BEING AND TIME, part 6: DEATH
Written by Simon Critchley
Far from being morbid, Heidegger's conception of living in the knowledge of death is a liberating one.
As I said in my first article on Heidegger, the basic idea in Being and Time is very simple: being is time and time is finite. For human beings, time comes to an end with our death. Therefore, if we want to understand what it means to be an authentic human being, then it is essential that we constantly project our lives onto the horizon of our death. This is what Heidegger famously calls "being-towards-death". If our being is finite, then an authentic human life can only be found by confronting finitude and trying to make a meaning out of the fact of our death. Heidegger subscribes to the ancient maxim that "to philosophise is to learn how to die."
Mortality is that in relation to which we shape and fashion our selfhood.
There are four rather formal criteria in Heidegger's conception of being-towards-death: it is nonrelational, certain, indefinite and not to be outstripped. Firstly, death is non-relational in the sense that, in standing before death one has cut off all relations to others. Death cannot be experienced through the deaths of others, but only through my relation to my death. I will contest this criterion below.
Secondly, it is certain that we are going to die. Although one might evade or run away from the fact, no one doubts that life comes to an end in death. Thirdly, death is indefinite in the sense that although death is certain, we do not know when it going to happen. Most people desire a long and full life, but we can never know when the grim reaper is going to knock at our door.
Fourthly, to say that death is not to be outstripped (unüberholbar) simply means that death is pretty damned important. There's no way of trumping it and it outstrips all the possibilities that my power of free projection possesses. This is the idea behind Heidegger's famously paradoxically statement that death is the "possibility of impossibility." Death is that limit against which my potentiality-for- being (Seink?nnen) is to be measured. It is that essential impotence against which the potency of my freedom shatters itself.
At the end of the introduction to Being and Time, Heidegger writes, "Higher than actuality stands possibility." Being and Time is a long hymn of praise to possibility and it finds its highest expression in being-towards-death. Heidegger makes a distinction between anticipation (Vorlaufen) and expectation or awaiting (Erwarten). His claim is that the awaiting of death still contains too much of the actual, where death would be the actualisation of possibility. Such would be a gloomy philosophy of morbidity. On the contrary, for Heidegger, anticipation does not passively await death, but mobilises mortality as the condition for free action in the world.
This results in a hugely important and seemingly paradoxical thought: freedom is not the absence of necessity, in the form of death. On the contrary, freedom consists in the affirmation of the necessity of one's mortality. It is only in being-towards-death that one can become the person who one truly is. Concealed in the idea of death as the possibility of impossibility is the acceptance on one's mortal limitation as the basis for an affirmation of one's life.
So, there is nothing morbid about being-towardsdeath. Heidegger's thought is that being-towardsdeath pulls Dasein out of its immersion in inauthentic everyday life and allows it come into its own. It is only in relation to being-towards-death that I become passionately aware of my freedom.
Despite its baroque linguistic garb, Heidegger's analysis of being-towards-death is exceptionally direct and powerful. However, it is open to the following objection. Heidegger argues that the only authentic death is one's own. To die for another person, he writes, would simply be to "sacrifice oneself". To that extent, for Heidegger, the deaths of others are secondary to my death, which is primary. In my view (and this criticism is first advanced by Edith Stein and Emmanuel Levinas), such a conception of death is both false and morally pernicious. On the contrary, I think that death comes into our world through the deaths of others, whether as close as a parent, partner or child or as far as the unknown victim of a distant famine or war. The relation to death is not first and foremost my own fear for my own demise, but my sense of being undone by the experience of grief and mourning.
Also, there is a surprisingly traditional humanism at work in Heidegger's approach to death. In his view, only human beings die, whereas plants and animals simply perish. I can't speak with any expertise about the death of plants, but empirical research would certainly seem to show that the higher mammals – whales, dolphins, elephants, but also cats and dogs – also have an experience of mortality, of both their own and of those around them. We are not the only creatures in the universe who are touched by the sentiment of mortality.