The Fear of Nothingness in the West

I’ve started work on a paper, “The Fear of Nothingness in the West,” that will be part of a forthcoming collection titled Monograph on Zero. This monograph is part of an ongoing project by the ZerOrigIndia Foundation, which seeks to understand the historical origins of the concept of zero.

My contribution is intended as a contrast to other papers in the collection that focus on the Eastern origins of zero. Why is it that the concept of zero did not emerge – and in fact was resisted – in the West? Perhaps it has to do with the assumptions embedded in the thoughts of the first Western philosophers: the Presocratics.

Abstract: The Fear of Nothingness in the West, by John Marmysz

The fear of nothingness has deep roots in the West. Whereas Eastern “emptiness” is commonly associated with spiritual peace and creative potential, in the West, nothingness is more commonly associated with complete nonexistence, oblivion and the extinction of all value and meaning. In this regard, Westerners have traditionally conceived of nothingness as a dreadful and terrifying lack; something to be overcome and defeated rather than something to be embraced.

The roots of the Western fear of nothingness can be traced at least as far back as the Presocratics and their philosophical efforts to conceptualize an eternal, immutable, uncreated and stable substance out of which all things emerge. Despite the varied and ephemeral nature of the world’s appearances, the Presocratics suggested that there remains something stable, permanent and dependable underneath it all. Whether it be Thales’ claim that “all is water,” Anaximander’s claim that the universe arises from “Apeiron,” or Democritus’ assertion that everything comes from atoms, the strategy pursued by these ancient Greek thinkers served to offer the comfortable assurance that our cosmos has a steady and knowable foundation. The universe ultimately rests on one “thing” rather than on nothing at all.

In setting this precedent, the Presocratics influenced later Western philosophers, whose concerns concentrated on establishing fixed and substantial foundations for the world, while also repudiating systems of thought emphasizing the primacy of nothingness. Such systems came to be criticized as “nihilistic”; a moniker intended to highlight negativity and meaninglessness. It is only in recent times that Western thinkers have started to reassess this appraisal, coming to find something life-affirming in nihilism and in the experience of nothingness itself.

This paper examines nihilism and the fear of nothingness in Western philosophy, from its origins in Presocratic philosophy, to its reassessment in contemporary Western thought.

2 thoughts on “The Fear of Nothingness in the West

  1. Hello marmysz,

    You wrote, “Whereas Eastern “emptiness” is commonly associated with spiritual peace and creative potential, —-”

    I have the impression that Buddhism says that: “Every thing is empty.” I tend to interpret
    this statement as meaning that material things like table, chair, sun and moon etc. do not have any real existence and have only relational existence. This is similar to Kant’s transcendental idealism which says that tables and chairs etc. are not things in themselves but are merely appearances which are relative to certain subjects only.

    In this sense Buddhist ’emptiness’ or ‘nothingness’ makes sense to me.

    What do you understand by ‘nothingness’ ?

    • Thanks for your comment.

      I think that there may be different sorts of nothingness. Certainly, the kind that you describe is one sort; that there are “no things” that have independent, substantial existence. All is just appearance.

      Another sort is the “gap” existing between human ideals and actual accomplishment. This sort of “nothing” is, I think, particularly productive insofar as it provides a kind of opening or space that allows for ongoing aspiration and human striving. So long as this gap exists, there remain things to be done.

      This second kind of “nothing” is the kind of thing that Buddhists want to overcome and eliminate.

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