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The word 'nothing' symbolically represents nothing-in-itself. But how can we refer to something that by definition is not there?

To make this clearer: the word 'horse' refers to an actual living horse.

we may take an alternate tack and consider the empty set. This also refers to 'nothing' but in the sense of mathematics, which is not in the sense of philosophy.

To make this clear - note that mathematics is structural, so we identify things by what it is that they do. In this sense, the empty set is defined by what it does with other sets - nothing.

But Nothingness-in-itself or to use Parmenides language, the Void, does no such thing - as it 'is not'

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    Privation is an ens rationis, so your question is then: "How can a sign refer to an ens rationis?" – Geremia Jun 6 '14 at 0:27
  • @Geremia: Is 'privation' a technical term? I've heard of a privative in linguistics - is it linked to this; and what do you mean by an ens rationis? – Mozibur Ullah Jun 7 '14 at 3:00
  • An ens rationis ("being of reason") is a non ens ("non being"), in contrast to an ens reale. See also my answer below: – Geremia Jun 7 '14 at 20:49
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The lesson that should be drawn from what you say is that 'nothing' is not a referring term, but a quantifier. If you want to assign a separate semantic value to 'nothing' over some domain, D, take the singleton of the empty set (one of the 'generalized quantifiers' over D). To get at least the semantics of simple sentences going, where 'nothing' takes subject position, let VPs denote subsets of D and add the rule: a sentence of the form NP+VP is true (relative to D) iff [VP] ∈ [NP], where NP represents quantified NPs ([VP] ([NP]) is the denotation of VP (NP) over D).

So, the sentence 'nothing is asleep' is true iff [is asleep] ∈ {∅} iff the set of sleepers is empty. These truth conditions seem to work quite well and they don't presuppose strange creatures such as nothingness. So, sometimes apparent philosophical riddels turn out to rest on bad semantic theories about the puzzling expressions.

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    I thought it would be common to give reasons for downvoting a post. After all, I answered the OP's question: What is (a good candidate for being) the meaning of 'nothing'? So why the downvoting? – sequitur Jun 6 '14 at 0:24
  • I could try to guess why, but instead I'll just say that I fully support this view. You've described it well. – Hunan Rostomyan Jun 6 '14 at 0:58
  • nice answer - I agree with you truth-conditions as you've described works well when one is talking about language used conventionally, ie orientated to the natural world; but when the language is used philosophically, it becomes somewhat more awkward. – Mozibur Ullah Jun 6 '14 at 2:00
  • Well, the apparent problems concerning the word 'nothing' arise from our (maybe conflicting) semantic intuitions about this word. These intuitions are at least partially determined by our competent or 'conventional' uses of the word. Philosophical uses, on the other hand, are attempts to solve the problems via conceptual analysis, explicit assignment of semantic values etc. To be sure there are problems concerning existence and language, the most difficult being empty names. Here, there is no denying the fact that the problematic expressions are, in some sense, referring expressions. – sequitur Jun 6 '14 at 11:19
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Privation is a technical, philosophical term. Is is "non-existence in act[uality]," in contrast to "being in potency [potentiality,] which is matter" or being "through which something comes to be in act[uality,] which is form" (this, §8 ff.). These are "the thee principles of nature." (§9 of this). Also, "privation is not said to be a per se principle, but rather a per accidens [accidental] principle." (ibid.). It differs from negation "because negation does not determine a subject." (§10 of this). Since "privation is a principle in becoming and not in existing" (§12 of this), "privation is placed among the principles and not among the causes, because privation is that from which generation [coming-to-be] begins. But it can also he called a per accidens cause in so far as it is coincident with matter". (§23 of this).

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