The Limits of Knowledge (4)

being-here and emptiness (ll)

How can existence in any form, even partial, be existentially empty? If our analysis of presenceas-process is correct in saying that the fundamen­tal dynamism of reality is change and becoming, and that change and becoming are in function of filling a need, then we find ourselves with an internal contradiction. Emptiness is nothing. As such it cannot be an explanation of the dynamism of presence.

If existence were simply static and at rest with itself, we would seem to have no problem. But since existence displays itself as an endless becoming fo­cused on being-here, “dragging” being-here into existence from moment to moment as if it were not here at all, we face a prob­lem whose solution seems beyond the reach of our concepts. For as we perceive it, existence acts as if it lacked the very thing that it is. Lack of “being” can only mean non-being, “nothing.” But, nothing, as we saw, is an absurd notion, because there is no such thing as “nothing.” Nothing does not exist and therefore cannot be known.

Existence, then, appears to be internally contradictory because by always moving to maintain itself it reveals an absence of self-possession. What is this absence? The circle of presence does not contain its explanation within itself. Where do we go from here? Beyond that circle, outside of being-here, human knowledge cannot function. For, outside of existence, there is no­thing.

Haven’t we gotten ourselves into this dead-end? After rejecting the validity of the traditional concept of “nothingness,” haven’t we simply resurrected it in another form, in a new guise, calling it emptiness? For what can emptiness “be” but another word for “no­thingness?”

“emptiness” is metaphor

The impasse stated in this form is only apparent, and it arises from taking emptiness to be a “factual” or literal concept referring to “something” which can only mean “nothing.” But emptiness is not nothingness because emptiness is not a concept, it is, as we’ve said all along, a metaphor. As metaphor, it does not answer, it rather preserves intact the significance of the question.

If we take emptiness as a literal concept and set “presence” and “emptiness” face-to-face, we discover that they cancel each other out; they cannot co-exist in the same mental construction. We cannot ask the question “how can presence be empty?” If “empty” is taken as a literal conventional concept, the question “how can presence be empty” is the same as asking “how can being be non-being.” That contradiction means that we have no way of understanding reality. And I believe it’s because we have confined our understanding of reality to what is mediated by conventional “literal” concepts and the so-called knowledge they produce. In the case we are considering that confinement is fatal. For “nothing” is a false concept, no matter what terms are used to describe it. It does not refer to anything at all.

Once we realize we are not using emptiness as a conventional concept, however, there is no inconsistency. Emptiness is a metaphor utilized to relate us to the living dynamism of reality — reality’s quest to remain itself. We have called it repeatedly, a self-embrace, and following Spino­za, conatus. Bergson called it the vital impulse, Schopenhauer called it will. In each case we are using an analogous human experience as a metaphor to describe this dynamism. We claimed we were justified in doing so because of the homogeneity of material reality. Everything is made of the same “stuff,” matter’s energy, including us. Emptiness does not refer to nothingness, but to a dynamism for self-posses­sion, a self-embrace, which, when mediated exclusively by conceptual knowledge, is unintelligible. But, ironically, while we do not know what it is, when we approach it through our metaphors we realize that we do indeed understand it — intimately, thoroughly, profoundly, implicitly — because we experience it as the inner living dynamism of our very selves. There is nothing in the world more familiar. It is our drive to survive. That is the basis for the validity of the me­ta­phor.

It was otherwise with the traditional use of the abstract concept “nothingness,” as we saw in chapter 1 and rejected. In that case there was an invalid attempt to generate a “proof” for the “necessity” of “being” based on the logical analysis of the opposition between the concepts of “being,” taken literally, and ”nothingness,” also taken literally. “Why,” the traditional metaphysicians asked, “is there something rather than nothing.” You can’t ask that question, for there is no such thing as nothing.  Neither of those concepts — “being” or “nothingness” — was considered to be anything but reliable representations of reality as it really is. It was precisely the impossible “reality” imputed to “nothingness,” however, that gave us the first clue to the untenability of the entire procedure. The essentialists had reified the concept of “non-being” and then tried to make real inferences about the character of “being” from it.

