Death as Possibility

Heidegger describes death as the “possibility of the impossibility of any existence at all”. This is like describing transparency as the color of no color at all, or silence as the sound of no sound at all; such descriptions may or may not be technically correct, but, when one hears them, one can’t help but think: Really? This seems to be the thought that motivated Paul Edwards’ “Heidegger and Death as ‘Possibility’”, in which he claims that Heidegger’s use of ‘possibility’ in the phrase ‘death as possibility’ is “fantastically misleading”. Though he agrees with Heidegger that death is a “total absence”, Edwards disagrees that anything meaningful is meant by calling it a possibility. I will argue that the reason for Edwards’ not seeing the importance of calling death a possibility lies in his inability to understand anything more from Heidegger’s description of death than that death is a “total absence.” This fault leads him to blur the distinction between erwarten and vorlaufen. I will attempt to clarify Heidegger’s explanation of death with recourse to the distinction between ‘theoretically knowing something’ and really ‘feeling’ something, while arguing that only the latter leads to the dread or anxiety that Heidegger sees as crucial to authentic Being-towards-death. This will suggest — against Edwards — that the meaning of Being-towards-death is not exhausted by a realization that death is a “total absence;” rather, it will allow for clarification of Heidegger’s claim that “anticipation [vorlaufen] discloses to existence that its uttermost possibility lies in giving itself up, and thus it shatters all one’s tenaciousness to whatever existence one has reached”. This will become clearer when I deal with Edwards’ discussion of death as preenactment and death as the crowning or culmination of one’s life.

Edwards is not impressed by what he notes has particularly impressed many of Heidegger’s admirers: the characterization of death as possibility as opposed to actuality. He claims that Heidegger’s description of death as possibility makes no new contribution to our understanding of death and argues that it is but an “outrageous and altogether perverse play on words”. To defend his claim, he must first make sense of Heidegger’s special use of ‘possibility’ with regard to death, a use, he notes, that is altogether different from the meaning of possibility in Heidegger heretofore, and one that is misunderstood by nearly all of Heidegger’s commentators. According to Edwards, ‘possibility’ in the usual sense (i.e. when not referring to death) refers to “the alternatives which we can choose or, more precisely, which we know ourselves to be capable of choosing”. He gives the examples of heroism and cowardice as alternatives we know ourselves to be capable of choosing. Already I think Edwards exposes here a misinterpretation of possibility (understanding possibility as opposed to actuality). When Heidegger writes that Dasein is possibility, he does not only mean that Dasein is a thing that can choose (or does choose, or must choose) between possibility A and possibility B (where A and B are specific, defined possibilities), but that Dasein is such that possibility defines it; it can, at any moment, though within the constraints of its thrownness, be anything and do anything, and this mode-of-Being colors its way of Being-in-the-world. Macquarrie suggests this interpretation: “‘Possibility, in Heidegger’s thought, does not mean just any contingency that may happen, but refers to the open future for which the Dasein can decide’” (as quoted by Edwards). It may be that my above clarification of Heidegger’s full sense of possibility maps onto Edwards’ understanding of possibility in its special sense, but, if so, he should not have used Macquarrie to explain this ordinary sense of possibility; Macquarrie suggests the wider sense of possibility (which resists its meaning being exhausted by making things available or actual), but Edwards, when he sums up what he means by possibility in the first sense, overlooks this. This I think is telling, and I will return to it later.

In contrast to this sense of possibility is the sense of possibility in the formulation ‘death as possibility.’ The key to understanding this sense lies in the authentic way to wait for death: “vorlaufen in die Möglichkeit,” which Edwards changes from “anticipation of the possibility” to the more literal translation of “running ahead into the possibility.” Unlike possibility in the first sense, the pursuit of which can suggest “making available something actual,” this possibility “gives Dasein nothing to be actualized”.

“As one comes closer understandingly, the possibility of the possible just becomes ‘greater’. The closest closeness which one may have in Being towards death as a possibility, is as far as possible from anything actual”.

