Conclusion

So far as Western society is concerned, I think the tolerability of this relatively open definition of the situation is associated with the activistic strain in our values, the attitude that human life is a challenging undertaking that in some respects may be treated as an adventure—by contrast with a view that treats human life as a matter of passively enduring an externally imposed fate. Even though Western religion has sometimes stressed humanity's extreme dependency on God, and indeed the sinfulness of asserting independence, on the whole the activistic strain has been dominant. If this is the case, it seems that humans can face their deaths and those of others in the spirit that whatever this unknown future may portend, they can enter upon it with good courage.

Insofar as it is accessible to cognitive understanding at all, the problem of the meaning of death for individual human beings must be approached in the framework of the human condition as a whole. It must include both the relevant scientific understanding and understanding at philosophical levels, and must attempt to synthesize them. Finally it must, as clearly as possible, recognize and take account of the limits of both our scientific and our philosophical understanding.

We have contended that the development of modern science has so changed the picture as to require revision of many of the received features of Christian tradition, both Catholic and Protestant. This emergence of science took place in three great stages marked by the synthesis of physical science in the seventeenth century, that of biological science in the nineteenth, and that of the action sciences in the nineteenth to twentieth.

The most important generalizations seem to be the following. First, the human individual constitutes a unique symbiotic synthesis of two main components, a living organism and a living personality. Second, both components seem to be inherently limited in duration of life, and we have no knowledge that indicates their symbiosis can be in any radical sense dissociated. Third, the individualized entity is embedded in, and derives in some sense from, a transgenerational matrix that, seen in relation to individual mortality, has indefinite but not infinite durability.

From this point of view, death, or the limited temporal duration of the individual life course, must be regarded as one of the facts of life that is as inexorable as the need to eat and breathe in order to live. In this sense, death is completely normal, to the point that its denial must be regarded as pathological. Moreover, this normality includes the consideration that, from an evolutionary point of view, which we have contended is basic to all modern science, death must be regarded as having high survival value, organically at least to the species, actionwise to the future of the sociocultural system. These scientific considerations are not trivial, or conventional, or culture-bound but are fundamental.

There is a parallel set of considerations on the philosophical side. For purposes of elucidating this aspect of the problem complex, I have used Kant's framework as presented in his three critiques. On the one hand, this orientation is critical in that it challenges the contention that absolute knowledge is demonstrable in any of the three aspects of human condition. Thus, any conception like that of the ontological essence of nature, the idea of God, or the notion of the eternal life of the human soul is categorized as Ding an sich, which in principle is not demonstrable by rational cognitive procedures.

At the same time, Kant insisted, and I follow him here, on the cognitive necessity of assuming a transcendental component, a set of categories in each of the three realms, that is not reducible to the status of humanly available inputs from either the empirical or the absolute telic references of the human condition. We have interpreted this to mean that human orientation must be relativized to the human condition, not treated as dogmatically fixed in the nature of things.

The consequence of this relativization that we have particularly emphasized is that it creates a new openness for orientations, which humans are free to exploit by speculation and to commit themselves in faith, but with reference to which they cannot claim what Kant called apodictic certainty.

If the account provided in the preceding sections is a correct appraisal of the situation in the Western world today, it is not surprising that there is a great deal of bafflement, anxiety, and downright confusion in contemporary attitudes and opinions in this area. Any consensus about the meaning of death in the Western world today seems far off, although the attitude reflected in this entry would seem to be the one most firmly established at philosophical levels and the level of rather abstract scientific theory.

A very brief discussion of three empirical points may help to mitigate the impression of extreme abstractness. First, though scientific evidence has established the fact of the inevitability of death with increasing clarity, this does not mean that the experience of death by human populations may not change with changing circumstances. Thus, we may distinguish between inevitable death and "adventitious" death, that is, deaths that are premature relative to the full lifespan, and in principle preventable by human action (Parsons and Lidz). Since about 1840, this latter category of deaths has decreased enormously. The proportion of persons in modern populations over sixty-five has thus increased greatly, as has the expectancy of life at birth. This clearly means that a greatly increased proportion of modern humans approximate to living out a full life course, rather than dying prematurely. Individuals living to "a ripe old age" will have experienced an inevitably larger number of deaths of persons who were important to them. These will be in decreasing number the deaths of persons younger than themselves, notably their own children, and increasingly deaths of their parents and whole ranges of persons of an older generation, such as teachers, senior occupational associates, and many public figures. Quite clearly these demographic changes will have a strong effect on the balance of experience and expectations, of the deaths of significant others, and of anticipation of one's own death.

