WINTER 2021: NOTHING
Publication Date: 31st January 2021
Nothing divides philosophers like nothing. Those who seek certainty, security, and stability will tend to dismiss talk of “nothing” and, especially, “the nothing” as vague, mystical, meaningless, absurd, and so on. As the Russian existentialist philosopher Leo Shestov put it, this kind of philosopher “sees the supreme good in a sleep which nothing can trouble” which is why they are “so careful to get rid of the incomprehensible, the enigmatic, and the mysterious”. For every Gottfried Leibniz or Martin Heidegger inflaming the philosophical imagination by asking “why should there be something rather than nothing?” there is a Bertrand Russell responding “I should say the universe is just there, and that’s all”.
Certainly, engagement with questions of nothing and nothingness takes philosophy dangerously close to theology, for those who find such imbrications dangerous. Furthermore, it is a term with deep roots in both Western and Eastern thought. The essays in this issue by Graham Priest, Bret W. Davis, Karmen MacKendrick, and Mark C. Taylor discuss Plato, Aristotle, and Heidegger alongside Meister Eckhart, Thomas Aquinas, and Laozi. But, as Priest points out, “Nothing is certainly a strange object, but that hardly means that one should worship it!” Priest’s own analysis of nothing relies purely on secular logic, albeit one that radically diverges from the Aristotelian orthodoxy.
However, even if you deem the topic worthy of philosophical inquiry, you may still find such reflections slightly useless. What, if anything, can one do with it? In the face of such an accusation, I am grateful that there are still those who defend the uselessness of philosophy. Indeed, as Bret W. Davis puts it in reference to Heidegger, “the usefulness of philosophy lies in its immediate uselessness”. To be obsessed with practical applications is merely a kind of tunnel vision. Reflecting on nothing may be useless, but it is far from unimportant. Indeed, Davis concludes his essay by noting that “‘the nothing’ can be understood to be the ultimate concern of philosophers, which means of all human beings insofar as we heed the most critical and conscientious calling of our existence”.
Those looking for a bit more “useful” philosophy in this issue will not be disappointed though. Joanna Borkowska explores how the idea of nothing influences her work as an artist, while Bret W. Davis links the experience of nothing with freedom and creativity. Finally, Joshua Jones draws upon the idea of nothingness to reflect upon ethical questions raised by loss and extinction in the Anthropocene.
Other highlights in this issue include: Akeel Bilgrami reflects upon the ideal of an unalienated life; Gary L. Francione offers a philosophical defence of veganism (with accompanying images from world-renowned animal photographer Jo-Anne McArthur), and Chiara Ricciardone asks how philosophy can change the world.
We are grateful to Joanna Borkowska and Jo-Anne McArthur for permission to use their extraordinary images in this issue.