Part OneGT35 The problem of nothingness
Chapter 1GT37 THE ORIGIN OF NEGATION
Our investigation has taken us into the heart of being. But it has also reached a dead end because we have not been able to establish a connection between the two regions of being we have discovered. This is probably due to our choosing a perspective ill-suited to our inquiry. Descartes found himself confronting an analogous problem when he had to describe the relations between the soul and the body. He suggested then that we should seek a solution in the area where, as a matter of fact, the union of thinking substance with extended substance takes place, i.e., in the imagination. This is valuable advice. Of course, Descartes’s concern was not the same as ours, and we do not conceive of the imagination as he did. But what we can learn is that we should not begin by separating the two terms in a relation, in order to try later to put them back together: a relation is a synthesis. It follows that the results
of its analysis
cannot correspond to the moments
of this synthesis. M. Laporte says that to abstract something is to consider it in an isolated state, when it is not made to exist in isolation.2
In contrast, something concrete is a totality that can exist by itself, alone. Husserl takes the same view: redness, for him, is an abstraction, because color cannot exist without shape. A spatio-temporal and fully determinate “thing” is, on the other hand, concrete. From this point of view, consciousness is an abstraction, since it contains within it an ontological origin that reaches toward the in-itself and, reciprocally, the phenomenon is also an abstraction, since it has to “appear” to consciousness. The concrete entity can only be the synthetic totality, of which both consciousness and the phenomenon constitute mere moments. What is concrete is man in the world, with the specific union of man with the world that Heidegger, for example, names “being-in-the-world.” To interrogate “experience,” like Kant, with respect to its conditions of possibility, or to perform, like Husserl, a phenomenological reduction that reduces the world to the status of the noematic correlative of consciousness, is to begin deliberately from an abstraction. But we will no more succeed in reconstituting the concrete out of the sum or the organization of the elements abstracted from it than we will succeed, in Spinoza’s system, in reaching the substance through the infinite sum of its modes. The relation of the regions of being is a primordial bursting forth, which forms part of the very structure of these beings. That is how we encounter it, from the moment we first inspect it. We need only open our eyes and interrogate, from a standpoint of naïveté, the totality that is man-in-the-world. The description of this totality will enable us to answer these two questions: 1. What is the synthetic relation that we are calling “being-in-the-world?” 2. What must man and the world be in order for this relation between them to be possible? In truth, each of these questions enters into the other, and we cannot hope to answer them separately. But each mode of human behavior, as the behavior of man in the world, can simultaneously deliver to us man, the world, and the relation that unites them—so long as we regard these modes of behavior as realities to be objectively apprehended, and not as subjective affections that are able to be disclosed only to the standpoint of reflection.
We will not confine ourselves to studying just one mode of behavior. On the contrary, we will try to describe several, and to penetrate, within each of them, the basic meaning of the “man-world” relation. But we ought to begin by choosing some initial mode of behavior to serve as a guiding thread in our investigation.
In fact, our investigation itself provides us with the behavior we are seeking: if I apprehend this man who I am, as he is at this moment in the world, I can see that his attitude toward being is interrogative. In the very moment in which I ask “Is there a mode of behavior that can reveal man’s relation with the world?” I raise a question. I can consider this question objectively, since it makes little difference whether the questioner is me or the reader who is reading my words and raising the question alongside me. On the other hand, the question is not merely the objective set of words traced on this page: it is indifferent to the signs that express it. In short, it is a human attitude endowed with meaning. What does this attitude reveal?
