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The Grim Reader

by Rick Lewis

Some of the Philosophy Now team were worried when we decided that the theme of this issue would be death. Not only did they feel it to be unlucky, they also fretted about who it would appeal to. Who would read it, apart from pale adolescents who like dressing in black and listening to Sisters of Mercy albums? Who would advertise in it, apart from maybe funeral parlours? I assured them that death was of more general concern than that.

Death is not only a great mystery, it is, of course, one of those matters that crops up in everyone’s lives like an unwelcome guest, usually unexpected, usually uninvited. Confronting death, as with confronting some ethical problems in life, is something everyone ends up having to do at some stage, whether they are interested in philosophy or not. But maybe philosophy can be a help here. Brenda Almond assured us in Issue 24 that philosophy is the search for meaning in life. Maybe the meaning of life can be illuminated by considering what happens when life is taken away. And also we all want to know what will happen to us.

Many people believe that something of us survives death, that there will be a resuscitation or a resurrection or a reincarnation, and that like Arnie Schwarzenegger, “they’ll be back”. However, even those who are most certain of this somehow always want to know more. For others, the waning of the religion of He who overcame Death has taken away the answers, just as it has taken away the answers about ethics. Faith aside, what can we say on the subject? Some people have tried to offer the consolation that we can, in a sense, live on after our deaths through the achievements and the relationships we create in our lives. Not everyone is satisfied by this. Woody Allen, actor and ex-philosopher, declared “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work … I want to achieve it by not dying.” Others have argued that none of us have to worry about death because as, Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death.” Death is in fact one of the boundaries of life. It is just the end of you, and consequently,there is nothing it is like to be dead – it isn’t like suffering from a broken ankle. Not all philosophers are such Job’s comforters; the American philosopher Thomas Nagel claims that death is “a great curse”, and says that if he could, he’d live for ever. But one view that seems to enjoy a very wide consensus is that the fact that we are all going to die makes life sweeter and makes the days we have more precious. Those who have some close escape from extinction, say in a car crash, generally feel for a while an enhanced appreciation of all the daily details of life, the taste of wine, the beauty of the sunshine, the company of their family and friends. No doubt this applies to our lives as a whole. The Victorians and Edwardians liked to remind themselves that their time was finite: hence all those carved carpe diems on clock faces, and the touching words on the sundial Rudyard Kipling had in his garden: “It is later than you think.”

In this issue we have several articles giving different philosophical perspectives on death, including Existentialism and, from a completely different cultural angle, Daoism. Of course death isn’t the only concern to be shared by the more thoughtful members of all human cultures. Part of the interest of examining other cultures’ approaches to philosophy is to see not only the differences from but also the similarities to the philosophical questions asked in the West; it shows us which worries really are universal. For a while now we have been running a regular feature called World Report, on philosophy around the globe. The view of philosophy from Vietnam by Dr Vu Tinh (page 7) comes from a country where Marxism-Leninism is still very much alive and whose philosophical past lies in Confucianism rather than Cartesianism. How interesting then to see that Vu Tinh is so concerned about the nature of philosophy’s relationship to science. Because by complete coincidence (believe me!) that is also the topic of our Round Table debate reported on page 34, which took place in a London bookstore and involved four very prominent Western philosophers and scientists. Is the spirit of the age now so global?

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