Graham Priest — and Martin Heidegger! — on Nothing (1)

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i) Introduction
ii) Nothing as Absence: Anxiety
iii) Ontological Dependence (or Grounding)
iv) Distancing
v) Standing Outside Of
vi) The Summing of No Things

Perhaps the most important way in which Graham Priest has been influenced by Martin Heidegger is the latter’s view on Western logic itself. Heidegger once wrote:

“If the power of the intellect in the field of inquiry into the nothing and into Being is thus shattered, then the destiny of the reign of ‘logic’ in philosophy is thereby decided. The idea of ‘logic’ itself disintegrates in the turbulence of a more original questioning.”

(Note the scare quotes around the word logic.)

One can see how all that poetical stuff can lead to dialetheism; which, after all, “embraces contradictions”. So whereas Heidegger appeared to hold up his hands in despair at Western philosophy (or simply reject Western philosophy in toto), Priest offers us his dialetheism as a solution to the problems which Heidegger has just articulated in the passage above.

More importantly, since Heidegger “deconstructed” Western logic, then that — almost by definition — must inevitably lead to the deconstruction of Western philosophy as a whole. (At least that would be the case if one saw Western philosophy as a Platonic Form.) Thus Heidegger’s route to his Destruktion of philosophy was through the “questioning” of logic.

Heidegger, like Priest, can also be said to have been “misled” by the word “nothing” (which he turned into his “the nothing” — das Nichts). So, yes, Rudolf Carnap was right about this… And so was Wittgenstein. That is, being (philosophically) perplexed by the use of the word “nothing” led to “language going on holiday” (Wittgenstein).

So it’s also odd that Priest seems to completely reject (or possibly ignore!) everything that was said by Carnap, Wittgenstein, Russell and other philosophers about these and similar subjects.


Why do we name or refer to nothing?

There’s nothing to hold onto. Yet, psychologically speaking, thoughts about nothing can fill (some) people with dread; as Heidegger — through Priest — will later stress. There’s something psychologically (or emotionally) both propelling and appalling about it. And that’s why existentialists and other philosophers — with their taste for the dramatic and poetic — found the subject of nothing (or at least nothingness) such a rich philosophical ground to mine.

Nothing as Absence: Anxiety

Priest says that “every thing” can be absent. That may be an assumption that every thing once existed, and then became absent. Of course there can be something followed by nothing; just as some argue that there might have been nothing (except God!) followed by something.

So how can all things be absent if there never were things in the first place? There is an answer to this. That is, we can have all things and then we can have nothing — say, if God decided to destroy all things (though God himself would still exist). However, I don’t believe that Priest had such a scenario in mind because, after all, he says “[p]hilosophers often wonder why there is something rather than nothing”. Indeed Wittgenstein (again) once wrote: “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 6.44) In other words, once there was nothing; and then there was something.

Priest goes one step further (or at least Heidegger did) than this by telling us that

“Heidegger, indeed, claimed that one can have a direct phenomenological experience of nothing”.

So we need to know what Heidegger meant by our having “a direct phenomenological experience of nothing”.

Priest himself writes:

“One can have direct phenomenological acquaintance with non-existent objects.”

No we can’t. One can have a “direct phenomenological acquaintance” with something, and that something is taken to be a “non-existent object”. That is, we can have a phenomenological experience of, say, Sherlock Holmes; even though he’s not a real person. However, we still have “acquaintance” with some things — the actors who play Holmes, our mental images of Holmes, the paintings of Holmes, etc.

The main point of Priest’s reference to our phenomenological acquaintance with non-existent objects is to state this conclusion:

Nothing is a non-existent object which we have direct phenomenological acquaintance with.

Following on from all that, the very idea of nothing (or nothingness) is hard — or even impossible — to conceive of or imagine. This means that (at least for myself) it fails David Chalmersconceivability argument.

Chalmers claims this:

i) x is conceivable.

ii) Whatever is conceivable is possible.

iii) Therefore x is possible.

However, what if that which is conceived of isn’t actually conceived of in the the first place? What if it’s only the case that words about the conceived of are simply uttered?

In any case, the important point with this is that we can distinguish conceivability from imaginability. That is, even if we can’t construct mental images, etc. of nothing (or nothingness), perhaps we can still conceive of nothing (or nothingness). I, for one, can’t even conceive of nothing. (So this isn’t similar to someone’s conceiving of a million-sided object, as presented by Philip Goff.)

Can other people conceive of nothing? Do they even have intuitions about nothing or about the notion of nothingness?

Heidegger’s words (as quoted by Priest) don’t help. He wrote:

“Does such an attachment, in which man is brought before the nothing itself, occur in human existence? This can and does occur, although rarely and only for a moment, in the fundamental mood of anxiety (Angst).”

Here Heidegger is more likely to have meant the absence of a specific object (or the absence of specific objects). After all, how can man be “brought before the nothing itself” — in Priest’s sense of nothing? Priest is talking about the absence of all objects, not the absense of some objects or one object. For example, Heidegger’s “the nothing” may be what happens when someone visits an old building and discovers that it’s no longer there. Nonetheless, the visitor is still there and so is the surrounding landscape.

