It is important to see Heidegger’s analysis of death within the context of Being and Time as a whole, otherwise one might miss its ultimate goal, which is not to give us a description of death, nor the a ‘psychology of mortality’, if one might call it that, but an ontology of Dasein. Let us remember again that the general objective of Being and Time is to renew the question of Being. This question, however, is not longer taken seriously since the Being has becomes an empty and abstract question. To renew the question of Being, therefore, for Heidegger is to start from a different standpoint: not the analysis of beings as they lay before us, but that being who’s own being is question for it. Now at the beginning of the Division 2 of Being and Time, Heidegger repeats this general goal for us:
What we are seeking is to answer to the question of about the meaning of Being in general, and, prior to that, the possibility of working out in a radical manner this basic question of all ontology. But to lay bare the horizon within which something like Being in general becomes intelligible, is tantamount to clarifying the possibility of having any understanding of Being at all – and understanding which itself belongs to the constitution of the entity called Dasein [BT 231]By the end of Division 1, with the analyses of the structure of the world and the everydayness of Dasein, we might feel that such a ‘constitution’ as being given to us. But Heidegger’s argument is that only half of Dasein has been given to us. This goes back to the distinction between inauthentic and authentic being. The structure of the world, so far as it has been described to us, and everydayness, belongs only to the inauthentic being of Dasein. What authentic being might be is still something that we do no know. Some clue has already been given to us through Heidegger’s discussion of anxiety. Authentic being must mean in some sense, though this still might not clear for us, the manner in which Dasein is itself.
These matters set the context for the analysis of being toward death. Heidegger is not at all interested in the fact of death by itself (a topic that would be more suited to the biology), nor even to the culture significance of death (again something more suitable for anthropology) but to the manner in which Dasein’s being is revealed through its relation to death as a whole. And yet, Heidegger asks in § 46, can Dasein be grasped as whole, when its being is understanding in terms of possibilities, which means that it is always a head of itself? Dasein’s life is essentially therefore incomplete, not finished, such that talking about a whole does not make sense. If the incompleteness if abolished; that is to say if Dasein’s life comes to and end, then Dasein too is no longer there:
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 [BT 236].But perhaps, Heidegger asks, we misunderstanding what ‘whole’ means in this case. We are applying a kind of objective notion of whole to a being whose being is not that of an object. When we talk about the end or totality of Dasein, we are not speaking in the same way that we might speak about something that is present to hand, for example, when we imagine to ourselves the whole of a universe and ask of ourselves where its limit might lie, and whether we can conceive of it as a whole. Dasein’s end is not a limit in the sense (a boundary), but death. Of course we have the tendency to think about death as though it were just like a limit. We imagine the totality of lives as a line, whose beginning is our birth, and whose end is our death. It is precisely for this reason that we might think that it is impossible to experience my own death, since I cease to exist the moment I die, it is possible to experience death through the death of the others, and thus the totality of a life from its beginning to its end. Here, look, I draw the line on the paper, born 1963, died 2000, and I can sketch in between all the significant events of their lives:
When Dasein reaches its wholeness in death, it is simultaneously loses the Being of its ‘there’. By its transition to no-longer-Dasein, it gets lifted right out of the possibility of experiencing this transition and understanding it as something experienced. Surely this sort of thing is denied to any particular Dasein in relation to itself. But this makes the death of Others more impressive. In this way a termination of Dasein becomes ‘Objectively’ accessible [BT 237].Death is not something that the one who dies can experience. One can obviously experience dying, but not the transition from life to death. It seems therefore that only the death of the other is something that can be experienced. I see them lying dead upon the bed. But the death of the other is not an experience of death in relation to Dasein’s being. Rather in death the other is there like a thing, that is to say, something present to hand – a corpse. The death of the other is not the experience of the death as part of existence:
In the dying of the Other we can experience that remarkable phenomenon of Being which may be defined as the change-over of an entity from Dasein’s kind of Being (or life) to no-longer-Dasein. The end of the entity qua Dasein is the beginning of the same entity qua something present-to-hand [BT 238].But is it really the case that someone who is dead is merely a thing? The deceased is not the same as a dead thing. The deceased leaves behind those who care for him or her, and is therefore as object of concern, in the way a mere dead thing is not. The relation to the deceased is not the relation to a thing, but is still a relation to a person, to another, about whom we care in a way that we are never do about things. But that we care about the other who dies shows that we do not experience their death as death, rather we are with the dead person in our remembrance of our care for them as living persons:
Death does indeed reveal itself as a loss, but a loss such as is experienced by those who remain. In suffering this loss, however, we have no way of access to the loss-of-Being as such which the dying man ‘suffers’. The dying of Others is not something which we experience in a genuine sense; at most we are always just ‘there alongside’ [BT 239].Rather than death being experienced through the death of others, Heidegger argues, it can only be experience through my own being. Death is that which is most individuating. I cannot experience the death of the other as a possibility of their being. I can only experience as something that lies outside of them, like the million of deaths that I see on the television at night – each one that is much the same as the other – this factory of death that is the Twentieth century. I cannot live their deaths from the inside, but only from the outside. However, to think that death in only this uniform death, which can be spoken about as something that is the same for every Dasein, and as though Dasein’s death is the same as the flower head that is lopped off with a stick, is precisely to be ignorant about the being of Dasein. Dasein is not something ready to hand or present to hand, and thus death is not a something that merely happens to Dasein and changes it from being a live thing to a dead thing, in the same way that a piece of wax goes from being soft to head, as though death were only the change in the property of a thing. Death must be understood existentially. No doubt in an everyday sense we do relate to others as though they were bearers of objective properties and not individuals at all, such that one Dasein can be like any other Dasein. What Heidegger wishes to underline is that death is that which cuts through the interchangeability of Dasein. Death is thus what is most my own and that cannot be substituted. We can see therefore why death is the access for Heidegger to authenticity:
