Heidegger on Death

From Heidegger, by Jonathan Rée, 1999, Routledge, New York (part of The Great Philosophers series)

All quotations are from Being and Time, (German edition 7th edition, Max Niemeyer, Tübingen, 1953) the classic English translation thereof, by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Blackwell, Oxford, 1962

[P. 36] Death and the Time of Existence

There is an obvious sense, however, in which each of us will eventually reach completion, whether we like it or not. We do not live for ever, after all; and the sum total of our existence could be defined as what will be subtracted from the world by our death. But that only intensifies the problem, for how could we ever be in a position to conceptualize this totality? As long as we live, we anticipate the future: we are essentially inhabited by what Heidegger calls ‘a constant “lack of totality”‘, a perpetual overhang of unfinished business. It is not only our present existence but also this reaching forwards that eventually ‘finds an end with death’. It will always be both too early and too late to grasp our existence as a whole.

[P. 37] You might imagine that you could totalize your existence analogically, by observing the deaths of others and applying what you learn to your own case. But the analogy will always let you down at the crucial point. The death of someone else is the end of their world, not yours; it occurs in the midst of your world, not theirs; and it will be remembered by you, not by them. When we mourn, as Heidegger points out, it is because ‘the deceased has abandoned our “*world*” and left it behind’. It is always ‘*in terms of that world*’ that we grieve.

Alternatively, you might try to think of a life as reaching ‘fulfilment’, rather like a fruit that swells to mellow perfection and then falls plumply to the ground. But that comparison will not help you either.

Rée quoting Heidegger: “With ripeness, the fruit *fulfils* itself. But is the death at which Dasein arrives, a fulfilment in this sense? With its death, Dasein has ‘fulfilled its course’. But in doing so, has it necessarily exhausted its specific possibilities? Rather, are not these precisely what gets away from Dasein? Even ‘unfulfilled’ Dasein ends. On the other hand, so little is it the case that Dasein comes to its ripeness only with death, that Dasein may well have passed its ripeness before the end. For the most part, Dasein ends in fulfilment, or else by having disintegrated and been used up.”

You will always be too young or too old to die. The only way you can ever understand the significance of the entirety of your existence, Heidegger suggests, is by regarding your death not as some distant but well-defined contingency, like being struck by lightening, but as an indefinite but impending certainty that is ‘*possible at any moment*’. You do not live your life for a number of years and then stop, like an engine that keeps turning over till eventually it runs out of fuel. Every moment of your [P.38] existence is affected by your death, or rather your ‘being towards death’. You are essentially finite: your days are numbered. (People are sometimes praised for being ‘generous with their time’; and perhaps there is no other kind of generosity: the idea of generosity would not make much sense if we were never going to die.) You may strive to forget it, but your life is always informed by your sense of its ending.

It is a commonplace that death is the great leveller; but in another way, as Heidegger points out, it is what ‘individualizes’ us most absolutely. Death does not endow us with ‘individuality’ in the sense of a distinctive inner personality, but it establishes the bare differences that separate one existence from another: the tombstone facts of life. Despite the thoroughgoing sociality of the ‘with-world’, every existence is, in the end, radically ‘non-relational’. Your death concerns you uniquely, because when you die, your being-in-the-world-with-others comes to an end, but theirs, though it may be affected in one way or another, continues. The only sense in which you can grasp your existence as a whole is by confronting the ‘possibility of no-longer-being-able-to-be-there’ as your ‘ownmost possibility’, and thus seeing your life as a permanent incompleteness that will nevertheless come to an end.

Of course, the common sense of our they-self will find all this philosophizing about death rather morbid and irritating. It will acknowledge the fact of death with a wave of the hand and ‘an air of superiority’, but it will avoid thinking about its implications.

Rée quoting Heidegger: “‘Dying is levelled off to an occurrence which reaches Dasein, to be sure, but belongs to no one in particular. Dying, which is essentially mine in such a way that no one can be my representative, is perverted into an event of public occurrence which the ‘they’ encounters … This evasive concealment in the face of death dominates everydayness so stubbornly that, in being with one another, the ‘neighbours’ often still keep talking the [P.39] ‘dying person’ into the belief that he will escape death and soon return to the tranquilized everydayness of the world of his concern. Such ‘solicitude’ is meant to ‘console’ him … Indeed the dying of others is seen often enough as a social inconvenience, if not even a downright tactlessness, against which the public is to be guarded.”