In every question we confront a being that we interrogate. Every question presupposes, therefore, a being who questions and a being that is questioned. The question is not the most basic relation between man and being-in-itself; on the contrary, it stands within the limits of this relation and presupposes it. Moreover, we are questioning the being that we interrogate with respect to something. The thing with respect to which I interrogate being participates in being’s transcendence: I interrogate being through its ways of being, or through its being. From this point of view, a question is a type of expectation: I wait for an answer from the interrogated being. In other words, against the ground of my pre-interrogative familiarity with being, I expect this being to disclose its being, or its way of being. The answer will be a Yes or a No. It is the existence of these two equally objective and contradictory possibilities which distinguishes as a matter of principle, a question from an affirmation or negation. Some questions appear not to admit of a negative answer—such as, for example, the one we raised earlier: “What does this attitude reveal?” But in fact we can see that it is always possible to answer this type of question with “Nothing” or “Nobody” or “Never.” In this way, in the moment when I ask: “Is there a mode of behavior that can reveal man’s relation with the world to me?” I allow as a matter of principle for the possibility of a negative answer, such as: “No; no such behavior exists.” We accept, therefore, that we may be confronted with the transcendent fact of the nonexistence of such a mode of behavior. It might be tempting to refuse to believe in the objective existence of a non-being: one could just say that the facts, in this case, direct me to my subjectivity; I learn from transcendent being that the sought-after behavior is a mere fiction. But, in the first place, to call this behavior a “mere fiction” is to conceal the negation without removing it. “Being a mere fiction” is equivalent here to “being no more than a fiction.” Next, if you destroy the reality of the negation, you dissolve the reality of the answer. In fact it is being itself that gives me this answer and which, therefore, discloses the negation to me. Therefore the permanent and objective possibility of a negative answer does exist for the questioner. In relation to this possibility the questioner—by the very fact of asking a question—places himself in a state of non-determination: he doesn’t know if the answer will be affirmative or negative. Thus the question is a bridge thrown between two non-beings: the non-being of knowledge in man, and the possibility of non-being in transcendent being. And finally, the question implies the existence of a truth. Through his very question, the questioner affirms that he is waiting for an objective response, in relation to which we can say: “It is like this, and not otherwise.” In short, truth, in its capacity to differentiate being, introduces a third non-being as a determinant of the question: the non-being of limitation. This threefold non-being conditions all questioning and, in particular, metaphysical questioning—i.e., our questioning.
We set off in search of being, and it seemed to us that our series of questions had led us into the heart of being. And yet a glance at the activity of questioning itself, just as we were approaching our goal, has suddenly revealed that we are surrounded by nothingness. Our questions about being are conditioned by the permanent possibility of non-being, outside us and within us. And non-being, again, circumscribes the answer: what being is necessarily detaches itself against the ground of what it is not. Whatever the answer, it will be possible to formulate it like this: “Being is that and, apart from that, nothing.”
In this way, a new component of reality has just appeared to us: non-being. This makes our problem more complicated, because we are no longer dealing only with the relations between human being and being in itself but also with being’s relations with non-being, and those of human non-being with transcendent non-being. But let us take a closer look.
The objection will be raised that being-in-itself cannot supply negative answers. Did we not say, ourselves, that it lies equally beyond affirmation and negation? Moreover, ordinary experience, reduced to just what it is, does not seem to disclose any non-being. I think there are fifteen hundred-francs in my wallet and I find only thirteen hundred francs in it: that does not mean, we might be told, that experience has revealed the non-being of fifteen hundred francs but simply that I counted thirteen one-hundred-franc notes. The negation, strictly speaking, should be imputed to me: it appears only at the level of my act of judgment, through which I make a comparison between the result I anticipated and the result I obtained. In this way, negation is only a quality of judgment and what the questioner awaits is a judgment-answer. As for nothingness, it can be seen to originate in negative judgments, as a concept that establishes the transcendent unity of all such judgments, a propositional function of the type: “X is not.” We can see where this theory is leading: we are made to observe that being-in-itself is full positivity and does not contain within itself any negation. In addition, those negative judgments, insofar as they are subjective acts, are wholly assimilated to affirmative judgments—without seeing that Kant, for example, distinguished the internal structure of a negative act of judgment from the structure of an affirmative: in both cases a synthesis of concepts takes place, only this synthesis, a full and concrete event within the life of the mind, operates, in one case, by means of the copula “is” and, in the other, by means of the copula “is not.” Similarly, the manual operations of sorting (separation) and assembling (union) are two objective modes of behavior that possess the same de facto
reality. Thus negation is said to be “at the other end of” the act of judgment, yet without thereby being “within” being. It is like something irreal squeezed between two full realities, neither of which lays claim to it: the being-in-itself that is interrogated with respect to negation refers us—since it is what it is—to our judgment; and the judgment, as something entirely positive and psychological, refers us to being, since the negation it formulates concerns being and is, in consequence, transcendent. Negation, incapable of existing by itself, the result of concrete psychological operations, and whose existence is maintained by these very operations, has the mode of existence of a noematic correlative,
consisting just in its percipi
. And nothingness, as the conceptual unity of negative judgments, cannot have the slightest reality other than that conferred by the Stoics on their “lekton
Can we accept this outlook?
We can put the question in these terms: Is negation, as the structure of a judicative proposition, the origin of nothingness or, on the contrary, is nothingness, as a structure of reality, the origin and foundation of negation? Thus, the problem of being has directed us to the problem of the question as a human attitude, and the problem of the question directs us to that of negation’s being.
Evidently, non-being always appears within the limits of a human expectation. It is because I expect to find fifteen hundred francs that I find only thirteen hundred. It is because the physicist is expecting a particular verification of his hypothesis that nature can say “No” to him. It would be unproductive, therefore, to deny that negation appears against the basic ground of a relation between man and the world; the world does not reveal its non-beings to anyone who has not in the first place posited them as possibilities. But does that mean we should reduce these non-beings to pure subjectivity? Does it mean we should accord them the significance and the type of existence that belong to the Stoics’ “lekton” or to Husserl’s noema? We do not think so.
