Absence and Nothingness: A Conversation With Philosopher Roy Sorensen

November 15, 2023 by Sonja Johnston

Roy Sorensen is a Professor of Philosophy, University of Texas, Austin and a Professorial Fellow in Philosophy, University of St. Andrews. He is the author of Nothing: A Philosophical History (Oxford University Press, 2022). His earlier books include Seeing Dark Things: The Philosophy of Shadows, A Brief History of the Paradox, and A Cabinet of Philosophical Conundrums. He is interested in epistemology, metaphysics, and the philosophy of language.

Sorensen joins the Jackman Humanities Institute from November 20-25 as our 2023-24 Distinguished Visiting Fellow. As part of our Circle of Fellows during our theme year Absence, he will visit classes at UTM and UTSC, lead a graduate workshop at the JHI and participate in the Fellows' Lunch. Sorensen will give a public talk—Photographing Absen es: An Illustrated History—on November 23, 2023.

In this interview, Sorensen explores the philosophical concepts of "absence" and "nothingness" and delves into the motivations, experiences, and profound realizations that inspired him to investigate these abstract concepts. As he ponders the interplay between the tangible and intangible, he invites us to reconsider the ways in which absences shape our own perceptions.

What led you to explore the concepts of “Absence” and “Nothingness” in philosophy?

’Holes’! In that dialogue by David and Stephanie Lewis, an anti-materialist casually remarks that a piece of cheese has remarkably many holes. The materialist agrees. “Got you!” exclaims the anti-materialist: A hole in a material thing is an absence of matter, therefore, not everything is material! But this immaterial thing is not a thought or a spirit or some other intangible, invisible, entity.  Holes can be seen, felt, and manipulated. The accessibility of these familiar absences nominates them as guides to understanding mysterious absences such as omissions (absence of action), freedom (absence of obstacles) and death (absence of life). Holes may also help us understand the absolute absence behind `Why there is something rather than nothing?’.

Can you share any personal insights or experiences that led you on this path? Why photography?

The experience was frustration. I tried to avoid photographing shadows. But they kept creeping into the frame like cockroaches.  Eventually, I realized that I was unwittingly documenting the presence of absences. This photographic evidence of shadows is made stronger by their persistence.  

What does it mean to provide "photographic evidence of absences" and how does this challenge our understanding of evidence or truth?

Photographic evidence of a phenomenon mechanically reproduces it. This automatism expands the scope of photographic evidence beyond ordinary observation. A camera is both a microscope and a telescope for time. In 1887, the extreme empiricist Ernst Mach engineered a shadowgraph of the bow shockwave around a supersonic bullet. Unlike a hand drawn picture, the shadowgraph did not rely on beliefs or desires of an observer. Building a camera required input from beliefs and desires. Interpreting the camera’s output requires beliefs and desires. But the output itself is free of belief and desires. That is objectivity (absence of direct mental state involvement).

During your career as a philosopher, or your time as a self-proclaimed "absence tourist", what has been your most profound experience or realization that relates to the concepts of absence or nothingness?

Seeing the absence of the Twin Towers after the 2001 demolition was the most awesome spectacle of an absence. Their absence popped out of the skyline. When I lived in Greenwich Village, I looked to the Twin Tower Towers to learn which way was south.  The night after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the Twin Towers were merely blacked out. At night, this created an illusion of absence. After the 2001 attack, people were seeing a genuine absence.

Are there specific locations or subjects that have been particularly challenging or enlightening for you to photograph? Are there absences you’ve sought but found impossible to photograph?

In Prague, I thought it would be easy to photograph the absence of the large Stalin Monument in Letná Park. My companion wanted me to just take a photograph of the absence of the Stalin Monument in the hotel bar. Absence tourism is not that easy! When we went to the park, there were several places that it might have been. So my companion had to photograph me with each candidate. Later, I figured out which one had the absence of the Stalin Monument. The total darkness of a cave seems impossible to photograph. One can photograph a lit candle in an otherwise dark cave. But after blowing out the candle, many deny that the total darkness of the photograph is an absence of representation rather than a representation of absence.

Can one argue that every photograph also captures an absence by excluding what's outside the frame?

Yes, but Arthur Schopenhauer would pop his head out of his grave with a rebuttal. What is outside the frame is not excluded in the sense of being represented as absent. There is a photograph of Schopenhauer that puts his legs out of the frame. But the photograph does not represent him as having an absence of legs. The vanishing point of a photograph is a limit on representation despite being within the frame.  Photographs of railroad tracks converging in the distance draw the eye to exactly this interior limit. Schopenhauer regards death as a limit on your perceptions. You cannot experience your death. Others can experience your death. They can be harmed by your death. But not you. Your death will never happen in your lifetime!

How do different cultures or societies interpret or respond to the concept of absence? Have you come across a particular culture or society that has a unique perspective on absence or nothingness?

In the fifth century, philosophers from China, India, and Greece, simultaneously switched attention from what is to what is not. Absence was welcomed by Lao Tzu and Buddha. But it was rejected by Parmenides. Western philosophers, apart from the atomists, viewed absence as a threat. By and large, it still is.  After World War II, the French existentialists attempt a separate peace. The French language lays out a welcome mat for the absence tourist. “L’appel du vide” (“the call of the void”) is put right on one’s lips as one peers down from the Eiffel Tower.  Whereas English spits out negations with the single word `not’, French sandwiches the negated between a `ne’ and `pas’. French put Jean Paul Sartre on the look out for absences. Early in Being and Nothingness, a tardy Sartre reports having seen the absence of Pierre at a cafe. Sartre notes he did not see the absence of the Duke of Wellington. Pourquoi? Sartre did not expect the Duke of Wellington. Sartre concludes absences are creatures of expectation. He avoids the infinite proliferation of absences by making them subjective. For absences, to be is to be perceived not to be.

Absence and nothingness are topics that can be challenging to grasp. How do you approach making these complex topics accessible to a wider audience?

Handing people specimens is a good start. Offer a Mint-O-Green Life Saver to convince them that a hole can be touched. (Bonus: Turn off the lights and have them crush the mint;  it lights up.)  Or have them make a shadow with a moving hand and ask whether the shadow moves or just is a succession of shadows. If they say the shadow moves, have them throw a frisbee and ask whether the shadow of the frisbee rotates. Answers to those questions reveal how opinionated we are about absences.

Are there any future directions or projects that you’re particularly excited about or want to explore?

My main project is to show that absences are objective rather than creatures of expectation—as alleged by Sartre. Currently, I am designing a demonstration that a hole can be seen without seeing what it is a hole in. This is intended to demote the host of the hole to a mere visual aid. Holes are out there!

Roy Sorensen's exploration of absence and nothingness merges philosophy with tangible experiences and the art of photography. His insights challenge conventional perspectives, offering a fresh understanding of absences as objective entities that transcend subjective expectations.

Photographing Absen es: An Illustrated History

Join us on November 23, 2023, for a special lecture, "Photographing Absen es: An Illustrated History," where JHI's 2023-24 Distinguished Visiting Fellow Roy Sorensen will explore the intriguing relationship between photography and metaphysics. Sorensen's expertise spans epistemology, metaphysics, and the philosophy of language. This free event, open to all, includes a reception with light refreshments. Registration required. View our event listing for more information.

Would you like to win a copy of Nothing: A Philosophical History? Get your entry in before 4:00pm on November 22, 2023! One entry per person.