Through (No)thing We Know

(Essay) Nihilism, (No)thingness, the (In)animate, and the (Un)rational

Image for post
Image for post

We understand things in the world through what they are not: we understand what constitutes a cat through the idea of a cat, yet a cat is not its idea. Additionally, our ideas necessarily must be incomplete: when thinking about a given cat, it is impossible for me to think about every single detail that constitutes that particular cat. I consider “a cat” through “cats,” per se, and if I try to particularize it into “Sushi” (my cat), I try to make the entity less abstract through a word the thing is not. And yet without the word, without the abstraction, my understanding of the thing would be even poorer. Unless that is my idea is utterly wrong; then, perhaps it would be better if I only silently stared at the creature, perceived it, and nothing more.

Audio Summary

Ideas are always general, abstractions, simulations — things that are incomplete. This is the case even when thinking about myself, for I cannot possibly think about everything about me at once: if I’m considering what I like, I’m not considering how my liver works; if I’m considering what I want to do today, I’m not considering the bones in my fingers. I know myself through what never fully captures me. At best, I can try to capture x about me, then y, then x, one at a time, and then try to stitch them all together into a whole, but unfortunately I am always changing through time, and so by the time I stitch x and y together, x has changed.

Music for Reading

I know through failure. Ideas are never identical to what they refer, though that does not mean they are useless; in fact, they are necessary. However, to the degree they are useful is likely much less than we usually realize. When we think about a cat, the idea naturally strikes as a complete capturing of the thing when it almost certainly is not: the experience of ideas is self-deceptive, often providing a sense of control and “capturing” that is illusionary. Of course, we couldn’t function if we thought of ideas as incomplete, and hence the very nature of things contributes to us making the mistake of “practically believing” that “ideas are identical with their things.” In having to act to be, we must practically believe signifiers are what they signify. We can only avoid this mistake by stepping out of practice and thinking, but its impossible to avoid action entirely. Hence, we must all constantly and regularly “practically believe” what isn’t true: we must practically brainwash ourselves.

To remove one’s self from action is to place one’s self in a condition in which contemplation is possible, and thus the meditation upon ideas independent of things. In this state (a state which thinkers are more likely to occupy than doers), it is possible to be “toward” ideas separate from things. But problematically, in ideas being ontologically different from things, to be in this state is to be “toward” a kind of and/or relative nothingness. To think about the world while in a world is to be toward “the idea of the world,” which is strangely both there and not, real and yet not real. It is (no)thing.

There is no such thing as nothing: to refer to nothing is to refer to something. The term “nothing” is always about a relation, an orientation, a sentiment, or a something of a thing. Hence, when we say ideas are nothing, we cannot mean it: we must mean “ideas are not like other things;” when we say “I feel nothing,” we must mean “I am internally still while my hand rests on my lap and feels my leg;” when we say “you mean nothing to me,” we mean “you are not a significant reality.” When it comes to ideas, when we say “they are a kind of nothing,” we mean “they are not there,” tangibly in front me. They are somewhere else, somewhere that relative to what’s there (in the world) they aren’t. They “aren’t things in the world;” rather, they are “(no)thing(s).” They are things that in themselves say “no, I am not here,” proving in speaking that they are somewhere else.

In addition to realizing the problem of certainty, this all may suggest why thinkers are prone to be nihilists. In constantly thinking, they are constantly toward “(no)things,” and thus habituating themselves to (no)things. Our habits dramatically shape our feelings, and if we are always thinking and not balancing it with doing (to make reality an “is-ness/meaning” to us, not just an “is-ness” (meaningless) or “meaning” (disembodied), as will be expounded on), then we are habituating ourselves to be “toward” a world that “is (no)thing” (very close and hard to define in experience from “nothing”). In this state, it becomes very easy to say “the world is nothing” and think your sentence applies to the physical world, because the world you are always “toward” is “the world of (no)thing” that overlays it (invisibly, as if not there).

Ideas change instantly, are evanescent, hard to pin down — they thus in their attributes are like things that aren’t the things in the world. Since the world is experienced as all there is, the fact ideas are like this makes them seem like nothings (as opposed to (no)things). Two people can easily stare and touch the same tree, but transferring an idea between people perfectly, without anything being lost, is very difficult. I can throw a ball to a friend, but I cannot throw my idea of a ball. These differences in characteristics may also contribute to thinking of ideas as nothings (versus (no)things), increasing the likelihood that thinkers always “toward” them feel like anything the thinker could be “toward” would be nothing — an easy mistake, considering how ideas are experienced as if they are what they overlay (and hence everywhere).

