The question of nothingness in Western philosophy

The discourse of the nothing is already an intercultural and intertextual one. When early modern Europeans encountered the Buddhist conception of

sunyatd, they characteristically understood it as signifying either an illogical selfcontradictory concept or—by associating nirvana with extinction—a nihilistic void. Such an interpretation was developed in the early twentieth-century by Franz Rosenzweig, who claimed that the “nothing is God” in Buddhism, as discussed in Chapter 7. The Buddhist conception of emptiness, rooted in meditative practices and experiences, was denigrated as senseless metaphysics, ethically antinomian, or religiously dangerous. Both logical and metaphysical (or ontotheological) positivism presupposed that the meaning and value of the world are not internal or immanent to the world itself. As significance can only come from outside of the world, in divine or logical transcendence, it is impossible or senseless to speak of the immanent self-disclosing meaning and value of things. Either such questions are transcendent, and meaningless, as in Wittgenstein and Carnap or there must be a metaphysical realm of forms or revelation of the transcendent that justifies and explains the significance of this-worldly things. Heidegger contests the Platonism that underwrites Western discourses of the nothing. He depicts how this lingering and risky question of nothing is not accidental or derivative to the Western tradition, since the exclusion of the nothing still relies on and takes recourse to the nothing it hopes to exclude.36 The question of nothing haunts the positing of what is and the supposedly unquestionably givenness—whether the positivity of God as the highest entity among others or of the factually given—through which philosophy has projected and framed being and endeavored to construe and master beings.37

Heidegger returns to Leibniz’s posing of the question of nothing. As a crucial step in his proof of God’s existence, Leibniz asks “Why is there something rather than nothing?” and answered that both terms, beings and nothing, could only be justified and explained through a third term, namely God, which is transcendent to and provides the external ground for both. If there were no God, there would be no sufficient reason for existence over nonexistence, and the world would disappear into nothingness. Since the world does exist, its sufficient reason must accordingly exist.38 Heidegger, who himself adopted the idiom of overcoming metaphysics, repeatedly returned to Leibniz’s argument. For Heidegger, the question of why there is something rather than nothing is the most perplexing question. It is baffling in its own terms of something (being) and nothing even before considering Leibniz’s further recourse to God as a transcendent third term. Rather than being or God, it is the nothing appearing in Leibniz’s argument that provokes the greatest perplexity and concern.

Heidegger commented in his later introduction to “What is Metaphysics?” that he asks Leibniz’s question in a different sense than Leibniz. While for

Leibniz “nothing is simpler and easier than anything" for Heidegger: “If [the question] does not concern itself with beings and inquire about their first cause among all beings, then [it] must begin from that which is not being.”39 Heidegger’s description is inaccurate here to the extent that Leibniz, for example in his analysis of the Christian association of nothingness and evil in his Dialogue on Human Freedom (1695), noted how nothing “can enter into the composition of things” much like the zero in arithmetic. Leibniz’s text continues: things “are bounded or imperfect by virtue of the principle of negation or nothingness they contain, by virtue of the lack of infinity of perfections in them, and which are only a nothingness with respect to them.”40 The analysis of finitude as imperfection, as privation and sin, a conception that is still at work in Leibniz and stands in tension with Heidegger’s elucidation of the nothing in his argument, contrasts with the perfection of things “just as they are,” without recourse to a conception or experience of the transcendent, in the wild aporetic Hongzhou style of Chan associated with Mazu Daoyi Ш


Reflecting on nonbeing, Heidegger added in the postscript to “What is Metaphysics?”: “One of the essential sites of speechlessness is anxiety in the sense of the horror to which the abyss of the nothing attunes human beings.”41 We might consider at this point: Why does Heidegger venture speaking about the nothing in the face of such speechlessness? Is this not the logical confusion, religious error, or nihilistic void of which both metaphysical and antimetaphysical positivistic Western philosophy persistently warn?

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