- The Affective Ground of Natural Goodness
- History’s Missing Pieces: Rebecca Buxton and Lisa Whiting on the Upcoming Philosopher Queens
- Review: Head in the Clouds: An Invitation to ‘Philosophy’ by Tyler Olsson
- Musing: John Wisdom on the Meaning of the Questions of Life
- A New Refutation of Time
- Musing: Spinoza and Feminism Question the Structures of Domination… Is the Mind-Body Problem a Gender Problem?
- Is Nature Continuous or Discrete? How the Atomist Error Was Born
- Consciousness is an Inevitable State of Matter
- Is Shame An Emotion?
- The Concept of Death in Philosophy and Experience: Martin Heidegger, Thomas Nagel and Philip Gould
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Michael B. Fielding
Author of The Sailboat Diaries
What books would you bring to a desert island?
This question has been asked on many occasions, yet few people actually run the experiment. The question encourages us to think in unfamiliar ways. In everyday life, our choice in literature might seem a rather mundane dilemma because if I pick up a book and don’t enjoy reading it, I can simply exchange it for another. The desert island scenario thus forces us to imagine a different system of values from which we derive novel evaluations based on the unfamiliar terrain. It’s a fun game to play, but without the first-hand experience of being alone in the middle of nowhere, it can be hard to give much weight to our resolutions. (more…)
University of Liverpool
This is the first in a series of musings
from the University of Liverpool’s Michael Hauskeller.
What do we mean when we ask about the meaning of life? Does the question even make sense? Grammar may suggest it does, but grammar is a very unreliable guide. Perhaps the question ‘What is the meaning of life’ is not at all like ‘What is the speed of light?’ or ‘How tall is the Eiffel Tower?’, both of which make sense and can be answered. Perhaps it is more like ‘Which colour does the number seven have?’ or ‘What are the exact measurements of this thought?’, neither of which can be answered since we cannot make sense of them. In these cases we cannot understand what is being asked, not because we are not clever enough but because the questions themselves are incomprehensible—numbers have no colours and thoughts no spatial dimensions. (more…)
Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)
Written between 1944 and 1946
Vor mir keine Zeit, nach mir wird keine seyn.
Mit mir gebiert sie sich, mit mir geht sie auch ein.
(Before me there was no time, after me there will be none.
With me it is born, with me it will also die.)
— Daniel von Czepko, Sexcenta Monidisticha Sapientum III, II (1655)
Had this refutation (or its title) been published in the middle of the eighteenth century, it would be included in a bibliography by Hume, or at least mentioned by Huxley or Kemp Smith. But published in 1947 (after Bergson) it is the anachronistic reductio ad absurdum of an obsolete system, or even worse, the feeble artifice of an Argentine adrift on a sea of metaphysics. Both conjectures are plausible and perhaps even true, but I cannot promise some startling new conclusion on the basis of my rudimentary dialectics. The thesis I shall expound is as old as Zeno’s arrow or the chariot of the Greek king in the Milinda Pañha; its novelty, if any, consists in applying to my ends the classic instrument of Berkeley. Both he and his successor David Hume abound in paragraphs that contradict or exclude my thesis; nonetheless, I believe I have deduced the inevitable consequence of their doctrine.1
The first article (A) was written in 1944 and appeared in number 115 of Sur; the second, from 1946, is a revision of the first. I have deliberately refrained from making the two into one, deciding that two similar texts could enhance the reader’s comprehension of such an unwieldy subject. A word on the title: I am not unaware that it is an example of that monster called a contradictio in adjecto by logicians, for to say that a refutation of time is new (or old, for that matter) is to recognize a temporal predicate that restores the very notion the subject intends to destroy. But I shall let this fleeting joke stand to prove, at least, that I do not exaggerate the importance of wordplay. In any case, language is so saturated and animated by time that, quite possibly, not a single line in all these pages fails to require or invoke it. (more…)
Musing: Spinoza and Feminism Question the Structures of Domination… Is the Mind-Body Problem a Gender Problem?
Eva Perez de Vega
The New School for Social Research
Traditional theory on the mind-body problem has been mostly conceptualized by men. The historical debate found its most heated moment in the seventeenth century between René Descartes and Benedict de Spinoza, the first advocating for the superiority of the mind over body and the latter with his characteristically monist view framing the mind and body as one same substance. While it seemed that Descartes had won the debate, developments in neuroscience have been weighing towards the Spinozistic conception, and the feminine perspective had been largely ignored until Simone de Beauvoir published her seminal book in 1949. Feminists since then have had a conflicting relationship with the earlier debates, yet Spinoza’s work, with its materialist framework, seems to be holding steady ground within the contemporary feminist movement. Spinoza’s ontology is, for instance, used as framework to discuss feminism (anarcha-feminism) in Chiara Bottici’s text, “Bodies in Plural: Towards an anarcha-feminist manifesto.” But this reliance on ‘the dead white man’ as a means of passing through feminist issues poses some interesting questions, chief among them whether a white male from the seventeenth century can provide any openings to thinking about women’s issues in the twenty-first century.
