Between existence and the One

Nothingness in Schopenhauer and Heidegger

Marco Casucci (University of Perugia)

The aim of this contribution is to analyse the question concerning “nothingness” in an ideal dialogue between Schopenhauer and Heidegger. The relationship between those two philosophers is a research track not too much developed and, nonetheless, it may result extremely fruitful for the field of theoretical philosophy. By overcoming limited perspectives in which both philosophers have been imprisoned – Schopenhauer as the metaphysician of the will and Heidegger as the destroyer of metaphysics – it will be possible to reach a new interpretation which considers both thinkers engaged in the same effort of moving from existence to the one. As it will be possible to see, the concept of nothingness (very strong in both) will be the trace of that tension, its cypher, which will permit to put in contact the two thinkers beyond any historiographical distinction.

Starting from those initial lines it is possible to say that there is a fundamental question inherent to the argumentation which is going to be presented here. It concerns in particular the attribution of the adjective “destroyer” to Heidegger against the still metaphysical thinking of Schopenhauer. From a historical point of view, it is in fact clear that Heidegger as a destroyer of metaphysics tries to overcome the last relics of metaphysics itself which still remains in Nietzsche’s philosophy of the will-to-power. In this sense, the Schopenhauerian philosophy as metaphysics of the will is read by Heidegger himself as a mere “prequel” to the Nietzschean thought and so no more than a last swansong of Western Platonism.

However, it is possible to reconsider this interpretation by trying to understand how the adjective “destroyer” can be referred to Schopenhauer before Heidegger. Schopenhauer was the first who denounced in a radical way the fallacy of the gnosiological and representative reason trying to overcome it towards a more radical experience, which is capable to find in “nothing” the cornerstone of a reflection orientated to the “principle”, to the “one”. Definitely Schopenhauer may be considered the precursor of a philosophy which tries to reconsider the position of man in the world which starts from the deep need to think in another way his relationship with being, over the speculative prejudice typical of modernity. In this sense the Schopenhauerian question concerning existence, a very strong instance in his philosophy, can be considered as an attempt to raise again to that personal intonation of a Fundamentalfrage which, from the depth of the temporal openness in which we are dejected, lifts up towards the clear light of a new morning, which already shines bright on to the high peaks of thought.

From this point of view, the two thinkers here considered both moved on a common theoretical line in which the differences between them strengthen the uni-vocal direction of their path of thinking, inasmuch as summoned by that unicum – that “selfsame” – which constituted for both of them the innermost origin of their thought.

The “quaestio de nihilo” that we want to explain here has the objective to put in a relationship those two fundamental thinkers in order to highlight how in both of them “nothing” leaves itself to think in a triple way. The theoretical consideration of “nothing”, both in Schopenhauer and in Heidegger, cannot be considered as something “static” and cannot be reduced to a mere “nihilism”. Instead, “nothing” must be considered in its dynamic dimension which permits to situate the “self” between existence and the one. In other words, nothing permits that fundamental experimental movement which is capable to bring existence on the boundaries of its being, where it reaches the threshold of the abyss from which is possible to get a glimpse in that “complete and reliable gospel”[1] which is constitutive of that sapience which deepens itself in its unrepeatable uniqueness.

As it has been previously stated, in order to highlight the modulations of the theme of nothingness, the dialogue between Schopenhauer and Heidegger will be articulated into three levels. In the first part of this contribution, the negative and deconstructive dimension of nothingness will be presented within the horizon of the infraexistential representation. What is at stake here is the first level of the experience of nothingness, discovered as the negativity of what is ended, concealed by the phenomenal projection of cognitive intellect.

Once the “veil of Maya” has been torn down and the vanity of representation has been shown, in the second part of the essay, nothingness will be analysed as the “threshold” which divides the reign of the illusion from that of the truth. In this part, in particular, Schopenhauer’s Noluntas will be put in dialogue with the Heideggerian “ontological difference”. In the end, in the third part, by overcoming what is literally stated by the two thinkers here considered, a deeper and more sapient level of experiencing nothingness will be reached, which is manifested by the profound mystical dimension revealed in the works of both philosophers: that is that “sapient nothingness”, that “divine obscurity” – as it has been defined by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite – or “caligo mystica”, illustrated by the tradition of the Christian sapience and still present in the Schopenhauerian “Epiphilosophy” and in the Heideggerian “Gelassenheit” – a “place” where the summit of thinking is converted into its receptive basis, just like it was a contact point between the intimate transcendence of the soul and the One, regained over the depressing nothingness of existence.

1. The negativity as the infraexistential nothingness of representation

The rediscovery of the existential theme – as a voluntaristic dimension of a subject devoted to the finitude in Schopenhauer or as the ek-static dimension of the temporal horizon of Dasein – constitutes both in Heidegger and in Schopenhauer the crucial point of their speculation and, at the same time, the limit of their whole reflection. Schopenhauer and Heidegger are in fact both moved on the path of thinking by the need to rediscover an ipseity existentially collocated in the horizon of finitude and negativity in the context of what can be called “the ruin of representation”. That definition was given by the French philosopher E. Levinas as he wrote about Husserl and Heidegger as masters of the existential philosophy in one of his juvenile essays.[2] In that part of this contribution, it will be shown how that process of deconstruction of representation was already accomplished by Schopenhauer and also in what sense Heidegger can be considered as the heir of that tradition.