Heidegger goes on to say that, when understanding penetrates purely into this possibility, it reveals it “as the possibility of the impossibility of any existence at all”. These few lines are crucial to understanding Heidegger’s notion of death as possibility. Edwards understands them as meaning two things: that death is a “total absence”, and that Heidegger’s “use of the word ‘possibility’ is fantastically misleading”. By death as a “total absence” Edwards means only that there are no more possibilities after death: “Death is not an ‘actuality,’ not a state, but the absence of all states” (557). Dasein can actualize nothing after death; death is the end of possibilities; or, in Heidegger’s words: Death is that “possibility which is not to be outstripped”. Since Edwards thinks this is all that Heidegger’s description of death means, he rightly considers Heidegger’s use of ‘possibility’ to describe death a perverse use of the word. “Bertrand Russell reached the same result with less effort… [when he said], ’I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive’”. If Russell could phrase it so simply and clearly, why couldn’t Heidegger?

Edwards thinks the answer is that “Heidegger never says anything simply and clearly if he can say it oddly, obscurely and ponderously”. Though that is a sentiment with which some may sympathize, I want to point out that we might answer the question in a different way, one that is more sympathetic to Heidegger and less to our own frustrations. Heidegger couldn’t phrase it so simply, because Heidegger didn’t mean anything so simple. This renders null Edwards’ point that ‘possibility’ “in any of its ordinary senses” does not mean “the total absence of experiences” and thus that Heidegger deliberately obfuscates; Heidegger is hardly concerned with using language in its ordinary senses (to not do so is even one of his methodological precepts, as suggested from the opening page of Being and Time), and Heidegger’s discussion of death, I will argue, not only reveals death as “the total absence of experiences,” but also that which, when taken up authentically, can, to be very general, make one’s life fuller. Or, in Heidegger’s words: “With death, Dasein stands before itself in its ownmost potentiality-for-Being. This is a possibility in which the issue is nothing less than Dasein’s Being-in-the-world”.

Heidegger takes pains to steer us away from expecting death, which he considers an inauthentic way of Being with regard to death. I hesitate to say ‘an inauthentic way of Being-towards-death,’ because it seems that Heidegger often uses this formulation when he talks about authentically Being with regard to death. Inauthentic Being with regard to death he relates to “Being out for” something; while this formulation is rather clunky in English, he means by it the type of Being-towards-possibility that we are when we aim to ‘make a possibility available to us’. This is a ‘looking circumspectively away from the possible’. X is a possibility, but to bring it about I must first accomplish Y and Z. When I concern myself with Y and Z for the sake of bringing about X, I am not upholding the possibility in its possibility; I am trying to make it actual. To act similarly with regard to death would mean working toward bringing about one’s own death, which, of course, Heidegger dismisses as untenable. He does likewise with ‘brooding’ as a way of Being with regard to death: “in such brooding we weaken [the possibility] by calculating how we are to have it at our disposal.” Since what is desired is possibility upheld in its fullest as possibility, brooding, which weakens possibility, will not do.

Edwards rightly notes that Heidegger regards the above two ways of thinking about death as unsatisfying. He also, following Heidegger, contrasts erwarten with vorlaufen (‘expecting’ with ‘anticipating’). This is Heidegger: “Expecting is not just an occasional looking-away from the possible to its possible actualization, but is essentially a waiting for that actualization”. An alternative translation of the German could be ‘waiting on that actualization’; this conveys the sense in which, when expecting, we wait on something we know will happen (or, better: we wait on something we think we know will happen). I expect to go to class this afternoon. What is key here is that, in expecting, “one leaps away from the possible and gets a foothold in the actual. It is for its actuality that what is expected is expected”.

