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A brief note on Nothing.

By Thomas Conlon.

Nothing to see here.

KING LEAR SAYS to Cordelia, “Nothing shall come of nothing”. It may well be that the magpie in Shakespeare had purloined the phrase from a contribution to the millennia long debate on what, if any, meaning might be attached to the word “nothing”.

In the seventeenth century it was a debate over which the authority of classical antiquity still loomed. Aristotle took a rigorous view – nothing meant absolute nothingness. Not just was nothing a matter of the absence of any material substance, but also of any properties such as extension, location, ability to accommodate material bodies, or to facilitate their motion. One of the leading principles of his physics was that it was impossible that a rent could ever be torn in the plenum of substance to expose an underlying nothingness. According to him, everything that happens in the physical world was a consequence of the interaction of substances and nothing, indeed, could ever come of nothing.

The nature of empty space was one of the cruxes in the debate about nothing. Aristotle’s plenist views were, in great measure, supported by Descartes. Augustine was also of the view that space and time were not separable from matter – the words “when” and “where” could not meaningfully be applied to anything beyond the material universe. In The City of God he famously gave expression to his view with the aphorism “The world was not created in time but with time.” Another view, later more fully articulated by Kant, was that space and time arose solely from the human mind’s engagement with the world and, thus, they were not part of the objective furniture of the universe. Leibniz also advocated a variant of this general view.

OTTO VON GUERICKE entered this debate in the late 1650s as an experimental scientist seeking to accommodate new demonstrable phenomena of nature within a satisfying conceptual framework. His opus magnum, Experimenta Nova Magdeburgica, completed in 1663, dedicates an entire book, De Vacuo Spatio, to a discussion of the options and issues as they presented themselves in the mid-seventeenth century. In particular, he discusses at length the views of Aristotle, Descartes as well the pre-Kantian theory of the Spatium Imaginarium, before rejecting them all and forging his own doctrine. This held that the objective reality perceptible to our senses falls into two fundamental categories – the created and the uncreated.  The category of the created corresponds to Aristotle’s all-embracing category of substance. The material world falls into this category. Space and Time are however objective but uncreated. Being respectively infinite and eternal, they are direct and perceptible manifestations of the Divine nature. Although von Guericke does not use the phrase “sensorium Dei”, his views seem identical to those which served Newton as the conceptual foundation for the Principia and which are eloquently described in Scholia to the Principia and in the Opticks.

It is not clear if Newton drew any direct inspiration from von Guericke’s views. It is however possible. Isaac Newton’s friend Henry Oldenburg reviewed the Experimenta Nova in the Proceedings of the Royal Society in 1672, the year in which Newton became a member. Robert Boyle reproduced his electrostatic experiments for the Royal Society in November 1672, as, more than a decade earlier, he had reproduced and extended von Guericke’s experiments on the vacuum.


Thomas Conlon, Ph.D, has written a book, Thinking about Nothing, on Otto von Guericke. He is currently working on a translation of von Guericke’s letters to the Jesuit Kaspar Schott in the late 1650s.

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