor are they subject to the causal relation, or to any of the categories of thought. We can know Pheenomenia, but phenomena only. They are the mental representations which exist in our consciousness, derived from the things in themselves by virtue of the function of these things to affect our senses, but known under those forms of intuition and thought which are the purely spontaneous, subjective creations of the mind itself. These forms of our knowledge have their origin in certain corresponding a priori judgments or cognitions, by which he means "those which take place independently, not of this or that, but of all experience whatever." The certainty and truthfulness of all our knowledge depend upon the truthfulness and validity of these a priori judgments or cognitions. The criteria of the truthfulness of these judgments are necessity and strict universality, it being assumed, as the basis of his system of a priori knowledge, that necessity and strict universality are derivable from no combination of experiences, but only independently of all experience. All cognitions or propositions that have these marks are true. But it is to be borne in mind that our knowledge under these forms is true and objectively valid, not in regard to things as they are in themselves, apart from our mode of conceiving them, but only in regard to empirical objects or the phenomena which exist in our consciousness in the form of mental representations. In what we call external objects, Kant sees only mental representations resulting from the nature of our sensibility. "The things which we perceive are not what we take them to be, nor their relations of such intrinsic nature as they appear to us to be; if we make abstraction of ourselves as knowing subjects, or even only of the subjective constitution of our senses generally, all the qualities, all the relations of objects in space and time, yes, and even space and time themselves, disappear: as phenomena they cannot really existper se, but only in us; what may be the character of things in themselves, and wholly separated from our receptive sensibility, remains wholly unknown to us." We can now perceive to what extent Kant in his philosophy had overcome nihilism. We have a true and valid knowledge of everything in our experience, in our consciousness. What is in our consciousness, the phenomena, is real, and we have a real and truthful knowledge of it. Furthermore, there is a real objective existence of things, otherwise there would-be no phenomena, and no objects of thought. But beyond this there is much of the ignorance and uncertainty of nihilism. For the forms under which our knowledge is possible are so purely subjective, so purely independent creations of the mind itself, that they bring all the objects or material of knowledge to the mind in their own form and features and dress, so that we cannot be certain that our knowledge corresponds to the reality of things. All knowledge is thus relative to the human mind. It is conditional only, conditioned by those forms of the understanding which mold it into the form in which it is received. As the a priori judgments upon which all our knowledge is based arise from the constitution of the mind itself, a change in the constitution of the mind might involve a change in these fundamental a priori judgments and forms, and thus in the knowledge which is built upon them. They thuslave for us a regulative force, but perhaps only a relative truth and validity. Man must use them; they are the condition and law of all his intellectual processes; but "he is not thereby authorized to assume that they hold good as the laws of minds which may be supposed to be constituted differently from those of human beings, or that they hold true of the knowledge which such beings acquire. On the one hand we cannot deny that they do hold true for other beings and their knowledge; and on the other we cannot deny that they do not." In his most acute and thorough examination of the laws and operations of the human mind, and of the nature of our knowledge, Kant established more conclusively and firmly than had hitherto been done the fact, which lies at the basis of all true philosophy, of certain universal and necessary a priori or intuitive truths. But in assuming that these truths are the product of the mind's own creative activity, independent of all experience, he gave to all our knowledge an uncertain relativity, and introduced an element akin to nihilism. To this it has been very justly objected that these truths are not given independently of all experieile, but are so connected with and derived from our experience of the external objective world as to give us necessarily a truthful knowledge corresponding to the reality of things. Nor can the analogies derived from the senses, from such phenomena as the changes in the color of objects seen through differently colored glass, or occasioned by changes in the physical condition of the eye, be legitimately applied to objects and acts of the pure reason. We are not justified in asserting that there may or might exist created or finite minds which know objects. without the relations of time, space, and causality, or under relations entirely different. Moreover, it has been observed that such a possibility or probability is inconsistent with the use made of those very relations in establishing them as having a regulative and real existence in the mind itself; for in the creation of the forms of thought by the mind the relations of cause and effect are assumed in this act as really and objectively belonging to it in the view of all beings. But, according to the possibility suggested, the relation of cause and effect may be just as unreal in the operations of the mind itself as we may suppose it to be in the phenomena which we conceive under that relation. Though necessarily employed in human thinking, that relation may be merely contingent upon the operation of that thinking, and may not belong to the constitution of the soul as viewed or known by any other being, whether creature or Creator (comp. Porter, Human intellect).
