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Getting a Grip on Nothing

Getting a Grip on Nothing

9 Mins
February 21, 2011

This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 1999 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " The Continental Origins of Postmodernism ."

I want to lay out what I understand to be the basic structure of the argument, along the way dealing with some misunderstandings to which I think Heidegger’s writing will lend itself, especially with this audience. I should note at the outset that my interpretation tries to place the lecture in the context of Being and Time, which Heidegger assumed his audience had read when he gave the lecture. Also, I give a very Sartrean reading; if my interpretation is off, this is liable to be why.

Heidegger takes his lead from science. Science rests in and on a context of other ways of engaging the world, of which metaphysics is the most fundamental. Science without metaphysics is without a guide and is threatened with disintegration. Heidegger suggests that science claims to study the world, but that this is always contrasted with what science does not study, the nothing. So, to fully understand science and its context, we must get a grip on the nothing.

I think that Heidegger is employing a version of the stolen concept argument (the ‘stolen contrasting concept’ argument). When we debate, say, a dream skeptic, we might point out to him that he can’t say “Maybe everything is only a dream,” because in order to form the concept ‘dream,’ he has to have contrasted dreams with something which is not a dream, that is, reality. So it’s not possible that everything is a dream because the dream skeptic is implicitly assuming a knowledge of reality (and thus that there is a reality) in uttering his doubt. So he has stolen the concept of ‘reality.’ Likewise, for Heidegger, to say that one studies only the world is to demand a contrast object against which we define the world. That contrast object is the nothing. So science has, as it were, stolen the concept ‘nothing’ and used it as an implicit contrast object while denying any concern with it.

Heidegger is perfectly aware of the basic logical objections to trying to speak of "nothing."

This argument is especially interesting in light of David Kelley’s suggestion that we be careful to attend both to making explicit the contrast object of any concept, and also that we attend to the conceptual common denominator of a concept and the concept(s) whose units are its contrast objects. The only available contrast for ‘being’ is ‘nothing,’ but of course being and nothing share nothing in common (pun intended for Heidegger’s sake). So I suggest that this argument should be looked at in relation to Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology pp. 58-61 and 149-150, about the concepts of ‘existence’ and ‘nothingness.’ Heidegger is perfectly aware of the basic logical objections to trying to speak of nothing. First, if we ask “What is the nothing?” and then expect an answer of the form “The nothing is...,” then our answer is going to tell us what the nothing, which isn’t anything, is. So something’s gone wrong. Further, thought is supposed always to have an object, whereas the nothing is not an object. So not only can’t we speak of the nothing, we can’t think about it either (it’s not there to be thought about).

It is worth pointing out that the word ‘logic’ does not appear a single time in this essay without scare quotes around it. I don’t think that what Heidegger has in mind is getting rid of logic as such. Rather, look at it this way. If we had a logic which did not allow for the expression of material conditionals, then we would be forbidden from arguing like this:

A, and if A then B, thus B

because we would not be able to say ‘If A then B’ because that’s the inexpressible material conditional. The problem is not with logic, but with whatever so-called and inadequate ‘logic’ is popular at the time.

Or, to put it another way: It’s apparently impossible, in logical discourse, to discuss a predicate. Take a predicate term like ‘red.’ Now, in order even to specify that this is a predicate, we would have to say “Red is a predicate.” But of course in that sentence ‘Red’ was the subject. We rightly don’t take this to actually indicate that predicates can’t be identified as predicates; only that we have to finesse the logic and grammar a bit to make it so that we can predicate over predicates. (I’m drawing from Frege’s “On Concept and Object,” which I’ll confess I don’t fully understand.)

(A brief digression: Heidegger is traditionally taken as an enemy of logic, and that is the use to which he’s been put by some of the Postmodernists. But it’s worth noting that Heidegger changed his mind substantially over the course of his career. So the later Heidegger can be an enemy of logic, while the early Heidegger is merely suspicious of ‘logic.’ If I’m mistaken, the textual basis for a refutation of my interpretation has to come from other early writings, such as Being and Time.)

