From the Discussions of Javier Rivera, Thomas Jockin, and O.G. Rose

Photo by Pawel Czerwinski

Thomas Jockin made the point that not all “lacks” are nothing, and that the conflation of these categories has deeply hurt our capacities to reason, especially to reason metaphysically. This inspired a paper called “Lacks Are Not Nothing,” and here I will try to give an account based on that paper to explain the difference between “lacks” and “nothing.”


Audio Reading

Why aren’t all “lacks” nothing? Well, imagine that our father yelled at us this morning and suggested that we are terrible at our job. Later that afternoon, we are alone in our living room, and our Dad is nowhere to be seen. And all we can think about is what he said to us.

Is our Dad nothing or “lacking?”

Imagine we grew up with a neighbor. She became our best friend. We did everything together. And then one day she moved. She left. And we sit on our porch, looking over at her house as the new neighbors take up residency, silent.

Is our friend nothing or “lacking?”

And so on. Just because a thing is not around does not mean it isn’t present. In fact, most of our time is spent “toward” things that aren’t around. When I’m eating breakfast, I’m thinking about the report due that afternoon: there is no “report” around on the table, and yet I am making that “nothing” be here at breakfast. When I look at a cat and think “That’s my cat,” there is no “my cat” that the cat is “wearing” over its fur; instead, I am making “my cat” be here even though it’s not around. And so on.

Is the report due this afternoon nothing?

Is the reality that the animal is “my cat” fake?

No, ideas are not nothings: they are “(no)things” or “lacks,” things that exist in a “between space” (in the middle of “presence” and “absence”). And “lacks” are arguably the most important “(no)things” in our lives, for every idea is here and yet isn’t; every relationship is everywhere and yet nowhere (“(no)where,” per se); and so on.

(For more on this subject, please read “Through (No)thing We Know” by O.G. Rose.)


Critically, Thomas Jockin penned an important note of clarification:

There are lacks that are mind-dependent […] / Then, there are lacks that are actual […] [For example:] “Why did the bridge collapse?” “The bridge lacked support on the southwest corner of the foundation.”

In both cases, the lack is just as actual as the presence. In Thomistic terms, both are actual. In Aristotelian terms, both are energeia.

Personally, I tend to describe “lacks” in ways that are “mind-dependent,” but Mr. Jockin makes an important point that there are also “actual lacks” and/or “object(ive) lacks.” After all, a weak or collapsed bridge “lacks support,” regardless if I think it does or doesn’t: the “lack” is part of the “object.” To play on the words a little, the “objective” of the engineer was to make an “object” that didn’t “lack support,” and so if the bridge weakens, then it is, “in its object-ness, and relative to its objective, ‘lacking.’ ”

Now, perhaps it could be argued that this “lack” isn’t objective, for I can simply say that the collapsed bridge isn’t a “collapsed bridge,” but that it is instead “a pile of debris.” By changing the definition of the thing (in my mind), I can change what it is “lacking,” and even make the thing “lacking” nothing at all (by defining it as “a pile of debris”). But it’s hard to believe the engineer of the bridge would accept this change of definition: the maker, who arguably is “the authority” on “what the thing is,” would probably say that the thing is objectively “lacking,” relative to the “formal cause” according to which the engineer crafted various materials into the bridge. Relative to the engineer then, the “lack” in “the collapsed bridge” would be objective (and object-based), even if it wasn’t such to anyone else, and arguably if the “lack” is objective to one person (let alone many), it is indeed “objectively lacking” (in the same way that if only one person in all of history ever experienced some rare bird, that rare bird would indeed exist).

That all said, even if the engineer didn’t claim, “that is a collapsed bridge,” and instead claimed “it is a pile of debris” (for some strange reason), it wouldn’t change the fact that when the engineer originally built the bridge, there was an “objective” (or goal) relative to which it can be said the collapsed bridge is “lacking.” There must have been, because the bridge was in fact made into a bridge, and materials can’t come together like that randomly without someone willing a “formal cause” (the chances of a tornado creating a bridge by randomly hurling the parts together are inconceivable, and even if it happened once, it would not change the fact that the high majority of bridges arose in accordance with formal causes, making the case outlined in this paper valid).

Relative to the original design of the engineer (which the engineer could theoretically forsake), the “lack” is objective. This point though brings us back to Derrida, for we must ask if something is really “objective” if it can be denied or “interpreted away.” For Derrida, we cannot escape “the text,” which basically means we are “always already” in interpretation, and for that reason we cannot establish “a solid and/or stable identity,” which by extension means we couldn’t establish “an objective lack.” This is a strong point, as expected from a great mind like Derrida, but I think this critique can be addressed by maintaining a distinction between “thinking” and “perceiving.”

