Nothing and the Absurd

Exploring the Role of Nothingness in Philosophy

We, as humans, are intrinsically wired to search for meaning and purpose in our lives. We relish in our ability to identify patterns and seek explanations for everything. Yet, this push to understand reality and our place within it often leads to dead ends and rock bottoms. We come to the stark reality that hides beneath the facade of our everyday lives: nothingness. Yes, you read that right: nothingness. And no, I'm not talking about that deep existential dread you experience from time to time. I'm talking about Nothing, with a capital N.

In this blog post, we'll be exploring the role of Nothingness in Philosophy and its perplexing journey from being dismissed as the ultimate unphilosophical concept to being embraced as potentially essential for explaining reality as we know it. From Parmenides to the Atheistic Existentialists, big names in the philosophical game have taken sides and argued their respective

Let's instead review what we know so far: the concept of Nothingness. We know it's uncomfortable to think about and that it raises more questions than it gives answers. Yet, it's also clear that this concepts has a significant history and place in philosophy. What is it really about? Is it the same as "emptiness?" How has it been perceived historically? These are all questions that we will attempt to answer in the coming paragraph. So, without further ado, let's get on with it.
Nothing and the Absurd: Exploring the Role of Nothingness is a philosophical exploration of nothingness, examining its place in religion, philosophy and art throughout history. This post seeks to understand what nothingness can tell us about understanding our own existence and the universe we inhabit.

Exploring the Role of Nothingness in Existentialism

The ancient Greek thinker of the of the monist school, Parmenides, believed that one can neither speak nor think about nothing, because there is literally nothing to speak or think about! He famously said: "It is necessary to say and think what is; for being is and nothing is not."
The philosophy of existentialism is largely focused on the concept of nothingness, being that one strives to find greater meaning within their lives. This meaning (or lack thereof) mainly relies on the individual perspective; one can interpret various circumstances and occurrences in different ways, usually leading to a belief of either something or nothing. In existentialism, the absence of anything has been thought to promote feelings of loneliness and hopelessness, ultimately leading to despair. According to Jean-Paul Sartre's definition of negation, nothing is the absence of something to make up ourselves—that is, nothing is embedded within our very existence.

Ultimately, the role of nothingness in existentialism sparks an interesting debate between pessimists and optimists: those who view nihilism as an inherent part of existence and those who reject it entirely in hopes for a more meaningful life. Although existentialist nihilism may be a major influence in not only ones thoughts, but their actions as well, arguments can be made against this state by simply believing that nihilism does not reflect all aspects of life. The understanding that hope still exists has been argued against pessimistic nihilism from a philosophical standpoint—Gaston Bachelard’s “poetics of hope”

Gaston Bachelard
Gaston Bachelard

This article about Gaston Bachelard  and his treatise  entitled, The Poetics of Spaceprovides evidence of how its possible for one to have faith and choose a more purposeful path in spite of the less desirable options presented by nothingness.
This debate highlights how nihilism plays a significant role in existentialist philosophy whether it comes by denial or acceptance and with further exploration one can gain further insight into this concept. To better understand nihilism within existentialism, it's important to explore what existentialism is and how it may shape our perspectives on life overall.
There are several major contributors to the philosophy of nothingness. One is German Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). His philosophy was immensely influential as it led to the development of existentialism, hermeneutics, deconstruction, postmodernism, and continental philosophy in general.

What is Existentialism?

Existentialism is a philosophy which posits that individuals, and not unseen forces, define the truth of their own existence. Existentialists argue that an individual creates his or her own meaning and purpose in life, and that this is achieved through free will and personal responsibility. In this sense, the concept of nothingness has strong implications for existentialism; without the ability to make individual choices and give tangible meaning to our lives, we cease to exist in the way existentialists seek to define it.

The debate over whether nothingness has a role in defining existentialism is ongoing. Proponents of this view point out that without nothingness, there would be no way to make decisions about our lives, or to see how our choices differ from those of others. On the other hand, those who oppose it argue that nothingness is an essential part of life, even if its presence cannot be seen or felt. They suggest that its impact on our lives can be seen in the form of stress and anxiety – something which is often neglected when we focus only on making decisions based on external factors.
Evidence from psychological studies supports the argument that nothingness can have a profound effect on our experience of life. Researchers have found that individuals who perceive themselves as having little control over their own decisions report higher levels of stress than those who feel more free to choose their own paths. This suggests that even if we cannot always see or feel it, nothingness has a direct impact on our lives – influencing how we experience day-to-day situations and ultimately affecting our overall level of wellbeing.

