The term nothingness denotes the result of specific negation of a reality (metaphysical or ontological meaning) and/or of a value and validity of something (axiological meaning). Its content is close to the terms “nothing,” “nonbeing,” “emptiness,” and “vanity.”
As opposed to the common meaning of the word “nothing” (“nonbeing”), which relatively negates the attributes, state, or existence of a particular object (or a category of objects), nothingness, in its ontological meaning, is concerned with absolute negation of the whole of entities, thus of any particular object (or category of objects) at all. For example, in the sentence “Yesterday, there was a glass on the table, but today there is nothing there,” by “nothing” we mean only the so-called relative nothing—the absence of the glass in the given place and not the fact that there is no other particular object in the place of the expected glass. In contrast, in the sentence “The world was created from nothing,” by “nothing” we mean exactly the absence of any particular object (category of objects), absolute nothing, nothingness. In the first case, the absence (nothing) of something is the presence (existence, entity) of something else, other than the negated thing. In the second case, this does not apply: Absence (nothing) is the absolute opposite of any presence (existence, entity). Because of this negation of all that exists, the concept of nothingness is often considered the result of illegitimate abstraction and therefore unacceptable for rational thinking. To favor it during the explanation of reality is considered to be (ontological) nihilism. This applies even more so to its stronger alternative, which negates not only all reality but also possibility (so-called negative, or absolute nothingness).
Nothingness in its axiological meaning is in human experience and its reflections thematized in several ways. Depending on which aspect of a value it negates (positive, negative, or both), the basic positions of value nihilism vary from the extreme pessimistic, for example when we sigh along with the preacher, “Vanity of vanities! all is vanity”; through the more moderate one, which answers the question of what humanity is with “A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with Nothing” (Pascal); all the way to the mystic ideal of a mind emptied of values (neutral), for example in the state of nirvana. Depending on the kind of the negated value, we differentiate between ethical nihilism (negating the obligatory validity of moral values), religious nihilism (denying the existence of the sacred or gods), political nihilism (negating the obligatory validity of social order), logical nihilism (denying the existence of truth), and gnoseological nihilism (rejecting the possibility of knowledge).
The concept of nothing, or nothingness, as an ultimate explanation principle of reality and human life, played a more important role historically in Asian religious and philosophical thinking than it did in the thinking of Western civilization. It was also to a great extent particular to mystically inclined thinking rather than to rationalistic systems. For example, in the ancient Chinese doctrine of Laozi (5th century-4th century BCE), the basic principle of reality, tao, is empty—nameless and formless; later in the writings of Zuang-zhou (4th century BCE) it is the emptiness itself—xu. In ancient India, it was mainly the teaching about nirvana (Hinduism, Buddhism), the content of which is the emptying of the mind of an individual of partial contents and its transition into the state of “nonbeing.” But most of all the doctrine of emptiness (sunyata), understood in an ontological as well as axiological way, developed in Mahayana Buddhism. The concept of nonbeing (abhava), also in absolute meaning, can be found as one of the categories even in the logically tuned system Vaisesika. Later it was Zen Buddhism that attempted a synthesis of the ways of Buddhism and Taoism, also in the area of the understanding of emptiness as a central concept. In Jewish mysticism, a similar function of holy nothingness was carried by the concept of ein sof.
Unlike oriental doctrines, ancient Greek philosophy was more hostile toward the concept of nothing and nonbeing (nothingness). According to Parmenides of Elea (540-450 BCE), being (on) is and nothing (nonbeing—me on) is not, because it is unthinkable, as thinking and being are the same thing. Nothing (nothingness) as the absolute opposite of being should have been excluded from the rational discourse. But already Democritus (450-370 BCE) was forced in his philosophy, in an effort to explain plurality and motion, to postulate alongside being (plenitude, atoms) also the existence of nonbeing—of empty space. Even Plato (428-348 BCE) admits in a certain way to the existence of nonbeing, in order to explain, for example, the possibility of an error in human knowledge, because an erroneous statement is a statement about the nonexistent. Nonentity (nothing), however, is not the opposite of being, as it was with Parmenides, but it’s a part of it; it is not absolute nonbeing, but merely relative—it is other being, the being of other, because each determined entity, as identical with its own self (tauton, is also at the same time different from another determined entity (heteron). For example, motion is motion (itself), but it is not stability (something other). In another context, in an attempt to clarify the changeable nature of the perceptible world, Plato again admits to the existence of nonbeing (matter), in which this world participates, as being similar to being itself (ideas). Nonbeing not only is not any determined other, but also it is not itself; it is presented here as a generalized principle of an undetermined otherness. Later, for Aristotle, with his differentiation of matter (possibility) and form (reality) as the necessary aspects of the existence of every object, nonbeing is a not yet realized entity, ens potentialis, which lacks some or all attributes of a future thing; it is rid of its positive determination (lack of being, privatio).