Dying is something that every Dasein itself must take upon itself at the time. By its very essence, death is in every case mine, in so far as it ‘is’ at all. And indeed death signifies a peculiar possibility-of-Being in which the very Being of one’s own Dasein is an issue [BT 240].But to understand death existentially we must understand the end of Dasein, the possibility of not being, in a different than we characterised it before as merely the end of line. Dasein’s end is not merely the coming to an end of something, when for example, we say that something has ‘run its course’, because for the most part Heidegger says pessimistically but probably quite truthfully, ‘Dasein ends in unfulfilment or else by having been disintegrated and been used up.’ [BT 244]. To understand the end of Dasein as fulfilment or coming to a stop, is not to understand this end as a possibility that belongs to Dasein’s life, but as a fact or actuality that lies outside of it. Dasein’s end however is not a ‘being at an end’, as when we speak of the rain stopping or a tree dying, rather it is ‘being-towards an end’ that is immanent to existence. Death, understood existentially, is not an event, which can be described physiologically or biologically, like when we define death as ‘brain-death’, but a manner of being as way of relating to one’s mortality:
The ending which we have in view when we speak of death, does not signify Dasein’s Being-at-an-end, but Being-towards-the-end of this entity. Death is a way to be, which Dasein takes over as soon as it is. ‘As soon as man comes to life, he is at once old enough to die’ [BT 245].Death as an end of Dasein being is not something which is outstanding which comes at the end of a process, but is that towards which Dasein is. It is therefore always something imminent and immanent. But what is the specificity of the impending nature of death? Death is a possibility that as a being-possible throws me back onto myself. In death I stand before myself. Because what is as issue in being towards death in my own power of being. In standing before my own death as something possible, all relations to others and things fall away. One way of thinking about the unique nature of death is to say that death is the possibility of the impossibility of possibility – that is, it is the possibility of the end of the possibility of my relating to things and persons in my world. But what is it that is disclosed in this relation to death as something immanent and imminent? Certainly not death itself as something factual, but the nature of the being of Dasein itself; that its being is one of existence, of being ahead of itself in the possible.
This, however, is precisely what is avoided in the everyday relation to death. Death is thought of as an event in the world, whether we are talking about an individual death of someone who is close to us, or the death of faceless millions far away. There is a recognition of death in this attitude, but it is seen as something indifferent which happens to everyone, and even oneself, but is no an immediate threat. When death is interpreted as an event that happens to everyone indifferently, then it is interpreted as an actuality; its being as a possibility is left in the dark. As a possibility it belongs essentially to Dasein’s way of existing and is not some kind of ‘objective fact’. Not only does the everyday transform death itself from a possibility to an event, it also transforms the way Dasein relates to its death. No longer in terms of anxiety in which I am brought face to face with my existence, but as fear about death as an event which, if I have the courage, I am meant to face with indifference
In Dasein’s public way of interpreting, it is said that ‘one dies’, because everyone else and oneself can talk himself into saying that ‘in no case is it I myself’, for this ‘one’ is the ‘nobody’. ‘Dying’ is levelled off to an occurrence which reaches Dasein, to be sure, but belongs to no-one in particular [BT 253].Everyone knows that they will die. Is this certainty what being towards death, as one’s own possibility of being is? There is a certainty that belongs to the avoidance of death. We can say everyone dies without facing the possibility of own death. In this case death is just an event that takes place in one’s social environment, but its relation to one’s own existence is concealed. Death is just one more ‘fact of experience.’ One way in which the existential import of death is not faced, is talk about death as something empirical, as if this were the only meaning of death. This again is to misunderstand the kind of being of Dasein is, whose being must be understood existentially and not categorically, as though it were something present to hand. One can be certain about the empirical fact of death, but this is not at all the same as being certain about one’s own death. Again one knows one will die as a fact, but this certainty should not be confused with any kind of existential composure. What characterises the uncertainty or anxiety of death understood existentially and not empirically? ‘That it is,’ Heidegger writes, ‘possible at any moment.’ [BT 258]
Death can come at any time, despite the fact that it is empirically certain. This indefiniteness is at the heart of my life. And this is the meaning of death as that towards which I am. This indefiniteness, that there is not permanence to my life, is what is covered over when I busy myself with things and persons in my everyday concern. I imagine my existence as something permanent, something substantial, as though I were a thing. It is not death as event which is striking, because even a natural thing dies, whether we are speaking of plants or galaxies, but this relation between life and death in a life which knows it will die, not at some fixed time, but at any moment. Why is the uncertainty of death so important? Because it shows that all my projects, falling in love, becoming an academic, are uncertain; moments of stability within, in the transience of existence understood as being-possible. This is the existential definition of the everyday: fleeing from the uncertain, the indefinite, and the undeterminable. Seeking permanence and immutability where there is none.