By exploring nothingness within the context of existentialism, we can gain insight into some difficult questions about our purpose and identity in life. Although debates about its role may continue, it is clear that understanding nothingness gives us better insight into how we can create meaning for ourselves amidst change and uncertainty. With this understanding in mind, let us next turn to looking at some key concepts of existentialism – exploring further what it means to be authentically human in a world shaped by constant flux and ambiguity.

Key Concepts of Existentialism

Existentialism has a few key concepts that are important to consider in the context of nothingness and the absurd.
One of these is the concept of choice. In existentialism, humans have the ability to choose for themselves what they deem important and meaningful in life, despite having no pre-set script or guidelines to follow. This idea of autonomy can lead to feelings of dread, confusion, and even anxiety since there is no definitive right answer or path to take.

Consider Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), another major contributor  whose philosophy is often associated with nihilism, a perspective that can be seen as centered around the ultimate "nothing." For Nietzsche, the death of God leads to the absence of absolute moral and existential certainties, a kind of "nothingness" that humanity must confront.

It does, however, offer a unique sense of freedom – one that paradoxically limits and empowers an individual at the same time.

On Nietzsche’s critique of morality


Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche

Modern atheists who have emancipated themselves from the affliction of pasterrors – the error of God, of the world conceived as a unity, of free will, and so on – have only freed themselves from something and not for something. They either believe in nothing at all or have a blind commitment to science and uphold the unconditional nature of the will to truth.
Read more about Nietzsche’s concepts in his On the Genealogy of Morality.

Another key concept of existentialism is that of “existence before essence.” This means that identity is not predetermined; instead, it is something that must be actively chosen and constructed through individual experience and action. Once again, this can bring about both fear and liberation depending on how it’s interpreted by different people. It also ties into the themes of nothingness and the absurd as a person can always choose to reject accepted values and conventions in favor of their own subjective perspective.

An additional concept found in existentialism is being-in-the-world or “Dasein." This involves living authentically – examining oneself without bias or judgement in order to understand motivations and beliefs more fully. This includes accepting both positive and negative parts of oneself wholly, rather than trying to suppress or detach from certain aspects. While some may feel overwhelmed by this prospect due to its heightened levels of accountability, others see it as an opportunity for growth and transformation.

Overall, existentialism offers a mixed bag of ideas: freedom but also accountability; dread but also liberation; responsibility but also autonomy. All three concepts question traditional notions of totalizing truth systems while also providing individuals with avenues for developing their own distinct identities within a seemingly chaotic reality. As we explore further questions involving meaning and life within absurdism, considering these foundational values can help shed light on our exploration and understanding.

Questions of Meaning and Life in Absurdism

Questions of the meaning and purpose of life underpins the discussion surrounding the absurd. In existentialist thought, life loses any inherent significance when humans recognize their existence is temporary and that death awaits them inevitably. This idea of life as being without intrinsic purpose or direction revolutionizes how we perceive meaning and purpose; humanity must seek out a subjective raison d’être for their own lives, rather than relying on any objective ideas to provide an answer. From this standpoint, many have argued that one can live in harmony with what otherwise appears to be a cosmic absurdity by embracing those aspects of life which they find personally meaningful.

Alternatively, some have argued that meaninglessness is a quality of life which can never fully be accepted. Opponents to this stance refer to the “coping mechanism” argument, where although an individual may adjust to accepting no absolute source of fulfillment, they are still actively seeking sources of fulfillment in order to survive. Furthermore, it has been suggested that boredom – the consequence of rejecting all established frameworks from which we make sense of life – ultimately becomes unbearable. As such, embracing the nothingness of existence cannot truly satisfy our human desire to understand and give value to our experience, suggesting that something beyond nothingness has more potential as an antidote.

Ultimately, considering questions about meaning and life in the context of absurdism emphasizes the importance of self-induced constructions free from societal constructs in determining our own purpose. While individuals grapple with establishing their own understanding of life’s seemingly arbitrary nature and formulating a rationale for their moral code, it raises further complexities in relation to how language is used – both internally and communicatively - to reflect these varying conceptions amongst humanity.

