My uncle is dying. He has, in his final days of life, become only marginally responsive to stimulus from the comprehending and comprehended beings active still in the world. He will be pacified, as much as is possible, with potent drugs to alleviate the agony of his dying from a complex illness. He hasn’t the strength to live so long as cancer leeches on his organs stealing from him all vitality and independence. This is the slow violence of cancer, which begins its usurious lifespan as a concealed dormancy, patiently awaiting its moment, fixing itself into a combative position so as to prime itself for the advance it will make through the body over, roughly, an 18 month period. It is destructive in the extreme, spreading to such an extent it destroys the environment it requires to exist: us. Unless medicated my uncle would not be able to exist even in his current, sedentary, state. His brain swells with the crescendo of his ownmost encroaching moment of death. I expect to receive a phone call any day…no, any moment now. He is part now of a fact of living. To retaliate against the will of the disease is to also retaliate against death. Death materialises as fear throughout the longer sections of the process of dying. It seems, at a certain point (for some), there is acceptance as the intense pain of living begins to far outweigh the will power to exist. We can only sit by and watch as somebody we love slides into absence. We are helpless because, as much as we think we can defeat the nature of our limits, we soon discover we can’t. They are insuperable.
Nobody wants to die. Even the person laced with suicidal impulses must gather a certain momentum in order to generate the will to inflict damage to their ownmost body. It is equally horrifying, in a tv show or movie, to watch a character shoot themselves without flinching, as it is to watch them scream & cry in response to the gun they have turned against their own head. But what produces the fear? I want to look at a few ways we can think about what our fear of dying is.
I think it relevant to begin with Heidegger’s Being and Time, as his existential and ontological analyses of death provide a framework that is in some way familiar, even normalised by us. Despite its age, Heidegger’s philosophy, once the fastidious jargon is processed, is really outlining something exceptionally familiar. His inclusion of everyday, intersubjective, encounters in an ontological, existential and phenomenological analysis of being, gives them a pseudo-fundamentality. This means, in short, they seem to have affected a tradition that is not contained to philosophy. I find myself nodding in agreement, but not because I accept our behaving this way as is, but that as a tradition the sort of context Heidegger philosophises from has been one embedded in the consciousness of Western culture for quite some time now.
For Heidegger what being does is be, here, in the world. This is a no brainer we can all get on board with. Being is, to unpack the word Da-sein (Heidegger’s name for a conscious being), a here-being present in the world, ready-at-hand in order to care for the being we are thrown into by caring for the beings we are thrown among. Actually Heidegger says we are thrown into the world, but we could just as safely add that we are thrown into our bodies too. Being-in-the-world entails caring for the beings of the world we are contained within, as well as the world of the beings we incubate within us. If this isn’t achieved the existential dilemmas of existence are multiplied and insecurity exacerbated. As contemporary beings we are wired to exist in the contexture of a social world, which is given but immanently changeable—COVID-19 has illustrated this.
Dasein is ineluctably futural, or what Heidegger calls ‘being-ahead-of-itself’. This is very much the case, and illustrative via the provisions we make for the future; how much we do so is a moot point. So long as we are in the world existing, we are provisional to some extent, even if this provisional mentality is something we are only part of, which our membership in Dasein implies. This provision is the essence of care for the world and ourselves as something existent in the world. Without environment we are not able to be or to make provision. This goes for anything that lives.
Because we care for something in the world, when we die it is anticipated that, outside of the direct familial connection, whoever it is that dies is ultimately replaceable. This may seem insensitive. However, according to the implications of Heidegger’s insights this is a cause of the anxiety we suffer when confronted with dying. Because we accept its inevitability we have imposed on us the question of impact. In the mechanistic mode of the world as a constellation of societies we are a replaceable component. Within a family unit we are mourned and remembered. However, given the fact of new births in a family unit, even the absent family member’s role may be replaced. This is perhaps one of the anxieties of dying: that while we may not be forgotten we will probably be replaced. This isn’t a cruel act of usurpation but merely a fact of what it means to care about the world and to be in it, which requires us to assume the various roles demanded by the social complexity of being, and when the time comes to hand over the baton to one more able and in need of purpose.
Heidegger recognises that every death is one’s own and we only experience other deaths, but never the actual matter of dying in itself. Magda King in A Guide to Heidegger’s Being & Time explains:
A careful analysis shows that another’s death is incapable of providing the genuine experience on which alone an ontological interpretation could be based. What this interpretation wants to get into view is solely the death of the dying, his coming to the end of his being, not the affliction this brings to others, nor the way he may still be with them in this world. (146)
In other words, from the death of others we cannot grasp the actual moment (augenblick) that is the incomprehensibly personal (ownmost) experience of death. What death is isn’t just the indirect experience we encounter through the person dying: the remaining corpse, the act of burying, and the grief we process. While these are our experience of death they are not those of the person who is no longer here to explain to us the moment at which death took place and what unfolded. Thus, existentially, death is outside the purview of being. We can ontologically deduce what happens before and after we die, to an extent, but the liminal moment between the two is simply out of reach. As King tells us, ‘The concepts of “end” and “wholeness” drawn from other modes of being are incapable of explaining the ending of existence’ (147).
For this reason, owing to us only being aware of the finality through limited representation, death as an ultimately non-representative event, means we can only, realistically, imagine the tipping point at which being slides into absence from intersubjective being, which existence with other beings is.
A further hurdle beings face while being-in-the-world is attaining a sense of wholeness; a sense of contentment that they did everything they needed to do. Heidegger’s analysis of wholeness is a mereological problem, which Dasein cannot really complete, as death is a radical not-being and therefore unlike a part of a whole, which can always be attached to a whole in some way through new configurations of use-value. This seems hypocritical, considering that I already mentioned how we replace each other. However, this act of replacement is enveloped by a sense of loss too dissimilar from the loss of an owned object with practical use-value to put us on a level pegging with mere objects/things/beings. Dasein’s non-existence cannot be a part of something else outside of the experience of it by others: a person’s death has no significance for ant populations, the hammer they used or their favourite mug, it would seem. (I categorically disagree and will take the opportunity to divert anyone reading this to Graham Harman’s Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects for a thorough and lively criticism of this limitation of agency.)
For Heidegger, the only being worth its salt is humanity because humans conceive senses of wholeness and realise the working order and disorder of things, for the sake of bringing them back to even a limited usefulness. Dasein takes parts and configures them into wholes. Of course other beings do this: the bee, the ant. But Heidegger takes as a given Dasein’s special status in the world. Everything is for Dasein’s use. Or rather, Dasein can find a use for anything. However, the sense of wholeness of Dasein cannot be like that of a tool, animal or plant, which end in different ways to Dasein. This is convenient for Heidegger because, although Heidegger recognises us as the stewards of objects, seeing as our deaths are irreparable, or non-reversible—unlike the fixing of a broken tool—this means that our being is especially different from other used beings, which we are rightful heirs to as designated stewards of the world. Therefore, Heidegger justifies his positioning of us above other beings.
What Heidegger does is try to indicate why we come to an end radically different to the coming-to-an-end of other things in the world. He uses the examples of debts, rain, roads and ripe fruit. Magda King outlines this for us:
Although the comparison with the fruit has brought out essential similarities, there are also important differences that arise from the “end” that constitutes the wholeness. Ripeness as an end is not analogous to death as an end. In ripeness the fruit fulfils itself. Death, on the other hand, does not necessarily mean that Da-sein has come to the end of his specific possibilities. Da-sein may die unfulfilled long after he has reached and passed the maturity possible for him. End does not necessarily imply fulfilment….Things can end in different ways, according to their specific ways of being. The rain ends: it stops, it vanishes. The road ends: it stops, but it does not vanish. On the contrary, its end shows the road to be precisely this one and no other. Then again, end may mean being finished: with the last stroke of the brush, the painting is finished. The bread is at an end: it is used up, no longer available as a handy thing. (148)
We do not end in any of these senses. Heidegger does not desire that our deaths be the death of things we do or use—our deaths must transcend the triviality of mere worn out objects or edible, lazy nonhumans. This is because our stewardship of things is totalising. It means the world is for us. This has proved immensely problematic, as we have seen with the debate, currently reaching a crossroads, as to whether we need to term the current period with a new geological name: the Anthropocene. And of course, this is due to the knowledge we have developed in the areas of ecology where new findings, regarding habitat destruction and pollution, are forcing new ideologies to foment and gain new forms of profitable visibility.
Heidegger reveals something important about not-being-here (the ‘not-yet’ of being), which is that we are already constituted by the not-yet because it is inevitability embedded in the very givenness of having been a being in the world. All resistance to the not-yet is futile, as it is already constitutive of the very (f)act of living: we care for beings or else we will die, and die or else we cannot care for beings. What room is there for reproduction in a world where people live for 1000s of years? Death, in short, is apodictic, an empirical fact which enables the recycling of roles in society, which is the means by which the world replenishes the stewards it requires for continuity. Dying is important. People die and something must kill them. We wish nothing more than to salve the pain of loss as soon as possible. But death needs to happen.
Of course, transhumanism is beginning to challenge the narrative of death-needs-to-happen. The idea of dying is therefore transformed into a solvable problem, not the insoluble eventuality it has long been considered to be. To annex another ‘of course’, transhumanism is in the deepest theoretical part of its existence and the speculation is developed off the back of current trends-in-progress, which may surcease before the coming vision of the transhumanists. But this is being too cynical. I share their enthusiasm for problem solving and moreover applaud their authentic repulsion at the eventuality of death.
Death therefore, according to Heidegger, is imminent to life: as soon as we are born we are able to die. Therefore, death, though it may not have happened to us, which we know because we haven’t gone toward the not-yet absenting of being, isn objectively present to us when beings, who orient our own being-in-the-world, succumb to the occasion of death. How we indicate that the aforementioned is the case is through what Heidegger terms ‘idle talk’. Heidegger explains:
The publicness of everyday being-with-one-another “knows” death as a constantly occurring event, as a “case of death.” Someone or another “dies,” be it a neighbour or stranger. People unknown to us “die” daily and hourly. “Death” is encountered as a familiar event occurring within the world. As such, it remains in the inconspicuousness characteristic of everyday encounters. The they has also already secured an interpretation for this event. The “fleeting” talk about this which is either expressed or else mostly kept back says: one also dies at the end, but for now one is not affected. (243)
What the off-handedness of idle talk inscribes into social discourse is a familiarity, which provides us with the evidence that the same can imminently happen to us. It could be a safety mechanism to stop us continuously thinking about death. We are still presently comprehended (to borrow a Garcian term) by the world, that is, within it and thus not yet absent. But our rough sketch of this ‘ownmost, nonrelational, and insuperable possibility’ (243) is indicative of our knowing it as fact, even if we ignore it until our turn comes to be dying.
But this creates a problem, as the they dictates through its discomfiture the method for socially coping with the insuperableness of death. We worry about becoming ill-fitting in society due to our preferring to just be sad and anxious about the existence we are doing and which is indicative of our inherent incompleteness. In my own case, I do not want to not confront this insuperableness, but to let the anxiety and sadness consume me and the insuperableness confound me toward thinking about it outside of scientific discourse. I am not a scientist, nor do I think the experience of death best summed up by it. It is a contributing factor to how I want to think about death but it doesn’t inform me totally. I know that this is temporary and that experiencing the death of someone close to me is a rare occasion, through which I can process (even infinitesimally better) the insuperable, non-relational episode of dying, which is part of living. As Heidegger explains, ‘The they does not permit the courage to have anxiety about death.’
Finally, it is important to recognise that Heidegger makes a distinction between existential and ontological analyses of death. We might think of the ontological analysis as reductive in the scientific sense, so that death reduces Dasein’s dying to that of any other thing which has a biological end. (This is actually a good opportunity for de-anthropocentrism.) Therefore, the ontological death is analysable through the scientific method. This is because death is a matter of having had life. Life sciences provide insights into the emergence and complexity of various expressions of life and they conclude that the cycle of life must include death. In short, the effect of living is that inevitably there is dying.
Ontological analyses don’t, ostensibly, consider the same questions posed by an existential analysis, namely: what is the actual experience of the moment of death; what are the metaphysics of death; if there isn’t a metaphysics what might replace it; how and why did death enter the world; what would a world without death do to us? (I do not propose to answer these, but I am interested in discussing any efforts submitted by readers.)
We may think an ontological analysis provides these, but that doesn’t seem to be the case for Heidegger. It seems the formality and emptiness of scientific knowledge about death doesn’t satisfy Heidegger’s search for something different for a being with the special characteristics that Heidegger attributes to Dasein. And I think this is due to Heidegger trying to justify the special status of Dasein. I think this bears out in the way most people process death. A large proportion of people are deeply uncomfortable thinking about the death of a loved one as a strict, absolute end. I see it with my mother (not a religious woman) who has begun to refer to my uncle as a ‘poor soul’. Religious language has started to infiltrate her vocabulary even though neither my mother, nor my uncle, are religious in anyway.
The existential analysis then is what caring and being-in-the-world comes from. Heidegger’s analysis is enabled by his existential concerns. Dasein must come face to face with death, with the insuperable not-yet of their being. Ontological analysis doesn’t for Heidegger satisfy these criteria of being. I think of the ontological and existential discrepancy as being a matter of whether we need to readjust the sensitivity gauge of our relationship to death. The existential intensifies the distinction between living and dying whilst maintaining the feeling of inevitability. Whereas, the ontological analysis recognises the emotional aspect less because it focuses on the observable, relational aspect. Both are necessary to a philosophical analysis of death. However, I am not sure we do balance the two when we are confronted by death directly, or indirectly.
We might wonder if the existential analysis leads to the dread of death, whereas the ontological analysis leads to mere acceptance of inevitability. If we do not personalise our dying and merely pool it with all the other beings as a dread event that is impassable we perhaps risk trivialising death, or merely ignoring it, missing the opportunity for analysing what the existential moment means if it is nonrelational and insuperable. This may seem ridiculous, but it is also a way in to thinking more about how death operates on us as thinking beings. The existential analysis, in short, enables us to formulate moods toward death.
The discomfiture about the insuperableness of dying is for Heidegger, the true cowardice. Confrontation with death is something demanding intrepidity, because, as we shall see, it means confronting that which is ultimately non-signifiable. We may think we can signify death, but as we have illustrated in our analysis of Heidegger, death is our ‘ownmost, nonrelational’ experience, if we can even call the absenting, which death is a form of, an experience. If it is nonrelational, it stands to reason it is ultimately without representation, thus without a clear, designated signifier. The word death only encapsulates the experience of other people’s death through observation and care. What death is as an experience, the moment at which breath leaves us and we become absent is unknowable, therefore, without a name or signification.
In the next essay I will interrogate some points from Julia Kristeva’s analysis of phobia in Powers of Horror and the hallucinatory metaphors it conjures through signification, and how this informs the aforementioned analysis of Heidegger of death. In tandem I contextualise our analysis of death through Albert Camus’ absurdism.