Though Edwards recognizes (in Heidegger) a difference between erwarten and vorlaufen, he continually reverts to talking about death as if it were an actuality rather than upholding it in its possibility, and so effectually blurs the difference between erwarten and vorlaufen. This isn’t a coincidence. His sense of what Heidegger means by ‘death as possibility’ does not extend past understanding death as a “total absence;” since both those expecting death and those anticipating death can realize that it is a “total absence,” this realization will not help us distinguish the two. And, since Edwards only gives us death as a “total absence” to distinguish anything, all we can distinguish are the two groups who diverge on this point, the two groups he so often mentions — those who believe in “survival” (i.e. an afterlife), and those who, like Edwards and Russell, do not.

Edwards makes other small points against Heidegger, but they all follow from his inability to make sense of the distinction between erwarten and vorlaufen, which itself follows from his inability to see ‘death as possibility’ as meaning anything more than that death is a “total absence.” As we have seen, erwarten, while recognizing that death is a possibility, tinges this recognition with waiting on death as an actualization. It “leaps away from the possible and gets a foothold in the actual”. This may result when I think about death in the following manner: ‘I know theoretically that I could die tomorrow, or really even right now, but, when I think about death, I think about being 80 or so and having a medical complication or, as they say, passing softly away in my sleep.’ I think the distinction here between ‘theoretically knowing something’ and, for lack of a better term, ‘feeling something’ (i.e. the way in which I normally think about something) can be helpful. I theoretically know, say, that space is infinite, or that there is an infinity of numbers, or even that the deepest part of the ocean is some 35,000 feet underwater, but, when I think about space or numbers or the ocean, I hardly have these sublime aspects in mind (I do not feel them). When I think about death, I hardly have in mind that it is the very end, that I must die alone, and that it could happen even right now — and even when I do have this in mind, I sometimes don’t really feel it unless I dwell on the thought and approach a state of anxiety or dread. But this is my attempt to distinguish between erwarten (theoretically knowing) and vorlaufen (what I have called ‘feeling’). Let us turn now to Heidegger.

We saw above that Heidegger characterizes Being-towards-death (i.e. vorlaufen) as a “coming close” understandingly, which makes the “possibility of the possible” become even greater. When understanding comes really close to death, it penetrates into it (i.e. what I was phrasing in terms of ‘feeling’) “as the possibility of the impossibility of any existence at all”. These lines are vexing, but thankfully Heidegger gives us some help with a few concrete examples. He writes that ‘death is impending’, but that this impending event is not to be understood in the sense that the remodeling of a house or the arrival of a friend might be impending, e.g. ‘The house will need to be remodeled next year, and I know just about what this will look like, how it will go, etc.’, or, ‘My friend will arrive this evening, and he’ll look about like this, and he’ll say these things, and he’ll laugh at these things.’ Death impends like the impending of a journey or a disputation with Others. To take an impending journey to Bulgaria as our example — I’ve no idea what the journey will look like, how my transportation there will go, even what I will do once I get there. If I dwell on this not-knowing, I may begin to feel a sense of dread or anxiety — in the same way, I think, that if I dwell on the fact of death as a not-being, I begin to feel dread or anxiety. This does not happen when I expect it, i.e. when I theoretically know it will come sometime and will be the very end. In Heidegger’s terms, it comes when I anticipate it.

Let me give one other example that I think will help clarify this distinction. I will use religious examples, but I do so only because they are well-known; my use of them depends on nothing more (and should suggest nothing more) than the phenomenological experiences they represent. Some think of death as a wager, or a means toward an end. For example, a religious person who dies for the sake of reward in the afterlife is not feeling the dread of death; he calculates his death as if he were calculating the chances of winning a poker game, and, liking the odds, he decides to die. He expects death will come (though, I admit, he does not recognize it as the end of all possibilities); he does not anticipate it. We might also take as our example Socrates in the Phaedo. He expects death, but he is reassured by philosophy that he has no reason to dread it. Now let us consider the experience of Jesus in Gethsemane. He has a premonition that he will die, but it is more than the premonition of one doomed to capital punishment the next morning. The premonition is not certainty: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will”. He does not know what will happen, but at this moment he feels death as so close that, the story goes, he sweats blood. This, I think, is an example of dread or anxiety; it is making agony real, and it is the only sense I can make of Heidegger’s claim that “as one comes closer understandingly, the possibility of the possible just becomes ‘greater’”. The example suggests that Jesus was very close understandingly to death — he says, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” — and that this resulted in an increased feeling of its possibility as possibility; were it thought of as actual, he would not have been so tormented by uncertainty.