The Western culture developed an eccentric attitude to nothingness, otherwise one of the most intriguing philosophical concepts. Only with Nietzsche, Heidegger, later with Derrida and many others, the West has seriously come to deal with the question. That was, however, more than millennia and a half after philosophers in the East started exploring the concept of nothingness.  

    Articles that will shed more insight include:
 Absence perception and the philosophy of zero by Neil Barton  published 06 May 2019
Zero provides a challenge for philosophers of mathematics with realist inclinations. On the one hand it is a bona fide cardinal number, yet on the other it is linked to ideas of nothingness and non-being. This paper provides an analysis of the epistemology and metaphysics of zero.

SEE THROUGH ILLUSIONS: On Concept of Nothingness in Western and Eastern Thought by Avtor Bojan Radej published in March 2020 found that "nothingness" plays a key role in existentialism, with the idea of nothing being closely linked to experiences of alienation and meaninglessness.

Consciousness and Human Experience

The concept of nothingness is a powerful element in philosophy, especially when it comes to understanding the complexities of human experience. In absurdist thought, there is a strong emphasis on consciousness—a recognition that humans are responsible for their own existence and purpose. Many believe that life has no concrete meaning; instead, meaning is created through physical and metaphysical experiences, which in turn provides insight into the inner workings of our reality. For many absurdists, this means embracing nothingness as part of the essential framework of philosophical exploration.

Nature of Language in Absurdism

Absurdism as a philosophical stance refuses to take anything at face value, instead questioning even the nature of language itself. For the absurdist, words themselves are often taken as meaningless and arbitrary symbols that fail to truly capture any meaningful definition. Language is unable to represent life with any degree of accuracy since it is limited in its scope and interpretation and can never reflect the real experience of living. The absurdity of language is particularly apparent when looking at how certain terms can mean different things to different people; an object or concept that one person views as positive can be seen differently by another. Philosophers have also noted that language fails to adequately explain abstract concepts such as emotions, leaving many essential aspects of life beyond verbal expression.

These arguments highlight how language ultimately fails to provide any real insights into the world, as no matter how lucidly we may speak, our words will never totally convey an accurate representation of reality. To this end, some absurdists argue that through the use of language humans are attempting to define the indefinable and impose structure upon existence where none may exist; they posit that searching for meaning in life through these modes of expression leads only to frustration and confusion. Conversely, others suggest that language is an invaluable tool for understanding the world around us and carving out meaning in life; while its limitations should certainly be acknowledged, language can still provide powerful insights into the hidden truths about human experience.

Whether one views language as a crutch or a cog in understanding life will likely depend on their own personal perspective; however, what remains true across all interpretations of absurdism is that nothingness still lurks beneath every level of existence, unsullied by attempts to capture it through words or comprehend it through knowledge. So it appears that despite any number of theories proposed to explain the phenomena of life, nothingness continues to slide away from all forms of analysis, leaving us with only a faint reminder of uncertainty about our circumstances and purpose within them. This brings us then full circle back to where we started: confronting an uncanny void devoid of answers and open questions that linger between consciousness and human experience.

Some argue that without nothingness—or an absence of something—human experience loses its sense of balance and depth. Without a lack or void in one's life, they argue, moments of joy can be more deeply appreciated and moments of suffering can be more fully understood. To those who hold this view, awareness of nothingness can therefore help us recognise our own place in the universe by emphasising both our insignificance and capacities for self-expression.

On the other hand, some reject the notion that nothingness has any significant role to play in human experience. Acknowledging emptiness may lead to apathy and a feeling that life has no point or purpose, they say. Moreover, they point out that a focus on nothingness could prevent us from living life with vigour and enthusiasm by creating distractions from positive affirmations and creative gesturing.

It's clear there's much debate about whether nothingness contributes positively or negatively to our experience as conscious beings—and further discussion is certainly needed before any solid conclusions can be drawn. As we explore further into the realm of absurdism, it will be interesting to consider how nothingness also influences artistic expression within literary texts.

The Role of Nothingness in Literary Texts

Though nothingness remains a subject of inquiry for philosophers, it is also an important concept to consider when examining literary works. Nothingness has the capacity to provide insight into the human condition and explore life's complexities. Through its exploration in literature, readers can gain greater understanding of the uncertainty present in life.

