How a debate over 'nothing' split Western philosophy apart

In 1929, a disagreement over the meaning of "nothing" exposed deep divisions in Western philosophy, and erupted into a debate over the nature of philosophy itself — and a question that remains unresolved to this day: is philosophy more art, or science?

'Why are there beings at all instead of nothing? That is the question,' said philosopher Martin Heidegger

In 1929, German philosopher Martin Heidegger gave a lecture at the University of Freiburg. He spoke at length — poetically and densely — about nothing. Many were enthralled by his talk, but scientist-philosopher Rudolf Carnap thought his talk of nothing, added up to… nothing. (Shutterstock / Jared Romanowicz)

"Nothing," it turns out, is really quite something. As in the concept of nothingness. So much so, that in the 1920s, a debate about "nothing" between two philosophers led to a lasting schism in Western philosophy. 

The two thinkers were Martin Heidegger and Rudolf Carnap. On the one hand, Heidegger plays with language in an attempt to talk about nothing. On the other, Carnap claims the dictates of logic reduce any talk of nothing to nonsense. And their conflicting views on nothing catalyzed what's now known as the 'continental-analytic split' in philosophy.

The clash between Heidegger's playfulness with Carnap's logic raises some big questions: just what is philosophy? Is it closer to art or science? And can anything be done to bridge the chasm opened by Heidegger and Carnap?

Speaking of nothing…

People have been talking about nothing for centuries. The ancient Greek thinker, Parmenides, believed that we can neither speak nor think about nothing, because there is literally nothing to speak or think about! He famously said: "It is necessary to say and think what is; for being is and nothing is not." 

According to Parmenides, Being is like a sphere. (Wikimedia)

Parmenides' phrasing may sound strange, but his point is simple: we usually talk about things that exist, say, tables and chairs, or our friends and family. So it seems odd to think that 'nothing' — an absolute absence — somehow exists.

Take the mythical city of Atlantis, for example. As Denis McManus at the University of Southampton suggests: 

"Someone might say that 'Atlantis has sunk beneath the Atlantic Ocean.' But what is that statement about? Well, it's about Atlantis. But then there's no such thing. So, how can a statement have meaning, when there is no such thing as the thing it is about?" 

Parmenides is asking rhetorically if we can meaningfully talk about nothing. His unequivocal answer: it makes no sense to speak about "nothing" as if it were a thing.

Heidegger on 'nothing'

Heidegger is aware of the puzzle inherent in talking about "nothing" as if it were a thing. However, he believes there's more to existence than tables and chairs and other concrete things, and he illustrates this belief by depicting the limits of empirical science.

"Science," Heidegger says, "is concerned solely with beings — and nothing further." But this viewpoint suggests science overlooks the way beings show up for us in the context of meaningful human activity. 

As Heidegger playfully puts it: "For human existence, the nothing makes possible the manifestness of beings."

For philosopher Martin Heidegger, 'nothing' was a key part of what it means to be human. (Shutterstock / German Vizulis)

For example, a physicist can tell us the atomic mass of gold: it's 196.96. Yet gold only strikes the physicist as a thing with its specific atomic mass in the context of conducting research in a laboratory. Heidegger claims that the research activities that happen in a laboratory are not things. They're not concrete. They are no-thing, so they cannot be analyzed through the mathematical or empirical methods that scientists apply to gold or any other concrete thing.

Since the methods of science are ill-suited to analyzing meaningful human activity, Heidegger needs to find other ways to describe the "no-thing-ness" of human existence, and he does so by contrasting our ordinary life with our anxiety about it.

How close do you think philosophers should be to scientists? Are we doing careful, piecemeal study in a laboratory? Or are we more like modernist painters? - Sacha Golob, reader in philosophy

When a carpenter walks into her workshop, for instance, her hammer, tape-measure, and skill-saw ordinarily show up as meaningful tools that she can use to build a house. Yet in a moment of anxiety about her career as a carpenter, her hammer, tape-measure, and skill-saw no longer appear as meaningful equipment to be used for a particular purpose.

As Sacha Golob at King's College London explains: "When we ask ourselves; 'what's the point of all this?', the world around us starts to seem kind of valueless. We lose our grip on things. And Heidegger thinks this existential anxiety points to the 'no-thing-ness' of our everyday activities."

'One of the beauties of philosophy on both sides of the divide is the ability to create enormously interesting stuff out of nothing,' Sacha Golob tells IDEAS. (Submitted by Sacha Golob )

Ironically, the fact that things lose their meaning in a moment of existential questioning helps us see that hammers, skill-saws, and other things only count for us in the context of meaningful human activity.

