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Heidegger’s hidden sources

May (HSH:) – Nada, Vazio e Clareira

3. Nothing, emptiness, and the clearing

terça-feira 27 de setembro de 2022, por Cardoso de Castro


Para Heidegger  , o topos   que corresponde ao Ser é o Nada  , o tópico primordial de seu pensamento  . A pergunta inicial sobre o ser   do ente recebeu assim uma resposta  , que culmina na fórmula: ‘Ser: Nada: Mesmo’.


1.1 In order to pursue the supposition of further correspondences between Heidegger  ’s thinking and Daoist ideas, we turn to three central topics [Topoi] that are found again and again in his work. [1] Our first concern is with the topos   ‘Nothing’ [das Nichts  ], which runs significantly [wegweisend] through Heidegger’s work like a red thread, and ultimately distinguishes itself from everything else that has been thought and said in Western philosophy about the topic of Nothing.

We shall trace Heidegger’s lines of thinking primarily through formulations that he himself chose with careful consideration. We shall thereby find that to clarify the path of his thinking (Denkweg) he elucidates certain major ideas repeatedly, and in an especially striking way in his later texts, thus interpreting his own work. [2] One should therefore pay close attention to these characteristic elucidations of his major ideas.

We encounter Heidegger’s major guiding [wegweisend] idea   already in the context of ‘the elaboration [and answering] of the question of the meaning of “Being”, in the following formulation: ‘The Being of beings “is” not itself a being’. [3] What is it then, for Heidegger? It is nothing. Heidegger eventually says, ‘Nothing is the characteristic [Kennzeichnung] of Being’. [4] Or, even more clearly: ‘Being: Nothing: Same’. [5]

Heidegger reaches this result over the course of many stages of formulation. On the way, and in reversing the question of Being, as it were, he also deals with (and answers) the question of Nothing. The inquiry into the ‘meaning of Being’, which for him has been forgotten and so ‘still remains’ to be answered (SZ 21, 230), is at the same time an inquiry into Nothing, and into the meaning of Nothing in contrast to the nothingness of nihilism. Thus in both aspects of the inquiry the task of the ‘true overcoming of nihilism’ comes to the fore. [6] Heidegger employs the following formulations, which, when read serially, give unequivocal expression to his conclusions:

Nothingness…reveals itself as belonging [zugehörig] to the Being of beings…. This Nothing [of beings] ‘works’ [west] as Being…. That which is not a being [is] Nothing understood as Being itself. [7]

Supplementing the formulations in Being and Time (21, 35), Heidegger remarks moreover: ‘The essential origin [Wesensherkunft] of the Being of beings has not been properly thought’. [8] By contrast with Being, which for Heidegger is ‘not any kind of being’ (SZ 4), one understands by beings everything ‘that we can in any way mean’. [9] As for Being, he explains: ‘Being “is” no more than Nothing “is”. But it gives [Es gibt  ] both’ (QB 97).w And he later suggests, with reference to the simple expression ‘Being: Nothing’, that ‘it is better to give up the “is” here’ (‘SLT’ 85). As early as 1935 Heidegger expresses a similar thought, though not as clearly as in later formulations: ‘But Being remains untraceable, almost like Nothing, or in the end exactly [ganz] like it…. The Other to it [Being] is only Nothing’ (IM 35/27, 79/60).

In the course of striving to clarify his understanding of Being and Nothing in the 1969 Le Thor seminar, Heidegger supplements the older formulations from 1946 on with new ones that are basically indistinguishable as far as content is concerned. Some of these we have already seen and can tell from them how superbly Heidegger employs his subtle, productive, and elegant paraphrasing technique. Let us clarify this point by considering a few more examples, which will also help us to understand his thinking better.

