Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Thing and nothing, apatheia and apathy

Parmenides insists -- and, with a vehemence rarely encountered anymore, Emmanuele Severino uncompromisingly reiterates -- that the very thought "there is nothing" is literally unthinkable -- that there is no content that can be associated with the words. It may as well be a squawk or a blah-blah of gibberish -- the thought meaningless, is no thought at all. In which case -- can one even understand Parmenides' denial?

Perhaps one could respond: Well, we undersatand "No," do we not? And we understand "Thing," surely? We can then put them together. And all Parmenides is asserting is that this addition does not add up. But does this really accomplish anything? Mightn't it be it like saying that we understand "4" and we understand "%", so we must therefore also understand the conjunction "4 + % = x" ?

There is a further difficulty as well, for "thing" itself, despite appearances, is also a kind of privative expression. This becomes clear when we ask, like Heidegger, "What is a Thing?" I've done this with my elementary students and it has often proven to be a quick-and-dirty way to give someone a sudden, not always welcome, familiarity with a Socratic gadfly. Students often begin with a from-the-hip attempt like: "Well, a thing is something like -- " at which I say, Wait, if I look up a word in a dictionary, it doesn't use the word I'm looking up in the definition of the very same word. They try again -- usually substituting in words like "object," at first-- "A thing is... is... an object that..." -- and then, as we give it more thought together, they begin adding other terms into a sort of cloud: idea, creature, entity. (Incidentally, the dictionary itself does not always obey this rule -- the one I just checked gives as the third definition of "thing", "anything that is or may become an object of thought." I deny that ramming "any" (or "some" or "no") right next to "thing" significantly changes the matter.) Sometimes a proliferation of examples is offered: a piano, a piece of string, the playground out the window, a fish, a picture of a volcano, the water in a glass. And when I say, OK, but what makes all of these things?, I (sometimes) see the first glimmers of a stumped perplexity that is held suspended between plain old irritation ("Ugh! this makes my head hurt!") and genuinely fascinated puzzlement verging on wonder ("Huh! I never thought of that before!")

But really -- what is it by virtue of which all of these -- the water, the fish, the volcano and its picture, and so on -- are things? One possible answer is that a "thing" is simply, as the dictionary suggests, an ordinary object of thought under the condition of nonspecificity. "Thing" would thus turn out to be a sort of hidden negation, a negation which is not explicit but which covertly subtracts all positive content: not cup, not table, not dog, not horse, not mountain, not river, not molecule, not microscope, not any specific thing, just (just!) "a" thing.

This is, for instance, what Tristan Garcia seems to mean when he refers to something "no-matter-what." Such nonspecificity is surely very strange -- has anyone ever encountered this? It seems to mean, under conditions where further specificity is "of no consequence" -- but this would seem to return the question from ontology to that of praxis: "It doesn't matter which thing, for our purposes." But then, what are our purposes when we say that no specificity whatsoever could bear upon them? Is it actually true that no adjectives, no qualities, no characteristics at all, would impact our project? Or might it not be (shades of correlationism!) only those we have thought of so far? Have we not, perhaps, simply abstracted from other contexts in which we say that certain specifics do not matter and imagined a nth case? We say, "bring me a measuring cup from the drawer." "How large?" "It doesn't matter, any one will do --" Any one, that is, of the limited set I know, for the purposes I have in mind. But to say any one of any set -- for what purposes can I imagine saying this? Is it even possible, in fact, to think this "not mattering"?

Here ontology and ethics turn out, once again, to inform one another. For this "no matter" is a kind of indifference, and indifference is a state both commended and warned against, depending on nuances which are sometimes separated by the merest inflection. To regard the whole universe and all things in it as something that "doesn't matter" -- this has been called both the height of wisdom, and the depths of melancholia. Is this indifference a kind of acedia, a depression -- an apathy? Or is it a Stoic equanimity, dispassion: apatheia?

(A parenthetical intuition, based on a guess about nihilism and quite possibly wrong -- in any case, needing to be fleshed out: could it be that Thing is to apatheia as Nothing is to apathy?)

Thus it turns out that the answer to this question "What is a thing?", and indeed whether either it or "Nothing" can be understood, turns out to be entangled with the question of the character of the philosopher. A philosopher would seem to be one who finds such questions meaningful and indeed, in a certain way, urgent. This means not just having a taste for "pointless" questions that make others' heads hurt, but cultivating a disposition beyond all practical horizons -- or at least, asking whether this is possible. And yet, is this question of character not itself a practical matter?


  1. Enjoyed these reflections. I was recently in a seminar with Graham Priest in which he argued (based on mereological axioms) that "everything" is the sum/fusion of all objects, and "nothing" the sum/fusion of all non-objects. Nothing, he inferred, thus both is and is not an object (according to a paraconsistent logic, such a contradiction can be true). He then inferred nothingness to be the ground of reality, the only thing that must be. I asked him what I guess was a Parmenidean question: but don't you have to then *believe* that the word nothing actually or really refers to such a contradictory object? And if one accords such a belief, how is it also not acceptable to define something else in a similar manner—for example God as uncreated, apart from the world, not a being or beyond Being? An atheist, his own answer was to take recourse to the natural/spontaneous association we have with words: whereas God conjures ideas of control, omnipotence, etc., nothing recalls us only to the absence of things. This is either a facile solution, or it indicates what a profound achievement it was for humans to broach the thought of zero, to invent such a word/concept as no-thing.

    Wishing you the best from Berlin.

    1. This is [para-]consistent with what I understand of Priest's engagements with Buddhism. I'm fairly sympathetic with at least leading with "ordinary language," but I'm inclined to say that this response tends more to the facile than the deep -- though this does not mean that the achievement you point to was not, indeed, profound.

      Nice to hear from you.