The Western culture developed an eccentric attitude to nothingness, otherwise one of the most intriguing philosophical concepts. Only with Nietzsche, Heidegger, later with Derrida and many others, the West has seriously come to deal with the question. This is, however, more than millennia and a half after philosophers in the East. But when it started, a postmodern avalanche of nihilism could not stop until dissolving the idea of modernity and enlightened rational man. Before there was no nothing, now the West is drowning in it.

The classical, as well as modern West, developed a general antipathy toward a concept of nothing (Grandy, 2016). Even some of the most mystical or skeptical of the early schools of thought accepted a thesis that reality consists of something that involves an ultimate essence represented either in primary substance, god, number, or universal value. Absence of essence was incomprehensible since it would imply eternal nonsense and emptiness. Parmenides from the fifth century BCE ruled out the very possibility of void on grounds of its non-existence. Even for the nineteenth-century French writer Victor Hugo (in Sorensen, 2017): “There is no such thing as nothingness… Everything is something. Nothing is nothing.” Religious leaders in early Christianity in Europe even felt they must ban the use of zero because it seemed to deny the omnipresence of God. On nothingness, western philosophy and religion suggestively overlapped.

The first formalization of arithmetic operations using the concept of zero otherwise origins from the seventh century India. New knowledge reached Baghdad in the eighth century from where it needed another four centuries to land in Europe, with Italian mathematician Fibonacci, who brought it from his travels to the Arab world in north Africa around year 1200 (Kaplan, 2000). Indian discovery of zero seems natural regarding the traditional acceptance of nothingness as a main philosophical concept in Buddhism. It is most concisely dealt with in the philosophy of the middle way, which shares important similarities with Continental postmodern philosophy in Europe since they both based their thoughts around the central notion of nothingness. Assessment of nothingness comparatively between different authors and different philosophical traditions reveals similarities that are the most instructive in light of underlying aspirations to develop a mesoscopic understanding of social complexity, in which void holds central place.

The philosophy of the middle way established one of its main foundations on the work of Indian philosopher Nagarjuna (ca. 150–250 CE), one of the most original and influential thinkers in the history of Indian philosophy (Westerhoff, 2017). He is responsible for accomplishing a revolution as important to Buddhism as the Protestant Reformation for Christianity (Loy, 1992).

Nagarjuna showed how rational thought necessarily runs into contradictions when trying to grasp the true, ultimate nature of reality as the opposite branch of Buddhism aimed to demonstrate. He pointed out that an explanation of the world in terms of something essential is based on a fundamental metaphysical error (Garfield, 2014). Each essentialist explanation bases on claims that are in some sense nonassertable, or at least, not consistently assertable (Ibid.). Nagarjuna alleged that every single thing is empty of the essence on an ultimate level. What exists is always mutually dependent, it ‘emerges’ from nothing essential, merely as a provisional order from disorder. The reality cannot be commensurable to some central value to which everything can be reduced, since things always arise co-dependently through a matrix of relations between many other, not necessarily obvious, but also dependently arising things.

The philosophy of the third way builds on nothingness and applies negation (of the essence) as its main mechanism but it nevertheless decisively refuses nihilistic interpretation of its overall mission. Reality is not meant to be empty of everything. A void is not implying that everything is empty in an absolute sense, it is only empty of the absolute because the intrinsic nature of all things does not exist intrinsically (Jinpa, 2002). To be empty of intrinsic essence is therefore not to be non-existent, but rather to exist merely conventionally (Ibid.), always only as incomplete, and regularly changing, what can be known only vaguely such as evaluatively (in terms of this essay). This is one of the messages of Je Tsongkhapa, a renowned Tibetan philosopher from the late fourteen century. He marked an important turning point in the philosophy of the third way by denying its nihilist readings and furthering the original idea of Nagarjuna, as superbly patiently elaborated in a freely accessible book written by Thubten Jinpa (otherwise personal translator of serving Tibetan Dalai Lama).

With the aim to enforce the original argument of Nagarjuna against its nihilistic derivatives, Tsongkhapa sheds light on the contradictory scope of nothingness in the philosophy of the third way. Nothingness is not negating existence in general, since life is not meaningless but meaningfree (Loy, 1993). On its way, negation should not destroy the reality of our everyday world of experience.

