Note: Being and Time is abbreviated BT. All page
references are to the original unpublished published typescript
translation by Joan Stambaugh. This version was published in
1996. It is important to note shifts of meanings among
Heidegger's technical terms, especially "existential"
and "existentiell." Minor revisions to this paper:
4/10/01. Spellcheck revisions: 2/19/05.
HEIDEGGER ON DEATH
What are Heidegger's essential views about death in Being and Time and how can his views be defended against his critics? In this paper, my purpose will be to answer these questions by giving an expository analysis of what Heidegger says about death, particularly in Part II, Chapter 1 of BT (Sections 45-53). After becoming clear about what Heidegger says about death, I will take up the criticisms developed by Paul Edwards in his monograph on Heidegger. The scope of this paper is modest: I hope primarily to understand and clarify Heidegger's views. Because the existential analysis of death plays such a crucial role in Heidegger's project in BT, I will not pretend to give an exhaustive treatment of the analysis of death. Likewise, I will not claim to show how Heidegger forestalls all possible criticism.
I. Heidegger's Existential Analysis of Death
A. Preliminary Remarks
There is a very brief way of framing how Heidegger approaches
an understanding of death: since death is not something we can
experience (live through), there is really nothing at all to say
about "death itself." In this sense, death is
not -- it does not exist for an individual to
experience. But since "death," in the sense of the
termination of all possible experience (at least a we presently
know it) is inevitable, a given fact of human existence, we can
say a great deal about the attitudes we do have, as well
as the attitudes we ought to have, about this
quintessential aspect of human existence. We can say that what is
important is not "death itself," but dying,
the manner in which the human being lives as it aims toward
death. "Death," as our being toward it, is the focus of
Heidegger's analysis. The old saying that as soon as we are born
we are old enough to die, Heidegger notes, is not something we
can ignore -- for how we live in light of this fact makes all the
difference (BT, p. 158).
Given this above frame, however, we must be careful not to
confuse Heidegger's analysis with ordinary "sayings" or
formulations of everyday speech. Heidegger develops a special
language in the analysis of Dasein. In what follows, it will be
necessary to assume some familiarity with Heidegger's special
terms. Otherwise, we will be faced with the problem of building
Heidegger's system from the ground up. As an example, let us
apply Heidegger's language to the problem frame we just
described. The "attitudes" we have toward death need to
be understood in Heidegger's language as "understanding
attunements." These are types of future-oriented awareness
that also contain a heedfulness or emotional investment. The type
of understanding attunements we can have, that derive
directly from the primordial structure of Dasein are
"existential possibilities." But these possibilities
can take on an abstract or "theoretical" aspect because
the given facts of our existence limit our possibilities. The
understanding attunements that we can actually live through are
"existentiell possibilities." Those
existentiell modes of life which adequately express and reveal
the true structure and possibilities of human existence are
"authentic," while those modes which cover these over
are "inauthentic." Hence, Heidegger's problem is to
investigate Dasein primordially, yielding an existential analysis
that will in turn establish existentiell possibilities of our
being toward death. In the next section, we will follow
Heidegger's thought in pursuing this project as he develops it in
the central chapter on death in BT.
B. Development of Existential Concept (Sections 45-53).
Heidegger begins Part II of BT with two problems: (1) The
analysis so far has taken as its starting point the
"everyday." We have found and described Dasein as it
exists inauthentically. To complete the analysis, we need to
bring forth the authentic possibilities of Dasein. But how is it
possible to derive authenticity by starting in the inauthentic?
(2) Dasein has been shown thus far to be essentially
"being-ahead-of-itself" (BT, p. 129). But how can we
ever "capture," in its totality, a being which is
always ahead of itself? This would seem possible only if we could
understand such a being right up to its end. But the end of
Dasein, what permits us to understand it in its totality, is
death. Therefore, we are faced with the seemingly impossible task
of gaining a total analysis of Dasein through a barrier
impenetrable to experience: death.
The first problem, the extraction of authenticity from the
inauthentic, harkens back to the very beginning of BT. In Section
9, Heidegger says: "What is ontically in the way of
being average can very well be understood in terms of pregnant
structures which are not structurally different from the
ontological determinations of an authentic being of
Dasein" (BT, p. 4). Therefore, since the structures of
authentic and inauthentic Dasein are basically the same, all we
must do is "uncover" or bring forth what is already
present in the everyday. Superficially, at least, problem 1 is
"solved" by Heidegger simply reminding us that
authenticity lies latent in the everyday.
