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"Nothing Matters": An Essay by Bret W. Davis (Keywords: Zen; Kyoto School; Nihilism; Metaphysics)

Artwork by Joanna Borkowska

Perhaps the essence of nihilism consists in not taking the question of the nothing seriously.

— Martin Heidegger

Have you ever woken up feeling like there’s no point in getting out of bed because, after all, nothing really matters? Perhaps you have, and yet you may have experienced this as just a feeling, as something that had to do just with your subjective state of mind rather than with the objective facts of the world. You may then have thought that if you just forced yourself to get up and get dressed, have a strong cup of coffee and take a brisk walk, you would snap out of this bad mood and rejoin the meaningful hustle and bustle of the world around you.

But have you ever experienced meaninglessness as more than a feeling? Have you ever woken up awash in a fog of futility that seemed to blanket the entire earth, an amorphous yet overwhelming atmosphere of homogeneous insignificance – at once oppressively weighty and disorientingly weightless – that pervades outside as well as inside, cloaking objective things as well as subjective thoughts with a tasteless sense of senselessness, with a seemingly incontrovertible conviction that none of it really matters, that the universe, after all, has no rhyme or reason, no values or aims? Have you ever felt convinced that the story of our lives is like, as Shakespeare’s Macbeth puts it, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”?

Such an experience of nihility has perhaps always haunted humanity. Yet all cultures have somehow surmounted it. Indeed, culture as such – as the cultivation of meaningful mores and purposeful projects – could be understood to be a collective endeavour of overcoming a latent sense that everything is senseless, a semantic horror vacui or “kenophobia” (fear of emptiness). Nevertheless, at a certain point in European history – in the waning decades of the nineteenth century to be precise – this sense of senselessness surfaced with an insuppressible vengeance and was given a name: nihilism.

It was Friedrich Nietzsche who pronounced, or at least prepared to pronounce, in a notebook entry from 1885-86: “Nihilism stands at the door”. The door of the twentieth century, he thought, will open onto nothing, that is to say, onto an experience of nihilism as “the radical repudiation of value, meaning, and desirability”. Increasingly, nothing will seem to matter, to have any value or meaning that would make it worth desiring or despising. “What does nihilism mean?” asks Nietzsche in another notebook entry from 1887. He answers: “That the highest values devaluate themselves. The aim is lacking; ‘why?’ finds no answer”. Christian culture, according to Nietzsche, self-destructed: Our belief in Christianity taught us to value truthfulness; truthfulness gave rise to science; and science – or, we should say, scientism, the belief that science alone gives us the whole truth about reality – destroyed our belief in Christianity and its values. We are responsible for “the death of God”, says Nietzsche. This means that we have “unchained the earth from its sun.” His claim is that we modern Westerners – aside from some reactionary conservatives (who, to be sure, are still far more numerous in the United States than in Europe) – no longer really believe in a transcendent uni-versal source of morality and meaning around which our lives revolve. And yet, we know not what we have done: Our theological patricide means not just that our sins can no longer be forgiven, but that the very concepts of “sin” and “redemption” have lost their force; “good” and “evil” no longer make sense without a theocratic threat of punishment and paternalistic promise of reward. Why should we do, or not do, anything anymore?

Nietzsche knew that he had come too early. Great philosophers are perhaps always ahead of their time. Nietzsche’s books caused a sensation during his lifetime, but not yet a sea change among philosophers. Several decades later, however, especially after the First World War, a number of Western philosophers – including Martin Heidegger, one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century – responded, each in his own manner, to Nietzsche’s prescient pronouncement of the arrival of nihilism, and to his thesis that nihilism could be overcome only by not fleeing or retreating from it, but rather by finding, in the words of the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin, “that which saves” right in the midst of “danger” of a thoroughgoing experience of nihility.