‘Everyone’s got to die’, we will say with a shrug and a comic-glum expression. But it is only the chatter of the they-self, trying as usual to distract us from the fact that we all have to die our own deaths, alone in our non-relational contingency.

No doubt common sense will suspect a conflict between the open involvement with the world to which we are summoned by our conscience, and the non-relational isolation that comes to light in our being-towards-death. But common sense misinterprets death and conscience just as it misinterprets everything else. Moreover — or so Heidegger will try to pursuade us — all its misinterpretations, and hence all our inauthenticity, can be traced back to a single source: our commonsense understanding of time.

In the first place, time can be understood as ‘world-time’, the practical time of ready-to-hand equipment — of harvests and meals, trysts and tasks, of getting up and going to bed. World-time is quite literally the time of ‘everydayness’, because, like everyday spatiality, it is defined for us by the rising and setting of the sun.

Rée quoting Heidegger: “In its thrownness Dasein has been surrendered to the changes of day and night … the ‘then’ with which Dasein concerns itself gets dated in terms of something which is connected with getting bright … — the rising of the sun … Concern makes use of the ‘being-ready-to-hand’ of the sun, which sheds forth light and warmth … [p. 40] In terms of this dating arises the ‘most natural’ measure of time — the day.”

Under the guidance of common sense, however, we contrive to misunderstand world-time. We uncouple it from the web of its involvements with the world, and link it to a ‘now’ conceived of as a fleeting instant that is momentarily present to us. We forget about the temporality of anticipation and memory, and reduce furturity to the ‘not yet now – but later’, and pastness to the ‘no longer now – but earlier’. We picture ourselves as leaning over the parapet of a bridge, staring down at a mighty river. Shrouded in mist, it sweeps towards us from its inscrutable sources in time future; we catch a glimpse of it for the brief instant when it passes beneath us as time present; and then it hurries out behind us into the unfathomable oceans of time past.

Taking our clue from this image of time ‘as a succession, as a “flowing stream” of nows, as the “course of time”, we go on to treat it as if it were present-at-hand to us within-the-world – in short, as what Heidegger calls *now-time* – the objective, infinite, homogeneous time of the natural sciences. We then project this conception of time back on to ourselves, and start to think of our lives as made up of self-sufficient ‘now-points’ (rather like the ‘I-points’ of the ordinary conception of selfhood). We come to regard a lifetime as a series of ‘experiences’, as separate from each other as the frames of a film-strip, each one ‘present’ to us for only a fleeting instant.

Rée quoting Heidegger: “The remarkable upshot is that, in this sequence of experiences, what is ‘really’ ‘actual’ is, in each case, just that experience which is present-at-hand ‘in the current ‘now”, while those experiences which have passed away or are only coming along, either are no longer or are not yet ‘actual’. Dasein traverses the span of time granted to it between the two boundaries, and it does so in such a way that, in each case, it is ‘actual’ only in the ‘now’, and hops, as it were, through the sequence of [P.41] ‘nows’ of its own ‘time’. Thus it is said that Dasein is ‘temporal’. In spite of the constant changing of these experiences, the self maintains itself throughout with a certain selfsameness.”

We may, of course, find some comfort in this conception of temporality: if our lives are strings of separate experiences then we can imagine them continuing for ever. But we must also be aware, if only obscurely, that it is inauthentic: ontologically, we know that to live our lives in terms of now-time is to be ‘in flight’ from finitude or ‘looking away’ from it. Living in the ‘now’, we transform ourselves into they-selves.

Rée quoting Heidegger: “The inauthentic temporality of inauthentic Dasein as it falls, must, as such a looking-away from finitude, fail to recognise authentic … temporality in general. And if indeed the way in which Dasein is ordinarily understood is guided by the ‘they’, only so can the self-forgetful ‘representation’ of the ‘infinity’ of public time be strengthened. The ‘they’ never dies because it *cannot* die … To the very end ‘it always has more time’.

