A Nothing Thing

Milton Trager used to say, "My work is a nothing thing. It is just a feeling.

We cannot achieve it by trying to force some physical condition into being."

By Deane Juhan

Once when I was assisting him, after his demonstration he sent everyone off to do this nothing thing. As he observed the students trying to do nothing, he called over to one table across the room and said, "No, no, what you are doing is a nothing nothing. I am talking about a something nothing." This comment sent me on a years-long tailspin trying to figure out when nothing is really nothing and when it is something. Then I recalled him saying just as often, "You cannot figure it out, so don't try. Just go with it." After that the quandary quickly resolved and I thereafter thought nothing (not "not something") further about it.

However, I recently discovered this definition of "nothing" in my archives (if "archive" is the right word for boxes full of papers to be sorted out--probably not by me--later). I reread it with the same keenness (and no small touch of dizziness and nausea) that I experienced when I first encountered it. It occurs to me that it may be of some help who are themselves trying to figure out the distinctions--obviously so important to Milton--between "nothing," "nothing nothing," and "something nothing." There may be nothing more important for us to grips with as nothing. I offer up this philosophical discussion to that end, and I for one can positively attest to the fact that upon reading and rereading it I have truly come to understand nothing.


The following entry is quoted in its entirety from a philosophical dictionary. Unfortunately my xeroxed copy of its pages have neither header or footer to indicate the specific work in which this definition is to be found. This is a serious bibliographical lack. On the other hand, there is a certain poetic justice in the fact that of the origins of the definition of “nothing,” nothing is known. But a lack is itself a nothing, where no-thing exists, and since, as King Lear observed, “nothing can come from nothing.” perhaps the problem is not as serious as it appears on its face, or in the minds of sticklers for resource details. If nothing comes of nothing, perhaps it is best under the circumstances to simply leave it at that. Nothing, at least, can be done about it here.

Perhaps there is really no pressing need (a lack?) in this world for clarity about nothing. We are tacitly accustomed to the fact that nothing is really clear as things stand that further inquiry is unnecessary. On the other hand, there is a rudimentary sense that the idea of “nothing” is somehow intwined with the idea of “something,” of which we all apparently desire to be a part. There is, then, some justification in wanting to understand something about the opposite camp, even if it cannot be said to positively exist. So let us strive, with the help below (in the infernal as well and the paragraphically spacial sense of the word) to understand nothing, which seems to be our natural inclination in any case.

Nothing is an awe-inspiring yet essentially undigested concept, highly esteemed by writers of a mystical or existentialist tendency, but by most others regarded with anxiety, nausea, or panic. Nobody seems to know how to deal with it (he would, of course), and plain persons generally are reported to have little difficulty in saying, seeing, hearing, and doing nothing. Philosophers, however, have never felt easy on the matter. Ever since Parmenides laid it down that it is impossible to speak of what is not, broke his own rule in the act of stating it, and deduced himself into a world where all that ever happened is nothing, the impression has persisted that the narrow path between sense and nonsense on this subject is a difficult one to tread and that altogether the less said of it the better.

This escape, however, is not as easy as it looks. Plato, in pursuing it, reversed the Parmenidean dictum by insisting, in effect, that anything a philosopher can find to talk about must somehow be there to be discussed, and so let loose upon the world that unseemly rabble of centaurs and unicorns, carnivorous cows, republican monarchs and wife-burdened bachelors, which has plagued ontology from that day to this. Nothing (of which they are all aliases) can apparently get rid of these absurdities, but for fairly obvious reasons has not been invited to do so. Logic has attempted the task, but with sadly limited success. Of some, though not all, nonentities, even a logician knows they do not exist, since their properties defy the law of contradiction; the remainder, however, are not so readily dismissed. Whatever Lord Russell may have said of it, the harmless if unnecessary unicorn cannot be driven out of logic as it can out of zoology, unless by desperate measures which exclude all manner of reputable entities as well. Such remedies have been attempted, and their effects are worse than the disease. Russell himself, in eliminating the present King of France, inadvertently deposed the current Queen of England. Quine, the sorcerers apprentice, has contrived to liquidate both Pegasus and President Truman in the same fell swoop. The old logicians, who allowed all entities subsistence while conceding existence, as wanted, to an accredited selection of them, at least brought a certain tolerant inefficiency to their task. Of the new it can only be said that solitudinem faciunt et pacem appelant—they make a desert and call it peace. Whole realms of being have been abolished without warning, at the mere nonquantifying of a variable. The poetry of Earth has been parsed out of existence—and what has become of it prose? There is little need for an answer. Writers to whom nothing is sacred, and accordingly stop thereat, have no occasion for surprise on finding, at the end of their operations, nothing is all they have left.

