The Nothing is Happening

(In which I show my origins in continental philosophy.)

Nothing as a metaphysical entity–what is nothing? Is it as simple as saying it’s not a thing? But that which says it is not a thing is a thing, so the nothing can only be referred to by a thing, by an entity. Nothing only ‘exists’ in the horizon of being. Why even say nothing?

The animals don’t have a category for “nothing”.

Nothing is experienced as a lack, as a privation of that which should be there. This is only possible for rational willing beings. Something that I desire is not there. Nothing is there!

There’s an old joke about Jean-Paul Sartre going to the cafĂ© and being told that there’s no cream. Would he like his coffee with no sugar instead?

Think of nothing as a lack, an absence, a void, something missing. In that sense, the nothing nothings. Forgive me for lapsing into Heidegerrian speech! The nothing nothings, in that it breaks into your life and causes despair. What’s wrong? Nothing!

Nothing is happening quite a bit these days.

I did a terrible thing

I made a friend read Heidegger. We read What is Metaphysics for the Online Great Books podcast. I figured that Scott would hate it, and I was right. The discussion was good. Scott asked if this guy was being obscure on purpose, and I think that’s correct. But I wanted to explain here, briefly, why I love that 11 page essay. You can find it here.

Heidegger begins with the question about what metaphysics is, and rather than answer "The study of first principles," or "the study of being qua being," or "that which lies beyond the physics," he starts to ask the question about the questioner. What is metaphysics? As we would say here in Chicago, "Who wants to know?"

Dogs, as far as I know, do not do metaphysics. While I was working on some land, a neighbor dog came up to visit. Daisy only wanted affection. I don’t think for a moment she ever wondered about the being of the water in the bowl that I gave her. She was in the moment and content.

Humans, on the other hand, are the sorts of things that ask metaphysical questions. We don’t all do it, but some of us do. Heidegger doesn’t say "human"–he calls humans dasein, that which is there. This is probably intentional obscurity. Dasein is the being that is concerned about being. In other words, "Who wants to know?" Dasein wants to know. Dogs are not Dasein. The lecture gets very weird at this point, talking about the Nothing. Heidegger does this very often. He uses words in unusual ways that make it very inaccessible and jarring. This is certainly on purpose. He says somewhere that it is suicide for philosophy to be intelligible. Plato says a similar thing in the Seventh Letter. Philosophy is the love of wisdom, and if you think you’ve got wisdom, you won’t be a philosopher. If you think you’ve got being all figured out, you don’t have it. Nevertheless, I’m going to try to make it intelligible.

The Nothing: humans have the possibility of considering beings as beings, which requires us to be able to see around the corners of beings. We have to be able to go beyond beings (into the "nothing") in order to think about beings. Daisy the Dog can’t do that, as far as we know. We can even think about "everything that exists", taken as a whole. How can one possibly do that unless in thought it is possible to reach out beyond everything that exists? Into the Nothing?

If you are still with me, you are doubtless waiting for the payoff. Here it is: the question "Who wants to know?" reveals to us that humans can go beyond everything that exists. We can even go beyond existence itself, at least in thought. One might say that humans are transcendent. Heidegger finds evidence for this in the attunement/mood of angst, which is fear of nothing in particular. We can have moments of uncanniness. Kierkegaard likens it to swimming on the top of a very deep lake and realizing how much abyss is beneath you. Sartre somewhere says that fear of heights isn’t so much fear of falling as fear of jumping. The nothing beckons! The abyss stares back!

Most of you are healthy, well-adjusted people, and probably don’t have these feelings very much. Edith Stein complains about angst in Heidegger, saying that it’s a feeling of a sick person. Healthy people feel a great security (I think the word is Sicherheit) in being. Of course, this is just as much a metaphysical attunement as angst, but that’s a topic for another post. But leave all that aside. Is it not that case that humans are weird, that we have the potential to think beyond the boundaries? That we can think beyond even being itself?

What do you do about it? Usually we look for grand frameworks of meaning. We join cults or political parties. Perhaps we go to church. Heidegger says somewhere else "only a god can save us now," in response to the evacuation of meaning in European culture. He may be right, but he’s also right that humans are the sorts of beings capable of seeking after gods. We probably need to do it, too.