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Does the Nothing Noth?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 January 2010


In 1929 Heidegger gave his Freiburg inaugural lecture entitled ‘What is Metaphysics?’ In it he announced: Das Nichts selbst nichtet, ‘The Nothing itself noths (or ‘nihilates’, or ‘nothings’). This soon earned Heidegger fame as a purveyor of metaphysical nonsense. In his 1931 paper, ‘Overcoming of Metaphysics through Logical Analysis of Language’ Rudolf Carnap charged Heidegger with the offences of the whole metaphysical genre. His sentence has the same grammatical form as the sentence ‘The rain rains’ – a sentence which Carnap, or at least his translator, regarded as a ‘meaningful sentence of ordinary language’. But this harmless guise conceals severe logical blemishes. Heidegger treats the indefinite pronoun ‘nothing’ as a noun, as the ‘name or description of an entity’. (When he says ‘The nothing noths’ he surely does not mean ‘There is nothing that noths’ or ‘It is not the case that anything noths’.) He introduces the meaningless word ’to noth‘. He implies, and later affirms, the existence of the nothing, when the ‘existence of this entity would be denied in its very definition’. If all this were not enough, the sentence is meaningless, since it is neither analytic, nor contradictory, nor empirical. It is metaphysics, and metaphysics seriously damages our spiritual health.

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy and the contributors 1999

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1 ‘Was ist Metaphysik?,’ Reprinted in Wegmarken 2nd edn., (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1978), pp. 103–21Google Scholar. ‘What is Metaphysics?’, trans. David Farrell Krell in Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings 2nd edn., (London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 93–110. An earlier translation by Hull, R. F. C. and Crick, Alan appears in Existence and Being, by Heidegger, Martin (London: Vision, 1949), pp. 355–80Google Scholar. Hull and Crick also translate the 'Nachwort zu: ‘Was ist Metaphysik?’ the ‘Postscript’ of 1943 (pp. 380–92)Google Scholar. My page-references to ‘What is Metaphysics?’ are to Wegmarken and also to Krell's translation, though my own rendering often differs from his.

2 Wegmarken, p. 113.

3 Translated by Arthur Pap from ‘öberwindung der Metaphysik durch logische Analyse der Sprache’, Erkenntnis, 2 (1931), in Heidegger and Modern Philosophy, ed. Murray, Michael (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1978), pp. 2334.Google Scholar

4 Murray, ed., p. 25.

6 Ibid., p. 24

7 Ibid., p. 25

8 Ibid., p. 30

9 Ludwig Wittgenstein und der Wiener Kreis: Gespräche, aufgezeichnet von Friedrich Waismann, ed. McGuiness, B. F. (Frankfurt: Blackwell, 1967), p. 68Google Scholar. The passage is translated by Murray, Michael in ‘On Heidegger on Being and Dread’, in Murray, ed., Heidegger, pp. 80–3Google Scholar.

10 Sein und Zeit, 7th edn. (Tubingen: Niemeyer, 1953), p. 128Google Scholar; Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie, John and Robinson, Edward (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962), p. 166Google Scholar

11 Johnson, Samuel, Lives of the English Poets, vol. 1, (London: Dent, 1925), p. 130Google Scholar

12 Wegmarken, pp. 105f; Krell, ed., pp. 95f.

13 E.g.Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik; 5th edn. (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1991), p. 122.Google Scholar

14 E.g., Wegmarken, p. 304.

15 E.g., ‘Vom Wesen des Grundes’, in Wegmarken, p. 162: Freiheit allein kann dem Dasein eine Welt walten und welten lassen. Welt ist nie, sondern weltet. (Heidegger is also prepared to use ‘bestehen’ of non-beings such as time).

16 Wegmarken, p. 114: Das Nichts ist weder ein Gegenstand noch ueberhaupt ein SeiendesGoogle Scholar.

17 The German equivalent of ‘there is...’, es gibt, does not involve the verb ‘to be’, sein. Heidegger exploits this expression, and its literal meaning, ‘it gives’, when speaking about another ‘non-entity’, being (das Sein), but he does not use it in this context.

