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Stephen Mulhall “Human Mortality”

Mulhall, Stephen 2005. Human Mortality: Heidegger on How to Portray the Impossible Possibility of Dasein. Dreyfus, Hubert L. and Mark A. Wrathall (eds). A Companion to Heidegger. Malden; Oxford; Victoria: Blackwell Publishing, 297-310.

[…] there is a specific state-of-mind through which Dasein discloses itself to itself in a simplified way; and its very simplicity is what allows it to give Dasein access to itself as a structural totality. This is the phenomenon of anxiety (angst, dread), a distinctively objectless state-of-mind; and what it reveals is that the being of Dasein means beingahead-of-itself in being-already-in-(the-world) as being-alongside (entities encountered within-the-world). In short, it tells us that the being of Dasein is care. (297)

[…] for as long as Dasein exists, it can never achieve wholeness; it will always be ahead of itself, essentially related to a possibility, to something that it is not yet. As Heidegger puts it, Dasein’s mode of being is such that something is always left outstanding, or say incomplete; but if Dasein
cannot bring its own existence into view as a whole, then how could it produce an existential analytic of its own kind of being that might bring it into view as a whole? (298)

[…] in being-ahead-of-itself, Dasein does not simply or solely relate to itself as standing out into the future, and hence as incapable of or beyond completion; it also understands itself as relating to – as standing out toward – its own future completion, toward a point at which there will be nothing of itself outstanding. But this endpoint, the point at which Dasein’s span of existence completes itself, is also the point of its own nonexistence, its “no-longer-being-there” – its death. (298)

The most obvious strategy for gaining access to death that Heidegger contemplates is to make use of the already-established fact that Dasein’s being is being-with-Others; for if we cannot directly grasp our own death, can we not experience as intimately and directly as possible the dying and death of other Dasein? (300)

Heidegger in fact thinks that our tendency to think that being-with-Others in their dying and death might allow death to be phenomenologically representable is an expression of a more pervasive tendency on our part to think that one Dasein might represent (go proxy for, substitute or otherwise stand in for) another. To be sure, one Dasein can vote for another Dasein, or take her place with respect to some specific task or object of concern, or even die in another’s place (say by placing oneself in the way of harm that would otherwise be inflicted on another); but no one can take another’s dying away from her. Death is not, is never, theend; it is my end or yours, or hers. Death, in other words, is in every case “mine,” the death of some particular Dasein, the being to whom mineness belongs. Hence, if dying is constitutive of Dasein’s totality or wholeness, it must be conceived as an existential phenomenon of a Dasein which is in each case one’s own. (300-301)

No present-at-hand or ready-to-hand object’s particular relationship to its end can stand in for Dasein’s particular relationship to its end because none manifests the kind of being as such that
belongs to Dasein. (301)

He tells us that, while we can refer to the end of anything living as its perishing, and although Dasein “has” its death, of the kind appropriate to anything that lives, it cannot be said, quaDasein, to perish. Rather, it either dies authentically, or it suffers “demise” (which occurs when Dasein ends “without authentically dying” (SZ: 291) – without, that is, realizing that way of being in which it “is” toward its death, of which more later). (302)

[…] the central negative points Heidegger wishes to make here seem coherent enough, turning as they do upon his unwavering employment of the term “Dasein” as an ontological or existential category, and hence as essentially not synonymous with any biological or zoological category. If “Dasein” is not a synonym for “Homo sapiens,” any more than it is for “soul” or “self-consciousness” or “human being,” then any analysis of Dasein’s relation to its end cannot be fruitfully furthered by taking for granted the ontological presuppositions of the results of the ontic life sciences. (302-303)

Since no Dasein can directly apprehend or encounter its own death, we must shift our analytical focus from death understood as an actuality to death understood as a possibility; only then can we intelligibly talk of death as something toward which any existing Dasein can stand in any kind of substantial, comprehending relationship. In other words, we must reconceive our relation to our death not as something that is realized when we die, but rather as something that we realize (or fail to) in our life. (303)

