01 October 2009

Heidegger’s Pursuit of Nothing

Heidegger, high priest of neologisms, has presented the question of metaphysics by presenting the idea of the Nothing. One could blame translational problems on the difficulty of understanding exactly what Heidegger was trying to say, or one could simply blame Heidegger for creating words to aid in hindering the understanding of the Nothing. Perhaps Heidegger is intentionally oblique or perhaps one has to be mad to understand him. Heidegger asks the seemingly simple question of what exactly is the Nothing, and then proceeds to explain what it is not. Heidegger may have assumed apperception from his devotees, but for generations that have followed, the Nothing has been something that has eluded explanation. Or does it? Perhaps the Nothing is truly that: nothing.

Heidegger spent the beginning of his essay eliminating science and logic as defenses against metaphysics. This purposeful removal forces the reader into an uncomfortable arena, an arena where one is stripped of science and must rely upon reason and intuition. One has lost the right to ask how and forced to ask Why? The why of science is the why that means to what extent or for what purpose or how. But this why is not that Why that Heidegger has prompted for. By eliminating science and logic, he returns to an older Why. Heidegger’s why is the unanswerable Why, the Why that is the Nothing, the zenith of metaphysics. When one ponders the unanswerable one does not truly seek to explain the question, but to understand something else. How does one define a god? Or better yet: Why god? A theologian would presumably have hundreds of answers, yet not the answer, and that is what the Nothing is; it is the answer than can not be answered, yet has all answers.

Science, in Heidegger’s view, had reduced man to calculations. For example as Max Born wrote:

Modern physics has achieved its greatest successes by applying the methodological principle that concepts which refer to distinctions beyond possible experience have no physical meaning and ought to be eliminated. (Max Born, "Continuity, Determinism, and Reality", (Danish Academy of Science, Mathematics and Physics, Section 30, No. 2, 1955), p. 4 .)

It is this assumption of science that Heidegger rejected in his elaboration of the Nothing. He wanted one to question that which has no physical meaning. As Heidegger wrote:

If science is right, then only one thing is sure: science wishes to know nothing of the nothing.

Ultimately this is the scientifically rigorous conception of the nothing. We know it, the nothing, in that we wish to know nothing about it.

Science is impotent then, to describe the Nothing, as the Nothing is nothing to it. To remove the Nothing from calculations, the Nothing is removed from “is”. So how then to
approach the Nothing? Heidegger opens the window to the Nothing through Anxiety. Not the general anxiety that is fear or trepidation, but the great Anxiety, the Anxiety that eludes
explanation. “We can not say what it is before which one feels ill at ease.” It is in this Anxiety that one eludes the totality of Beings and slips into the revelation of the Nothing.
This Anxiety then is the involuntary removal of the Self from beings, the curling of the mind away from logic towards questions without answers. Heidegger also states that one
can not pursue Anxiety and thus can not pursue the Nothing because “pursuit” is beingcentric. Anxiety is and the Nothing is, but neither can be grasped through conscious
deliberate intention. They are both a destination without traveling.

So what then of the Nothing? “In our asking we posit the nothing in advance as something that ‘is’ such and such; we posit it as a being. But that is exactly what it is distinguished from.” To turn a Heideggerian phrase: the Nothing is something that is nothing because nothing can not be something yet can be Nothing. It is this interpretation of the Nothing that Heidegger states in the mist of his exposition. The Nothing is the quality of abandonment of preconceived notions, of logical puzzles. The Nothing denies the “is” of something.

Denying or defining the Nothing means to lose Philosophy itself. “The nothing what else can it be for science but an outrage and a phantasm?” Man’s quest to explain everything is the quest to eliminate the Nothing, to eliminate metaphysical questions, which in turn causes Philosophy, the pure essence of the Nothing, to become philosophy,
the science-driven pursuit of knowledge. Adhering to science, Man loses his own essence. Losing the essence of Man is like the losing of childhood wonder. An old saying goes: “your childhood is over the moment you realize that you are going to die.” This is where logic and science intrude. And this is where the Nothing is lost.

But the Nothing can not be truly lost for it is always there. Heidegger seems to prompt for one to unlearn what one has learned, which is a Taoist and Buddhist ideal. To unlearn one abandons accepted fact and explores the unexplainable, not to explain it but to question it, to ask the Why. The question of the unexplainable is not rooted in the explanation but the journey to it. A journey is not pursuit because to undertake a journey one never needs to travel to a destination. A pursuit is an action that has a conceived end. It is the journey that is the Nothing; it is Philosophy itself. Philosophy, the Nothing, then is the question of the Why?

“Unyielding antagonism and stinging rebuke have a more abysmal source than the measured negation of thought.” The measure negation of thought is the Why and the Why is the abandonment of measured logic. To a scientist the why of why is the sky blue is answerable because of the refraction of light in semi-spherical water vapor. The Why of why is the sky blue to a child, full of wonderment and without scientific rigor, has no answer and all answers and is the Nothing. The journey of childhood is ensconced in the Why. All things to a child are encountered for the first time and this encountering is wrapped in the Why. Children are rarely satisfied with the adult answers to their questions, always prompting for further
explanations. This is the Nothing.

