On Nothingness

Excerpts from F. V. Konstantinov, ed., Philosophical Encyclopedia, Moscow: Soviet Encyclopedia Publishers, 1963, vol. 4, pp. 78-9


Nothingness [1] : Absence, non-existence of concrete being or absence of being in general—a category used in a series of idealistic systems of ontology. In materialist philosophy, “nothingness” does not represent a philosophical category, since materialism proceeds from the indestructible material world, but nothingness is pure non-being and impossible abstract emptiness. In the history of idealistic philosophy since the ancients, one can trace two basic approaches to nothingness. In the systems of one group (Plato and Neoplatonism, Christian pantheistic mystics, Hegel, and others), nothingness is ranked as a key category of ontology (like God, being, the absolute, etc.), and the principle “Ex nihilo nihil fit” (from nothing, nothing arises) is repudiated as incompatible with the presence of positive conceptual content in the category of nothingness. The second approach to the problem asserts the origin of nothingness from formal negation, i.e., nothingness is only a formal logical nominalistic concept, fully removed from the role of the problem of nothingness in ontology.

            Both these concepts of nothingness took shape in ancient philosophy, where the Eleatics represented the nominalistic position (“… being is, but non-being is not”—Parmenides, On Nature), but Plato was opposed to it, (‘It seems that when we say that which is not, we don't say something contrary to that which is, but only something different from it.” Sophist, 257b). A significant role in the formation of these positions is played by the presence of two ways to express negation in the Greek language, OU [2] (formal affirmation of non-existence, pure not), and ME [3] (non-definiteness, non-regularity with shades of “no longer” or “no more”) [4] . The next stage in the development of the nominalistic interpretation of nothingness consists of Old Testament philosophy and orthodox Christian dogma in its non-Platonistic, non-patristic understanding, which was predominant in medieval philosophy.  The formal-negative character of the orthodox Christian understanding of nothingness was dissected by Descartes as Nihil negativum (nothing is negative), as Malebranche did as well. The new aspect of the conception of nothingness as Nihil negativum was the objection by Bergson, affirming that the concept of abstract nonbeing, understood as annihilating everything, is a pseudo-concept, no more than a word (see Creative Evolution). But the sharpest negation of the ontological sense of nothingness is, according to Heidegger, the system of Nietzsche, in which the conception of nothingness, explained as a conception of being, is completely empty.

            The opposite approach, where nothingness is ranked as a central category of ontology, was a property of many systems of Hindu philosophy (Vedanta, Buddhism) where the category of nothingness was connected in a sense to the concepts of Nirvana and Maya. In European philosophy, the investigation of the positive content of the problem of nothingness has been realized historically in the form of the rather independent working out of the two complementary aspects of the problem, expressing nothingness in its relation to God (or even to pure being) and to man…. [Material on medieval Christian views of nothingness omitted]


Nothingness and Being-Here: In the 20th century, appeals to problematic nothingness are again found in many philosophical tendencies. Revival of interest in nothingness involves first of all the “fundamental ontology” of Heidegger, and the existentialism of Sartre. The main object of investigation in these systems is found to be nothingness in its relation to real being—absolute existence, being-here (Dasein).

            In Sartre’s basic conception lies a very broad interpretation of the sphere of nonbeing, to which he attributes any proposition, attribute, or conception if it is possible to discover a moment of negation in it. But since Sartre admits that “in itself nothingness cannot exist” (L’être et le néant, Paris, 1943, p. 58), it turns out to be necessary for the manifestation of nothingness in the world that some people be in existence, that there be human consciousness, humanity. Consciousness (pour-soi, being-for-itself) has to exist essentially differently from being as such, being-in-itself (en soi). Consciousness has to represent nothingness by negating itself, to be outside of being, to be independent of it, free. Sartre even describes freedom as the possibility for someone to distinguish nothingness, isolating it from the en-soi and freeing it. In the philosophy of Heidegger, the conception of nothingness is build on an analysis of temporality or immersion in time, constructing a specific being-here. Being immersed in time, being-here is engulfed in care, i.e., it directed toward the future, incessantly projects itself into existence. It is as if it is constantly about to exist, never, however, attaining genuine existence, and the its inherent “nothingness of existence” (die Nichtigkeit) is manifest in that being-here which is semi-existing, semi-nonexisting, which no one is able to attain completely. In this way existing is in the power of time, even the abolition (das Nichtende, the content of the sphere of nothingness) of its freedom. However, this chronological asymmetry does not mean ontological priority of nothingness over being, but rather leads to the establishment of a peculiar “dynamic equilibrium” between being-here and nothingness: nothingness permeates all existing spheres as temporal, actively operates in the world. “Nothingness and being belong to one another.” (Heidegger, M., Was ist Metaphysik, Bonn, 1931, p. 24), [5] grasping one another incessantly. This means in particular that nothingness is the limit of being, its disclosure and systemization: “Only in the clear night of dread's Nothingness is what-is as such revealed in all its original overtness: that it "is" and is not Nothingness." [6] (ibid., pp. 18-19).  Because of its dynamism, nothingness annihilates (nichtet) and in this sense it exists--that is, is connected to being--even if nothingness does not receive the status of existing, but has its essence in annihilation, is “destructive activity.” However, not being real [7] , nothingness is not able even to participate in being as disclosure, as truth, and therefore “is being only as secret and untrue” (Chiodi, P., L’ultimo Heidegger, Torino, 1965, p. 82), although “the truth itself is revealed only thanks to nothingness, as “a limit of being” (W. Richardson, Heidegger: Through Phenomenology to Thought, The Hague, 1962, p. 202). As the dynamic limit of being, and also destructive activity, nothingness discloses at the same time both the basis on which what is more real rests, and the abyss, in which the latter disappears (a dialectical basis, developed for the first time by [Meister] Eckhart).

            In Heidegger’s ontology, the problem of nothingness is considered as an existential problem, i.e., as concerning humanity itself in its relationship to itself. That ontology consists in an analysis of the relationship of nothingness to humanity as existential, and in the elucidation of the result and the meaning of the experience of nothingness. The feeling of nothingness becomes possible for humanity thanks to border situations (Jasper’s terminology); among them dread plays the fundamental role, which in its basis is consciousness of the truly ultimate extreme, that is, the feeling of death. “Dread reveals nothingness” (Heidegger, M., Was is Metaphysik?, p. 16). In the feeling of nothingness a person reveals himself as different from all others, divides himself not only from the world of nature, but even from all mankind. This is the significant content of  nothingness…. [Material on nothingness in protestant theology and Russian religious philosophy omitted.]


C. Khoruzhii, Moscow

[1] Nichto. "Nothingness" is a more literal translation, but is more awkward in English.

[2] Omicron upsilon. The Russian text has the misprint omicron-nu.

[3] Mu-eta

[4] In the passage quoted above from  Sophist, 257b, “that which is not” uses the Greek word ME, while the phrase “we don't say something contrary” uses the word  OU.

[5] "Being and nothing hang together," M. Heidegger, Existence and Being, Gateway, 1988, P. 346.

[6] Existence and Being, p. 339.

[7] sushchim

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