[…] death is not just the possibility of our own non-existence, of our own absolute impossibility; it is an impossible possibility – or more frankly, an existential impossibility. But if it amounts to a contradiction in terms to think of death as an existential possibility, of however distinctive or even unique a kind, then it would seem that Heidegger must be wrong to think that he can achieve phenomenological access to death by analysing it in existential terms. (304)

Heidegger’s point in calling our relation to our own end our “being-towarddeath” is to present it as an ontological (that is, existential) structure, rather than as one existentiell state (even a pervasive or common one) of the kind that that structure makes possible. In short, we cannot grasp Heidegger’s account of death except against the horizon of his account of the ontological difference – the division between ontic and ontological matters. (304)

[…] although we can’t coherently regard death as an existentiell possibility, neither can we understand our relation to our own end apart from our relation to our existentiell possibilities, and thereby to our being-ahead-of ourselves. More specifically, Heidegger’s suggestion is that we should think of our relation to death as manifest in the relation we establish and maintain (or fail to maintain) to any and every authentic possibility of our being, and hence to our being as such. (305)

Precisely because death can be characterized as Dasein’s ownmost, non-relational and not-to-be outstripped possibility, and hence as an omnipresent, ineluctable, but non-actualizable possibility of its being, which means that it is an ungraspable but undeniable aspect of every moment of its existence, it follows that Dasein can only relate to it in and through our relation to what is graspable in our existence – namely the authentic existentiell possibilities that constitute it from moment to moment. (305)

In other words, just as Heidegger earlier reminded us that death is a phenomenon of life, so he now tells us that death shows up only in and through life, in and through that which it threatens to render impossible – as the possible impossibility of that life. (305)

Or, to put matters the other way around: being-toward-death is essentially a matter of being-toward-life; it is a matter of relating (or failing to relate) to one’s life as utterly, primordially mortal. (305)

A mortal being is one whose existence is contingent (it might not have existed at all, and its present modes of life are no more than the result of past choices), whose non-existence is an omnipresent possibility (so that each of its choices might be its last), a being with a life to lead (its individual choices contributing to, and so contextualized by, the life of which they are a part), and one whose life is its own to lead (so that its choices should be its own rather than those of determinate or indeterminate Others). In short, an authentic confrontation with death reveals Dasein as related to its own being in such a way as to hold open the possibility, and impose the responsibility, of living a life that is authentically individual and authentically whole – a life of integrity, an authentic life. (306)

[…] it is the objectlessness of anxiety that allows Heidegger to claim that its peculiar oppressiveness is generated not by any specific totality of ready-to-hand objects but rather by the possibility of such totalities: we are oppressed by the world as such – or more precisely, by being-in-the-world. Anxiety gives Dasein access to the knowledge that it is thrown into the world – always already delivered over to being ahead of itself, to situations of choice and action which matter to it but which it did not itself fully choose or determine. In other words, anxiety confronts Dasein with the determining yet sheerly contingent fact of its own worldly existence. (307)

Angst is no more a specific mode of Dasein’s thrownness than death is a specific possibility of its projectiveness. It is rather an ineluctable aspect of its thrownness, the omnipresent ground and condition of Dasein’s specific states-of-mind. One might say: whatever Dasein’s particular state-of-mind and project, it is always already anxiously relating to its mortality, whether in resolute anticipation of it or in irresolute, self-alienating flight from it. (308)

If Dasein’s being is inherently being-ahead-of-itself, no meeting of any particular demand in action can eliminate or silence the need to re-encounter that demand (or to choose not to do so) in the next moment of our existence. If we are in this sense essentially incomplete or lacking (Heidegger goes on to call this our being-guilty), then we are also essentially irreducible to what we have hitherto and presently achieved or attained. We are, in other words, inherently self-transcending or transitional, always capable of becoming more or other than we presently are. (309)

Human mortality and finitude is accepted only insofar as one avoids conflating one’s existential potential and one’s existentiell actuality, and instead accepts one’s inevitable failure to coincide with oneself. (309)

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