In light of my interview today with Kory French on BreakThru Radio of NYC, Kory sent me the following email containing an interesting point:


Great conversation this morning. I am looking forward to the final cut. Interestingly, I read the following in an Arts Journal after we spoke and thought further on the subject: “Nihil est in intellectu quin prius fuerit in sensu”, “Nothing is found in the intellect which was not first found in the senses.” (Aristotle).

It made me think: Yes, nothing may be a complex concept for us to grasp, perhaps even ‘impossible’, but what is our sense of it? Does the mind not gather from experience and relativity already stored therein in order to make sense of the insensible? If this is true, than the mind is ‘gathering’ from something and is therefore unable to grasp nothing. Therefore, the only possibility for us when it comes to nothing is to sense it, not grasp it. Sense acts as a provider to the mind rather than a consumer of its products. The mind will always seek to pull from the feeling of sense, leaving sensation as the only possible conduit to nothingness.

(The quoted text is from: “A Gathering of Artistic Research: From New Science to Nameless Science” by Ross Birrell (Spring, 2009) and can be found at:

Feel free to use this email, thread or inspiration from it for a blog posting or comment on your Web site should you feel so moved.

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4 comments on “Aristotle and the sense of nothing

  1. Ronald Green on said:


    I actually touched upon this point in my book (p. 227), regarding the concept of infinity. Aristotle made the point that infinity is theoretically graspable, yet unreachable. He put it this way: “The infinite has a potential existence… There will not be an actual infinite”. Basically, this would be the difference between theoretical existence and actual existence.

    As usual, what seems to work for anything else, even infinity, doesn’t work for Nothing. Now while we can understand what infinity is in theory, we cannot do so with Nothing (the absence of everything), since to do so would require us to not be present. One can imagine what infinity is, since at least we are around to do so. And, I can add, even if we fail to really grasp what infinity is, we realise that we are grasping our non-ability.

    With Nothing, we can’t even get that far. We cannot get any further than imagining a world without us in it by “seeing” that world. But we are seeing it. If we weren’t around, we wouldn’t be able to see it.

    So you are right in saying that we gather from our experience and add to something. But adding is the opposite of subtracting, which we would have to do in order to imagine Nothing. And it is precisely the sense of nothing that stops us from understanding what Nothing is. Sense is a plus, that takes us even further from Nothing.

    To quote myself: “Nothing has the uniqueness of being finitely infinite.”

  2. The Unknown

    As we know, 

    There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know. 

    We also know 

    There are known unknowns.
That is to say 

    We know there are some things 

    We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know 

    We don’t know.

    U.S. Secretary of Defense (ret.) Donald Rumsfeld
    —Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

    I apologize to Ron for quoting a G.W. Bush administration member on a Web site about nothing. Perhaps there lies irony therein. And despite my loathing for the poet(?) I am quite fond of this little verse.

    We don’t know what we don’t know. In the case of nothing, while it may not fit within that specific conundrum, it certainly runs parallel in its paradox. Aristotle is correct to call infinity a potentially existence because of the theory of its being. And Ron is correct to say that this same idea cannot be applied to nothing.

    So to spin this on its head one more time, I wonder where Ron (or Aristotle or Rumsfeld) would classify “nothing” in the triad of knowns and unknowns above?

    For a further digression on this, check out last week’s Book Talk show by clicking on the link attached ( ) and then clicking on the forward icon next to the shoe.


  3. Tina Ryan on said:

    Do we ‘know’ that NOTHING is impossible or is NOTHING an ‘unknown unknown’?

  4. Ronald Green on said:

    Presumably you are referring to Nothing, the absence of everything. According to the arguments set out in my book, neither of the above applies to Nothing. You have to read the book in order to know whether the butler dunnit.

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