Because We Must Ask the Question of Nothing
By Daniel Silliman
For Heidegger to pursue his project of the question of being, he must consider the question of nothing. He must consider nothing as nonbeing—the antithesis of being—and he must consider nothing as replacing the presupposition of being in the question of being, with being “holding itself out into the nothing."
In some sense, we cannot have being without nothing. Thus the question of nothing (“What is nothing?”) is necessary to our understanding of being.
Attempting to explore the question of nothing, Heidegger faces some contradictions that seem to be logical inhibitions in asking the question. The philosopher must deal with a violation of the assumedly ironclad law of non-contradiction on two levels.
Some of the statements are grammatically problematic. To say “The Nothing itself nothings” appears to be meaningless and quite confused. But to explore the contradiction we must reassert the importance of the question, asking: “What is nothing?” Some of the problematic sentences are a little easier. When he says: “[N]egation is grounded in the not that springs from the nihilation of the nothing” we can attempt an interpretation by positing a variety of meanings for the different forms of nothing. This too reinforces the question of nothing. As Heidegger asks: “How is it with the nothing?” It seems we could not claim these are contradictory without a look into the question of nothing the sentences propose to ask.
Rudolf Carnap summarily dismisses Heidegger and his question of nothing on these grammatical grounds, claiming there was a “mistake of employing the word ‘nothing’ as a noun,” and opposing “the fabrication of the meaningless word ‘to nothing.’” But while Carnap shrugs at the complex sentences and the unordinary use of “nothing,” he never turns to the question and asks “What is nothing.” He leaves us, finally, unsatisfied, without any hope of answering the question of nothing or the question of being.
But what are the rules of grammar and the traditional use of a word to stand in the way of understanding existence? We can afford to be a little unorthodox with our linguistic logic, tampering with it if we might gain, by tampering, insight into metaphysics and the fundamental questions of being and nothing.
The greater problem in understanding nothing, the problem that Carnap doesn’t touch and the question that really concerns Heidegger, is the question of how to understand “it” (nothing) without “it” (nothing) becoming an “it”(an object, a thing). We think about something as something but to do this with nothing is to negate the essence in the question. The question, Heidegger says, deprives itself of an object. This “formal impossibility” and “ostensible absurdity” of the question of nothing seem to again bar us from the important questions.
But what if we avoid the formality of the question—posing it in spite of these tangles—admit our belief in a nothing and attempt to encounter it? After all, every search really has a presupposed anticipation. Let us take that method, Heidegger says, and see if we can find the experience of nothing.
The first place we might consider looking for nothing is death—that is the place where our being seems to meet nothing. This brings the final problem we, with Heidegger, must overcome. How can we experience nothing while still being? How is nothing to be manifest for something being, existing, without nihilation?
Heidegger chooses to avoid the nothing of death and instead looks to the experience of anxiety. Anxiety is indeterminate, not necessarily falling into the formula or “anxious for…”. Heidegger thinks that anxiety reveals the nothing and when we are anxious we are “hovering,” without a hold on anything, where we slip away from everything. It is in anxiety that beings experience nothing without nihilation.
This idea of anxiety as the experience of nothing without nihilation needs more exploration, work Heidegger may have done elsewhere. It seems fairly solid yet leaves some niggling questions.
If we accept this as an experience of nothing, we may want to posit an opposite, an experience of being. We may consider joy—divorced from specific circumstances, the euphoria of mere existence—to be the opposite case where one fully experiences being. An opposite for the experience of nothing (anxiety) would be a revealing exploration and lend light to the question of the experiencing of being and nothing.
In the end we find we have to ask these questions.
What is being?
What is nothing?
These are metaphysical questions from which spring our entire understanding of ourselves and of the world. We must find a way to explore these questions despite whatever inhibitions erected by conventions of language and assumptions of rules of logic. If we don’t find a way to break into these questions we lose, as Carnap finds (26, 30-32), all discussions of metaphysics and any transcendent understanding of man and world.
“What is Metaphysics?” By Martin Heidegger, translated by David Farrell Krell. Originally delivered by Heidegger as his inaugural lecture to the Freiburg University on July 24, 1929.
“The Overcoming of Metaphysics through Logical Analysis of Language” or “The Elimination of Metaphysics through Logical Analysis of Language.” By Rudolf Carmap, translated by Arthur Pap. The work was first published in 1931.A footnote with the text said any metaphysician could have been used as an example for the necessary point, Heidegger being chosen as particularly illustrative of the problem of metaphysics.