And since anxiety reveals the "no-thing-ness" of human existence in a way that a scientific analysis of things cannot, Heidegger reaches a conclusion that demotes logic from its exalted status, claiming that: "The idea of 'logic' itself disintegrates in the turbulence of a more originary questioning."

Carnap on nonsense

Carnap was unimpressed by Heidegger's account of human existence and his demotion of logic. And in the spirit of Parmenides, Carnap developed a rigorous analysis of language that explained why Heidegger's talk of nothing was utter nonsense.

According to Carnap, "the meaning of a statement lies in its method of verification."  And there are two ways to test the meaningfulness of a statement: logically and empirically.

Logically, we can see whether a given statement is meaningful or not, by seeing whether it amounts to a tautology or a contradiction. Normally we think of both terms as being mistakes, things to be avoided.

But for Carnap, they're essential, as they allow us to test the relationships within a statement. It's tricky territory, but consider this statement: "All bachelors are unmarried men." It's a tautology in the good sense because the subject, bachelors, is synonymous with "unmarried men."  One thing follows from the other — they match up, so it's meaningful.

Rudolf Carnap approached philosophy like a scientist — everything must be verifiable. He was associated with a philosophical movement known as Logical Positivism. (Wikimedia)

Or take this statement: "All bachelors are married men." It's obviously a contradiction, as bachelors can't by definition be married. But that inconsistency is what makes this statement meaningful: we can demonstrate that it's wrong. We can verify it.

Empirically, we can compare an assertion with a known set of facts. The statement that "gold has an atomic mass of 196.96: can be tested against actually measuring a physical thing in a laboratory. And since we can verify empirical assertions like this one by matching them up with relevant facts, empirical statements are also meaningful.

The debate over "nothing" really heats up when Carnap applies his 'verification principle' to a series of Heidegger's assertions, including "anxiety reveals the nothing," "we know the nothing," and "the nothing itself nothings." Since these assertions are neither tautologies nor contradictions, and since statements about "nothing" can't be compared with empirical facts, Carnap calls all of Heidegger's assertions "meaningless pseudo-statements."

In fact, Carnap's criteria for the meaningful use of language is so strict that only scientists seem able to meet it.  But Carnap's strict account of meaningfulness presents him with a problem. A massive one.

As Denis McManus put it: "If the metaphysical and moral statements that philosophers make are characteristically meaningless, then how and why have people been engaging in apparently substantive metaphysical and moral discussions for at least 2500 years?"

'The kinds of attitudes you see at work in this [1929] debate between Carnap and Heidegger are still very much alive,' says Denis McManus. (Submitted by Denis McManus )

Carnap responds to this concern by maintaining that metaphysical and moral talk is meaningless, but he does believe that metaphysical and moral discourse serves as "the expression of the general attitude of a person towards life [italics in original]." 

The upshot is that Carnap thinks Heidegger and most philosophers throughout history are more like artists than scientists, albeit with the not-so-sly Carnapian snipe that "metaphysicians are musicians without musical ability." 

The continental-analytic split

The rift between the two thinkers widened into what's now generally known as the 'continental-analytic split' in Western philosophy. 

Analytic philosophy took its cue from Carnap, and its approach to philosophy is scientific: analytic philosophers use logic, statistics, and other formal methods to solve technical problems in abstract subdisciplines like metaphysics, epistemology, and the philosophy of language.

Continental philosophy is more of a long-running conversation between and among philosophers past and present. Like Heidegger, continental philosophers think there are serious limits on any scientific approach to philosophy. And unlike Carnap, they see no problem drawing equally upon logic and literature to address metaphysical and moral issues ranging from the meaning of being to the history of sexuality.

Golob captures the nature of the continental-analytic split nicely when he asks: "How close do you think philosophy should be to literature? How close do you think philosophers should be to scientists? Are we doing careful, piecemeal study in a laboratory? Or are we more like modernist painters?"

And Golob goes on to say that the continental-analytic divide amounts to "deeply different visions for philosophy, and these divisions reflect our deep differences as people."

While the gap between continental and analytic philosophy has narrowed in recent years as philosophers trained in one culture have started reading work produced in the other, the rift opened by Heidegger and Carnap remains just that: a rift. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. 

As Golob says: "one of the beauties of philosophy on both sides of the divide is the ability to create enormously interesting stuff out of nothing."

Guests in this episode:

Denis McManus is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southampton. He is the author of The Enchantment of Words: Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Sacha Golob is a reader in philosophy at King's College London. He is the author of Heidegger on Concepts, Freedom, and Normativity

* This episode was produced by Matthew Lazin-Ryder and Aaron James Wendland. Aaron is Vision Fellow in Public Philosophy at King's College London, and a Senior Research Fellow at Massey College, Toronto.

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