In The Second Sex, de Beauvoir writes explicitly about the female body, about the physical cycles it undergoes: menstruation, pain, blood, etc. De Beauvoir’s body is intentionally physical. Her depiction exacerbates the materiality of female bodies, and in so doing brings into relief the dualistic conceptions of men and women. The intensity of the writing illustrates her view that women have been thought of as the non-male—the other—associated with the body, nature and instinct, as opposed to men who were deemed rational, intellectual beings of culture and mind: the creators from which woman is made as a sub-entity. Spinoza’s body challenges this dualism. His is not the same body, or rather, it is not solely a body; it is a body in a broader materialist conception. It is an “eccentric materialism” that exceeds but nonetheless encompasses the physical body (see the work of neuroscientist Antonio Demasio, on Spinoza and on Descartes). For Spinoza, the body and the mind are the same thing, a single substance, looked at from different points of view—extension and thought. As he writes in his Ethics, “The object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body.” (more…)
University of Denver
The modern idea that nature is discrete originated in Ancient Greek atomism. Leucippus, Democritus and Epicurus all argued that nature was composed of what they called ἄτομος (átomos) or ‘indivisible individuals’. Nature was, for them, the totality of discrete atoms in motion. There was no creator god, no immortality of the soul, and nothing static (except for the immutable internal nature of the atoms themselves). Nature was atomic matter in motion and complex composition – no more, no less.
Despite its historical influence, however, atomism was eventually all but wiped out by Platonism, Aristotelianism and the Christian tradition that followed throughout the Middle Ages. Plato told his followers to destroy Democritus’ books whenever they found them, and later the Christian tradition made good on this demand. Today, nothing but a few short letters from Epicurus remain.
Atomism was not finished, however. It reemerged in 1417, when an Italian book-hunter named Poggio Bracciolini discovered a copy of an ancient poem in a remote monastery: De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), written by Lucretius (c. 99-55 BCE), a Roman poet heavily influenced by Epicurus. This book-length philosophical poem in epic verse puts forward the most detailed and systematic account of ancient materialism that we’ve been fortunate enough to inherit. In it, Lucretius advances a breathtakingly bold theory on foundational issues in everything from physics to ethics, aesthetics, history, meteorology and religion. Against the wishes and best efforts of the Christian church, Bracciolini managed to get it into print, and it soon circulated across Europe. (more…)
University of California, Berkeley
1. Hello, this is your brain, reading about your brain, reading about your brain
Consider the following question: why are we conscious?
I get it; pondering consciousness sounds like an activity only enjoyed by nerds, people who are high, those of us who have found a moment of post-yoga stillness, or people who fit in all three categories at once. But notice that we do not tell our heart to beat or our cells to grow, we do not have to think about focusing our eyes, and we do not consciously will our bodies to inject adrenaline into our bloodstream when something scary happens. These things happen more or less automatically, and if such highly complex tasks can happen without our attention or willpower, why should other complex tasks—like choosing what to eat for breakfast—require conscious awareness? How hard is choosing which flavor of yogurt to eat? And do we really need to be conscious to determine that we should peel a banana before biting one? (more…)
One of the most famous passages in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (1943) is his phenomenological account of shame. But before writing the 650-page piece for which he is best known, he wrote a much briefer—and clearer—work, The Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions (1939). In this earlier book, Sartre describes emotions as a means of escaping the world when it becomes too difficult. Here he calls emotions ‘degradations of consciousness’ (E loc. 688, 700) and ‘magical transformations of the world’ (E loc. 757). In Being and Nothingness, by contrast, shame is presented as a means of ‘realization’, ‘recognition’, and even ‘discovery of an aspect of my being’ (BN, pp.245-6). This paper therefore asks whether Sartre’s phenomenology of shame presents it as an emotion, by his own definition of the term. The answer, it is argued, is no. This is important for the Sartre scholar—because many readers of Being and Nothingness assume that shame is an emotion. And it is important for philosophers of religion and students of atheism—because this conclusion opens up the possibility of reading the early Sartre as a phenomenologist of sin from a graceless position.
