Tag Archives: Nietzsche


Poppy Waring took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2016. In this post she writes about ‘egoism’ as a philosophical keyword.

Egoism is hardly a word that you’re likely to come across in your day to day life. In fact, I’d happily put bets on some high percentage of people having no definition to hand. Despite this, it’s also not exactly hard to grasp roughly what it discusses. ‘Ego’ is the self. As egoism stems off from this word, it encapsulates all philosophies linked to self-interest. These days it has also become linked to hedonism (as the press release for the egoistmobile ‘The Egoist’ tells us), probably due the worlds continued confusion between words that only have a few letters difference between them.

Something which became clear when I started my research for this blog was that there is a LOT of confusion regarding the differences between egoism and egotism. So, to clarify, here’s the differences:

  • The definition, according to the Oxford English Dictionary of egotist is ‘The obtrusive or too frequent use of the pronoun of the first person singular: hence the practice of talking about oneself or one’s doings.’
  • So egoism is more abstract and a course of actions, where as egotism require an personal involvement to be discussed.
  • Egoism is self-interest, where as egotism is self-obsession.

In the present day, we are probably far more familiar with the term egotism since it so often seems to come up when talking about celebrity culture. So in present day popular culture, Kanye West, is the prime example of egotism – his self professed love of his self, and placing of himself as the most important person alive right now could be the distilled essence of egotism. Yet I suppose if he’s acting like this purely to get exposure, there is an argument that his actions are egoistic… Probably best to avoid dwelling on that for now though…

One of the earliest examples of egoism in writing can be found in the works of Hobbes. In Leviathan, he states that ‘No man giveth but with intention of good to himself; because gift is voluntary; and of all voluntary acts the object to every man is his own pleasure’. It is this that would shape psychological egoism, countering the common hailing of altruism by religion. Skipping ahead, Max Stirner would advance the discussion of egoism away from purely psychological egoism and ethical egoism, going on to become one of the most influential writers on the subject. His exploration of the concepts found in ‘The Ego and His Own’, would bring egoism into then modern concepts, such as anarchism, libertarianism and individualism.

If you allow me to make a rather sweeping tour of the philosophical writings on egoism, one also can’t ignore the impact of Nietzches writing. It would shape the writing of most after him on the subject, whilst due to the notoriety of his linking with the ideologies of Nazism. It also would be where Marx and Engel would find a source of critism from which to build their own theories of Marxism/communism. Nietzche, argues that at our hearts we all follow egoism, but does not believe this is a bad thing – in true Neitzsche style he remains pretty silent on the moral implications on this, purely attempting to understand the way the world works. 

Egoism started to appear in popular culture. Some of the key British thinkers, writers and artist of the period, the Bloomsbury group, which would carry through in to the Edwardian era. Writers such as Erza Ound, Richard Adlington and T.S. Eliot would champion the self. Many of these ideas would be published, either in their own books or in Dora Marsdens influencial publication ‘The Egoist’. Whilst ‘The Egoist’ was an intellectual magazine, written for the educated middle classes, it also was published as all modern magazines would be. Unlike journals, it also contained advertising, and readers could write in to express their thoughts on articles from previous issues. 

The objective of the Women Movement being the development of the individual Ego… it appeals to the spirit of woman – Dora Marsden

Dora Marsden’s publications would go on to shape the progression of the feminist movement. Marsden played a large role in progressing feminism on from suffragettes, who were relatively altruistic in their actions and arguments. From around 1912 onwards, as the Freewoman became the New Freewoman, and the New Freedwoman became the Egoist, Dora Marsden moved away from the suffragette moment, towards a feminism which has far more similarities with todays feminism than the so called first wave. Other writers from this era, such as Virginia Wolfe would also find a sense of their self in the principles of egoism and feminism. In the footsteps of Marsden, as an egoist philosophy. The writer Rose Young would later describe feminism as concerning individualistic self development – crucial meaning that egoism in the realm of empowerment is not inherently selfish. Women for centuries have been expected to be altruistic, caring for their families at the expense of being able to explore their own identities and capabilities. Whilst men have been taught to always be egoistic firstly, and to strive towards altruism, women have always been expected to already be altruistic, and so egoism is a revelation to women allowing for self discovery and empowerment.