That Edwards does not consider this meaning of Being-towards-death explains why he does not effectually distinguish between erwarten and vorlaufen. It is then ironic that his insistence on a literal translation of vorlaufen — a running ahead into possibility — is very helpful to this distinction. In running ahead into death as possibility, Dasein is made to both theoretically know that death will come sometime and that it is the end (this is ‘to have a foothold in the actual’), but it is also made to feel this in a way that causes dread or anxiety — that makes it run back into possibility. “In anticipating the indefinite certainty of death, Dasein opens itself to a constant threat arising out of its own “there”… But the state of mind which can hold open the utter and constant threat to itself arising from Dasein’s ownmost individualized Being, is anxiety”. Edwards never gets his foot out of the actual, and, as such, he fails to take dread or anxiety into proper account.

This is most revealing when he evaluates Schrag’s idea that death is “existentially preenacted” in vorlaufen. Edwards claims that this suggests we can preenact death in a way similar to our ability to reenact past events. He never makes very clear whether he means by ‘reenact’ a physical reenaction (as we might find, say, on the Gettysburg grounds) or a mental reeanaction (such as recalling to mind what we did yesterday), but I’ll take him to mean the latter, which does anyway seem more likely. He thinks such a preenaction of death impossible: “Since our anticipatory acts, whatever they may be, will always be ‘states’ in the sense explained earlier and since death is a total absence, a preenactment of death is impossible”. Certainly we can not preenact death in the way that we can reenact our last birthday, since we do not know how we will die (and thus cannot preenact the dying process) and since after death there is nothing (and thus we cannot preenact what it is like to be dead, which Edwards calls “deadness”). But we may be able to preenact death in a way that is like preenacting the sudden accumulation of a billion dollars. We do not know how this will happen (though we can imagine several ways it might), and we do not really know what we will feel or be like after we win it (and so, in this small way, it resists actualization), but, if we imagine that it will happen, we might become very happy in anticipating it — just as we might feel a sense of dread or anxiety when we preenact death. This is one way to make sense of Schrag’s claim that we can preenact death while still retaining death as a “total absence.”

Edwards ridicules Father Demske’s notion from Heidegger that death is the “crown and culmination of human life” as “nonsense”. He has a point. As a universal proposition, this would have to apply even to those who, after a life of brilliance, slip meaninglessly on ice and die; in such cases, surely it makes more sense to say that the crowning event of such lives was an act of brilliance, not slipping on ice. But again, Edwards seems to mistake the full implications of Heidegger’s thinking. This is Heidegger: “As long as Dasein is an entity, it has never reached its ‘wholeness’. But if it gains such ‘wholeness’, this gain becomes the utter loss of Being-in-the-world. In such a case, it can never again be experienced as an entity”. When Dasein lives, it does not reach its wholeness; when it dies, it loses Being-in-the-world, but, as one characterized by Being-towards-death, it paradoxically becomes whole. Dasein becomes whole on the death of Dasein, just as we might say that philosophy succeeds on the death of philosophy (cf. Plato’s Symposium; philosophy desires wisdom, but, once one has wisdom, one will no longer desire it, and thus one will no longer philein sophia). Edwards thinks it “meaningless” to speak of deadness as the crown or culmination of a life; but, if we accept Heidegger’s idea that Dasein is Being-towards-death, and, as such, it is not whole until it dies — and, moreover, that what makes something whole can be considered a crowning or culminating event — then Father’s Demske’s phrase is not meaningless. Being-towards-death defines Dasein; one (plausible, I think) interpretation of this is that Dasein is only whole when it reaches its end.