University of Edinburgh
This paper examines three approaches to the concept of death: an existential approach by Heidegger, a pragmatic evaluation by Nagel, and an experiential account by Philip Gould (who was not a professional philosopher but who wrote a detailed description of the time before his death). I compare and contrast these different approaches and use Gould’s account as a ‘real-life check’ on the two philosophical analyses.
Heidegger’s evaluation of death comes from his main work, Being and Time (Division II, Chapter 1, §46-53).
People in general—Heidegger calls them ‘The They’—do not want to talk about death. It is the last obscenity. Death ‘cannot be outstripped’ and is beyond the scope of experience or phenomenological investigation. What can be experienced is being-alongside-death (i.e. other people’s death) and the ‘respectful solicitude’ of the dying, which is the mode of behaviour called for on such occasions. More usefully, we can experience our own being-towards-death. This is not just in the last years of life: from our birth, our being is directed towards death; but the process of it is not, for example, like the ripening of fruit. A person may die with unfulfilled potential of all sorts, in both their own view and in the view of others. When Heidegger seeks to investigate death, he concludes that only investigations of our being-towards-death is possible.
At this point in Being and Time, Heidegger is starting to examine how one grasps one’s human nature as a whole. He wants to know if death can in some way permit us to view our existence in its totality. Studies of one person dying by another living person are of limited use here. We are addressing the subjective experience, so we must look at our own being-towards-death. We can see death as certain at some time, and always possible at any time. We live in the face of the end; death is part of our being. Rather than treating it as an event to be ignored, Heidegger says that a more thoughtful, honest and logical approach (he calls it ‘authentic’) would be for a human being to use death as a means of concentrating on his own existence. Death puts our existence into perspective.
We need to look at Heidegger’s argument in more detail:
He looks at our finitude, or the way in which we see ourselves as having boundaries to our experiences. Death, like birth, sets a boundary on our lives, and this setting is a major factor by which death affects our attitude to life. We know that the holiday will come to an end but we do not know when; only that it can happen at any time. We therefore feel finite, limited in what we can do or will get done before we die. Whatever we think will happen to us in the future, death is the only thing that is certain. In Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilych, when Ivan realises he is mortally ill, he becomes obsessed with the way he has lived his life, and what he can do to make amends for what he sees as his mistakes. Ivan leaves this reckoning until the very end of his lifetime. But Heidegger asks for a much earlier ‘anticipation of death,’ a realistic inclusion of the death-factor in our projects and the way we evaluate them. We must be aware of the boundaries of our existence. Then, at the hypothetical point of death, we will have known of death’s possibility all our lives. It will have affected our projects and what we have done throughout our lives. Indeed, all of the time, in the present, we are aware of death’s possibility. We can try to forget it; we succeed most of the time; but overall, Heidegger sees death as an ‘integrating factor’ in what he terms an ‘authentic existence.’
Heidegger is not gloomy about death: it is only in relation to being-towards-death that one becomes passionately aware of one’s freedom.
Thomas Nagel’s analysis forms Chapter 1 of his book Mortal Questions.
Nagel takes a view of death somewhat different to that of Heidegger. He is concerned with axiology, that is, the evaluation of death. Essentially, he is asking whether or not death is a ‘bad thing.’ He believes that the valuation of death as bad comes about only because of that which death deprives us. More life, says Nagel, like most goods, is better than less. But it is the loss of life rather than the state of being dead that is objectionable. Being dead is no worse than suspended animation, or that period of time before we were born. So why do we regard the state of death as objectionable? We cannot mind what is going on in the situation; we can suffer no misfortunes when dead; and there is a symmetry between posthumous and pre-natal non-existence.
Time is a factor in all questions regarding death. Here Nagel and Heidegger are on common ground: good or ill fortune is associated with our history and possibilities rather than the pleasantness or unpleasantness of the moment. According to Nagel, if we lose our minds (but do not die) we lose our sense of history and possibility; we enter a state of reverse childhood. Is such a state to be pitied? It may not be. It is may be loved ones and carers who are the main sufferers. Hopes and possibilities are as important as pain and suffering. We do not wish to lose the former time-acquired attributes any more than we want to suffer in the moment. But if we are in a state in which we can appreciate neither, then it is of no consequence. An embryo, an unborn child, a dead person: all are in such a state.
We nonetheless cling to life and the prospect of advantages and enjoyment to come. These anticipations carry a heavy weight in our evaluations. We may endure great suffering but not want to end our lives because of these possibilities. It takes great age—when hopes and possibilities may be almost non-existent—or great suffering to make us wish for death, or in extremes to commit suicide. In that sense death is a ‘bad thing,’ even though, as argued above, so far as our awareness is concerned its status is identical with the period before we were born.
