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What Is The Significance Of Human Mortality, According To Heidegger? Essay, Research Paper
Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976) was, and still is considered to be, along with the likes of Soren Kierkegaard, Edmund Husserl and Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the principal exponents of 20th century Existentialism. An extraordinarily original thinker, a critic of technological society and the leading Ontologist of his time, Heidegger’s philosophy became a primary influence upon the thoughts of the younger generations of continental European cultural personalities of his time.
The son of a Catholic sexton, Heidegger displayed an early interest in religion and philosophy; at school he began an intensive study of the late 19th century Catholic philosopher Franz Brentano and, as we shall see, Brentano’s “descriptive” psychology, as presented in his “On the Manifold Meaning of Being According to Aristotle”, played a major role in Heidegger’s philosophy.
Upon leaving school, he was enrolled at the University of Freiburg and, whilst there, he studied both Catholic theology and Christian philosophy. Heidegger’s early study of Brentano encouraged him to look more closely at the Greek philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle and the Gnostics. He was particularly influenced, however by several 19th and 20th century writers and philosophers such as Soren Kierkegaard (often referred to as the “father” of Existentialism), Friedrich Nietzsche, Wilhelm Dilthey (noted for directing the attention of his contemporary philosophers to human and historical sciences), and by the founder of Phenomenology, Edmund Husserl.
Husserl’s Phenomenology can be seen as a response to the intrusion of psychology into the essential studies of man; he felt that the study of man should, instead be conducted on a purely philosophical level. His way of thinking determined, to a large extent, the background of Heidegger’s later work. Indeed, Heidegger’s comments upon existential themes such as anxiety, distress and care were not meant as psychological or anthropological comments or propositions. Instead, they were specifically proposed as philosophical (or, more accurately, ontological) statements and phenomenological observations. Remembering the influence of Brentano and Aristotle, we will see that Heidegger’s principle philosophical concern was the disclosure of the various ways of Being and particularly, Human Being.
In 1927, Heidegger astonished the German philosophical domain with the publication of his magnum opus Sein und Zeit , a work that, although almost unreadable, was immediately felt to be of primary importance. Perhaps partly due to its intriguingly difficult style, the book was acclaimed as a very deep and important work not only in German speaking countries but also in Latin countries, where Phenomenology had already been popularised. It strongly influenced Jean-Paul Sartre (although, as with Husserl, Sartre’s phenomenological ontology concentrated more upon consciousness than Heidegger believed was necessary). Despite his protestations, Heidegger was classed, on the strength of Being and Time as the leading atheistic Existentialist. However, the book received a colder reception in England and its influence was negligible for several decades.
In order to understand the above titled question, we must first attempt to understand some of the fundamental points that define Heidegger’s difficult philosophy. To begin with, it may useful for us to consider Heidegger’s reasons for writing Being and Time and, to consider some of the philosophical problems that the book addresses.
Heidegger believed that traditional philosophy was inherently problematic due to a particular way of understanding the nature of reality. This “particular way”, prevalent ever-since the dawn of western history due to the likes of Herecleitus and Aristotle, is an ontology which states that what is ultimately real is that which lies underneath properties (or entities) and remains continuously present throughout change. As pointed out by Charles B. Guigon in The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger, this naturalistic philosophy is sometimes referred to as “Substance Ontology”. Substance Ontology reaches its problematic peak with the Cartesian Cogito, as Guigon states,
“Ever since Descartes, this substance ontology has bred a covey of either/ors that generate the so-called problems of philosophy: either there is a mind or everything is just matter; either our ideas do represent objects or nothing exists outside the mind…either something in me remains constant throughout change or there is no personal identity; either values have objective existence or everything is permitted.”
Heidegger believed that the constant move and countermove arguments resulting from this naturalistic ontology were counter-productive and hence, could never result in any satisfactory truths concerning the true nature of reality. He challenged the time-honoured, problematic methods by suggesting that reality should not be thought of in terms of substance at all. For example, he implied that the mind matter problem was irrelevant, as Guigon states, “…it is not that mind and matter do not exist, but that they are derivative, regional ways of being for things” . Heidegger is essentially pointing out the abstractedness of Descartes theory and is asking whether such abstractions or theories can help us to identify reality. Rationalism relies upon the theoretical reductionism that is inherent in Cartesian Dualism. Furthermore, it is societies dominant theoretical attitude that has caused the misinterpretation of reality, abundant in Philosophy. Guigon states
“This misinterpretation is inevitable once one adopts the detached standpoint of theoretical reflection, for when we step back and try to get an impartial view of things, the world, so to speak, goes dead for us – things lose the meaningfulness definitive of their being in the everyday life world.”
