Non-Being and Nothingness: Consequences of the Multiple Senses


There are some consequences of these various senses of non-being. If, for instance, one takes being as the foundation of all individuals, those individuals become negative. It is difficult to avoid the consequence of the devaluation of beings in this case. This is a problem Augustine has to deal with, as well as something that is part of any Aristotelian metaphysical system.

The problem comes to light best through Augustine. Creatures are on a lower ontological plane than God is. They are not as real as God. Further, the individual is not significant in and of itself, but only as the one who searches after God. The individual only finds meaning in the satisfaction of the absence within. However, despite the fact that creatures are on a lower ontological plane than God, they still participate in Being, as does God. And, in the equation of the transcendentals, Being equals Intelligibility. Therefore, God is intelligible at least in principle, both to himself directly and to creatures through illumination. Creatures can know God only through the exemplars. While creatures cannot know God by their own virtue or power, knowledge of the divine is possible through illumination.

Some conceptions of non-being avoid what Derrida calls the "metaphysics of presence." The metaphysics of presence is that doctrine which states that there must be something present behind the phenomena, which guarantees their legitimacy, intelligibility, and coherence. Caputo has argued that Eckhart's use of nothingness is a deconstruction of onto-theology, in that it calls us beyond God and reverses the commonly held notion of God as the presence behind the observable. We do not call God anything, but rather we let God call us. God becomes intelligible in an encounter.

Non-being can imply a kind of dependency. Even the word "non-being" relies on some (at least intuited) sense of being. It is in this manner that an Aristotelian system conceives of non-being. Creatures are dependent precisely because they lack being. Matter lacks being, and while it is eternal for Aristotle, it is eternal nothingness. It requires the being of forms to make it intelligible.

There is a tension in those systems that begin with non-being, though, especially within a Christian or Jewish context. In this case, the non-being both is and is not dependent. In the Zohar, the En-Sof did not have to manifest itself. Neither does Eckhart's God, or Boehme's God. And yet, in all of these cases, there is a need for manifestation. It is, as we shall see, especially acute for Boehme, since God's manifestation is the means for God's self-knowledge.

While non-being depends on being, to some extent, in all the systems discussed above, the reverse is not true. For Aristotle, Anselm, Parmenides, and others, Being does not depend on non-being for its existence, coherence, or legitimacy. For those that start with some sense of non-being, on the other hand, it is clearly the case that being depends on non-being as much as non-being depends on being. This is the case for individual beings, which are understood as much by what they are not as by what they are. But it also applies to Being as such. There is a dialectical tension.