Western Philosophical Thought

For both humankind generally and each living person individually, the recognition of the universality and inevitability of death is but the beginning of the problem of death. Indeed, recognizing death as the individual and collective fate of human beings, and of all living creatures, creates the problem of death: Why does it happen? What does it mean? Is death final? Is death a good thing or a bad thing? At least as often these questions emerge for us in their mirror image, still provoked by death: What is the meaning of life, its purpose? Can life be meaningful if it ends in death? What purposes could outlast the inevitability of my death?

Philosophers have struggled with a human fear of death. Recognizing the inevitability of death is very different from supposing death is final. At a very general level, philosophical reflections on death divide those who deny the finality of death and suppose there is ongoing, usually individual, self-consciousness after death, and those who regard bodily death as final, as the destruction of consciousness, but who offer consolation meant to assuage fear of the inevitability of personal extinction. A very few philosophers have found death to be inevitable, final, and horrible. What binds all together in a recognizably Western tradition are the analytically and argumentatively philosophical approaches each group takes and the exclusively human-centered character of their views.

Probably the single most persistent theme in Western philosophical reflection on death is the view that death is not the annihilation of the self but its transformation into another form of existence. The conviction that individual human beings survive death, perhaps eternally, has been very differently grounded and elaborated in the history of philosophy, but in some form has persisted and frequently dominated through antiquity, the long era of Christian theologizing, modernity, and into contemporary postmodern thinking. Considerably less attended to is the attempt to reconcile human beings to death's finality, to death as the end of individual human experiencing beyond which there exists no consciousness.

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