The “detached standpoint” then, is inherently inconsistent with our day to day realities. Rarely, are our typical “pre-reflective” day to day activities, steeped in theoretical abstract functions. Heidegger proposed that we discard the view of reality achieved by theorising and instead, concentrate on how things actually appear or show themselves, phenomenologically, from day to day, things such as hammering in a workshop or turning a doorknob…etc.
The typical objective of Ontology was to answer the question, “What is the being [reality] of entities?” Heidegger realised that this seemingly fundamental question was in fact, “naive and opaque” because we can only understand reality in such a manner that it becomes intelligible to us in some determinate way. In other words, our ability to rationalise and to theorise in an abstract manner draws our attention away from the mode(s)in which reality, or Being, actually presents itself to us. To combat the conventional outlook, Heidegger proposed a fundamental ontology that would not simply enquire into the being of entities (for this kind of ontology could only ever be theoretical and reflective); instead, he would enquire as to the conditions of human intelligibility by way of answering the question, “What is the meaning of Being?” We are after all, the only creatures with that type of being that will allow us to comprehend meanings or, as Heidegger says, “Dasein is the horizon in which something like being in general becomes intelligible.” This introduces the notion of hermeneutics into Heidegger’s phenomenology; his ontological inquiry explores the kind of existence that is experienced by beings who are able to understand meanings. But the answer to the question, “What is the meaning of Being?” lies somewhere behind the obviousness of everyday life; it escapes us or, is usually overlooked because it is too near to us to be grasped in our everyday lives. It could be said of Heidegger that his entire prophetic mission amounts to making each man and woman ask the question with maximum involvement.
At the heart of Being and Time lies Heidegger’s analysis of the one (the man) who asks the question – who is capable of asking the question – concerning Being, who precisely because of this capability occupies a privileged position in regard to all other entities or, Beings. The privileged position is, what Heidegger calls Dasein (literally, “being there”). Dasein is the word that Heidegger uses to define our ontological structure or, our way of Being. With the introduction of Dasein, Heidegger’s philosophy moves away from the existential phenomenology of Husserl and Sartre. This is because Dasein is not specifically a conscious subject; instead, it is to be thought of as a self-interpreting entity,
“Dasein is an entity which… is ontically distinguished by the fact that Being is an issue for it.”
“Its [Dasein’s] ownmost being is such that it has an understanding of that being, and already maintains itself in each case in a certain interpretedness of that being.” (36)
Dasein’s way of being is self interpretation; it is, as Heidegger says, “…interpretation all the way down.”
In effect, Heidegger has managed to move philosophy into an extremely personal sphere. His ontology is such that it doesn’t just enquire into the Being of entities; instead, he is looking for the very meaning of Being and, in particular, the meaning of Human Being. Taking the individual “Dasein” as a starting point, he sets forth to reveal this way of being, a being that is peculiar to Humans .
So far, we have looked at some of Heidegger’s motives for writing Being and Time and we have observed one of the fundamental problems that he addresses i.e. that philosophy, since the days of Aristotle, has missed the crucial starting point for a genuine ontology; instead of looking at the being of things outside of ourselves, we should look primarily, at our own, unique way of being and move on from there.
As an aid in the effort to get back to “Thinking of Being” and its redemptive effects, Heidegger elected to use a quite bizarre, but nevertheless necessary, array of linguistics. He developed his own German and Greek words and, to some extent, his own kind of etymology. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of his new terms and expressions began or ended with “-being-”, for example, being-a-whole, being-amidst, being-towards…etc; as we shall see, these terms help to define the holism and continuity that is prevalent within Existentialism. All of these expressions relate to the being of a Dasein or Dasein’s. For example, being-in-the world refers to the fact that Dasein always comports its ways of being in relation to its environment. Of course, this is an extremely simplistic definition and indeed, Heidegger’s comments upon Being-in-the-World are intricate and complex and furthermore, reveal many aspects of our seemingly unique way of being. As Stephen Mulhall points out in Heidegger and Being and Time , Heidegger uses various accounts of average everydayness, “to demonstrate that the Being of Dasein is Being-in-the-world”. Mulhall goes on to say,
“We tend to understand Dasein in terms of what-being, as if it were possessed of an essence from which its characteristics flow in the way that a rock’s properties flow from its underlying nature; we interpret ourselves as just one more entity amongst all the entities we encounter.”