Whilst egoism fell out of popular favour throughout the war period, there were still a handful of writers who would carry to baton on from earlier writers such as Nietzsche and Stirner, developing their theories on egoism. Perhaps the most influential of these was Ayn Rand. In her work, The Virtue of Selfishness she makes the case for selfishness, reminding us that we inherently fear the criticism as we are told it is a negative trait. Whilst in popular culture, the rise of socialism, free love and hippie culture in the 60s would suggest the continuing trend away from egoism. Yet if we actually take a close examination of the protests we find that actually pretty much all of them actually have self interest at their hearts. The most obvious example of this would be the movement of sexual liberation, and as previously stated the feminist movement as was concerned with allowing women to be as egoist as men had been allowed to be for centuries. Even outside of this though, the anti-war protests, were often about preventing the self being sent to war as their more altruistic parents and grandparents had been. There is probably an argument for many social protests since the 60s being more egoistic than we would like to imagine – from the miners strikes, to the marchs of students for free education.

Rands work, outside of her own fiction writing such as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, would go on to influence those in many other unlikely fields, which would lead to her understanding of egoism permeating the public psyche even to the present day. For instance it is said that the comic book writers Steve Dikto and Frank Miller of Spiderman and Batman fame accordingly found some inspiration for the nature of their heroes in Rands writing. And with the continued popularity of comic book adaptions and the ‘antihero’, I think it would be fair to say that the idea of the self-serving anti-hero is pretty big in the present. I’ve been told that Deadpool is a pretty Randian (anti)hero…

And so we return to the present day. Whilst you might not see ‘EGOISM’ in flashing lights anywhere, it remains a constant in oour understanding of actions. In psychology, we continue to analyse whether we do anything for truly altruistic purposes. Just as the self remains a continuing obsession, we continue to live in an egoistic society. With the continued championing of ‘follow our dreams’, it seems pretty logical that This asides, what is clear, is that in todays society, where capitalism reigns supreme unchallenged, egoism is just another fact of life, and therefore has fallen out of common discourse.



Lucy Delap, The Feminist Avant-Garde: Transatlantic Encounters of the Early Twentieth Century

Mark s. Morrisson, The Public Face Of Modernism: Little Magazones, Audiences, and Reception

Eleanor M. Sickels, The Gloomy Egoist: Moods and Themese of Melancholy from Gray to Keats, (New York, Octagon Books, 1969)

(ed) Peter Singer, Ethics, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)


David Ashford, ‘A New Concept of Egoism:The Late Modernism of Ayn Rand‘, Modernism/modernity, Volume 21, Number 4, November 2014,

Michael Slote, ‘Egoism and Emotion‘, Philosophia, June 2013, Volume 41, Issue 2, pp 313-335


Oxford English Dictionary

Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy



Sebastian Packham took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2015. In this post he writes about ‘Nihilism’ as a philosophical keyword.

The dressOn February 27th, 2015, there began a worldwide debate about the colour of a dress. A picture of the dress in question had appeared on social networking sites the previous day, and divided opinion as to whether it was black and blue, or white and gold. ‘Dressgate’, as the phenomenon was dubbed, evoked distinct reactions from demographics across the globe, including among the more extreme, existential crises stemming from the apparent subjective nature of reality that the picture seemed to illustrate. If we cannot know for certain something as simple as the colour of a dress, then what can we really know about anything at all? Let alone abstract concepts such as morality, religion or the purpose of life. Of course, it would be foolish to assume that such philosophical sentiment was born from a viral picture in the same year that the once mythical hoverboard is set to become a reality, rather its roots date back over two millennia, and in the late eighteenth century formed the basis for the philosophical doctrine that would come to be termed nihilism.

From the Latin nihil, meaning nothing or ‘that which does not exist’, nihilism is the belief that all knowledge is baseless, and as such focuses on the rejection of values and constructs, including morality, religion and the inherent value of systems of government. A true nihilist would, according to Alan Pratt of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy.’[1] It may come as no surprise then, that nihilism has presented a profound philosophical problem, acting as the source of plentiful debate since its inception, and that the concept is often associated with deep pessimism, used pejoratively and with negative connotations.

The thinking that underpins nihilist philosophy can be traced back to the skeptics of ancient Greece, the subjectivity with which they imbue the idea of knowledge being summed up by Demosthenes, who held that ‘what he wished to believe, that is what each man believes’.[2] Such thinking was labeled as nihilism at the end of the eighteenth century, and the word’s invention is often credited to either Jacob Obereit, F. Jenisch or Friedrich Schlegel.[3] Becoming popularized through the period’s literature, perhaps most significantly the novel Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev – one of its protagonists being a staunch nihilist, the ideology began to capture the minds of contemporaries, becoming a significant influence on the work and thought of European philosophers, writers, artists and intellectuals.

Nihilism’s focus on the rejection of the various constructs that were conducive to human culture at the time, was attractive to the European revolutionary movements that advocated rearrangement of social structures and the dismantling of existing forms of government. Such movements found a particularly strong voice in Russia as a response to the heavy handed ruling of Tsar Alexander II.[4] The nihilist ideology of the Russian revolutionary anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, is evident in his article for the Deutsche Jahrbücher in 1842, in which he wrote ‘Let us put our trust in the eternal spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unsearchable and eternally creative source of all life –the urge to destroy is also a creative urge’.[5]

Mikhail Bakunin: Russian revolutionary anarchist embodying nihilistic values

Mikhail Bakunin: Russian revolutionary anarchist embodying nihilistic values

As Isaiah Berlin observed, Bakunin is advocating a ‘positive nihilism’, out of which ‘there will arise naturally and spontaneously… a natural, harmonious, just order’.[6] Among supporters of the state, or upholders of the religious authority which the revolutionaries rejected, however, the understanding of nihilism was that it was a philosophy concerned purely with mindless destruction. As such, the state began to actively oppress the activity of nihilist revolutionaries,[7] and nihilism became a blanket term, carrying connotations of subversion and chaos, for anybody involved in underground political or terrorist activity.[8]  Here we can observe two distinct understandings of nihilism developing – nihilism as a radical philosophy with  revolutionary potential, and nihilism as a destructive philosophy geared towards reversing progress. Both perspectives were tackled by Friedrich Nietsche, who in his work Will to Power, described nihilism as ‘a catastrophe…that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong’.[9] Upon such a spread of nihilism, however, he remarked ‘whether [man] becomes a master of this crisis, is a question of his strength. It is possible…’[10] For Nietsche then, nihilism could pave the way either to chaos or to a new moral order, and it is uncertainty as to which path nihilism leads that keeps the topic so divisive and widely debated.

The same way that Russian nihilism had been a reaction to various social ills in the nineteenth century, expressions of nihilism across Britain throughout the last century can also, arguably, be correlated with periods of significant adversity or discontent. The wave of riots that swept the UK in 2011, which saw moral nihilism enacted through mass looting, arson, violence and clashes with police, are often attributed to a plethora of social ills including racism, classism and a feeling of hopelessness as a result of economic downturn and an ever growing divide between the rich and the poor.[11]

A shop front and flats burn after being set alight by rioters in Tottenham, London in 2011

A shop front and flats burn after being set alight by rioters in Tottenham, London in 2011

Let down by society, it is argued, the rioters turned to rejection of moral authority and instead turned to violence and destruction to establish their position. Similarly, it can be argued that the anti-austerity protests the previous year were triggered by those involved, feeling betrayed, rejecting the authority of government and instead seeking to impose their will through violence –[12], effectively adopting Bakunin’s model of revolutionary nihilism.

Rejection of authority: Protesters vandalise a police van at anti-austerity protests in 2010

Rejection of authority: Protesters vandalise a police van at anti-austerity protests in 2010

Similar preconditions, along with the very real prospect of nuclear war have been put forward as causes for the wave of nihilism that swept the UK in the form of the punk subculture. The hedonism, crass behavior and drug abuse of those such as John ‘Sid Vicious’ Beverly of the Sex Pistols[13] acted as a means of rejecting moral authority and implementing a new way of living. Beverly popularized the phrase ‘no future’ (the original title for the single God Save the Queen)[14] during this period, which articulates the nihilistic tendencies of those involved with the subculture.

John ‘Sid Vicious’ Beverly enjoying the hedonism through which nihilism was expressed

John ‘Sid Vicious’ Beverly enjoying the hedonism through which nihilism was expressed

Such theories as to why nihilism has been expressed the way it has across Britain in the last century are not universal however, and with each of the aforementioned movements or incidences there has been a school of thought that places them in the broader context of moral decline. The liberalization of society, such as the prohibition of corporal punishment, it is argued, has restricted the means with which people can be disciplined, leading to a lack of respect for authority. The moral decline argument is often coupled with decline in religious belief, owing largely to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.  Such an argument perhaps holds most weight with the moral nihilism advocated by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, in which he writes ‘do you really mean to tell me the only reason you try to be good is to gain God’s approval and reward…?’[15] Here, Dawkins is rejecting the notion of absolute morality, and in doing so imbues morality with a new sense of meaning: if there are no moral absolutes and a subject is free to act abhorrently, the choice to act in a way they believe to be good means more than simple obedience to absolute authority.

The varying ways that nihilism has been understood and expressed can act as a means through which we can read the past and to understand the collective minds of the cultures that occupied it. An extreme philosophy, nihilism often picks up a pace in extreme times. Whether you believe it is a reaction to, or a precursor of discontent and social ills, its existence nevertheless demonstrates the extremity of emotion felt at the times it is rife. What relevance though, does the concept of nihilism hold in the present day? Can a philosophy centered around rejection really bring anything to human culture? Does nihilism represent a crisis for humanity, or can we use it as a way to remove absolutes and create our own meaning or ways of living? Is the inception and propagation of nihilism indicative of a desire for progress, or does it highlight moral decline in society? As a nihilist, I’d tell you there’s no way we can really know, but what we can be sure of is that a brief discussion of the concept’s history can help to prepare us for the next time an inanimate objects shakes the foundations of our reality.

Further Reading

Shane Weller, Modernism and Nihilism, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)

Karl Löwith, Martin Heidegger and European Nihilism, (New York: Columbia University press, 1995)

Ofelia Schutte, Beyond Nihilism: Nietzsche Without Masks, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984)

Keith Ansell-Pearson, An Introduction to Nietzsche as a Political Thinker: The Perfect Nihilist, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, (New York: Vintage Books, 1968)

Mikhail Bakunin, God and the State, (New York: Dover, 1970)

Peter C Pozefsky, The Nihilist Imagination: Dmitrii Pisarev and the cultural origins of Russian Radicalism (1860-1868), (New York: Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2003)


Books and Articles

Karen Leslie Carr, The Banalization of Nihilism: Twentieth Century Responses to Meaninglessness, (New York: State University of New York Press, 1992).

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (London: Bantam Press, 2006).

Michael Gillespie, Nihilism Before Nietzche, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

Ronald Hingley, Nihilists: Russian Radicals and Revolutionaries in the Reign of Alexander II, (New York: Delacorte Press, 1969).

Paul Thomas, Karl Marx and the Anarchists Library Editions: Political Science, Volume 60, (London: Routledge, 2009).

Databases and E-Resources

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011





[1] http://www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism/

[2] http://www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism/

[3] Karen Leslie Carr, The Banalization of Nihilism: Twentieth Century Responses to Meaninglessness, (New York: State University of New York Press, 1992), p.13.

[4] Ronald Hingley, Nihilists: Russian Radicals and Revolutionaries in the Reign of Alexander II, (New York: Delacorte Press, 1969), p.15.

[5] Paul Thomas, Karl Marx and the Anarchists Library Editions: Political Science, Volume 60, (London: Routledge, 2009), p.289.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Michael Gillespie, Nihilism Before Nietzche, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p.163.

[8] www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism/

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14483149 [Accessed 28/2/2015].

[12] http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2036392,00.html [Accessed 28/2/2015].

[13] Michael T. Thornhill, ‘Vicious, Sid (1957–1979)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011 [http://0-www.oxforddnb.com.catalogue.ulrls.lon.ac.uk/view/article/40644, [accessed 1/3/2015].

[14] Ibid.

[15] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (London: Bantam Press, 2006), p.259.