Death and World-Collapse in Being and Time

Death is the most central issue of division two of Heidegger’s Being and Time. In division one, Heidegger completes the analysis of the ontological care-structure of Dasein. The aim of division two is to connect Dasein’s care-structure to temporality. Consequently, division two contains the existential aspect of Being and Time. As such, the concept of death can be said to be of fundamental importance for Heidegger’s existential thought. While Heideggerian scholars are no strangers to differing interpretations of Heidegger’s thought, which is mostly due to the allusive style of Heidegger’s writings; in recent years, there has been much scholarly debate on what exactly Heidegger means by ‘death’. One the one hand, there are the traditionalists, who maintain that death is employed in Being and Time in a commonsensical manner, signifying demise or the end of Dasein i.e. when Dasein no longer is. On the other hand, in recent years, there has been the emergence of scholars, such as Iain Thomson, who maintain a non-traditionalist interpretation. They claim that death is used in a metaphorical way, signifying ‘world-collapse’. These two differing conceptualizations have led to two different interpretations of Heidegger’s existential thought. Considering the centrality of the concept of death, there is a need for an evaluation of the two interpretations in light of each other.

            The most significant difference between the two interpretations is in regards to whether or not Dasein can experience its own death. The traditionalists claim that that is impossible. They interpret Dasein’s death as signifying Dasein’s demise. They make note of the Epicurean influence on Heidegger’s thought. Epicurus is famous for the claim that one cannot experience one’s death, due to the fact that once death arrives, one no longer is. Non-traditionalists, on the other hand, claim that Dasein can experience its own death. Iain Thomson, in his paper titled “Death and Demise in Being and Time”, does not dispute the claim that Dasein cannot experience its own demise. However, he claims that death is independent from demise[1]. Death, Thomson argues, must be capable of being experienced, since it is a world-collapse which is necessary to occur in order for Dasein to achieve authenticity. This paper argues that the traditionalist interpretation is capable of providing a satisfactory account of authenticity, without changing its stance on death. In order to do so, it must clearly distinguish between death, demise, and perishing and it must also show why it is more plausible to interpret death as Dasein’s end. While the two competing interpretations will be shown to bear similar theoretical strength, but a differing terminology, the traditional interpretation will be preferred due to its ability to preserve a more commonsensical interpretation of the terms used by Heidegger.

            Before elaborating on the two approaches and their interpretations of the term death, it is useful to clarify some of the surrounding terminology which Heidegger uses to explain death; in particular, the terms: demise and perishing. Both interpretative schools agree on the following characterization of the terms. Perishing is “the ending of that which lives”[2], it denotes biological death. “Dasein never perishes”[3] since Dasein is not a biological phenomenon. Demise, on the other hand, is the end of Dasein; All Dasein’s eventually demise[4]. In other words, demise signifies phenomenological death. These two phenomena accompany each other. The perishing of one’s body implies the demise of one’s Dasein. According to the traditionalist interpretation, death is understood as an umbrella term; the death of Dasein is the perishing and the demising of Dasein. On the other hand, according to the non-traditionalist interpretation, death is understood as a world-collapse which Dasein can experience without perishing or demising.

            The traditional characterization of the problem of death in Being and Time is as follows. The source of the problem is that Dasein is a Being-ahead-of-itself. As Heidegger puts it:

“The ‘ahead-of-itself’, as an item in the structure of care tells us unambiguously that in Dasein there is always something still outstanding, which, as a potentiality-for-being for Dasein itself, has not yet become ‘actual’”[5]

In other words, Dasein is always caught in-between the moments. It is always anticipating further events. At any moment, there are many future possibilities for Dasein and it can never know for certainty which possibility which turn to actuality. In other words, Dasein’s world is constantly fluctuating and by the time Dasein copes with the new reality that reality will have changed again. The fact that there is always something outstanding for Dasein means that Dasein never reaches its wholeness. As Heidegger puts it “if it [Dasein] gains such ‘wholeness’, this gain becomes the utter loss of Being-in-the-world”[6] Thus, Dasein can never experience its completion. According to the traditionalists, the completion of Dasein occurs when it reaches death. The same way Dasein cannot experience its wholeness, Dasein couldn’t possibly experience its death.

