Source: p 193, Philosophy: A Complete Introduction (2012) by Prof. Sharon Kaye MA PhD (in Philosophy, U. Toronto)

Right now you are reading this book. Stop for a moment and think of yourself getting up and throwing the book out of the window...

Because this version of you doesn't exist, it is pure nothingness. Although you can't experience something that doesn't exist, you can experience the void it creates.

There are two possible versions of you: the one that goes on reading this book and the one that gets up and throws the book out of the window. Both are pure nothing, and therefore both are genuine possibilities for you.

Awareness of nothingness is a state of mind. You have to notice the things you are not in order to realize you are free. The problem is that most people most of the time avoid this realization because they are mired in bad faith.

Why is the bolded true? I understand that if I suspend reading after finishing the 2nd paragraph, then these two genuine possibilities have not been realised; but it still sounds strange to describe these two genuine possibilities as pure nothing?

  • I take it that Sartrean nothingness is not the Parmenidian nothingness; it's an interesting question why he chose to name this concept as such. Mar 23 '16 at 6:39
  • 1
    Well, it is negativity, as it is not actual, and of a being (state), therefore can be said to be nothingness, non-being. The thought that negativity is the main reason for the openness and vast number of possibilities for humans (in contrast to the rather determined nature of other beings) is quite old, found in indian philosophy, restated by e.g. Fichte and empirically founded in the early 20th century: Plessner wrote about negativity as a concept exclusive to humans and referred to empirical findings of Wolfgang Köhler in experiments with chimpanzees as early as 1917 (!).
    – Philip Klöcking
    Mar 23 '16 at 10:45
  • Perhaps you should consider nothingness, possibility and freedom as strongly linked in existantial philosophy. Every existance and positivity is a restriction of freedom.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Mar 23 '16 at 11:02
  • From any point of view that respects mathematics this is not a reasonable position. They are applications of alternate models to an initial condition. If that is pure nothing, then so is all of mathematics and half of physics.
    – user9166
    Mar 23 '16 at 14:23

Possibilities are pure nothings. Whitehead discusses the logic of possibilities or "eternal objects" (as he calls them) in Process and Reality and his many other works. Possibilities, in themselves, do exist but only as wholly non-actual--we abstract from the actual world in order to inquiry into boundless possibility. There are nothing without the realization of actualization. Before there can be the actual you, there has to be the possibility of you which is indistinguishable from nothing. Temporally speaking, past possibilities pertain to "might-have-beens" whereas future ones involve "might-bes." The possible qua possible makes room for infinitely many modes of formal relatedness. How or for what purposes possibilities are selected is a separate issue from their existence as pure nothings.

None of this is meant to suggest that the actual is superior to the possible or vice versa, as to posit some ontological necessity. Whitehead insists they are co-equal and seeks to avoid the bifurcation of nature.


Both are pure nothing

This statement is a striking illustration of Wittgenstein's saying:

For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.

Semantically "Nothing" is not a noun but a shorthand to negate the existence of a certain object. In the context of the quote it translates into

"There is no version of you, where you go on reading this book or where you throw out the book."

The discrimination between possible, real and necessary, e.g., in modal logic, is useful. The concept of a possible object or of a possible situation is at least a thought or an idea. And one can discuss whether the idea in question is logically consistent: A unicorn is a consistent idea while a square circle is not.

Hence to sum up and to answer the headline of your question: It is not correct to describe genuine possibilities as 'pure nothing'.

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