There is nothing more universal than death.
Death occurs on the microcosmic level. Around a million cells die within our body every with every passing second. Death occurs on the macrocosmic level as well. This is best exemplified by supernovas, massive stars that die and leave behind a cosmic spectacle to be beholden by the viewer.
It envelops humanity as much as life itself does, and this is why even children—who may not yet have the “rational capacity” to understand deeper concepts such as gender fluidity—encounter death quite early on. This could perhaps be through the death of a relative (often a grandparent), or maybe even through something as inconsequential as breaking a toy. Thus children ultimately internalize the idea of death even if they are unable to give it any coherent meaning.
In his Pulitzer-winning The Denial of Death (1973), Ernest Becker, taking clues from both philosophy (with the likes of Kierkegaard) and psychology (with the likes of Otto Rank), wrote that human civilizations and cultures are effectively a way of dealing with death.
He says that religion has, without doubt, played a seminal role in exorcising the mystery of death.
Within the secularized West however, having apparently kicked religion to the kerb, this process had to instead be achieved via secular means. For this reason they opted for hedonism, which is in reality such a self-defeating position that it generates individuals that are trapped in a vicious psychological cycle and are overcome with anxiety and depression.
Becker writes (p. 268):
Hedonism is not heroism for most men. The pagans in the ancient world did not realize that and so lost out to the “despicable” creed of JudeoChristianity. Modern men equally do not realize it, and so they sell their souls to consumer capitalism or consumer communism or replace their souls—as Rank said—with psychology. Psychotherapy is such a growing vogue today because people want to know why they are unhappy in hedonism and look for the faults within themselves.
Even in modern Western philosophy, the realization that man was a mere mortal being that was cruising towards the inevitable loss of its vital functions was something that had become lost somehow.
The Rationalist Man as Fir’awn
It is because the post-Cartesian “I,” or rationalist subject, is portrayed as being some kind of miniature deity. Descartes, who is considered to be the spiritual father of modern Western philosophy, divided reality into two substances:
- res cogitans; and
- res extensa.
In Latin, these mean “the thinking thing” and “the extended thing” respectively.
Man, who has been endowed with reason as an instrument, was the sole possessor of the res cogitans due to his soul. On the other hand, the animal world and nature as a whole were res extensa, which could be shaped by humanity through rationalist means, notably via the means of technology.
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With man being deemed such a “divine” fashioner of the world, there wasn’t much space left for him to contemplate over his finitude, i.e., his inescapable death.
Because it was a rationalist approach to reason that deified man, only with the downgrading of rationalism would another view of the human condition be conceptually permitted.
This took place around the mid-19th century, when a “crisis of reason” occurred, as discussed in an earlier article. Materialist reductionist science and Darwinian evolution converged to demonstrate that human reason was not as supreme as previously thought, since Descartes. After all, from the perspective of Darwinism, human consciousness had its roots in the animals, which were once thought to have simply been slaves to the “rationalist” humans.
Such a crisis had significant consequences on the societal level (like with the rise of the occult) and also on the political level too (such as the liberal-democratic revolutions of 1848 in Europe, basically their own early form of the “Arab Spring”).
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In philosophy, this “irrationalist” movement can be seen in the likes of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche but is perhaps most obvious with the Danish thinker, Kierkegaard.
Kierkegaard should be seen within the dynamics of German Idealism. Kant was the most influential German philosopher of the 19th century, and within his thought—which was a sort of compromise between continental rationalism (particularly Christian Wolff) and Anglo-Scottish empiricism (particularly David Hume)—he posed that while the world of the phenomena could be reached through reason and the senses, the noumenon, i.e., a “thing as it is in itself,” in other words the supra-worldly or metaphysical reality, could not be reached through the merely human means that are available to us.
While many admired Kant’s practical ethics or aesthetics, their “agnosticism” in metaphysics left them inquisitive. Apart from the critical approaches put forth by religious thinkers, most notably J.G. Hamann and Salomon Maimon, there were others that offered a more secular approach as they wanted to disparage the Kantian edifice, more specifically in relation to the noumenon.
Then came the triad of German idealism: Fichte replaced the problematics of the noumenon by making the human “super-ego” the foundation of his epistemology (this would influence Muhammad Iqbal); Schelling went to another extreme, and instead of seeking redemption through man, he sought it through a quasi-pantheistic approach to the cosmos; and finally, Hegel, the most influential of these thinkers, tried to find a middle-ground between Fichte and Schelling by aggrandizing human reason on an individual level but through embodying it into history and the State in order to also make it more universal.
Kierkegaard evolved within that Hegelian synthesis, and he found the entire hyper-rationalist systemization overwhelming and inhumane. He then sought solace in religion, which had a certain pietist approach to it and which would lead to him becoming the father of modern existentialism (or co-father if you take into account Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, published just a few years after Kierkegaard’s death during the 1850s).
