I wrote a blog post a while ago on the strangeness of the concept of Nothing and how contradictory it is to our immediate common-sense intuition. I would like to make a second post continuing on this strangeness by pointing out something else implicit in the abstraction of pure Nothing as revealed by Hegel. In the Science of Logic, Hegel says the following:
In being, when taken in that simplicity and immediacy, the memory that it is the result of a perfect abstraction, and that it is therefore already abstract negativity, nothing. (§21.86; Cambridge trn.)
Whether a beginning is made with the activity of nothing or with nothing is equally indifferent, for the activity of nothing, that is, the mere abstracting, is neither more nor less true than the mere nothing. (§21.87)
Here, Hegel speaks of the activity of Nothing as equally true as mere Nothing itself. What are we to make of this? The difference and identity of the activity of Nothing and Nothing itself is something I find fascinating, and it has been almost a year since I began trying to comprehend it. Others seem to not have found what Hegel says here of much importance, but I just could not let it go in all this time; it simply seems too important an equivalence to merely skip over as one reads, especially considering how early he is mentioning it.
The result of such an abstraction from everything existent is first of all abstract being, being in general. For just as in the cosmological proof of the existence of God from the contingent being of the world, where we ascend above this contingent being, being is still taken up with us in the ascent; it is determined as infinite being. But of course, one can abstract also from this pure being. Being can be thrown in with the everything from which abstraction has already been made, and then nothing remains. Now, if we want to ignore the thinking of nothing, that is, that it turns around into being, or would know nothing of it, one can indeed proceed in this way in the style of the “one can.” One can (God be praised!) even abstract from nothing (for the creation of the world, too, is an abstraction from nothing). But then, what remains is not nothing, since abstraction would be made even from it and so we would be back at being again. – This “one can” generates an external play of abstraction in which the abstracting itself is only the one-sided activity of the negative. Directly implied in this very “one can” is that being is just as indifferent to it as nothing, and that as the one vanishes, the other appears in turn; but whether a beginning is made with the activity of nothing or with nothing is equally indifferent, for the activity of nothing, that is, the mere abstracting, is neither more nor less true than the mere nothing. (§21.87)
“One can abstract also from this pure being. . . . and then nothing remains. Now, if we want to ignore the thinking of nothing, that is, that it turns around into being, or would know nothing of it, one can indeed proceed in this way in the style of the “one can.” That is to say, in the “one can” as one-sided abstract negative activity towards all content, one can abstract from anything and everything including Being and Nothing themselves despite this making no intelligible sense. To this pure negativity abstracted from all content and self-reflection, all things are indifferent, even Being and Nothing themselves. One must merely consider the absurdity of the self undermining and contradicting claim of the possibility of abstracting even from Being itself, for what would this activity of abstraction itself be apart from its being? Being, as the highest abstraction to the point of indeterminacy, finds itself indifferent to Nothing as an equally high point of indeterminacy. In the process of negation, we first arrive at the highest abstraction of Being, and then an abstraction is made from what normally would be the highest abstraction and posit what ends up being the same abstraction in content, Nothing.
The way the ‘one can’ fails to be a valid way of thinking is that it does not take itself into account. It is the process of abstraction sinking into indeterminacy, to Being and Nothing. It is the activity of Nothing, and as such just as much this Nothing. Abstraction, as absolute activity, first arrives at Being as the result of its abstraction, Being devoid of determinacy and in its activity an empty Nothing. Notice that Nothing is first the engagement of the absolute abstraction, of engaging the content of abstraction—of enacting its abstracting. From Nothing, we find ourselves making a self-abstraction, of abstracting from this empty thinking, of abstracting from abstracting, and this is where Being returns. Abstraction is abstracting’s self-operation, abstracting from abstracting. It is in this sense that the activity of Nothing and Nothing are the same truth: Abstraction is the being of abstracting, just as Being is the being of Nothing, or, Nothing is the being of the activity of Nothing.