Heidegger has an answer to these two objections. He says that “...the nothing is the negation of the totality of beings; it is nonbeing pure and simple. But with that we bring the nothing under the higher determination of the negative, viewing it as the negated” (97). The idea is that ‘the nothing’ expresses just what we get when we perform the mental, logical act of negation on everything. But then we have in fact gotten the nothing from a logical act performed on a contentful mental state (or on the content of the mental state, if you prefer). So the logical objections don’t work after all.

Now that the logical objections have been dealt with, Heidegger moves on to suggest that the nothing is, after all, prior to the mental act of negation. On face, this move is troubling; it seems that, while he may have established that we can speak of the nothing because it is the result of negation, this hardly establishes that we can speak of a nothing that was not the result of negation. By referring back to the stolen concept argument, though, I think that this might work out better. That is, the concept of the reality that we negated had to be formed against some contrast object, which was the nothing. So the nothing is simultaneous with the reality which we negated to get the nothing. I think the back-and-forth about logic is really more polemical; there’s something wrong with your logical system if it both insists that the nothing cannot be spoken of and allows you to speak of the nothing. (Another argument (98) seems to run off of a Meno paradox: since we’re now asking about the nothing, we have to already have known the nothing. We have to have known this before we got to the nothing by negation, because we had already asked about the nothing.)

The key argument for this point, on page 99, runs that “...the nothing is nothing, and if the nothing represents total indistinguishability no distinction can obtain between the imagined and the ‘proper’ nothing.” What Heidegger is doing is assuming two nothings, one prior and one posterior to the act of negation. The posterior (proper) is the one arrived at by negation of reality; the other one (imagined) is a kind of original nothingness, not arrived at by any prior process. But it would be silly to have two nothings, especially if you don’t think you can have even one. So the proper nothing and the imagined nothing turn out to be not different from one another. So you can’t reject just one of them, and you’re obligated by the negation argument to accept one of them. So you have to accept both.

Then he moves on to an argument about how we would arrive at an experience of the nothing. Such an experience would be on a parallel with an experience of the whole of being. The latter experience, Heidegger thinks, is possible, because however much we may be caught up with a single entity, we are always caught up with it in its context. For instance, even if I am caught up right now with a single book, pencil, and computer, through their relationships with the rest of reality I am by means of them caught up with all of reality. Boredom and joy at the presence of a beloved are experiences in which all of reality are experienced more directly. In Heideggerian boredom, we are not bored with any particular thing, we are bored, plain and simple, with the world. And when we enjoy the presence of the beloved, we might say that we are experiencing the world as a good place, we enjoy being alive (being in the world) just as such. (I’ve just been playing with a kitten and I think it’s kind of the same thing.)

Likewise, there is an experience in which the nothing is directly given us, and that experience is the mood of anxiety. Anxiety, in this sense, is not anxiety about anything in particular, but about nothing in particular (or: about, in particular, nothing). (It would have been nice for Heidegger to tell us in this particular lecture that anxiety is the mood we feel in the face of death, but he is assuming that his audience is familiar with Being and Time.)

So Heidegger thinks that the nothing is given us directly in the experience of anxiety, which in turn is the mood in which impending death is felt: “We ‘hover’ in anxiety. More precisely, anxiety leaves us hanging because it induces the slipping away of beings as a whole. This implies that we ourselves--we humans who are in being--in the midst of beings slip away from ourselves” (101). The nothing is what death must seem like from the point of view of the potentially dead. It is important to understand that the death in question is one’s own from one’s own point of view. Other deaths, which are mere phenomena in the world (the set of objects) have nothing in particular to do with the nothing. Only one’s own death gives one anxiety in the face of the nothing.

