Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Apropos of Nothing

What is the content of the idea of nothing? Or, to put it in more indirect terms: how can we think of (say things about, post about) nothing at all?

One view (that of Malebranche) is that what we call 'nothing' is actually the general idea of being. Paradoxical, of course, but the idea is this: when we talk about 'nothing' what we are actually talking about is just the fuzzy notion of being in general in contrast to a clearer perception of something in particular. 'Nothing' on this view is, in a sense, a relatively vague something.

Another view is that nothing is not an object of thought; rather, it is a word that indicates, indirectly, a mental action, one of removal or negation: I have an idea of something and I remove it, and this general sort of thing (the combination of having an idea and eliminating it) involves something being missing. 'Nothing' on this view simply indicates the elimination or removal of something (from something).

Both of these views require one to hold that it is inconceivable for there to be nothing whatsoever. In other words, on both these views "Something exists" is necessary (in the sense that we cannot possibly make genuine sense of its being false). I wonder if there is any account of 'nothing' such that 1) we are able to think of it; and 2) it allows for "Something exists" to be conceivably false? It would have to be an account that a) makes 'nothing' a non-relative term; and b) makes it thinkable. This is a tall order; and I suspect it is impossible, although I have no clear argument for that impossibility.

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