Greek philosophy, despite its plurality in the understanding of nonbeing, in principle did not overstep its rationalist rule according to which “out of nothing, nothing comes” (ex nihilo nihil fit). On the contrary, medieval Christian thinking acknowledged the concept of the absolute nothing, nothingness as a legitimate element of discourse about reality and man, by the fact that on the basis of its credo, it explained the origin of the world as “creation from nothing” (creatio ex nihilo). It was mainly Saint Augustine of Hippo who, in an attempt to demonstrate the unlimited nature of God’s power, theoretically justified this change, whereas he also endowed nothingness with a morally sacral dimension. Nothingness was worthless, connected to evil and sin. As a result of this, all creatures carried its dual seal—ontological as well as axiological.
A new aspect was added to meontological problematics by thinkers influenced by Neoplatonic mysticism, most of all Pseudo-Dionysios (5th century CE), Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), and Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), who on the grounds of negative theology applied the concept of nonbeing (nothing) through various ways even to God himself. However, in their case, it was not nothingness in the sense of absence or lack of being (or its determination), but the opposite, nothingness “resulting” from surplus of being, because the infinite and absolute God, according to them, cannot be identical with being that is specified as an entity by finite determinations. God is beyond it and above it; he is incomparably (even in terms of worth) more than being itself. If, despite all differences, this thinking was closer to Plato’s ancient message, Aristotle’s reflections on lacking (ens potentialis, ens rationis) were developed mostly through scholastic tradition (Saint Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274; Francisco Suarez, 1548-1617; and others). Later it was followed by the classics of modern philosophy—Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), G. W. Leibniz (1646-1716), and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).
Significant for further development of these problematics were Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s reflections on nothing (and negativity as such). Hegel (1770-1831) in a quasi-rationalistic reception of mystical views, gets almost as far as negation of the logical law of contradiction through a provocative statement that “pure being and pure nothing are therefore the same,” whereby their truth is becoming. Here, the negativity of nothingness becomes the driving force of dialectics. These reflections, together with his master-slave dialectic, significantly inspired existentialists (Martin Heidegger, 1889-1976; Jean-Paul Sartre, 1905-1980; Albert Camus, 1913-1960; and others), as the main successors of the meontological problematics in the 20th century. According to Heidegger, who in his ontological difference distinguishes between entity and being, nothing is the absolute negation of the whole of entities. However, one does not encounter it in thinking, but in anxiety. Nothing, nonbeing (which paradoxically is the veil of being) enables human being (being-there, dasein), because for one to be means to be held out into this nothing, to transcend one’s self. Later, Sartre uses nothingness, as opposed to being in-itself, as being for-itself, that is, empty, contentless, and undetermined consciousness that allows human freedom, because paradoxically “it is what it is not and it is not what it is.” This approach received great criticism from analytically oriented philosophy and particularly from logical empiricism. According to Rudolf Carnap (1891-1971), violation of logical rules of language lies behind Heideggerian reflections, when for example the word nothing is used as a name of an object, whereby it is a form of negation, used to create negative existential statements. All thoughts of a similar kind are therefore in their ultimate effects meaningless.
See also Aquinas, Saint Thomas, Aristotle; Augustine of Hippo, Saint; Becoming and Being; Eckhart, Meister; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Kant, Immanuel; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm von; Metaphysics; Nicholas of Cusa; Ontology; Parmenides of Elea; Plato; Spinoza, Baruch de; Time, Nonexistence of
Carlson, E., & Olsson, E. J. (2001). The presumption of nothingness. Ratio, 14, 203-221.
Gale, R. M. (1976). Negation and non-being. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
Heidegger, M. (2000). Introduction to metaphysics (G. Fried & R. Polt, Trans.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. (Original work published 1953)
Sartre, J.-P. (2003). Being and nothingness:
A phenomenological essay on ontology. New York: Routledge. (Original work published 1943)