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Death, Faith & Existentialism

Filiz Peach explains what two of the greatest existentialist thinkers thought about death: Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers.

Death has been discussed comprehensively by very few philosophers. Those who have dealt with it offer their views mostly on the awareness of death. Indeed, the only knowledge we have regarding death itself is that it is an inevitable universal event. We all know that we will die, and sooner or later most of us confront the reality of our own mortality. Let us look at the changing attitudes towards death over time, and then turn to the significance of death from two existential perspectives: Martin Heidegger’s and Karl Jaspers’.

I would like to say a few words, however briefly and simply, about the popularly-held religious view of the significance of death. This will provide a good contrast with Heidegger’s and Jaspers’ views. According to this view, a person’s death is not seen as the end because the soul is regarded as immortal. In the mediaeval period, for example, the soul was regarded as the ‘form’ of the body and the two were seen in natural unity. This unity is broken up at the moment of death when the body perishes, whereas the soul continues to exist in one form or another. Some of the most important, though by no means universal, tenets of this commonly held religious view are:

• Man’s being is non-finite in that existence continues beyond death both bodily and spiritually, however not as a disembodied soul.

• What comes after death is valued higher than ‘being-inthe- world’ here and now.

• Belief in resurrection and judgement by God is closely tied up with the significance of the individual’s actions during his lifetime. After death the individual’s life is judged, the good are rewarded and the bad are punished.

• There are two specific forms of existence after death, namely peaceful existence in heaven or suffering in hell.

In the West, with the growth of scientific knowledge, particularly from the 17th century onwards, man’s intellectual interest shifted towards science and technology. The creator, the creation of the universe and man’s central position as maintained by theology were questioned, and religious faith began to decline. The weakening of religious beliefs changed man’s outlook concerning his idea of death and its significance. Increasingly, the focus switched to life ‘here and now’ as man became more preoccupied with the material side of the world at the expense of the spiritual.

With the existential-phenomenological approach to death, man’s being-in-the-world, his alienation from himself and the acceptance of his finitude in the face of death have become primary philosophical concerns.

Heidegger’s Analysis of Death

Now, let us look at Heidegger’s view on death. It is interesting to note that Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) was brought up and schooled within the traditional religious framework and yet this framework seems to be discarded in Being and Time. In fact, there is no explicit reference to God in this work. Although Heidegger’s analysis indicates a radical break with the traditional view, some of his concepts point to some religious ideas, for example ‘fallenness’, ‘thrownness’, ‘guilt’, etc. Heidegger gave new significance to the meaning of death in his ontological inquiry in Being and Time. He asks what it means for any entity to be, and gives an existential analysis of Dasein (his term for human existence). According to Heidegger, the Being of human beings can be established on a purely phenomenological basis without reference to a deity or the concept of immortality.

Heidegger’s analysis of death is not concerned with how people feel when they are about to die nor with death as a biological event. Its focus is on the existential significance which this certain ‘yet-to-come’ death has to human life, i.e. to Dasein’s being-in-the-world. For Heidegger, understanding the phenomenon of death involves grasping the Being of Dasein as a whole. If Dasein is understood existentially as a possibility, then it becomes clear that Dasein’s authentic Being in its totality is ‘Being-towards-death’. Through facing death, Dasein understands what it means to be. This reflective process is the crux of Heidegger’s analysis of death. In order to clarify his views on the existential conception of death, Heidegger distinguishes between two basic forms of Being: authentic and inauthentic Being.

In the everyday mode of being, Dasein interprets the phenomenon of death as an event constantly occurring in the world. It is a ‘case’ that happens to others. The general comment is “One of these days one will die too, in the end; but right now it has nothing to do with us.” Dying remains anonymous and it has no connection with the ‘I’.

Facing one’s own death is radically different from being concerned with the death of others. My own death means the end of my possibilities, the total disintegration and the end of my world. The fear of my own death comes from the fear of my extinction as a human being. This causes me a great deal of anxiety. I may be able to face other people’s death but may find it virtually impossible to come to terms with my own death. Heidegger says Dasein cannot experience its own death. As long as Dasein exists, it is not complete, that is, there are still some of its possibilities outstanding. If, however, Dasein dies, then it is ‘no-longerthere’.

