Sam asked:

Hi, I’m struggling to understand what Heidegger means by ‘Dasein’ and it’s (our) relationship to nothing. What does Heidegger mean by ‘nothing’ in this context?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) is trying to answer the question and is questioning the question of: What is Being? Philosophy has, since Plato, variously defined Being as presence, as substance, as subjective self-awareness and awareness and definition of those objects before human beings. Heidegger is trying to develop a language and thinking that radically departs from this previous Philosophy to ask the question anew to hopefully allow a non-appropriative relation with Being. Hence new terms like Dasein, the Nothing and the various structures of ‘Being in the World’ as found in Being and Time (1927) are used to create a new approach to the most fundamental question and issue of all.

For Heidegger’s contention is that Western Philosophy has drifted away from the insights of the pre-Socratic Greeks into Being. It’s trajectory has not only buried the question — a question borne of wonder, it has facilitated the ascendancy of technicist thinking and doing so much so, that Being and beings have been relegated to what merely can be utilised and exploited by human beings. So much so that modern humanity is threatened by the prospect of nuclear war and perhaps in our own time, ecological collapse. Moreover, scientistic narratives liken and limit human beings as little more than complex machines, that the brain is an ‘advanced computer’ , that we are our genes and the like. This thinking is, according to Heidegger, the consequence of Western Philosophy.

So from Being and Time onwards, Heidegger is attempting to rethink the question of Being. One approach is found in his ‘What is Metaphysics?‘ (1929).

The Nothing

Science dismisses Philosophy and the Nothing which is inherent to it. As the Nothing cannot be measured, cannot be placed in a test tube, cannot be subject to verification or falsification; Science dismisses it. Yet Nothing, nothingness is experienced as real phenomena by Dasein. Perhaps Nothingness arises from the negative, from negation as found and practiced in Logic? Heidegger counters that Negation in Logic is presupposed by Dasein’s experience of the Nothing. He explores situations when the Nothing arises. One such situation is that of Anxiety. In this state, one feels ‘ill at ease’ about something indefinite. Within this state, all things -including ourselves- melt into indifference; beings as a whole recede away from Dasein, yet Dasein remains to experience this receding of beings as a whole and their replacement by the Nothing. This ‘melting’ is the nihilating action of the Nothing. So contrary to the quantitative limitations of science, the Nothing is a definite state which presents itself to and is therefore lived by Dasein. The Nothing is not nothing. Consider Sam, the example of expecting something to be in a room you enter. When entering the room, that specific thing you’ve been looking forward to, is not there. It is conspicuous by its absence. The absence is the Nothing and its nihilating action. Yet experiencing the Nothing strangely brings you closer to the expected but absent object.

In experiencing the nothing, Dasein is simultaneously projected back toward beings. This acute contrast allows the appreciation of beings as a whole and, more importantly for Heidegger who is asking the question ‘What is Being? — it facilitates their disclosure or openedness.

The Nothing therefore brings Dasein closer to beings and allows them to reveal themselves, to disclose themselves anew or, perhaps in ways never experienced before. By being held out into the Nothing, Dasein transcends beings as a whole. This transcendence simultaneously compels Dasein back towards beings so as to appreciate beings, what they are, what they mean, how they disclose themselves and this is Being. This experience of the Nothing is one way, one path toward answering the question, What is being?

So contrary to the condescension of science, the Nothing is inherent to Being and to Dasein’s being within Being. As Heidegger writes, it is not about existing in a constant condition of anxiety so as to anticipate being by means of the nihilating act of the Nothing; the Nothing is encountered in other areas of life, of Dasein’s being. Unyielding antagonism, stinging rebuke, galling failure, merciless prohibition, bitter privation, in the creative process (writer’s block?) and a desire to complete the work: all these are examples of the nihilation of the Nothing.

Introduction to Metaphysics

In these above entitled lectures from 1935 but first published in 1959, Heidegger explores the fundamental question of metaphysics. The Nothing is again employed when Heidegger poses the question: ‘Why are there beings at all instead of Nothing?’ He writes that this question can arise in despair, arise in ‘heartfelt joy’ when things are felt and appreciated as if for the first time; and it can arise in boredom when a ‘wasteland of indifferent objects’ loom up before us. The import is again, the astonishment that works upon the fact that there is something in existence rather than nothing. Concentrating upon the contrast between Something and the Nothing makes beings and more importantly, Being explicit. The Nothing serves as a negation, as a springboard by which thinking is thrown back to Being and beings. By this action, it is possible for genuine thinking to be receptive to Being and to ponder it i.e. that there is Something rather than Nothing.