In his famous – or, according to logical positivists such as Rudolf Carnap, infamous – 1929 inaugural address at Freiburg University, “What Is Metaphysics?” Heidegger addressed his fellow academics in the various “sciences” (or “academic disciplines”, as the more general term Wissenschaften is perhaps better translated) – the humanities (Geisteswissenschaften) as well as natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften) and social sciences (Sozialwissenschaften) – and asked: “What happens to us, essentially, in the grounds of our existence, when science becomes our passion?” In other words, we could say, what happens when a desire to remove all passions becomes, ironically, the passion that rules our intellectual and empirical inquiry, when a purportedly disinterested search for objective knowledge replaces a philosophical love of wisdom? The various sciences investigate this or that region of beings: chemical substances, biological animals, psychological minds, social groups, and so on. The sciences concern themselves with every kind of being – and with nothing other than these beings. After all, what else are there besides beings? Nothing. “So far so good, just some banal yet harmless babbling by a philosopher”, Heidegger’s audience may have thought. Yet jaws probably dropped, and surely at least eyebrows were raised, when Heidegger went on to ask: “What about this nothing?” One can image the reaction: “Is this just a bad grammatical joke? You cannot investigate nothing because, well, there is nothing there to investigate”. “Ah, so there is nothing there to investigate after all!” Heidegger may have responded. “No, that’s not what we meant”, would come the response. “You are just playing with words!” A logical positivist in the room would have wanted to blurt out: “Such silly questions, based on nothing more than sophistical word-play, have nothing to do with serious philosophical inquiry; they are just instances of what Wittgenstein calls ‘language gone on holiday.’ Herr Heidegger is just another one of those philosophical flies that need to be let out of the fly bottle, out of the rhetorical trap of his own making. This is why you shouldn’t give such un-scientific pseudo-philosophers tenure, at least until they learn to produce measurable results like all real, scientific scholars do”. (In fact, Wittgenstein himself was much more sympathetic to Heidegger’s question than were Carnap and later analytical epigones who espouse scientism – but that is another story. Another fascinating story involves the fact that, meanwhile, and despite the long shadows of Parmenides’ ancient admonition not to travel down the ineffable and unintelligible “path of nonbeing” and Aristotle’s dictum that “nature abhors a vacuum”, theoretical physicists have increasingly found various notions of nothingness at the kernel of some of the hardest nuts to crack in this hardest of the natural sciences. See not only Fritjof Capra’s pioneering – if problematically syncretistic – The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, but also John D. Barrow’s The Book of Nothing: Vacuums, Voids, and the Latest Ideas about the Origins of the Universe, and Henning Genz’s Nothingness: The Science of Empty Space. Already in the fifteenth century the polymath Leonardo da Vinci proclaimed: “Among the great things which are found among us the existence of Nothing is the greatest”.)

Heidegger, of course, expected jaws to drop. Indeed his intention was to play the role of a philosophical gadfly who would poke his all-too-sober colleagues in the eye as they diligently yet myopically stared down into their bottles of scientifically measurable beings. “The nothing – what else can it be for science but an outrage and a phantasm? … science wishes to know nothing of the nothing”. Heidegger readily admitted that a logical investigation of the nothing soon reaches a dead end. Even though he claimed that the question of the nothing is the fundamental question of metaphysics, and that metaphysics (in the sense he meant by this term in this lecture) is the essential trait of human being, he also recognized that intellectual thinking has, on its own, no way of addressing this question: “For thinking, which is always essentially thinking about something, must act in a way contrary to its own essence when it thinks of the nothing”.

As beings with the potential of sight, doesn’t the absence of light cause us to experience an intangible, and yet sometimes overpowering, presence of darkness?

The logical and empirical thinking of the sciences is always based on particular experiences; and any experience, it seems, must be an experience of something, of a being, be it an object of sense perception, or an intellectual or imaginary idea. How could there be an experience of nothing? Plato taught that, just as we see physical things by means of the light of the sun, we see intelligible things by means of the light of reason. And yet, as the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben points out in a discussion of Aristotle’s discourse on the peculiar being of “potentiality” (a potentiality is a strange “something” that is not yet, and may never be, anything actual), isn’t there a strange yet incontestable sense in which we do in fact “see darkness”? As beings with the potential of sight, doesn’t the absence of light cause us to experience an intangible, and yet sometimes overpowering, presence of darkness?


Analogously, Heidegger suggests that we do indeed have an experience of the peculiar presence of the absence of a meaningful world populated with determinate beings. To begin with, he points out that we have certain experiences of pervasive moods, emotionally charged atmospheres, which attune us to the world of “beings as a whole” and not just to this or that being within this ensemble of beings. As examples he mentions joy, love, and profound boredom. When you experience joy, for example, the whole world appears joyous. When you are profoundly bored, a “muffling fog” rolls over the world, covering everything with a “remarkable indifference”.

Even in profound boredom, however, this ubiquitous indifference does not quite fully expose us to an utter abyss of nihility. In boredom, there is still an aftertaste and a foretaste of significance – a feeling that there is in fact an interesting world out there, but I just can’t quite access it at the moment. Yet even this lifeline to a world that is inherently meaningful is cut off in the experience of what Heidegger calls “the fundamental mood of anxiety”. He contrasts what he means by anxiety, Angst, with fear. When we are afraid, we are always afraid of something. Something appears to us as frightening. The whole world around us may even appear terrifying, like a real-life horror movie; and yet it is still a meaningful world, with clear values (The murderer chasing me is evil!) and distinct goals (I need to get out of this haunted house!).

