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In many cultures, black is associated with nothing.

With nothing a universal is in everyday language abstract concept called, which has several important aspects. However, it can be disputed whether this bundling of aspects has a common linguistic source or whether some of these are homonyms that can be traced back to incorrect handling of the rules of surface grammar . Different aspects are:

  • The negation particle “not” is used for the linguistic negation of statements or sentence elements.
  • The indefinite pronoun “nothing” means “not anything”, not a thing, not a thing, not the least.
  • The noun phrase "the nothingness" refers to the opposite of being , the negation and absence of being, not being, an absolute void or general indeterminacy.
  • In formal logic , “nothing” occurs exclusively in the form of the so-called negated existential quantifier ( ). This takes account of the fact that “nothing”, in contrast to “nothing”, is not a proper name or a nominator . Therefore z. B. "Nothing exists" (i.e., "It is not the case that something exists") and "Nothing exists" are by no means synonymous .
  • The noun "nothing" can also be related to:
    • Something absent, the presence of which was expected ( nihil privativum )
    • Something inanimate, insignificant, intangible
    • Something that lacks the actual content, the inner being and life, the mere "appearance"
    • Likewise, a person or thing can be labeled as unworthy, insignificant, meaningless and void.

What the substantive uses have in common is that a determination (e.g., value) is irrelevantly small or zero , or a thing whose existence or presence was expected to be found to be fictional or absent.

History of philosophy

The various aspects of the meaning of nothing were not always clearly distinguished in philosophy . Therefore, the question of whether “nothing” can be thought or not - and if so, how - has been pursued in very different ways in the history of philosophy . This question can be dealt with in various philosophical disciplines; “Nothing” can be treated as a topic of metaphysics and ontology (e.g. in Plato , in commemoration of creatio ex nihilo or in Hegel's Metaphysics of the Absolute ), but “nothing” can also be described philosophically as existential experience (e.g. . in Martin Heidegger or Jean-Paul Sartre ), or the traces of “nothing” can be analyzed as philosophical and logical phenomena such as negation or falsehood . Occasionally nothing itself is negated, so the impossibility of nothing in nature is a principle of Aristotle's natural philosophy ( horror vacui ).


Western philosophy has been concerned with the question of nothing since its very first pre-Socratic beginnings. The Greek philosopher Parmenides von Elea treats the subject in the only fragment he has survived, his didactic poem On Nature :

“Well, then I want to announce (you will listen to my word) which paths of research alone are conceivable: the one path that [what is] is and that it cannot possibly not be, that is the path of conviction (because he follows the truth), but the other, that it is not and that this non-being is necessary, this path is (so I tell you) completely inexplicable. Because you can neither recognize what does not exist (it is impracticable) nor express it. "

From these lines the instruction for action can be taken not to concern oneself with the nonexistent and instead to give all attention to the existing alone. For it is impossible to talk about what does not exist, because at the same moment that something is said about it, its being again presupposes. In addition, being and thinking are equivalent: one cannot think about nothing. In this way a definition of the task of science emerges: worthwhile research can have anything on the subject, but not nothing. The saying of Parmenides of Elea is considered to be the first formulation of abstract metaphysical reflection in ancient Greece and serves as a starting point for Plato's dialogue with Sophistes .


Plato relativizes Parmenides' position from absolute nothing. In Sophist's dialogue he defines nothing as the non-existent, and ultimately this in a longer chain of arguments as difference. Five highest categories / ideas are developed, which are irreducible and in which all other ideas participate. By participating in these five ideas, everything else only becomes what it is without being identical to the five ideas. The five ideas are being, calm and movement, identity and diversity. Each of these ideas is identical to itself and participates in the other ideas. The possibility of non-being is opened up by the difference. The idea of ​​rest is identical to itself but different from the other four ideas. She has a share z. B. The idea of ​​being, but it is not the idea of ​​being. The idea of ​​difference thus opens up the possibility of non-being.

Late antiquity and the Middle Ages

In early Christian philosophy, the problem arises when discussing the divine creation : according to Augustine, it can only have occurred ex nihilo , out of nothing, because everything else would not be a creation but merely a transformation. Tertullian differentiates between two ways of speaking a nihilo , 'from nothing', without a cause of its own, and Ex nihilo : nothing as substance ; according to Tertullian, this leads to gnosis . Nikolaus von Kues understands nothing to mean alteritas , the 'otherness' that is specifically designed for a possible being .

Nihil privativum

In the early modern period, a distinction was made between various aspects of nothingness. Under the concept of the nihil privativum , nothing is defined as a specific absence of something or as a lack. This is a logical opposition that assigns the negated a lower ontological status: darkness is only the absence of light, evil is only the absence of good, and so on. This thought, which comes from Platonism , also plays a role in theodicy .