I think that the argument runs: Try to imagine death. You can’t do it any better than you can imagine the nothing; yet we don’t say that death is impossible to talk about. You might follow the analogy and say that we can’t talk about death, either. But then Heidegger can ask: what don’t you mean by this ‘life’ that is the standard of value? Against what contrast object did we form ‘life’? What is it we’re trying to put off in our efforts to stay alive? So if Heidegger is successful in suggesting the parallel between the nothing and one’s own death, then we either have to give up talking about death (and thus life) or admit that we can talk about the nothing.

Heidegger moves on to try to answer his question (How is it with the nothing?) now that he is assured that it makes sense to ask the question in the first place. He says that the nothing is not some object as distinct from other objects. The nothing kind of sits on top of beings; it is a feature of them: “...the nothing makes itself known with beings and in beings expressly as a slipping away of the whole” (102). The nothing is that feature of a being made salient when it is considered absolutely out of all context. Imagine that the world has totally disintegrated and that all context has been rendered useless. That’s the nothing. The possibility, inherent in each thing, that it can be (mentally) taken out of context is the nothing.

For Heidegger, the relevant context is the teleological one; the context in which things appear as tools or means to ends. So the nothing is what appears when things cease being means to ends. Now, the absence of one particular thing is what is required for something to lose its place in the teleological context: the thing which imposed that context on it, the human subject. This shows the intimate connection between one’s own death and the nothing. The nothing is what is there for you if you aren’t. Or, to put it another way, let’s say that you, who are a subject to objects, are taken out of the context of all objects. That’s what death is, but that’s also the nothing.

Now Heidegger turns to ‘nihilation.’ Nihilation is one kind of negating. Nihilation is negating something’s being oneself; it is the realization, about everything in the world, that it is not one; that one is not it. Heidegger says that “The nothing itself nihilates. Nihilation is not some fortuitous accident. Rather, as the repelling gesture toward the retreating whole of beings, it discloses these beings in their full and heretofore concealed strangeness as what is radically other--with respect to the other” (103). Nihilation is the act of noticing that, whatever is, is not what one is. Since nihilation is an act of noticing and thus must be performed by a human subject, and since it is the nothing which nihilates, one is nothing. The terms ‘the nothing’ and ‘the subject’ are co-referential.

Apparently, Heidegger thinks of the subject as a kind of hole in the universe, a gap or absence. This is a rather stark version of the Aristotelian doctrine that the intellect is composed of pure matter, so that it is nothing in particular and can therefore take on the form of external objects.

This is why Heidegger says that “Without the original revelation of the nothing, no selfhood and no freedom” (103). There’s no selfhood without something that isn’t the self, so to have a self we have to realize what the self is not. That’s everything (all objects which can be given to one); the self is nothing. Further, were the subject something, then it would be governed by causal laws and would thus not be free.

The prior part is handled in Objectivism by the notion that ‘the intrinsic’ (as I’ll call it; whatever is not a subject or yet an object) can become an object to us only in a causal interaction with us, and so that it is only because the subject is not nothing but is a something with particular causal powers that there are objects and, thus, a subject.

The second part is not so well dealt with, as far as I can see. Objectivism wants to say simultaneously that everything is caused and that we are free, because freedom is a form of causal determination. This is supposed to work because the causation which determinists oppose to freedom is event-causation, whereas the actual causes of free actions, as with all other events, are properties (of entities).

Let me explain. Imagine that an event occurs in which an entity is the subject of the event, and the event occurs in virtue of the entity possessing a certain property. If that were true, then the event would have to occur as soon as the property was a property of the entity. There could be no delays, because it’s the *property* in virtue of which the event occurs. Nevertheless, there are delays, so there must be some additional component in causation. Now, when we ask what the cause of an event is, we are typically asking “What event occurred just before the event in question, such that, had that event not occurred, neither would the event in question?”