In the fundamental mood of anxiety, by contrast, nothing appears meaningful. Indeed, nothing appears at all. For things to appear as this rather than as that, as this next to that, there must be some structure of meaning. For a being to be, it must be determined, defined, delimited (near etymological synonyms) with respect to opposed, or adjacent, or somehow related beings. Beings are, by definition, relative to one another, and they necessarily relate to one another within some semantic structure of intelligibility. Determinate beings can only be what they are in a meaningful world. Yet what happens if the world no longer appears as meaningful? What happens when the world, as a linguistically structured meaningful whole, is shattered and mere unconnected shards floating in unstructured space remain? Then, says Heidegger, we come face to face, in the fundamental mood of anxiety, with the nothing. “All things and we ourselves sink into indifference. … We can get no hold on things. In this slipping away of beings only this ‘no hold on things’ comes over us and remains”.

What happens when the world, as a linguistically structured meaningful whole, is shattered and mere unconnected shards floating in unstructured space remain?

In Sartre’s 1938 novel, Nausea, the main character describes his encounter with the twisted roots of a chestnut tree and other increasingly ungraspable things in a park, things which start to reveal their sheer existence by overflowing the words and concepts with which we usually maintain a hold on them and hold them at a distance. In this wordless, and so worldless, expanse of naked existence, in this amorphous mass of sheer is-ness, nothing makes sense, nothing really matters anymore. Sartre describes this experience not as an encounter with nothingness, in the sense of a lack of existence, but rather as an encounter with an excessive, measureless and therefore nauseating effluence of existence – things refusing to be contained and made manageable within the linguistic and conceptual boxes we assign to them. It is the subjectivity of human consciousness, Sartre later argues in his 1943 Being and Nothingness, that introduces negativity into the world. The power of negation not only entails an ability to make meaningful distinctions between things (this is f that; as Spinoza pointed out: determinatio est negatio, determination is negation); it also entails the ability to imagine the world otherwise, and thus to have ideals that can orient action aimed at changing the real. Intelligibility and creativity both require negativity. A world completely full of existence, a world without any gaps and excesses of nothingness, is not really a world in the sense of an ordered whole; it is a mere amorphously undulating blob with neither intelligible meaning nor practical freedom, with neither creativity nor responsibility.

Emmanuel Levinas echoes Sartre’s description of an experience of meaningless existence – of sheer senseless is-ness – in a 1946 essay entitled “There is: Existence without Existents”. He writes: “When the forms of things are dissolved in the night … this nothing is not that of pure nothingness. There is no longer this or that; there is not ‘something’. But this universal absence is in its turn a presence … like the monotonous presence that bears down on us in insomnia”. Although Levinas claims to be “opposing, then, the horror of the night … to Heideggerian anxiety, the fear of being to the fear of nothingness”, as we will see, Heidegger connects, rather than opposes, what he means by being and the nothing. Nor does Heidegger think of what he means by anxiety as a fear of something that we need to be redeemed from. For Heidegger, we need to tarry with the experience of the nothing in order to participate in an event of being which gives meaning to our individual and communal lives. For Levinas, by contrast, it is an experience of the face of another person, and the transcendent infinity of God refracted through that finite face, that breaks the meaningless monotony of existence, the suffocating sameness of ontological totality, with the alterity of other persons and our inexhaustible ethical responsibility vis-à-vis them (see his 1961 Totality and Infinity).

Yellow @joanna_borkowska_art

For all the avant-garde radicality of Levinas’s replacement of ontology with ethics as “first philosophy”, his response to the meaninglessness of existence is, in a crucial sense, a remarkably traditional one: a metaphysical desire for religious transcendence and a concomitant ethical responsibility issuing from a divine command (most powerfully conveyed, Levinas compellingly describes, through the experience of the face of another). Metaphysical transcendence infuses meaning into an otherwise meaningless world of immanence; the revelation of God through the face of the other breaks open the homogenizing totality of being. Levinas’ ethical phenomenology thus repeats, in a postmodern idiom, a pre-modern theme: the sacred trace of transcendence secures the values and aims of our secular lives.

But for Nietzsche, it was metaphysical and religious transcendence that gave birth to nihilism in the first place. By dividing the world into two, a physical and a metaphysical realm, Earth and Heaven, and by displacing the value of this world to the other world, by deferring the aim of life to the afterlife, we not only devalued life in this world but also left ourselves bereft of any source of meaning and value once we found ourselves no longer able to sustain a belief in the other world, that is to say, once we woke up one day to discover that “God is dead”. We are responsible for His death, we killed Him in the name of truth and freedom; and yet, without Him, we apparently no longer have any ultimate source and guaranteeing ground for morality and meaning in our lives.

For Nietzsche, it was metaphysical and religious transcendence that gave birth to nihilism in the first place.

The Japanese Zen Buddhist and cross-cultural philosopher Nishitani Keiji understood the nihilism that was announced by Nietzsche to be the reappearance, like a virus that has gained resistance to a drug, of nihility at the level of ethics and religion. In an autobiographical essay Nishitani writes: “Nihilism is the reappearance of nihility at the dimension of religion, that is to say, at a level as high (or as deep) as that dimension where nihility would normally be overcome”. In the past, whenever people woke up in a mood of meaninglessness, with a nagging sense that this life on earth has no ultimate value or purpose, they could always appeal to their belief in a higher realm, to their religious dogmas and dictates, in order to reaffirm this life – at least as a step on the way to somewhere else. But what happens when we no longer believe in divine commands or the deserts of an afterlife? Do we sink into despair, or do we somehow find a new way to discover or create values?