Here, the use of the word, “essence”, always a keyword in terms of Existentialism may remind us of a celebrated maxim, which can be found within Sartre’s philosophy. When Sartre declares that, for humans, “Existence precedes Essence”, he means that for us, as opposed to every other entity, our essence (or, defining characteristics) is not determined by our existence. If it were, then we too would simply possess a way of being that Heidegger calls what-being , or Sartre calls “being-in-itself” (as opposed to “being-for-itself”).
Heidegger’s lengthy and complex investigation into Dasein’s Being as Being-in-the-world reveals many common misconceptions like the one quoted above. However, Heidegger does not just reveal the misconceptions, he also reveals the reasons for and the consequences of them.
If we juxtapose one or more of these “consequences”, such as Falling or Anxiety, with the aforementioned holism and continuity of Existentialism, we can perhaps gain some insight into one of the more striking components to be found within Heidegger’s philosophy, namely his comments upon human mortality.
For Heidegger the existential and ontological ideas concerning mortality arise out of the problem of trying to grasp the character of Dasein’s being-a-whole. For us as humans, the concept of death contains many varied signification’s and connotations. For some it marks the beginning of a new type of “spiritual” existence, for others (and particularly for atheists) death is nothing more than the end of life. Death-as-an-end however, seems to be the unifying opinion for both the religious and the atheistic ways of being. This is how most of us perceive death in our day to day lives and because of this, simply mentioning the word can make one uneasy or even alarmed. Paradoxically however, death also presents us with a certain degree of morbid solace. This consolation manifests itself when we take comfort in the mistaken, subjective view that death comes as a completion or, fulfilment of life; it is psychologically comforting to think that, as we approach old age we gradually become closer to fulfilling our lives thereby adding a degree of meaningful continuity to our existence. But perhaps this is not the authentic way in which death presents itself to us. In order for us to understand Heidegger’s phenomenological assessment of mortality, we must first investigate another ontological characteristic of Dasein, namely that of Care.
“The formerly existential totality of Dasein’s ontological structural whole must…be grasped in the following structure: the Being of Dasein means ahead-of-itself-Being-already-in-(the-world) as Being alongside (entities-encountered-within-the-world.) This being fills in the signification of the term ‘care’”(237).
According to Heidegger, man’s existence is characterised as Care. This Care presents itself initially, in possibility: man makes things instrumental to his concerns and, in doing so, projects himself forward, into the world. Secondly there are the limitations (or, to use the existential terminology, the facticity) of mans existence. Heidegger exemplifies these limitations with the concept of throwness, a concept that encompasses the resulting facticity of our finite lives. Thirdly man seeks to avoid the anxiety of his limitations and so flees toward that which Heidegger calls an inauthentic mode of existence. One final constituent of care is the aforementioned falling. Simplistically, this refers to the typical, everyday mode of existence that we encounter when we choose to flee the accompanying anxiety of authenticity. Our anxiousness comes about because of our very Being-in-the-world, furthermore, “Anxiety confronts Dasein with the knowledge that it is thrown into the world – always already delivered over to situations of choice and action which matter to it but which it did not itself fully choose or determine.” Here, once again we may be reminded of Sartre’s existentialism, particularly when he speaks of our “monstrous freedom”. In anxiety, Dasein is anxious about itself; furthermore, in falling Dasein is anxious about its “monstrous freedom”, a freedom of such monstrous proportions that Dasein’s very existence necessarily involves the act of projecting itself upon one or more possibilities. As Mulhall states, “anxiety plunges Dasein into an anxiety about itself in the face of itself.”
Paradoxically it is anxiety that rescues Dasein from an inauthentic, fallen mode of existence, an irresponsible existence in the world of the-they. When Dasein confronts itself with itself i.e. when Dasein confronts itself with the intimidating connotations of its possibilities (bearing in mind that Dasein is possibilities), it is forced by anxiety to recognise its own existence as “essentially thrown projection, but its everyday mode of existence as fallen.”
Leading from this experience of self-recognition, which goes far beyond our typical expectations, anxiety reveals Dasein’s existence as “thrown projection fallen into the world”. This then, is meaning of Care. When the existentially autonomous ontological elements of fallenness, thrownness, anxiety, facticity, and authenticity are combined, we are, according to Heidegger, left with the essential characteristic of human existence.