Heidegger: Existence Is Death
Martin Heidegger is arguably the most influential European philosopher of the last century. Perhaps the only individual who is able to contend with him for this title is Wittgenstein (to gain a cursory idea regarding the philosophy of Wittgenstein you may peruse this article).
Like many of the early 20th-century German thinkers, Heidegger was influenced by phenomenology, pioneered by Husserl. Phenomenology is rooted in medieval European-Christian philosophy. This is essentially the idea of “intentionality” found in the Scholastics and resurrected by Husserl’s teacher, Brentano. Phenomenology aimed to look at the world not as a cold object of the Cartesian rationalism but as something “legitimate” in and of itself, how the phenomenal world impacts human consciousness directly without mechanistic and objective rationalization.
The rise of phenomenology was of course made possible due to the “crisis of reason” that we had mentioned earlier and also because of the growing popularity of psychology.
Phenomenology was the most important philosophical movement in continental Europe prior to WWII and the rise of structuralism and post-structuralism. It gave rise to many thinkers that were attached to it more or less critically, including Heidegger, who had already read Kierkegaard and the Scholastics on his own (his thesis was about Duns Scotus’s theory of language).
In his Being and Time (1927), he conceptualized his notion of Da-sein (in German: “being there,” or existent), viewing man as a paradoxical being, both subject and object, or having to evolve within the group but ultimately being alone.
And a particular type of “being” for man is “being-towards-death” (as he puts it), with Heidegger having personally encountered death while he served as a soldier during WWI. WWI was the first of its kind, with the glorified “technology” of the “industrial revolution” being applied towards slaughtering and maiming humans on an unprecedented scale.
An author, Nicole Czerwinski, summarizes Heidegger’s approach to death:
For Heidegger, the revelation of the finite nature of our being, of our inevitable death, is what we constantly need to remember to live our lives genuinely, meaningfully, with integrity, and true to who we are (Critchley, 2009; Mulhall, 1996). This awareness positions us towards our inevitable demise, a positioning that Heidegger called “being-towards-death.” Being-towards-death calls for several insights. For one, death happens in isolation for each of us; it is non-relational. No one can experience my death for me and neither can I for another; dying is the loneliest human experience (Yalom, 1980). Furthermore, death is certain. It is undeniable that life comes to an end in death. When, how or where we die is unknown to us (Critchley, 2009). Lastly, death is of the utmost importance and can’t be outstripped; it lies outside of our ability to master it (Critchley, 2009; Yalom 1980). This is especially salient when considering the most important aspect of human functioning: to gain a sense of mastery over our environment and circumstances (*Oren Amitay).
For Heidegger, humans are unique in their ability to form a relationship with their own death. All animals strive for survival, but unlike humans, all others are lacking the conscious choices and self-awareness along the way (Mulhall, 1996). The importance in our relationship to death is that remembering that life will come to an end helps us figure out and create our life and selfhood in the present (Critchley, 2009). Only when we constantly affirm and live in anticipation of our death (versus living in denial of it and distraction from it), can we realize our ability for choice and free action in the world (Critchley, 2009).
Such an approach to death—the idea of remembering it as much as we possibly can because it is always present—reminds us of the Islamic position. Our classical literature is replete with countless works on the subject, some of which have even been translated into English.
It is thus quite natural that Heidegger had a tremendous influence on the Islamic world, as demonstrated in a recent book. For example it had an impact on Ahmad Fardid, who is considered to be the spiritual father of the Iranian revolution, alongside sociologist Ali Shariati and novelist Jalal Al-e-Ahmad.
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After WWII, with phenomenology losing its steam and relentlessly pursued by the “denazification” process within academia, Heidegger concentrated his efforts on the critique of technology. He himself opted for a simple life, inhabiting a cabin in the forests of the Black Forest mountain range of Germany and abandoning many of the comforts associated with “modern life.”
But moving beyond Heidegger, it is also intriguing to note that many of the philosophers associated with phenomenology eventually turned towards religion. This is what French philosopher, Dominique Janicaud, termed “le tournant théologique de la phénoménologie” (the theological turn of phenomenology), while himself being critical of it.
The founder of the movement, Husserl, converted to Christianity. However, there are many other such cases. For example there’s Edith Stein, of a Jewish background, who died in Nazi Germany as a Catholic nun; and Michel Henry, one of France’s most influential thinkers of the latter half of the last century.
Is it because phenomenology calls for some kind of ontological modesty (with its concepts such as épochè, Lebenswelt, etc.)?
Despite not being the purpose of the article at hand, Westerners could at least garner some wisdom and insight by contemplating death through Heidegger, that is, if they’re unable to do so through the lens of Islam.
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Great article and in depth review of western death philosophy!