Can we affirm life as we know it, if this is all there is to it? Would we want to relive this life over and over, with all its ups and downs, all its pains and pleasures, all its comic and tragic moments? The “heaviest weight” of this thought of the “eternal return” was, for Nietzsche, a litmus test for discerning whether one is a life-affirmer or a life-denier. In an age of nihilism, he thought, life-deniers are destined to become “passive nihilists” who yearn for non-existence. Life-affirmers, on the other hand, can become “active nihilists”, destroying the remnants of old values so that they can clear the way for the creation of new ones. Such active nihilists prepare the way for the “overman”, a more evolved type of person whose overflowing “will to power” will enable him to create his own values rather than submit to those carved in stone by “ascetic priests” who purport to be lieutenants of a higher Lord.

The young Nishitani was profoundly impressed by Nietzsche, in midlife devoting the central chapters of his 1949 book Nihilism (translated, with the author’s consent, as The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism) to a remarkably insightful reading of his thought. And yet, by the time he published his magnum opus in 1962, What Is Religion? (translated, with the author’s consent, as Religion and Nothingness), Nishitani had become increasingly critical of Nietzsche’s philosophy of the will to power. He came to view the will to power in terms of what Buddhism calls karma, the egoistic self-will or “infinite drive” that keeps us bound to a way of life that perpetuates ignorance and suffering. Whereas Nietzsche misunderstood Buddhism to be the culmination of passive nihilism in a “will to nothingness”, a self-annihilating desire to end all desire and disappear into the vacuous nothingness of Nirvana, Nishitani understood Nirvana in a properly Mahayana (and specifically Zen) Buddhist manner as an extinguishing of the flames of egoistic craving that liberates one from a way of life that engenders suffering and into a way of life motivated by universal love, compassion, and sympathetic joy.

We must, as Zen masters have long taught, pass through an existential Great Death in order to truly live.

Alongside the works of Nietzsche, traditional Zen masters such as Hakuin, and modern Japanese authors such as Natsume Sōseki, Nishitani had all along also been poring over the works of the profoundest modern Christian writers such as Dostoyevsky and the most radical medieval mystics and negative theologians such as Meister Eckhart. Noting that Eckhart at times spoke of the “silent desert” of Godhood – which lies beyond or beneath the persona of God the Father – as an abyssal ground of “nothingness”, Nishitani early on sensed a secret affinity between Eckhart’s thoroughgoing theism and Nietzsche’s thoroughgoing atheism (or thorough rethinking of divinity in immanent, Dionysian terms). In the first chapter of his first book, which was based on a paper written while residing in Freiburg in the late 1930s and submitted to Heidegger, Nishitani spoke of this affinity in terms of a “dialectic of life”, a dialectic in which humans can reach a radical affirmation of life only by way of passing through a radical negation. We must, as Zen masters have long taught, pass through an existential Great Death in order to truly live. In terms of our modern predicament, this meant for Nishitani that we can – in a phrase with which he came to describe the path of his life and thought – “overcome nihilism [only] by way of passing all the way through nihilism”.

In Religion and Nothingness, Nishitani draws on Buddhist (especially Zen) terminology to explain this process in terms of “stepping back” from “the field of (reified) being and (representational) consciousness”, through “the field of nihility”, all the way to “the field of emptiness”. Although the field of emptiness (kū no ba) is reached by radicalizing the field of nihility (kyomu no ba), it is, he says, altogether different from this negative nothingness: “It is the standpoint at which absolute negation is at the same time … a great affirmation”. Emptiness here is not a “relative nothingness” seen from the side of being as something assaulting it from without, but rather an “absolute nothingness” seen from within; it is the arrival at the far-side as the return to the absolute near-side. Whereas Levinas speaks of metaphysical “trans-ascendence” toward the absolute alterity of God, Nishitani speaks of “trans-descendence”, of radically stepping back to the field of emptiness as the “home-ground” of the self, a field on which all beings are realized to be what they in truth are: empty of “own-being” or independent substantiality yet full of inter-existence or “mutual implication”. As an experiential field on which we awaken to our original interconnectedness, the field of emptiness is an “absolute near-side” (zettai shigan). It is a field on which love and compassion naturally spring forth from within and among us, without the need for commandments – or promises of reward and threats of punishment – from on high.

