25 April 2013

Sartre and the two sides of Nothingness

American Scientist, vol. 89, No. 5, September-October 2001, p. 459, review of The Book of Nothing: Vacuums, Voids, and the Latest Ideas about the Origins of the Universe by John D. Barrow. Pantheon Books (originally published in Great Britain by Jonathan Cape, a division of Random House UK, in 2000):

On this side of the boundary—that is, the scientific side—thrive frontier fields concerned with real issues, such as the nature of the physical vacuum, and concrete measurable effects, such as its gravitational influence on the expansion of the universe. In one respect, the physics in such a situation is relatively straightforward, even mundane: We perform experiments and explore the math, and hope that someday the "mystery" about it will disappear when somebody comes up with a set of rigorous formal rules to make the experiments intelligible. 

Backstage, on the Mysterious side of the boundary, we find those thinkers who lose interest in anything as soon as it is possible to say something simple, concrete or meaningful about it. Barrow includes for amusement a couple of brief extracts from Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness:

The Being by which Nothingness arrives in the world must nihilate Nothingness in its Being, and even so it still runs the risk of establishing Nothingness as a transcendent in the very heart of immanence unless it nihilates Nothingness in connection with its own being.

It seems incredible that books full of language like this are still taken seriously (indeed, they are treated as exceptionally deep scholarship!).

End of quotation from American Scientist.

P.S. Sartre's philosophical work appeared in 1943. In due time, it turned out that the copies were defective, one section being upside down. Rumour has it that not a single copy was returned, proving that nobody had made it that far. [Exact reference would be appreciated.]