So, failing to grasp Heidegger last summer in Being and Time, I thought it could be helpful to read him backwards. I’m working my way through the Routledge edition of his Basic Writings, tackling him one lecture or essay at a time to see if the later Heidegger will familiarise me with and give some framework for reading his earlier stuff. I intend to summarise the material and, if possible when I’ve read a little more, offer some critical observations while trying not to embarrass myself.
What is metaphysics?
Heidegger consistently makes a point of seeing things in relation to the whole as well as their singularity. So the question, What is metaphysics?, like every metaphysical question, “always encompasses the whole range of metaphysical problems” (45). Additionally, a successful question will embrace the questioner as a necessary part of it.
All sciences “seek beings [all things that exist] themselves in order to make them objects of investigation and to determine their grounds” (46).¹ The sciences thus do not differ in importance but only style, so that, unlike mathematics, “To demand exactness in the study of history is to violate the idea of the specific rigor of the humanities” (46). Yet in dealing exclusively with beings, science neglects the nothing. Ironically, “Science wants to know nothing of nothing. But even so it is certain that when science tries to express its proper essence it calls upon the nothing for help” (47).
To ask, What is nothing?, however, already assumes nothing as a kind of being. Through the intellectual act of negation we can posit nothing, first positing a being and then negating it to non-being. Hedeigger goes further to argue that because negation presupposes the possibility of nothing, nothing must precede this intellectual act of negation (I negate therefore nothing…?). But we need to look to our encounter of nothing to define it. At the very least, we encounter it conceptually when we refer to it in language, assuming nothing to be “the complete negation of the totality of beings” (49). However, this has only defined nothing insofar as we encounter it intellectually.
We also encounter nothing through our moods. Boredom, for example, is our indifference to being confronted by the totality of beings. Conversely, anxiety reveals our encounter with the nothing:
Anxiety robs us of speech. Because beings as a whole slip away, so that just the nothing crowds round, in the face of anxiety all utterance of the “is” falls silent. That in the malaise of anxiety we often try to shatter the vacant stillness with compulsive talk only proves the presence of the nothing. … In the lucid vision sustained by fresh remembrance we must say that that in the face of which and for which we were anxious was “properly”–nothing. Indeed: the nothing itself–as such–was there.
Yet in their encounter with nothing, beings are not annihiliated but “nihilated,” nothing “mak[ing] itself known … as a slipping away of the whole” (52). In so doing, nothing makes beings aware that they are not nothing; they are being. Nothing is thus not outside but constitutive of beings. Dasein, the being peculiar to human being, is in this sense transcendent, experiencing both being and non-being. Finally, our encounter with nothing is not solipsistic, dependent on our conscious experience of anxiety. Whenever beings open themselves up to us they do so by virtue of the nothing which we encounter through a general anxiety, however subtle.
Heidegger interprets metaphysics etymologically as “inquiry beyond or over beings, which aims to recover them as such and as a whole for our grasp” (55). Thus What is nothing? is a metaphysical question, concerned with that beyond being. In contrast to Hellenistic (ex nihilo nihil fit, out of nothing, nothing comes) and Christian (creatio ex nihilo) approaches to nothing as nonbeing, Heidegger argues that nothing is not the opposite of but, through Dasein’s transcendent existence, constitutive of being. Science thus needs to address the nothing as otherwise its investigation would be wanting.
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¹Heidegger’s use of “science” includes a number of disciplines going beyond biology, chemistry, physics, etc, so, for example, history is a science.