Emptiness as we use it metaphorically, however, refers to an entirely different notion. Rationally speaking, the metaphor concretizes the question as a conceptual quest; it doesn’t presume to provide a rational answer. We are proposing to understand the significance of an existential dy­namic whose internal contradictions we cannot reconcile in conventio­nal rationalist terms. The metaphor “emptiness,” inspired by our bodily human experience and praeter-conceptual understanding of the phenomenon, de­scribes in poetic terms what we do not conceptually comprehend but what we nevertheless experience and therefore understand intimately. This is a far cry from the claim to define the transcendent significance of “being” from a rational analysis of “non-being.” Our use of the meta­phor “emptiness” immediately directs us to a recognition of the non-intelligi­bility of the concepts involved and from there to an acknowledged conceptual ignorance, even as it describes existence as we experience it with uncommon accuracy. Unlike the function of the concept “nothingness,” which supposedly leads us to “know,” emptiness (the metaphor) leads us to “not-know,” or should we say to “un-know.” Emptiness serves to put a human face on the baffling interior living dynamism of all reality which we ex­perience intimately as the very core of what we are. We understand it more clearly, more distinctly and more thoroughly than anything else in the world. And from there we understand all existence even though we do not know what it is

We realize that existence is empty for us because even though we have it, we still thirst for it — we know what that’s like; we wake up with it every day. But clearly it cannot be “known” in conventional conceptual terms, and therefore it cannot be controlled. We understand it, not because we conceptualize it or can identify its cause but because we expe­rience it. We realize how accurately it defines us. It is a clear conscious embrace, a cognitively transparent experience but not a rational conceptual comprehension. We understand it; but we do not know what it is.

out of the impasse?

Rather than generate hypotheses to fill the conceptual gap, I am perfectly content that the final statement to be made on this question is that we can go no further — conceptually. We have encountered what Lonergan might have called a matter of sheer unintelligible fact.[3] The traditional “solutions” to the encounter with this philosophic dead-end, advanced in the West, in my opinion, have taken one of two paths. In the first, science-orien­tated reductionists ignore the problem by simply taking the existential dynamism for granted. They assume the unexplained existence of the embrace of existence and its manifestations in the survival drive and confine their analyses to what has subsequently evolved from it. They do not ask, as we do, what it is.

In the second, philosophers of the perennial essentialist tradition simply dismiss scientific questions as “not ultimate.” They have no respect for mere presence, or “matters of fact.”[4] They claim the real question exists only at the level of abstract “being” (and “non-being”) and proceed to a “solution” by crediting our concepts and therefore the human mental apparatus with something they do not possess — a separate genus of being called “spirit.” These “solutionists” (like Rahner and Lonergan) erect our very demands for knowledge into “proofs.” Thus they continue the fundamental circularities that have characterized Western thought from the beginning. I believe we have no justification for saying that the demand of our minds for an explanation is itself an explanation. To my mind, this is to revisit the Platonic error and the Anselm­ian trap. We imagine reality based on the functions and products of our minds. To present human conceptual knowing (verbalized abstraction) in such a way that its description requires the implied existence of an unknown (and admittedly unknowable) object, is a huge projection.

Rahner says Thomas Aquinas agrees that human knowledge is locked into the limitations of sense experience. “Transcendence” by scholastic definition goes beyond those limits. So everyone agrees, including Thomas: transcendence cannot be known directly. Rahner’s Thomas, however, is made to go further and say that the projections of human consciousness, (i.e., the ability to abstract), imply an absolute principle “pre-appre­hen­ded” by the mind, that never becomes itself the direct object of knowledge but opens us to another “realm” of knowledge. This is not a problem for Rahner because he believes “supernatural revelation” begins where direct knowing ends. The “absence of the implied object,” in his system, plays a vital role in the transition to other “facts” in the form of revealed beliefs.[5]

My analysis is different. At the end of my reflections the discovery of the emptiness at the heart of being-here puts me at a dead-end. I believe this is true of Spinoza, Schopenhauer and Bergson as well. I am aware that the apparent contradiction we encounter in the way matter’s energy is-here leaves us at the edge of a void. We have reached the end of our earth-bound knowing. From a conceptual point of view, the rest is darkness. At that point Schopenhauer and Bergson each limit themselves to a description of that darkness — as “Will” or as “Vital impulse” — it’s where the buck stops. Rahner, for his part, turns to revelation. What I claim, is that the only thing left … if one has the temerity to go further … is relationship.

relationship to the darkness

In some way, then, that is not clear, we suspect that if there is an “explanation,” it lies in that darkness into which we peer but cannot see — what we feel and touch as our very selves, what we understand so intimately and see so clearly and certainly but about which we can say nothing. We have little choice but to accept this situation because, however galling it might be, we ourselves awaken into a condition of absolute immersion in that darkness. We understand it with absolute clarity; we know of its creative power with absolute certainty; and we rely on it for our very ex­istence itself. Matter’s energy, the embrace of existence, is a matter of sheer unexplained empirical fact. It is as incomprehensible as it is absolutely familiar, undeniable and self-evident. It is the very fire and light of our lives, but utter darkness to our minds. It is us … and yes indeed, we understand it.