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During his sojourn in Freiburg between 1937 and 1939, Nishitani reportedly had a standing invitation to come to Heidegger’s home on Saturdays and teach him about Zen. Heidegger’s lifelong interest in East Asian thought is well documented. He often expressed not only a keen interest in, but also a strong sympathy with Daoism and Zen Buddhism in particular. In his attempt to deconstruct the metaphysical foundations of the entire Western tradition of philosophy, Heidegger often found that the “other inception” of post-metaphysical thought he was groping to articulate resonated with the ancient traditions of East Asian thought. (To what degree these resonances are matters of coincidence or influence remains a matter of scholarly discussion.) Heidegger sometimes said that his thought was better understood by East Asians than by his fellow Westerners. Among the Westerners who misunderstood him, Heidegger had in mind not only those who accused him of spouting nonsense, such as Carnap, but also those who enthusiastically appropriated his thought, such as Sartre. Heidegger had been given a copy of Being and Nothingness shortly after the end of the war in 1945. In a letter written to Sartre at the time, Heidegger expressed his enthusiasm for how Sartre had taken up the path of thought opened up by his own 1927 Being and Time. (Faced with denazification hearings at the time, Heidegger was also clearly interested in garnering the support of a prominent French intellectual). And yet in his 1947 “Letter on Humanism”, a dense text that rather cryptically introduces a major turn in Heidegger’s thought by way of criticizing Sartre’s essay “Existentialism Is a Humanism”, he decisively distances himself from the voluntarism of Sartre’s humanistic existentialism, according to which a human being is “only what he wills himself to be”. According to Sartre, a human being initially “appears on the scene”, discovering that he exists in a particular situation with a particular range of possibilities open to him; and yet, in that situation, he goes on to essentially “define himself” based on a “spontaneous choice” that Sartre calls the “will”.

The endeavour to wilfully impose meaning on the world ends up just reinforcing the impression that the world is, in itself, meaningless.

Heidegger’s curt rejection of Sartre’s subjective voluntarism should be seen in the context of his own decade-long confrontation with Nietzsche’s philosophy, which Heidegger had come to view as a merely inverted metaphysics that posits the will to power as the being of beings. Heidegger had come to think that no kind of voluntarism – whether it be theistic or atheistic, whether it be individual or communal, whether it be that of Nietzsche, of Sartre, of Heidegger’s own earlier individualistic decisionism in Being and Time, or of what he later called the “great stupidity” of his belief in the early 1930s that Hitler embodied the “one will of the German people” – offers a viable way out of nihilism. Rather, voluntarism of any stripe evinces “the deepest entanglement in nihilism”, since the endeavour to wilfully impose meaning on the world ends up just reinforcing the impression that the world is, in itself, meaningless, and that meaning is based on nothing more than an inscrutably arbitrary egocentric, ethnocentric, anthropocentric, or anthropomorphically theocentric will. Whereas Nietzsche claimed that “the world is the will to power – and nothing besides”, Heidegger thought that the will to power is a historically delimited understanding of the being of beings, and he asks in effect: What about this “nothing besides”? How else might being – and nothing – be understood? Sartre too, Heidegger thought, merely overturned the terms of Western metaphysics; even less than Nietzsche did he manage to “twist free” of them. For example, Heidegger thought that Sartre’s atheistic humanism was a hasty rejection of theism that simply transferred key divine attributes, in a diminutive form, to humans. In place of God creating an ordered cosmos out of a primeval watery chaos (as Genesis actually says, although this biblical cosmogony was much later revised by Christian theologians who formulated the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, a theological doctrine that shares with the ancient philosophical doctrine of ex nihilo nihil fit [nothing comes from nothing] an interpretation of nihil as a mere absence of being), for Sartre it is the “for-itself” of human consciousness and will that imposes meaning on the “in-itself” of a meaningless mass of being. Likewise, Heidegger thought that Sartre misunderstood his statement in Being and Time that “The ‘essence’ of Dasein lies in its existence”. Whereas Sartre simply inverted the traditional metaphysical notion that essence precedes existence, Heidegger was attempting to think both essence and existence otherwise. For Heidegger, ek-sistence is a matter of what he calls – in “What is Metaphysics?” – “being held out into the nothing”. In his critique of Sartre in “Letter on Humanism”, Heidegger further clarifies that what he means by ek-sistence is “an ecstatic inherence in the truth of being”. Human existence, as Da-sein (there-being), is the open place or clearing (Lichtung) in which being comes to have meaningful presence. Human being, for the later Heidegger, does not wilfully project the meaning of being, but rather non-wilfully participates in an event in which “language speaks” (die Sprache spricht), opening up a linguistically meaningful space for human dwelling. In rethinking “being” as an “appropriating event” (Ereignis) in which humans are called upon to attentively take part, Heidegger understands the “nothing” out into which we are held during the most authentic and creative moments of our lives as a condition for the possibility of new meanings, not merely as a dissolution of ossified old meanings. In “Letter on Humanism”, Heidegger does accept some responsibility for the misunderstandings of his thought, since he is admittedly still struggling to free himself from “the language of [Western] metaphysics”. A case in point is Heidegger’s thinking of being in terms of the nothing. While this cannot but appear confusing to Westerners, steeped as they are in a logic and an ontology that simply oppose being and nothing, and so understand nothing as a mere negation or privation of being, East Asians, Heidegger thought, were in a better position to understand what he was trying to think and to say.

