Nothing, by P. L. Heath (from The Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Nothing is an awe-inspiring yet essentially undigested concept, highly esteemed by writers of an existentialist tendency, but by most others regarded with axiety, nausea, or panic. Nobody seems to know how to deal with it (he would, of course), and plain persons generally are reported to have little difficulty in saying, seeing, hearing, and doing nothing. Philosophers, however, have never felt easy on the matter. Ever since Parmenides laid it down that it is impossible to speak of what is not, broke his own rule in the act of stating it, and deduced himself into a world where all that ever happened was nothing, the impression has persisted that the narrow path between sense and nonsense on this subject is a difficult one to tread and that altogether the less said of it the better.

This escape, however, is not so easy as it looks. Plato, in pursuing it, reversed the Parmenidean dictum by insisting, in effect, that anything a philosopher can find to talk about must somehow be there to be discussed, and so let loose upon the world that unseemly rable of centaurs and unicorns, carnivorous cows, republican monarchs and wife-burdened bachelors, which has plagued ontology from that day to this. Nothing (of which they are all aliases) can apparently get rid of these absurdities, but for fairly obvious reasons has not been invited to do so. Logic has attempted the task, but with sadly limited success. Of some, though not all, nonentities, even a logician knows that they do not exist, since their properties defy the law of contradiction; the remainder, however, are not so readily dismissed. Whatever Lord Russell may have said of it, the harmless if unnecessary unicorn cannot be driven out of logic as it can out of zoology, unless by desperate measures which exclude all manner of reputable entities as well. Such remedies have been attempted, and their effects are worse than the disease. Russell himself, in eliminating the present King of France, inadvertently deposed the present Queen of England. Quine, the sorcerer's apprentice, has contrived to liquidate both Pegasus and President Truman in the same fell swoop. The old logicians, who allowed all entities subsitence while conceding existence, as wanted, to an accredited selection of them, at least brought a certain tolerable inefficiency to their task. Of the new it can only be said that solitudinem faciunt et pacem appellant--they make a desert and call it peace. Whole realms of being have been abolished without warning, at the mere nonquantifying of a variable. The poetry of Earth has been parsed out of existence--and what has become of its prose? There is little need for an answer. Writers to whom nothing is sacred, and who accordingly stop thereat, have no occasion for surprise on finding, at the end of their operations, that nothing is all they have left.

The logicians, of course, will have nothing of all this. Nothing, they say, is not a thing, nor is it the name of anything, being merely a short way of saying of anything that it is not something else. "Nothing" means "not-anything"; appearances to the contrary are due merely to the error of supposing that a grammatical subject must necessarily be a name. Asked, however, to prove that nothing is not the name of anything, they fall back on the claim that nothing is the name of anything (since according to them there are no names anyway). Those who can make nothing of such an argument are welcome to the attempt. When logic falls out with itself, honest men come into their own, and it will take more than this to persuade them that there are not better cures for this particular headache than the old and now discredited method of cutting off the patient's head.

The friends of nothing may be divided into two distinct though not exclusive classes: the know-nothings, who claim a phenomenological acquaintance with nothing in particular, and the fear-nothings, who, believing, with Macbeth, that "nothing is but what is not," are thereby launched into dialectical encounter with nullity in general. For the first, nothing, so far from being a mere grammatical illusion, is a genuine, even positive, feature of experience. We are all familiar with, and have a vocabulary for, holes and gaps, lacks and losses, absenses, silences, impalpabilities, insipidities, and the like. Voids and vacancies of one sort or another are sought after, dealt in and advertised in the newspapers. And what are these, it is asked, but perceived fragments of nothingness, experiential blanks, which command, nonetheless, their share of attention and therefore deserve recognition? Sartre, for one, has given currency to such arguments, and so, in effect, have the upholders of "negative facts"--an improvident sect, whose refrigerators are full of nonexistent butter and cheese, absentee elephants and so on, which they claim to detect therein. If existence indeed precedes essence, there is certainly reason of a sort for maintaining that nonexistence is also anterior to, and not a mere product of, the essentially parasitic activity of negation; that the nothing precedes the not. But, verbal refutations apart, the short answer to this view, as given, for instance, by Bergson, is that these are but petty and partial nothings, themselves parasitic on what already exists. Absence is a mere privation, and a privation of something at that. A hole is always a hole in something: take away the thing, and the hole goes too; more precisely, it is replaced by a bigger if not better hole, itself relative to its surroundings, and so tributary to something else. Nothing, in short, is given only in relation to what is, and even the idea of nothing requires a thinker to sustain it. If we want to encounter it an sich, we have to try harder that that.