But we all have an ontological conscience, and we can never delude ourselves entirely. Even in the dazzling noon of sunlit everydayness, our being-towards-death casts its shadow.

Common sense has made us think of time as an infinite river, and often we will wistfully implore it to slow down, or indignantly rebuke it for the ruthlessness with which it snatches away our brief moments of happiness and hurries them off to oblivion. If we were more consistent, however, we would be equally inclined to praise the rapidity with which the river of time is carrying our future joys towards us, and to thank the providence which constantly replenishes it and ensures that it never runs dry.

Rée quoting Heidegger: “Why do we say the time *passes away*, when we do not say with *just as much* emphasis that it arises? Yet with [P.42] regard to the pure sequence of nows we have as much right to say one as the other. When Dasein talks of time’s *passing away*, it understands, in the end, more of time than it wants to admit.”

Understanding more than we admit, we begin to be seized by an authentic understanding of time’s finitude. Our ontological conscience warns us that the temporality of our existence cannot be authentically understood in terms of now-time. We do not ‘exist as the sum of the momentary actualities of experiences which come along successively and disappear’, but as entities whose every moment is already structured in terms of existing between birth and death.

Rée quoting Heidegger: “Dasein does not fill up a track or stretch ‘of life’ — one which is somehow present-at-hand — with the phases of its momentary actualities. It stretches *itself* along in such a way that its own being is constituted in advance as a stretching-along. The ‘between’ which relates to birth and death already lies *in the being* of Dasein … It is by no means the case that Dasein ‘is’ actual in a point of time, and that, apart from this, it is ‘surrounded’ by the non-actuality of its birth and death. Understood existentially, birth is not … something past in the sense of something no longer present-at-hand; and death is just as far from having the kind of being of something … not yet present-at-hand but coming along … Factical Dasein exists as born; and, as born, it is already dying, in the sense of being-towards-death. As long as Dasein factically exists, both the ‘ends’ and their ‘between’ *are*, and they *are* in the only way possible on the basis of Dasein’s being as *care* … As care, Dasein *is* the ‘between’.

Authentic temporality belongs to us as much as we belong to it; it is not a force of nature so much as the way our existence ‘temporalizes’ itself and its world. It is not an infinite sequence of uniform self-contained now-points, but a finite structure of differentiated ‘moments’.

[P.43]The moments of authentic temporality are ‘ecstatic’ in the sense that they ‘stand outside of themselves’. They are linked to each other by countless pathways of memory and anticipation: they are not positions fixed on a bridge over time, but indefinite fields that reach out into both past and future. Moments are ‘futural’, but not in the sense of being oriented towards infinite times to come. Each moment is magnetized by finitude, anticipating death like a compass needle pointing to the North pole.

Rée quoting Heidegger: “By the term ‘futural’, we do not here have in view a now which has *not yet* become ‘actual’ … [but] the coming in which Dasein, in its own most potentiality-for-being, comes towards itself … Only so far as it is futural can Dasein *be* authentically as having been. The character of ‘having been’ arises, in a certain way, from the future … and in such a way that the future which ‘has been’ (or better, which ‘is in the process of having been’) releases from itself the present. The phenomenon has the unity of a future which makes present in the process of having been; we designate it as *temporality*.”

Common sense and natural science may try to persuade us that this finite, qualitative temporality is merely an arbitrary, human-centered interpretation of the objective flow of infinite time, rather like the grid of colour-distinctions that way lay over the continuum of different wavelengths of light. But we know in our ontological conscience that the analogy is false. Light is a natural phenomenon within the world, and we may or may not understand it. Time is different: like truth, we need to have some grasp of it if we are to understand anything else at all. And if we did not already understand time authentically, in terms of the ecstatic moments of our finite existence, then we would never be able to construe ‘the “time” which is accessible to the ordinary understanding’ — the world-time of everyday common sense and the now-time of natural science. [P.44] World-time and now-time arise when ‘the ecstatical character of primordial temporality has been levelled off’, and the moments of our existence have been ‘shorn’ of their relations to birth and death so that they can ‘range themselves along one after the other’ and thus ‘make up the succession’. Ordinary knowledge, in short, depends on a miscontrual of authentic temporality; and we have no understanding of the world that is not attended by misunderstanding.

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