On Martin Heidegger: Metaphysics and Nothing

What is Metaphysics?” by Martin Heidegger, introduces the ideas of sciencemetaphysics and nothing (sometimes translated as “no-thing”).

Heidegger is one of the most influential thinkers in the past 100 years whose works are still being studied today (those who practices his thoughts are called “Heideggerians”). Heidegger has influenced Jean-Paul Sartre’s work titled “Being and Nothingness”, and Jacques Derrida who has inherited much of Heidegger’s ideas into deconstruction (Derrida is also arguably the most important thinker of mid-20th century to present day). Therefore, understanding Heidegger will help you understand Derrida and Sartre.

Due to Heidegger’s intellectual fame at the time in Germany, he had a relationship with the Nazi. Though it is generally agreed that he was anti-Semitic, the debates on whether or not he was still goes on today. In his later life, Heidegger agreed to do an interview with Spiegel magazine in the condition that it would only be published after his death. In the interview, he spoke about his life as a professor in Germany, refusing to put up “Jewish posters”. This can be read here. I will let you be the judge.

Nonetheless, during the early 20th Century, metaphysics as a topic of studies (which began all the way back from pre-Socratic, 6th century BC), was provocatively challenged by Heidegger between two common themes, being and nothing. He famously suggested the most fundamental question of all beings:

“Why are there beings at all, and why not rather nothing?”

Being, being, and Dasein

These three terms are different and are very important to understand. Being (uppercase “B”) refers to ultimate Being, it is the nothing; as Heidegger puts it, Being is “the Being of being”. Pure Being and pure nothing are the same thing because they are both indeterminate / uncertain. On the other hand, being (lowercase “b”) refers to how one is always already being via the revelations of science, truths, logic, etc. This will make more sense as you read along.

Dasein, or Da-sein means “being-there”. We are not just humans who are capable of random and complex metaphysical thinking out of nowhere. We’re always thrown somewhere into the world—within a certain space and time. One is “being-there” in relation to one-self (being) and the world. Since Being is the”Being of being”, one can therefore say that, Dasein is the “being held out in nothingness (Being)” in relation to being (one-self) in the world.

Metaphysics and Science 

Despite of the title of the essay, Heidegger doesn’t really explain “what is metaphysics?”, but rather, he explains “why metaphysics?”. Metaphysics is after physics. It is the study of what lies beyond what one can perceive within our physical world. Examples of this would be the study of being, existence, spirit, consciousness, “world”, and forms. Metaphysics began as questions of the very first principle of philosophy: “What is…?”, “What is there?”,  “What is the sense of this?” or “What is being (existence)?” 

Thus, metaphysics allows for natural sciences to occur—of asking “What is…?”. Our very own existence (being), grants for a science to determine and ground itself. Metaphysics is the occurance of Dasein—of “being-there”. Without our own existence and Dasein, there would be no sciences of any form. Science “irrupts into being”. It helps “transpires being” and has “the first and the last word”.

Now, if being allows for one to provide questions in the development of sciences, then such metaphysical question of “What is…?” is a form of metaphysics within its own question. Every question consists of the questioner who places themselves (their existence) in the question, which therefore involves metaphysics (if they didn’t place their existence into the question, they would not be asking such question in the first place). Another words, science cannot escape metaphysics and Dasein altogether. One always has to be thrown somewhere into the world (being-there) in order to “relate” to it.

Ultimately, science consists of intelligence, negation, representation, deduction, reasoning and logic. Therefore, it will inevitably try to avoid contradictions. Heidegger is basically here to tell us that there are limits to such rational thinking.

But why have we always focused on being (especially being in revelations of science)? What about nothing?

“…what is remarkable is that, precisely in the way scientific man secures to himself what is most properly his, he speaks of something different. What should be examined are beings only, and besides that — nothing; beings alone, and further — nothing; solely beings, and beyond that — nothing.”

For Heidegger, by giving up and avoiding nothing, one “concedes nothing”. He writes: “Ultimately this is the scientifically rigorous conception of the nothing. We know it, the nothing, in that we wish to know nothing about it”. Science rejects nothing because it consists of the concept of nothing and therefore, it cannot be studied. Simply put, we admit that there is such thing as nothing by rejecting it via the concept of nothing (that it is nothing). But what is nothing?