How, then, does Dasein break through the mode of fallenness and lift itself up to authenticity? Heidegger’s answer to this question is: through ‘Being-towards-death’. Rising to authenticity can be achieved, says Heidegger, through a particular state-of-mind: dread (Angst). Dread is a mood which enables Dasein first to turn away from itself and then to be thrown back to confront itself. In order to achieve this, one has to transcend one’s everyday inauthentic mode of Being. Heidegger says dread is necessary for Dasein to grasp its existential freedom and his possibilities. Death is existentially significant when one perceives one’s existence in the light of Being, not if it is merely taken as an empirical event that will happen someday. According to Heidegger, this analysis enables us to have an understanding of our finitude, and this awareness makes authentic existence possible. Heidegger does not give an explanation of death itself but offers a phenomenology of our relationship to death. His philosophy is thoughtful but gloomy. His account of death portrays a no-hope mode of Being and he has often been criticised for this.

Jaspers’ Notion of Death

Turning to Jaspers’ approach to death, we will find that it is quite different from Heidegger’s view. First of all, unlike Heidegger, Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) does not impose an ontological structure upon human beings. Secondly, his break with the traditional view of death is not so radical. Jaspers offers a possibility for Existenz to merge into Transcendence, ultimate reality. This does not necessarily suggest personal immortality nor does it imply total annihilation. Although Jaspers’ views on death are not considered to be religious, certain existential concepts such as Existenz, Transcendence and Being remind us of religious concepts but under different terminology.

It might be useful here to give a brief description of Jaspers’ key philosophical terms, namely Dasein and Existenz. According to Jaspers, Dasein is a mode of Being which manifests itself as the empirical self with a temporal dimension. It is a part of the world but cannot be understood as an object in isolation. Existenz, however, is the true, non-objective and free self that transcends time. As it is not an objective entity it is not accessible to empirical inquiry. Since authentic existence is very difficult to achieve, and man often falls back into his empirical existence, Existenz remains mostly as a possibility. Jaspers’ Dasein is quite different from Heidegger’s Dasein in that the latter cannot transcend its finitude.

In order to understand Jaspers’ views on death we must first bear in mind that according to Jaspers we are always in situations. This is an inevitable condition of man’s existence. Secondly, there are four major ‘boundary situations’ (those situations which threaten our sense of security and the foundation of our existence) of which the most important is death because it signifies the end of man’s ‘being-in-theworld’. Jaspers distinguishes between two different meanings of death. Death is perceived as either the ceasing of existence as an objective fact or as a specific boundary situation. Put simply, the fact of death is very different from death as a boundary situation. Facing one’s own death is a specific boundary situation and it is personal because Existenz convinces itself that Dasein – the basis of its empirical existence, ie the bodily existence – is temporal and transient and has to come to an end. Despite the end of one’s empirical being, Existenz itself is not subject to death. As Existenz we are concerned with the significance of death and how we relate to it. We know that we have to face up to nothingness as there is no return for Dasein and we have to come to terms with this.

As Existenz, one grasps Dasein’s finitude through the constant presence of potential death and the concrete reality and necessity of it. One knows that one has to face death with dignity, accept it and come to terms with it. Jaspers says that the boundary situation of death suggests that anything we do as possible Existenz in existence has to be ‘in view of death’. In a sense, life becomes a continuous process of learning to die.

Jaspers says that when the death of the person one loved occurs life may become a lonely worldly existence for the one who stays behind. The grief and pain we feel lead us to hopelessness and may take us into the boundary situation of death. Although death destroys the loved one phenomenally, existential communication is preserved, it is eternal.

Jaspers goes on to say that human beings understand the inevitability of their future deaths and the concept of nonbeing. Man thinks that as long as he is alive he cannot experience his own death, and once he ceases to be alive he cannot experience it either – a typical Epicurean argument!. So, the experience of one’s own death seems an impossibility. As a result, he does not perceive death as cause for concern. He ignores his possible Existenz and clings on to his worldly activities. Alternatively, Dasein may ignore its everyday existence entirely and hide within its nihilistic or mystical realm. This would be another way of avoiding boundary situations. Thus, if man cannot face up to death existentially, he either preoccupies himself with worldly things or escapes into a mystical realm.

