A Transcendental Reading of Heidegger’s ‘What is Metaphysics?’
In order to defend ourselves we’re going to have to subject father Parmenides’ saying to further examination, and insist by brute force both that which is not somehow is, and then again that that which is somehow is not.
—Plato, Sophist, 241d
Heidegger, in his text What is Metaphysics? asks and inquires into the question of the nothing. Here, I attempt to summarise and defend an interpretation of the question and the answer he gives to it. I’ll restrict myself purely to interpreting the questions raised in this text instead of situating it within Heidegger’s corpus. In this way, I’m attempting to extract a concrete thread of argumentation, self-contained within the text.
He begins the essay with a series of rhetorical moves intending to show that we have neglected the question of the nothing in metaphysics, even while having some notion of it, latent in our understanding. We certainly seem to have a notion of what it is or what the word could mean. However, as soon as we begin to consider it, it slips away. In asking “what is nothing?” or even using “nothing” in everyday talk, we seem to be attributing being to it. We seem to be referring to or thinking about something. But isn’t that the very opposite of what we mean by nothing? Isn’t nothing supposed to have no being? How can nothing, paradoxically, be something? Heidegger thinks that the very fact that we can formulate, seem to understand, and question the notion of nothing points to something beyond it being a mere word or speech act. The very fact that we can question whether it is meaningless makes it, at minimum, an open question whether it is meaningless or not.
Indeed, he will go further and say that we must have encountered the nothing somehow prior to our logical reflection on the notion itself. Not only this, but he thinks it is a necessary condition for the possibility of almost all human operations that we have had this encounter. These are the two claims that I see Heidegger making in this text and is what I will defend in the following two sections. Following these sections, I close on an alternative account to Heidegger’s that attempts to dispel the problems he raises.
The Elaboration of the Question
Heidegger asks us: “is the nothing given only because the ‘not,’ i.e. negation, is given? Or is it the other way around? Are the negation and the ‘not’ given only because the nothing is given?”1placeholder In other words, he is asking about the ontological priority of the concept of nothing. He is asking which of these two theses explain how we come to the idea of nothing:
- The nothing merely comes from considering a proposition or object and taking the negation of it, as in logic, making nothing a merely mental operation. (On this account, the concept of absolute nothing is reached by taking each being individually and imagining the negation of all of them, “the negation of the totality of beings”2placeholder in Heidegger’s words.)
- The nothing is pre-theoretically metaphysically given to us somehow, allowing for the possibility of negation in logic and thinking.
The former interpretation is the more standard interpretation of what “nothing” could be. The thought is that nothing cannot be or be experienced because only being has being, by definition. Therefore, the argument would go, nothingness is a function of the intellectual operation of negation, imaginatively extrapolated to all of being. However, Heidegger does not mince words in giving his answer to the question: he asserts the latter. “The nothing is more original than the ‘not’ and negation,”3placeholder and later “the nothing is the origin of negation, not vice versa.”4placeholder
In the following section, I outline and defend Heidegger’s defence of (2), attempting to specify the specific character in which the nothing must be given. He thinks that the nothing is a transcendental condition for the possibility of negation, individuation, and inquiry in general.
The Response to the Question
As noted earlier, Heidegger thinks that thesis (2) about the nothing is true – negation is parasitic upon the nothing, not the other way around. “The possibility of negation as an act of the intellect, and thereby the intellect itself, are somehow dependent upon the nothing.”5placeholder If this is right, we must have somehow encountered nothing already in order to negate. “If the nothing itself is to be questioned as we have been questioning it, then it must be given beforehand.” Thus, I think the best way of understanding Heidegger’s essay is to read it as making two moves. The first move is a kind of ‘empiricist’ argument for how we encounter and get the idea of nothing according to the principles of his philosophy. The second move is to give a series of transcendental arguments for the existence of nothing. In this section, I go over both moves in this order, as this is how the text unfolds.
The Empiricist Argument
Heidegger first gives a ‘proof’ for our actual encounter with nothing in ‘anxiety.’ While this may not initially sound like a very convincing move, it is worth getting clear about exactly what he means when he says this. Through this idea we can get a sense of Heidegger’s project and provide some background on the arguments he makes for the existence of the nothing that I describe in the next section. Thus, in a short detour, I’ll first explain Heidegger’s holism about meaning, which will shed some light on how this move could be legitimate. In this, we find the grounds for thinking that anxiety could have metaphysical significance and that we could genuinely encounter nothingness. Heidegger also distinguishes between ‘Being’ (Sein) and ‘beings’ (Seiendes) which I will be using in this section and later on. Being is the fundamental reality that includes everything, where beings are the things, persons, objects, and conceptions that come out of Being.
Heidegger begins by pointing out that no one could actually cognise the totality of beings and negate them as a mere idea to get the idea of nothing. It is impossible to do so, and by going through this activity of negation, we do not get to a sufficient idea of nothing. It is not really nothing at all. It is just a set of beings imaginatively negated. Therefore, we must have an idea of nothingness independent from this activity in order to undergo negation. (This is the claim I defend in-depth in the following section; for now, I assume it granted.) Heidegger argues that it must have come from somewhere other than this intellectual operation.