In a direct inquiry into Being, Heidegger writes in the ‘Letter on Humanism’: ‘And yet Being—what is Being? It is It itself (BW 210/Wm 162). With respect to Nothing this can be formulated as: ‘Being as Being’ (QB 33; cf. 81f, 89–91).x A later explanatory remark, intended to obviate any misunderstanding, reads as follows: ‘[The idea] that Being is not absolutely for itself [für sich] is diametrically opposed to Hegel’ (‘SLT’ 108). With this Heidegger distinguishes himself from Hegel unequivocally. [10] As for the further difference between Heidegger and the Presocratics (Parmenides   in particular), this would ultimately be as important as that between Heidegger and Hegel. [11]

Heidegger’s position with respect to the context articulated here is quite unique in the Western tradition  . This point is further emphasized by the expressions he uses to describe Nothing in order to assimilate it to other topoi, and yet without affecting or undermining the new sense   of Being and Nothing. He justifies his procedure by way of a detailed and very telling reference to Wilhelm von Humboldt  . On being asked, in the Le Thor seminar, whether his use of old expressions for a new thinking is able to characterize this new thinking adequately—‘How far is it possible to use the same terms both within and outside metaphysics  ?’—Heidegger refers to the last page of On the Way to Language and repeats the citation [of Humboldt] he made there: ‘Another meaning is then installed in the same housing [Gehäuse], something different is conveyed in the same coinage, and a differently graduated train of ideas is indicated according to the same laws of connection’. [12]

In the following passages Heidegger puts ‘presencing’ [Anwesen] in place of ‘Being’ [Sein] and ‘unconcealedness’ [Unverborgenheit] in place of ‘Nothing’ [Nichts] (and vice versa), thereby elucidating the new ‘sense’ of the old ‘housing’:

The enigma   is…‘Being’. For that reason ‘Being’ remains simply the provisional word. Let us see to it that our thinking does not simply follow it blindly. Let us first ponder the fact that ‘Being’ is originally called ‘presencing’, and ‘presencing’ means: to come to and endure   in unconcealedness’. [13]

Presencing occurs [ereignet sich] only where unconcealedness already holds sway. [14]

Nothing belongs…as absence [ab-wesend] to presencing [Being] (QB 87/Wm 241).

Presencing [An-wesen] needs and uses [braucht] the Open of a clearing [Lichtung] (ID 31/19).

To let-presence means: to reveal [Entbergen], to bring into the Open. In revealing there plays a giving, one that in letting-presence [Anwesenlassen] gives presencing, or Being (TB 5/5).

In each case Heidegger substitutes one for the other, ‘Nothing’ for ‘Being’ (and, for ‘Being’, ‘presence’) and vice versa, and thereby effects permanent translations: for ‘Nothing’ now also ‘unconcealedness’, the ‘Open’, and the ‘clearing’. Another term that belongs to this sequence of correspondences is ‘truth’ in the sense of ‘Being’, ‘Nothing’, and ‘unconcealedness’. In Being and Time Heidegger writes, ‘Being and truth “are” equiprimordial’ (SZ 230); while he later also takes ‘Nothing’ and ‘Being’ to be equiprimordial in the formulation: ‘to think that Nothing that is equiprimordially the Same as Being’. [15]

These kinds of obvious correspondences, which are easily to be found throughout Heidegger’s work and represent essential factors in its design, always concern his major thought, namely ‘Nothing’, which constitutes unmistakably (as we have seen already in the case of Being and Time) the ‘meaning of Being’. Thus Heidegger makes a clear distinction between this idea and what he calls ‘empty nothing’ [16] or also nugatory nothing [das nichtige Nichts]. By contrast: ‘This [true] Nothing…is nothing nugatory [nichts Nichtiges]. It belongs to presencing [Being]. Being and Nothing are not given beside one another. Each uses itself on behalf of the other in a relationship whose essential richness we have hardly begun to ponder’ (QB 97/Wm 247).