In the first place, it is not true that negation is merely a quality of judgment: a question is formulated by means of an interrogative judgment, but it is not a judgment; it is a prejudicative mode of behavior. I can question something with a look, with a gesture: by questioning being I take up a specific stance in relation to it—and this relation to being is a relation of being; a judgment is only an optional way of expressing it. Similarly, the questioner does not necessarily have to interrogate a man about being: this conception of the question, by making it an intersubjective phenomenon, peels it away from the being it adheres to, and leaves it hanging in the air purely as a modality of dialogue. On the contrary, we should conceive of a question within a dialogue as a particular kind within the category of “interrogatives” and understand that what we are questioning is not first and foremost a thinking being. If my car has broken down, it is the carburetor, the spark plugs, etc., that I interrogate; if my watch stops, I can interrogate the watchmaker about the causes of its stopping, but the watchmaker will, in his turn, put his questions to the various mechanisms of the watch. What I expect from the carburetor, what the watchmaker expects from the cogs in the watch, is not a judgment: it is a disclosure of being, on the basis of which one can make a judgment. And if I expect a disclosure of being, it is because I am prepared at the same time for the eventuality of non-being. If I interrogate the carburetor, it is because I consider it possible that there is nothing in the carburetor. Thus my question includes, by its nature, a specific prejudicative understanding of non-being; it is, in itself, a relation of being with non-being, against the ground of an original transcendence, i.e., a relation of being with being.
If, moreover, the distinctive nature of questioning is obscured by the fact that questions are frequently asked by one man to other men, we should note that many non-judicative modes of behavior present, in its original undiluted form, this immediate understanding of non-being against the ground of being. If, for example, we consider destruction, we are obliged to acknowledge that it is an activity that can, of course, make use of judgment as an instrument but that cannot be defined as being solely, or even mainly, judicative. Yet it presents the same structure as interrogation. In one sense, of course, man is the only being through whom destruction can be brought about. A geological fold, or a storm, do not destroy anything—or, at least, they do not destroy directly; they merely alter the distribution of the mass of beings. After the storm there is no less than before. There is something else. And even this phrase is inappropriate, because in order to posit the disparity we need a witness, who can in some way retain the past and compare it to the present, in the form of a “no longer.” In the absence of that witness, there is being, both before and after the storm: that is all. And if a cyclone should bring about the death of some particular living beings, this death can only be destruction if it is lived as such. For there to be destruction, there must first be a relation of man to being, i.e., transcendence, and, within the limits of this relationship, man must apprehend a being as destructible. For that, one being must be carved out in its limits within being, and this—as we saw in the case of truth—already involves nihilation. The being under consideration is that one and, apart from that, nothing. The artilleryman who is assigned his target takes care to point his cannon in a particular direction, excluding all the others. But that would still mean nothing if being had not been uncovered as fragile. And what is fragility, other than a particular probability of non-being, for a given being in some determinate set of circumstances? A being is fragile if it bears within its being a clear-cut possibility of non-being. But again, it is through man that fragility arrives in being, because the individuating limitation that we mentioned just now is a condition of fragility: a being is fragile, and not all being—which is beyond any possible destruction. Thus, the relation of individuating limitation that man maintains with a being, against the initial ground of his relation to being, brings fragility to this being as the appearance of a permanent possibility of non-being. But that is not all: in order for there to be destructibility, man must determine himself, either positively or negatively, as he confronts this possibility of non-being; he must take the necessary measures to bring it about (destruction in the strict sense) or, through a negation of non-being, to go on maintaining it at the level of a mere possibility (protective measures). Thus, it is man who renders towns destructible, precisely because he posits them as fragile and precious, and because he takes various measures to protect them. And it is because of this set of measures that an earthquake or a volcanic eruption can destroy these towns or human constructions. And the primary meaning of war, and its goal, are contained within man’s slightest building. We must therefore acknowledge that destruction is an essentially human thing and that it is man who destroys his towns through the intermediary of earthquakes, or directly, and it is man who destroys his boats through the intermediary of cyclones, or directly. But at the same time we must allow that destruction presupposes a prejudicative understanding of nothingness as such, and a mode of behavior in the face of nothingness. In addition, although destruction arrives in being through man, it is an objective fact and not a thought. Fragility has impressed itself right into the being of this vase, and its destruction would be an irreversible and absolute event that I could only observe. There is a transphenomenality of non-being, as of being. ...