On several occasions Heidegger said that the Japanese understood his references to “the nothing” better than did his fellow Europeans. In a letter to a Japanese scholar in 1963, Heidegger wrote:

The lecture [“What is Metaphysics?”] was translated into Japanese as early as 1930 and was immediately understood in your country, in contrast to the nihilistic misunderstanding of the terms it introduced which remains prevalent in Europe to this day. What is called the nothing [das Nichts] in this lecture means that which, in regard to beings [das Seiende], is never any kind of being [niemals etwas Seiendes], and which “is” thus the nothing, and yet which nevertheless determines beings as such and thus is called being [das Sein].

In a 1969 letter to a German colleague, Heidegger wrote: “In the far East, with the ‘nothing’ properly understood, one found in it the word for being”. In his “From a Conversation on Language (1953/54): Between a Japanese and an Inquirer”, which Heidegger composed loosely on the basis of a conversation with a visiting Japanese scholar, he expressed his appreciation for the ability of the Japanese to understand his core thought of being as no-thing, having his Japanese interlocutor proclaim: “For us, emptiness is the loftiest name for what you mean to say with the word ‘being’”. Indeed, it may be the case that Japanese philosophers such as Nishitani at times understood where Heidegger was headed better than he did himself. For example, in Religion and Nothingness Nishitani questions whether, in speaking of “being held out into the nothing” Heidegger was still in effect objectifying the nothing as some thing standing over against us. According to Nishitani, insofar as Heidegger thought of the nothing as an abyss into which Dasein is thrust in a state of anxiety, “traces of the representation of the nothing as some ‘thing’ [which threatens Dasein from without] still remain”. Nishitani’s main successor in the Kyoto School, Ueda Shizuteru, traces the development of Heidegger’s own understanding of our relation to the nothing. Already in “What Is Metaphysics?”, Heidegger speaks of a “peculiar calm” in the midst of anxiety and says that the “anxiety of those who are daring” is “in secret alliance with the cheerfulness and gentleness of creative longing”. Ueda suggests that the “releasing oneself [Sichloslassen] into the nothing” that Heidegger speaks of at the end of that early lecture is “radicalized in the later Heidegger’s thought into the notion of Gelassenheit”. Gelassenheit, a word coined by Meister Eckhart and used by Christian mystics to speak of the “calm releasement” that issues from an abandonment of self-will, was appropriated by the later Heidegger to characterize our most proper comportment to being (or the nothing), in which we release ourselves from the modern metaphysics of the will and open ourselves to an experience of the mystery of the open-region (Gegnet) of being that surrounds the delimited horizons of our meaningful worlds populated with definite beings. By releasing ourselves from the anthropocentric will to scientifically comprehend and technologically control a finite field of beings, we release ourselves unto an experience of the nothing as the concealed background, the withdrawn excesses of the wide-open-region of being, an incalculable reserve of possibilities for disclosing things otherwise. Throughout his career, in order to emphasize what he calls “the ontological difference”, namely the difference between being and beings, Heidegger sometimes speaks of being as the nothing. Being is not a being, an entity; it is thus no-thing. In one of his most terse and thus enigmatic formulations, Heidegger writes: “Being: Nothing: the Same”. Yet by “same” Heidegger does not mean to say that being and the nothing are mere synonyms, but rather that they inextricably belong together, like two sides of the same coin. Although he speaks of this intimate relation differently in different contexts, in general it could be said that, for Heidegger, the nothing is the concealedness that always accompanies the unconcealedness of being. The nothing is the essentially self-withdrawing and self-concealing dimension of being; it is the lethe of aletheia, the expropriation (Enteignis) involved in the appropriating event (Ereignis), the mystery (Geheimnis) of the dark forest that surrounds any bounded openness of a clearing (Lichtung) into which the light of intelligibility can shine. It is not a privation or vacuity, but rather the fullness of the undelimited open-region in which this or that delimited sense of being – this or that horizon of meaning – comes to be formed.

Daoists understand the Dao, the Way, in terms of an indeterminate yet fecund nothingness or emptiness that engenders and harbours determinate beings.