Rationalism: principle of reason

In rationalism , both Leibniz and Wolff defined the principle already formulated by Cicero "Nothing happens without reason" (Latin nihil sine causa fit, De divinatione 2,61) in the principle of sufficient reason as the decisive metaphysical principle. Leibniz says: “[…] nothing happens without a cause or at least a determining reason [raison déterminante], ie something that can serve to justify a priori why something exists rather than not exists and why something exists just as it does in a different way. "Wolff discussed the logical meaning in relation to the concept of nothing as follows:" Where something is present, from which one can understand why it is, there is a sufficient reason ( § 29). Because where there is none, there is nothing from which one can understand why something is, namely why it can really become, and so it has to arise from nothing. Accordingly, what cannot arise out of nothing must have a sufficient reason why it is, as it must be possible in itself and have a cause which can bring it to reality when we talk about things that are not necessary. Since it is now impossible that nothing can become anything, everything that is must also have a sufficient reason why it is. "


In the transcendental analytics of the Critique of Pure Reason , Immanuel Kant added a little consideration at the end of the appendix on the opposition of possibility and impossibility in relation to the categories . Each class of the categories also corresponds to its negation. According to this, "nothing" is to be differentiated according to the category titles quantity, quality, relation and modality into thought things, lack of something, pure intuition or mere form, and absurdity (cf. adjacent table).

Empty concept without object,
ens rations.
Empty object of a concept,
Empty intuition without an object
nihil privativum
ens imaginarium
Empty object without concept,
nihil negativum
Fig .: “Table of the division of the concept of nothing”, representation similar to Immanuel Kant: AA III, 233

The ens rationis is a fiction, a non-contradicting concept of an object that cannot be given in experience (cf. also Noumenon ). It is in 1st place, which in the other tables (the forms of judgment, the understanding concepts) is assigned to quantity, perhaps because no size can correspond to it in perception. The nihil privativum means a deprivation , an absence or a lack of a quality that can be experienced in principle (e.g. darkness as a lack of light), it is in the space reserved for qualities. Kant explains the empty perception without an object using the example of the perception forms space and time; it can be assumed that geometric figures , empty forms, etc. also fall under this term. Here, as under 2, a certain quality is not denied, but something without substance is presented. Since substance falls under the category title of relation, ens imaginarium is located in this place. Finally, there is absurdity or nihil negativum the idea of ​​an object under a contradicting concept or with an impossible shape (such as the Penrose triangle ).

"One sees that the thought thing (n.1) is differentiated from the absurdity (n4) by the fact that the thing must not be counted under the possibilities, because it is merely fiction (although not contradicting), but this is opposed to the possibility, in that the term even cancels itself. But both are empty concepts. In contrast, the nihil privativum (n.2) and ens imaginarium (n.3) are empty data on concepts. If light has not been given to the senses, then one cannot imagine darkness either, and if extended beings have not been perceived, no space can be imagined. The negation as well as the mere form of perception are, without something real, no objects. ”( Immanuel Kant: AA III, 233 ) = KrV B 328


The Nothing is for Hegel the antonym for His . He begins his science of logic with the three determinations “being”, “nothing” and “becoming”. Being, “pure being” should be understood as indefinite immediate. Since pure being is supposed to be indeterminate, it cannot have any quality, no internal complexity of any kind, nor can there exist any relationships to other things or thoughts. The immediacy of pure being emphasizes once again that pure being is not subject to any external conditions, has no cause, but is simply itself. The thought of pure being thus turns out to be completely empty and what is thought in this empty thought is actually nothing. The determinations of pure being and of pure nothing turn out to be the same, and the thought of pure nothing is also identical with the thought of pure being.

"This pure being is now pure abstraction , so that the absolute-negative , which, also taken directly, is nothing ."

- Hegel : Encyclopedia , § 87

The main ideas of this quote are:

  • For Hegel, pure being is “pure abstraction ”.
  • From this quality he suggests that being is the "absolute negative".
  • If being is the absolute negative, then it is nothing.