18 Wegmarken, p. 110: ‘eine merkwiirdige Gleichgiiltigkeit’.

19 Wegmarken, p. Ill: Krell, ed., p. 101.

20 Wegmarken, p. 112: In der Tat: das Nichts selbst - als solches - warda.

21 Wegmarken, pp. 112f; Krell, ed., p. 102.

22 E.g., Basic Writings, ed. D. F. Krell, p. 103.

23 Wegmarken, pp. 113f; Krell, , ed., p. 103Google Scholar.

24 Wegmarken, p. 114; Krell, ed., p. 103: Ohne urspriingliche Offenbarkeit des Nichts kein Selbstsein und keine FreiheitGoogle Scholar.

25 Wegmarken, p. 117; Krell, ed., p. 106.

26 Wegmarken, p. 115; Krell, ed., p. 104.

27 Wegmarken, p. 118, Krell, ed., pp. 107f.

28 Wegmarken, p. 120; Krell, ed., p. 109.

29 Wegmarken, pp. 120f; Krell, ed., pp 109f.

30 Wegmarken, p. 121; Krell, ed., p. 110.

31 Wegmarken, p. 104; Krell, ed., p. 93

32 Wegmarken, p. 109: So aufgesplittert der Alltag erscheinen mag, er behält immer noch das Seiende, wenngleich schattenhaft, in einer Einheit des ‘Ganzen’.

33 Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik: Welt - Endlichkeit - Einsamkeit (Gesamtausgabe, Bd. 29/30), ed. von Herrmann, F.-W. (Frankfurt: Klostermann 1983), pp. 498 ffGoogle Scholar.

34 Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik, pp. 261396Google Scholar.

35 Ibid., pp. 261 ff.

36 Ibid., p. 352.

37 Ibid., p. 368: Seinlassen. On Seinlassen, see also Heidegger’s, Einleitung in die Philosophie (Gesamtausgabe, Bd. 27), ed. Saame, I. and Samme-Speidel, I. (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1996), pp. 102ffGoogle Scholar.

38 Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik, pp. 528ff.

39 Wegmarken, p. 114; Krell, ed., p. 103

40 Heidegger attributes a sort of Selbstheit to living organisms on the basis of their capacity for self-preservation, self-generation, self-management and self-renewal. He distinguishes them in these respects from machines (Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik, pp. 332, 339f.)

41 Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik, pp. 492 ff.

42 Ibid., p. 493.

43 Ibid., pp. 344ff. This is one reason why Heidegger insists that their behaviour is Benehmen, not, like that of humans, Verhalten. Another reason is that he associates Verhalten with being related to, or relating oneself to (sich verhalten), an entity conceived as distinct from oneself. Animals cannot do this, since they cannot be aware of beings as beings in their own right. (There is no warrant in ordinary German for differentiating Benehmen and Verhalten in this way).

44 Wegmarken, p. 115; Krell, ed., p. 105

45 Wegmarken, p. 116; Krell, ed., p. 105, where nihilating conduct (nichtende Verhalten) includes resistance, loathing, failure, prohibition and privation, as well as denial.

46 Caputo, John D., The Mystical Element in Heidegger’s Thought(Athens: Ohio University Press, 1978), pp. 21f., 107Google Scholar.

47 Wegmarken, p. 120; Krell, ed., p. 109 Heidegger believes that all, or at least most, of these problems require for their solution a recognition of the fact that man or Dasein holds itself out into the nothing.51 How is it possible for us

48 Heidegger considers the question at length in Einfuhrung in die Metaphysik (TÜbingen: Niemeyer 1953), pp. 1ffGoogle Scholar. He does not invariably describe it as the Grundfrage. In Beiträge zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis) (Frankfurt: Klostermann 1989), p. 509Google Scholar, it is the Übergangsfrage, the transitional question between the Leitfrage, the guiding question, ‘What are beings?’ and the Grundfrage, ‘What is the essence of being?’ (Nietzsche, (I, Pfullingen: Neske, 1961), pp. 12f.)

49 Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik, p. 366

50 Wegmarken, p. 120; Krell, ed., p. 109

51 Wenn das Dasein nur im Sichhineinhalten in das Nichts zu Seiendem sich verhalten, also existieren kann …(Wegmarken, p. 114; Krell, ed., p.104)

52 Wegmarken, pp. 116f.; Krell, ed., p. 104.

53 Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik, p. 433 discusses die Hineingehaltenheit in das Nichts. But here Heidegger is dealing with a misunderstanding of his previously expressed view, not making use of this view to account for our capacities.