The nothing, for Heidegger, is not a nihilistic privation of being; rather, as he writes in Contributions to Philosophy, “the nothing is the essential trembling of beyng [Seyn, an archaic spelling of Sein, being] itself and therefore is more than any entity”. In order to emphasize the temporally dynamic character of being, Heidegger sometimes refers to it as “the Way” (der Weg), and he explicitly relates this to the central Daoist notion of the Dao. Daoists understand the Dao, the Way, in terms of an indeterminate yet fecund nothingness or emptiness that engenders and harbours determinate beings. In the foundational text of Daoism, the Daodejing, we are told that “beings are engendered by the nothing [you shengyu wu]”, and that “the Dao is an empty vessel [chong], yet use can never fill up its abyssal depth”. Heidegger also refers to a passage in the Daodejing that speaks of the usefulness of nothing in a more delimited sense: A jug is formed out of clay, yet its hollowness is what allows it to be useful. Similarly, a room is constructed with four walls, yet its open space is what makes it useful. Like the Daodejing, Heidegger draws our attention to the significance of both these delimited and undelimited senses of the nothing. *** Nishitani’s teacher and the founder of the Kyoto School, Nishida Kitarō, developed a rigorously argued and complexly articulated philosophy centred on the idea of “the self-determination of the place of absolute nothingness” (zettai-mu no basho no jiko-gentei). He distinguished “absolute nothingness” as the generative matrix of all reality – the formless yet self-delimiting medium of all delimited forms – from “relative nothingness” understood either as a mere absence of being or as a subjective consciousness of objective being. Nishida broadly contrasted the metaphysical predispositions of Western and Eastern cultures in terms of a Western prioritization of being qua form and an Eastern prioritization of nothingness qua formlessness. There are, of course, significant differences and debates, as well as exceptions to the rule, throughout both Western and Eastern traditions. For example, there are various senses in which the term “emptiness” (Sanskrit: shunyata; Chinese: kong; Japanese: ) is used, and at times debated, among schools of Buddhism; and these Buddhist senses of emptiness relate in different ways to the various Daoist senses of “nothingness” (Chinese: wu; Japanese: mu). These terms and teachings get woven together in various ways by traditional Zen masters and by modern Kyoto School philosophers. It is beyond the scope of this essay to delve into this complicated intellectual history (for a start, I recommend the anthology Nothingness in Asian Philosophy, edited by J. L. Liu and D. L. Berger, and my “Forms of Emptiness in Zen”). Nor can I wade much further into comparisons with Western mystics such as Eckhart (see my “Letting Go of God for Nothing”) and philosophers such as Heidegger (see my “Heidegger and Asian Philosophy”). Let me just comment here on one more especially noteworthy point of convergence, or at least intersection, drawing on my “Heidegger and Daoism: A Dialogue on the Useless Way of Unnecessary Being”. Near the end of the Second World War, Heidegger wrote to his wife: “On the essence of the unnecessary (which is what I mean by ‘being’) I recently found the short conversation between two Chinese thinkers that I’m copying out for you”. The conversation he transcribed in this letter is from the Zhuangzi, the second foundational text of Daoism. Around the same time, Heidegger also quoted this conversation in the concluding pages of Country Path Conversations, a pivotal text composed precisely at the midpoint of the development of his path of thought. The Chinese term (wuyong) for what Heidegger calls “the unnecessary” (das Unnötige) is usually translated into English as “the useless”. Heidegger strikingly identifies this notion with what he means by “being” (Sein), which we have seen him say is the same as “the nothing” (das Nichts). The Zhuangzi also speaks of “the useless” in terms of “nothingness” (wu) or “vacuity” (xu). Brook Ziporyn translates the conversation that Heidegger quotes from the Zhuangzi as follows:

Huizi said to Zhuangzi, “your words are useless!” Zhuangzi said, “it is only when you know uselessness that you can understand anything about the useful. The Earth is certainly vast and wide, but a man at any time only uses as much of it as his two feet can cover. But if you were to dig away all the earth around his feet, down to the Yellow Springs, would that little patch he stands on be of any use to him?” Huizi said, “it would be useless.” Zhuangzi said, “then the usefulness of the useless [wuyong zhi weiyong] should be quite obvious.”

We generally attend only to the limited ground directly under our feet at this moment, that is, only to what is deemed useful or necessary in our current horizon of understanding; and we understand and use things according to their position in this network of meanings, according to the role they play in our concerned dealings with things. But, as Zhuangzi says, “is it not absurd to judge [something] by whether it does what is or is not called for by its position, by what role it happens to play?”

According to the early Heidegger of Being and Time, we understand beings first and foremost as “equipment” in a world, that is to say, in a “totality of significations” structured by a chain of “in-order-to” links leading to an ultimate “for-the-sake-of-which” (Umwillen), a life-project projected by our will (Wille). However, in Country Path Conversations, Heidegger rounds the bend of his turn away from will to Gelassenheit. There, in implicit consonance with the Daoist notion of wuwei (non-wilful action) and with explicit reference to the quoted passage from the Zhuangzi, Heidegger stresses that, without the surrounding undisclosed and apparently “useless” and “unnecessary” expanse of earth (Heidegger’s “open-region” or Zhuangzi’s “open nowhere”), we could not look out beyond our current horizons to open up new ways of understanding and experiencing the world.