These interpretations of ‘Nothing’ have, for Heidegger, nothing to do with nihilism as it has been understood so far (since Nietzsche  ); their aim is rather the overcoming of nihilism. There can be no misunderstanding here, since Heidegger states as early as 1935 what nihilism means for him, namely: ‘to concern oneself only with beings in forgetfulness of Being’ (IM 203/155). The overcoming [Überwindung]—or, as he puts it later, the Denken?’, in VA 2:16; QB 77; ID 31; ‘Time and Being’, in On Time and Being, translated by Joan Stambaugh (New York 1972), 1–24, 5; Brief an Richardson (1962), in William J. Richardson, SJ, Heidegger: Through Phenomenology to Thought (The Hague, 1963/1974), xxi. ‘getting over’ [Verwindung] [17]]—of nihilism is then characterized as follows: ‘To press the inquiry into Being expressly to the border of Nothing and to incorporate it [Nothing] into the question of Being’ (IM 203/155). In this context Heidegger provides again in 1963 a highly informative self-interpretation in a letter to a Japanese colleague (as he had done in the ‘letter’ to Ernst Jünger   in 1955 [QB 97/Wm 247]), which deals with the misunderstandings to which his major idea of ‘Nothing’ has been subject. He takes his characterization of the human being as ‘place-holder [Platzhalter] of Nothing’ [18]] as a point of departure for the following clarification:

That lecture [‘What Is Metaphysics?’ (1929)] which was translated into Japanese as early as 1930, was understood immediately in your country, in contrast to the nihilistic misunderstanding of what was said [about Nothing] which is prevalent to this day in Europe. The Nothing that is talked about there refers to that which in relation to what-is [das Seiende] is never any kind of being, and ‘is’ thus Nothing, but which nevertheless determines what-is as such and is thus called Being. [19]

A presentation of elements in Heidegger’s texts can thus show that he thinks Nothing (with repeated elucidations) in such a way that, unlike in the West, it is immediately understood in Japan. [20] And yet a non-Western source for such thinking has presumably not been considered over there. [21]

This much is now clear: for Heidegger, the topos that corresponds to Being is Nothing, the primary topic of his thinking. The initial question concerning the Being of beings has thereby received an answer, one that culminates in the formula: ‘Being: Nothing: Same’ (‘SLT’ 101). This Nothing is obviously no nugatory nothing: it is rather the ‘Nothing of [von] Being [Seyn]’, [22] an essential Nothing, a real Nothing. In other words: ‘Even Nothing “belongs” for us to “Being” (IM 85/64).


[1There are good grounds for talking of topoi in this context, in so far as Heidegger’s major ideas are appropriately understood as places along a way, as topoi on the path of his thinking. See Otto Pöggeler, ‘Sein als Ereignis’, Zeitschrift für Philosophische Forschung 13 (1959):597–632, who understands Heidegger’s later thinking especially in the sense of a ‘topology’ (630). See also Pöggeler’s Martin Heidegger’s Path of Thinking (Atlantic Highlands 1987), esp. 257, note 57.

[2See Friedrich Wilhelm von Herrmann, Die Selbstinterpretation Martin Heideggers (Meisenheim am Glan 1964), 5–9.

[3Sein und Zeit [henceforth ‘SZ’], 1, 6. Subsequent references to this text will be to the standard text published by Niemeyer, since the pagination of this edition is given in the margins of both the English translation by Macquarrie and Robinson, Being and Time, and the Gesamtausgabe edition (GA2).

[4‘Seminar in Le Thor, 1969’ [henceforth ‘SLT’], in Vier Seminare (Frankfurt a.M. 1977), 64–109, 101.

[5‘SLT’ 101, 99. See also ‘Was ist Metaphysik?’ (in GA 9), 115, note c, 106, note b; ‘The Age of the World Picture’, in QT 154; Martin Heidegger im Gespräch, ed. Richard Wisser (Freiburg/Munich 1970), 75.

[6An Introduction to Metaphysics [henceforth ‘IM’], translated by Ralph Mannheim (New Haven/London 1959), 203; Einführung in die Metaphysik, 155.

[7‘What Is Metaphysics?’, in BW 110/Wm 16–17; compare IM 85/64; ‘Nachwort zu: “Was ist Metaphysik?’”, in Wm 99–108, 101–2; ‘Introduction to “What Is Metaphysics?”’, in Walter Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (New York 1957), 207–21, 221/‘Einleitung zu: “Was ist Metaphysik?”’, in Wm 195–211, 211.

[8‘Was heisst Denken?’, in Vorträge und Aufsätze [henceforth ‘VA’] (Pfullingen 1954), 2: 3–17, 17.