54 Ibid., pp. 526f.: Der Entwurf als Urstruktur des genannten Geschehens ist die Grundstruktur der Weltbildung.

55 Sein und Zeit, p. 187; Being and Time, p. 232: Wenn sich demnach als das Wovor der Angst das Nichts, d.h. die Welt als solche herausstellt, dann besagt das: Wovor die Angst sich dngstet ist das In-der-Welt-sein selbst.

56 Sein und Zeit, p. 189; Being and Time, p. 234: Im Dunkeln ist in einer bete ten Weis ‘nichts’ zu sehen, obzwar gerade die Welt noch und aufdringlicher ‘d‘ ist.

57 The phrase ‘beings as a whole’ occurs only once in Sein und Zeit: die Ontologie des Alls des Seienden im Ganzen (p. 248; Being and Time, p. 292). Conversely, ‘Welt’ appears in ‘What is Metaphysics?’ only in the phrase Bezug zur Welt and in the compound Weltbezug, the scientist’ ‘;relation to the world’ (Wegmarken, pp. 104f.)

58 Wegmarken, p. 114: je schon iiber das Seiende im Ganzen hinaus; p. 117: das Übersteigen des Seienden im Ganzen: die Transzendenz; Hinausfragen iiber das Seiende; p. 120: Hinausgehen iiber das Seiende.

59 Wegmarken, p. 105: Science is responsible for man’s Einbruch…; in das Ganze des Seienden.

60 E.g., in the ‘Einleitung zu: “Was ist Metaphysik?”’ that Heidegger published in 1949 (Wegmarken, pp. 361 ff.

61 Kant, , Critique of Pure Reason, 2nd ednGoogle Scholar, p. 21. Cf. Heidegger, , Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik, pp. 1ff.Google Scholar

62 The scare-quotes around ‘world’ here indicates that ‘world’ is used to denote worldly entities and affairs, and not in Heidegger's own special sense.

63 Wegmarken, p. 115; Krell, ed., p. 104

64 Wegmarken, p. 121; Krell, ed., p. 110

65 Sein undZeit, pp. 184–91; Being and Time, pp. 228–35Google Scholar

66 In the Nachwort zu: ‘Was ist Metaphysik?’, Wegmarken, p. 304; Hull and Crick, p. 384: Eine Erfahrung des Seins als des Anderen zu allem Seienden verschenkt die Angst, gesetzt, dass wir nicht aus ‘Angst’ vor der Angst, der blossen ãngstlichkeit der Furcht, vor der lautlosen Stimme ausweichen, die uns in den Schrecken des Abgrundes stimmt. Whenever Heidegger speaks of ‘Angst’ vor der Angst, the first occurrence of ‘Angst’ is in scare-quotes.

67 Wegmarken, p. 116; Krell, ed., p. 106: Ihr Atem zittert standig durch das Dasein: am wenigsten durch das ‘ängstliche’ und iinvernehmlich fur das ‘Ja Ja’ und ‘Nein Nein’ des betriebsamen; am ehesten durch das verhaltene; am sichertsten durch das im Grunde verwegene Dasein.

68 Cf. Beiträge zur Philosophie {Von Ereignis), p. 399: Wird dann die Zeit der Gotter um sein und der Riickfall in das blosse Leben weltarmer Wesen beginnen, denen die Erde nur noch als das Ausnutzbare geblieben? (Will the time of the gods then be over and the relapse begin into the mere life of world-impoverished creatures, for whom the earth remains no more than an exploitable resource?) Cf. p. 275: ’Is [technology] the historical way to the end, to the relapse of the last man, into the mechanised animal...?’

69 In Being and Time, Heidegger's account of Angst is curiously similar to his account of conscience (Sein und Zeit, Division II, chapter 2). Both disclose bare Dasein in its thrownness (Geworfenheit). Both involve the Nothing. Both occur in two modes: in an implicit mode constantly and in an explicit mode occasionally. Both summon us to or prepare us for resoluteness. But conscience is not, like Angst, responsible for our flight from the self to intraworldly beings. After Being and Time, he shows no further interest in conscience.

70 Beiträge zur Philosophie, p. 436. Cf. p. 421: Hier liegen die Blöcke eines Steinbruchs, in dem Urgestein gebrochen wird.