Contrary to the operation of negation, our lived experience does take place within the totality of beings as such. And this is how we will end up encountering nothing, according to Heidegger. He thinks we are within the totality of beings because he is a holist about the meaning of beings in the realm of human engagement with the world. He thinks everything that we encounter ties together according to the totality of actual and possible actions, interests, and conceptions of the world. For example, a hammer is only a hammer because there are nails, wood, other building materials, the idea of building, the goal to create shelter or to protect one’s family, et cetera. They all contribute to the meaning of the hammer. Thus, all meanings are constituted in an infinitely complex and constantly shifting coherent sum of competing significances. These factors all come into play in determining the meaning of some being for us. He means this in his comment that “No matter how fragmented our everyday existence may appear to be…it always deals with beings in a unity of the ‘whole,’ if only in a shadowy way.”6placeholder No matter how diffuse some thing is from some other thing, it figures as a part in the instrumental scheme we have of reality.
The metaphysical significance of such a view is as follows. The comportment some individual or group has towards the world determines in a non-trivial way the beings that appear to those people, according to what is meaningful to them. However, this does not mean we are separated from reality, only having access to a purely formal or instrumental ontology. This is to forget that we are a being amongst other beings in the world. For Heidegger, any encounter with those beings is not mediated by a third term, like a representation. Instead, beings are expressed directly through the immediate relationship between the actual temporal state of the human being and the thing it encounters in any given moment. And since we are ourselves a being amongst beings, the being grasped is a perfectly real aspect of Being, not a mere psychic addition. “[E]very metaphysical question implicates the interrogating Dasein in each case in the question.”7placeholder Thus, we might say: beings are relative, but real.8placeholder Therefore, even something like a deeply felt emotion is a way in which we encounter beings. Moreover, this emotional state cannot be in error about what it encounters (in the same way a representation taken by itself cannot be false). It just means that Being appears to the questioner in a different way. We are not sundered unequivocally from reality; we are of and amongst Being, and our attunement towards the world reveals it in a certain way.
For example, Heidegger thinks that profound boredom reveals beings as a homogenous fog with indiscriminate borders. Since we are not focused on any particular thing for some particular end, we are instead swamped with a fog of homogenous, “remarkable indifference” which “reveals beings as a whole.”9placeholder On the other hand, beings will be revealed to a scientist according to the variables they have set out to measure. These are the same kind of thing in the sense that some aspect of Being is being investigated, and the investigator must erect certain beings to undergo that investigation. These decisions are not the convenient construction of models, untethered from reality, but a perspective taken on Being, from within Being, for a specific purpose.
The move made from here is to attempt to show that a certain mood reveals the nothing. This mood is anxiety. This is where it starts to get somewhat obscure, but keep in mind that our conceptions can very much arise from mood as a mode of engagement with the world. Anxiety is not meant in a traditional sense as if it were the fear of something. Fear is always of something, for something, or in the face of something. Anxiety, on the other hand, is “anxiety in the face of …, but not in the face of this or that thing.”10placeholder (ellipsis in original) It is a kind of engagement with the world that is fundamentally indeterminate, empty of content. This indeterminateness is not a mere lack of determination either. For it to be anxiety, it is fundamentally incapable of determination.
In this anxiety, the totality of determinate being ‘slips away’ in the sense that any beings whatsoever are unable to be grasped – “all utterance of the ‘is’ falls silent.” This lack of determinacy revealed in anxiety can only be the notion of nothing. Now keeping in mind what we have said earlier about mood, the encounter with nothingness here is not merely an idea in the mind or a formal intellectual operation, but something that has ontological significance. We must say that “in the face of which and for which we were anxious was ‘really’ – nothing. Indeed: the nothing itself – as such – was there.”11placeholder
Of course, the obvious question remains: do we actually experience this bizarre kind of anxiety that is utterly indeterminate? I will attempt to answer this question by clearing up exactly how Heidegger thinks nothing ‘exists’ or in what way it is present. In doing this, we will see that examples of this are ubiquitous and quite normal.
Nothing cannot itself be a ‘thing’ in any ordinary sense because it is, by definition, no thing. “The nothing reveals itself in anxiety – but not as a being. Just as little is it given as an object.”12placeholder Neither is this nothing a kind of annihilation of beings, a negation of being. Nor is he even ascribing a being to non-being. “No kind of annihilation of the ensemble of beings takes place in anxiety; just as little do we produce a negation of beings as a whole in order to attain the nothing for the first time.”13placeholder Rather, nothing is given “at one with beings as a whole.”14placeholder What does he mean by this? Once again, we must think about this in relation to his holism about the significance of beings.
He means that the whole complex of beings in which we are a being remains intact in anxiety, but they lose significance for us. This loss of significance is the thing encountered in anxiety and is the work of the nothing itself: “In anxiety beings as a whole become superfluous.” Thus, nothing is more like an action or force that imposes itself on humans most starkly when they are in this kind of anxiety; it makes beings retreat from us as indeterminate. This activity of nothing he calls ‘nihilation.’15placeholder And once again, since we are in and amongst beings, this nothing experienced is something real within being. This is how we can make sense of his claim that the nothing is “at one with” being.
