"Nothing" in western philosophy
Some would consider the study of "nothing" to be foolish. However, "nothingness" has been treated as a serious subject worthy of research for a very long time. In philosophy, to avoid linguistic traps over the meaning of "nothing", a phrase such as not-being is often employed to unambiguously make clear what is being discussed.
ParmenidesOne of the earliest western philosophers to consider nothing as a concept was Parmenides (5th century BC) who was a Greek philosopher of the monist school. He argued that "nothing" cannot exist by the following line of reasoning. To speak of a thing, one has to speak of a thing that exists. Since we can speak of a thing in the past, it must still exist (in some sense) now and from this concludes that there is no such thing as change. As a corollary, there can be no such things as coming-into-being, passing-out-of-being or not-being.
Despite the fact of existence stubbornly refuting Parmenides' conclusion, he was taken seriously by other philosophers, influencing, for instance, Socrates and Plato. Aristotle too, gives Parmenides serious consideration but concludes; "Although these opinions seem to follow logically in a dialectical discussion, yet to believe them seems next door to madness when one considers the facts."
LeucippusLeucippus (early 5th century BC), one of the atomists, along with other philosophers of his time, made attempts to reconcile this with the everyday observation of motion and change. He accepted the monist position that there could be no motion without a void. The void is the opposite of being, it is not-being. On the other hand, a thing that exists is an absolute plenum and there can be no motion in a plenum because it is completely full. But there is not one monolithic plenum, existence consists of a multiplicity of plenums. These are the invisibly small atoms of the atomists theory, later expanded more fully by Democritus (circa 460 BC - 370 BC). They are a necessary part of the theory in order to allow the void to exist between them. In this scenario macroscopic objects can come-into-being move through space and pass into not-being by means of the coming together and moving apart of their constituent atoms. The void must exist in order to allow this to happen or else the frozen world of Parmenides must be accepted.
Bertrand Russell points out that this does not exactly defeat the argument of Parmenides, but rather ignores it by taking the rather modern scientific position of starting with the observed data (motion etc) and constructing a theory based on the data as opposed to Parmenides attempts to work from pure logic. Russell also observes that both sides were mistaken in believing that there can be no motion in a plenum, but arguably motion cannot start in a plenum. Cyril Bailey notes that Leucippus is the first to say that a thing (the void) might be real without being a body and points out the irony that this comes from a materialistic atomist. Leucippus is therefore the first to say that "nothing" has a reality attached to it.
AristotleAristotle (384–322 BC) provided the classic escape from the logical problem posed by Parmenides by distinguishing things that are matter and things that are space. In this scenario, space is not "nothing", but a receptacle in which objects of matter can be placed. The void (as "nothing") is different from space and is removed from consideration.
This characterisation of space reached its pinnacle with Isaac Newton who asserted the existence of absolute space. Interestingly, modern quantum theory agrees that space is not the void, there is the concept of quantum foam which still exists in the absence of all else, although Albert Einstein's general relativity no longer agrees with Newton's concept of an absolute space. René Descartes, on the other hand, returned to a Parmenides-like argument of denying the existence of space. For Descartes, there was matter, and there was extension of matter leaving no room for the existence of "nothing".
The idea that space can actually be empty was generally still not accepted by philosophers who invoked arguments similar to the plenum reasoning. Although Descartes views on this were challenged by Blaise Pascal, he declined to overturn the traditional belief, commonly stated in the form "Nature abhors a vacuum". This remained so until Evangelista Torricelli invented the barometer in 1643 and showed that an empty space appeared if the mercury tube was turned upside down. This phenomenon being known as the Torricelli vacuum and the unit of vacuum pressure, the torr, being named after him. Even Torricelli's teacher, the famous Galileo Galilei had previously been unable to adequately explain the sucking action of a pump.
John the ScotJohn the Scot, or Johannes Scotus Eriugena (c. 815–877) held many surprisingly heretical beliefs for the time he lived in for which no action appears ever to have been taken against him. His ideas mostly stem from, or are based on his work of translating pseudo-Dionysius. His beliefs are essentially pantheist and he classifies evil, amongst many other things, into not-being. This is done on the grounds that evil is the opposite of good, a quality of God, but God can have no opposite, since God is everything in the pantheist view of the world. Similarly, the idea that God created the world out of "nothing" is to be interpreted as the "nothing" here is synonymous with God.
G. W. F. HegelGeorg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) is the philosopher who brought the dialectical method to its pinnacle of development. According to Hegel in Science of Logic the dialectical methods consists of three steps. First, a thesis is given, which can be any postulate in logic. Second, the antithesis of the thesis is formed and finally a synthesis incorporating both thesis and antithesis. Hegel believed that no postulate taken by itself can be completely true. Only the whole can be true and the dialectical synthesis was the means by which the whole could be examined in relation to a specific postulate. Truth consists of the whole process, separating out thesis, antithesis or synthesis as a stand-alone statement results in something that is in some way or other untrue. The concept of "nothing" arises in Hegel right at the beginning of his Logic. The whole is called by Hegel the "Absolute" and is to be viewed as something spiritual. Hegel then has;
- Thesis: The Absolute is Pure Being
- Antithesis: The Absolute is Nothing
- Synthesis: The Absolute is Becoming
ExistentialistsThe most prominent figure among the existentialists is Jean-Paul Sartre whose ideas in his book Being and Nothingness are heavily influenced by Being and Time of Martin Heidegger, although Heidegger later stated that he was misunderstood by Sartre. Sartre defines two kinds of "being" (être). One kind is être-en-soi, the brute existence of things such as a tree. The other kind is être-pour-soi which is consciousness. Sartre claims that this second kind of being is "nothing" since consciousness cannot be an object of consciousness and can possess no essence. Sartre, and even more so, Jaques Lacan, use this conception of nothing as the foundation of their atheist philosophy. Equating nothingness with being leads to creation from nothing and hence God is no longer needed for there to be existence.
"Nothing" in eastern philosophy
The understanding of 'nothing' varies widely between cultures, especially between Western and Eastern cultures and philosophical traditions. For instance, Śūnyatā (emptiness), unlike "nothingness", is considered to be a state of mind in some forms of Buddhism (see Nirvana, mu, and Bodhi). Achieving 'nothing' as a state of mind in this tradition allows one to be totally focused on a thought or activity at a level of intensity that they would not be able to achieve if they were consciously thinking. A classic example of this is an archer attempting to erase his mind and clear his thoughts in order to better focus on his shot. Some authors have pointed to similarities between the Buddhist conception of nothingness and the ideas of Martin Heidegger and existentialists like Sartre, although this connection has not been explicitly made by the philosophers themselves.In some Eastern philosophies, the concept of "nothingness" is characterized by an egoless state of being in which one fully realizes one's own small part in the cosmos.
The Kyoto school handles the concept of nothingness as well.