1.1. “The ruin of representation” in Schopenhauer

As it can be easily comprehended, the definition of “ruin of representation” can be ascribed to the Schopenhauerian thought. It is in fact his masterpiece itself to bring us on this path. The World as Will and Representation is the first explicit attempt to overcome the dimension of transcendental thought through a radical deconstruction of the gnosiological subject which dominated modern philosophy until the German idealists. The concept of “will” itself, as a fulfilment of the Kantian criticism, can be considered no more than that “dark side” of knowledge to which man seemed to have entrusted his destiny, but which nonetheless shows an insolvable negativity at its roots.

In this sense, what is necessary to remark in regard to the Schopenhauerian philosophy is to decisively avoid the error to consider Schopenhauer as a “philosopher of the will”; a definition, which he himself attributed to his thought, which does not reach the deepest sense of his work, more oriented to the “eternal” truth about man, the world and their “ground”. Hence, trying to identify the Schopenhauerian philosophy with his discover of the “will” means to track an erroneous path, because, as it is clearly stated at the end of The World, the will itself ends in “nothing”, and Schopenhauer himself challenges the reader, asking him to read again his work in another light. That means that the “will” is not the last word of his masterpiece, but it is only the way through which Schopenhauer permits the reader to watch the subject of representation behind the scenes, in its bare emptiness, definitely deprived of the “instrumental” contents of various “sciences”.

Beyond the identification of the will with the Kantian “thing in itself”, Schopenhauer recognized in the will itself the inanity of temporal existence, concealed under the mask of the subject of representation. Definitely, this is the essential kernel of the Schopenhauerian inquiry: the upturning of the transcendental subject from being the ruler of the sense into an existence which suffers time as an affection of its own, until the Calvary of death.

If it is possible, in an overall sight of the Schopenhauerian work, to focus the attention on the dimension of temporality, rather than on that of the will, it will be possible to understand how its most successful outcome was to show that revolution from a conception of time controlled by the transcendental subject towards a destinal conception of a time which always finds us unprepared “as a thief in the night”[3].

This is particularly evident in the Early Manuscripts which forerun The World. The distinction between “better consciousness” and “empirical consciousness”, without calling into cause the “will” as a thing in itself, shows two different levels of temporality: one in which time is controlled and ordinated by science, which is believed to be the ruler of the sense and able to control the flux of beings, through the knowledge of its laws; and another one in which consciousness itself, being aware of the appearance of that kind of time, and of the inanity of temporal existence in general, by deepening itself in this nothingness, can resurge from it as a pure contemplator of the truth of the idea – as happens in the experience of the genius and of the saint.

On the level of the empirical consciousness, temporality is organized and ruled by the principle of sufficient reason. Considered by the Kantian point of view, time, in its transcendental dimension, must be controlled by the principle of causality, which for Kant constitutes the medium which permits to objectify the relationship between “before” and “after” in the net of the relationship of “cause” and “effect”. With this transcendental imprisonment of temporality, the empirical consciousness tries to delude itself to be the owner of its destiny when, on the contrary, consciousness itself is definitely undertaken to that time which it thought to rule. Thus, Schopenhauer recognizes, behind the Kantian definition of time, acquired from the transcendental aesthetics, also another kind of temporality gained in a more Eraclitean tendency, as that “always becoming and never being flux”, which also Plato indicated as that dimension of time suffered by the slave in the cave. Platonically speaking, the event which permits to the slave to break the chains and to free himself from the limits of his finitude is properly the awareness of that temporality which affects us; of which we thought to be the rulers and, on the contrary, we discover to be the laughing stock.[4]

Time is in fact no more than a line without extension which divides the nothingness of the past from the nothingness of the future, a line where every kind of permanent possession of life is negated to that subject which, trying to find in it its own duration, ineluctably ends in its own annihilation. On this basis, only the “better consciousness” can understand time for what it really is: a flux which continuously destroys itself. Obviously, that kind of understanding can only be reached from another level, the level of eternity proper to the “better consciousness” as freed from the bonds of becoming[5].

That criticism of temporality is probably one of the longest-lasting elements in the Schopenhauerian thought. Also in The World this element remains substantially unaltered, in particular for what concerns the phenomenology of the temporal consciousness here presented. In The World, in particular, the Schopenhauerian interpretation of temporality is stronger in an existential sense. Time, at this point intended as the basis of the principle of sufficient reason, puts in evidence nothingness of all the transcendental subjectivity and makes possible the destitution of the cognitive subject from his ruling role. Thus, the transcendental subject becomes an existential self, determined by time as the other objects that it believed to determine and control, and so exposed on the threshold of its own unessence.

Only in this way is it possible to understand how the “will” rather than being something “essential” – “in itself” – is something that demonstrates the lack of foundation of the transcendental subject, sheltered behind the dominion of its knowledge, beyond which the rough and unknown seas of an elusive life extend their real dominion. This is why Schopenhauer, in his attempt to get back on the noumenic will, cannot avoid to recognize that time itself is insurmountable. Time is for Schopenhauer the deepest and innermost root of the principle of sufficient reason which still remains in spite of every attempt to gain the will as the thing in itself.[6] That happens because time and will are two opposite faces of a same medal, and otherwise two aspects of that lack of foundation which is typical of the transcendental subject, once seen from the point of view of its projecting activity in the “outside” world, and once seen behind the scenes, in its intimacy with that nothingness that it is in itself.