Second, one of the centrally important aspects of a process of change in orientation of the sort described should be the appearance of signs of the differentiation of attitudes and conceptions with regard to the meaning of the life cycle. There has already been such a process of differentiation, apparently not yet completed, with respect to both ends of the life cycle (Parsons, Fox, and Lidz). With respect to the beginning, of course, this centers on the controversy over the legitimacy of abortion and the beginning of life. And concomitant with this controversy has been an attempt at redefinition of death. So far the most important movement has been to draw a line within the organic sector between what has been called brain death, where irreversible changes have taken place, destroying the functioning of the central nervous system, and what has been called metabolic death, where, above all, the functions of heartbeat and respiration have ceased. The problem has been highlighted by the capacity of artificial measures to keep a person alive for long periods after the irreversible cessation of brain function. The main point of interest here is the connection of brain function with the personality level of individuality. An organism that continues to live at only the metabolic level may be said to be dead as an actor or person.

Third, and finally, a few remarks about the significance for our problem of Freud's most mature theoretical statement need to be made. It was printed in the monograph published in English under the title The Problem of Anxiety. In this, his last major theoretical work, Freud rather drastically revised his previous views about the nature of anxiety. He focused on the expectation of the loss of an "object." For Freud the relevant meaning of the term "object" was a human individual standing in an emotionally significant relation to the person of reference. To the growing child, of course, the parents became "lost objects" in the nature of the process of growing up, in that their significance for the growing child was inevitably "lost" at later ages. The ultimate loss of a concrete human person as object—of cathexis, Freud said—is the death of that person. To have "grown away" from one's parents is one thing, but to experience their actual deaths is another. Freud's account of the impact on him of the death of his father is a particularly relevant case in point.

Equally clearly, an individual's own death, in anticipation, can be subsumed under the category of object loss, particularly in view of Freud's theory of narcissism, by which he meant the individual's cathexis of his or her own self as a love object. Anxiety, however, is not the actual experience of object loss, nor is it, according to Freud, the fear of it. It is an anticipatory orientation in which the actor's own emotional security is particularly involved. It is a field of rather free play of fantasy as to what might be the consequences of an anticipated or merely possible event.

Given the hypothesis that, in our scientifically oriented civilization, there is widespread acceptance of death—meant as the antithesis of its denial—there is no reason why this should lead to a cessation or even substantial diminution of anxiety about death, both that of others and one's own. Indeed, in certain circumstances the levels of anxiety may be expected to increase rather than the reverse. The frequent assertions that our society is characterized by pervasive denial of death may often be interpreted as calling attention to pervasive anxieties about death, which is not the same thing. There can be no doubt that in most cases death is, in experience and in anticipation, a traumatic event. Fantasies, in such circumstances, are often characterized by strains of unrealism, but the prevalence of such phenomena does not constitute a distortion of the basic cultural framework within which we moderns orient ourselves to the meaning of death.

Indeed, the preceding illustrations serve to enhance the importance of clarification, at the theoretical and philosophical levels, to which the bulk of this entry has been devoted. This is essential if an intelligible approach is to be made to the understanding of such problems as shifts in attitudes toward various age groups in modern society, particularly the older groups, and the relatively sudden eruption of dissatisfaction with the traditional modes of conceptualizing the beginning and the termination of a human life, and with allegations about the pervasive denial of death, which is often interpreted as a kind of failure of "intestinal fortitude." However important the recent movements for increasing expression of emotional interests and the like, ours remains a culture to which its cognitive framework is of paramount significance.

TALCOTT PARSONS (1 995)

Anxiety and Depression 101

Anxiety and Depression 101

Everything you ever wanted to know about. We have been discussing depression and anxiety and how different information that is out on the market only seems to target one particular cure for these two common conditions that seem to walk hand in hand.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment