When the World Breaks Down: A 3-Stage Existential Model of Nihilism in Schizophrenia

Philipp Klar, Georg Northoff

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


The existential crisis of nihilism in schizophrenia has been reported since the early days of psychiatry. Taking first-person accounts concerning nihilistic experiences of both the self and the world as vantage point, we aim to develop a dynamic existential model of the pathological development of existential nihilism. Since the phenomenology of such a crisis is intrinsically subjective, we especially take the immediate and pre-reflective first-person perspective's (FPP) experience (instead of objectified symptoms and diagnoses) of schizophrenia into consideration. The hereby developed existential model consists of 3 conceptualized stages that are nested into each other, which defines what we mean by existential. At the same time, the model intrinsically converges with the phenomenological concept of the self-world structure notable inside our existential framework. Regarding the 3 individual stages, we suggest that the onset or first stage of nihilistic pathogenesis is reflected by phenomenological solipsism, that is, a general disruption of the FPP experience. Paradigmatically, this initial disruption contains the well-known crisis of common sense in schizophrenia. The following second stage of epistemological solipsism negatively affects all possible perspectives of experience, that is, the first-, second-, and third-person perspectives of subjectivity. Therefore, within the second stage, solipsism expands from a disruption of immediate and pre-reflective experience (first stage) to a disruption of reflective experience and principal knowledge (second stage), as mirrored in abnormal epistemological limitations of principal knowledge. Finally, the experience of the annihilation of healthy self-consciousness into the ultimate collapse of the individual's existence defines the third stage. The schizophrenic individual consequently loses her/his vital experience since the intentional structure of consciousness including any sense of reality breaks down. Such a descriptive-interpretative existential model of nihilism in schizophrenia may ultimately serve as input for future psychopathological investigations of nihilism in general, including, for instance, its manifestation in depression.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)169-192
Number of pages24
Issue number4
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • Existential model of nihilism
  • Nihilism
  • Nihilism in schizophrenia
  • Nihilistic delusions
  • Phenomenological psychopathology
  • Schizophrenia

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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