From this point of view, the “world as representation” and the “world as will” are no more than the two aspects of a condition in which consciousness finds itself scattered, in the same way as those “objects” that it tries to gather in its knowledge, in order to guarantee itself a duration which is in any case destined to end with annihilation.

1.2. The Heideggerian fulfilment of the “ruin of representation”: temporality and being-towards-death

Heidegger’s thought can be understood on the same line as Schopenhauer’s. He fulfils the idea of a “ruin of representation”, definitely inverting the relationship between time and subjectivity. The phenomenological trend which is defined in Being and Time is intended to overturn the relationship between subject and object through the immersion of the subject itself “in” the horizon of time, which now constitutes the essence of the subject itself, now understood as Dasein, the “being-in-the-world”.

In this sense Heidegger strongly criticizes the modern idea of subjectivity abstracted from the world, and divided from it by the transcendental distinction between subject and object. And it is not the case if he takes into account for his criticism of modernity the Cartesianism as the highest expression of the ontology of the “Vorhandenheit”, for which the world is no more than a mere “extension” which lays in front of the subject; the first approach to that Vorstellen which will definitely be developed in the Kantian critique. The Being of beings, its sense, is mainly towards the definition and the stabilization of the “ens qua ens”, otherwise towards the determination of Being as a “presence” which is predominant along the whole development of Western thought. The trait of “objectivity” is imposed on the “world” as the permanence of the intellectual representation. With this process, for the subject, the intemporality of its correlated is guaranteed – as it results as abstracted and calculated, and so available for every kind of use.

The Cartesian interpretation of the world as “res extensa” is very important for the development of a metaphysics completely involved on the presentification of beings. Its stability is exchanged for its truth on the basis of an interpretation no more discussed. The critical aspect of Cartesianism which Heidegger considers regards in particular the temporal dimension of beings, caught as “present-at-hand” and reduced to be an object for the intellectual apprehension.

In Being and Time Heidegger wants to invert this order, supported by centuries of metaphysical speculations, trying to find a different kind of experiencing temporality, radically different from and at the same time more original than the traditional one. This aspect becomes clear as Heidegger interprets temporality as the possibility of Dasein. As it is put inside the reign of possibility, Dasein is at the same time open for a more original temporality as a horizon which never ceases to move with it. The possibility of Dasein, thus, testifies its being always projected beyond itself in that “have-to-be” typical of its possibilities which move always in the direction of its lack of being.

Dasein is continuously stretched towards the unattainable totality, that can be reached only at the end of its possibilities – with its death. What Heidegger says in §46 of Being and Time is extremely significant:

But as soon as Dasein ‘exists’ in such a way that absolutely nothing more is still outstanding in it, then it has already for this very reason become ‘no-longer-Being-there’ [Nicht-mehr-da-sein]. Its Being is annihilated when what is still outstanding in its Being has been liquidated.[7]

The impossibility to experience our own end, as it cannot be represented in its nude presence, becomes the place of the impossibility which reverberates itself on the totality of Dasein; the impossibility which highlights the original sense of temporality as the horizon of the being-in-the-world itself. The analysis developed by Heidegger in the following sections is devoted to show, in a phenomenological way, the modalities of this radical U-turn, by virtue of which the being-towards-death becomes the existential apical experience starting from which temporality can be shown in its ek-static dimension. By reaching the authentic sense of its own finitude, the being-in-the-world discovers, through the awareness of the “impossibility of all possibilities”, that it is “the Being-the-basis of a nullity”[8] which collapses in the absence of the ground of its own thrownness. The being-in-the-world, discovering its relationship with death as the final destination of all its efforts, re-orients the sense of its temporality by reinterpreting it towards the radical and extreme sense of its own finitude.

Once again, the analysis leads us to achieve a double level of temporality. As it has been possible to read in Schopenhauer, being exposed to death as an insuperable destiny of the worldly consciousness (as it happens in the empirical consciousness) shows the inevitability of a wreck of all its possibilities. Thus, Heidegger radicalizes the move of temporality towards a full consciousness of the infraexistential nothingness, which constitutes the being-in-the-world in its deepest root. Starting from this consciousness, temporality discloses to its original being ek-static by showing its being outside-inside, which is proper of the “Da” of “Dasein”: always oriented towards the “over”, which is rooted in “being alongside”, which continuously exposes itself to the nothingness of “being ahead”, which is always “having been”[9].

The existential structures of the “Care” must be oriented on the basis of that original temporality, showing the lack of foundation of the Care itself as the totality of the being-in-the-world’s modalities. Exactly as Schopenhauer, probably with a stronger phenomenological analysis, Heidegger in Being and Time reaches a radical revolution of consciousness which reemerges from the gnosiological illusion. The being in the world rediscovers in this movement the horizon of its ex-sistence as always exposed on the threshold of that nothingness, which permits to hear a different mood (Stimmung), no more oriented on the possibility of the being within the world, but devoted to a qualitative difference which Schopenhauer already named “eternity”.