To satisfy this imperative, negation with nothingness must eventually negate even itself. This is a prerequisite for the possibility of the emergence of the true middle. The middle way is so-called precisely “because it is said to be a middle ground between false extremes” (Cabezón, Dargyay, 2007)–the extremes of essentialism and absence of meaning. Tsongkhapa requires one not to fall into the extremes of either under-negation or over-negation (Jinpa, 2002) but practice negation with nothingness wisely, from the middle.

Contrary to the Eastern tradition, Continental philosophy adopted nothingness through an idea of nihilism. Nihilism usually denotes either nonexistence of something specific or total emptiness. A nihilist would argue that life is without objective meaning, reality does not actually exist, nothing is real, real is merely a constructed illusion (Turner, 2011).

Among the first to inscribe the concept of nothing in the Continental philosophy is German Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). For him, there is no objective order or structure in the world except what we give it (Will to Power, 1901). Nihilism is constituted on tension resulting from “a disproportion between what we want to value (or need) and how the world appears to operate” (Carr, 1992). When one finds out, writes Nietzsche, that the world does not possess the objective value or meaning that a person has believed it to have, it finds itself in a crisis. Extreme pessimism and existential despair in the postmodern world are unavoidable outcomes.

Another major contributor to the philosophy of nothingness is German Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). His philosophy was immensely influential as it led to the development of existentialism, hermeneutics, deconstruction, postmodernism, and continental philosophy in general (Susithra, 2009). Heidegger insists in Being and Time (1927) that nothingness is the basis for any discussion of Being – of what is seen as ‘reality’. Traditional science focusses on ‘what-is’ and “wishes to know nothing of the nothing” (in Naeim, 2019). But it may be far more illuminating to examine the boundaries of ordinary knowledge by trying to study ‘what-is-not’ (Heidegger, 1998), what is missing. From similar imperative starts also Derrida, in this regard his intellectual descendant, with a concept of a void as primordial no-thing (Rodriguez, 1999).

‘What-is-not’ is the negation of the totality of being. It is awareness of the absence of something, more precisely, it is a reality unseen but nevertheless felt. Heidegger compares the experience of nothingness with the dread that we may feel in the dark. We see nothing, yet the feeling of dread arises exactly because we are aware that things are present—somewhere out there, vaguely threatening, even though not revealing any danger in particular. Only when the ambiguity of truth is embraced, we can “stand out into nothingness” (Heidegger, 1998), when our thought abandons essence, universality, and totality. Only “in the clear night of the nothing” (Ibid.) awareness can arise that we are beings, not nothing.

The idea that one must first descend into nothingness before it can gain a promise to recuperate through it in a process of ‘becoming,’ found its place in existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980), especially in Being and Nothingness (1943). Correspondingly to Heidegger, Sartre develops pessimistic implications from studying nothingness, since nothingness can never be overcome or escaped. It arises in the unbridgeable gap between unconscious and conscious being, between the brute existence of things (and beings) and our comprehension of these things. Gap imposes the irreconcilable break between one’s existence and one’s formal projection of a self. This separation is for Sartre a form of nothingness.

By the end of the twentieth century, postmodernism, nihilism, and existentialism largely fulfilled their mission to contaminate leading moral, religious, and metaphysical convictions in the Western world. This triggered the greatest crisis, just as Nietzsche predicted, by imposing a radical relativism that denounces every purpose, except an impulse to despair, nostalgia, or further manic fragmentation of meaning.