Priest and Heidegger are absolutely correct: nothingness does have psychological resonances. It’s just that we can’t tie those resonances to anything ontological. To connect these psychological or phenomenological facts (or experiences) to an ontology is a kind of psychologism, in the Fregean sense.

Nonetheless, Priest doesn’t always accept Heidegger’s views on nothing; though he does often mention them. Thus Priest qualifies himself when he states the following:

“One does not have to share Heidegger’s gothic pessimism, to agree that one can have a phenomenological experience of nothing. All you have to do is think about it.”

Despite these qualifications, Priest does then say that “[h]ere, Heidegger got it exactly right”.

Let’s take the Heidegger quote again and the additional words “[a]nxiety reveals the nothing”. What does that mean? And even though anxiety is a real psychological phenomenon, how many anxious people have nothing revealed to them?

Priest continues (in a note) on the theme of absence. He writes:

“Philosophers often wonder why there is something rather than nothing. However, even if there were nothing — even if everything would be entirely absent — there would be something, namely nothing.”

This is playing with words of the worst kind. (Perhaps that’s why Priest mentions “fun” a couple of times in the seminar video mentioned at the end of this piece.)

Ontological Dependence (or Grounding)

Priest also seems to accept Heidegger on “grounding” (or “ontological dependency”). Heidegger wrote:

“If the nothing itself is to be questioned as we have been questioning it, then it must be given beforehand. We must be able to encounter it.”

And the following statement is reflected in Priest too:

“The nothing is the complete negation of the totality of beings.”

As has just been said, Priest often mentions Heidegger and Hegel. And it was originally Hegel who argued (as Priest puts it) “that nothingness was the ground of reality”.

Firstly, one may ask this question:

What does it mean to say that an object “logically depends on nothingness”?

Priest’s explanations/answers don’t really help.

Priest says that “every object depends for being what it is on nothingness” and that “in particular [it depends on] distancing itself from nothingness”. That simply raises the same question: What exactly do these statements mean?

Put simply, Priest argues that all objects are grounded in nothing. (Indeed everything must also be grounded in nothing.) However, Priest doesn’t “like the term ‘grounding’”. Instead, he believes that “‘ontological dependence’ is much better”. So what about this? -

i) If x is ontologically dependent on y,

ii) then y must also ground x.

In any case, Priest rightly says that “some things depend for being what they are on other things”. Yet it’s whether or not some things depend for being what they are on nothing that’s relevant here.

Graham Priest ontologically depends on the zygote of his parents (as Saul Kripke explained in his Naming and Necessity). But does Graham Priest depend on nothing as well? Let’s use Priest’s own example. He says:

“The shadow of a tree depends for being what it is on the tree itself. The shadow of the tree depends on the tree in a way that the tree doesn’t depend on the shadow.”

The strange thing here is that a shadow is more ontologically robust — and even more physical — than Priest’s nothing. Shadows, after all, are causally related to the physical things which cause them. Is nothing causally related to physical things? Indeed even though the shadow of a tree is an epiphenomenon (like qualia?), it’s still dependent on physical things.


Here again Priest borrows from Heidegger. This time it’s Priest’s notions of distancing, etc. which are Heideggerian. Thus:

“In the clear night of the nothing of anxiety the original openness of beings as such arises: that they are beings — and not nothing.”

What is Priest claiming when he says that “to be a being” is to “distance [it] from nothingness”? (This is all very metaphorical.) Priest then goes on to say that a being “couldn’t be a being unless it was not nothingness”. Thus:

“And so to be an object depends on nothingness as something that the being distances and distinguishes itself from.”

Is this like the claim that Paul Murphy couldn’t be Paul Murphy unless he had distanced himself — and distinguished himself — from cabbages and/or protons? Sure, here we have a material object (a human being) distancing — and distinguishing — himself from other material objects (cabbages and/or protons), not from nothingness. Nonetheless, can any “being” truly distinguish — and distance — itself from such a strange thing (that’s just grammar!) as nothingness? And if it/he/she could, what does that actually mean? Is this a psychological or an ontological distancing and distinguishing? One can accept that persons can verbally (or psychologically) distinguish and distance themselves from anything — even from nothing. Though, ontologically, how is that distancing and distinguishing actually brought about?

Being Different From and Standing Outside of

What about any x (or any object) being different from — and standing outside — any y? Priest says:

“To say what something is you have to say what it stands outside; what it’s different from. This is just an application of this to the notion of being an object.”

It’s hard to make sense of this. If we need to say “what [x] stands outside” of, then it stands outside everything that isn’t itself. Thus must we name literally everything that’s not x or which is outside x? Just a few of these things? It’s true that in common parlance we define many things by what they’re not. But this is a linguistic and psychological phenomenon, not an ontological phenomenon.

For example, we can say that Prime Minister Boris Johnson “stands outside” the planet Mercury and/or all fish and chip shops. That’s certainly true. But what ontological or even psychological relevance does that have?

The same is true of Priest’s “different from”.