2. Nothingness as a threshold: Noluntas and ontological difference

Nothingness which rises from the “ruin of representation” is no more than the emptiness of the transcendental subject in its nude formality. Both Schopenhauer and Heidegger converge on this line of interpretation of Kantism by virtue of which the subject is the projection of that emptiness on a sterilized and anaesthetized world in which death itself is explained as a mere biological fact and no longer experienced in its radical anxiety. By leading the subject back to its constitutive temporality, through the inversion of the conception of a controlled time into a suffered one, both thinkers here considered rediscover the existentiality of experiencing as something that throws away and exposes consciousness on the threshold of an uncontrollable difference, considered as the source of the sense.

In the second part of this work, that movement of negativity will be highlighted as an experience of the threshold. The experience of the nothingness of the intra-existential temporality and its nothingness leads to the experience of the difference of something which exceeds the measure of the “human, all too human” being in the world.

2.1. Noluntas and idea

In Schopenhauer, that theme of the threshold is clearly presented in the last section of his masterpiece. Here nothingness becomes the extreme limit of the “world as will and representation”, indicating the need to re-read the text once again in the light of that discovery. The World as Will and Representation is not a book which simply describes the opposition between “will” and “representation”, but rather its innermost sense is to show the possibility to bring the whole world on the threshold of such a radical experience that can bring it to an integral renewal, beyond the mere humanity depressed in the limits of its empiricity.

The Schopenhauerian masterpiece shows the way for a climb back up from the abstractness of the fallen consciousness towards a pure and concrete consciousness itself. Thus it is necessary to let the threshold show itself by abandoning the concept of a ruling subject and embracing the idea of a radical and different experience, capable to express the fissure of the sense that cannot be represented.

It is not a coincidence if in the last section of The World the term “representation” returns attesting that, with the negation of the will, representation itself vanishes, and the “veil of Maya” disappears as a morning dream. The Noluntas arises as a radical U-turn: its negativity is not merely the collapse of the illusion of the world in its constitutive nothingness; rather, it is the exposure of consciousness on a boundary on which the possibility of a different experience is hinted. This is the experience which inspired saints and artists of all times.

Schopenhauer recalls the Kantian distinction between nihil negativum and nihil privativum. In the first one, there is an absolute negation which is definitely unthinkable, because it is given by the logical dimension of the contradiction, which destroys itself. But what attracts Schopenhauer’s attention more is the second aspect of the negation: the nihil privativum. It is in fact considered as a relative nothingness, as a negation which leads to a higher affirmation:

The concept of nothing is an essentially relative one, and always refers to something particular that it negates. People (namely Kant) have ascribed this quality only to the nihil privativum, which is indicated by a ‘–’ in contrast to a ‘+’, where the ‘–’ can be made into a ‘+’ by looking at things from the opposite perspective; […] Every nothing is a nothing only in relation to something else and presupposes this relation, and thus presupposes the ‘something else’.[10]

Through that sort of dialectic awareness, which in Schopenhauer is articulated beyond the simple logical horizon – in order to achieve the plan of concrete existence – it is possible to reach the determined aspect of the negation which opens consciousness to what transcends the usual intentional relationship with beings. So it is not a coincidence if Schopenhauer, according to Heidegger, says:

What is generally accepted as positive, which we call what is (das Seiende) and whose negation has its most general meaning in the concept we express as nothing, is precisely the world of representation, which I have established to be the objecthood of the will, its mirror. […] The negation, abolition (Aufhebung), and turning around of the will is also an abolition and disappearance of the world, its mirror. If we are not looking at this mirror anymore, the nit is futile to ask where it has turned to and to complain that, since it no longer has a where and a when, it is lost in nothing.[11]

The relative negation of the nihil privativum becomes the access to its “other”, otherwise with its transcendence, whose light shows the shadowness of “the world as will and representation”. Here beings keep in touch with their “not-hingness” by inverting the positive and the negative poles, announcing in that nothingness of beings the transcendence of the truth.

The threshold of nothingness becomes an intersection where the summit of the ascetical path becomes the receptive basis for a donation which exceeds the human measure, normally depressed under the pound of the finitude of existence. Thus, starting from this relative annihilation of the world, the effective contemplation of the idea can take place – a contemplation which was already anticipated in the figure of the artistic genius and that is presented once again in the beatitude of saints. This connection is clearly shown when Schopenhauer, in §68 of The World, describing the beatitude of the saints who have overcome the threshold of the individuation, recalls properly the aesthetic experience:

If the negation of the will has arisen in someone, that person is full of inner joy and true heavenly peace, however poor, joyless and deprived his situation might look from the outside. […] We may recall from the Third Book that the aesthetic pleasure in the beautiful largely consists in the fact that we have entered into a state of pure contemplation, momentarily suppressing all willing, i. e. all desires and concerns. We are free of ourselves, as it were; we are no longer the individual correlated with the individual thing, whose cognition is at the behest of its constant willing, for whom objects become motives; we are instead the eternal subject of cognition, cleansed of the will, correlated with the idea. And we know that these moments, when we are released from the cruel impulses of the will and emerge from the heavy ether of the earth, are the most blissful ones we experience.[12]

This quotation permits to reconnect the Noluntas and the idea, only if we reconsider the Noluntas itself as the nihil privativum previously explained. The beatitude of the saint and the contemplation of the idea by the genius are the two ways through which it is possible to close the door to the usual world of representation and of the needs of the will, and to open a new horizon in which it is possible to let the “complete and reliable gospel” of eternity manifest itself. Eternity is here intended as a dimension proper to the idea which stands out over the finitude of the world – as the summit of Mont Blanc which shows itself at the sunrise on Chamonix, already shining bright in the light of the early morning, while the valley is still under darkness.[13]