With the cumulative conception of Care we see, not for the first time in Heidegger’s philosophy, an element of continuity or holism. This is perhaps not altogether unusual due to the practical nature of existentialism. Heidegger’s philosophy does after all, concentrate upon Dasein’s “ways of being”, an expression which indeed implies a transitory nature. As we have seen, continuity can often be important to us, as humans, when we consider mortality. It offers us meaningful consolation when we think of death as the fulfilment of a life. But if death belongs in a distinctive sense to the Being of Dasein then it must, says Heidegger, be defined in terms of the characteristics of Dasein which incorporate a kind of being which is “ahead-of-itself Being-already-in-the-world as being alongside- entities which we encounter in the world” i.e. it must be defined in terms of Care.
From the outset there is a fundamental problem, a problem that stems from the attempt to understand the being of Dasein as being-a-whole. If Dasein is ontologically ahead-of-itself, i.e. surging up in-the-world, then it is always and at any given moment oriented towards the next given moment of its existence. Therefore as long as a Dasein exists, its existence, in terms of being-a-whole, is incomplete. But once Dasein’s existence is brought to an end by death the Dasein itself is gone and is therefore, no longer capable of looking upon its existence as a whole,
“Thus, the idea of Dasein grasping its existence as a totality seems to be a contradiction in terms: for Dasein to be a whole is for Dasein to be no longer, and so to be no longer capable of relating to itself as a whole”
Death then, is an end, it is the end of the continuity of our existence; but it is not the sort of end that will allow us to see ourselves as having completed a whole (life). It is not an event that we can experience. It seems then that Dasein cannot ever grasp its existence as a whole. Equally important is the fact that death cannot be thought of as a fulfilment because Dasein can cease to exist (Heidegger calls this demise), and indeed is likely to, without fulfilling all of its potential choices. One may be struck down at any moment; this possibility diminishes the prospect of a life being fulfilled. More importantly however, Heidegger says, “With its death, Dasein has indeed ‘fulfilled its course’. But in doing so, has it necessarily exhausted its specific possibilities? Rather, are not these precisely what gets taken away from Dasein?…Fulfilling is a mode of finishedness and is founded upon it. Finishedness is itself possible only as a determinate form of something present-at-hand or ready-to-hand”(288-289). What Heidegger is essentially saying here is that the idea of finishedness is not applicable to an entity that has the defining characteristic of being ahead-of-itself Being-already-in-the-world. Instead, the term may only authentically apply to a kind of being that is in-the-world as a potentially practical entity i.e. something-present-at-hand or, ready-to-hand. For example, a road may be thought of as ‘finished’ when it has reached its end. The end of Dasein however cannot be thought of in this way because it can never appear in this way to itself. Neither can others think of the death of a person/Dasein as fulfilment or finishedness. This is because the person who has died becomes an object of concern “…in the ways of funeral rites, internment, and the cult of graves.”(282). This means that the one who has died is still, even in her death, more than just equipment or, something ready-to-hand. In taking part in the “cult of graves”, the “others” still possess a being-with alongside the deceased, a kind of being that exists in a mode of “respectful solicitude”. So, not only can we never grasp our own lives as a totality thereby allowing ourselves to gain a proper understanding of the Being of Dasein as a being-a-whole, we also cannot grasp the totality of another ‘s life.
Death can only be analysed in the terms of one’s own death or, as Heidegger states, “Our investigation is thus forced into a purely existential orientation to the Dasein which is in every case one’s own.”(284). By keeping in mind this purely existential requirement for an understanding of death and thus, dismissing the notion of death’s being a kind of event, we can see that death is inherent in our being. If we are to understand it, we must analyse it in terms of an existence that is continually pushing forward in-the-world. Death can never signify a being-at-an-end therefore it must signify a being-towards-an-end. It is a “…way to be, which Dasein takes over as soon as it is.”(289).
Furthermore, it is a way to be that may possibly be realised at any given moment. This perpetual possibility suggests that for Dasein, death is its “ownmost possibility” To a large extent, this exemplifies the previously mentioned “extremely personal sphere” to which Heidegger has moved philosophy into. This is because, more than anything else in Heidegger’s ontology, Dasein’s “ownmost possibility” reveals the mineness of existence.
Death then is not to be thought of as a future event that draws closer and closer as a person approaches old age, this view is erroneous because we can never dismiss the possibility of our demise at any given moment of our lives. In our throwness into-the-world, we are thrown into the possibility that each moment will be our last, that we will realise the possibility that will spell the end of all possibilities.