A friend’s child once asked if all veterinarians are vegetarians? Certainly they are not and this is the essence of the Why. Logic would answer that it is improbable and unfeasible to assume that all veterinarians should be vegetarians because such a thing is dis-logical. But in the Why, the Nothing, the question is not the asked one but the one that is implied which is: Why is it that not all veterinarians are vegetarians? The answers are not important; the question itself is.

Music is the journey of the Why. Music can be explained in terms of mathematics and physics. The Mozart Effect is a known phenomenon. And because it is a phenomenon science has despaired to explain it. But in the Nothing there is no need for the explanation but for the experience of it. Music is or the Mozart Effect is. This is the Why and not the why.

Heidegger wrote “Metaphysics is inquiry beyond or over beings which aims to recover them as such and as a whole for our grasp.” The essence then of beings, the essence of metaphysics itself, is then the Nothing, the Why. Grasping the ungraspable is the pursuit of science and not the journey of the Nothing. The existence of the ungraspable and the Why of it is the Nothing. This is Philosophy.

Lao-tzu in the Tao te Ching, which predates Heidegger by over two thousand years, wrote of the Nothing as “it is hidden but always present.” How can something hidden be present? The asking of this question is the Why as it has no answer outside of science and this is the essence of the Nothing that Heidegger reveals. Without science there is the Why and the Nothing, which are questions without answers. “The nothing does not remain the indeterminate opposite of beings but reveals itself as belonging to the Being of beings.” The core, the Being, of beings then is the Nothing. It is a Hegelian essence. A being without Being is the why and not the Why.

Science can not explain the essence of a being just as it can not explain free will. It can define, but the definition is not an explanation. Searle and Dennett have argued for decades over the concept of free will, both seeking for a resolve to the question. Their disagreement itself is the Why, is the Nothing revealed. Free will, consciousness, is the Being of beings and therefore Nothing. So where does this leave us in the journey of the Nothing? This essay itself, much like Heidegger’s, is a disjointed spiral of confusion and both reveal the Nothing. Attempting to explain the Nothing is the asking of the Why but answering neither. The Nothing truly needs no answer because it is nothing. Heidegger has established an almost Zen exercise by positing the Nothing. He has used the Nothing to further his goal.

Heidegger’s point to be taken then, is that one needs to return to pure thought and reason, to suspend logic and science and the why question and to instead pursue the Nothing and the Why and by doing so restore life back into Philosophy. If one stops asking the Why then what is the point of existence? Heidegger concluded his essay with the Nothing compelled to ask: “Why are there beings at all, and why not rather nothing?” If Philosophy remains as philosophy and the Why becomes why, then beings lose Being, reason is succumbed by logic, and the Nothing becomes something. The point of existence then is to exist without ever asking again: “Why?”


  1. this an amazing recap. thank you so much

  2. sorry, this is incomplete and missing a few essential steps. The nothing, for heidegger, is what being from the perspective of being themselves. That is, being, the ontological (transcendental) truth, is best described as opening up (freedom, open comportment) to the full possibilities of the immediate world (including other humans) that is around and local to a given human. In this transcendental event and moment (truth in/of being) the nothing nihilates the distinction (the not self) between itself and the world (or a given entity) around it, and in doing so lays the ground for all distinction (identity/difference.) for further clarification read on the essence of ground. the nothing of traditional metaphysics is a pre-essence (the grounding of ground for everything, an abyss over which being turn and raise themselves in a meaningful way), yet the nothing of heidegger's ontology is a glimps of Being itself from the perspective of human Dasein.

  3. Amazing that this post is still #1.

    @Baax by trying to disprove my thesis, you actually reinforced it. Good attempt though.

  4. baax, it is important to remember that Heidegger speaks of the Nothing in a few different ways (which is not a contradiction by the way, the Nothing, primaraly i think, is that which is not intelligible but informs all intelligibility and will thus show up in different ways depending on the context we are thinking about it in). The Nothing you are speaking of is the Nothing in What is Metaphysics, but the Nothing in Being and Time is a slightly different phenomena. In Being and Time the Nothing is, instead, being in the world 'as such' which empties all meaning from ones ownmost 'being-in-the-world' allowing an authentic encounter with ones own 'potentiality-for-being'. And, we must remember, that Heideggers 'earth' in The Origin of the Work of Art is another recounting of the nothing in a different context, i.e the strife between earth (the unintelligible, the Nothing) with world (the intelligible). However, John, you need to be more clear about the distinction between reason and logic. I know you and I are probably both aware that 'reason' is not simply 'logic', and in fact, as Heidegger frequently says, sometimes it is more reasonable not to follow 'reason' (in the sense of logic). Thats why he looks to think about the nothing in the experience of anxiety, because it is in moods that the world is revealed to us, not through logic, and therefore only in the mood of anxiety (as only here do 'beings as a whole' begin to slip away) is it appropriate to think about nothing. Some people who arent accustomed to Heidegger might mis-read your appeal to return to reason and thought, and think you simply mean logic and traditional philosophy - which is not what Heidegger had in mind. Remember, Heidegger called for the end of philosophy and the begining of thinking!

  5. hiii... sir... it is indeed a good article...
    i am doing a research paper on heidegerian nothingness... if you dont mind can you advise how to go about...