The experience of the summit, ascetically conquered through the abandon and sacrifice of the common experience of the valley, leaves open the space for a more essential manifestation of finite beings. By putting itself on the hard path of the mountain, the ascetical thought reaches the point in which the negativity of what is ended can be overcome in a renewed horizon in which the finitude itself can be contemplated as an idea.[14]

2.2 Difference and lack of foundation

The ascetical path which leads Schopenhauer to the threshold of nothing, allowing him to be exposed to the true essence of the world, can also be found in Heidegger, and in particular in that articulation of his thought that reaches the “leap into the essence of the ground”. The path developed in Being and Time brought the hermit of Todtnauberg to ask about the boundary given by the radical experience of the “being-towards-death” and its peculiar temporality. The dimension of the intra-existential nothingness previously highlighted is not sufficient to give the reason for the demand of a destruction of metaphysics, nonetheless for that “fundamental ontology” which in his projects should have re-opened the basilar questions of thought. The misinterpretation of Being and Time as an existentialist work, thus, forced Heidegger to clarify his thought on Being, towards a rediscovery of the original experience in which thought and being could be found in their constitutive reciprocal belonging.

This aspect is in particular developed by Heidegger in the writings which followed the publication of Being and Time. Here all the efforts are directed to the clarification of the difference between beings and Being. It is about an experience which allows the thought to make a radical U-turn: from a mere calculating activity of the representative intellect into the receptive openness of a donation, in which the origin is shown as the spring of the horizon of temporality, as the essence (Wesen) of Being itself.

As it is well known, Heidegger dedicated to those themes most of his speculative efforts in all of his writings, both published and private. Just to make it possible to orient oneself in the huge amount of his writings of that period, in particular the work What is Metaphysics? (1929) and the linked writings of 1943 and 1949 will be referenced, in order to achieve the sense of the Abgrund, which completes the movement towards the difference and the exposition of the being-in-the-world on the threshold of the un-ground.

In the inaugural lecture of 1929 the determination of the ontological difference as a peculiar moment of the fundamental question of thought is clearly exposed. The Heideggerian analysis concerning the essence of metaphysics intends to reach the extreme limit of the Beingness of beings, trying to find on this limit the opening of that fundamental difference which should be able to question once again the deepest sense of metaphysical thought. To do that, as it is well known, Heidegger radically analyses the concept of “science”, intended as the form of knowledge which guarantees the owning of the being as an object. Heidegger leads his thesis to the extreme consequences until he reaches the conclusion that science, being involved only in the knowledge of “what it is”, otherwise of the being, is involved only with it and all the rest concerns “nothing”. That “nothing” is thus discovered in a preliminary way, starting from the extreme regard accorded to the scientific questioning: only the being, and nothing else.

Here again arises the question on which Being and Time stopped its curse: the annihilation of all the intra-existential possibilities of the “being in the world”. Thus it is not a coincidence if in the inaugural lecture the question is repeated about anxiety as what puts Dasein in front of the extreme possibility of its nothingness.

In this lecture, however, Heidegger goes over and tries to understand how that threshold of thought is given. Nothingness is not simply the result of the sinking of the being-in-the-world in its groundlessness: nothingness “annihilates”. This is what permits the power of negation of the “not” inside the representation of “beings”. As Heidegger says: “The ‘not’ does not originate through negation; rather, negation is grounded in the ‘not’ that springs from the nihilation of the nothing”[15]. Thus nothingness makes it feel its negative action, which is given by that threshold of the difference between Being and beings. Nothingness itself is for Heidegger the threshold, the boundary, which allows to show the nearness of what is “different”.

In this sense nothingness becomes the “veil” of Being, otherwise the first “presentation” of what, in its power of nihilation, makes clear the first echo of its “essence” (Wesen). As it is clarified by Heidegger in the Post scriptum of the 1943, the inaugural Lecture “thinks out of an attentiveness to the voice of being and into the attunement coming from this voice, attuning the human being in his essence to his claim, so that in the nothing he may experience being”[16].

The threshold of the difference is hence the “place” in and from which nothingness shows a different belonging, by manifesting the origin of its power of annihilation. That power is not merely given by the simple implosion of the finitude of beings, but that implosion itself can be caught only starting from the manifestation of Being itself in the difference. Only in this sense, the suppression of all the voices of consciousness, the fading of all the intra-worldly determinations, the renounce and the absence, conceived as prominent traits of the ascesis of thought – already present in Heidegger’s philosophy – can be justified in their authentic root. As Heidegger says:

One of the essential sites of speechlessness is anxiety in the sense of the horror to which the abyss of the nothing attunes human beings. The nothing, as other than beings, is the veil of being. Every destiny of beings has already in its origins come to its completion in being.[17]

What is shown on the boundary of the ontological difference is the pure manifestativeness of Being in its groundless ground. The nihilating action of nothingness – as previously said – is what permits the nearness of Being which can be caught as that Ab-grund: the abyssal fund of Being. In the works following the inaugural lecture What is Metaphysics, Heidegger will attempt to clarify the manifestation of the ontological difference as a “leap” into the essence of the Ground (Satz in das Wesen des Grundes). For Heidegger, the leap is what permits to achieve Being itself in the act of its retraction in its being concealed.

