Contemporary Philosophy

The problem of death has not often been seen by contemporary philosophers as a choice between devising consolations for our finitude and demonstrations of our eternalness. For many, perhaps most philosophers early in the twenty-first century, the death of God is more than a century past, the grieving finished more than half a century ago. The problem of death, understood as the struggle to make life meaningful in an increasingly secular age plagued by the temptations of nihilism, continues. The little that philosophers in the present time have had to say about death—outside of chiefly moral concerns centering on choosing death—has tended to suppose death is final, not, in any form, to be survived.

German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), once a student of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), took as his project the application of phenomenological method to the fundamental question of metaphysics, the study of Being-as-such. To this philosophically most contentious enterprise in the twentieth century, Heidegger brought a particular concern for death. Since Heidegger is addressing the issue of why there is something rather than nothing, it is not non-existence of Being that concerns him, but rather how individual beings—most particularly, individual self-conscious human beings (Dasein)—can possibly come to not exist.

Heidegger uses language in highly idiosyncratic ways, so when he talks about possibility and non-possibility and impossibility it is best to leave our conventional (and philosophical) understandings of these terms behind and attend to Heidegger's peculiar uses.

Understanding our own being at a deep level requires the attainment of wholeness and authenticity, which enables life to be lived with integrity and clear thinking. Nothing is more central to this quest than an appreciation of temporality and possibility, which provides insight into Being in general and Dasein in particular.

Dasein aspires to wholeness, but has future possibilities open to it only so long as it exists and can freely choose. But so long as Dasein exists and can make free choices, it cannot be whole. Death appears to us an end of Dasein and of possibility, but is it the attainment of wholeness? How can non-existence constitute completion?

Heidegger's resolution of these paradoxes involves an analysis of the unique way in which Dasein has possibilities and of how these are limited. Dasein's possibilities are ever limited by the possibility of the impossibility of existing, which in Heidegger's discourse is a synonym for death. Yet Heidegger maintains that his view of death leaves open the question of afterlife.

Death creates for Dasein its ownmost possibility, one that invites a uniquely free choice in response to mortality from each individual. The certainty of death is the ultimate realization of each Dasein, experienced alone and not shared by another. Attaining authenticity requires Vorlaufen, literally a running forwards, metaphorically, an ever self-conscious anticipation of death—a being towards death—that will free one from life's trivia and focus on using freedom to create an authentic self.

Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) in philosophy, and Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) in psychoanalytic theory, were both influenced by Heidegger's thinking. Jung developed Heidegger's notion of being towards death as a central focus of his psychoanalytic theory, and Sartre, along with French writers Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) and Albert Camus (1913-1960) articulated some of the most distinctive things to say about the problem of death in the twentieth century. Building on Nietzsche's alienation from convention, despair at the death of God, and attraction to nihilism, and struggling with revelations of the distinctly human capacity for genocide revealed during the Holocaust and the era of nuclear weaponry, existentialists have sought ways to affirm against all odds the meaningfulness of individual human existence. A good deal of the spirit of this distinctive approach to death is captured in de Beauvoir's unsettling judgment on the very difficult dying of her mother:

There is no such thing as a natural death: nothing that happens to a man is ever natural, since his presence calls the world into question. All men must die: but for every man his death is an accident and, even if he knows it and consents to it, an unjustifiable violation. (p. 123)

Far from providing assurances of immortality or consolations designed to meet death with equanimity, existentialists recommend a rebellious, often angry response to the cosmic injustice that human beings die. Rebellion against or resistance toward death, however, is not recommended as a strategy for overcoming death; no illusions are allowed as to the inevitability and finality of death. Rather, for Camus especially, such resistance is recommended as an affirmation of one's decency, caring about life, and personal integrity. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Camus's novel The Plague, an extended allegory about any number of evils, not the least of which is death itself. Dr. Bernard Rieux and his closest friend, Jean Tarrou, struggle mightily against the ravages of the plague in the seaside town of Oran in Algeria. In time, however, Tarrou succumbs to the plague, and Rieux reflects on what it means:

Tarrou had lost the match, as he put it. But what had he, Rieux, won? No more than the experience of having known plague and remembering it, of having known friendship and remembering it, of knowing affection and being destined one day to remember it. So all a man could win in the conflict between plague and life was knowledge and memories. But Tarrou, perhaps, would have called that winning the match. (Camus, p. 262)

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