An example that shows that one might have had this experience before is as follows. Take the question that many of us have asked ourselves: “why is there something rather than nothing?” This seems to be a coherent and meaningful question. Alternatively, “there could have been nothing” seems like a true statement. However, if there is only being (and no nothing), the question must be meaningless. Here is why. In order to conceive of nothing, you must first conceive of it as existing. But it is impossible to conceive of nothing existing because, it cannot exist, by definition. It is a contradiction in terms. Therefore, nothing does not exist, and the question is meaningless. This is a perfectly natural answer to the question (and one I happen to accept), but regardless it is still a statement that is compelling to us, and it must be explained why. In the next section, I go over why, from Heidegger’s perspective, accepting the meaninglessness of the question forces one to deny the existence of other things such as modality, individuality, and logical negation. For now, I’ll give Heidegger’s explanation for our interest in the question.
For this not to be a meaningless question, we would have to have some idea about what nothing means. If all of existence is pure being, affirmation, this idea could never even come to mind. Thus, according to Heidegger, the reason we find the question about the contingency of the universe compelling (and why he finds it meaningful) is because we must have encountered the nothing in experience. This experience is anxiety. We would not even be able to formulate the question without an encounter with nothingness. (This is why I have called this move the ‘empiricist argument’ because it resembles the kind of methodological thought behind Hume’s copy principle.) In this way, encountering the nothing is the transcendental condition for the possibility of thinking about that question meaningfully. If you take yourself to have meaningfully thought this way, for Heidegger, you must have encountered anxiety and the nothing.
In its current form, this may be utterly unconvincing. However, as will be seen, this is a kind of argument that Heidegger thinks he can extend to a lot more than just this question. In extending the idea of nothing further to be the transcendental condition for many kinds of inquiry, the stakes can be shown to be much higher for one denying this relatively obscure argument about anxiety and nothing. This kind of transcendental argument is the second move Heidegger makes in this text and is outlined and defended in the next section.
The Transcendental Argument(s)
Transcendental arguments take the form of modus ponens but have a specific character. They take some premise that seems to be given and argue that certain conditions must hold for such a given to be possible. At their most basic, they take this form:
- P is given.
- Q is a necessary condition for the possibility of P.
- Therefore, Q.
For example, Descartes gives a transcendental argument for the cogito in the Meditations:
- There are thoughts.
- If there are thoughts, there must be a thinker.
- Therefore, there is a thinker.
The great benefit of transcendental arguments is that the first premise is almost always something even a sceptic (of any stripe) would have to admit. It would be a significant burden on the sceptic to deny that we have thoughts, for example. Thus, if a good case can be made for the second premise (where I happen to disagree with Descartes), then the sceptic is forced to accept a conclusion they denied until then, even with only minimal commitment to some given. Transcendental arguments can establish quite a lot metaphysically, from very little. The other virtue is that, philosophically, it seems like the goal of metaphysics, if anything at all, would be to explain certain givens that require explanation. Arguably much of philosophy has always been transcendental, not just since Kant but before that too, at least in the sense that philosophers have always argued in this way, we just have not been calling it that.16placeholder
Anyway, Heidegger seems to think we can make such arguments for the existence of nothing. This is because without it, determinate thought, logic, science – inquiry itself – would be impossible. But why would we think this is the case?
In what follows, I’ll give what I take to be the four transcendental arguments Heidegger gives in the rest of the essay. They will be slightly different from the form given above, as I will change the third premise in each argument to a disjunction between accepting the nothing and the undesirable consequences of denying the given premise (1). I do this to allude to a response to Heidegger that I will sketch out briefly at the end. The first is that the nothing is required for us to individuate beings from Being. The second is that the nothing is required for the logical operation of negation (thesis (2) from earlier). The third is that the nothing is required for the thought or being of any kind of modality. The fourth is that the nothing is required for our notion of selfhood.
The first transcendental argument Heidegger makes is that we cannot individuate Being into beings in the world, that is, pick them out as independent, without the notion of the nothing. He formulates this in a couple of different ways:
“In the clear night of the nothing of anxiety the original openness of beings as such arises: that they are beings – and not nothing. But this “and not nothing” … is not some kind of appended clarification. Rather it makes possible in advance the revelation of beings in general. The essence of the originally nihilating nothing lies in this, that it brings Da-sein for the first time before beings as such.”17placeholder
Alternatively, he says:
“Science would like to dismiss the nothing with a lordly wave of the hand. But…scientific existence is possible only if in advance it holds itself out into the nothing…Only because the nothing is manifest can science make beings themselves objects of investigation. Only if science exists on the basis of metaphysics can it advance further in its essential task, which is not to amass and classify bits of knowledge but to disclose in ever-renewed fashion the entire region of truth in nature and history.”18placeholder
As you can see, this includes the individuation of entities by the sciences, making the nothing not just a precondition of the individuation of objects in thought but also in the sciences, or really any inquiry at all that requires something to be picked out – which is almost everything.