It is instructive, however, to take a closer look at this problem in the context of Heidegger's overall project and method. Partly, Heidegger will make an effort to give a conceptual, discursive account of the nature of Dasein. But more significantly, in my view, Heidegger will be showing us or pointing the way toward what an authentic mode of life would be like. He is laying out a path that we can follow that transcends the conceptual. While what Heidegger says about death and dying has its own integrity, we can not understand (in Heidegger's existential sense) by simply "staring at a meaning" (BT, p. 171). The situation of authenticity lying "within" the inauthentic world and Heidegger's task of extracting an understanding and indicating a way of being in the world is summarized graphically below.
|---------------------------| | | | Everyday | Conceptual | |----------------> | | | Understanding | | | | | | + | |-------------|-----| | | | Authentic | | A way of being | | | | | | | Understanding | | | | | | | | | | Attunement | | | | |-------------------| | <--------------| | | |---------------------------|
Let us turn to the first step in this process of developing an
authentic understanding attunement: the discursive, conceptual
account. This involves a negative approach, showing what types of
conceptions can be eliminated, followed by a positive account.
Heidegger's negative account begins by showing how four types of conceptions can be eliminated. First, it might be suggested that since our own death can not be experienced, the death of others is the only phenomenon open to us and it therefore must serve as the basis of our understanding. But Heidegger objects that this gives us no basis at all for what is wanted, namely an understanding of our own death. No representation couched in terms of experience by analogy is suitable for the existential analysis, which requires that "every Dasein must actually take dying upon itself" (BT, p. 154). A second way we might seek to understand death and give some meaning to the totality of Dasein is to imagine Dasein as composed of parts. In this view the coming together of various parts could be thought of as the gradual paying off of a debt. Each of the payments we actually receive belongs to us, as does what is still not yet given to us. The sum or total also belongs to us and we receive the total at the end. But this analogy rests on a mistake about Dasein. Dasein is not gradually pieced together; it is already whole. The "not-yet" of Dasein, the projected possibilities open to us and invested with heedfulness, already belong to Dasein as part of its being (BT, p. 156). A third possibility suggests itself: perhaps the coming-to-be of Dasein is like the phases of the moon. The moon itself already exists in its totality, but what is illuminated is only gradually revealed and the whole is visible only when the moon is full -- its "end." Again, Heidegger calls attention to the inadequacy of this analogy to Dasein. The not-yet of Dasein is not real at all; Dasein has to become what it is not yet (BT, p. 156). Finally, one might suggest an analogy based on something like the ripening of fruit. This would seem to be adequate because the fruit ripens of itself and does so continuously. It "runs its course," always not-yet ripe until it finishes and completes itself in becoming ripe. In a similar way, we could say, Dasein "is always already its not yet, as long as it is" (BT, p. 157). But again the seeming analogy breaks down. For though Heidegger admits the fruit is "formally analogous" to Dasein in becoming its not-yet, the fruit reaches its end in fulfillment, exhausting its possibilities; Dasein, in contrast, can reach its end without exhausting its possibilities. For Dasein, there are always possibilities left unfulfilled. And, Heidegger adds somewhat disparagingly, we usually go beyond "ripeness," ending up unfulfilled "or else disintegrated and used up" (BT, p.157).