II

As discussed in “Is-ness/Meaning” by O.G. Rose, things in reality are each an “is-ness/meaning:” the meaning and is-ness are never in things divided. But thought necessarily splits them, for the mind is sequential, incapable of thinking of a thing simultaneously as both x and y (yes, the mind can think of a thing as x and then y, but not as x/y). A cat is x while the idea of a cat is y, yet since the idea strikes as similar to the thing, we tend to think that pondering x is also pondering y and vice-versa (that to think about a thing is not to be caught in a situation of trying to think a “x/y,” but only an x or a y). This leads to confusion, to us thinking that to engage in thought is to engage in an “unveiling act” as opposed to an “(un)veiling act,” an act that both makes a thing intelligible while at the same time concealing its entirety. We cannot think about a flower and think everything about it at once, and so the “idea of the flower” is what makes it possible for the flower to be meaningful to us, but only because the entirety of the flower is left out. But the idea presents the meaning as if it were the entirety, and thus we can easily come to think of thoughts as entities that (entirely) “unveil” as opposed to “(un)veil.”

Though the full argument of “Is-ness/Meaning” will not be repeated here, what a thing “is” (to me) cannot be divided from what it “means” (to me). As discussed in “Ironically” by O.G. Rose, if I look into a room and say “bring me that chair,” I am defining the entity referred to by “chair” from the room in which it is situated, even though relative to being, all the entities in the room are one and the same. If I say “that is a beautiful sunset,” then I am saying the thing in front of me “is a beautiful sunset” as opposed to “a sunset (that’s beauty is accidental).” Yes, certainly the particular sunset didn’t have to be beautiful, but now that it is, relative to my experience, it is “a beautiful sunset,” not just “a sunset that happens to be beautiful.” The world is experienced as an “is-ness/meaning:” it is only when I stop and think about the sunset that I realize the beauty of the sunset is accidental and could be divided from the thing in alternative circumstances. In thought, the sunset “is that which doesn’t have to be beautiful;” in experience, the sunset does have to be beautiful, because that is what that sunset is, that is what I am experiencing — that is what is — and though in alternative circumstances the meaning of what is could be different, those alternatives aren’t now, and thus the meaning of what I experience is now indivisible from what is. Since everything that is exists now, everything exists as an is-ness/meaning.

Alternative circumstances are not, and thus to be “toward” them (as is only possible thanks to thought) is to be “toward” a (no)thing. Furthermore, it is to be “toward” and habituated to an “incomplete (no)thing,” which might suggest why overthinkers not only tend toward nihilism, but also toward feeling like their lives are missing something. It’s as if thinkers trick themselves into thinking life is thought — they are habituated into the philosophy of George Berkeley. Even if thinkers know better when asked directly, it’s as if their subconscious minds and bodies have been trained to feel that the whole world is an incomplete (no)thing, as opposed to feeling that the state of “incomplete (no)thing” only emerges between signifiers and the signified, ideas and realities. They know the state is not the whole, but they have been habituated into “practically believing” otherwise.

III

When we are always “toward” ideas/(no)things which we experience as nothing (realizing that nothings are (no)things requires unnatural awareness), then we are constantly feeling like everything is nothing and incomplete, and from this it is a very small step to feeling that we are incomplete/nothing (for that is most if not all of what you feel and experience). Similarly, as discussed in “On Consciousness, Creativity, and Being” by O.G. Rose, since we are mostly toward inanimate objects and don’t experience consciousness, we habituate ourselves to thinking that consciousness plays a small role in the world. According to that paper, there are animated, inanimate, and (in)animate objects: there are conscious things, things that are not, and things that consciousness has shaped but that are not conscious in themselves. Coffee cups are (in)animate objects, but we experience them as if they are inanimate objects, no different from a rock or a meteor, and this “toward-ness” can influence us to forsake how the majority of what surrounds us is shaped and influenced by the mind. Furthermore, in being habituated to inanimate objects, our default becomes to assume that inanimate objects are all there is and that the mind plays a very minor role.

As it is an easy step from constantly experiencing (no)things (as nothings) to feeling like everything is nothing, so it is an easy step from constantly experiencing (in)animate objects (as inanimate) to feeling like mind is irrelevant (please note and “keep in mind” that even when experiencing animate objects like people, we simultaneously experience the animation through an object, the body, so even experiences of animate objects are weak to counter the feeling that mind isn’t present). As (in)animate objects can habituate us into believing consciousness is merely another thing in the world as opposed to something through which things are known, so (no)things can habituate us into feeling like everything is nothing. Both being habituated into experiencing the world as mostly inanimate (as opposed to animate and (in)animate) and experiencing it as mostly nothing (as opposed to something and (no)thing) can contribute to nihilism, to feeling like life is meaningless and void. Paradoxically, overcoming inanimation (and recognizing (in)animation) is done with more thinking, while overcoming nothingness (and recognizing (no)thing) is done through more doing.