We might think this is the case because the precondition of individuating some object is to single it out as not everything else related to it. Remember, Heidegger is a holist about the signification of beings to us. This means that any being can be defined only in its relation as not being everything else in the whole web of signification. It is not enough merely to give a partial description of something’s intrinsic properties as it could apply to a great many things; it must be done in a way that positively differentiates it as not each and every other thing. For example, it seems to be in the definition of a lamp not merely that it lights up a dark room, but also that it is not a table, spoon, tree, or book. While these definitions are conventional in the sense that they might change or be vague, they do pick out actual beings in the world. And anytime we individuate the world into these beings, we make distinctions that include a primitive form of negation. This is Heidegger’s nothing, or nihilation. Even when we define something by ostension, we are saying: “I am pointing at this being, which is not these other beings,” and without this process, there is no set of beings established at all.
Take a particular chair, for example. When you are looking at this particular chair, it is not given immediately as a being in perception to you. Rather, you have a gestalt image of the positive reality making up the chair and its surroundings – a continuous region of Being. Only once the nihilation of the chair’s surroundings occurs, for you and as significant for you, do you see it as an independent and individual being. In the same way beings lose significance for us in anxiety, the great complex of beings surrounding the chair must lose significance for us to see it as a chair at all. In other words, the nothing must be at work in the world for us to even identify beings at all. Moreover, since you are a being amongst beings, the nothing is something not merely at work in the mind and somehow detached from reality, but something in the world with real existence. Even if the weaker and perhaps more plausible situation were the case, that the nothing is merely a transcendental condition for thinking of individuals in the mind, whatever the mind is, it is still part of Being and thus has real existence, according to Heidegger.
If the world were made up of entirely positive existents, individuation could not happen in this way because there would be no nothing to do so. The world in itself would either be a primitively continuous existent (as we seem to experience pre-individuation) or fundamentally unknowable. Thus, if Heidegger is right about this, denial of the nothing leads to two possible outcomes. The first is a global rejection of real individuation and the affirming of a kind of Eleatic monism. This includes a rejection of science, too, because, in order to postulate entities and forces at all, they must be individuated somehow. This explains his remark that “scientific existence is possible only if in advance it holds itself out into the nothing…Only because the nothing is manifest can science make beings themselves objects of investigation.” The second alternative is to take individuated objects in experience and objects posited by schools of inquiry to be purely instrumental guides to navigating the world relative to our cognitive apparatus rather than taking them as primitive constituents of reality. But then all science, and common-sense objects, must be given up as things that actually carve the world at its joints, and our knowledge of the world must be relegated to representations, the relationship they bear with the world remaining mysterious. Thus, we have our argument:
- Individuation in thought and being is real.
- The conditions for the possibility of individuation being real is the reality of the nothing.
- Either (1) is false (because there is no real individuation or because individuation is merely an operation of the mind with an unknown connection to reality), or the nothing is real.
The choices for the sceptic of the argument are as follows. They could deny that nothing is needed for individuation. However, this would require somehow defining each thing independently and without appeal or relation to each other thing. As this essay has attempted to show, we cannot even come to the idea of individuality, or any particular individual, without the nihilation of some thing’s environment from our immediately given experience. Finally, even if the beings we come to discover are real and atomic, the nothing would still be a necessary precondition to begin the inquiry into their existence in the first place, even if those things inquired into never figure into our final theories. We never actually see an object by itself, so we must encounter the nothing if individuation is to be real or even apparent. Thus, they could either deny (1), accepting either Eleatic monism or Kantianism, or they could accept the nothing. The nothing is a transcendental condition for individuation. As will be seen, this ability for individuation will undergird the rest of the arguments.
The second claim is that we cannot apply the logical operation of negation without encountering nothing. This is the position Heidegger outlines at the start of the essay, thesis (2), to explain negation. He seems to think this is the most obvious instance of nothing’s nihilation (though perhaps the least important) when he asks: “What testifies to the constant and widespread though distorted revelation of the nothing in our existence more compellingly than negation?” There are two arguments given for this claim. The first is that there is a lot of ‘data’ that refers to the nothing that needs explaining, such as direct experience of it, belief in it, and judgments including it. The second is that individuation, which requires the nothing, is a necessary condition for the logical operation of negation.
Firstly, negation and other occurrences, including negativity, would not be possible without the nothing. This argument is given more explicitly by Sartre in Being and Nothingness19placeholder but mirrors what I think Heidegger is doing in his essay when he writes that “Unyielding antagonism and stinging rebuke have a more abysmal source than the measured negation of thought. Galling failure and merciless prohibition require some deeper answer.”20placeholder The argument begins by asking: if reality were made up of entirely positive existences, how could we come to the notion of a negative judgement (or other negative experiences) such as “it is not raining”? We certainly could not experience the lack of something on this account because there is nothing negative to experience; there is only plenitude. This is because, on this picture, for something to be experienced, it must be, by definition, something. Thus, no conceivable experiential account can be given about how we come to make negative judgements in a metaphysics of positivity.
To avoid this conclusion, some account must be given to reduce such negative facts to positive ones. However, this is fraught with difficulty (though I do suggest a way to do this in the next section). Not only do we make negative judgements or assertions, but we also have negative beliefs where we believe something is not the case. We experience moments of lack, such as in “galling failure” or “bitter privation.”21placeholder It even seems like absences are causally efficacious, such as someone dying from a lack of oxygen. All these different aspects of negative existence must be explained. No plausible logic would deny the truth of negative judgements such as “it is not raining” uttered when it is not raining, even though there is nothing there.
The simplest (though not the only) explanation is that we read my previous sentence literally: there is nothing there. There is an irreducible nihilation, or nothingness, occurring in the world that grounds such occurrences. Since negation is one of the primary and ubiquitous operations of thought and experience, the idea that it has actual existence as an explanatory posit ought to command some credence. Thus, we should take quite seriously this alternative to paraphrasing such facts. It is the actual existence of nothing that is the necessary condition for intelligibly understanding, seeing, saying, reporting on, and believing the not, or for experiencing some savage loss. When I say to my friend, “it is raining,” and we go outside, and it is not raining, the absence of rain is a real and objective fact about the world.
Secondly, we do not merely have good reason to think negation is founded on nothingness, as evidenced by the last argument. Heidegger thinks negation is necessarily grounded on nothingness. The argument he gives is simple:
“negation does not conjure the ‘not’ out of itself as a means for making distinctions and oppositions in whatever is given, inserting itself, as it were, in between what is given. How could negation produce the not from itself when it can make denials only when something deniable is already granted to it? But how could the deniable and what is to be denied be viewed as something susceptible to the not unless all thinking as such has caught sight of the not already?”22placeholder
As we have already seen, Heidegger thinks the nothing is necessary for individuation. Here he points out that without some prior notion of individuation, you could never get the notion of an individual proposition or being, p. Without an individual proposition or being, presupposed by the formalism in the assertion of p, there is nothing to negate and thus no negation. Therefore, the nothing must be real to explain negation in thought, experience, and in our use of logic. The argument can be formalised as follows:
- We legitimately use the logical operation of negation.
- To legitimately use the logical operation of negation, we must have the notion of an individual proposition or being to negate.
- The nothing being real is a necessary condition for having the notion of an individual proposition or being in which to negate.
- The nothing being real is a necessary condition for the possibility of the legitimate use of the logical operation of negation.
- Either (1) is false, or the nothing is real.
Premises (1) and (2) are hard to deny, and (4) follows from the previous three premises. Thus, as we can see, this argument relies entirely on premise (3), which is just a restatement of the previous argument that individuation in thought and being requires the nothing to be real. Thus, the operation of negation relies, at an even more basic level than experience, on whether individuation is possible without negation. However, as already noted, even if this argument fails, our experience of lack needs also to be explained.
Another interesting consequence of this is that the nothing cannot be the negation of being because the notion of negation is itself grounded in nothing. Thus, if this argument succeeds, it refutes the flat-footed charge that the whole discussion of nothing is meaningless because it is a contradiction in terms. There cannot even be a contradiction (in the sense of p & ~p) without the nothing if Heidegger is right, because for there to be a contradiction there must be negation. “The nothing does not remain the indeterminate opposite of beings but reveals itself as belonging to the Being of beings.”23placeholder The nothing is a transcendental condition for negation.
The next thing we cannot have without the nothing is modality; necessity and contingency. We think in terms of necessity and contingency all the time. The fact that my name is Rowan seems like a contingent truth (I could have been named something else), while the fact that there cannot be a square circle seems like a necessary truth (this could not be false). A great deal of our thoughts and intentions are utterly suffused with assessments of the world in terms of things’ modal properties.
For example, I know if I use a tool in a certain way, it will break. Or I might think specific outcomes have an objectively higher probability of occurring than some others. However, if the world were made up of entirely positive existences, how could we ever come to these notions? To think that I could have a different name, I must think that I could have not had that name. To think probabilistically I must think something could not happen. A universe of purely positive existences that excludes the nothing entails a strict actualism about modality because no facts could have either not been or are necessarily so. They just are.24placeholder This is because these conceptions require a negation, which requires the nothing. Nor could any object have modal properties, or any event have any real probability attached to it. One who rejects the nothing as meaningless also must reject all modal and probabilistic statements as meaningless. You would be forced to paraphrase modal statements as useful fictions that reference the actual world.
Heidegger would go further. To get the notion of contingency at all, you must have been able to think of something: this could not have been. Once this thought is had, you come to the notion of necessity by thinking some things immune to this kind of interrogation: this thing could not have not been. However, to have this thought at all and to think of it as tracking some meaningful metaphysical distinction, one must have some notion of nothing, built-in or encountered. Thus, we have our argument:
- Modality (of any kind) in thought and being is real.
- The reality of the nothing is a necessary condition for the possibility of modality being real.
- Either (1) is false, or the nothing is real.