Negation and God

Nothing is not “what is…?”. By doing so would place nothing as something (that nothing is, such and such). Thinking is an intellectual phenomenon. One cannot think of nothing because the representation is something of nothing. Neither can one negate something to find the nothing. This will only grant an imaginary nothing, therefore not nothing.

Negation is intellectual. One can only negate when there is something to negate / deny. Therefore, it is because there is something that there is negation. As Heidegger says, something and thinking in general, is always already caught in the “not”. This “not” from “something” does not originate in negation, but from the nihilation of nothing. Nothing is therefore, the origin of negation and something.

This can be witnessed as an example when Heidegger talks about God where he, “from nothing comes—created being”. If God created beings out of nothing, then he must be able to relate himself to nothing. However, Heidegger states, “But if God is God he cannot know the nothing”. Why? Because God is something—that “God is God”. God consists of the concept of God (the representation, imaginary, ration, etc. of God). Hence, nothing is the “counterconcept of being proper”.

Nothing cannot be thought about. It has no representation. Therefore, nothing is not a concept (human rationality, intellect, reasoning, logic, imagination, etc). The more we are doing / thinking of something, the further away we are from nothing. If nothing is not thinking or thought, then how do we get to nothing?

Transcendence: Anxiety and Boredom

For Heidegger, there are more to humans than simply rational thought. There are things that rational thinking cannot empirically explain such as moods (not to be confused with emotions). Nothing can be achieved through three moods.

The first is the notion of joy where Being and nothing is concealed within it. Heidegger doesn’t spend much time explaining joy in the essay probably because it isn’t the most important mood. The second is that of boredom. It is not being bored of something, but bored of                . It is boredom as an idleness, drifting, and ennui which reveals Being and grants beings as such. That, one is bored for no apparent reason. Boredom should not be confused with the idea of one’s substitution of boredom. For example, “I am bored for no reason, therefore I will do something”; or “I am bored of something”. Perhaps one can find a relation between Heidegger’s boredom in Soren Kierkegaard’s words:

“Since boredom advances and boredom is the root of all evil, no wonder, then, that the world goes backwards, that evil spreads. This can be traced back to the very beginning of the world. The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings.” – Soren Kierkegaard [keep in mind Kierkegaard was an existential christian-theologist; he is the world’s first existentialist]

However, the most important fundamental mood that Heidegger wants us to become aware of is anxiety (sometimes translated to “dread” from German). Without a doubt, this idea was also inspired by Kierkegaard (from his famous work “Fear and Trembling”). Anxiety should not be confused with the fear of doing something (the fear of driving a car, watching a horror film, etc). Anxiety consists of a sense of calmness which reveals nothing. It is precisely that there is nothing to hold onto which allows ultimate Being—the nothing.

Anxiety, as Heidegger himself puts it “can be awakened in any moment”. From trivial things like getting stuck in a traffic jam, a “failure” of something in life, or the death of a family member. It is always there outside of all oppositions. Such anxiety of               , is a transcendence. Yet, like boredom, it is common that one substitutes anxiety for something. For example, “Today I have anxiety for no reason…ah, it must be because I forgot to eat breakfast”; or, “I have an anxiety for eating hamburgers” (this is not anxiety, but fear).

What Heidegger is suggesting is that we must learn to cope with this empty anxiety (and boredom). He thinks that nothingness and anxiety itself, is naturally and fundamentally human (if you are feeling anxiety, don’t immediately go to the drug store to buy anti-depressants). Heidegger doesn’t really explain why anxiety of nothing happens, but my take on it is because we are mortal. We die. Death is nothing (this is something I borrowed from Derrida, who probably borrowed from Heidegger).

Nothing is Being itself, and therefore it gives rise to being as such to all revelations of science. Nothing is “groundless ground”. Science is “inferior to nothing” and it is impossible without nothing. The metaphysical question of “What is…?” is therefore, awakened by nothing (anxiety, boredom)—within Being of beings.