"Nothing" is an awe-inspiring yet essentially undigested concept, highly esteemed by writers of a mystical or existentialist tendency, but by most others regarded with anxiety, nausea, or panic. Nobody seems to know how to deal with it (he would, of course), and plain persons generally are reported to have little difficulty in saying, seeing, hearing, and doing nothing. Philosophers, however, have never felt easy on the matter. Ever since Parmenides laid it down that it is impossible to speak of what is not, broke his own rule in the act of stating it, and deduced himself into a world where all that ever happened was nothing, the impression has persisted that the narrow path between sense and nonsense on this subject is a difficult one to tread and that altogether the less said of it the better.
This escape, however, is not so easy as it looks. Plato, in pursuing it, reversed the Parmenidean dictum by insisting, in effect, that anything a philosopher can find to talk about must somehow be there to be discussed, and so let loose upon the world that unseemly rabble of centaurs and unicorns, carnivorous cows, republican monarchs and wife-burdened bachelors, which has plagued ontology from that day to this. Nothing (of which they are all aliases) can apparently get rid of these absurdities, but for fairly obvious reasons has not been invited to do so. Logic has attempted the task, but with sadly limited success. Of some, though not all, nonentities, even a logician knows that they do not exist, since their properties defy the law of contradiction; the remainder, however, are not so readily dismissed. Whatever Bertrand Russell may have said of it, the harmless if unnecessary unicorn cannot be driven out of logic as it can out of zoology, unless by desperate measures that exclude all manner of reputable entities as well. Such remedies have been attempted, and their effects are worse than the disease. Russell himself, in eliminating the present king of France, inadvertently deposed the present queen of England. W. V. Quine, the sorcerer's apprentice, contrived to liquidate both Pegasus and President Harry Truman in the same fell swoop. The old logicians, who allowed all entities subsistence while conceding existence, as wanted, to an accredited selection of them, at least brought a certain tolerant inefficiency to their task. Of the new it can only be said that solitudinem faciunt et pacem appellant —they make a desert and call it peace. Whole realms of being have been abolished without warning, at the mere nonquantifying of a variable. The poetry of Earth has been parsed out of existence—and what has become of its prose? There is little need for an answer. Writers to whom nothing is sacred, and who accordingly stop thereat, have no occasion for surprise on finding, at the end of their operations, that nothing is all they have left.
The logicians, of course, will have nothing of all this. Nothing, they say, is not a thing, nor is it the name of anything, being merely a short way of saying of anything that it is not something else. Nothing means "not-anything"; appearances to the contrary are due merely to the error of supposing that a grammatical subject must necessarily be a name. Asked, however, to prove that nothing is not the name of anything, they fall back on the claim that nothing is the name of anything (since according to them there are no names anyway). Those who can make nothing of such an argument are welcome to the attempt. When logic falls out with itself, honest men come into their own, and it will take more than this to persuade them that there are not better cures for this particular headache than the old and now discredited method of cutting off the patient's head.
The friends of nothing may be divided into two distinct though not exclusive classes: the know-nothings, who claim a phenomenological acquaintance with nothing in particular, and the fear-nothings, who, believing, with Macbeth, that "nothing is but what is not," are thereby launched into dialectical encounter with nullity in general. For the first, nothing, so far from being a mere grammatical illusion, is a genuine, even positive, feature of experience. We are all familiar with, and have a vocabulary for, holes and gaps, lacks and losses, absences, silences, impalpabilities, insipidities, and the like. Voids and vacancies of one sort or another are sought after, dealt in and advertised in the newspapers. And what are these, it is asked, but perceived fragments of nothingness, experiential blanks, which command, nonetheless, their share of attention and therefore deserve recognition?
Jean-Paul Sartre, for one, has given currency to such arguments, and so, in effect, have the upholders of "negative facts"—an improvident sect, whose refrigerators are full of nonexistent butter and cheese, absentee elephants and so on, which they claim to detect therein. If existence indeed precedes essence, there is certainly reason of a sort for maintaining that nonexistence is also anterior to, and not a mere product of, the essentially parasitic activity of negation; that the nothing precedes the not. But, verbal refutations apart, the short answer to this view, as given, for instance, by Henri Bergson, is that these are but petty and partial nothings, themselves parasitic on what already exists. Absence is a mere privation, and a privation of something at that. A hole is always a hole in something: take away the thing, and the hole goes too; more precisely, it is replaced by a bigger if not better hole, itself relative to its surroundings, and so tributary to something else. Nothing, in short, is given only in relation to what is, and even the idea of nothing requires a thinker to sustain it. If we want to encounter it an sich, we have to try harder than that.