From these analogies, Heidegger draws his most important conclusion about the existential concept of death and the only mode of understanding open to us. All of the analogies derive their sense either from considering death as an event that comes upon us at some future moment or by considering the being in question to be objectively present. These beings may be said to have parts or to "become," but unlike Dasein, when they come to an end they simply "stop," or "become complete," or "become fulfilled." Dasein not only already is its end or totality, but it never becomes finished or completely available. Living, working and doing in the world necessarily involves the active, future-oriented concerns and possibilities. These possibilities can never be fully specified, nor can they all be actualized. As such future-oriented beings, our relation to our end and the proper perspective for understanding our totality must be of a kind different from that of ordinary (ontic) things. This relation to the end of Dasein is given by the phrase "being toward the end" (Sein zum Ende) or "being toward death" (Sein zum Tode). It is evident that death is "not an event, but a phenomenon to be understood existentially" in a special, distinctive sense (BT, p. 154). Heidegger summarizes this as follows:
...Dasein constantly is its not-yet as long as it is, it also already is its end. The ending we have in view when we speak of death does not signify a being-at-an-end of Dasein, but rather a being toward the end of this being. Death is a way to be that Dasein takes over as soon as it is. (BT, p. 158)
As Gelven notes, this turn from actually being at an end to being toward an end is crucial for Heidegger. It not only allows the analysis to proceed but also structures it. It shows that I do not need to actually die in order to grasp the totality of Dasein. My awareness that I am going to die can give me the required perspective. For a philosophic account of death, an experience of just one person (even if it were available) would not be sufficient. We need a universal account, showing an awareness shared by all in order to give the right existential analysis (cf. Gelven, p. 143). These points are valid, but we should also notice that Heidegger is indicating more than just an intellectual comprehension in the above passage. We must take over a way of being in our relation to death, and this can not be completely subsumed under our conceptual thinking about it.
Let us now turn to Heidegger's positive account of death and its relation to Dasein. This will involve not only the existential structures of Dasein that shape the account, but also the existentiell possibilities that derive from it. This will also bring us closer to the above-mentioned need for developing a way of being toward death. It can be seen immediately, Heidegger says, that the existential concept based on the ontology of Dasein can have nothing to do with speculative theological considerations such as the continued existence of the soul after death. An ontological interpretation is prior to all such speculations; it concerns only this world (BT, p. 160). Additionally, since we know that authentic possibilities of Dasein already lie in the everyday, the this-worldly understanding attunements already present will give us clues to an authentic being toward death. Heidegger proposes that the interpretation of Care (already developed on the basis of the everyday in Part 1 of BT) and an analysis of everyday speech will give us what we need.
Dasein as Care is characterized by existence (being- ahead-of-itself), facticity (being-in-the-world or being "thrown") and ensnarement (being-together with others). Modes of being toward death reveal themselves in each of these factors. In simply "being ahead of itself," Dasein faces possibilities. But in facing death, Dasein stands before an ultimate possibility that it can not bypass. But death is not a "possibility" in the sense of something detached from Dasein, something that comes to it from "outside." Rather, death is the inmost possibility of Dasein, a possibility which individuates and isolates Dasein in its very being. Death is the ultimate non-relational possibility of Dasein that removes it from every conceivable mode of comportment. Death, therefore, far from being an "external" possibility like an event, belongs to the very being of Dasein. Awareness of death in this sense, we may say, intensifies the inward direction of care because Dasein is thrust back upon itself and takes up the concern of its being absolutely. Similarly, what Heidegger has previously shown as facticity takes on a new dimension as Dasein seeks an understanding of death. Facticity becomes not only given in the sense that we are "thrown" (born) into existence but that we are also "thrown being toward its end" (BT, p. 162). Hence, our awareness is bounded on both sides in its temporality; Dasein becomes disclosed to itself as finite. The last factor in Care, ensnarement, also manifests an intense concern about death, but in ensnarement it is the very things we flee from and the mode of our covering them over that show our concern. Various modes of everyday coping are telling examples of this. "One dies," we say, as if it were merely a bit of reportage, unrelated to our own being. Alternately, if one admits it to apply to one's own case we say "also for me sometime, but for the time being, not yet" (BT, p. 165). In this mode we turn death into an event and attempt to obtain power over it by mitigating its certainty. We can even develop an attunement that accepts the certainty of death, but nevertheless attempts to maintain power over death. In such an attunement, one feels superior because one is "anxiously concerned while seeming free from Angst" (BT, p. 167). In this attunement, "one knows [my emphasis] about the certainty of death but 'is' not really certain about it" (BT, p. 167). Here, particularly, Heidegger makes it clear that inauthentic modes (and by implication authentic modes) involve a way of being-in-the-world. One can be "certain" in the sense of having "knowledge" about death (inauthentically separating one's self from the world and positing an "object" over against it), while not truly being certain about death, i.e., having undertaken authentically one's own being toward death. Everyday Dasein then, generally tries not to take care of death, but in so doing it acknowledges both the certainty and the indefiniteness of death.
In analyzing each of these factors of Care, Heidegger seeks to find an understanding of death that is adequate to the nature of Dasein, that expresses its structure, its inward depth, its possibility and connects it to the wholeness of our being. Heidegger is now ready to give the full existential and ontological concept of death:
...death is the inmost, not-relational, certain, and as such, indefinite possibility not to be bypassed of Dasein. ...As the end of Dasein death is in the being of this being toward its end. (BT, p. 167)
Heidegger now asks a question. Can we maintain an authentic being toward death? If so, what would it be like? The answer to this indicates a way of being that transcends the conceptual and completes the project of extracting the authentic from the inauthentic world of the everyday (see the diagram above).
Certainly we should not brood over death in order to be authentic. Nor should we actively "await" it, as if it were an event. Rather, an authentic being toward death must make it "understood as possibility, cultivated as possibility, and endured as possibility in our relation to it" (BT, p. 170). The proper relation to death is essentially a self relation that discloses Dasein to itself and deepens and intensifies the structure of care. It is essential to this relation that we understand death as possibility. Heidegger calls this authentic mode "anticipation" (Vorlaufen), which literally connotes "running ahead." Anticipation means confronting by actively revealing, disclosing, death as possibility. This is an authentic mode because it is appropriate to the very being of Dasein: "Being toward death is the anticipation of a potentiality of being of that being whose kind is anticipation itself" (BT, p. 170). In Dasein's disclosing of itself to itself in anticipation, certain phenomenological "results" come to the fore that Heidegger simply describes rather than "proves." Compressed for brevity, these include the following. (1) Death individualizes Dasein, revealing that being-with others ultimately fails when one's inmost potentiality of being is at stake. Dasein, in facing death is thereby freed from "the they." (2) In becoming free from the inauthentic modes of the they, Dasein becomes freed for ones own death. Further, Dasein comes to understand its own death, as imminent and not to be bypassed, opens up all the possibilities lying before it as possibilities to be taken up freely, apart from the influences of the they. (3) In taking up the certainty of death, Dasein confronts a form of certainty that belongs to something not of the order of objectively present things. This certainty is in regard to Dasein itself, it understands itself to be of this "other" order of things. (4) Dasein does not ignore either the certainty or the indefiniteness of death. In anticipation, Dasein holds itself "in passionate, anxious, freedom toward death" (BT, p. 173). (5) In being freed from the they, and individualized in death, Dasein is able to understand "the potentialities of being of the others" and existing existentielly "as a whole potentiality of being" (BT, p. 172). In other words, the recognition of individual death does not separate us from each other, but forms the basis for authentic human interaction through mutual regard.
II. Criticism and Response
In this section, we will continue to elaborate on Heidegger's views by means of entertaining two criticisms advanced by Paul Edwards and by framing responses based on Heidegger's views and a deeper analysis of the text. As we shall see, Edwards's radically different approach to philosophy is not so much a vehicle for providing substantive criticisms of Heidegger as differentiating Heidegger's account from accounts based on ordinary language.
A. Objection 1: No interiorization of death is possible.
It is quite true, Edwards says, that we are "being toward death" not only in the sense that biologically our cells are dying, but also in some ontological sense that defines how human beings are. We are conscious and concerned about death in a way that animals are not; it is evident that human beings act in ways influenced by their knowledge about their mortality. But all this only makes it clear that "human beings die and that they are aware of this." Edwards claims that all Heidegger's excess verbiage amounts to nothing more than this simple statement. In Edwards's view, Heidegger does nothing to correct the "mistaken" views of the Epicureans or the materialistic philosophers who regard death as an external fact. What Heidegger offers is "pretentious and fantastically misleading language," merely a "platitude, accompanied by a slurring of certain elementary distinctions" (HD, p. 22).
Edwards uses this general complaint against Heidegger to attempt to show how Heidegger becomes confused about death and knowledge of death. It is obvious, Edwards says, that death itself is not knowledge about death. "Death" can not be "a way to be" or a "mode of life." In effect, Heidegger (and his followers) propose to use the word "death" to mean knowledge and concern about death, and not the absence of life. This way of speaking and thinking of "death" is possible, but it accomplishes nothing. My thinking that "death" is interiorized does not change the facts nor does it refute Epicurus. (Note: Epicurus argued, "If death is there, you are not; if you are there death is not." This has been taken to mean that we need not fear death nor think about it. Edwards's polemic is aimed not specifically at Heidegger, who, as far as I have been able to ascertain never mentions Epicurus, but at Gelven's account of Heidegger's arguments about death. See Gelven, pp.143-155.) To refute Epicurus, death as the cessation of life would have to be shown to be an interior and present reality (HD, p. 22). The only sense in which death is private or something that happens within one's existence is that we have thoughts about it.
