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The question of the nothing in Carnap and Heidegger

People are afraid to forget the mind, fearing that they will fall through the void with nowhere to grab hold. They do not understand that the void is without void, that there is only one true Dharma body. —Huangbo Xiyun23

It is a customary protocol of polite conversation and formal logic that one not speak about nothing. Ludwig Wittgenstein concluded the Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus with the words: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”24 As he argued earlier, no propositions can be legitimately made about what lies outside the world even as the sense and value of the world must at the same time rest outside it.25 This is what he calls the “mystical” If the world consists of facts and logical relations between facts, then metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics “cannot be expressed”26 Analogously, albeit without Wittgenstein’s mystical tone concerning the inexpressible that reveals itself,27 the prominent Vienna Circle logical positivist Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970) rejected such inquires as ineffectual. Affirming Wittgenstein’s proposition 6.5 that “the riddle does not exist,” there are no “riddles of life” that are answerable questions for Carnap, as life-issues can only be about practical situations.28 Metaphysical propositions, including those concerning moral and aesthetic values and norms, are not false or uncertain. They are cognitively and epistemically if not emotively and expressively meaningless.29

The differences between Heidegger and Carnap are frequently interpreted as a historical source of the division between a more speculatively oriented “Continental philosophy” and a more scientific and logically oriented “Analytic philosophy.” However, Heidegger and Carnap shared a common intellectual context characterized by Neo-Kantianism, phenomenology, life-philosophy, linguistic and experiential holism, an antagonism toward traditional metaphysics as a reification of life and being, a suspicion of epistemological and ethical discourses, and the German youth movement of the years following the First World War.

Carnap emerged—along with Misch—as one of Heidegger’s earliest critics, emphasizing the application of the new formal logic pioneered by Frege and Russell to philosophical questions, the priority of the natural sciences and the elimination of metaphysical thinking, as well as social democratic politics.30 In “Overcoming Metaphysics through the Logical Analysis of Language,” based on an earlier lecture (1929) and first published in Erkenntnis, 2, 1931/32, Carnap criticized Heidegger’s delineation of the nothing in “What is Metaphysics?” as a conceptually non-meaningful confusion that involves the substantializing of the logical operation of negation that senselessly posits and reifies “nothing” as an object by taking it as a noun. Metaphysical propositions, including those concerning moral and aesthetic values and norms, are neither false nor uncertain. They are not hypotheses that might be eventually empirically verified. If cognitively valid meaning rests in the possibility of empirical verification, then metaphysics consists of “pseudo-propositions” that are cognitively and epistemically, albeit not affectively or expressively, senseless.31

Carnap contends that negation is merely the reversal of an existential proposition, and as a consequence cannot be treated as affirming existence or an object.32 Negation immanently and derivatively denies the factual and logical propositions that it depends on for its significance. The nothing is parasitical on positivity and has no further cognitive significance. Carnap concluded that metaphysical utterances senselessly reify logical operations such as the assertion of being and nothing and, developing an argument from Dilthey, are at best a poor replacement for art, literature, and music in expressing a “feeling of life” (Lebensgefuhl).33 Carnap upholds that Heidegger’s proposition that “nothing nothings” (das Nichts nichtet) has no genuine cognitive content that can be thematized and validated even as it elicits feelings akin to those evoked in poetry while senselessly ascribing conceptual validity, which consists of empirical verifiability and logical validity, to them.

It is a meaningless error in elementary logic to talk of nothing for Wittgenstein and Carnap. Despite its taking on a modernized form of the critique of metaphysics, such hostility to the nothing is not new with the emergence of logical positivism. It has deeper roots in the Western metaphysical tradition.34 The Western tradition has primarily maintained purportedly since Parmenides that “nothing comes from nothing” (nihil fit ex nihilo) and that either Being or a God beyond being are necessary for the universe not to remain in or disappear into nothingness. The Christian idea of creation from nothing (creatio ex nihilo) presupposes a God who stands outside of and beyond the nothing that is overcome through the activity of creation. The Neo-Platonists associated nothing with the denial and lack of being, as a lack of and exclusion from the good. Augustine conceived of it more radically as evil. Nothingness is distance from God, and evil is choosing it over God. Although materiality and the devil are evil in Augustine’s account, they cannot be absolutely evil insofar as they share in existence—even if only negatively and derivatively through privation and lack. In Heidegger, responding to this tradition, God’s distance from and creation out of the nothing forms a paradox. It incongruously presupposes that God relates to the nothing in excluding it, even though—as God—God “cannot know the nothing, assuming that the ‘absolute’ excludes all nothingness.”35

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