Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


The problem of new nihilism

  • 05 October 2021
Does life have meaning? Or, as the new nihilists suggest, is life meaningless? A new book, The Sunny Nihilist, by writer and journalist, Wendy Syfret, puts the case for nihilism as an antidote to the obsessive search for meaning and purpose that many modern people experience.

She argues that nihilism can give us much-needed perspective and free us from self-centred, stressful searches for meaning. As she rightly points out, this quest has been crassly commercialised and reduced to ‘masturbatory first-person narratives’, especially online.

In particular, she argues we need liberation from an oppressive conceptual world that exploits meaning and promotes an ‘obsessive individuality.’ According to Syfret, everything is ‘futile and meaningless’ because of the insignificance of one’s life about which ‘no one would give a shit’ in a hundred years. Recognising the pointlessness of life can help us focus on what we really value, she argues, ‘because if nothing matters, we might as well be happy and good to each other.’[1]

Syfret presents fundamental problems that humans, particularly moderns, face. Her answer, like other nihilists, is to sweep the carpet out from under us: take meaning away, get rid of the world that is just ‘made-up’, and we’ll (finally!) be happy. Nihilists confront the idols of our egos, and construct — or deconstruct — meaning as toxic. While Syfret still seems to hold a place for personal meaning, she argues that it is best contextualised ‘in a sea of pointlessness.’

Nihilism is an extreme kind of iconoclasm, yet it both mistakes the problem and proposes an unrealistic solution. Meaning — even ultimate meaning — is not the source of our existential angst and suffering. Rather, it is how we engage and use meaning, especially in a self-centred, limited way, that is our stumbling block.

Humans cannot help but be immersed in meaning. Even those who claim to be nihilists can’t avoid it. Nihilists like Syfret argue that life is meaningless by using the very structures of meaning (that is, language) to make universal truth claims.

'Nihilism is an extreme kind of iconoclasm, yet it both mistakes the problem and proposes an unrealistic solution.'

While Syfret denies ultimate meaning, humans necessarily engage the world through such meaning in their everyday lives. Whenever we make any decision about how to act, it involves expressing a preference about what is ultimately good and meaningful. For example, when I choose to teach a class, I decide that it is better and