Self-exhaustive postmodern preoccupation with nothingness is probably best ‘visible’ in art. Among the pioneers is the minimalist artist Yves Klein who organised an exhibition of nothing (The Void, at the Galerie Iris Clert in Paris, 1958). He presented visitors, who even paid an entrance fee, blank walls, and an empty gallery. Musician John Cage ‘composed’ work for the pianist who sits for four and a half minutes without playing a note. Tarkovsky directed films with reduced stories and empty dialogues as a means of creating dream-like impressions…

In Continental philosophy and art, the idea of nothingness is many times pushed to extremes in the decomposition of everything existing. Karen Carr (1992) in this regard studied the perverse trend of an easy-going acceptance of nothingness which inflamed a paralyzing relativism. She sees the emergence of ‘banalization of nihilism’ and ‘cheerful nihilism’ when one accepts that all perspectives are equally non-binding. In such conditions, intellectual or moral arrogance will always prevail (Ibid.). The dangers of into itself inverted philosophy of nothingness were known and methodically criticised already by Tsongkhapa. He showed that some Buddhist philosophers first emptied nothingness off everything and then totalised it. Their nihilism forgot and betrayed the original mission. This is the nothingness of extremes, not of the middle way, belonging to a certain purpose, instead of to an existential gap. Or as mathematician Kaplan (2000) finely figured out, one can see the world only by looking through nothingness, not at it: “If you look at nothing you only see nothing.”

To avert slipping into total nihilism, nothingness must overcome itself by inciting its own demise. All previously discussed philosophers indeed refuse essentially nihilistic implications about their negative procedures. For Nagarjuna, it is true that nothing can be ultimately true. In turn, nothingness is not the ultimate truth (Garfield, 2014), it is a truth that is merely free of illusions. Nothingness brings freedom from false totalisation, which leads to transformation on the deepest level. Nietzsche in this regard developed a model of ‘active nihilism’ by the Übermensch (superior being), who defeats threats of total negation (in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1885). The strong individual will destruct the old values and lay down in their place own beliefs and interpretations, in this way overcoming negativity of nihilism.

Heidegger went much further when requesting not only to overcome but to completely nullify nothingness, by nihilating it. Nihilation is one kind of negation by the revelation of the nothing in being (Register, 2011). Man is for Sartre the being through whom nothingness comes to the world but it is also a being that nihilates that nothingness. This is possible because the person can understand the world through a void, through what is not present. A person must first recognize what it is not: it is not a being ‘in itself’ as essentialist (with faith. reason, or identity) but only ‘for itself’ as cognitive, evaluative, and interpretative being. One can know the truth only through its absence, as in the way one feels the emptiness left by a departed loved one (Sartre, 1943). Through the awareness of what it is not, a being becomes what it is: a nothingness, empty of predefined meaning. As a result, a human being is forced to create itself and its world from nothingness. This nondetermined nature is what defines a person, who can, by acting in the world enforce its freedom and actuate its own being and self (Ibid.).

Philosophies of nothingness considerably overlap in their shared efforts to overcome essentialist comprehension. Nothingness is an indispensable concept, but it is not essential (Jinpa, 2002) or ultimately true. It arises as a corrective only due to our erroneous view of things (Westerhoff, 2017). The concept of nothingness is foremost a provisional tool. It is, as Buddha spoke, only a raft which gets one across a stream but which, upon reaching the other side, should be discarded. In the same context, Wittgenstein remarked: “One must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it” (in Garfield, 2003).

The metaphor of a raft emphasises an imperative for a negation of nothingness, by eventually turning nothingness against itself (Loy, 1987). Nothingness itself must be negated. For Derrida, the strategy of negation with deconstruction is both nihilistic and an enabling force. A true abandon­ment of positions through double negations is for him a prerequisite for self-construction of a being. It then does not suffice to delimit nothingness from nihilism. One needs to underlie it also as a positive concept, as pregnant void with unlimited potential and source of freedom. Nothingness is the condition of the possibility of the emergence of everything. This thought was promoted by Kitaroo Nishida (1870-1945), a Japanese philosopher and founder of The Kyoto School of philosophy, who is renowned for comprehensively expanding the Continental notion of nothingness with the aim to connect Western philosophy with the philosophy of the third way (Odin, 1990).

The concept of nothingness enables implanting void to meaning, not to abolish it but to identify its illusionary aspect. One can see through illusions now, without first overcoming them, which is, of course, impossible, but by squaring or negating them with what previously remained ignored and negated. Philosophy of nothingness seems to offer grounds for framing evaluatively consistent thinking about the transformative journey of an agent, individual or collective, through the middle of a complex world between illusions and unknowable.

Author: Bojan Radej

From my forthcoming book, short presentation: