A term referring to that which is opposed to that which is not–or, to non-being. However, it is not that simple for some philosophers, especially the existentialists Sartre and Heidegger (in his earlier work).
Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) penned a ponderous tome called Being and Nothingness, which covers the waterfront nicely. Of course, most philosophers are more concerned with being than nothingness, since if you have being that is all you need. Sartrean existentialism loses its oomph if nothingness is removed from it. But since nothing is nothing, then nothing would—or could—be removed. Still, it is easier to sell a book called Being and Nothingness than to sell one called simply Being.
Buddhist philosophers often write books about nothing (or Nothing), though, since that is roughly what Nirvana is. However, the Buddhist Nothing seems to be more of a something than Sartre’s Nothing. But of this, I have nothing more to say.
Some may be surprised to learn that Sartre was a closet theologian, who believed in creation ex nihilo, or ex nihilo at least. Having chased God out of his life (as he himself once put it), he could not invoke God as the Creator of all else. Instead God’s role was filled by (you guessed it) Being—or was it Nothingness? This is the rather dry narrative.
Always, there was Being. There was, and is, no reason for Being. At first, Being was alone, the being in-itself—sans consciousness and worries over non-being. Then, for no reason, being-for-itself arose or immerged. That is you and me, anxious beings who would eventually claw away to understand Sartre (and, see below) Heidegger. Being for itself defines itself in relation to non-being. As such, it tries to attain what is now nothing, but could turn into being with proper anxiety and existential crises. Thus being for-itself defines itself against Nothing, having sprung from the loins of being-in-itself.
My reader may wonder how this resembles creation ex nihilo. You see, the for-itself came from the in-itself; but the for-itself has nothing (that blasted word again) in common with the in-itself. Therefore, it comes out of nothing. In other (analytical) words:
- The for-itself differs categorically from the in-itself
- The in-itself proceeds the for-itself.
- The in-itself and the for-itself are not on speaking term. That is, they have nothing in common
- If (1)-(3), then something (the for-itself) comes from nothing, ex nihilo
- There is no possible explanation for how this occurs, says our frowning Sartre while hunched over a table in a French café sipping coffee and surrounded by adoring For-itselves eager to know about being and nothingness.
- Nevertheless, something cannot come from nothing. Nothing ever could.
- Therefore, Sartre’s account of being and nothingness, of the in-itself and the for-itself is (hold your breath) false.
Now let us consider a frowning German, Martin Heidegger (1976), whose prose has generated a vast and unending secondary literature for his intrepid interpreters.
Once upon a time, according to the Great Being-teller—in halcyon times preceding Greek fussiness over logic—men walked with Being alone. This, for Martin, was better than simply being alone. They could commune with Being. Then, logic ruined everything, except the logic of Heideggarian Being, offered—appropriately enough—by Herr Heidegger.
This is so weighty, that a film was made called, “Being There” (1979), starring Peter Sellers. “Rotten Tomatoes,” has given this a 96% for what it’s worth. But Sellers’s character, “Chancy Gardener,” lacks gravitas, being who and what he is. Who is he? A being estranged from Being, who derives all his information from television. His being in light of Being is pointless.
Can we clear the air and start anew? Perhaps we can.
In the beginning was not the nothing, but the Word. All things, being-in-itself and for-itself, were created by the Word, who is a He, not an It. That is, everything comes from someone (John 1:1-5). This bedevils existentialist atheists, but is true, nonetheless.
Therefore, all being has its origin and owes its continuation to a Supreme Being, who is the perfect form of being in-itself and being for itself. This means that this Being, being who he is, suffers no conflicts with non-being. Of himself, he says “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14). God he has consciousness and exercises agency with respect to the being he has created (Genesis 1:1; Psalm 90:2; Revelation 4:11).
Come, let us now laud the Supreme Being with all of our created being. He answers our philosophical problems and gives us meaning. For this is how things stand with the Supreme Being and beings.
Praise the LORD, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name (Psalm 103:1, NIV).