Why? Well, the identity of the bridge “as a bridge” is primarily based “on how it was used” (in “thoughtless” perception) versus “how it was intellectually understood”: the “pile of debris” was in fact a bridge once that people would use to cross a river. There was a practical and lived reality that was once possible while the bridge was up that is no longer possible now that the bridge has fallen apart, and this is not a matter of thought, interpretation, or opinion. There was a physical reality that could be participated in, regardless what people were thinking (if at all) while crossing the bridge or studying it (whether about baseball, dinner that evening, etc.). The possibility of people walking across the bridge didn’t blip in and out of existence based on what people were thinking: it was there in (thoughtless) perception — usable.

The identity of the bridge as “a bridge” was primarily based on a perceived and object-based use, not an intellectual interpretation. Even if I interpreted the bridge “as a bed for a giant,” I could think that while still using it to cross a river: my thinking did not change the possibilities embedded in the “object-ness” of the bridge itself. And when the bridge collapsed, those possibilities became “lacking” even if for some strange reason I continued to think the bridge was still usable. In this way, object-dependent “lacks” are possible: not all “lacks” are mind-dependent.

The bridge was indeed once in time usable for crossing a river, and relative to that past, the present or future in which that bridge is no more is “lacking” that past use. Time is real, and the fact that “object-based lacks” seem often “time-bound” would suggest why time would probably have a significant role to play in the phenomenology of a “New Metaphysics.” Anyway, as of now, the thing-named-“bridge” “lacks” the “form” to help me cross the river: I cannot interpret back that past ability or form into use (to help me cross). Interpretation can only do so much, and considering this, there is reason to think “object-ive lacks” are valid based on (“thoughtless”) use and intentions of the original engineer. Still, though some “lacks” are not mind-dependent, it does not follow that all “lacks” are necessarily “object-ive.” Perhaps they are, but that would be a different line of inquiry, a line that would require phenomenology.

Could someone theoretically treat the bridge like a bed, thus suggesting that even the physical “use” of the bridge was susceptible to interpretation? Yes, but I don’t think that matters, because even if we come up with a thousand different ways the bridge could have been “used,” the possibility of “using the bridge at all” in certain ways is “lacking” now that the bridge has collapsed into a pile of debris. There is “a range of physical uses and possibilities” that are now “lacking,” and that is an object-ive fact. Perhaps “a range of physical uses and possibilities” suggests that we can’t be “certain” that “w is a ‘bridge’ and thus used for x,” but we can still be “confident” of such, and furthermore we can at least be extremely confident that “y is physical thing z usable for range 1.0 of possible uses,” and that “the range of 1.0” becomes “lacking” of y once it ceases to be z. In this way, y can “object-ively lack” both y and “range 1.0.”

A distinction between “thinking” and “perceiving” provides us a way to earn “reason to think” that “object-ive lacks” exist, based on both the intention of the engineer and “use.” But even if Derrida’s critique against identity through interpretation somehow stands in ways I don’t fully understand, Derrida’s critique still wouldn’t deconstruct “mind-dependent lacks.” Personally, I don’t think Derrida’s critiques succeed in either field, but even if “object-ive lacks” are false, the efforts of a “New Metaphysics” would still be justified. We live with our minds, after all.


A “New Metaphysics” (which uses a phenomenological method) focused on “lacks” has reason to believe its subject is “lacks” versus “holes” (and that it hence “walks around the crater of a meteor versus nothing”) because ideas, names, purposes, etc. are here and yet not. It would be strange to claim that “ideas are nothings,” seeing as the majority of our lives are shaped and oriented by ideas. Yes, we can make (mind-dependent) “lacks” disappear (in a sense) by slipping into “pure perception” and turning off our minds, but they come right back the moment we begin thinking again: it is because we are beings of perception and thinking that we can live “toward” “between entities” like ideas, love, and so on (all “lacks”).

In addition to “mind-dependent lacks,” we also have reason to believe there are “object-ive lacks” based on design, intention, and use. What exactly is “lacking” from objects that shift from x to y would be a valid line of inquiry for a “New Metaphysics,” and a phenomenological analysis of x versus y would prove useful for determining “object-ive lack.” That said, even if all “object-ive lacks” could be deconstructed with ontological re-definitions (as Derrida seems to have thought), this move is questionable at best (for reasons already described), and furthermore “mind-dependent lacks” would still be very real and relevant. A “New Metaphysics” focused on those — and the phenomenology of our experience of them — would still be valid.

The directness and denial of perception in favor of thinking might be another reason why classical philosophy has struggled so much to discuss “between entities” (“(no)things,” “lacks,” etc.). Since phenomenology (that defines apart “thinking” from “perceiving”) is necessarily more dialectical than classical philosophy (as already discussed), then phenomenology is uniquely positioned to discuss “between entities” like “lacks.” If it is true that “between entities” are the most important “(no)things” and/or “lacks” in our lives, then (dialectical) phenomenology is uniquely positioned to investigate what matters to us most.

Alright, if the methodology of the “New Metaphysics” is phenomenological, and its subject is mostly “lacks,” what is “a phenomenology of lacks?” What does that entail?




For more, please enjoy the work of Javier Rivera, Thomas Jockin, and O.G. Rose. Follow on Instagram (JR, TJ, Rose) and Twitter (TJ, Rose).

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