Non-Being & Nothingness: Short Notes

Preliminary Distinctions

It is necessary to make a few distinctions. The first one is between non-being as the non-existence of some specific, ontical thing (such as the non-being of a chimera, for instance), and non-being as an ontological concept, as the negation of the whole, or nothingness.

The second distinction is between negation, nothingness, and non-being. Those terms get used in the same way sometimes, but they aren't necessarily the same thing. To negate means to oppose. Nothingness, or nothing, implies an absence. Non-being might be either of those, or as we will see, it might imply a state of existence before existence, or after. Or, it might imply a state of super-existence.

The third distinction that should be made from the outset is between two types of non-being, which I will call the ontological and the noetic. Neither is reducible to ontical negation. The first is the state of the non-being of the whole. The whole (not as an addition of parts, but as a unity) either does not exist, or there is negative existence, or the question of existence does not even arise. The second, noetic non-being, is the state in which all is indeterminate. There is chaos, formlessness, undifferentiation; or, there is contradiction. This differs from the first, since it emphasizes (lack of) intelligibility over lack of being. It is possible for both types of non-being to appear in one theory, but quite often one or the other is predominant.

A. Logical Negation & Nothingness

1. The opposite of affirmation; one pole in binary logic

Negation in this context is simply a particular state, opposite to affirmation. Ones and zeros in binary programming do not necessarily imply that the zero is the absence of a state, but just another state.

2. Zero

The numeral zero had to be invented; it did not come naturally. It was invented by the Arabian mathematicians. In some cases, it suggests a quantity that is in a series; in others, it is just another marker on a series.

B. Ontical Non-being

The absence of some particular thing, for example, "I have no children", or "There is no elephant in the room." This is a form of meontic thought, or relative nothingness.

C. Ontological Non-being

1. Non-being as non-existence (No-thing exists)

Gorgias, held it to be true, or at least played the rhetorical game against Parmenides that required this position. In On Non-Being, he offers his famous skeptical position:

  1. Nothing exists;
  2. Even if it does, it cannot be known;
  3. Even if it can be known, it cannot be taught.

This is a form of ouk on nothingness, or absolute nothingness.

2. Non-being as negative existence

Richard Feynman, the physicist, argued that certain sub-atomic particles were in fact "negations" of others, or the same particle with a different direction in time. His famous diagrams for subatomic interaction assume this.

D. "Noetic" Non-being

1. Non-being as Existence with no essence (Sartre)

Humans, Sartre argues, are characterized by nothingness, which means that we do not already have an essence. We exist, but as a negation that can will itself to have an essence. We may decide on an essence, and believe we are not nothing, but at the core of it all, the human experience is one of nothingness. For Sartre, we are not simply surrounded by negation, but are permeated by it. Every action gives evidence of that negation which is part of us.

2. Non-Being as the Impossibility of Knowledge (no essence; Parmenides)

Parmenides relegates any talk of non-being to that which cannot be known, and therefore presumably not discussed. The reason given for avoiding discussion of non-being is significant: it is a path "wholly unlearnable". It could not be known, nor even pointed out. In other words, Parmenides rejects non-being, not on ontological grounds, but on epistemological grounds.

Come, I shall tell you, and do you listen and convey the story
What routes of inquiry alone there are for thinking:
The one -- that [it] is, and that [it] cannot not be,
Is the part of Persuasions (for it attends upon truth);
The other -- that [it] is not and that [it] needs must not be,
That I point out to you to be a path wholly unlearnable,
For you could not know what-is-not (for that is not feasible),
Nor could you point it out.


3. Non-being as Indeterminate Matter (matter with no forms; Aristotle)

Non-being for Parmenides involves the lack of essence or form, the lack of that which makes something intelligible. The next logical development on this is the doctrine of hylomorphism. If things are composed of matter and form (essence), then if there is no form, there still could be matter. To lack being would be both to lack form but also to have what is left -- matter. That matter would be chaotic, unorganized, undesignate, and would have the status of non-being.

4. Non-being as Potentiality or Becoming (the forms that matter can take)

John Scotus Eriugena, in his description of the five types of being and non-being, includes potentiality as one type of non-being. In his third distinction he points out that that which does not yet exist can be said to not be.