[9Friedrich Wilhelm von Herrmann, Hermeneutische Phänomenologie des Daseins: Eine Erläuterung von ‘Sein und Zeit’, vol. 1 (Frankfurt aM 1987), 68.

[10Heidegger had already emphasized the belonging together of Nothing and Being, which do not, in contrast to the Hegelian conception of thinking, ‘come together [thanks to their] indefiniteness and immediacy’ (‘What is Metaphysics?’, in BW 110/Wm 17). See also IM 85/64.

[11Ernst Tugendhat has distinguished Hegel’s language from Heidegger’s in this respect and has articulated the significant differences—with respect to Parmenides as well (‘Das Sein und das Nichts’, in Durchblicke—Martin Heidegger zum 80. Geburtstag [Frankfurt a.M. 1970], 132–61, 156–60, 134–46.) There can be no doubt that Heidegger also wanted to distinguish himself from the German mystics of the Middle Ages and succeeded in so doing, even though there are distinct resonances with them here and there.

[12‘SLT 87–8; referring to the end of ‘The Way to Language’, in WL 136/US 268. Von Humboldt, On Language 87/‘Ueber die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues’, 472 (Akademie-Ausgabe 7:93); translation modified.

[13‘Logos’, in Early Greek Thinking, translated by David Farrell Krell and Frank A. Capuzzi (New York 1975), 59–78, 78. Compare ‘What Are Poets For?’, in PLT 93; ‘Was heisst

[14‘Was heisst Denken?’, in VA 2:16.

[15QB 101/Wm 249. See also QB 99/Wm 248, where Heidegger asks in typical fashion: ‘Why is it…that “this Nothing”—that is, Being with regard to its essence [Wesen]—is not primarily given any thought?’ Compare the ‘Letter on Humanism’, in BW 219, 223/Wm 169–70, 174.

[16Identity and Difference, 39/28. Compare QB 35/Wm 214.

[17QB 103, 109/Wm 250, 253. [The English translation is highly misleading here, in so far as it renders Verwindung as the ‘restoration’ rather than ‘getting over’ of the forgetfulness of Being and nihilism.

[18‘What Is Metaphysics?’, in BW 108/Wm 15. [Krell renders Platzhalter des Nichts as ‘lieutenant of the nothing’.

[19‘Briefwechsel mit einem japanischen Kollegen’ (1963), in Begegnung: Zeitschrift für Literatur, Bildende Kunst, Musik und Wissenschaft (1965):2–7, 6. [Also in ‘JH’.] In Heidegger’s pseudo-dialogue (1959)—see Chapter 2 above—there is a corresponding passage that is, in parts, almost identical, and which is equally relevant to the question of influence: ‘—I: Emptiness is thus the same as Nothing, namely, that essential presencing [jenes Wesende] that we try to think as the Other to everything that is present or absent.—J: Certainly. That is why we in Japan immediately understood the lecture “What Is Metaphysics?” when it reached us by way of a translation in 1930 attempted by a Japanese student who was attending your lectures at the time.—We are still amazed that the Europeans could misinterpret the Nothing discussed in that lecture in a nihilistic way. For us emptiness [this is Heidegger’s ‘Japanese’ speaking] is the highest name for that which you would like to speak of with the word “Being’” (WL 19/US 108–9).

[20For the time being, it is irrelevant whether this contention rests simply on Heidegger’s own opinion or else goes back to reliable and verifiable testimony from the Japanese themselves.

[21Especially important for our investigation is The Question of Being (‘Zur Seinsfrage’) from 1955, which presumably originated during the same period as the ‘Conversation’, in so far as Heidegger makes significant mention of ‘East Asian’ language just before the end of that text (QB 107/Wm 252).

[22SZ (GA 2) 10, footnote a. [This footnote, which is not in the Niemeyer edition, reads: ‘Dasein: als Hineingehaltenheit in das Nichts von Seyn, als Verhältnis gehalten’.] Compare von Herrmann, Hermeneutische Phänomenologie des Daseins, 74, who notes that the ‘y’—spelling indicates ‘that Being…is here being thought in the way of being [Wesen] (and holding sway [Walten]) that is proper to it’.