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November 28, 2015

Heidegger on living aware of death: Maybe not

I’m on a Heidegger mailing list where I get to lurk as serious scholars probe his writings and thoughts, and, not infrequently these days, his politics.

Recently, a member of the list I highly respect suggested that “Heidegger’s phenomenology of ‘Sein-zum-Tode’ [Being-toward-death] amounts to living each day of our lives with a sense of our finitude, our mortality, that unifies and heightens the meaningfulness of each and every moment.” He equates this to Michel de Montaigne saying that “it is my custom to have death not only in my imagination, but continually in my mouth.” This is great wisdom, said the list member.

I don’t want to argue against those who find wisdom in living “with the taste of death” in their mouths. But I also wouldn’t argue for it.

My understanding, such as it is, of Heidegger’s idea of Being-toward-death is that our temporal finitude is constantly present as a horizon: we look before we cross the street because we know we can die — “know” not as an explicit thought but as the landscape within which our experience occurs. We make long-term plans within a horizon of possibility that we number in decades and not centuries.

But that’s not what I take Montaigne to mean. And if that’s what Heidegger’s concept of authenticity entails (as I think it might), then that’s just another problem I have with his idea of authenticity.

Why is keeping explicit the awareness of my impending death preferable, wise, or phenomenologically true-er? Because only I can die my death, as Heidegger says? I’m also the only one who can eat my lunch or take my shower. [Frivolity aside: these are both instances of “Only I have my body.”] Because it makes our experience more precious? It doesn’t for me. For example:

We have a four-month-old grandchild, our first. (Yes, yes, thank you for your good wishes :) When I am caring for him–playing with him–my death is always present, but as an horizon. I’m aware that I’m 65 years older than he is, that I am in my waning years and he is just beginning. That is part of the deep joy of a grandchild, and it is definitional: if I thought I were immortal, the experience would be very different; if I didn’t have the concept of one life beginning and another ending, my experience of children would be incomprehensible. So, phenomenologically I think Heidegger is right about our death (finitude) always shaping our experience as an implicit horizon. Our stretch of time only extends so far before it snaps.

But, beyond that implicit horizon, do I need to keep a taste of death in my mouth to make the experience of our grandson more precious? On the contrary, the explicit thought, “Wow, I’m really going to be dead someday” would distract me from my grandson, and keep me from letting the adorable little phenomenon show himself as he is.

That’s a charged example, of course. But here’s another: I’m eating a delicious piece of chocolate cake. I do so within the horizon of my finitude, but that horizon is probably quite implicit. Perhaps it’s a bit more explicit than that, but still horizonal: I’m only eating half the slice for health reasons. But then I have a vivid taste of death alongside the chocolate: “Crap! I’m going to be dead someday.”

Does the cake taste better? I guess maybe for some people. For a lot of us, though, the realization that death is surely a-comin’ would make the cake turn to ash. Who cares about cake when I’m going to be dead sometime, maybe in a minute or a day? We’ve been pulled out of the experience and out of the world by the vivid intrusion of what is undeniably a truth. Why do you think Roquentin can never enjoy a nice slice of cake?

We can complain that such morbidity is inauthentic, but as far as I can tell that’s a value judgment, not philosophy and certainly not phenomenology.

My intention is not to argue against Montaigne on this. If keeping the fact of death explicitly present helps some of us appreciate life more, who am I to say otherwise? Seriously. And if someone goes further and seeks out death-defying experiences because she feels most alive when she is most at risk, who am I to judge? That works for her. Good! (I feel bad for her parents, though.)

But valorizing keeping death explicitly present seems to me to be more personality than philosophy.

I understand that Heidegger’s putting death front and center was a radical and healthy move for philosophy. Western philosophy, after all, has spent so much of its energy pursuing deathless wisdom and eternal Reality as the only truths. But as a reader of Heidegger, I put much of what he writes in Being and Time about death into the same bucket as what he writes about destiny, das Man, authenticity, and German peasant romanticism: It’s (to put it mildly) phenomenologically non-disclosive for me — part of the price of reading an ontologist whose methodology, at least initially, was phenomenology.

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