The subjectively creative activity of the reason assumed by Kant was taken as the leading principle in the systems of J. G. Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, resulting in extreme forms of idealism. The views of Sir William Hamilton are closely related to those of Kant. He holds that we have native cognitions which are both universal and necessary. The necessity of a cognition may, however, be either positive or negative. It may either result from the power of the thinking principle, or from the powerlessness of the same to think otherwise. "To the positive cognitions belong the notion of existence and its modifications, the principles of identity, contradiction, and the intuitions of space and time." All these are discerned by the mind by a necessity which positively pertains to the objects discerned, and in the reality of which the mind absolutely confides. To negative cognitions belong the relations of substance and phenomena, and of cause and effect. These are necessary by virtue of the inability of the mind to think otherwise, and do not represent a positive relation. This necessity is embraced under his Law of the Conditioned. These cognitions are only true relatively.
Observing that such acute philosophers as Kant and Hamilton failed to find, either wholly or in part, positive assurance of certainty and reality for our knowledge, others have been incited to avoid, instead of meeting the difficulties, by seeking this assurance from another source. Jacobi and Schleiermacher found it in faith and feeling. Even Kant himself turns .from the uncertainty of the pure speculative intellect to what he calls the practical reason, and rests upon the simple categorical imperative of duty. The practical reason commands unconditional faith in duty, without our asking or seeking any reasons or grounds. It commands us to believe in God as a true and perfect being. As such he will not deceive his creatures. Therefore we may implicitly trust the priori intuitions and judgments of the thinking reason which he has created. We may be sure that those fundamental truths are real, and that our knowledge in its forms and conceptions corresponds to the forms under which the world of reality exists. Hamilton also, following Kant and Schleiermacher, while asserting that we cannot think the infinite and unconditioned, yet concedes that we know the same by faith. Those who distinguish faith or feeling from the intellect, as an ultimate source of knowledge and ground of cerainty, assume that the act of this faith or feeling is not intellectual, whereas it is in fact pre-eminently an intellectual act and power, conditioning all the special acts and cognitions of which the mind is capable. Some of the more recent German philosophers, as Chalbaeus, and Lotze especially, rest their confidence in the fundamental assumptions of the human intellect upon ethical grounds. "We must believe," they say, "that Nature is benevolent in her indications, and therefore true. We assume that goodness and veracity regulate both the objective relations of the universe which we study, and the subjective constitution of the intellect which interprets it. For those reasons we rely upon the categories both of thought and being." In treating of the relations of nihilism to the views of Kant and subsequent philosophers, we have had occasion to notice the idea of the relativity of our knowledge as involving something of nihilism, or nescience. This idea has become a prominent doctrine in modern philosophy, and has been held and applied in different ways by Ulrici and others in Germany; by Mansel in his Limits of Religious Thought by Mill, Tyndall, Huxley, and Herbert Spencer. It is the doctrine that the mind does not perceive things, but the relations of things-of things utterly unknown in themselves. In controverting the views of those adopting this doctrine, it is admitted by Dr. McCosh and others that there are senses in which man's knowledge is relative. He can know, for instance, only so far as he has a capacity of knowing. In this sense man's knowledge is all relative to himself. A man who has no eyes cannot know color. There is the farther truth that man has the capacity of discovering relations between himself and other things, and between one thing and another. Again, it is also true that he cannot know all things; he cannot know all about any one thing. But when it is said that we know relations only, and not things, it is replied that "it is inconceivable that we should know relations between things unknown. Relations between things unknown can never yield knowledge. If the things were to cease, there would be no relation; and if the things were unknown, there would be no relations known. If the sun and earth were unknown to me, I could never know a relation between them. A relation is — a relation of things known so far known — known by reason of that relation. We know in what relation we stand to God, because we so far know God and know ourselves. The subtlest form of infidelity in our day proceeds on the principle that man knows nothing of the nature or reality of things, or that he can know nothing except relations between things unknown. It makes human reason proclaim that it cannot discover any truth beyond and above the phenomena of. sentient experience. It does not deny directly that there is a God, but it declares that God, if there be a God,-is and must be unknown. In meeting this fundamental skepticism, we, need to maintain the veracity of the human faculties, and to show that the same powers which guide correctly in the business of life and in the pursuits of science are legitimately fitted to conduct to a reasonable belief in One presiding over the works of Nature and providentially guiding our lot." See Ueberweg, Hist. of Philosophy, 1:76 sq., 205 sq.; Porter, The Human Intellect; McCosh, Intuitions of the Mind; also Christianity and Positivism; Blackie, Four Phases of Morals, p. 296 sq.
