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Iain Thomson “Death and Demise in Being and Time”

December 17, 2015 Leave a comment

Thomson, Iain 2013. Death and Demise in Being and Time. – Wrathall, Mark A. (ed). The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger’s Being and Time. New York: Cambridge University Press, 260-290.

In a crucial passage in Being and Time (which I shall refer to subsequently as P1), Heidegger distinguishes between three terms we might otherwise tend to use interchangeably, namely, “perishing” (Verenden), “demising” (Ableben), and “dying” (Sterben): „[P1] The ending of that which [merely] lives we have called perishing [Verenden]. Dasein too “has” its physiological death of the kind appropriate to anything that lives . . . but [“has” it] as co-determined by its primordial way of being [namely, “existing” or “standing-out,” Ek-sistere , into temporally structured intelligibility]. Dasein can also end without authentically dying [eigentlich stirbt], although in this latter case it does not, qua Dasein, simply perish. We designate this intermediate phenomenon as demise [Ableben]. Let the term dying [Sterben] designate the way of being in which Dasein is toward its death [Tod]. We must thus say: Dasein never perishes. Demising, however, is something Dasein can do only so long as it dies. (247)“ (264)

Derrida misses the crucial point that, for Heidegger, Dasein can experience its end (indeed, as we will see, this experience is precisely what Heidegger calls “death”). (265)

Heidegger thinks that the converse is also possible; one can experience one’ s own end without yet having demised. As this suggests, after distinguishing perishing from demise, Heidegger then goes on to distinguish demise (the “intermediate phenomenon”) from death. Heidegger insists that we need not demise in order to die, in large part because of his aforementioned conviction that Dasein can experience its own end. Indeed, Heidegger thinks we can experience our intelligible world’s having ended (and that we do so in what he calls “death”), even though, by all appearances, we cannot live through our own demise in order to experience that end from beyond it. (265)

[…] how can Dasein – an entity whose being is constituted by worldly projects that stretch into an unknown future – ever comprehend itself as a whole? What most readers seem to miss, however, is that Heidegger is able to solve this problem only by introducing his existential-ontological conception of death in distinction from demise. […] As he puts it: “In such being-toward-itsend, Dasein exists in a way which is authentically whole, as that entity which it can be when ‘thrown into death.’ Dasein does not have an end at which it is simply stops, but instead [it has an end at which it] exists i nitely[existiert endlich].” (329) (266)

Bereft of all its worldly projects , Dasein can fully grasp itself in its own “finitude” for the first time – and thereby come to understand itself as a “primordial existential projecting” (330), as we will see. (266)

[…] we can die without dmising is that „death“ nor „dying“ (nor even „authentically dying,“ to which we will return) requires us to suffer the terminal world collapse of demise. (267)

„Death is a way to be, which Dasein takes over as soon as it is.“ (245) (267)

To anyone familiar with Kierkegaard’ s brilliant text (as Heidegger was), it is clear that Being and Time’s phenomenology of existential death seeks to secularize the mystical Christian idea that, in order for one to be born truly into the life of the spirit, one must first die to the material
world – so that one can be reborn to the world in a way that will unify the spiritual and material aspects of the self . (267)

For when not just one but all of our life projects break down in what Heidegger calls “anticipation” (Vorlaufen) or “running-out” toward death, we experience ourselves as a kind of bare existential projecting without any existentiell projects to project ourselves into (and so understand ourselves in terms of). We can thereby come to understand ourselves as, at bottom, a “primordial existential projecting” (330), a brute projecting that is more basic than and independent of any of the particular projects that usually give our lives content and meaning. (269)

In fact, Heidegger’s insistence on the “uncanniness” or “not-being-at-home” in the world seems to be his way of secularizing – and so preserving the core phenomenological insight contained in – the Christian idea that we are in but not of the world.) (270)

To grasp what Heidegger thinks the self ultimately boils down to (in this existential version of Husserl’s phenomenological reduction), it is crucial to remember that when my projects all break down or collapse, leaving me without any life project to project myself into, projection itself does not cease. When my being-possible becomes impossible, I still am; my ability-to-be becomes insubstantial, unable to connect to the world, but not inert. My projects collapse, and I no longer have a concrete self I can be, but I still am this inability-to-be. Heidegger calls this paradoxical condition revealed by anticipation “the possibility of an impossibility” or death. In his words: „Death, as possibility [i.e., as something we project ourselves into], gives Dasein nothing to be “actualized,” nothing which Dasein could itself actually be . It is the possibility of the impossibility of every way of comporting oneself toward anything, of every way of existing. (262)“ (271)

Nevertheless, it is by embracing this finitude – giving up our naïve desire for either absolute freedom or a single correct choice of life project and instead accepting that our finite freedom always operates against a background of constraint (in which there is usually more than one “right” answer, rather than none at all) – that we are able to overcome that paralysis of our projects experienced in death. It is thus important that Heidegger sometimes hyphenates “Ent-schlossenheit” (literally “un-closedness”) in order to emphasize that the existential “resoluteness” whereby Dasein freely chooses the existential commitments that dei ne it does not entail deciding on a particular course of action ahead of time and obstinately sticking to one’s guns come what may, but, rather, requires an “openness” whereby one continues to be responsive to the emerging solicitations of, and unpredictable elements in, the particular existential „situation,” the full reality of which only the actual decision itself discloses. (273-274)

By “death,” we have seen, Heidegger means the experience of existential world collapse that occurs when we confront the ineliminable anxiety that stems from the basic lack of i t between Dasein and its world, an anxiety that emerges from the uncanny fact that there is nothing about the structure of the self that can tell us what specii cally to do with our lives. By “dying,” I have suggested, Heidegger means the mere projecting , disclosing , or ek-sisting (“standing-out”) that we lucidly experience when our projects collapse in death. By “authentically dying,” let me now suggest, he means the explicit experience of undergoing such world collapse and thereby coming to understand ourselves as, at bottom, a mere projecting , that is, a projecting into projects, a fundamental existential projecting that survives even the (nonterminal) global collapse of these worldly projects. (274-275)

Heidegger’s phenomenological attestation of death thus begins with an analysis of our everyday understanding of demise . After isolating and “formally indicating” the most significant structural characteristics of the ordinary ontic phenomenon of demise (in which, however, these formal characteristics have quite different meanings), Heidegger then seeks to flesh out these structural characteristics, collectively, in a way that will reveal the heretofore unnoticed ontological phenomenon of “death” that supposedly conditions the phenomenon of ordinary ontic demise. (276)

[…] what we are really afraid of about demise is what he calls death, namely, losing our world and still being here to experience that loss. (280)

For there is an experience in which what we are afraid of about demise – namely, not being, or, more precisely, being our not being – can actually happen to us. […] this strange experience of being in a way in which we are not able to be anything is precisely what Heidegger calls death. (281)