Hegel remarked in his discussion of the nothing in the Science of Logic that: “It is well known that in oriental systems, and essentially in Buddhism, nothing, or the void, is the absolute principle.” Schopenhauer concludes a discussion of the joy of death in The World as Will and Representation with the comment: “The existence which we know he willingly gives up: what he gets instead of it is in our eyes nothing, because our existence is, with reference to that, nothing. The Buddhist faith calls it Nirvana, i.e., extinction.” It is noteworthy that reflections on void, nihility, and extinction in early nineteenth-century German philosophical discourse explicitly refer to this mysterious discourse from the East that was frequently identified as “the cult of nothingness,” as scholars such as Roger-Pol Droit have described. In this paper, I reexamine how the interpretation of nothingness and negativity in Hegel and Schopenhauer informed their encounter with “oriental thought,” their reception of Buddhism as a philosophical and religious system centering on absolute negativity, and trace how they interpreted the central Buddhist concept of emptiness in relation to the Western idea of the nothing. Both authors cannot be adequately aware of the changing senses and complex argumentative discourses addressing the Sanskrit expression śūnyatā and the Chinese term kong 空 and do not recognize the problem of translating emptiness as nothing or void. We can trace in their writings moments of how the reception of Buddhist emptiness became interculturally interconnected with and a source for arguments concerning the nature of being and nothing in modern European philosophy. Relying on the same range of historical sources that were then becoming available in the modern German speaking world, Hegel and Schopenhauer perceived related philosophical questions in these sources, while arriving at conflicting diagnoses of their philosophical and practical significance.
Eric S. Nelson is Associate Professor of Humanities at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He works on Chinese, German, and Jewish philosophy. He is the author of Chinese and Buddhist Philosophy in Early Twentieth-Century German Thought (Bloomsbury, 2017) and Levinas, Adorno, and the Ethics of the Material Other (SUNY Press, 2019). He has published over seventy articles and book chapters and is the editor of Interpreting Dilthey: Critical Essays (Cambridge University Press, 2019). He co-edited with François Raffoul the Bloomsbury Companion to Heidegger (Bloomsbury, expanded paperback edition 2016) and Rethinking Facticity (SUNY Press, 2008); with John Drabinski, Between Levinas and Heidegger (SUNY Press, 2014); with Giuseppe D’Anna and Helmut Johach, Anthropologie und Geschichte: Studien zu Wilhelm Dilthey aus Anlass seines 100. Todestages (Königshausen & Neumann, 2013); and with Antje Kapust and Kent Still, Addressing Levinas (Northwestern University Press, 2005). He has also edited special topic issues of Frontiers of Philosophy in China and the Journal of Chinese Philosophy.