Trendelenburg and Dilthey

Friedrich Adolf Trendelenburg , in direct opposition to Hegel, denied that pure thinking could create a bridge between being and nothing to become. In this relationship, which is fundamental to Hegel's dialectic, Trendelenburg saw a hidden recourse to the view that Hegel negated or overlooked. “Pure being, equal to itself, is rest; nothing - that which is the same as itself - is rest. How does the moving becoming emerge from the unity of two idle ideas? Nowhere in the preliminary stages is movement pre-formed, without which becoming would only be a being. Since pure being as well as non-being expresses, the next task of thinking, if the unity of the two is to be posited, can consequently only be to find a resting union. But when thinking creates another from that unity, it evidently adds this other and tacitly pushes in the movement in order to bring being and non-being into the flow of becoming. […] Becoming cannot suddenly emerge from being, a granted abstraction, and nothing, a likewise granted abstraction, this concrete view that dominates life and death. ”Trendelenburg's pupil Wilhelm Dilthey referred to in the same way Hegel's system critically states: “But every metaphysics of this kind is directed from the outset by an internal contradiction in its basis. What is beyond our experience cannot even be made plausible by analogy , let alone proven, if the means of justification and proof, the logical connection, the ontological validity and scope are removed. "

Heidegger versus Carnap

After Martin Heidegger's lecture What is metaphysics? “nothing” and “being” belong together. They are not the same, but they are mutually dependent and belong together. Only through “nothing” does “being” reveal itself as a “strangeness” or as the “other”. This "nothing" is clearly noticeable in the "mood" of fear , not in the fear of something specific, but in the deep "fear of" or "because of" hidden within us. Not completely indefinite, but also not comprehensible in words, just the fear of “nothing”. In such a fear everything is indifferent and equally indifferent. Whether table or chair, death or life, it has no relevance. A strange calm pervades you, almost like in the mood of boredom , which is noticeably closest to being, and yet not quite. This small difference, felt by us, between the two moods, again not comprehensible in words, but felt as something “missing”, is “nothing”.

In a prominent way, Rudolf Carnap, as a representative of logical empiricism ( Vienna Circle ) and middle analytical philosophy , accused Martin Heidegger's existentialism of incorrectly using the term "nothing" as if it stood for a certain entity . Rudolf Carnap criticized Heidegger for this point in his essay “Overcoming metaphysics through logical analysis of language”. According to Carnap, the assumption that the term “nothing” has a content is based on a confusion of the logical and grammatical structure of terms and sentences. The analytical philosophy of language tries to show that “nothing” can and must be understood simply as “not something”, so that no such transformation is possible. So your analysis is meant primarily as a critique of metaphysics .

According to Carnap, all sentences about nothing are based on linguistic confusion. The formation of the noun “nothing” is syntactically correct; Sentences that contain the expression, however, fall into the class of senseless sentences, since they have no empirical content and are impossible to verify . The verificationism Although considered as a failed project, Carnap's analysis of Nothing (originally mainly against Heidegger's Being and Time was directed), however, in the analytic philosophy has become the consensus.

Heidegger himself rejected these attacks: From his point of view, it was dogmatic to allow logic and language analysis as the only philosophical methods. His existentialism of 1927 therefore tries to relativize the role of logic and language within the whole of human existence. In his lecture What is Metaphysics? Heidegger held up against logical empiricism that modern sciences were based on logical principles without addressing nothing. As a “philosophy of science”, logical empiricism should therefore be limited to a limited area of ​​knowledge of beings that is accessible to methodical world exploration (science). Heidegger admits that sciences can and must only imagine nothing as the negation of a being, as a lack, which, however, does not do justice to the phenomenological character of nothing as nothing .

Even Richard Hönigswald responded to the handling of the term by Heidegger with a polemical review: "Incomparable as it is, after all, breeds the" nothing "comforting fear spreading by so is an expression of the obvious and just about surprising" annihilated " . “It is therefore more original than the not and the negation.” - However, such insights, as one recognizes on closer inspection, elude any concern. They are, as it were, beyond his conditions and competencies. Because concerns always mean questions; How far questions now reach into the uncanny depths of "nothing" at all cannot be determined in principle. "

Sartre: “Nothing” but freedom

Jean-Paul Sartre defines the human being in his work Das sein and Nothing as the form of being, which brings nothing into reality and thus differs from all other (unconscious) being. From the awareness that man has about the possibility of non-being, he derives the ability to "negate". This means the ability to distance oneself from certain images of the future and the past. Through this ability of negation, man has the freedom to project himself into the future and to detach from the past. This freedom is strengthened, as the human being can also negate the form of his own presence (“I am what I will be”) and is therefore not “dependent” or “fixed” on it. According to Sartre, nothing is freedom that is given to man and that cannot be refused.

Sartre also points out in his work The Being and the Nothing that nothing can actually not be grasped by concepts of being. The transcendental concept of Nothing can be remotely clear, according to Sartre, due to the non-existence of a content such. B. in drawing the line between one moment and the next. If we tried to imagine a limit here, we would not be able to do so and this is exactly where we would find “nothing”.

