U.S. Intellectual History Blog

"Nihilism" in 19C America: an Intellectual History Bleg

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!

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. this isn’t detailed at all, but i think that nihilism can be another word for anarchism (bomb-throwing anarchism) and associated materialist individualisms. that would fit nicely with the quotes you give us (except, possibly, for the Ward one–does he really mean ‘laissez-faire’ when he says ‘modern ideas’?).

  2. Thanks, Eric. “Nihilism” as a synonym for anarchism would certainly account for many if not most of the 19C American uses I’ve run across….though not necessarily for the Ward quotation.

    The sentence I quoted from Ward occurs in a passage in which Ward is explicitly attacking laissez faire. Here’s the whole paragraph (Those with JSTOR access can find the Ward essay here.):

    Is there any way of answering these arguments? Can the laissez faire doctrine be successfully met? That all attempts to do this have been timidly made cannot be denied. That these have been few and feeble is equally certain. While there has existed in the minds of many rational persons a vague sense of some hidden fallacy in all this reasoning, none have felt com- petent to formulate their objections with sufficient clearness and force to warrant pitting them against the resistless stream of con- current science and philosophy of the nineteenth century. There has, however, been developing of late a more or less marked ap- prehension with regard to the possible consequences of this mode of thought. 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. It is clear that if they become universally accepted they must work stagnation in society. The laissez faire doctrine is a gospel of inaction, the scientific creed is struck with sterility, the policy of resigning all into the hands of Nature is a surrender.

    Now it may be simply that Ward is trying to associate (very respectable) laissez faire ideas with (utterly unrespectable) anarchism. Or “nihilism”/”nihilistic” may have some broader meaning in this context.

    All of this raises another question: what’s the origin of the use of “nihilism” as a synonym for “anarchism”? As I understand it, Jacobi coined “nihilism” as a description of modern, rationalistic philosophy in toto. Kant and his followers were, in Jacobi’s view, nihilists. Jacobi’s accusation that modern philosophers were Spinozist atheists certainly opens up the possibility of a kind of social slipperly slope. And I can understand the political value for 19C conservatives of claiming that modern thought led straight to anarchy. But that merely accounts for the “nihilism”/”anarchism” substitution. Who coined this? When did it first become popular? Does Nietzsche play a role in this story or does this usage predate the 1870s? (And I apologize if the answers to these questions are blindingly obvious to 19C specialists…I can only plead that it’s not my period!)

  3. Ben,
    I don’t know the answer to this highly interesting question, but I wonder if you have thought to look up nihilism in Webster’s dictionary, particularly a 19th century edition, to see what you would find. Another way to go might be to check the OED for historical uses or to look at Webster’s New World Dictionary (third edition) for historical American uses.

  4. Come on, David! The whole point of blegging is to make others do the work ;-)!

    OED is interesting, but its references are largely British. The word seems to have entered the English language in the early 19C, with a variety of philosophic and political meanings. The first occurrence cited is 1812 the following definition: “Total rejection of prevailing religious beliefs, moral principles, laws…”

    The anarchism connection dates from the 1860s and comes out of Russian Nihilism, which was a particular political movement.

    As for Webster’s, the word unsurprisingly does not appear in the 1828 edition. By 1913 you have a pretty predictable range of meanings:

    Ni”hil*ism (?), n. [L. nihil nothing: cf. F. nihilisme. See Annihilate.]

    1. Nothingness; nihility.

    2. The doctrine that nothing can be known; scepticism as to all knowledge and all reality.

    3. (Politics) The theories and practices of the Nihilists.

    Some preliminary (if not very interesting) conclusions/further questions: The Nihilism-as-anarchism meaning comes from a different trajectory (Russian revolutionary politics) than the more philosophical meanings of the term. By the 1870s the Russian usage has made it to the U.S. It would be interesting to know when U.S. discourse about philosophical nihilism begins and whether its shadowed by implicit images of bloody-minded Russian revolutionaries.

  5. i don’t have my books with me, and it’s been a little while since i looked at it, but it seems to me likely that Kloppenberg’s *uncertain victory* might have things to say in this connect, in particular about Ward and critiques of laissez-faire capitalism.

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