Our thinking about death and our knowledge of it, then are the only meaning that "interiorized death" can have. Furthermore, for Edwards, there can be no such thing as anxiety about knowledge. This in turn demonstrates that Heidegger's vaunted "anxiety toward death" could not make sense unless it is toward death (biological death) rather than knowledge or concern about death. Hence, Edwards concludes, no interiorization of "death" occurs.
Response to Objection 1.
Both Gelven and Edwards are confused on the issue of Heidegger's supposed "refutation" of Epicurus. Basically, Heidegger has no specific historical argument with Epicurus. But even if we construe there to be one, the terms of the argument are somewhat different than either Gelven or Edwards assumes them to be. The question is not about the reality of the experience of death -- both Heidegger and the Epicureans agree that it can not be experienced. The question is how we should comport ourselves with regard to the fact of death. The Epicureans say: you don't need to worry about it; live and enjoy life. Heidegger also says don't worry about it, but in order to be fully free to enjoy life we have to fully understand our relation to death. We can not forget about our finitude -- this would cut s off from our own being. Hence, the Epicurean has told only half the story; he has brought death forward in awareness, but then covered it over again by adopting a mode of the everyday. If there is an argument to be made here (by Heidegger or his supporters) it is one that does not hinge on "refutation" by supplying a new "meaning" to the term "death," but one which seeks to supply a response in terms of the nature of Dasein and its being toward death. To say that "death" is interiorized, therefore, is not to assert the ridiculous idea that "actual" death becomes interiorized, but that we come to understand (existentially) our own being in terms of finitude. Figuratively, we can "run forward" to our own death, thereby accepting it -- freeing our being in its wholeness.
Edwards and Heidegger's descriptive efforts and approach to phenomena differ in kind. Edwards insists on a description of exterior facts for which no interiorization is possible. His approach to phenomena is limited to the meanings given to terms in everyday speech. Heidegger shows not that what is exterior literally becomes interior, but that the end of Dasein can be understood as a self-relation which acquires inward depth when properly disclosed through understanding.
B. Objection 2: "death" is not "possibility".
Edwards argues that many Heideggerians (and Heidegger himself) take the central lesson of the chapter on death to be that the true meaning of "death" is that death is a possibility and not an actuality. Death as possibility gives us the true meaning which we must understand in order to authentically confront it. This understanding of death as a possibility, however, rests on a new sense of possibility that Heidegger arbitrarily introduces in the final section of the chapter. Previously, Heidegger emphasizes that death is not a possibility that we are trying to actualize (for then we would commit suicide), nor is it something actual we wait for. But in the final analysis of the meaning of death, we are to understand death as "the possibility of the impossibility of any existence at all" (see BT, p. 170). It is clear that this use of "possibility" does not match the previous uses. Heidegger's awkward expression has no clear meaning. Neither in the sense of an event being merely likely (not certain, therefore possible), nor in the sense of it being something I choose to actualize can death be said to be a "possibility." It is, in fact, as Heidegger correctly states, quite certain and inevitable. Apparently, Edwards concludes, Heidegger thinks that death is a possibility because it is nothing actual, and since Heidegger has only two categories to place things in (either the actual or the possible), he calls death a possibility.
Response to Objection 2.
