"The Nothing Nothings" - Martin Heidegger and the Question of Being
For some people Martin Heidegger is the greatest philosopher of the twentieth-century. For many others he nothing but a double-talking mystifier who philosophizes in a meaningless language of his own making. Once in a philosophy tutorial I heard a frustrated student brush off Heidegger by quoting an oft-quoted phrase of Heidegger's from the set reading: "the nothing nothings." This seemingly nonsensical phrase was enough for the student to decide that she didn't need to bother herself with any further reading of Herr Heidegger.
One can understand the student's frustration, and why many other thinkers have 'brushed off' Heidegger in a similar manner. What I would like to do in this post is to briefly examine some of Heidegger's ideas, especially his central inquiry into the nature of being, and, perhaps, bring to light just what he might have meant by the phrase that so frustrated that student, "the nothing nothings."
As a teenager Heidegger had read Franz Brentano's On the Several Senses of Being in Aristotle. This formulated within him a burning question which was to be central to his entire intellectual life. The question that obsessed Heidegger, and which led him in 1927 to publish his masterwork, Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) was: the question of being.
The question of being - in other words, what exists, how do we know that it exists, and what do we mean when we say something exists - is the central question of that branch of philosophy called ontology. This fundamental question was first posed in Western philosophy by the ancient Greeks. Heidegger, however, felt that since Plato the inquiry into being had taken a major theoretical wrong-turn by thinking of being as a property or essence that was continually present in things.
In many of the thinkers that Heidegger would later influence, particularly Jacques Derrida, there is much theorizing about the metaphysics of presence - which simply means to posit being as a substance - and how 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 that provides the (faulty) logical coherence of any metaphysical system. Derrida's deconstruction is a latter development of Heidegger's theory that to even 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.
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 - 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 that they are sitting in they would usually begin by describing all the things that occupy the room, and they might feel that was the best way to get a fairly 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 space, our own subjective space of silent being-ness; and that internal space is just as necessary for the appearance of 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.
Wrathall, Mark. How to Read Heidegger (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005)