Towards the end of this chapter Nagel makes the following (somewhat cryptic) observation: ‘[…] death, no matter how inevitable, is an abrupt cancellation of infinitely extensible goods. Normality has nothing to do with it, for the fact that we will all inevitably die in a few score years cannot by itself imply that it would not be good to live longer […] If there is no limit to the amount of life it would be good to have, then it may be that a bad end is in store for us all.’
An Interim Assessment of Heidegger and Nagel’s Approaches
Heidegger and Nagel seem both to agree that the problem of philosophical investigation into death stems from death’s having no empirical reports. It is simply the end of life: we shall know nothing of death, especially when we are dead.
What we do know of death is that it is inevitable. We approach death via life. Sometimes, such as in the event of terminal illness, we have an idea of when it is likely to come; at others, such as in sudden accidents, we do not. Normally, given good health and no fatal accidents, we might now expect to live for eighty to 100 years in the West. We can only contemplate death from the standpoint of being alive, approaching its possibility, and what we can glean from observing the lives and deaths of others.
Both Heidegger and Nagel assume the finality of death—with no afterlife—and that the only possibility for investigation is to approach death from the standpoint of life. Heidegger sees death as the culmination of the process by which we live our lives, particularly our attitude to our own finitude. His chief concern is death in relation to time on the adoption of what he calls an authentic view of life, particularly how we go about our various projects in the light of death’s aforementioned inevitability.
Nagel’s approach is axiological. Does death have a value? It is ‘evil,’ according to him: it ends our aspirations. Unlike Heidegger, he seems to see death as only a ‘bad thing,’ not as an ultimate destination by which we steer a course through life.
So Heidegger wants us to live and approach death authentically; Nagel sees it that as ending our aspirations. They both agree on the importance of time; but their accounts of how we view the approach of death through time are at variance. Heidegger sees death as a marker in our approach to our own finitude and how we live our life in light of that; Nagel refers rather to our valuation of our hopes and potential, and what we lose when we die.
The Experiential Approach: Philip Gould
Philip Gould, a.k.a Lord Gould of Brookwood, was not a philosopher. His career was spent as a political analyst, and he was instrumental in the conduct of focus-group research for the Labour party, which contributed substantially to Tony Blair’s landslide win in the UK 1997 General Election.
In January 2008 a diagnosis revealed that Gould was suffering from cancer of the oesophagus. By 2011 it was clear that surgery and other treatments had failed, and that Gould was, as he said, entering the ‘death zone.’ He was quoted thus:
‘This time it was clear…I was in a different place, a death zone, where there was such an intensity, such a power. And apparently this is normal. And so, even though obviously I’d…rather not be in this position, it is the most extraordinary time of my life, certainly the most important time of my life’ (Independent, 19 Sept 2011).
He proceeded to turn this late period of being-towards-death into a project by writing about his situation. His memoirs were published in 2012 in a book entitled When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone.
One of the things that happened to him in the earlier stages of his cancer was his beginning to take more interest in religion and philosophy. In 2010, after initial treatment, it was found that his cancer had returned. He recalls a conversation with Tony Blair in which the former Prime Minister inspired him with the words, ‘You have to use this recurrence to find out your real purpose in life.’ Gould took his advice: in those early stages of his cancer he quite naturally wanted to cling to life; but eventually it was clear that his sickness was terminal and at that point he observed that ‘in truth, having an idea of the likely timescale of your life is a privilege not available to many.’ He also reported feeling confused, however; the need for a purpose, the feeling of a new reality together with a loss of influence on events, but still the determination to continue treatment with no thoughts of suicide. This mood develops. Later, he observes that death is regarded as ‘decline, of growing irrelevance, ending of growth, cessation of contribution. But for the dying it is a time of assessment, a pre-death moment of judgement.’ He speaks to David Sturgeon, a consultant psychiatrist, who told him that for a good death there is a need for acceptance of death and to see the dying process as the most important time of one’s life. Gould speaks of ‘reckoning’: he talks at length and in detail to his wife, children and sister. He makes sure of his family’s security after his death. He speculates on the different attitudes available to someone faced with imminent death. Both acceptance or denial are natural reactions. Gould opts for acceptance. As time goes on and the point of death nears he says he has found a courage that he did not know he had. He comments that the possibility of human error causing his death (bad decisions about his surgery, for example) have to be lived with in the run-up to death. Eventually he enters a period of ecstasy, and intense enjoyment of life, the arts, and what he comes across in everyday life. He has closer relations with his loved ones, and an intensity of feeling that he did not have in his earlier life. He observes that life is about change, becoming a different person. Life is your actions, what you do, and that is all it consists of. Towards the end, he also speaks of losing a sense of a linear time.