Let me use an example. A glass is knocked off a counter, and when the glass hits the ground, it shatters. Now, if we ask what is the property of the glass in virtue of which it shattered, the answer is (say) “It was fragile.” But this can’t be complete, because the glass was fragile before it fell. The falling seems to be crucial, but the falling was an event. So the notion that an entity’s properties are a sufficient cause of events in which it is the subject is inadequate.

Now, since free actions happen at the appropriate time, which is whenever a relevant event occurs, it seems that we are determined by external events (and properties which we possess). Now, unless we can determine which events will occur around us (and which properties we are going to possess), then we are determined by things outside our control and thus are not free.

Can we be free if we are governed by causal law, or must freedom be an exception to all law?

Heidegger (I think) would say that you *can* determine which properties you’re going to possess, because you are nothing. Being nothing, you have no identity, and can thus pick any properties you like. (Obviously, this would be constrained by the body and by logic [without scare quotes].) Heidegger concludes with a putting-into-context of the question of the nothing. For Heidegger, all metaphysical questioning returns to the subject, who is an inherently questionable thing. Uniquely, we are free and can die, so the question of our being continually arises in questions like “What shall I do (as opposed to doing something else)?” and “Why am I here (as opposed to nowhere)?”

He also says that it is only on the ground of nothing that beings exist. This is liable to be misunderstood. If I correctly understand Being and Time, what Heidegger means is that, were there no human subject, then there would be no principle of individuation. Things are independent entities because we make them that way; without us to individuate things, there would simply be being absolute. Further, nothing would be anything, because we would not be here to distinguish things’ natures.

Here’s an Objectivese version of the argument, drawing from David Kelley’s paper on propositions. Without a human subject to perform abstraction, nothing is abstract; that is, no feature is abstracted from the entity of which it is a feature unless a human subject so abstracts it. Now, for facts to obtain, there must be a human subject handy to abstract a feature from an entity, and then reintegrate the feature to the entity (with a proposition). So the distinction between an entity and its identity which grounds facts relies on a human subject, and is thus objective rather than intrinsic. A thing doesn’t have distinct properties without someone around to distinguish them. Thus, without a subject to perform this distinction, then there is literally no identity; just raw existence, the absolute. Identity exists only relative to a subject. As with identity at the conceptual level, so with individuation at the perceptual level: no distinct entities which have not been distinguished from their background by a distinguisher. (Obviously this is going to need some clarification, which I’ll be happy to provide when the unclarities are pointed out.)

So when Heidegger says that the nothing is prior to beings, he means the nothing qua subject, not qua hole in the universe. So I don’t think that this point rests on his claim that the subject is the nothing. Or, to put it another way, the stolen-concept argument may establish that ‘the nothing’ is conceptually simultaneous with ‘being,’ but this latter argument fails in establishing that the nothing (qua nothing) is ontologically prior to existence, though it may establish that the subject (qua subject) is ontologically prior to identity.

So I think that Heidegger presents us with three very basic questions.
1) Can there be some concept without that concept having been distinguished from contrast objects? i.e., ‘existence’ without ‘nothing’
2) Can we be free if we are governed by causal law, or must freedom be an exception to all law?
3) What is the relation of ontological dependence between consciousness and the identities of its objects?

In all three cases I tried to defend Heidegger’s point of view, but I think that clarification will be necessary, so I reserve the right to continue playing devil’s advocate until the matter seems to me to be fully clarified.

Finally, I hope that the focus of these notes doesn’t distract from the focus of the seminar. I know that we’re looking at Heidegger as progenitor to Postmodernism, rather than as progenitor to existentialism, but I know about existentialism and I don’t know about Postmodernism. So I wrote toward what I know. The commentators may find it best to focus on questions about mood and logic, as I suspect these are the features of the lecture which will be most pertinent to the subject matter of the seminar.

Response by William Dale and others

Response by William Thomas and others

Response by Michael Young and others

Bryan Register
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Bryan Register
History of Philosophy