The Activity of Nothing
What is the activity of Nothing? Here, Hegel is referring to the process of negation/negativity as the activity of thought abstraction itself. To abstract is to negate, and ‘one can’ play a game of negation/abstraction from everything including Nothing and Being themselves. However, unless we are fools who think we can lie to ourselves, we cannot absolutely abstract anywhere but to Nothing itself, and as the Logic shows, this only immediately puts us in Being, for this Nothing is a thought.
As stated by Hegel right above, Being itself abstracted on its own is in truth abstract negativity, Nothing. What overwhelmingly interests me here is the identity and difference of the result and its process. We normally would think that absolute abstraction, the process of negating all, should indeed lead us to Nothing as the final possible abstraction from all including Being, but in thinking as well as experience it curiously leads us back to the being of this Nothing, and an incapacity to articulate the difference of Being and Nothing in this full abstraction. The activity of Nothing, then, does not produce Nothing in the sense we normally think it is to be conceived as.
Nothing is abstract negativity, or, pure negativity as such if we are to use the same term style along with pure Being. Nothing is thinking, and Being is thought, the memory of thinking.
The Meaning of Opposition
Being and Nothing are opposites. This seems like something quite simple to say; simple to comprehend, but do we actually know what this means? Let’s engage some philosophical etymology.
Having a position on the other or further side of something; facing something, especially something of the same type.
“a crowd gathered on the opposite side of the street”
Diametrically different; of a contrary kind.
“a word that is opposite in meaning to another”
Late Middle English: via Old French from Latin oppositus, past participle of opponere ‘set against.’
Normally, opposition is understood in the second sense, and when people think of Hegelian contradiction, they assume this. Hegel’s dialectics, as can be expected, covers all bases. That which is opposite is radically other, and in this case the complete expected absolute opposite. But…in absolute independent form Nothing and Being cannot actually be opposed. Made clear in the first and second definitions, and implicit in the third, is the necessity for a common ground of that which is opposed. As absolute, neither can be opposed to the other, they share no ground to be at extremes of. Being and Nothing are, however, opposed, and rightly so.
In the Hegelian conception, they are opposed, but this comes at a cost to the intuitive muddle of common sense. Yes, Being and Nothing are opposed. They are set against each other, and they are on opposite sides of one common ground. This common ground can only be at the beginning of the Logic from the immediacy of Being itself.
The Unity of Being and Nothing
Being is a thought—the absolute immediate thought. Thoughts, however, must be engaged in thinking in order to be thoughts and not mere surface names. In the Logic, we find that the engagement of the thought of Being is the engagement of a peculiar experience: empty intuition, or the engagement of empty thinking. Being and Nothing are opposed in the sense of a ‘setting against’ in the difference of thought and thinking, not in the sense of a radical incommensurate content opposition. As a seemingly identical kind, Being and Nothing can be opposed in the bare recognition that they are not the same individual moment of thought.
This empty thinking is Nothing. Nothing, then, is generated first as this activity of Being, the thinking of its thought, the abstracting from abstraction. Empty thinking occurs, then thinking turns upon itself and immediately transforms past thinking into thought—abstracting into abstraction. In this abstraction from the past activity, thinking concretizes the concept as this movement frozen as a whole, and conceives the concept of Nothing.
The link and identity of Being and Nothing is clear: Being is an empty thought, and Nothing is the thought of this emptiness. Being is the immediacy of a thought not yet enacted, Nothing is the memory of this thought enacted. In the turn of thinking of thinking which Nothing is, we find the return to the surface immediacy of Being; thus, Being is revealed to be just as much a memory of Nothing’s activity as Nothing is. Nothing is the truth of Being just as much as Being is the truth of Nothing precisely in the sense that thought and thinking are form and content as one unity, two necessary perspectives of the same thing.
Being is Nothing—they are the thought of an empty thinking; they are abstract negativity in process and result—abstracted because they are generated in a thinking process against determinate existence, closing thought in itself against all determinacy. They are negativity because it is a negation of determinacy.
In the “mere nothing,” there is neither more nor less truth than the activity of Nothing. Nothing itself is in its purity an activity remembered, a thinking which has been. Nothing is, and Being is Nothing. The Absolute is both: a thought and a thinking, Being and Nothing, Substance and subject (activity).