At the end of the book, after his death, comments were added by his daughters and his wife. His daughter Georgia in particular comments on his singular drive and purpose, and his desire to give meaning to the experience of dying.
Philip Gould’s candid observations and reportage give us an experiential check on the speculations of Heidegger and Nagel: in many ways his is a richer account of the relevance of death to life.
Nonetheless, we need to be aware of category confusion. Gould is reporting on the last stages of his life, and how in his particular case he reacted to it. Heidegger and Nagel are writing of the ordinary everyday view of death. Our attitude to death at the age of, say, fifty—when we feel unlikely to die before we are eighty—may not seem to have much in common with Gould’s sense of imminent demise. But it could be that Gould feels more intensely the kind of emotions associated with such an event and engages in a logic we cannot grasp when we are far from death.
This is not to say that Gould’s experiences are necessarily typical of every human being; they are subjective reportage, though honest and candid. As he himself says, he eventually accepted death. Others may not. Tolstoy’s story, The Death of Ivan Ilych, mentioned above, tells of a man who takes an attitude to death very different from Gould’s. He bewails his shortcomings, he panics, screaming and crying for several days in the face of death until that very last minute. Death for Ivan Ilych is nonetheless a reckoning, as it was for Philip Gould, but their reactions to that reckoning are dissimilar.
With those two caveats, what useful conclusions can be drawn from this collection of speculation and evidence?
Heidegger’s advice to live authentically—that is, thoughtfully and with the finitude of life—is surely a good place to start. Here, death at the very least gives life the concept timescale. Attitudes to death will vary the closer we are to it, but our attitude to life would be much different if we lived much longer or much shorter. If for example our expected lifespan were fifty years, we would arrange our activities, hopes and aspirations, and our life in general would be arranged differently compared to a situation in which our expected span was 150 years.
Nagel may be correct in his view that death is objectionable because it takes away our hopes and aspirations. On the one hand, as Jacoby Carter points out, these aspirations and hopes have no present ontological value. That is, they are not real in the present. We only imagine that we have the advantages to come: they have not yet happened. Notwithstanding, we place a great deal of weight on these hopes. We are unwilling to give them up, even in the face of great adversity. But in some lives there may come a time—particularly in old age, or in cases of terminal illness (with an individual less driven than Philip Gould)—where a quick and painless ending of life seems a better option.
It could be argued that Gould is an exemplar for Heidegger. This is an idea that is not capable of too much extension, but there is some evidence from his account that Gould has led an authentic life in Heidegger’s meaning of the term. The philosopher’s concept of life and death being one process by which death focuses us on the authenticity of life and the way it is lived is the point of most importance in all this. Gould illustrates this magnificently. Consider some of his observations as a guide to authentic living in the Heideggerian sense, even when we are far from death: we need to think of our finitude; we have projects and plan with this in mind; we need to find a purpose in life; we need to realise that as death (or advancing age) approaches, our relevance, our need to grow, and our contributions need not necessarily diminish; to realise, as Gould says, ‘dying is a time of assessment, pre-death a moment of judgment,’ and that death must be accepted, and not regarded as an obscenity not to be talked about.
As regards Nagel, because his approach is so much confined to evaluating death, the only common ground he seems to have with Heidegger is the notion that time is important in how we value life. Time, he argues, allows us to build up aspirations, which we are unwilling to give up, and which make us want to cling to life. But it could be argued that Gould also reached a conclusion which supports Nagel’s thesis: Gould, because of the person he had become, was keen to cling on to life, had hopes and aspirations, and was motivated to the very end. Heidegger and Nagel, while not mutually supporting, offer views that are not contradictory and which together can extend our philosophical view of death.
While death ends our aspirations, the run up to death—even from far out—is an important time for assessment. Death has an influence on the way we live our life far beyond being the mere ending of it.
- Being and Time by Martin Heidegger (translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson), published by Blackwell, 1962.
- The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy (translated by Louse and Aylmer Maude), http://www.tc.umn.edu/~awalzer/3302/readings/tolstoy_death.pdf.
- Mortal Questions by Thomas Nagel, published by Cambridge University Press, 1979.
- When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone by Philip Gould, published by Abacus, 2012.
- The comment by Jacoby Carter is from his paper On the Value of Death https://www.ohio.edu/ethics/tag/nagel/.