That aspect is particularly shown in works such as The Principle of Sufficient Reason, the Conferences of Freiburg on the principle of identity and afterwards in Identity and Difference as well as in his posthumous work Contributions to Philosophy. In all of those writings the dimension of the Abgrund is highlighted in order to show the constitutive groundlessness of Being as its most original condition and essence (Wesen). For Heidegger, it is possible to move towards this essence only by leaping into it. It is a leap by virtue of which the thought inverts its direction: from the representative and calculating consideration of beings towards the meditating and poetizing for which experiencing the groundlessness of the Principle does not involve a mere annihilation, but, rather, the opportunity to rediscover the deepest essence of our own.

This aspect becomes particularly evident when Heidegger reflects on the basilar principles of thought, such as the principle of sufficient reason[18] and of identity[19]. Both of them show themselves as a threshold exposed to the apparent nothingness of Being. The basilar principles of thought are fundamentally groundless, as Heidegger states referencing to the principle of identity:

What appears to lie at the ground of the basic principle A is A, this ground that the statement exposes, the sameness of something with itself, is nothing that lies before, nothing that lies at ground, and in this sense it is no longer ground. But because it is no longer a ground, we speak in a rigorous and sober sense of an abyss [Ab-grund]. […] Thinking only reaches into its abyss when it sets itself apart from every ground. In such setting apart the kind of setting and kind of statement have already altered. Principle now no longer means θέσις, rather saltus. The principle becomes a leap. Grounding-principles are leaps that set themselves apart from every ground and leap into the abyss of thinking.[20]

The annihilating action of nothingness, thus, by bringing the thought on the threshold for a leap into the Abyss, puts the thought itself in the need to feel the absence of necessity, freeing itself for the possibility of overcoming. By leaping over the usual determinations of the representative reason, the thought can be brought to its most original essence which, by consuming the shadows of representation, manifests its unity. Also in the case of Heidegger, as in Schopenhauer, the consummation of the representative determinations does not involve a mere negation of beings and, consequently, nihilism; rather it involves the necessity of a more original and radical experience of thinking, as rooted in its fundament.

3. The “sapid” nothingness: between Epiphilosophy and Gelassenheit

In this last part of the contribution the possibility will be presented to take a glimpse beyond the threshold indicated by Schopenhauer and Heidegger in order to try to see how unique is the “thing” (die Sache), that through its concealing under the veil of “nothing” shows itself and at the same time recoils itself under the “letter” of their public thoughts. What is at stake here is the possibility, already established by Heidegger, to act in line with that hermeneutic attitude of thinking which tries to go beyond the saying of thinkers in order to get back to the same origin which discloses itself.

Thus, what is that disclosure beyond the vacuum of existence on the threshold of the difference? If it has been possible, until now, to reflect on the negativity inside the empty futility of existence as a mere being outside (a mere ex-teriority, as the word ex-sistence suggests), which continuously crashes on the limits of its finitude; if it has been possible to speak about nothingness which shows the threshold on which the finitude of existence is exposed, by protruding itself on the difference between Being and beings, otherwise between “world as will and representation” and “idea”; all this has been possible because of the annihilating action of nothing which was able to recall existence towards the awareness of its constitutive nullity, generating the threshold of the ontological difference as the spatial-temporal “place” of the concealing of the sense of Being.

The dearth of existence, which feels its own condition of finitude, is deeply rooted in that unvaried recoiling of the Ground, of the One, which is essentially destined to remain impermanent in the regione dissimilitudinis. Here the unitary sense of Being can only be manifested in “rare instants”, which cannot be stabilized in the continuous flux of time, unless they become ineffective in their revealing power.

That is the reason why Schopenhauer is clearly ambiguous in the determination of the aesthetic dimension: the idea is given in the rare experience in which the beauty of the world is manifested, so that an extra-worldly joy is shown in this revelation that cannot be maintained and, moreover, needs to be concealed in its innermost essence. From here arise many of those contradictions which make the Schopenahuerian thought so stimulant as an “experience of thought”. The hermit of Frankfurt urges to resolve the enigma presented by himself with extreme intellectual honesty, by virtue of which we are brought to ask ourselves whether this life is worth living or not. However, this question should not be interpreted, as usual, as the result of the pessimistic view of Schopenhauer, but even more as the result of a radical interrogation about the ontological foundation of the world and about the position of man in this world. In this sense, the authentic Schopenhauerism is neither a mere doctrine of the will, nor a pessimistic asceticism, moralistically compromised, but a radical and incessant interrogation about the relationship between the One and the multiplicity.

Schopenhauer clearly caught that aspect in the question that crosses all of his masterpiece concerning the recoiling of the sense of Being in front of the affirmation of existence conceived as the horizon of the empirical consciousness. The World is no more than a detailed phenomenology of the empirical consciousness progressively brought to its depletion on the threshold of nothingness where the consciousness itself “should” be projected in the dimension of the idea. I underline the conditional “should” because it explains the ambiguous position of the “doctrine of the idea” in the World, which is half-way between “will” and “noluntas”. A sort of hybrid, the idea is the first objectivation of the will, but, at the same time, the manifestation to the “pure” subject of knowledge of the beauty of the world in light of which Schopenhauer, going over his normal pessimism against the world, uttered: “Yet how aesthetic nature is!”[21]. A testimony that also most insignificant things can shine in a different, unusual way – like it happens in the still lives of the Dutch painters, as Schopenhauer himself remembers as an example of deep beauty which is present in the world, beyond its negativity.