5. Non-being as Lack of Permanence (Becoming; Plato)

Potentiality is a kind of directional non-being. It is non-being that could, at least conceivably, turn into being. But it is also possible to see non-being as non-directional. In other words, maybe non-being is not just the possibility to become something, but rather the possibility to come into being (generation), to go out of being (corruption), or to change into something else. Maybe non-being is impermanence.

Plato and Eriugena (fourth distinction) see non-being as impermanence. This is related to the "being as essence" position, at least in Plato's structure, for being = essence = knowledge. One can only know something that is permanent, something that has being. Thus, if there is any mixture with matter (non-being), impermanence sets in, and there can be no true knowledge.

Eriugena's fourth distinction owes the most to Parmenides and Plato, and is the opposite of the third. In this mode, that which is permanent is said to have being, whereas that which changes through generation or corruption does not have being. Only those things grasped by the intellect have being, and since only permanent things can be grasped by the intellect, only permanent things have being.

6. Non-being as Lack of Determination; Same as Being (Hegel)

For Hegel (Science of Logic) Being and Nothing are the same thing. Neither has a definition, neither can be bound by anything. Over time, these two notions split apart, but humans come to recognize their own nothingness and thereby bring Being and Nothing back together again.

7. Non-being as the Rupture in Being (Derrida)

Being is Order. Non-being is the gaps that order papers over to make everything seem rational. Derrida delights in showing the absence that pervades presence.

8. Non-being as the Presence of Intelligence (Eckhart's God)

Meister Eckhart turns Parmenides upside down. For Eckhart, non-being is not the lack of knowledge (intellection), but the presence of intellection alone. Eckhart's sense of non-being is that it is pre-eminent and unified. It is not the same as Pseudo-Dionysius, for whom non-being is pre-eminent, but is also unknowable (hence, the necessity of apophatic theology). It is not the linear non-being of Plotinus, for whom beings are an emanation of non-being, which is at the top of the hierarchy. Eckhart's non-being is at the centre of creation, not at the beginning.

The intellect, as an intellect, is none of the things it knows; it must be "unmixed with anything," "having nothing in common," so that it might know everything, as in the De Anima III says. Similarly, sight must be colourless so that it can see all colours. If the intellect, therefore, insofar as it is an intellect, is nothing, it follows that neither is understanding some existence.

My essential being is above God insofar as we consider God as the origin of creatures. Indeed, in God's own being, where God is raised above all being and all distinctions, there I was myself, there I willed myself, and I knew myself to create this person that I am...If I had willed it, neither I nor any things would have come to be. And if I myself were not, God would not be either. That God is "God," of this I am the cause. If I were not, God would not be "God."

E. Other senses of Non-Being

1. Non-being as Privation (Augustine & sin)

The standard view of Augustine on the question of Being is that he adopts the basic neo-Platonic structure, with an important modification: the One, the Intellect, and the World Soul collapse into a unity, so that the One is not beyond Being, but is, rather, unified Being. Augustine's theological concerns drive him to make this identification. Thus, God is the greatest existent, is intellectually apprehensible, and at the same time is perfectly simple. He continually asserts that God names himself simply "Being". Non-existence is the only thing that is contrary to supreme existence, but by this he does not mean to designate non-being as such. There is no "nothingness" which strives against pure Being; rather, there is non-existence. Augustine's system is monistic -- only pure, positive Being exists at the beginning. Non-being, then, refers to non-existence, and has no ontological status whatsoever.

Non-being does, however, have a place, as a derivative concept that makes change possible and that describes the place of evil. Augustine is the prime example of what has been termed the "Latin" contribution to the concept of non-being. This is the view that non-being is a privation, the absence of something rather than the presence of something. Thus, the concept is used in two ways: of creatures, who are nothing (privations) in relation to God, and of evil, which is privation in the sense that something is missing that which it ought to have. The first of these Augustine inherits from Plotinus, while the second is distinctly his own.

Augustine's Senses of Nothingness:

1. First, creatures are nothing in that they are a division or distinction from God. The essence of a creature embodies "what-is-not". This is clear since, if Being and the One are identical, then anything that is mutable cannot be Being.

