Can Nothingness Be Defined?

Nothingness is a slippery philosophical concept which despite its apparent immateriality has always intrigued philosophers, theologians and spiritualists of all cultures. Western Philosophy has its roots in Greek thinking and its inherent belief in ‘Being’. In Plato’s case, his entire philosophical system rests on a priori certainty of the ‘existence’ of Pure Ideas. How could we attribute qualities or defects to something without assuming the presence or existence of that ‘something’? By adopting such a position, we are left with ‘the burden of proof’, that is the necessity to back up our claim with evidential data.

The English language is an awkward tool when used to discuss ‘nothingness’ insofar as the word carries an immediate ‘physical’ connotation when the French ‘néant’, as used by Sartre, for instance, opens up vast metaphysical and psychological perspectives. The same applies to the word ‘being’, as in ‘being’ happy or ‘being’ questioned. Hence the headache caused by the reading of the 1962 English translation of Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927) in which the dual meaning of ‘being’, as noun or gerund, has to be pried open out of virtually every other sentence. 

As far as the etymology of ‘néant’ is concerned, it would originate from the late Latin expression ‘ne gentem’, meaning ‘not a living being’. So we are back to square one (if such an entity ever existed) that is, down to the existence of a primeval ‘Being’ as source of all ‘beings’ although the Aristotelian term ‘metaphysics’ refers to what lies ‘above the physical realm’ as the works regarding the origin of ‘Being’ happen to have been found on top of his other philosophical investigations. 

For Heidegger, ‘nothingness’ is not an absence of ‘something’ but a potential manifestation of Being as in our feeling of anxiety when contemplating our own death. The experience of ‘nothingness’ has, therefore, to be mediated through our very personal intuition of ‘Dasein’. The answer to ‘What is “Being”?’ must necessarily be answered via a thorough enquiry of the two modes of ‘being’ of Dasein, Being-in-the-world and Being-with-Others. Heiddeger characterises our fear of extinction as the closest representation of ‘nothingness’. Beyond this instinctive consciousness of our ultimate finitude lies a great unknown. 

In his Monadology, published in 1714, the German philosopher and mathematician,  Gottfried Leibniz, pondered over the mystery of ‘being’. He asked himself: ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’. He found an answer in the principle of ‘sufficient reason’ explaining the necessity of ‘a first mover’ to all succeeding events, principle associated with ‘entelechy’ or the capacity for living entities (‘monads’) to realise their pre-established (divine) purpose.

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