Does anyone among our readership know anything about the history of American uses of the term “nihilism” in the 19th century?
I know that the German philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi is said to have coined the term in the late 18th century. And by the late 19th century, American intellectuals like William Graham Sumner and Lester Frank Ward are using it:
“Then we have socialism, communism, and nihilism; and the fairest conquests of civilization, with all their promise of solid good to man, on the sole conditions of virtue and wisdom, may be scattered to the winds in a war of classes, or trampled underfoot by a mob which can only hate what it cannot enjoy.”
— William Graham Sumner, “Sociology” (1881)
“The feeling is distinct in the best minds, and to a large extent in the public mind, that the tendency of modern ideas is nihilistic.”–Lester Frank Ward, “Mind as a Social Factor” (1884)
Or course Sumner and Ward are denouncing precisely opposite things as “nihilistic.”
I’ve managed to find what appears to be the first appearance of the term in the New York Times. A July 22, 1871 “Foreign Notes” piece notes that a decision by the Russian government to bar graduates of schools of science from attending universities was applauded by Conservatives who “hold that schools of science are the hotbeds of Nihilism.” Indeed, the vast majority of the appearances of the term in the Times during that decade involved Russia, and most of the rest involved continental Europe, though a May 28, 1878 article about a sermon preached in Wilkes-Barre, Penna. by Bishop O’Hara denouncing the Knights of Labor declares that the Knights of Labor are “the entering wedge of Socialism, Communism, and Nihilism, those repulsive societies which have been compelled to skulk for years in the dark corners of European States.”
So by the 1870s, “Nihilism” seems pretty clearly associated with foreignness and radicalism, which brings us more or less to the threshold of Sumner’s usage (indeed Sumner uses the same trio of “socialism, communism, and nihilism” that Bishop O’Hara invoked a decade and a half earlier. But that doesn’t quite account for Ward describing laissez faire as “nihilistic.”
Any details that those who specialize in the late 19C can add to this picture would be greatly appreciated!