Better things, or rather nothings, are promised on the alternative theory, whereby it is argued, so to speak, not that holes are in things but that things are in holes or, more generally, that everything (and everybody) is in a hole. To be anything (or anybody) is to be bounded, hemmed in, defined, and separated by a circumambient frame of vacuity, and what is true of the individual is equally true of the collective. The universe at large is fringed with nothingness, from which indeed (how else?) it must have been created, if created it was; and its beginning and end, like that of all change within it, must similarly be viewed as a passage from one nothing to another, with an interlude of being in between. Such thoughts, or others like them, have haunted the speculations of nullophile metaphysicians from Pythagoras to Blaise Pascal and from G. W. F. Hegel and his followers to Martin Heidegger, Paul Tillich and Sartre. Being and nonbeing, as they see it, are complementary notions, dialectically entwined, and of equal status and importance; although Heidegger alone has extended their symmetry to the point of equipping Das Nichts with a correlative (if nugatory) activity of nothing, or nihilating, whereby it produces Angst in its votaries and untimely hilarity in those, such as Rudolf Carnap and A. J. Ayer, who have difficulty in parsing nothing as a present participle of the verb "to noth."
Nothing, whether it noths or not, and whether or not the being of anything entails it, clearly does not entail that anything should be. Like Benedict de Spinoza's substance, it is causa sui ; nothing (except more of the same) can come of it; ex nihilo, nihil fit. That conceded, it remains a question to some why anything, rather than nothing, should exist. This is either the deepest conundrum in metaphysics or the most childish, and though many must have felt the force of it at one time or another, it is equally common to conclude, on reflection, that it is no question at all. The hypothesis of theism may be said to take it seriously and to offer a provisional answer. The alternative is to argue that the dilemma is self-resolved in the mere possibility of stating it. If nothing whatsoever existed, there would be no problem and no answer, and the anxieties even of existential philosophers would be permanently laid to rest. Since they are not, there is evidently nothing to worry about. But that itself should be enough to keep an existentialist happy. Unless the solution be, as some have suspected, that it is not nothing that has been worrying them, but they who have been worrying it.
See also Atheism; Ayer, Alfred Jules; Bergson, Henri; Carnap, Rudolf; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Heidegger, Martin; Logic, History of; Nihilism; Parmenides of Elea; Plato; Quine, Willard Van Orman; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William; Sartre, Jean-Paul; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Tillich, Paul.
Modern writers who have had something to say about nothing include:
Barrett, William. Irrational Man. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1958.
Bergson, Henri. L'évolution créatrice. Paris: F. Alcan, 1907. Translated by Arthur Mitchell as Creative Evolution. London: Macmillan, 1911.
Carnap, Rudolf. "The Elimination of Metaphysics." In Logical Positivism, edited by A. J. Ayer, 69–73. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1959.
Edwards, Paul. "Professor Tillich's Confusions." Mind, n.s., 74 (1965): 192–214.
Findlay, J. N. Meinong's Theory of Objects and Values. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.
Heidegger, Martin. Einführung in die Metaphysik. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1953. Translated by Ralph Manheim as An Introduction to Metaphysics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959.
Heidegger, Martin. Sein und Zeit. Halle: Niemeyer, 1927. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson as Being and Time. New York: Harper, 1962.
Heidegger, Martin. Was ist Metaphysik? Bonn: Cohen, 1929; 4th ed., Frankfurt, 1943. Translated by R. F. C. Hull and Alan Crick as "What Is Metaphysics?," in Existence and Being, edited by W. Brock. Chicago: Regnery, 1949.
Lazerowitz, Morris. Structure of Metaphysics. London: Routledge and Paul, 1955.
Munitz, M. K. Mystery of Existence. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1965.
Prior, A. N. "Non-entities." In Analytical Philosophy I, edited by R. J. Butler. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1962.