II. In its second form nihilism is a certain theory of the incarnation. In this sense it is also called nihilianism. The name was applied to the views of Peter Lombard, contained in' his Sententiarumn libri quatuor (lib. iii, distinc. 5-7). SEE LOMBARDUS. The conception of Lombard is an outgrowth of the fundamental ideas of the Antiochian school, and of the theories of John of Damascus and Abelard. It stands in contrast with the theory of adoption. SEE ADOPTIANISTS. Abelard especially made prominent the idea which underlies the Christology of Lombard, viz. that God is absolutely immutable, unchangeable. The proposition, which occasioned the charge of nihilism was: "Christus, secundum quod est homo, non est aliquid." Christ, the Son of God, did not become anything by the assumption of human nature, because no change can take place in the divine nature; "'Deus non factus est aliquid." His language was not always clear and definite, and was by some falsely interpreted as affirming that Christ had become nothing. In his view, the divine nature did indeed assume the human-that is, it took the human form to itself, but did not bring it into union with itself, so that it became in any intimate and peculiar sense its, own. He implies that in the incarnation no human being of body and soul was formed. There was not a production of one nature or of one person out of the different elements of body, soul, and divinity, but the Logos simply clothed itself with body and soul as with a garment (indumentum), in order to appear more fittingly to the eyes of mortals. Accordingly Christ took the human body and soul into union with himself, not in such a way that they, either separately or themselves in union, became one person- with the Logos, or themselves became the Logos, but they were only brought into a relation or connection with the Logos analogous to that of a garment or dress to the person putting it on. The person of the Logos by the assumption of human nature was in no way changed, but remained one and the same. According to this view God became man only by way of occupying a human body, or only in the form he assumed, "secundum habitum," as his formula was, which implies that what was assumed was merely adventitious, so that without it the person of the Logos would be the same as with it. In the Son's becoming man, his form or fashion (habitus) was found as that of a man, which he really was not in himself and to himself, but only to those human beings to whom he appeared in humanity. "Verum hominem suscipiendo," as he says (Dist. vii), "habitus inventus est ut homo-id est, habendo hominem inventus est ut homo, non sibi sed eis quibus in homine apparuit." He expressly admits that the Son was not conscious of himself as a man, but was a man only to men., This makes the incarnation only a sort: of prolonged theophany, and essentially disintegrates and breaks the bond of union of divinity and humanity. The conception of Peter Lombard is a continuation of the idea of the Antiochian school that the divine and the human are alike or comparable in nothing, and hence not in any intimate sense capable of union, but must remain exclusive the one of the other. The problem of the union is in reality avoided, and the mode given of the Word becoming flesh is a mere illusion. The proposition that God through the incarnation became nothing, is in fact nearly equivalent to the assertion that the incarnation attained nothing, established nothing-that is, was in reality only a theophany. This nihilism, yet should be noted, is not an absolute denial of existence, as that Christ, or the Logos, was nothing, or became nothing, but is only a denial of existence in a certain individual form. These views of Lombard aroused much opposition. The phrase, "Dens' non factus est aliquid," was rejected by the Council of Tours in 1163. His pupil, John of Cornwall, opposed his view in his Eulogium (ad. Alex. III, published 1175). SEE JOHN OF CORNWALL. The Lateran Council of 1179
condemned it, and later Walter of St. Victor especially made it appear that the language of Lombard contained the heresy of nihilism or that "Deus est nihil secundum quod homo." This so-called nihilism, that the incarnation was no new existence of God, was not God becoming man, but was only a new manifestation to men, with nothing new in God, appears also in the writings of Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus.