In responding to Edwards's argument about the meaning of "possibility" it will be useful to paraphrase what Heidegger says in Section 53 in greater detail. What does is mean to "be toward a possibility"? Normally, if we are "out for something" or "take care" of it we have in mind actualization of possibilities. In this sense, there is an attempt to annihilate the possible in the process of making it actual. In the case of useful things, however, making them actual does not destroy them. They remain in a situation with further possibilities for use; useful things remain characterized by "an in-order-to" (BT, p. 189). Our relation to such possibilities does not involve "a thematic reflection on the possible as possible"; we look away from possibility as such toward "what it is possible for" (BT, p. 189). Now, our being toward death can not have this character of taking care with a view towards actualization. Death is not objectively present (to be actualized for...), not to be made actual by Dasein (for then Dasein would not be), and not to be made "actual" in thought (by brooding about it). While it is true that "thought" still maintains death as a possibility, there is a tendency in thought to objectify death and to think of it as a coming event. This tendency weakens death and is an attempt to put it at our disposal, trying to make death "show as little as possible of its possibility" (BT, p. 170). In order to keep our understanding of death true and for us to be toward it authentically, we must attempt to "disclose understandingly" our being toward death while maintaining death as possibility. It might be thought that we can maintain the proper relation to death by awaiting it or expecting it as something possible that may or may not happen. But this again involves us in objectification of death.
The existential structure of an authentic being toward death must establish a relation in which death is revealed in our being toward it as possibility. In this mode, coming close to the possible is not with a view toward actualization, but rather an approach in which the possibility itself becomes clear. That is, we approach or draw near to the conditions upon which "the possible" depends. Or, as Heidegger says, we begin to see the "possibility of the possible" (BT, p. 170). What is revealed in this approach is that "something" can "be" possible and "be" in no way real. But this "something" is not external to Dasein. The possibility revealed is the possibility of Dasein not existing at all. Therefore, Heidegger says, our understanding comes to recognize "the possibility of the impossibility of an existence at all" (BT, p. 170). In this way, Dasein maintains the possible as possible and confronts its own inmost being.
It is easy to see that Edwards's argument is misdirected. It does not engage Heidegger on his own ground. At bottom, Edwards's views seem to simply be an insistence that death can be known, coldly and scientifically, as a simple, given, almost uninteresting fact. Edwards's criticisms reflect the very mode of thought that Heidegger is so opposed to, namely, the substitution of abstract knowledge for the project of inward understanding.
III. Summary and Conclusion
If Heidegger's project had been to clarify the meanings of ordinary words, perhaps Edwards's criticisms would have some substance. As we have indicated, Heidegger's conceptual framework is only a tool, and phrases lifted out of context and reinterpreted in the language of the everyday fail to convey Heidegger's intent. Heidegger wants to take us out of the everyday understanding and the ordinary meanings of words by disclosing an authentic way of being. For Heidegger, to give the "meaning" of something is to be engaged in an ontological-existential project (BT, p. 87). The meaning of death is rooted in our relation to it as possibility, in the ontology of our own manner of being toward our own end. Edwards attempts to redefine Heidegger's project exclusively in terms of "knowledge" and "meanings" in the senses of the everyday.
It might be thought that since Heidegger eschews the use of the word "knowledge," his approach or understanding is essentially mystical. As Caputo has shown, however, Heidegger is not a mystic in any conventional sense; no mystical union with God or a sublime power is contemplated (ME, p. 252). On the contrary, running ahead to death reveals the nullity of our own being, individuating us to the core. Far from being a kind of refined solipsism, however, this individuation becomes the basis for living in the world with others. Were individuated Dasein cut off from the world, Heidegger's method would be senseless. The hermeneutic circle must bring us back into the world (see diagram and related text, Section I, above); otherwise the exercise remains abstract. Although Heidegger alludes to this point almost parenthetically in the chapter on death, it is crucial to our understanding. While death individualizes, it is only "in order to make Dasein as being-with understand the potentialities of being of the others" (BT, p.172). As a modification of the they-self, authentic being does not remove itself from the circle of the others (BT, p.198) but disentangles itself from being "lost" within a non-individuated "they."
The manner of our being toward death is of the utmost importance for Heidegger. Once the finitude and temporality of Dasein are approached, it becomes possible for Dasein to be in a different manner. In a manner of speaking, Heidegger wants us to dwell in possibility -- not unlimited possibility, for Dasein is finite and is constrained by factical limits, but possibility that has been made one's own, freely chosen in full self-awareness. By showing the ontological priority of possibility within our own being, our own future and own possibilities are "opened up." In this sense, drawing near to death as possibility, approaching it understandingly, is drawing nearer to life. As Heidegger eventually states in describing an authentic being toward death, a sober understanding and even a sober Angst is possible, and with these come "an unshakable joy" (BT, p. 208).