The Problems of Immortality

There is a widely held belief that existence continues in some other form after death. This belief is generally connected with religious faith or personal ‘psychic’ experiences. The individual is able to get rid of the terror of facing death through his belief. Jaspers thinks that the temporal continuity of Dasein in any form is absurd. He says that in this situation ‘the horror of not being’ is lost and ‘true dying’ ceases. This, in turn, stops man from seeking his true self. I think there are some problems to be addressed here. Firstly, Jaspers assumes that any belief in immortality of human beings is unfounded and false. There is indeed no conclusive evidence – scientific or otherwise – to indicate that there is any kind of existence beyond death. This belief is based on faith. By the same token, some of the Jaspersian notions such as Existenz, Transcendence and Being are also based on faith, philosophical faith but faith nonetheless. Some of Jaspers’ concepts are not describable, demonstrable or, some would claim, not comprehensible. Yet Jaspers himself based his whole philosophy on these concepts and believed in them wholeheartedly. In theory, his basis for his belief is not much different from the basis of the belief of those individuals who believe in immortality. The only difference is that Jaspers argues his case a lot better and more systematically.

Secondly, according to Jaspers, the individual’s ‘unfounded belief’ in immortality stops man from seeking his true self. I would argue that human beings understand the horror of the experience of death whatever their belief is. However much they may believe in immortality, when they come face to face with death sooner or later they may still feel despair. In the face of death no belief can guarantee the individual a sense of relief or a sense of ‘exemption’ so to speak.

Furthermore, it is not impossible for a human being to seek her true self and actually transcend her physical being within the framework of her own belief system, whether it is theological or philosophical. For example, the Sufis do not need boundary situations in order to transcend their worldly being and become one with the totality, ie God. They are able to find the true self within themselves by achieving higher levels of consciousness and dissolving themselves into that Being. The meaning of death for the Sufi is returning of the consciousness to the universal totality and being One with the Deity. The physical body decays and disintegrates at death but the individual consciousness is absorbed in this ultimate reality and returns to its original source which is infinite and eternal. This concept is not much different from Jaspers’ Existenz merging into Transcendence, ultimate reality.

We have seen that the 20th century existential view of death is significantly different from the traditional view. However, in the analyses of both Heidegger and Jaspers there is a hint of religious notions. Certain existential concepts such as fallenness, call of conscience, guilt, Transcendence, Being and Existenz all point to theological conceptions in secular guise. With the traditional view, death signifies the end of our being on which judgement will be passed and on which the possibility of a higher form of being depends. This very point has been taken up by both Heidegger and Jaspers. Heidegger is silent on any possibility of transcending the finitude of Dasein; human beings are inherent in the world and authentic existence within the world is emphasised. Jaspers, however, develops a concept of transcending death, not as a person or Dasein but as Existenz. I think this is a transworldly correspondence to the traditional view of death.

Having looked at the significance of death from different perspectives, it is reasonable to assume that it will continue to take different forms in accordance with people’s world views. At the present time there is a general scepticism about the possibility of life after death. The traditional concepts of reward and punishment by God do not seem to be relevant today to many people. We know we must all die but we are not certain that contemporary scientists are correct in maintaining that consciousness must discontinue with the bodily death. We know that the concepts of physics have changed. On the one hand, we may believe but cannot prove that scientists have sufficient knowledge about the nature of things to assert that survival in some form is impossible. On the other hand, we may be convinced, but similarly cannot prove, that certain phenomena indicate that survival is possible. A belief in survival provides a universal comfort and reassurance but since knowledge of ultimate things cannot be attained by mere reasoning, such belief, as Jaspers would be the first to agree, has to be based on an act of faith.

© Filiz Peach 2000

Filiz Peach is working on a PhD on Existentialist perspectives on death. She lives in London.


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