IV

As discussed in “The True Isn’t the Rational” by O.G. Rose, a person’s rationality is organized by what a person believes is true. Problematically, since truth is what rationality is defined as itself against, it is difficult if not impossible for rationality to contribute to a person’s selection of truth, for truth must come before rationality to make rationality possible. Hence, if rationality was a person’s only method of apprehending the world, then thought couldn’t function. However, since it does function, we have reason to believe people have multiple ways of apprehending the world beyond rationality. Problematically though, these other apprehensions will necessarily strike rationality as unjustified and unintelligible, precisely because they are “un-rational” (as opposed to irrational) (“pre-rational” is another good descriptor). Unfortunately, relative to rationality, the un-rational will be experienced as irrational and feel unjustified. As failure to realize despite experience that ideas are (no)things (not nothings) and that objects are usually (in)animate (not inanimate) can contribute to nihilism, so failure to realize the foundations of rationality are un-rational versus irrational can contribute to viewing all thought as meaningless (as contradictory versus paradoxical). Yes, rationality and ideas relative to themselves are incomplete, as this paper has already addressed, but it does not follow from this that therefore ideas are useless (thought that’s how it can come to feel without the proper balance).

A house without a foundation cannot exist. It can be imagined, but it is ultimately a contradiction. Similarly, thought without a foundation feels like a fantasy, something that because it is incomplete, must be nothing. Since thought within rationality must necessarily eventually conclude that it lacks rational foundation, if there isn’t a category in a person’s thinking for un-rational apprehension, then the person must rationally deconstruct his or her own thinking. As a result, the person will be “toward” his or her own thinking as if it were self-negating, and so possibly habituate his or her self to feel nothing. Thus, failure to understand that thinking is ultimately (un)rational — a mixture of rationality and un-rationality — can contribute to a person feeling nihilistic and incomplete.

V

Things become meaningful when overlaid with what they are not, but that meaning is incomplete, especially if “the gap” is not filled with action and experience of what has been made meaningful. Doing can help complete thinking: ideas are necessarily incomplete, unable to perfectly map on to what they refer, but in walking over and picking up the cat, petting it, and playing with it, the gap in my idea about the cat begins to fill in with experience. To only act is to be “toward” a world that “is” as if our world was only an is-ness (as opposed to an is-ness/meaning). To use Heidegger’s distinction, the earth “is,” while the world “means,” and so to live well on/in the earth/world, we need to engage equally in doing and thinking. To act thoughtlessly is be “toward” the earth; to think without acting, the world. To be “toward” the earth/world, we need to act thoughtfully, which requires being in the world, doing and engaging, not overly isolated. Those overly “toward” the earth risk mental fragility; those overly “toward” the world, nihilism and paralysis.

In what is the right balance found? Personally, I would suggest being an anti-intellectual intellectual, a thoughtful pragmatistic — someone who regularly thinks about the limits of thinking or who considers deeply the meaning of actions. We constantly need to remind ourselves that ideas do not perfectly map what we ponder, that they are (no)things (but not nothings) that can habituate us unintentionally into nihilism. Living life fully requires managing an eternal instability.

Thinking is (un)rational thanks to alternative methods of apprehension, methods we have reason to ascent to (and have faith in) precisely because rationality is incomplete yet functional. Similarly, even if we’re ultimately wrong, the fact we are conscious gives us reason to believe in (in)animate objects, as our experience of ideas gives us reason to believe in (no)thing. Ultimately, ascent to these categories requires a kind of faith, for we cannot observe the animating principle behind a cup in a cup, we cannot reach out and touch ideas, and we cannot “make rational” the (un-rational) foundations of our rationality. We must operate in a state of uncertainty, with a faith in forms of apprehension that if we try to think about, we will make them seem absurd. The apprehensions are like shadows that we cannot shine flashlights on to see.

Through thinking, we grasp the world; through alternative forms of apprehension, we grasp the earth. If we live in the world but not on earth, we are disembodied; if we live on the earth but not the world, we are meaningless. (No)thing, the (in)animate, and the (un)rational are necessarily experienced as nothing, inanimate, and irrational: experience makes us overly “toward” earth. Yet in ideas to themselves, the three categories are also experienced as nothing, inanimate, and irrational: ideas make us overly “toward” the world. It is between ideas and experiences that (no)thing, (in)animate, and the (un)rational arise, and thus we must learn to position ourselves between ideas and experiences, the world and the earth. How? Think about it. Do something. In the image and likeness of the world/earth, we must make ourselves paradoxes so that we don’t become contradictions.

Written by

UNO Prize Finalist. The Write Launch. Iowa Review. Allegory Ridge. Streetlight. Ponder. Pidgeonholes. W&M Review. Poydras. Toho. www.ogrose.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store