If this is of interest you might want to read this graduate thesis,  Narratives of Nothing in Twentieth-Century Literature by Meghan Christine Vicks.

Or this 2017 dissertation by Layla Aldousany, The Problem of Nothingness: Early Modern Literature, Science, and the Vacuum explores literature’s participation in these cross-disciplinary debates over nothingness.

Often expressed through characters or plot points, nothingness is sometimes used to as a means of conveying the crumbling of hopes and dreams. For example, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men paints a vivid picture of tragedy and disappointment when George realizes his dream of owning a farm will never come true due to his friend Lenny's death. In this sense, Steinbeck skillfully illustrates how nothingness can signify the emptiness felt by individuals when illusions or worldviews are suddenly being shattered.

Some authors use nothingness to depict pure nihilism or a sense of hopelessness and alienation that arises from an indifferent universe. A good example here is Franz Kafka’s The Trial, where the protagonist spends his life trying to decipher a mysterious court case but fails to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion. This motif of helplessness reinforces Kafka’s bleak view that there may be no resolution or meaning in life - only an infinite abyss of nothingness and absurdity.
Another example is Dostoyevsky's novel Crime and Punishment, where one of its primary themes is Raskolnikov's struggle between freedom and morality - as his inner turmoil is personified within the abyss that dwells inside of him, representing his own issues with emptiness, paralysis and nihilism. A piece such as this suggests that this void within us all is incredibly real and relevant in terms of its existential implications.

Through such examples, it becomes clear that literature can be used as an effective tool for exploring the role of nothingness in our lives. Writers have long acknowledged that nothingness can be both a source of grief but also profound insight; this delicate balance between despair and acceptance forms the crux of many novels and plays.

However, debates have centred around whether we can truly derive conclusions about nothingness itself from observations derived from artistic expression. Surely, by calling upon hidden metaphors in someone else’s creations, we are merely projecting our own beliefs about reality onto external ideas which may have no direct relation to what we seek? Then again, others argue that some truths can only ever be uncovered when viewed from an outside perspective, taking into account what others' understandings can provide - thus allowing us to further comprehend the depths of our own preconceived assumptions about what lies at the heart of reality's darkness.

Searching for the Truth About Nothingness and the Absurd

The search for the underlying truth about nothingness and the absurd has been a long-standing endeavor throughout philosophical history. On one side of the debate, it has been argued that nothingness is an existential void where no meaning or purpose exists and that this emptiness renders any attempt at deriving logical explanations from reality utterly futile. Supporters of this view point to various modern thinkers who emphasize such themes as absurdity, meaninglessness, and nihilism, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. They see in their works a stark lack of traditional values or systems of thought to grasp onto, leading many to conclude that life is an essentially absurd endeavor.

On the other side of the argument there are those who believe that there lies hidden within our everyday experience an inherent wisdom which reveals itself through a careful examination of our lived lives and experiences. For example, writers such as Viktor Frankl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty have spent considerable time discussing the possibility of finding deeper meaning in spite of modern life's seeming absurdity. These individuals maintain that if we can capture the essence of being itself in its most essential form, then meaningfulness can be achieved in spite of negativity and hopelessness present in our world.

The differing sides on this matter both have evidence to back up their claims. Those who support the idea that nothingness is an existential void tend to rely heavily on empirically evident scenarios involving death, injustice, suffering etc., suggesting that these realities are indicative of life’s ultimate meaninglessness. On the other hand, adherents to the opposite view often make use of stories and anecdotes focused on redemption and joy in order to demonstrate how each person’s subjective narrative can shape his or her relationship to not only himself but also his surrounding community.

Ultimately, each individual must grapple with their own unique interpretation of nothingness and the absurd before forming a conclusion as to whether a deeper truth exists beneath the surface or if life truly is an empty stage where meaningless activities remain perpetually unfulfilled. One thing remains clear: we must each choose what is meaningful—or meaningless—in our lives before we know for certain if there is an answer to "Nothing and its Absurd".

In conclusion, nothingness serves as one of the foundational elements for understanding the absurd. Its implications help shape our perception of life and its relation to mortality while establishing a framework for viewing our actions and beliefs in much broader context. Ultimately, nothingness opens us up to ideas like nihilism and existentialism – two concepts that are essential for exploring the absurd.