September 2006

Philosophers love to talk about Nothing.

And when they do, it is often unclear what, if anything, they are talking about.

The concept of Nothing is not the same as the concept of negation. These letters are not a dog, nor the moon, nor are they purple, but Nothing is not anything. It is often noted that thinking of a thing involves, in some way, what it is not, its negation. Does thinking of anything involve, in some way, thinking of Nothing?

Many contemporary philosophers think that the whole idea that Nothing is a thing that can be pondered is itself a grammatical mistake. Just because I can use the word “Nothing” as a grammatical subject in a sentence in the same way I use other nouns, doesn’t mean that the word designates a thing. The words “all” and “nothing” are typically not thought to be nouns, but logical operators that say something about things that have certain properties. “All dogs are mammals” means that if a thing is a dog, then it is a mammal too. “Nothing is a round square” means that if a thing is round it is not also square. So Nothing, on this view, is only a way of denying certain properties to the things that exist. It is not a thing in itself, nor, certainly, is it a way of talking about the absence of all things. When we try to talk about Nothing itself, there is really nothing to talk about.

But this seems too easy a way to dispose of the problem. Even if you get rid of everything, Nothing is there. You never really know what you have until it’s gone. Surely if appreciating the contingency of a thing involves seeing it against the background of its negation or absence, then appreciating the contingency of everything, the world as a whole, means seeing it against the background of Nothing. Even if the logical operators “all” and “nothing” are limited to talking about things with certain properties, we can conceive of things that might transcend all our properties. Plotinus thought that the One was beyond Being; Christians believe that God created the universe from Nothing. Appreciating the contingency of this world means asking why there is something rather than Nothing. But if the answer to that question involves something that transcends all of our properties, is it really nothing? Though thinking about Nothing leads to thoughts of the source of all things, it seems that Nothing is the absence of anything, even of things we can’t talk about.

Thinking about this kind of Nothing presents special problems. If we stop thinking of anything, have we stopped thinking, or are we thinking of Nothing. Try to think of Nothing. When you do, you find that you are thrown back into the thought of particular things. But are those things the same, or have they been transformed by the attempt to think away their existence, by the encounter with Nothingness? The classic account of the role of Nothing in consciousness was given by Martin Heidegger in “What is Metaphysics.” He held that when we lose all our focus on things around us, Nothing looms just over the horizon of our consciousness. When we try to approach it we are thrown back into our thought of things. “The nothing itself does not attract; it is essentially repelling. . . . This wholly repelling gesture toward beings that are in retreat as a whole, which is the action of the nothing that oppresses Dasein in anxiety, is the essence of the nothing: nihilation. … The nothing itself nihilates.” The brush with the nothingness behind all things pushes us back to life with a renewed sense of the radical contingency of their existence rather than Nothing. Heidegger says “Nihilation is not some fortuitous incident. Rather, as the repelling gesture toward the retreating whole of beings, it discloses these beings in their full but heretofore concealed strangeness as what is radically other — with respect to the nothing. In the clear night of the nothing of anxiety the original openness of beings as such arises: that they are beings — and not nothing. . . .” Nothing, it seems, is the key to everything.

The next time someone asks you what you are thinking, “Nothing” should not seem like such an empty answer.

But, as my favorite “Nothing” joke goes, “Nobody understands Nothing. . . . But , then again, he would!”

(Tuesday, September 26, is the 117th anniversary of the birth of Martin Heidegger in 1889. I’m sure nothing would have pleased him more than to have us remember him in this way.)

The Meet the Philosopher Series are interviews with the members of the Saint Anselm College Philosophy Department. They aim at introducing you to the members of the department along with their interests and ideas.Professor Robert Augros is the second profile in the series.In this interview, Professor Augros talks about the challenges of teaching philosophy, as well as his recent work on Beauty and on Science, including some of the ideas in his two books: The New Story of Science and The New Biology.
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Freedom vs. License:
This Selection is from Montague Brown, The One Minute Philosopher

Freedom is taking “responsibility for our own life. Insofar as it is compatible with the common good, people should be allowed to choose freely how they want to live.
Freedom, within the context of mutual “respect, leads to independent and energetic action. This is certainly preferable to forced conformity. It is good for individuals and the “community If I can choose to become a teacher or a doctor or an entrepreneur rather than being forced into some job, I will be “happier in my work and more likely to succeed. This certainly benefits me, but it also benefits the community. Of course, freedom is not an absolute: if my free action seriously violates the common good, it should not be permitted.
Freedom is a positive force in many areas. In writing a paper for history class, a certain independence in choosing the topic and method aids the learning process. A coach has to give her athletes a degree of freedom to make decisions in a game, for new situations will arise that demand creative solutions. In government, the freedom to vote gives people a stake in their future. In all of these examples, self-discipline and responsibility are required if the freedom is to be fruitful.
Freedom and license must not be confused:
freedom embraces responsibility and is guided by reason and virtue; license is choice without restraint.

Is it my choice?
Am I acting reasonably and responsibly?
If so, my action is the exercise of freedom.
‘Freedom refers to self-determination. … To the extent that we can determine for ourselves who we shall be, we are responsible for our lives.”

Germain Grisez and Russell Shaw

Beyond the New Morality, Ch. 1


License is the throwing off of all “responsibility. It is a carte blanche to do as we feel. As such, it is incompatible with virtue and destroys “community.
License, as the throwing off of all responsibility leads to absurd and dangerous action. On the personal level, license leads to “moral chaos. If my actions are based merely on whim or the “impulse of the moment, they are completely unpredictable, even to me. On the social level, license leads to anarchy — the lack of all dedication to the common good. This is obviously bad for the community, but license is also bad for those who exercise it. I strive to be free from responsibility rather than to be free to take charge of my
License can cause damage in the very places where freedom enriches. If license rules in choosing topic and method, a history paper might not even remotely relate to history. Athletes cannot succeed in a sport by acting on mere whim, for each sport requires discipline, and team sports demand a high degree of cooperation. If the members of a society ignore all restrictions of “law, that society will not survive. License abandons personal responsibility and so loses the creative energy and fruitfulness of freedom.

“None can love freedom heartily but good men; the rest love not freedom but license
John Milton
Tenure of Kings and Magistrates

Is it my choice? Am I acting without concern for reason or responsibility? If so, my action is the exercise not of freedom, but of license.

The Meet the Philosopher Series are interviews with the members of the Saint Anselm College Philosophy Department. They aim at introducing you to the members of the department along with their interests and ideas.

Professor James Mahoney is the first profile in the series.

He talks about how he got into philosophy, its role at St. Anselm, and topics from Camus to Calder and from Picasso to Josiah Royce.
Saint Anselm Podcasts can be found here.

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What does the expression “to reason” mean?

Since classical antiquity, and likely earlier, human beings have been conscious of the fact that they are in possession of a faculty that animals appear to wholly lack. That faculty, given the name ‘logos’ by the Greeks and ‘ratio’ by the Roman and Medieval thinkers, was translated into French as ‘raison,’ thus giving rise to our term ‘reason.’ Just what is this faculty? What are we doing when we engage in the activity of reasoning? Is it true to say that man is a rational animal, and if so, in what sense?