Thus, the choices for the sceptic of this argument are as follows. First, they could deny that the nothing is required for modality. However, it remains a puzzle how you could to these notions without it, as this essay has attempted to demonstrate with the discussion of negation. Thus, they could either reject modality and embrace actualism (denial of 1) or accept the nothing. The nothing is a transcendental condition for modality.
The final transcendental argument Heidegger gives is that we could not come to the notion of the self without the nothing. The reason we cannot have a conception of the self is that without us being “held out into the nothing” as we are in anxiety, we cannot individuate even ourselves as some distinctive being. If we never went through any anxiety whatsoever, the process of beings being individuated into objects of reflection, we would experience a universe of pure positivity, like a tree might. All beings would always have significance for us, and thus we would be immediately and unreflectively engaged in a world not even of objects, nor even of instruments, but one of pure mechanism. (Think of being deeply engaged in a simple but attention-requiring task, the sense of self seems to dissolve in those moments.) We would act not even like a dog or a cat, who seem to have some primitive capability to individuate beings. We would be more like a clock or calculator. Thus, the nothing as the thing that individuates and appears to us draws us out of pure instinct or purely mechanical engagement with the world and into a mode that can differentiate and make distinctions between beings. Thus, according to Heidegger, the nothing explains the special pre-eminence humans seem to have in the world, over objects and animals.
The fact that we have a sense of selfhood owes it to the nothing we encounter that enables us even to differentiate ourselves from our environment in the first place. “Without the original revelation of the nothing, no selfhood and no freedom.”25placeholder We are still a being amongst beings, and thus in some sense continuous with the rest of Being, but we have self-consciousness. This self-consciousness is constitutive of a kind of selfhood sufficient to distinguish oneself from other beings. We are distinct in the sense that we have exceptional access to the nothing that other beings do not have. For this reason, we have a claim to the title of self. The argument goes as follows:
- There is selfhood.
- For there to be selfhood, one must be able to individuate oneself from its environment.
- The nothing being real is a necessary condition for one to individuate the self from its environment.
- The nothing being real is a necessary condition for the possibility of selfhood.
- Either (1) is false, or the nothing is real.
This argument is not as strong as the last because the stakes of denying the first premise are not as high. Many philosophers are willing to give up a substantial self. However, it is still an interesting argument because if you think that humans are a different kind of thing from animals (I do not), this would be the thing that demarcates them: self-consciousness and our reflective capabilities. Heidegger seems to be taking this line that humans are exceptional in this way. In the same way that we come to be conscious of any ordinary object such as a table or chair, or of scientific objects such as atoms or quarks, whose unique and individual being must exclude all other beings in its environment, it is just as necessary for us to come to the notion of ourselves in the same way. Even if there is no substantial self, there still is a substantial sense of self. For this feeling to be possible, we need to individuate ourselves alongside the work of the nothing.
The transcendental arguments are coherent without (and almost definitely more convincing than) the ‘empirical argument’ outlined earlier. Nevertheless, it is worth keeping in mind that context in evaluating the former. The experience of and thus the real existence of nothing for Heidegger is ultimately what undergirds its positive existence in the world, rather than being something merely in the mind.
It might be suspected that some sleight of hand has been pulled to get these conclusions. It might be objected that Heidegger is sneaking a mere operation of the mind into reality. The argument might be that we can accept the idea of negation being an operation of thought that allows us to pick out separate existents, but to posit a kind of nothing as an irreducible existent is a contradiction in terms. On this view, the nothing would be a transcendental condition of cognition, but not something in reality. To this, I reply that Heidegger is right to go further than this. Unless you are a mind-body dualist, or Kantian sceptic (and thus give up knowledge of the relationship between these operations and the real world a priori anyway), the questioner is always implicated in the question. The ‘operations of the mind’ at work are something similarly implicated with its environment. To deny this is to set up an unbridgeable dualism of mind and matter. Those who cognise are a being amongst beings in the world, and thus whatever is ‘in the mind’ is in the world.
It seems to me that the right path in rejecting this account is to deny the nothing completely, accept the unsavoury conclusions that I have drawn out, and paraphrase our seeming reference to negative existents to instead refer to other positive existents. I briefly attempt to do this in the following section. Thus, if you are just here for Heidegger’s interpretation, you could take your leave now, hopefully having taken away the lesson that the nothing, non-being, or that which is not, are not trifling absurdities, but truly central concepts of metaphysics, in which the fate of philosophy potentially rests.
A Bergsonian Rejoinder
I do not buy Heidegger’s arguments for the existence of the nothing, but not because the question is unintelligible. I think the transcendental arguments I have constructed out of Heidegger’s work above are sound and to be taken seriously. However, the reason I have concluded them with an exclusive disjunction in each case is that I can’t help but side with Parmenides in thinking that the nothing and non-being are ultimately unintelligible notions, forcing us to accept the radical conclusions implied by their denial. I accept the wrong disjunct, according to Heidegger.