This manifestation of the world in its supreme beauty, however, was not sufficient for Schopenhauer for a full affirmation of the “better consciousness”, which remains in his works a projection, and fundamentally an absence. The sense of impossibility and impotence which is peculiar to the last pages of The World remains, as long as the abandon to the recoiling of the sense of Being is given as an enigma to which the vision is not able to give the full access key. In any case, it is significant that Schopenhauer gives to the reader many examples of that living experience which is denoted by an unusual approach to the world. Among those examples, Schopenhauer recalls the German mystics Meister Eckhart, Tauler and Suso, Saint Francis cited from Saint Bonaventure’s Vita Nova, and Scoto Eriugena. These are thinkers and saints who have indicated in the unspeakability of the mystic experience the recoiling gift of the re-velation, as that “sapid nothingness”, which can be determined as the centre of the authentic experience of the One.

In this experience nothingness is thus given in its authenticity, as that unspeakable which is revealed beyond the threshold of the difference. Nothingness becomes the cypher of an irruption in the heart of One itself, in which the trait of the difference is given as long as it is overcome, in the supreme experience of the reunifying power of the One. That kind of experience of nothingness can be greeted as a gesture of proximity and nearness with something that, in its distance, is nearer than every intimacy. It is the same experience that in the Sufi mystics is described with the Koranic verse which says that Allah is closer to man than his jugular vein[22]. This is the same in Saint Augustine’s “intimior intimo meo”, otherwise that in-tentio where God can be traced beyond the spatial-temporal distension of the soul. The gift of that in-tension is in fact the place of an encounter where a double abandon[23] is realised and where “nothingness” is transfigured.

The theme of the abandon, here introduced, recalls the Augustinian root of the Heideggerian philosophy. As it has been possible to note, Heidegger is often ambiguous in his philosophy: his concept of truth is ambiguous in its swinging between Lethe and Aletheia; his concept of temporality is ambiguous in its swinging between inauthenticity and authenticity; freedom and destiny are ambiguous as long as they change one into another; nothingness itself is ambiguous in its continuous swinging between absence and allusion to a presence always evanescent in its recoiling and concealing in the lack of foundation of the Ab-Grund.

The meeting point of all those ambiguities can be traced in the Gelassenheit, intended as the summit where the knots of the Heideggerian thought converge and find their solution. It is not a coincidence that the work where the theme of the Gelassenheit is presented is a dialogue titled Zur Erörterung der Gelassenheit. The word Erörterung contains the term Ort which in German means the “place”, but also the “summit” or “extremity”. In this sense, the “indication of the place” (Er-örterung) of the abandon (Gelassenheit) indicates at the same time the gathering of the whole experience of thought in that “peak” which has no determination. The experience of the Gelassenheit is the approach to that dimension of nearness of what is absolutely distant, that cannot be dominated nor possessed by man, but that can be touched by the country wayfarer which dialogues with his companions in the silent listening of the springing of the essence of Being. That silent achievement of the spring of Being, typical of the experience of the Gelassenheit, shows a more original experience of nothingness, whose sense is beyond irradiation of every light and only a step behind (Schritt Zurück) can lead us to it.

The recoiling of the sense of Being in the Ab-grund loses the merely negative determination of the “lack of foundation” in order to become the impulse, the original beat which gives its rhythm for the disclosure of every manifestation. In this sense, it is possible to notice here a more radical turn of the significance of “nothingness”: here it is revealed as the essence of the Principle, of the One, in the experience which, by freeing from every representative determination, consents to reach the true essence of Being itself. In this sense, the double significance of the term Gelassenheit becomes clear. On the one hand, it means the “abandon” in the sense of an absence, just like the deserere of the desertum in Latin: an empty place, hostile for life, where it is impossible to use the will to power. On the other hand, the Gelassenheit can bring to a silence which can reconnect and put in communication with the original pulse of the One, with the spring from which the truth starts and manifests itself.

In this sense, the lack of foundation to which the gushing of the phenomenological light belongs recalls a duplicity which is far beyond every ambiguity: this is the access to another level of thought where nothingness no longer signifies the absence and the vacuum of the desert, but rather the incomprehensible essence of that “divine darkness” which speaks to everyone as the “intimior intimo meo” previously highlighted. That is the unobjectivable presence which foreruns every time and every foundation as the original “-ject” of every possible “pro-jection” in its possible foundation as an “event”.

Thus it is not a coincidence if the medieval mystical tradition, rooted in Augustinism, makes it feel its Dionysian ascendant as it recalls in Saint Bonaventure the “divine darkness” as the summit of the ascetical experience of thought. That darkness, as explained, is not a mere nothing or a mere negation of the representative determinations of metaphysical though. Rather, it is the sense of a revelation which finds in the deep core of embodied experience the final and original reason of its ascending. In the end, the caligo becomes the apex mentis, otherwise the apical experience of the supreme contemplation of the One, of the principle, no more merely known by theoretical reason, but felt in its integrity inside and beyond every human possibility. As Saint Bonaventure says in his Itinerarium Mentis in Deum:

