Parmenides showed Nothing is not the same as Zero; the second is a number, and the first is not, in more than one sense; it also differs from the Buddhist notion of Sunyatta, which is nothing in a difference sense (no-essence).

Aristotle suggests somewhere in his corpus, I don't have reference to hand, that One is also not a number; what are his reasons and where do I find it?

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from Aristotles Metaphysics; book 7, section 1039b

Substance can not consist of substances actually present in it; for that which is actually two can never be actually one, whereas if it is potentially two it can be one. E.g., the double consists of two halves—that is, potentially; for the actualization separates the halves.Thus if substance is one, it cannot consist of substances present in it even in this sense, as Democritus rightly observes; he says that it is impossible for two to come from one, or one from two, because he identifies substance with the atoms. Clearly then the same will also hold good in the case of number (assuming that number is a composition of units, as it is said to be by some); because either 2 is not 1, or there is not actually a unit in it.

  • 1
    I'm having difficulty tracking this down, but SEP has an "Aristotle and Mathematics" entry that might be something of a starting point for research (decent biblio)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Dec 13, 2014 at 16:00
  • "I [Jay Garfield] part company with Wood only when he goes on to interpret emptiness as complete nonexistence....Nagarjuna is working to show the merely conventional character of his utterance and that its utility does not entail the existence of any convention-independent reality as its semantic value. But this is a far cry from nihilism. See Garfield (unpublished) for a more sustained discussion of emptiness and positionlessness.” Nagarjuna, 1995. "The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika" , translated and commentary by Jay L. Garfield, p. 358. Dec 18, 2014 at 16:27
  • Also Hindu Upanishad commentators are very explicit when referring to Brahman. Brahman is referred to as 'One without a second' never as 'One'. Dec 18, 2014 at 16:29
  • @Vishwanada: One without a second, or one as the Whole were the kind of answers I was hoping Aristotle would be discussing. Dec 18, 2014 at 16:33

3 Answers 3


1 is not a number because 1 happens to be the (a?) unit. And a number, by definition, is a multitude of units. So clearly then, the two are distinct.

See Metaphysics 1052b35, Posterior Analytics 72a22, and Topics 108b30. To see why, for example, 2 is a number whereas 1 is a unit, see Metaphysics 1039a15.

  • Found this, seems related (from Physics 225a): "Number, we must note, is used in two senses - both of what is counted or the countable and also of that with which we count"
    – Joseph Weissman
    Dec 18, 2014 at 22:50
  • Doesn't this also mean that for Aristotle zero is also not a number? An absence of units is not a multitude of them.
    – user9166
    Nov 29, 2016 at 17:50
  • @jobermark Probably. Aristotle didn't have the notion of zero, as a name of number. Nov 30, 2016 at 21:29

For an interesting (and challenging) discussion of this problem, see Bernard Solomon’s article “One is No Number in China and the West” in the June 1954 (vol. 17) issue of the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, pp. 253-260.,

  • I think this is the kind of thing that I was looking for. It doesn't seem to be available online though... Jan 29, 2018 at 6:26
  • IIt is available at jstor.org - if you cannot get it there, I can email you a pdf. Jan 29, 2018 at 7:48
  • You’re most welcome! Solomon’s piece was highly praised by Sinologists such as J.R. Hightower and Achilles Fang (Fang Chih-t’ung), who recommended publication in HJAS. Jan 29, 2018 at 15:58
  • 1
    Could you perhaps add a brief surmise of the discussion for users that can not access the article. We generally prefer relatively self-contained answers to reference only.
    – Conifold
    Jan 29, 2018 at 20:35

It is your English that is tripping you up. Don't read nothing read no-thing or no thing. Very different from nothing.

  • Good advice! The hyphen can save a lot of confusion. I would recommend mathematician Robert Kaplan's book, 'The Nothing That Is - A Natural History of Zero'. . .
    – user20253
    Jan 30, 2018 at 13:11

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