Italian philosophical debate has been occupied, in a large part and for a significant period of time, by the elaboration of the theme of "nihilism." Distinguished Italian philosophers have written about it, particularly Emanuele Severine and Gianni Vattimo. Many learned essays have been published in the last twenty years, along with important systematic studies and overviews, two of which have had a significant fortune: Il nichilismo by Franco Volpi, and Introduzione al nichilismo by Federico Vercellone. From time to time, the discussion about nihilism reaches a wider public, and the Italian media systematically show a certain interest in the theme.
But what exactly is meant by nihilism, and what justifies its alleged philosophical and cultural relevance? My opinion is that the discussion on the theme should encounter so to speak "a new starting point." The debate, particularly in recent times, has been contaminated by a certain number of misunderstandings, some of them connected to the so-called "culture wars," or the so- called divide between analytic and continental philosophy. Within these discussions, nihilism has been mistaken for antirealism, or relativism, or culturalism. Surely, there are positive connections among these positions and the theory of nihilism as developed by Nietzsche, Heidegger, and their interpreters. But looking at relativism, anti-realism, etc., in the light of the concept of nihilism implies some decisive changes in perspective, which, I think, ought to be taken into account.
In my essay I will thus propose a reconstruction of the concept of nihilism in its main aspects, at the same time isolating simple categories which can provide a new standpoint for the evaluation of different perspectives. I will also present an interpretation of nihilism that is partly an alternative to, and partly integrative of, other positions.
I specify in advance that my view is based on the idea that nihilism is a kind of "interrupted" or "broken" philosophy, and that this break is generally due to a certain tendency to mistake method for theory. In other words, nihilism is the typical conception of people who start philosophizing, but decide to stop at a certain point; and as to the reasons why this happens, a possible diagnosis is that certain methodological requisites of philosophical practice are mistaken by nihilists as metaphysical ones. So one may say that the cultural flourishing of nihilism coincides with a metaphilosophical misunderstanding.
It is worth noting that this does not imply a criticism of nihilism. On the contrary, following Hegel and Adorno it can reasonably be assumed that philosophy is the most "nihilist" among sciences and human activities, and that nihilism, besides being an important challenge to reason, is also a relevant methodological device for philosophical arguing and reasoning.
What is Nihilism?
A good definition of nihilism can be found in Turgenev's novel Fathers and Sons (1854): "nihilism" is the adhesion to a certain set of reasons that drive people to state the non-existence of any reason at all. By "reasons" is meant givens or elements supporting principles, or values, or criteria, the use of which authorizes a person to state whether a certain thing exists or not, a certain behavior is right or wrong, a sentence is true or false, and so on.
From this definition we can draw two interesting consequences. First, that nihilism is not a single thesis, but a cluster of theses, or rather conceptions, concerning the irrelevance of knowledge, good actions, life, and so on. Thus there is an epistemological nihilism, which asserts the non-existence of truth, an ontological nihilism, asserting the non-existence of (objective) reality, an axiological or ethical nihilism, asserting the non-existence or irrelevance of good and other values, a theological nihilism, asserting the non-existence of God, and finally a logical nihilism, asserting the non-existence of rules of argumentation and reasoning. …