2. Second, creation is not out of the substance of God (that would imply distinction in God, which is impossible in a simple substance), but rather out of nothing.

3. Third, there is a lack (privation) in the creature, which can only be filled by God. This notion is at the foundation of Augustine's theory of participation. The creature has an eternal yearning for happiness, which Augustine equates with the longing for Being.

Apart from the fact of nothingness in creatures, there is also a force toward nothingness. This force is Augustine's characterization of evil. Sin is a movement that comes from nothingness, and turns the soul away from Being. This can only happen because of an illusion, since the soul always wills its existence, and therefore happiness. Evil is therefore a "falling away from essence and a tending not to be." The soul will never fully reach non-being by this mistaken choice, since God made the soul indestructible. The fact that the soul was created by God guarantees that it will exist. However, despite the fact that the soul will never die, it still does not have true immortality, since it is not simple.

This privation which Augustine sees as the essence of evil is not non-being in an ontological sense. Augustine does not subscribe to a Manichaean dualism in which non-being/evil has an ontological status that is the equal to being/good. Privation is the tendency toward nothingness, not non-being itself.

John Scotus Eriugena's fifth distinction follows Augustine more closely than his others in referring to the human nature tainted by sin as not having being. Here there is a sense of "rectitude" which we also see in Augustine -- whatever falls out of its proper place in the state of grace has fallen out of being as well.

2. Non-being as Unity, that which preceeds Being (Plotinus)

The main reason for non-being in Plotinus' system is to establish unity. "Now the being of the particular is a manifold; unity cannot be a manifold; there must therefore be a distinction between Being and Unity." The One, for Plotinus, precedes both Being and the Intelligence. It precedes Being because Being is a composite. To say "X is" or "X exists" is to split reality into two parts; to say that "X is intelligible" is to say that X has an intelligible form, which is also to multiply it. Therefore, the One must precede both being and intelligibility. Plotinus also has senses of non-being similar to that of Aristotle, both in the sense that Becoming is Non-being, and also in the sense that indeterminate matter is non-being.

It should be noted that Plotinus' view is diametrically opposite those who see non-being as non-essence, in at least one respect: for those that associate being with essence, non-being is non-unity, while for Plotinus, non-being is unity.

3. Non-being as Super-eminence (Dionysius)

For Plotinus, non-being is both unity and pre-eminence. In unifying, the One does not negate being, but transcends being. But it is possible to see non-being as only pre-eminence, and diminish or eliminate altogether the sense of unity. Pseudo-Dionysius and Eriugena's first distinction between being and non-being both take this position, probably due to their Christian commitments. The unity that was part of Plotinus' system does not fit well with the doctrine of the Trinity. Augustine avoided the problem by not having non-being as super-eminent; Pseudo-Dionysius and Eriugena solve the problem by abandoning unity.

4. Non-being as the hidden (Zohar)

Non-being is unknowable, at the beginning or at the core of a system of Being.

5. Non-being as Perspective (Nietzsche)

Eriugena proposes another type of non-being. In his second method, non-being is perspectival. That-which-is depends on what part of the Porphyrian tree one considers, and the levels above do not contain the levels below, but are the negation of the levels below, as well as themselves negations of the levels above. In this way, the species negates the genus. This deviates from Plotinus, since for Plotinus the species is always contained in the genus. The higher gives rise to and contains the lower. For Eriugena the lower is the negation of the higher, and the higher is the negation of the lower. Moran points out that this gives rise to a kind of perspectivism. It is, however, only a partial perspectivism; God is not, after all, part of this distinction. This distinction begins "from the most exalted intellectual power stationed closest to God." The non-being of God is not established simply on the basis of the negation from the level below God. God's non-being is more profound than that.

6. Non-being as Creative Chaos (Boehme)

We have finally the view of non-being as a kind of primordial soup. Jacob Boehme uses the term Ungrund. He coined it himself, and he means to point out both that all creation comes from an abyss (like Eckhart), but also that that abyss has in it infinite contradictory forces, all wanting to manifest themselves. The creation that comes out of that produces both nature and God, but God is one of the spirits that flows through all of nature, enabling each individual will in the chaos to come to manifestation.

So, after all of this, what is Being, or existence? Is there a difference between them? How do we describe all that is?