Better things, or rather nothings, are promised on the alternative theory, whereby it is argued, so to speak, not that holes are in things, but that things are in holes or, more generally, that everything (and everybody) is in a hole. To be anything (or anybody) is to be bounded, hemmed in, defined, and separated by a circumambient fram of vacuity, and what is true of the individual is equally true of the collective. The universe at large is fringed with nothingness, from which indeed (how else?) it must have been created, if created it was; and its beginning and end, like that of all change within it, must similarly be viewed as a passage from one nothing to another, with an interlude of being in between. Such thoughts, or others like them, have haunted the speculations of nullophile metaphysicians from Pythagoras to Pascal and from Hegel and his followers to Heidegger, Tillich and Sartre. Being and non being, as they see it, are complementary notions, dialectically entwined, and of equal status and importance; although Heidegger alone has extended their symmetry to the point of equipping Das Nichts with a correlative (if nugatory) activity of noth-ing, or nihilating, whereby it produces Angst in its votaries and untimely hilarity in those, such as Carnap and Ayer, who have difficulty in parsing "nothing" as a present participle of the verb "to noth."

Nothing, whether it noths or not, and whether or not the being of anything entails it, clearly does not entail that anything should be. Like Spinoza's substance, it is causa sui; nothing (except more of the same) can come of it; ex nihilo, nihil fit. That conceded, it remains a question to some why anything, rather than nothing, should exist. This is either the deepest conunddrum in metaphysics or the most childish, and though many must have felt the force of it at one time or another, it is equally common to conclude, on reflection, that it is no question at all. The hypothesis of theism may be said to take it seriously and to offer a provisional answer. The alternative is to argue that the dilemma is self-resolved in the mere possibility of stating it. If nothing whatsoever existed, there would be no problem and no answer, and the anxieties even of existential philosophers would be permanently laid to rest. Since they are not, there is evidently nothing to worry about. But that itself should be enough to keep an existentialist happy. Unless the solution be, as some have suspected, that it is not nothing that has been worrying them, but they who have been worrying it.


Modern writers who have had something to say about nothing include:

Barrett, William, Irrational Man. New York, 1958.

Bergson, Henri, L'Evolution creatrice. Paris, 1907. Translated by Arthur Mitchell as Creative Evolution. London, 1911.

Carnap, Rudolf, "The Elimination of Metaphysics," in A. J. Ayer, ed., Logical Positivism. Glencoe, Ill., 1959. Pp. 69-73.

Edwards, Paul, "Professor Tillich's Confusions." Mind, N.S. Vol. 74 (1965), 192-214.

Findlay, J. N., Meinong's Theory of Objects and Values, 2d ed. Oxford, 1963.

Heidegger, Martin, Sein und Zeit. Halle, 1927. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson as Being and Time. New York, 1962.

Heidegger, Martin, Was ist Metaphysik? Bonn, 1929; 4th ed., Frankfurt, 1943. Translated by R. F. C. Hull and Alan Crick as "What Is Metaphysics?," in W. Brock, ed., Existence and Being. London, 1949.

Heidegger, Martin, Einfuehrung in die Metaphysik. Tuebingen, 1953. Translated by Ralph Manheim as An Introduction to Metaphysics. New Haven, 1959.

Lazerowitz, Morris, Structure of Metaphysics. London, 1955.

Munitz, M. K., Mystery of Existence. New York, 1965.

Prior, A. N. "Non-entities," in R. J. Butler, ed., Analytical Philosophy I. Oxford and New York, 1962.

Quine, W. V., From a Logical Point of View. Cambridge, Mass., 1953.

Russell, Bertrand, "On Denoting." Mind, N.S. Vol. 14 (1905), 479-493.

Sartre, Jean-Paul, L'Etre et le neant. Paris, 1943. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes as Being and Nothingness. London, 1957.

Taylor, Richard, "Negative Things." Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 49, No. 13 (1952), 433-448.

Tillich, Paul, The Courage to Be. New Haven, 1952.

Toms, Eric, Being, Negation and Logic. Oxford, 1962.

Copyright (C) 1967 by Macmillan, Inc.