Home > Uncategorized > Iain Thomson “Can I Die? Derrida on Heidegger on Death”

Iain Thomson “Can I Die? Derrida on Heidegger on Death”

Thomson, Iain 1999. Can I Die? Derrida on Heidegger on Death. Philosophy Today 43(1): 29-42.

As a being-in-the-world, Dasein dies; there is nothingmore certain: “More original than man is the finitude of the Dasein within him.” (29)

Here Heidegger has not simply inverted the millennium-old Aristotelian distinction according to which acuality is granted metaphysical primacy of place over possibility; according to Heidegger’s thinking of „existential possibility,“ Dasein exists through the constant charting of „live-options,“ choices that matter. Existential possibilities are what Dasein forges into: the roles, identities, and commitments which shape and circumscribe the reflexive comportment of Dasein as a „thrown project.“ (31)

Derrida’s equation of existential possibility with „capability“ is misleading, then, insofar as existential possiblity does not describe – except in derivative „breakdown states“ – our standing back in a detached theoretical prose, deliberating over which possible outcome to „actualize.“ That Derrida has taken a wron step becomes clear in another context when he asserts that „every relation to death is an interpretive apprehension and a representative approach to death.“ Existential possibility, on the contrary, describes ou ongoing non-calculative „charting the course“ of live options in which we are always already immersed. (32)

Livin through possibilities rather than grasping them theoretically, Dasein „is its possibilities as possibilities.“ This is why Heidegger characterizes Dasein as „being-possible“ [Möglichsein]. (32)

Heidegger holds that as being-toward-death I am ahead of myself, able-to-be what I am not yet. […] In 1928, Heidegger is clear; this seemingly strange „being ahead of myself, able-to-be what I am not yet“ is in fact simply an accurate phenomenological description of our basic experience of futurity: „Expecting [Gewärtigen] is … ecstatic [from ek-stasis, „stepping out“]. Expectance implies a being-ahead-of-oneself. It is the basic form of the toward-oneself. … Expectance means understanding oneself from out of one’s own ability-to-be. …. This approaching oneself in advance, from one’s own possibility, is the primary ecstatic concept of the future.“ (32)

[…] without death […] there would be no futurity, the possibilities we press into would not „come back to us,“ constituting us. […] In other words, death makes the future matter, and thus opens the horizon within which we „press-into“ the possibilities which in turn constitute us. For Heidegger, then, death is not something we embody, but the ineliminable limit of our embodiment, the indefinite but irremovable horizon within which all embodied possibilities unfold. (33)

Derrida’s objection focuses on and problematizes the idea of a „limit-line“, „threshold“, or border separating life and death, which he argues is an aporia implicit in Heidegger’s existential analytic. For Derrida, since Dasein embodies its possibilities existentially, and death is „the possibility of an impossibility,“ embodying the possibility of an impossibility would seem to entail embodying an impossibility. (33)

Derrida formulates this point provocatively: „here dying would be the aporia, the impossiblity of living or rather ’existing’ one’s death“ (p. 73). Simply put, we cannot eradicate the possibility that we cannot experience death. (33)

Thus, even when I die, my death does not happen to me. I never meet my death. (34)

This „impossibility of being dead“ – rather than conferring me with a kind of „mortal immortality“ in an „eternal moment of the now“ (as on Heidegger’s reading of Zarathustra’s recognition that it is never not now) – leads to what Derrida calls „ruination“, „the final impossibility of dying, the disaster that I cannot die, the worst unhappiness.“ Why is this „mortal immortality suffered or, at best, „endured“ as a kind of disastrous ruin? The Heideggerian explanation would seem to be as follows. In the search for something that is uniquely my own (eigen), my relationship with my own death, in its „mineness“ [Jemeinigkeit] and „irreplaceability“ (the fact that no one else can die in my place), seemed to hold out to me a last promise of „authenticity“ [or „ownmostness“, Eigentlichkeit]. But the recognition that I never meet with that which is uniquely my own leads the quest for authenticity toward a realization of the tragic impossibility of death, the tragedy – as „Blanchot constantly repeats“ – „of the impossibility, alas, of dying“ (p. 77). Not even my own death will be mine. This reading is dramatic and powerful, but is it compelling as a reading of Heidegger’s text? To recognize that it is a compelling reading, but not a convincing critique, it is important to be clear about something which Derrida does not make clear. Heidegger insists that: „Dying is not an event; it is a phenomenon to be understood existentially.“ Heidegger treats death not as an occurrence that happens to us, but phenomenologically, in terms of its showing-itself as phenomenon. Phenomenologically, death is the unknown; like Being as such, death does not show itself directly. […] Derrida’s stirring ideas about the „disauthenticating“, „disappropriating“, impossible experience of death turns out to be Blanchotian themes read into Heidegger’s text. (34)

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