The ontological status of Nothing is very interesting, for there is in the common understanding an endless slew of problems in conceiving it. It is very likely that if you have ever had a discussion about Nothing with an average person it has basically ended in the strange predicament about the unintelligibility, the ineffability, of Nothing. The very naming of Nothing seems to give it affirmation of Being which it does not logically allow. In my middle school and high school days I heard many-a-times the phrase, “Nothing can’t be Nothing, because calling it Nothing makes it something.” The apparent silliness of this seeming misunderstanding or obfuscation of language aside, what status does Nothing have in the world?
Logically, Nothing seems to be a negating term, an absence of Being. It has no positive existence itself, only Being does. We say, for example, that darkness is merely the absence of light, that cold is the absence of heat, etc. By definition negations, Nothings, obviously do not exist. The definition of Nothing is that it does not exist, that it has no Being for it is the absence of Being. Only being is; Nothing is not. Simple… or so it seems.
Language, and by extension thought itself, has a peculiar difficulty dealing with Nothing, with negations, absences. Because they are Nothings, and Nothings are not, language has had to develop rather strange and contradictory ways to refer to absences, to point to that which does not exist. We say “There is nobody at the door,” “There is nothing in my cup,” “There is nothing there.” We are naturally compelled to speak of absences in the affirmation of their Being. Some philosophers have considered this a mere example of the inadequacy of natural language and our animal intuitions for thinking properly about the world. According to such philosophers an ideal logical language purged of these confusions of natural language is required for thinking the world as it really is.
But why should we think that these natural developments of language are confused and wrong? Yes, by definition absences have no Being, but is this actually a tenable position? Is it not the case that when I notice and say, “There is nothing in my cup,” there really is Nothing in my cup? Isn’t it the case that there really is an absence there? Darkness may be an absence of light, yet I see darkness, I see the absence of light as its own Being. When there is an absence of heat i feel cold as a positive state. It seems strange that we conceive and interact with Nothings all the time, yet somehow we are to believe these are silly fictions.
Hegel’s conception of Being and Nothing is capable of making this strangeness intelligible. For Hegel the fact that we have had to develop language to speak of Nothing as we do is itself a pointer towards what this term really means. Being as such, pure Being, is nonsense. Likewise the idea of a pure Nothing that does not itself have Being is nonsense. As Parmenides believed, that ‘Only Being is; Nothing is not,’ we cannot help but think and speak from the side of Being and only from the side of Being, for if Nothing is really that which is utter non-Being, then it is logically unthinkable. Despite this, we clearly think of Nothing all the time, we speak of it all the time, we deal practically with it all the time. Being as pure Being doesn’t mean anything, just as Nothing as pure Nothing is meaningless, and this meaningless indeterminacy is what makes intelligible that Nothing already puts us in the form of Being for it is a meaningless and indeterminate emptiness. On the most abstract level Parmenides has touched on a truth that cannot be escaped, yet it’s also a truth that doesn’t tell us much of anything. If Nothing must Be, then the notion of Nothing as absolute negation of Being is not tenable. The solution Hegel offers in the Science of Logic is that Being and Nothing are concepts of relative position in a relation of Beings. Being and Nothing are in truth the perspective of Being this particular Being and not another. Where one Being meets another Being, there its non-Being, its Nothingness, begins.
For an expanded explanation of Being and Nothing as Hegel deals with it in the Science of Logic‘s first chapter, check out my post on the dialectic of Being, Nothing, and Becoming.