This ends up entailing a radical kind of monism that denies any kind of real individuation, thus ruling out the self, and the legitimate operation of inquiry and logic that is reliant on determinate individuals, while endorsing a strict actualism which rules out abstract objects and modality. Thus, denying the nothing comes at a steep price because as these notions fall, so too do any traditional versions of knowledge, understanding, intelligibility, and truth, the things Plato, and now Heidegger, ultimately wish to protect.
I cannot argue for these views independently here, but if Heidegger’s arguments succeed, and if one opposes them, or refuses to countenance the possibility of the nothing in their metaphysics, these are views one seems to be forced to take on.26placeholder What I will do here is to attempt to show that even with a metaphysics of pure plenitude we come to use negation without the nothing, contra Heidegger. I sketch a way to do this now by arguing against us ever experiencing negation in the first place, defusing the worries outlined above. Readers of Bergson will see that I am deeply indebted to his discussion and rejection of the nothing in chapter four of Creative Evolution.
We do not actually have any ‘empiricist’ reason to assert the real existence of the nothing. In taking any experience, being, or judgement, I can show that our supposed experience of its negation is not some negative existence. Instead, our experience of the nothing or negation is to express the thing experienced in terms of something else. For example, if you pick up a cider, thinking it was a beer, you might say, “this is not a beer.” However, this negation does not track to the world literally. You did not literally pick up a lack of beer, contra Heidegger and Sartre, who would have to say you did. What happened is you picked up a cider and expressed it as a function of the beer. In other words, you expressed the data of your perception, the cider, with different words from what you would typically express that content as. This act, as we will see, has a social, rather than ontological, function. You are expressing the substitution of one positive object for another. The lack being expressed in the assertion is not the intrusion of nothingness in the world, it is a comparison with some other aspect of reality and a social signalling device.
The reason we say things like this is that we can abstract beyond our immediate experience. It comes, for example, from a subversion of expectation, recollection, or from being contrary to one’s preferences. However, it is a great benefit to us to talk in terms of this lack. Indeed, lack is the very thing we are most familiar with. Our desires are necessarily a dissatisfaction, a desire for something, and much of our conversation reflects this lack. However, its ubiquity is liable to trick us into taking negation to be something more than it is. When someone asks me if there is any beer in the fridge, and I look and say, “there is nothing in there,” we should not read this literally. I am not saying that there is non-existent beer in the fridge, nor am I saying it contains void – the fridge has no metaphysical holes in it. I am (elliptically) expressing an entirely positive state of affairs, the contents of the fridge, but only communicating in my utterance the relevant (to the conversation) contents of the fridge.
I say ‘nothing’ rather than enumerating the precise makeup of gasses in the fridge air because I either do not know or, more than likely, do not care what that makeup is. There is no content in the fridge relevant to the conversation, but that does not mean there was literally nothing there. This seems to be the main reason to speak in negations: because we almost always have no knowledge of the complete positive content of our experience at any given moment, and even when we do, it is because we seldom care to communicate it. This is how we can explain the data of negative belief, judgement, and the experience of nothing in anxiety or similar seeming ‘lacks’ of being. The judgement “it is not raining” when it is not raining simply expresses the actual positive state of affairs experienced in negative terms because that was the only information required conversationally.
Similarly, the loss felt in bitter privation is not that of the nothing, but of a state of affairs profoundly different and sharply contrasting from expectation or preference. This does not make it negative in the metaphysical sense, as Heidegger would say. It is positive, but different. The apparent negation experienced in loss of something you care about denotes a sharp contrast of two positive existents in tension with one’s expectations or preferences. Negation is never actually brought into existence in these encounters; it is an illusory epiphenomenon of the sharp distinction between different aspects of positive reality. Any supposed negation is thus ultimately grounded on another positive existence. Thus, what is really happening in anxiety, the loss of significance of beings, is really us intuiting the world as it really is, away from the instrumentalities our intellect erects to navigate it: that is, as a purely unindividuated positive existence.
If you are not convinced that negation is an elliptical reference to other positive existents and a mere social convenience, not actually experienced, imagine a person without memory, nor any sociality whatsoever. This person would experience a constant stream of positive states, events, and occurrences. They would never experience any negative existences or make any negative judgements because they have no memory to compare aspects of positive existence. They would just be moving through the present and affirming only the present. Negation, to someone like this, would never come on the scene. Thus, it is only our unique ability for memory and comparison to think beyond the moment and compare things that would bring negation about. Therefore, our use of negation and the word nothing are ultimately grounded in positive existence and are merely words devised to communicate information about different states of affairs.
Heidegger forgets that all we really experience is a constant stream of positive being because to experience something, it must be something, not nothing. There is no need for negative existences to be explained, there is no need for negation to be grounded in nothing, nor even in the mind, because all such operations are simply other, sharply contrasted, positive aspects of existence. However, as I have attempted to show, retaining this intuition that the world is entirely positive incurs some other costs. Thus, in another sense, I agree with Heidegger that we must have encountered the nothing to have legitimately individuated anything from the environment. I just think this individuation is not legitimate, intelligibility is only apparent, and that the apparent nothing is reducible to a more primordial and novel becoming.