Quine, W. V. From a Logical Point of View. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953.
Russell, Bertrand. "On Denoting." Mind, n.s., 14 (1905): 479–493.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. L'être et le néant. Paris: Gallimard, 1943. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes as Being and Nothingness. London: Methuen, 1957.
Taylor, Richard. "Negative Things." Journal of Philosophy 49 (13) (1952): 433–448.
Tillich, Paul. The Courage to Be. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1952.
Toms, Eric. Being, Negation and Logic. Oxford: Blackwell, 1962.
P. L. Heath (1967)
noth·ing / ˈnə[unvoicedth]ing/ • pron. not anything; no single thing: I said nothing | there's nothing you can do | they found nothing wrong. ∎ something of no importance or concern: “What are you laughing at?” “Oh, nothing, sir.” | they are nothing to him | [as n.] no longer could we be treated as nothings. ∎ (in calculations) no amount; zero.• adj. inf. having no prospect of progress; of no value: he had a series of nothing jobs.• adv. not at all: she cares nothing for others | he looks nothing like the others. ∎ inf. used to contradict something emphatically: “This is a surprise.” “Surprise nothing.”PHRASES: be nothing to do with see do1 .for nothing1. at no cost; without payment: working for nothing.2. to no purpose: he died anyway; so it had all been for nothing.have nothing on someone see have.have nothing to do with see do1 .no nothing inf. (concluding a list of negatives) nothing at all: how could you solve it with no clues, no witnesses, no nothing?not for nothing for a very good reason: not for nothing have I got a brother-in-law who cooks professionally.nothing but only: nothing but the best will do.nothing daunted see daunt.nothing doing inf. 1. there is no prospect of success or agreement: He wants to marry her. Nothing doing!2. nothing is happening: there's nothing doing, and I've been waiting for weeks.nothing (or nothing else) for it Brit. no alternative: there was nothing for it but to follow.nothing less than used to emphasize how extreme something is: it was nothing less than sexual harassment.nothing loath quite willing.nothing much not a great amount; nothing of importance.there is nothing to it there is no difficulty involved.stop at nothing see stop.sweet nothings words of affection exchanged by lovers: whispering sweet nothings in her ear.think nothing of it do not apologize or feel bound to show gratitude (used as a polite response).you ain't seen nothing yet inf. used to indicate that although something may be considered extreme or impressive, there is something even more extreme or impressive in store: if you think that was muddy, you ain't seen nothing yet.
nothing for nothing proverbial saying, early 18th century, summarizing the attitude that nothing will be offered unless a return is assured.
nothing is certain but death and taxes proverbial saying, early 18th century, summarizing what in life is inevitable and inescapable.
nothing is certain but the unforeseen proverbial saying, late 19th century, a similar thought to the unexpected always happens.
nothing is for ever no state or condition is permanent; saying recorded from the late 20th century.
nothing should be done in haste but gripping a flea proverbial saying, mid 17th century, used as a warning against rash action.
nothing so bad but it might have been worse proverbial saying, late 19th century, used in resignation or consolation; a more positive version is found earlier in Sir Walter Scott's Rob Roy (1817), ‘There's naething sae gude on this side o' time but it might hae been better.’
nothing so bold as a blind mare Scottish proverbial saying, early 17th century, meaning that those who know least about a situation are least likely to be deterred by it.
nothing succeeds like success proverbial saying, mid 19th century, meaning that someone already regarded as successful is likely to attract more support.
nothing venture, nothing gain proverbial saying, early 17th century, a later variant of nothing venture, nothing have.
nothing venture, nothing have proverbial saying, late 14th century, meaning that one must be prepared to take some risks to achieve a desired end. An earlier version of nothing venture, nothing gain.
there is nothing new under the sun proverbial saying, late 16th century; with biblical allusion to Ecclesiastes 1:9, ‘There is no new thing under the sun’.
there is nothing so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse proverbial saying, early 20th century, recommending the healthful effects of horse-riding.
you ain't seen nothing yet there is something even more extreme or impressive in store. Often with allusion to Al Jolson's ‘you ain't heard nuttin' yet,’ used as an aside in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer.
See also blessed is he who expects nothing, double or nothing, have nothing to lose, neck or nothing, something is better than nothing.