See Hagenbach, Hist. of Doct. vol. i, § 171; vol. ii, § 179.; Gieseler, Dogmengeschichte; Dorner, Geschichte d. Lehre von d. Person Christi; Augusti, Dogmengesch. p. 300 sq.; Haag, Hist. des Dogmes Chret. 1:279 sq.; Baur, Dogmengesch. vol. ii.
III. The term nihilism is also used to denote the views of a party that has assumed considerable importance in Russia within the last half century, and who call themselves Nihilists. Their nihilism includes a peculiar philosophical theory in connection with socialistic tendencies. It consists of three original elements: the "cosmopolitical" conception, the "political and social" principles, and the "moral" ideas in individual and collective spheres. Their theory of nature and the universe is based upon the two principles of the eternity of matter and the unity of the natural forces. Along with these two, they adhere to a third fundamental principle, that an objective method of investigation is the only way to the attainment of knowledge and truth. Materialism forms the chief philosophical element of this movement. The leaders have borrowed their philosophical doctrines from German materialists, such as Vogt, Moleschott, Buchner, and others, whose writings have had a pre-eminent influence in their doctrines. The most influential promoter of these principles was Alexander Herzen, who in 1834, while a student at the University of Moscow, was arrested, with some of his' associates, on account of their socialistic tendencies. He left Russia in 1847, and established a publishing-house in London for printing Russian translations of the writings of Louis Blanc, Mazzini, and kindred authors. Although not strictly the leader of the Nihilists, yet it was unquestionably he who gave the chief impulse to political and social radicalism in Russia. The leaders of this school or party were very greatly influenced also by the writings of the French Socialists, Saint-Simon, Pierre Leroux, Proudhon, Louis Blanc, and especially by those of Fourier and our own Robert Dale Owen.
These Nihilists believe that in human progress it is not only possible but absolutely necessary to begin at once with the present complicated social phenomena, in the way of a sudden and complete social reform, or with a revolution. They believe that this has precedence over all other agencies of progress. In regard to political questions, they regard the idea of federalism with favor, but are very decided in their antagonism against the extreme patriotic pretensions of the Panslavists, and against the principle of nationality as a special political theory. During the demonstration by the students of St. Petersburg in February and March, 1869, the radical political platform of the Nihilists was published in revolutionary proclamations, following each other in great numbers, with very nearly the same form and contents. Socialistic and revolutionary circulars greatly excited the more educated Russian youth, and finally aroused the government to persecutions, which began with the arrest of the chief instigator of the St. Petersburg disturbances, Sergius Netschajew. the instructor in religion at the Sergiewski church-school in the city. About the same time young men made journeys into the intrior, in order to study the "real wants" of the people, and to influence them by their advice and sympathy. In the cities they joined the "Sunday-school movement," and officiated in organizing schools, and in teaching and in giving lectures and exhibitions for their benefit, until they were closed by the government. In St. Petersburg, in Moscow, and in the larger provincial towns, the nihilist associations protested against the action of the government and of the nobility in the matter of the emancipation of the serfs. In consequence of this the government at various times undertook persecutions against the Nihilists. In August, 1871, after an extraordinary trial, Netschajew and many of his associates were convicted, and the political activity of the party nearly suppressed. Yet towards the close of that year traces of nihilist conspiracies were thought to have been discovered, and numerous arrests were made.