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philosophers, have never felt easy on nothing. 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 rabble of centaurs and unicorns, 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.

the logicians 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).

the friends of nothing may be divided into two distinct though not exclusive classes: 1: the know-nothings, who claim a phenomenological acquaintance with nothing in particular, and 2: 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 is a genuine, even positive, feature of experience. it is far from being a mere grammatical illusion. we are all familiar with holes and gaps, and we have a vocabulary for lacks and losses, absences, 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 attentions 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 than that.

the alternative theory promises better things, or rather nothings. it argues, 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 frame 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 nonbeing, 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 conundrum 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.

- based on Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Volume 5 Paul Edwards, editor in chief, The Macmillan Company and The Free Press, New York 1967


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| Parmenides: On Nature | ~ | Plato) | ~ | Hegel | ~ | Heidegger | ~ | Ts | ~ | Sartre |

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