Martin Heidegger is the greatest philosopher of the twentieth-century. Now there are plenty of people who would laugh out loud at that statement, among them many academic philosophers. To them Heidegger is merely a double-talking mystifier who philosophizes in a meaningless, incoherent language of his own making. In other words, a philosophical charlatan of the first degree.
There is one pronouncement of Heidegger’s particularly that these scoffers will howl in laughter at and which to them demonstrates the sheer and utter nonsense they believe to be Heidegger’s raison d’être. And that is: “The Nothing nothings.”
On first hearing this phrase, perhaps one can understand their sniggering skepticism and why subsequently many philosophers and thinkers have have altogether dismissed Herr Heidegger. But, is it merely nonsense?
To begin to even have the slightest idea of what this phrase might mean and to understand Heidegger more broadly, we need to understand the burning question which drove Heidegger’s lifetime philosophical inquiry: The Question of Being.
As a teenager Heidegger had become obsessed with a book — records show that he borrowed it from the Freiburg library more than 60 times over a period of two years — Franz Brentano’s On the Several Senses of Being in Aristotle. He would later say it was this book which first formulated within him a question which was to be central to his entire intellectual life. A question that led him in 1927 to publish his masterwork, Sein und Zeit (Being and Time). What do we really mean when we say something exists. What does and does not exist? How do we know that it exists? This line of inquiry is the central question of that branch of philosophy called ontology.
It is not as if this question of being had not been asked before within the history of philosophy. It was first posed, at least in the Western philosophical tradition, many centuries ago by the ancient Greeks. Heidegger, however, believed strongly that at least since Plato the inquiry into being had taken a major philosophical wrong-turn. By being mistakenly understood as a property or essence. In other words, being had been assumed to be substantive, conceived as some thing.
In many of the thinkers that Heidegger has influenced, particularly Jacques Derrida, there is much theorizing about the metaphysics of presence — which simply means to posit being as substance — and how, as they might state it, to philosophically overcome it. In Derrida’s case, he goes about trying to overcome the metaphysics of presence by deconstructing metaphysics. He does this by pointing out the conceptualizing of being as a stable substance provides the faulty, according to Derrida, logical coherence of any metaphysical system. Derrida’s deconstruction can be seen as a latter development of Heidegger’s theory that to even to begin to ask the question of being, we needed to understand being, not as substance, but as “the space in which things appear and become meaningful to us.” In other words, being is an absence rather than a presence or substance.
Now, we should be able to take a stab at what the phrase, the nothing nothings, means. If being, as understood by Heidegger, is no-thing , an absence— in fact, the no-thing-ness absolutely necessary for things to appear — then it is the very capability of nothing (noun) to nothing (verb) that is the primal allowing by which any thing at all can appear. In other words, space/absence (Being) is absolutely necessary for the appearance of things (beings).
You might look at it this way: if one was to describe the room in which they are sitting, they would usually begin by describing all the things that occupy the room, and they might feel that was the very best way to get an accurate description of the room. We would not, in most cases, describe, or even mention the space between each thing, nor the space within the room. And yet, most of the room is space. Similarly, how often are we aware of the silence out of which all sound arises and falls? Or, of silence as pure potentiality out of which it possible for any sound to arise: anything from a Mozart symphony to the sound of a car crash. If we can imagine silence as a kind of internal space, then it is possible also to understand more subtle objects, such as feelings, sensations, and thoughts, as also arising and falling within a type of space, our own subjective space of silent being-ness; and that internal space is just as necessary for the appearance of so-called internal objects as external space is necessary for the appearance of external objects.
Many thinkers have drawn comparisons between Heidegger’s thought and various Eastern philosophical systems, particularly Buddhism and Taoism. Some of the similarities can be striking — and also helpful. Thus, I would like to draw such a comparison here. In the ancient Tibetan Buddhist philosophy of Dzogchen, one’s attention is also directed to these two apparent spaces, while at the same time inquiring: In what way are these two spaces different?, Are they different?; Where does the internal space stop and the external space begin?, and; Could the two spaces really be the same space (or absence) with the difference merely being a creation of thought? A brief contemplation of these questions can often lead us to, at least, an intuition of no-thing as the fundamental ground of all things. But, perhaps, more importantly, it can lead us to an inquiry into the nature of our own being, our selves, and thus to intuit the ground of our own subjectivity, not as substance (e.g. soul, essence, the real me, etc) but as an absence within which all phenomena arises, sustains for awhile, and ultimately disappears. Thus, Heidegger coins the term Dasein, to point to our own human subjectivity as not substantive, but rather as “the clearing for beings.”
So, yes indeed, the nothing nothings — otherwise, Heidegger might say, how else could the world of things appear. But, even more profoundly, the later Heidegger will point to the absence which allows the world as our very selves, our Dasein. In other words, we are not in the world, the world is in us.
Matt Mackane is a writer & lecturer. He has lived in South East Asia, USA, Germany, Japan, New Zealand & Australia. Currently he lives with his wife and daughter and two cats between homes in Thailand & Australia. He’s on Twitter @MattMackane. He loves coffee, walks, and reading.