Bloch: Philosophy of not-yet-being

A differentiated philosophy of nothing can also be found in Ernst Bloch . Under the category of not-yet-being , Bloch sums up the various forms of human experience of lack as an expression of a fundamental nullity of a present, in which, however, tendencies towards a possible, full being are applied.

Derrida: “Nothing” but silence

In his criticism of Foucault's interpretation of the DescartianCogito ”, Jacques Derrida ( Cogito and the story of madness. In: Die Schrift und die Difference ) also defines “nothing”. “Nothing” is the insane indeterminacy beyond the “cogito experience” freed from it, which as a solid basis gives certainty about our own existence, but not beyond it. Because of the essence of “nothing”, it cannot be talked about, since language is an expression of reason which confronts “nothing” and keeps it in check. “Nothing” is revealed only in silence .


The Buddhist term Shunyata ( Sanskrit , Japanese , ) means emptiness or emptiness . Equating Shunyata ( Mahayana ) and Nothing ( Nihilism ) is usually avoided. The Japanese philosopher Nishitani is an exception: through precise knowledge of western and eastern philosophy, a parallel representation of Nihil and Shunyata in existentialist language is possible. In the translation of books that describe exercises in Zen Buddhism , one speaks of nothing . Ideally, this is the practice of a non- existing attachment . The frequently used term nirvana was equated with nothing due to a mistranslation, but means something like 'blown away'.

Hans Waldenfels finds a contradiction in his analysis of nothing:

“When we see that we see nothing, nothing becomes ambiguous in that, where we see nothing, we do see something that we can say. For either the experience of nothingness is the experience of a nihilistic nothingness or the experience of absolute concealment. It is essential for the experience of nothing that we are absolutely unable to decide whether it is one or the other. The ambiguity consequently eludes human manipulation. "

Natural sciences

While in the time of Otto von Guericke and his experiment with the Magdeburg hemispheres, many already considered the absence of air to be nothing, today nobody would regard the vacuum - in the sense of a material-free space - as nothing. Even if it were possible to create a hundred percent vacuum in which there were neither materialless waves nor interacting fields , this space would still not be free of events or matter, since particles and antiparticles are constantly forming and immediately annihilating again. This phenomenon, known as vacuum fluctuation , was experimentally confirmed by the resulting Casimir effect in 1958.

Since the 20th century, the term nothing has been understood to mean the inaccessible absence of any being, including space and time . Today's so-called standard model of cosmology places the creation of space and time in the Big Bang . However, their properties, postulated within the framework of the general theory of relativity , lose their validity as the time approaches the Big Bang, on the threshold of Planck's time . For these reasons, the concept of nothing in the sense of “before the big bang” is not used by today's natural science, but is viewed as physically meaningless. Astronomers and physicists speak of a singularity in connection with the Big Bang .

Mathematics and computer science

  • The number zero is associated with nothing , but negative numbers can also be used as an expression of a lack. According to John von Neumann's set- theoretical model , the natural numbers can be constructed from the empty set and a simple set formation rule. In this model, the empty set that contains no element (= nothing) represents zero, while the one is the set that contains the empty set (= zero). The zero is therefore not nothing, but rather the quantity that contains nothing. In addition, in abstract algebra, the zero denotes the neutral element (zero element) of an additive ( operator plus ) written link , so that each linked element is mapped to itself. On the other hand, an element linked to nothing is not shown at all.
  • In the context of databases , the value of a cell that does not contain a character is called a null value (often represented as “NULL” from English ). The zero value therefore corresponds to nothing in the sense of “no information” and in no way corresponds to the numerical value 0 (= zero or German zero ).
  • In various programming languages , the value zero (sometimes also written NULL or NIL ) is used to express that a pointer variable does not (yet) point to an object.
  • In addition to the terms TRUE and FALSE , the ternary logic of the data manipulation languages ​​also recognizes UNKNOWN for not determined .
  • Non-numeric data require spaces as spacers, also known as SPACE or BLANK . To distinguish them from other invisible characters, text programs offer the option to mark spaces with a period.
Memorial stone to the "NOTHING" in Kyritz

See also


In a 1974 sketch, Ernst Hilbich presented the merits of a schnapps called Nothing. As a result, one was actually brought onto the market, with corresponding slogans on the label ("just tell your wife that you have not drunk anything"). Even today, a caraway with this name is available.