What do I mean? If an immersion-relationship to being-here is the defining feature of our organisms, ourselves, we fail to embrace the reliability of existence with its endemic thirst and emptiness at the risk of denying our very selves and the conditions under which we and our ancestors have been here and have evolved to become what we are. We cannot do that. We cannot sit in judgment on the circle of existence, matter’s energy, as if we stood outside of it; for not only our faculty of analysis and judgment but our very existence itself is an evolved function of matter’s energy. The internal incomprehensibility of being-here is now seen to have invaded our persons. The emptiness, the hunger to live, which we encountered in the dynamism of existence, material energy’s self-em­brace, we now see resides at the core of our very selves and lights the fire of our conscious presence; for we are-here without escape (not even death can annihilate the material energy that we are) and our very consciousness is a tool of our inherited determination to survive. We accept it. To fail to do so implies personal self-negation.

But notice: upon realizing that our analysis of existence could not explain itself, we did not physically annihilate nor disappear. Of course not. The contradictions we encountered in our rational ruminations had no impact whatsoever on being-here. Existence clearly is not dependent on our conceptualizations; the significance of being-here and the selectivity of rational consciousness do not move in the same plane. There is a reason why we cannot make deductions about reality from our ideas alone … it’s because our understanding of reality is not a function of ideas. Our consciousness is grounded in somatic experience, the organic immersion in matter’s energy. It also supports our conclusion that the neo-Thomists’ “transcendent thrust of consciousness” tells us nothing. Conceptualization with the logic of its required “explanations,” in other words, does not correspond to the reality we have come to realize is process — energy, a living dynamism we’ve described as a congenital self-embrace. And what we’re interested in is what reality is, not how we conceptualize it.


[1] Cf Creative Evolution, 1907 passim
 [2] Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea, Everyman London, 1995 tr Berman.
 [3] For an extensive discussion of Lonergan’s “unintelligible fact,” see appendix 2.
[4] Cf. Rahner, Spirit in the World., pp.162 and 175. And Lonergan, Insight, p.652.
[5] For a more complete treatment of this position see the appendix.

2 comments on “The Limits of Knowledge (4)

  1. Noel McMaster says:

    Hello, Tony.

    I would be interested in your thoughts on what might be called an ‘anthropological awareness’ as an ‘other’ dimension of our lives, that invites the presence of an ‘Other’.

    In brief, we are born into a material world and find ourselves living with and learning about what is judged to be worth following up. Thus we are generated by parents (family, into clan, tribe, society, into our present era); we are protected, more or less as time passes, and then helped to project ourselves into the world of the worthwhile which means we have learned from witnesses, exemplars, leading to wager on the worthwhile, with what Juan Luis Segundo calls ‘anthropological faith’. Such faith is carried by ‘ideology’, that is, by the instrumentality of material reality; faith and ideology are always in tandem, always inviting review, against a backdrop of non-verification until… we all die! Non verification is distinct from self-validation, or the way we punctuate our lives according to the values we have wagered on. Death obviously spells ‘other’ than what has gone before, and even an ‘Other’, from the sense of partnership with something, someone, other than ourselves during the course of our lives. Thus Segnundo spoke of ‘transcendent data’, the elements of faith and ideology which are not going to be verified until that moment of dying that awaits us all. Life is a project, there is so much to do within the limits of time and materialty given to us.



    • tonyequale says:


      Thanks for your interesting observations.

      I think it should be clear from the last part of this fourth installment that the invitation to “relationship” contemplates the very possibilities that your remarks suggest. However, the invitation is not based on “knowing” but rather on “un-knowing:” a cognitive posture grounded in somatic understanding produced by interpretation, realization, recognition, contemplative
      “be-holding” and other conscious procedures all expressible as metaphor.

      So, yes, that there is another dimension that is reached by “trust” but not grasped by concepts is the upshot of the enquiry.


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