            The traditionalists claim that not only can Dasein never experience its death, but it also cannot know when death will occur. Heidegger, quoting from Der Ackermann aus Böhmen, writes “As soon as man comes to life, he is at once old enough to die”[7]. Death is a constant possibility. It can occur at any moment. As Heidegger puts it “it [death] is possible at any moment. Along with the certainty of death goes the indefiniteness of its “when””[8]. Thus, Being-ahead-of-itself implies Being-towards-death. While these two characterizations of Dasein may denote the same thing, Heidegger is motivated to introduce Being-towards-death, because there are two type of Being-towards-death, authentic and inauthentic. But before the traditionalist account of authenticity and inauthenticity is portrayed it is useful to first survey the non-traditional account of death in Being and Time.

            The first break that Thomson makes with traditional interpretative theory is in regard to the terminology which we examined. Recall that according to Thomson, death “is functionally independent of both perishing and demise”[9]. This implies that a Dasein can die before it perishes and demises, which means that a Dasein can experience and outlive its own death. Thomson’s motivation for this break with traditional interpretative theory is his conviction that Heidegger is able to solve the problem of wholeness[10]. As mentioned earlier, Heidegger postulates that Dasein, as a Being-ahead-of-itself, never reaches wholeness, due to the fact that it invests itself in worldly projects which are subject to constant fluctuation. Thomson points out that there is a time in which Dasein no longer projects into the world and is able to project into itself. That is when, Heidegger writes, “Dasein exists in a way which is authentically whole as that entity which it can be when ‘thrown into death’”[11]. Thomson argues that in order to understand this transition in Heidegger’s thought, it is necessary to examine Heidegger’s notion of possibility.

            As mentioned before, Dasein is a Being-ahead-of-itself. As such, it constantly projects onto possibilities. As Thomson notes, these are not to be understood as logical possibilities, but rather as existential possibilities[12]; possibilities of one’s mode of Being. For example, one may be assume the role of a life-guard at the local pool; however, if one is a sufficiently good swimmer, one may always have the existential possibility of becoming a professional swimmer. These possibilities are existential, because one defines ones being through such roles. Recall that one of these possibilities which is constantly lurking is namely the possibility of demise. Thus, at any moment it is possible that all these roles or life-projects, as Thomson calls them, might collapse. In fact, it is not necessary to demise in order for the life-projects to collapse. The recognition of this causes inevitable angst and homelessness. Confronting this angst in a proper way leads to the death or world-collapse of Dasein[13]. Moreover, it is necessary in order for Dasein to achieve authenticity.

            Thomson points out that Heidegger’s notion of authenticity as anticipatory resolution includes two structural elements[14]. The first element is anticipation of world-collapse as an indefinite certainty. Dasein can anticipate the collapse of all of its life projects since it can come to the realization that everything has to come to an end. This reveals to Dasein that there is nothing fundamental about its life-projects. As Thomson puts it, Dasein realizes that “there is ultimately nothing about the ontological structure of the self that can tell us what specifically we should do with our lives”[15]. If Dasein, at that moment, as a Being-towards-death, reacts authentically it reaches the second structural element; resoluteness. The authentic reaction of Dasein implies that by realizing the contingency of its life-projects it detaches its self from its worldliness. As Heidegger puts it, “Dasein is taken all the way back to its naked uncanniness and becomes fascinated by it”[16]. In other words, rather than projecting towards the world, Dasein projects towards itself and realizes its wholeness, this is what Thomson calls death or world-collapse. Once this is done, Dasein achieves resoluteness, since after this event, it “becomes capable of “choosing to choose”, of making a lucid reconnection to the world of its existential projects”[17] and of living authentically.