Heidegger, Martin. “What is Metaphysics?.” In Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, 95-112. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1977.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. London: Methuen & Co Ltd 1969.
Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics”, 1977, p.99.
Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics”, 1977, p.99.
Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics”, 1977, p.99.
Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics”, 1977, p.107.
Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics”, 1977, p.100.
Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics”, 1977, p.101.
Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics”, 1977, p.109.
This may still end up sounding like a kind of conceptual/linguistic idealism or ontological conventionalism. However, it seems to me more like a modest realism (even though it is ontically conventional). There is no conceptual scheme, representations, or scientific paradigm, cutting us off from fundamental ontology, we are rather in and amongst the real world and Heidegger is trying to take seriously this fact. Thus, there are going to be a plurality of ways in which this world appears to different people, cultures, sciences etc. but it is the world, and we are engaged with it. This is contrary to the Kantian position but also slightly different from someone like Hilary Putnam’s view ‘internal realism’ which is very close to Heidegger’s position. The dependence on minds of idealism is also not there. In Being and Time Heidegger writes “the fact that [the notion of] Reality is ontologically grounded in the Being of Dasein, does not signify that only when Dasein exists and as long as Dasein exists, can the Real be as that which in itself it is. (Page 255).” Thus, if you are optimistic that the natural sciences, for example, carves nature’s joints, or ‘Reality’s’ joints, then you could still be on board with what he is doing here (even if Heidegger is not). The benefit is that you get to keep all the common-sense existences that science threatens, such as the reality of folk emotions or colours without committing some error because it is still a way in which reality appears to a certain mode of inquiry, and thus real.
Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics”, 1977, p.109. Not the whole of beings or Being, but a collection of beings as a whole. This is because we stop discriminating between beings in profound boredom, because we cannot or do not want to choose to do anything, no beings interest us.
Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics”, 1977, p.102.
Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics”, 1977, p.103.
Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics”, 1977, p.104.
Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics”, 1977, p.104.
Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics”, 1977, p.104.
This is famously where Carnap ridiculed Heidegger over his phrase “Das Nichts nichtet” meaning literally “the nothing nothings.” In the second use of the word nothing, he seems to be using it as a verb, attributing this activity to nothing. In my translation, it is more appropriately translated as ‘nihilation.’ Granted, it is a hilarious turn of phrase, but not incomprehensible. If Heidegger can establish that the nothing exists in the way he thinks it does, then its existence really is an activity, namely, nihilation. Thus, given that he purports to establish its existence in this way it is an entirely appropriate sentence, and any argument against it should attempt to show the superfluity of nihilation in explaining the possibility of inquiry, rather than naïve objections about the logic of existent nothingness or meaninglessness. For what it is worth I do not think Heidegger is right about this, but thinkers like him, Hegel, and Sartre do not just say this stuff for no reason. I am not sure about Hegel, but Heidegger and Sartre think the logical operation of negation is not even possible without nihilation (which we experience constantly), thus it must be explained. The next section will be the attempt to outline this issue and others.
For example, Plato’s (and later Neoplatonist philosophers’) impetus to posit the forms came from a transcendental concern to explain the given intelligibility of the world. Similarly, his theory of recollection in the Meno and Phaedo seems to be argued for transcendentally. Or, and most striking of all, Plato seems to have been making a transcendental argument of exactly the kind Heidegger is making here with regards to the nothing in his Sophist. In that dialogue, Plato seems to be saying that that which is not (or for us ‘the nothing’) somehow must be as a necessary condition for even doing philosophy. Heidegger’s argument in this text seems to me to be extremely parallel to Plato’s in this regard: both see non-being as grounding the very possibility of even doing philosophy at all. Thus, even in his time Plato, like Heidegger, Hegel, and other metaphysical radicals, understood the true gravity of the problem of metaphysics and the lengths one must go to take its challenges seriously – lengths many contemporary metaphysicians are not willing to go. One may object to my judicious use of this notion (the transcendental), but I think it’s an edifying way of understanding the impetus for much rationalism and idealism in the history of philosophy that wouldn’t otherwise be totally legible.
Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics”, 1977, p.105.
Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics”, 1977, p.111.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Being and Nothingness”, 1969, pp.9-11.
Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics”, 1977, p.107.
Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics”, 1977, p.107.
Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics”, 1977, p.107.
Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics”, 1977, p.110.
The notion of necessity does not stay after contingency goes (as you see in Spinoza) because it is only meaningful in contrast to contingency, which requires the nothing. This means both are meaningless if actualism is true (the actual events of the world are not necessary they just are). This can be seen if you define them in terms of possible worlds. We think something is contingent because it is only true in some worlds, but we can only make sense of that by saying it is not in some worlds, requiring negation. Similarly, we take something to be necessary if it is true in all possible worlds. But we can only make sense of this by thinking that this thing could not be false in any of these worlds, also requiring negation.
Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics”, 1977, p.106.
I attempt to work out here, through Bergson, a monism like this that is still tenable in light of these rejections. How much I succeed in that project is up the reader. I’d be happy just knowing that someone comes out of this taking non-being and its consequences seriously.