“Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.4311
There is some real significant sense in rehearsing Heidegger’s conception of the Dasein in thematizing death as “my death” (from my viewpoint) or “someone’s death” (from her/his viewpoint). However, if I may appropriate Emmanuel Levinas in his Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, there is a more dialogical way of discussing the issue of death which brings out the importance of “the death of the Other” that haunts and disturbs an individual who has witnessed the death of someone personally close to her/him. As a matter of my own thoughts about the possibility of my own death, it is not haunting or disturbing at all. Thinking of my death is “autheticizing” to me and that’s precisely why I can unhesitatingly sacrifice my life for a noble cause. This, I think, could be another instance to signify Heidegger’s notion of “befriending” death. But it is the thought of the death of the Other that is haunting and disturbing to me.
It is therefore the THOUGHT of death (mine or anybody’s)–which is an acceptance of the radicalness of finitude–that we can talk about as it is presently thematized by us who are still living. In this case, the signification and hence the “authenticization” of death once it is actualized is no longer within the purview of our consciousness (for death’s actualization deprives us of consciousness) but in the consciousness of the living particularly those who know us.
The Death of an Individual in the Context of Community
In Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy, physical death is the cessation or extinction of one’s life that dissolves the future into nothingness. Whitehead further asserts that a metaphysical understanding of this notion leads us to an interpretation of death as a self-fulfillment or self-realization in the larger context of a social community. In this sense, death is understood as an event where a community of living entities can come together to be inspired by the death of a member of such community and in the process project a new vision of a desired future. This point may be better understood if a human individual’s existence is viewed as the polar end whose opposite is the community. Here the individual’s consciousness is but a tiny iota in the community of a myriad beings.
But taking the Whiteheadian issue in a more true-to-life sense is simply a matter of superficial imagination. If we pursue the Whiteheadian trajectory, we lose the “authenticizing” signification of the thought of death which is actually radically realized in the context of the individual. From the Whiteheadian perspective, the thought of death simply plunges into the narrative–even the metanarrative–of a community and therefrom lands in the cold rhetoric of empty romanticism.
I do not however deny the dialogical reality achieved in community interaction. Nobody can sensibly refute the facticity of human interface specifically realizable in the context of a community. But human authenticity emanates from the reflective competence of the human being in the individual dimension without necessarily naively revisiting the graveyard of Cartesian solipsism. Nevertheless, it is important to reflexively affirm the fact that the participating agencies in the human community are uniquely differentiated individuals that constitute an inter-subjective reality. Considering the dynamics of social change, a community could get extremely ascendant (and hence dominant/domineering) to the point of tyrannizing the individual. This is the major problematization in most of Levinas’ writings: When the community gets ascendant, the Other is pushed to the margins. In the process, the meaningfulness of the indvidual is imperiled and human authenticity loses its grounding.
Having said so much about individual death in the context of community, more focus should be taken now in talking about death as an existential event. But can we really talk about death? Well, perhaps as a concept: “death”. But death as “death” isn’t death at all, existentially. But can we get existential about death? Let’s get experiential about this issue. But can we really get experiential about death? Death cannot be experiential at all. But death is supposed to be experiential as a matter of human event. Now, the question is, can we really talk about “experiential” death when actually, death is the cessation of experience? Even the dying moment in the experience of a human being is not death yet and no one lived to tell that experience. Funny to even consider this matter at all.
We don’t get sad, much less terrorized, when we start to reflect about “our own death” because such is not reality as yet. But can one’s death be a reality to her/him? It is what I call “death”. We even tend to get philosophical about it in the existential sense. We can only imagine the sadness; not our sadness but the sadness of those who love us. When we die, such sadness is the “unique” experience precluded to us. It is the death of another that makes death saddening and even terrifying in certain tragic cases.
Death is not within the purview of the subjective experience of the living. Death as a matter of experience is “death” for it is the death of another person that we experience. And “death” as such makes us sad depending on the degree of our closeness to the departed.
“Death” is the only possible way whereby we can talk about death.
(c) Ruel F. Pepa, 17 December 2014