The logicians, of course, will have nothing of all this. Nothing, they say, is not a thing, nor is it the name of anything, being merely a short way of saying that it is not something else. “Nothing” means “not anything”; appearances to the contrary are due merely to the error of supposing that a grammatical subject must necessarily be a name. Asked, however, to prove that nothing is not the name of anything, they fall back upon the claim that nothing is the name of anything (since according to them there are no names anyway). Those who can make nothing of such an argument are welcome to the attempt. When logic falls out with itself, honest men come into their own, and it will take more than this to persuade them that there are not better cures for this particular headache than the old and now discredited method of cutting off the patient’s head.

The friends of nothing may be divided into two distinct yet not exclusive classes: the know-nothings, who claim a phenomenological acquaintance with nothing in particular, and the fear-nothings, who, believing, with Macbeth, that “nothing is but what is not,” are thereby launched into dialectical encounter with nullity in general. For the first, nothing, so far from being a mere grammatical illusion, is a genuine, even positive, feature of experience. We are all familiar with, and have a vocabulary for, holes and gaps, lacks and losses, absences, silences, impalpability’s, insipidities, and the like. Voids and vacancies of one sort or another are sought after, dealt in and advertised in the newspapers. And what are these, it is asked, but perceived fragments of nothingness, experiential blanks, which command, nonetheless, their share of attention and therefor deserve recognition. Sartre, for one, has given currency to such arguments, and so, in effect, have the upholders of “negative facts”—an improvident sect, whose refrigerators are full of nonexistent butter and cheese, absentee elephants and so on, which they claim to detect therein. If existence indeed precedes essence, there is certainly reason of a sort for maintaining that nonexistence is also anterior to, and not a product of, the essentially parasitic activity of negation; that the nothing precedes the not. But, verbal refutations apart, the short answer to this view, as given, for instance, in Bergson, is that there are but petty and partial nothings, themselves parasitic on what already exists. Absence is a mere privation, and a privation of something at that. A hole is always a hole in something: take away the thing, and the hole goes too; more precisely it is replaced bu a bigger if not better hole, itself relative to its surroundings, and so tributary to something else. Nothing, in short, is given only in relation to what is, and even the idea of nothing requires a thinker to sustain it. If we want to encounter it an sich, we have to try harder than that.

Better things, or rather nothings, are promised on the alternative theory, whereby it is argued, so to speak, not that holes are in things but that things are in holes or, more generally, that everything (and everybody) is in a hole. To be anything (or anybody) is to be bounded, hemmed in, defined, and separated by a circumambient frame of vacuity, and what is true of the individual is equally true of the collective. The universe at large is fringed with nothingness, from which indeed (how else?) it must have been created, if created it was; and its beginning and end, like that of all change within it, must similarly be viewed as a passage from one nothing to another, with an interlude of being in between. Such thoughts, or others like them, have haunted the speculations of nullophile metaphysicians from Pythagoras to Pascal and from Hegel to his followers to Heidegger, Tillich, and Sartre. Being and nonbeing, as they see it, are complimentary notions, dialectically entwined, and of equal status and importance; although Heidegger alone has extended their symmetry to the point of equipping Das Nichts with a correlative (if nugatory) activity of nothing, or nihilating, whereby it produces Angst in its votaries, and untimely hilarity in those, such as Carnap and Ayer, who have difficulty parsing “nothing” as a present participle of the verb “to noth.”

Nothing, whether it noths or not, and whether or not the being of anything entails it, clearly does not entail that anything should be. Like Spinoza’s substance, it is cause sui; nothing (except more of the same) can come of it; ex nihilo, nihil fit. That conceded, it remains a question to some why anything, rather than nothing, should exist. This is either the deepest conundrum in metaphysics or the most childish, and though many must have felt the force of it at one time or another, it is equally common to conclude, on reflection, that is is no question at all. The hypothesis of theism may be said to take is seriously and offer a provisional answer. The alternative is to argue that the dilemma is self-resolved in the mere possibility of stating it. If nothing whatsoever existed, there would be no problem and no answer, and the anxieties even of existential philosophers would be permanently laid to rest. Since they are not, there is evidently nothing to worry about. But that itself should be enough to keep and existentialist happy. Unless the solution be, as some have suspected, that it is not nothing that has been worrying them, but they who have been worrying it.