The Concept of Death

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mikesutton161
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The Concept of Death

Post by mikesutton161 »

For a more detailed version of this argument see https://www.academia.edu/21246511/The_C ... Experience



What do we make of death? Is it something that we don’t think about until we are older? Or is it something that dominates our lives because we know we are finite and will someday die?

I want to look at an approach to these questions by Martin Heidegger, a pragmatic evaluation by Thomas Nagel, and an account by Philip Gould. The first two are philosophers, Philip Gould is not. His is an experiential approach of someone with terminal cancer.

Heidegger's evaluation of death comes in his main work, Being and Time. Death itself, he says, is beyond the scope of experience or investigation. But we can experience our own progress towards death. This is not just in the last years of life: from our birth, our being is directed towards death. But progress towards death is not like, for example, the ripening of fruit. A person may die with unfulfilled potential of all sorts - in both their own view and in the view of others. So does the prospect of our ultimate demise and the fact that we know that our lives are finite permit us to view our existence in its totality in some way? We live in the face of the end. Death is part of a our being. Therefore, death can put our life into perspective.

Thomas Nagel's analysis forms chapter 1 of his book Mortal Questions. He is concerned with axiology, that is, the evaluation of death. Essentially, he is asking whether or not death is a "bad thing". He believes that the valuation of death as bad comes about only because of what death deprives us of. It is the loss of life rather than the state of being dead that is objectionable. So we cling to life, and the prospect of advantages and enjoyment to come. These anticipations carry a heavy weight in our evaluations. Nagel makes the following somewhat cryptic observation: "...death, no matter how inevitable, is an abrupt cancellation of infinitely extensible goods…If there is no limit to the amount of life it would be good to have, then it may be that a bad end is in store for us all."

Philip Gould (Lord Gould of Brookwood) was not a philosopher. His career was spent as a political analyst, and he was instrumental in the conduct of focus group research for the Labour party which contributed substantially to Tony Blair's landslide win in the UK 1997 General Election. In January 2008, a diagnosis revealed that Gould was suffering from cancer of the oesophagus. By 2011 it was clear that surgery and other treatments had failed, and that Gould was, as he said, entering the "death zone". He proceeded to turn this late period of being-towards-death into a project by writing about his situation. His memoirs were published in 2012 in a book entitled When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone.

In the early stages of the cancer he naturally wanted to cling to life. This mood develops. Later, he observes that death is regarded as "decline, of growing irrelevance, ending of growth, cessation of contribution. But for the dying it is a time of assessment, a pre-death moment of judgement." Both acceptance or denial are natural reactions. Gould opts for acceptance. Eventually he enters a period of ecstasy, and intense enjoyment of life, the arts, and what he comes across in everyday life. He has closer relations with his loved ones, and an intensity of feeling that he did not have in his earlier life.

Philip Gould's candid observations and reportage give us an experiential check on the speculations of Heidegger and Nagel. In many ways his is a richer account of the relevance of death to life. We do, however, need to be aware of category confusion. Gould is reporting on the last stages of his life, and how in his particular case he reacted to it. Heidegger and Nagel are writing of the ordinary every day view of death. Also, Gould's experiences are necessarily typical of every human being. He could, like the principal character in Tolstoy’s story The Death of Ivan Ilych, have taken a very different attitude, bewailing his shortcomings and panicking.

With those two caveats, what useful conclusions can be drawn from this collection of speculation and evidence? It could be argued that Gould is an exemplar for Heidegger. Consider some of his observations as a guide to authentic living in the Heideggerian sense, even when we are far from death: we need to think of our finitude; we have projects and plan with this in mind; we need to find a purpose in life; we need to realise that as death (or advancing age) approaches, our relevance, need to grow, and contribution need not necessarily diminish; to realise, as Gould says, "dying is a time of assessment, pre- death a moment of judgment". But it could be argued that Gould also reached a conclusion which supports Nagel's argument. Gould, because of the person he had become, was keen to cling on to life, had hopes and aspirations and was motivated to the very end.

While death ends our aspirations, the run up to death, even from far out, is an important time for assessment. Death has an influence on the way we live our life far beyond being the mere ending of it.

For a more detailed version of this argument see https://www.academia.edu/21246511/The_C ... Experience
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Harbal
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Re: The Concept of Death

Post by Harbal »

mikesutton161 wrote:For a more detailed version of this argument see.......
I don't suppose there's a substantially less detailed version, is there?
Dalek Prime
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Re: The Concept of Death

Post by Dalek Prime »

Harbal wrote:
mikesutton161 wrote:For a more detailed version of this argument see.......
I don't suppose there's a substantially less detailed version, is there?
I've deleted the HTML that refers to any words other than death, Harbal. Here's the rest.... 'Death... death.... death... death.... death....'.

Better? You bet!
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Greta
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Re: The Concept of Death

Post by Greta »

mikesutton161 wrote:... But we can experience our own progress towards death. This is not just in the last years of life: from our birth, our being is directed towards death. But progress towards death is not like, for example, the ripening of fruit. A person may die with unfulfilled potential of all sorts - in both their own view and in the view of others.
Hi Mike. When I was young my family had some peach trees in the front yard. Unfortunately the fruit was inedible, dropping off before they ripened and then attracting fruit flies as they rotted on the ground (I hated the job of picking them up). So a fruit may not necessarily reach its potential either.

In my opinion, all any being can do is reach its potentials, conscious or not. Those who believe they haven't lived up to their potentials must have overestimated themselves. Time to dial the ego back and tune into Reality Station :) What if others claim that you failed to live up to your potential? Then they didn't take all factors into account and made assumptions. More big egos, believing they have someone else pegged to that extent.

Gould seems like an impressive person. A commonly reported aftermath for near death experience survivors is a greater appreciation of life afterwards. It's logical - you don't know what you've got until it's gone etc.

This suggests that security and safety - those things we crave - tend to stand in the way of happiness in appreciating life, making it easy for us to take life's gifts for granted (this is what many ancient rituals were about, a way of remembering to be grateful. Nothing makes you appreciate life more than thinking you're going to face The Reaper. Suddenly the colours are brighter, the people less odious, nature more magical etc. While the initial rush of ecstasy must die down over time, these "awakenings" (in this case, literally) often resonate for life.
mikesutton161
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Re: The Concept of Death

Post by mikesutton161 »

Thank you, Greta. A thoughtful and sympathetic response.

The poetic version of what we are saying was well put by Nietzsche in Thus Spake Zarathustra, Book II:

"And you yourselves should create what you have hitherto called the world: the world should be formed in your image by your reason, your will, and your love! And truly, it will be to your happiness, you enlightened men!"

A bit over the top, but it gets the idea. (Not only men are enlightened, of course.)
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waechter418
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Re: The Concept of Death

Post by waechter418 »

Who designs his/her life with death in sight, can be certain of a rich life as well as of a rich death.
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Harbal
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Re: The Concept of Death

Post by Harbal »

waechter418 wrote:Who designs his/her life with death in sight, can be certain of a rich life as well as of a rich death.
If you're selling funeral plans I'm not interested.
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waechter418
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Re: The Concept of Death

Post by waechter418 »

There is the death of those whose existence is determined by fear & hope – and the death of those who associate it with the death of the dogs.

P.S.: stepping outside of your funeral parlour you will see quite a few death variations
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