Heidegger once wrote that the usefulness of philosophy lies in its immediate uselessness: “It only ever has an indirect effect, in that philosophical meditation prepares new perspectives and standards for all our comportments and decisions”. In this sense, all of our scientific and everyday dealings with objects and objectives, with things and tasks as they are disclosed within our current horizons of understanding, depend on philosophy’s wider outlook, which must remain ever attuned to the usefulness of the useless. Lost in the rat race of managing apparent necessities, we cover over the more profound need we have of “the unnecessary”. “Running around amidst beings” (Umtrieben an das Seiende), we remain oblivious of our primal relation to the withdrawn reserves of being (Sein), to the undetermined abundance of no-thing, which can be metaphorically understood as the dense “forest” that encompasses the delimited “clearings” we inhabit, or as the vertiginously vast “open-region” in which the delineated “horizons” of our meaningful worlds are housed. The early Heidegger famously described human being as being-in-the-world. Yet Ueda – interpreting Heidegger on the basis of his Zen Buddhist background – says that, in truth, this is always a matter of being-in-the-twofold-world, since we always dwell in a delimited world that lies, in turn, within an undelimited “empty space” (kokū), just as the finite earth can be pictured as resting in the infinite universe.


We typically have tunnel vision; we see only the ordered grid of our daily routines, a grid produced by our individual and collective projects, a grid within which we run about in the rat races of our lives. What lies beyond the borders of the boxes in which we habitually dwell cannot but appear as nothing, if and when it appears at all. We likely experience this nothing – if and when we ever do experience it – as a disturbing and inconvenient disruption of our busy lives, filled as they are with meaningful tasks that seem to constantly demand our full attention. The open-region beyond the horizons of our meaningful worlds cannot but appear, if it ever does appear, as a meaningless nowhere, as a rumbling chaotic mess, as a nihilistic void that evokes anxiety, or as a vacuum that induces horror.

We typically have tunnel vision; we see only the ordered grid of our daily routines, a grid produced by our individual and collective projects, a grid within which we run about in the rat races of our lives.

"Questioning”, Heidegger famously remarked, “is the piety of thought”. This makes for a nice philosophical sound bite, a catchy quote to put on a coffee mug at a café for philosophical posers. And yet, if we take it seriously and begin to question everything, it may seem as if nothing matters anymore, as if a rug of certainty has been pulled out from under our feet, exposing us to a meaningless abyss of nihility. We may even spill our decaf cappuccino. Nevertheless, if we tarry with, rather than flee from, that experience, we may find that it begins to feel freeing. As Heidegger says, when “when we release ourselves into the nothing … we liberate ourselves from those idols everyone has and to which we are wont to go cringing”. We may experience this nothing, not as a vacuous nihility that invokes horror, but rather as a spacious openness that allows for freedom and creativity. We may find that the indeterminateness of the nothing is not merely an anaemic privation but rather an amorphous wellspring teeming with as yet undefined possibilities. If we, as Heidegger and Zhuangzi suggest, open ourselves to that open-region, free ourselves for that free-dom – for that openness beyond the domain of our predominate patterns of thinking and behaving – then we may find that the nothing turns out to be the very spaciousness of freedom: freedom from fossilized linguistic and conceptual constrictions, and freedom for rethinking the being of beings, for reimagining the possibilities of our lives, and for redrawing the parameters of the meaningful worlds we co-inhabit. If we, as Nishitani suggests, step all the way back through the field of nihility, we may discover that our original home-ground is a field of emptiness, a discovery that frees us from egoistic and communal reifications and attachments, and frees us for compassionate and creative cooperation. This essay began with a reflection on the deeply unsettling feeling that nothing really matters. If you did not turn away, if you stayed the course even as it delved further into the abyssal topic of nihilism, and if you patiently pondered how East Asian philosophers may have been better equipped than Heidegger’s Western colleagues were to understand where he was headed with his strange and logic-defying locutions, you may now understand that, as it turns out, nothing really does matter. Indeed, “the nothing” can be understood to be the ultimate concern of philosophers, which means of all human beinrepgs insofar as we heed the most critical and conscientious calling of our existence.

Bret W. Davis is Professor and T. J. Higgins, S.J. Chair in Philosophy at Loyola University Maryland. In addition to attaining a Ph.D. in philosophy from Vanderbilt University, he has studied and taught for more than a year in Germany and thirteen years in Japan. He has published dozens of articles, in English and in Japanese, on topics in continental, Asian, and cross-cultural philosophy. He is the translator of Heidegger’s Country Path Conversations and of numerous Japanese texts. His authored and edited books include, among others, Heidegger and the Will: On the Way to Gelassenheit (2007), Japanese and Continental Philosophy: Conversations with the Kyoto School (2011), The Oxford Handbook of Japanese Philosophy (2020), and Zen Pathways: An Introduction to the Philosophy and Practice of Zen Buddhism (forthcoming).


From The Philosopher, vol. 109, no. 1 ('Nothing').

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