This perpetual threat of annihilation is so personal, (“In dying, it is shown that mineness and existence are ontologically constitutive for death” 284), that no one else can substitute it for me. Dying is, as Heidegger says, something that every Dasein must take upon itself at the time that it happens; furthermore, “No one can take the Other’s dying away from him”(284). It outstrips my relation to others, my being-with-others, and thereby isolates me completely.
It is in the authentic acceptance of this definition of death, as the “…possibility which is one’s ownmost, which is non-relational, and which is not to be outstripped.”(294), that we come face to face with the existential notion of the contingency of existence (an issue that is perhaps more readily associated with Sartre than Heidegger). If we can never escape this thing that inhibits us from the possibility of seeing our lives as having been completed or fulfilled, then what chance do we have of attaching any real meaning to our existence? It would seem that at the end of our lives, we needn’t have existed at all. This existential notion of contingency is explored in great detail in Sartre’s 1943 “essay” on phenomenological ontology, Being and Nothingness . Sartre places human consciousness, or no-thingness, in direct opposition to thingness. Consciousness is not a material entity (is not-matter) and by this token escapes all determinism. The message, along with all of the implications, is a hopeful one; yet the incessant reminder that human endeavour is and remains useless lends an air of tragedy to the book as well. Concerning Heidegger’s existentialism, the necessity of an entity/possibility that will end all of our possibilities (i.e. our choices) and will not allow our lives to possess any form of completeness shows us that all of our choices/possibilities will have been contingent. Thus, if Dasein is, as Heidegger claims, “possibilities” then it is also contingency.
If we are to have an authentic outlook upon death, then we must consider it existentially. In doing so, we must accept that death plays an integral role in our being in such a way that we have a being-towards-death. Our being-towards-death is a matter of Dasein making “…it’s every projection upon an existentiell possibility, in the light of an awareness of itself as mortal.” If we are to confront death, then we must confront it as the possibility which is not to be outstripped thereby accepting, as Mulhall states, “…that one’s existence is ultimately to be given up or annihilated, and so is utterly contingent, and in no way necessary…” .
It could be said that this being-towards-death is, in its essence anxiety because of the contingency of our existence combined with the facticity of our thrownness and the ever-present possibility of the end of all possibilities.
One cannot imagine that it would be easy for the average person to dwell upon the contingency of existence presuming that she is leading the typically inauthentic lifestyle. Authenticity on the other hand requires a kind of optimistic stoicism in which death is embraced as a possibility and man faces the “nothing”. This is in accordance with Heidegger’s analysis of the structure of our being; an analysis that reveals an affective existence i.e., through such existential attitudes and feelings as care, anxiety and so on.
Having investigated the convoluted methodology behind Heidegger’s ontological analysis of death we may now consider the actual significance of the role of Human mortality in his philosophy.
Anxiety functions to disclose (dis-close) authentic being, freedom, as a potentiality. It manifests the freedom of man to choose himself and to take hold of himself. The relevance of time, or more specifically, the finiteness of human existence is then experienced as a, perhaps unnerving, freedom to meet his own death, a preparedness for and continuous relatedness or, being-toward, his own death. In anxiety, all other entities disappear into a “nothing and nowhere”, man hovers in himself as ex-isting, being nowhere at home. In facing this no-thing-ness all obvious everydayness disintegrates and so he faces the potentiality for authenticity. Thus, anxiety, care and the implied confrontation with death are for Heidegger primarily of methodological importance: through these fundamental parts, elements are revealed such as potentialities for being joyfully active, “…knowing joy [die wissende Heiterkeit] is a door to the eternal”. Anxiety is the existential instrument which opens man up to Being and, according to Heidegger, “…to think Being is to arrive at one’s (true) home”. Unsurprisingly, the overall theme of Being and Time is not too dissimilar to Sartre’s later masterpiece. The implications of contingency leave one with a similar “air of tragedy”. However, if we can gather the strength to adopt an authentic way of being, if we can see that we have a self to find and overcome the repression for selfhood, we can at the very least be freed from the mistaken view of death and thus, be freed from the irrational fear that normally accompanies it. The role of mortality in Heidegger’s philosophy may be methodological and catalytic, but the import of mortality to Human Being, whether authentic or inauthentic is and always has been significant in conjunction with our cultural overlays and traditions. Heidegger’s phenomenological view of death as a way-of-being is significant to us because it provides a workable alternative to the common dogmatic views of death and it can help to guide us through a profound existence, that is laden with the traps and pitfalls of inauthenticity.
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