Boris Johnson is different from a iron gate and/or a shopping bag. More fundamentally, he’s different from all that’s not Boris Johnson. Of course in a less ridiculous way we can say that “Boris is different from a good [bad] man”. But here again, where is the ontology in all this? All we have are linguistic and psychological different froms. Sure, there are ontological differences between Boris and iron gates. (There are ethical differences between Boris and other human beings.) However, which differences from — if any — are fundamental or ontologically relevant?

Having said that, all the above may be beside the point because Priest’s main thesis is that Boris Johnson stands outside — and is different from — nothing/ness. The other cases just cited may therefore be seen as being less fundamental by Priest.

Priest then moves to his notion/metaphor of distancing. He says that “to be an object a thing must ontologically depend on not being”. What’s more, “[i]t’s nature is constituted by standing outside nothingness, as it were”.

The last clause, “as it were”, is certainly apt here because it’s hard to fathom what standing outside nothingness is. This is like being drowned in metaphor.

Heidegger writes:

“Nothing is neither an object — not any being at all. Nothing thus comes forward neither for itself non next to beings to which it would as it were adhere stick.”

More metaphors. And what if we have no ontological translations of these words?

Priest then explains himself in yet more Heideggerian terms. He says:

“That’s an interesting metaphor for human existence: nothingness makes possible the openness of beings as such.”

This may refer to Heidegger’s idea that human beings posit themselves against nothingness — or the possibility of (their own?) non-being. This seems to be a poetic expression of human beings exerting their contingent existence and putting their finger up to it. That is, we human beings (or persons) are “open” to nothingness and even open to death.

Now we have some Hegelisms:

“Nothingness doesn’t merely serve as the counter-concept of being. Rather, it originally belongs to it and is central. [Nothingness is] essential and founding as such as the being of beings…”

Is this Hegelian dialectics of the following kind? -

i) Firstly, we have the negative: non-being.

ii) Then the positive: being.

iii) Finally, the synthesis: becoming.

In any case, Priest argues that nothing has an active or positive quality in that it’s “essential” and “founding”. Nothingness is “the being of beings”.

The Summing of No Things

Priest has a strange position on summing (as seen within the contexts discussed above). He says:

“Everything is the sum of all things. Nothingness is the sum of no things — no objects.”

How can nothingness be a “sum of no things — no objects”? Is this similar to saying that no apples can be summed to/with no oranges? Abstract objects can be summed — as in set theory or mathematics. But is nothing an abstract object? It certainly bears little relationship to sets, propositions, numbers, etc.

In addition, although nothing is seen as an object (as well as not being an object), Priest also says that “everything is not an object”. Yet, prima facie, it seems that everything is a better candidate for being an object than nothing is.

To get back to the passage above. What is it to be the “sum of every object”? Is this an exercise in counting? Of collecting? Of joining? Or even of “fusing” (which is a word that Priest also uses in various passages)?

This gets even more problematic (or silly) when it comes to nothing. That is, what is it to “sum [] no things”? Priest even uses the words “fuse together no things”. How does that fusion actually occur? Surely in order for any x to fuse with any y (or with anything), it firstly needs to be separate from y. Does this apply to Priest’s “no things” too? And how does this summing actually work? Is it an action, an event, a process or a condition?

In any case, Priest argues that when one has “the sum of no things”, we get nothing/ness. Is this equivalent to saying the following? -

If we add 0 to 0, we get 0.

In addition, Priest also classes “no things” as non-objects. Consequently:

“Nothingness is the sum of everything that isn’t an object because everything is an object.”

As stated earlier, nothing[ness] is tied (by Priest) to everything. Later, however, Priest also argues that nothing[ness] both is and is not an object (i.e., his dialetheic position).

Despite what’s been said, Priest states that he sees “no reason why you shouldn’t have a sum of no things”. Other people, on the other hand, “normally [] assume that if a bunch of things have a fusion or a sum, then there must be some of them”. Indeed, according to Priest, that’s “a standard assumption”.


Finally, Priest states:

“If you think there’s such a thing as nothingness, it’s a very natural way of defining it. [That’s] because nothing is something like the absence of all things. It’s precisely what you get when you put together no things. … And, as I said, if you think that everything is the sum of all things, then it’s natural to think that nothing is the sum of no things...”

In the passage just quoted, Priest brings in his whole package of ideas on nothing. He sees nothing as a thing/object — as well as not being a thing/object; he speaks about absence; and then he refers to summing.

What a smallish jungle we have here — even if it’s not “Meinong’s jungle”!


1) Some of the quoted words and passages from Graham Priest in the above are taken from the ‘Everything and Nothing’ seminar — a Robert Curtius Lecture of Excellence at Bonn University — which Priest gave. I relied on both the transcript and the video itself. However, I’ve edited a lot of what Priest says in that seminar to make it more comprehensible. (For example, I’ve removed many of the uses of the word “so”, added full stops, commas and suchlike.) Hopefully, the philosophical content is kept intact. None of this applicable to the words and passages I quote which come from Priest’s papers and books.

*) See my ‘Graham Priest & Martin Heidegger Take the Language of Nothing on Holiday (2)’ . To follow: ‘Graham Priest, Martin Heidegger, Dialetheism and Nothing (3)’.

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