            If the traditional interpretative theory is to be shown to be preferable, it must be able to account for authenticity in an equally satisfactory manner.  According to the traditional account achieving authenticity implies confronting one’s angst in such a manner so as to achieve the state of anticipatory resolution, much in agreement with the non-traditional interpretation. Once Dasein realizes that all of its worldly projects are subject to an indefinite but certain collapse, Dasein realizes the arbitrariness of these projects. It realizes that in so far as it identifies with the projects themselves, rather than with the act of projection itself, it can never reach wholeness. However, if Dasein confronts its anxiety, in the event which Thomson calls death, it can reach a state of authentic Being-towards-death, which Heidegger characterizes as follows:

Anticipation reveals to Dasein its lostness in the they-self, and brings it face to face with the possibility of being itself, primarily unsupported by concernful solicitude, but of being itself, rather, in an impassioned freedom towards death – a freedom which has been released from the Illusions of the “they”, and which is factical, certain of itself, and anxious.[18]

This passage reveals that the authentic Being-towards-death is characterized by a freedom towards death. Dasein previously was not free, since it held its worldly-projects, or the ‘Illusions of the “they”’, as dear to its own being. Once Dasein realizes that its very being is projection itself, then it stops concerning itself with the projects themselves and instead enjoys the act of projecting. In other words, once one realizes that there is nothing in one’s own Being which dictates for one to assume a certain role, then one is free to pursue any role whatsoever, knowing that neither of these roles will lead to existential fulfilment, but that the only genuinely fulfilling activity for their Dasein is just being-in-the-world. This way, when Dasein reaches death, it will have lived freely. The traditionalist would argue that this is precisely what Heidegger means by ‘freedom towards death’ and that this passage, which is Heidegger’s final characterization of authentic Being-towards-death, becomes nonsensical if death is to be something which Dasein outlives. After all, if Dasein’s death is its world-collapse, which it outlives by adopting an authentic Being-towards-death, then how can it be-toward-death if it has already died?

This appears as a difficulty for the non-traditionalists, a difficulty which Thomson does not explicitly address. While I do not believe that this problem is unsurmountable, there are many other such instances in Being and Time in which Heidegger seems to imply that death cannot be outlived. One other such instance is when Heidegger claims that “Death does indeed reveal itself as a loss, but a loss such as is experienced by those who remain”[19], which clearly seems to imply that one cannot feel one’s own death as a loss, since one does not outlive it. There are other such instances in the text and even if it is possible to maintain the non-traditionalist conceptualization of death, it would require a very intricate interpretation, while offering no prospects of theoretical gain. Thus, it appears that the traditional interpretation of death is preferable due to offering the same level of theoretical adequacy as the non-traditional interpretation, if not even more. Moreover, it is also a simpler interpretation, since it preserves the common-sense interpretation of death and it does not require the use of various linguistic intricacies to explain what is meant by death.

[1] Iain Thomson. “Death and Demise in Being and Time.” p.264

[2] Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, HarperPerennial/Modern Thought, 2008 p.291

[3] Ibid., p.291

[4] Thomson argues that a Dasein demises only in so far as “[Dasein] is conscious and the event is not too sudden” (p.265)

[5] Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, HarperPerennial/Modern Thought, 2008. p.279

[6] Ibid., p.280

[7] Ibid., p.289

[8] Ibid., p.302

[9] Iain Thomson. “Death and Demise in Being and Time.” p.264

[10] Ibid., p.266

[11] Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, HarperPerennial/Modern Thought, 2008. p.378

[12] Iain Thomson. “Death and Demise in Being and Time.” p. 269

[13] Ibid., p.270

[14] Ibid., p.271

[15] Ibid., p.270

[16] Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, HarperPerennial/Modern Thought, 2008. p. 394

[17] Iain Thomson. “Death and Demise in Being and Time.” p.273

[18] Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, HarperPerennial/Modern Thought, 2008. p.311

[19] Ibid., p.282


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