  • Parmenides : fragment on nature. (on-line)
  • Jacques Derrida , Cogito and the story of madness. In: The writing and the difference. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 2000.
  • Thomas Aquinas : About being and essence . Latin - German, with introduction, translation and commentary edited by Horst Seidl. Hamburg 1988.
  • Nothing. In: Walter Brugger , Harald Schöndorf (Hrsg.): Philosophical dictionary . Alber, Freiburg im Breisgau 2007, ISBN 978-3-495-48213-1 .
  • Markus Wirtz: Stories of Nothing. Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger and the problem of philosophical plurality. Alber, Freiburg / Munich 2006, ISBN 3-495-48132-X .
  • Joji Yorikawa: The system of philosophy and nothing. Studies on Hegel, Schelling and Heidegger. Alber, Freiburg im Breisgau 2005, ISBN 3-495-48159-1 .
  • Hisaki Hashi: The dynamics of being and nothing. Dimensions of Comparative Philosophy. Lang, Frankfurt am Main 2004, ISBN 3-631-50561-2 .
  • Ludger Lütkehaus : Nothing. Farewell to being - the end of fear . Haffmans, Zurich 1999. (6th edition. Haffmans bei Zweiausendeins, Frankfurt am Main 2004, ISBN 3-86150-544-4 )
  • Walter G. Neumann: The Philosophy of Nothing in Modernity. Being and nothing in Hegel, Marx, Heidegger and Sartre. The Blue Owl, Essen 1989, ISBN 3-89206-330-3 .
  • Rudolf Carnap: Logical Syntax of Language. Springer, Vienna 1934. (2nd edition. 1968)
  • Henning Genz : The discovery of nothing. Rowohlt, Hamburg 1999, ISBN 3-499-60729-8 .
  • Ute Guzzoni : Nothing. Pictures and examples . Parerga, Düsseldorf 1999, ISBN 3-930450-39-9 .
  • John D. Barrow : The Book of Nothing: Vacuums, Voids, and the Latest Ideas about the Origins of the Universe. Vintage Books. (Reprint: 2002, ISBN 0-375-72609-8 )
  • Marco S. Torini: Apophatic Theology and Divine Nothing. About traditions of negative terminology in occidental and Buddhist mysticism. In: Tradition and Translation. On the problem of the intercultural translatability of religious phenomena. de Gruyter, Berlin et al. 1994, pp. 493-520.
  • Jim Holt : Is there all or nothing? : A philosophical detective story. Translation by Hainer Kober. Rowohlt, Reinbek 2014, ISBN 978-3-498-02813-8 .
  • Fridugisus : De substantia nihili et tenebrarum ( letter on the essence of nothing after 804, commissioned by Charlemagne ; first printed: Lucca 1761)

Web links

Wikiquote: Nothing  - Quotes
Wiktionary: Nothing  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. The Fragments of the Pre-Socratics. Greek and German by Hermann Diels. tape 1 . Berlin 1922, p. 151 ( ).
  2. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: Theodizee. §44; quoted according to the German-French Suhrkamp edition 1999, p. 273.
  3. Christian Wolff: Reasonable Thoughts from God, the World and the Soul of Man, including all things in general. Volume 1, 1738, p. 16 (§ 30)
  4. Immanuel Kant, Collected Writings. Ed .: Vol. 1-22 Prussian Academy of Sciences, Vol. 23 German Academy of Sciences in Berlin, from Vol. 24 Academy of Sciences in Göttingen, Berlin 1900ff., AA III, 233 .
  5. Immanuel Kant, Collected Writings. Ed .: Vol. 1-22 Prussian Academy of Sciences, Vol. 23 German Academy of Sciences in Berlin, from Vol. 24 Academy of Sciences in Göttingen, Berlin 1900ff., AA III, 233  / KrV B 348.
  6. ^ Friedrich Adolf Trendelenburg: Logical investigations. Volume 1, 3rd edition. 1870, p. 38.
  7. ^ Wilhelm Dilthey: Final consideration on the impossibility of the metaphysical position of knowledge. In: Introduction to Spiritual Science. Volume 1 [1883], printed in: Das Wesen der Philosophie. Reclam, Stuttgart 1984, p. 138.
  8. Richard Hönigswald: Basic questions of epistemology. Tübingen 1931. (newly published: Meiner, Hamburg 1997, p. 62)
  9. Hans Waldenfels: Fascination of Buddhism. To the Christian-Buddhist dialogue. Matthias Grünewald Verlag, Mainz 19982, ISBN 3-7867-0988-2 , p. 35
  10. [1] Ernst Hilbich in on churning
  11. Karl Maurer: Around 800: Charlemagne orders that the heroic songs handed down in the national language be recorded in his palace school in Aachen. In: A new history of German literature. Berlin University Press, Berlin 2007, ISBN 978-3-940432-12-4 , p. 35.