Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Heidegger once made the astute observation that the history of western metaphysics could be defined by the search for being. What does it mean to be? Much could be said why such a question has defined western history. In part, the primacy of being within the west probably rests upon the popularity of Parmenides, Plato and Aristotle (instead of Heraclitus). With that triad, the western world chose being. Certainly, Parmenides' arguments against the existence of nothingness (or voids) drastically influenced how the concept of nothingness is viewed in the west. While some later Greek philosophers would be less radical, and would not deny the existence of nothingness, they would often argue that not-being was merely derived from being. Nothingness is merely the absence of being. Cold is absence of heat, etc.

Of course, this isn't the full story. After all, western metaphysics is not just Greek, for the influx of Judeo-Christianian worldviews from 50-500 CE significantly altered how the west considered metaphysical questions. While associations between ethics and being had already been made in Plato and Aristotle, Augustine would take a step further by creating an ethics of being, ontological ethics. Good was ontos, and evil was merely the absence of good. A new approach to theodicy was born - the derivative nature of evil would allow for God not to be guilty of it, since God was completely presence, completely being. The ontological God was good because He [sic] was pure being. Ontotheology would go far beyond Augustine. Tillich's God as the ground of being would be the crowning achievement of ontotheology.

Of course, told from a position of power, the God of being is comforting. Consider my claim that God-language and value-language are inseparable. When we talk about (our) God(s) we are also asserting our values as well. Since our values are incarnated in times and places, potential is born from within the moment we live in. We wish to act(ualize) that potential in our world. Those who have power typically want to preserve that power. The powerful wish to preserve what-is (ontos, being). It is not enough that the powerful have power in a particular moment - what-is must be preserved so that power is preserved. Being is valued because being and power are inseparable, and for the powerful that is a blessing. It, of course, follows that an empowered individual's (or community's) myths would assert the value of being over everything else. Being must be preserved, must live beyond the moment.

The opposite of being, what-is-not, nothingness, ta me onta, must be devalued in order to affirm the value of being. What better way to assert such a hierarchy than to associate being, God and goodness with each other, and to associate nothingness and evil with each other? To the powerful, the power structure must be preserved. It comes as no surprise that ontotheologians typically distrust change - for change is a destruction of the current ontos, of presence. Parmenides' view against the existence of change coexist with his view against the existence of nothingess. Holding on to ontotheology has effects that travel well beyond being, power, and change, however.

John Caputo does a masterful job at illustrating how nothingness language often is associated with the oppressed, the fringe, the "nuisances and nobodies" as Crossan so eloquently put it. If the powerful hold the power of being in their hands, hearts and minds, the powerless become nothing, those-who-are-not, the ta me onta - after all, what does it matter if the powerful need to oppress the nobodies in order to preserve being? Nothingness holds no value to ontotheologians, since it is merely devoid of value, of goodness. The problem with nothingness, according to the ontotheologian, is that it holds no being. What-is is clearly good for everyone. Those who suffer simply must be mistaken.

One of the interesting byproducts of the narrative threads we have followed thus far, is that ontotheology has no foundation. Of course, the dominant threads within western metaphysics that have effected us all make such a statement seem contradictory - how could being not be sturdy? How could being be unstable?

If, however, being-language is value-language, the veil has been removed. Being is unstable as nothingness is. Our values rest upon uncertain, unstable ground, regardless of what we value. We should resist the temptation to claim that being-language is more "real" while language that does not deal with being is "imaginary." Rather than attempt to deceive ourselves with illusions of "real" stories and "fake" stories, perhaps it would be better to evaluate whether we can be proud of our stories, regardless of whatever reality they rest upon.

If all of this has dis-stabilized the priority of being, perhaps we should reject the derivative notion of nothingness. Much of the world is not as it should be - and ontological language misses such nuance. Power often should not be perpetuated endlessly, nor should it often be legitimized.

So what, then is nothingness as concerns humans? What if reality was a matter of what-is and what-is-not, in play? Neither derivative from the other, with nothingness and being making up the mixture of the world we live in. Up to this point, I have been needlessly deceptive when I speak of localities as the being and time we live in. The localities we live in that shape our envisioned potential are not just a matter of being and time - equally the localities we live in are shaped by what-is-not, of the nothingness that surrounds us. This nothingness is not merely an absence of being - the void is a fundamental part of reality. We would do well to remember that what-is-not, who-is-not, ta me onta plays an equal (if not more important) role in creating the potential we see in the world. We would do well to remember that when we act(ualize) toward our envisioned potential, we affirm just as much about what-is-not, as what-is. We would do well to remember that we live in one world - a world of nothingness and being. Before we say "I am," perhaps we should say "I am not." Or perhaps we should say "I see."

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