Dicendo cum Dionysio ad Deum Trinitatem: “Trinitas superessentialis et superdeus et superoptime Christianorum inspector teosophiae, dirige nos in mysticorum eloquiorum superincognitum et superlucentem et sublimissimum verticem; obi nova et absoluta et inconconversibilia theologiae mysteria secundum superlucentem absconduntur occulte docentis silentii caliginem in obscurissimo, quod est supermanifestissimum, supersplendentem, et in qua omne relucet, et invisibilium superbonorum splendoribus superimplentem invisibiles intellectus” […] Si autem quaeras, quomodo haec fiant, interroga gratiam, non doctrinam; desiderium, non intellectum; gemitum orationis, non studium lectionis; sponsum, non magistrum; Deum, non hominem; caliginem, non claritatem; non lucem, sed ignem totaliter inflammantem et in deum excessivis unctionibus et ardentissimis affectionibus transferentem.[24]

Someone could probably say that with those words we are far away from the original intentions of both Schopenhauer and Heidegger, but it may be that we have reached nearness with that unique thought that in both of them has left itself to be thought. In their faithful abandonment to the radical experience of nothingness, both Schopenhauer and Heidegger tried to grasp its innermost sense as the trace which leads from existence to the One.

  1. A. Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. 1, J. Norman, A. Welchman, Ch. Janaway (ed.), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2014.
  2. Cf. E. Levinas, Discovering Existence with Husserl and Heidegger, R. A. Cohen and M.B. Smith (eds.), Northwestern University Press, Evanston (Ill.) 1998.
  3. 1 Thessalonians 5:2.
  4. As Schopenhauer writes: “Time is that which always makes fools of us and we never see through its little game” (A. Schopenhauer, Early Manuscruipts, E.F.J. Payne (Ed.), Berg, Oxford 1988, n. 154, p. 97).
  5. “That awareness of a beginningless past and his astonishment at the present, at that one thing which I can never for one moment lose sight of, these two are an illusion, or rather they are the temporal expression of my supertemporal being” (ivi, n. 22, p. 15).
  6. Cf. in particular A. Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. 2, E.F.J. Payne (Ed.), Dover, New York 1958, p. 247.
  7. M. Heidegger, Being and Time, J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson, Basil Blackwell, Oxford 1985, p. 280.
  8. Ivi, p. 331.
  9. “The ahead-of-itself is grounded in the future. In the Being-already-in the character of having been is made known. Being alongside becomes possible in making present”, ivi, p. 375.
  10. A. Schopenhauer, The World, vol. 1, §71, p. 436.
  11. Ivi, §71, p. 437.
  12. Ivi, §68, pp. 416-17.
  13. Cf. A. Schopenhauer, The World, vol. 2, pp. 380-381.
  14. Obviously it is hard to recognize this result in the Schopenhauerian thought especially because in the writings after The World he insists more on the negative aspects of his philosophy than on the “positive” ones. This interpretation, of course, tries to overcome the idea of Schopenhauer as a thinker of negativity in order to clarify his thought in the light of his juvenile writings. From this point of view, it will be possible to conclude that all the negativity of the appearance of the world serves a higher manifestation: the manifestation of the idea as the true thing in itself which shows the deep Platonism of the Schopenhauerian thought. For more on this, see in particular E. Mirri, Saggio introduttivo a A. Schopenhauer, La dottrina dell’idea. Dagli Scritti giovanili a Il mondo come volontà e rappresentazione, Armando, Roma 1999 and also M. Casucci, Idea and Concept in Schopenhauer. From the Early Manuscripts to The World as Will and Representation, in Schopenhauer’s Fourfold Root, J. Head and D. Vanden Auweele (eds.), Routledge, New York 2017, pp. 126-143.
  15. M. Heidegger, What is Metaphysics?, in Pathmarks, edited by W. McNeill, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1998, p. 92.
  16. M. Heidegger, Postscript to What is Metaphysics?, in Pathmarks, p. 234.
  17. Ivi, p. 238.
  18. Cf. M. Heidegger, The Principle of Reason, edited by R. Lilly, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis 1996. The reflection on the principle of sufficient reason is another very similar aspect of Heidegger’s and Schopenhauer’s philosophy. However, the results are quite different because for Schopenhauer the principle of sufficient reason remains in the dominion of the illusion with the consequence that all the world is no more than an aspect of the will and the object of art (the Idea) cannot achieve the true power of liberation. For Heidegger, on the contrary, the principle of sufficient reason is not a mere illusion. Even if it is presented as a product of the calculating reason, it can be heard on a different level: as the opportunity of a leap (Satz) in the essence of the fundament. In this sense, for Heidegger, there is no reason to condemn the world to be a mere illusion, and the art can be valued as an opportunity to find the true manifestation of Being itself.
  19. Cf. M. Heidegger, Identity and Difference, edited by. J. Stambaugh, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London 2002.
  20. M. Heidegger, Bremen and Freiburg Lectures, A.J. Mitchell (ed.), Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis 2012, p. 105.
  21. A. Schopenhauer, The World, vol. 2, p. 404.
  22. “And We have already created man and know what his soul whispers to him, and We are closer to him than [his] jugular vein”, Koran, 50-16.
  23. That double abandon is both the abandon to the nothing intended as the negation of every consciential determination and to the nothing intended as the absence of God. This double abandon is constitutive of the revelation itself intended as overcoming the representative dimension of metaphysics.
  24. Sanctus Bonaventura de Balneoregio, Itinerarium mentis in Deum, capp. 5-6.

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