The Person and the Problematic of Death

The human individual has often been viewed in the Western world as a synthesized combination of a living organism and a "personality system" (an older terminology made the person a combination of "body" and "mind" or "soul"). It is in fact no more mystical to conceive of a personality analytically distinct from an organism than it is to conceive of a "culture" distinct from the human populations of organisms who are its bearers. The primary criterion of personality, as distinct from organism, is an organization in terms of symbols and their meaningful relations to each other and to persons.

Human individuals, in their organic aspect, come into being through a process of bisexual reproduction. They then go through a more or less well-defined "life course" and eventually die. That human individuals die as organisms is indisputable. If any biological proposition can be regarded as firmly established, it is that the mortality of individual organisms of a sexually reproducing species is completely normal. The death of individuals has a positive survival value for the species.

As Sigmund Freud said, organic death, while a many-faceted thing, is in one principal aspect the "return to the inorganic state." At this level the human organism is "made up" of inorganic materials but is organized in quite special ways. When that organization breaks down—and there is evidence that this is inevitable by reason of the aging process—the constituent elements are no longer part of the living organism but come to be assimilated to the inorganic environment. Still, even within such a perspective on the human individual as an organism, life goes on. The human individual does not stand alone but is part of an intergenera-tional chain of indefinite durability, the species. The individual organism dies, but if he or she reproduces, the line continues into future generations.

But the problematic of human death arises from the fact that the human individual is not only an organism but also a user of symbols who learns symbolic meanings, communicates with others and with himself or herself through them as media, and regulates his or her behavior, thought, and feelings in symbolic terms. The individual is an "actor" or a "personality." The human actor clearly is not born in the same sense in which an organism is. The personality or actor comes into being through a gradual and complicated process sometimes termed "socialization."

Furthermore, there is a parallel—in my judgment, something more than a mere analogy—between the continuity of the actor and that of the organism. Just as there is an intergenerational continuity on the organic side, so is there an intergenerational continuity on the personality or action side of the human individual. An individual personality is generated in symbiosis with a growing individual organism and, for all we know, dies with that organism. But the individual personality is embedded in transindividual action systems, both social and cultural. Thus the sociocultural matrix in which the individual personality is embedded is in an important sense the counterpart of the population-species matrix in which the individual organism is embedded. The individual personality dies, but the society and cultural system, of which in life he or she was a part, goes on.

But what happens when the personality dies? Is the death of a personality to be simply assimilated to the organic paradigm? It would seem that the answer is yes, for just as no personality in the human sense can be conceived as such to develop independently of a living organism, so no human personality can be conceived as such to survive the death of the same organism. Nevertheless, the personality or actor certainly influences what happens in the organism—as suicide and all sorts of psychic factors in illnesses and deaths bear witness. Thus, although most positivists and materialists would affirm that the death of the personality must be viewed strictly according to the organic paradigm, this answer to the problem of human death has not been accepted by the majority in most human societies and cultures. From such primitive peoples as the Australian aborigines to the most sophisticated of the world religions, beliefs in the existence of an individual "soul" have persisted, conceivably with a capacity both to antedate and to survive the individual organism or body. The persistence of that belief and the factors giving rise to it provide the framework for the problematic of death in the Western world.

100 Health Tips

100 Health Tips

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