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Re: [Sartre] On the fear of death

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  • Tommy Beavitt
    Hi, Yes, the issue of fear of death is certainly pertinent to the Sartrean philosophical project. I think we have to ask ourselves, what is it that dies? And
    Message 1 of 6 , Jun 14, 2004

      Yes, the issue of fear of death is certainly pertinent to the Sartrean
      philosophical project.

      I think we have to ask ourselves, what is it that dies? And following
      from that, what is it that fears death?

      Sartre's distinction between being-for-itself and being-in-itself could
      offer us a clue. Clearly, when a person dies, his or her body changes
      state. That body can be considered as an object, a thing in-itself,
      categorised along with other objects such as tables, stones, and
      compost heaps. Things change state all the time: in the example of the
      compost heap, what begins as household scraps and garden refuse,
      becomes humus which is the ground for new vegetable forms.

      But while the death which occurs to the physical object, the
      being-in-itself, that is the human body can be seen as a change among
      other changes (growing, becoming the host for various bacteriological,
      fungal, taenian and viral parasites, procreating, etc.) from the
      perspective of being-for-itself, the death of the body coincides with
      the death of the Self.

      This is not a change among other changes in quite the same way
      (although it can be compared with orgasm, divorce, bankruptcy and
      breakdown) because, following Sartre's atheism, the final death of the
      self is a once-only event and forms an impermeable barrier between the
      projects of being-for-itself and being-for-itself's perception of its

      I think though it is valid to question assumptions concerning the
      continuity of being-for-itself. We are accustomed to pigeonholing
      ourselves and being pigeonholed by others under the heading of our
      names, social status and job titles. One might say "I am Tommy Beavitt,
      Project Manager" and expect others to conform to this definition. It is
      reasonable to expect people to do so, especially given that one is able
      to provide evidence to support this claim, eg. birth certificate, CV.
      Given a past it is reasonable to extrapolate a future and be fairly
      certain that the contingency entailed in this exercise will be capable
      of being absorbed into the "project overheads". What I mean by this is
      that the mental effort involved in projecting this particular identity
      is unlikely to be countered to the extent that it will be unravelled
      because it is unlikely that the Other will have sufficient mental
      resources available to counter it, given that he or she is busy
      performing a similar mental exercise with regard to his or her own

      But clearly there are exceptions to this. Consider the plight of a
      stateless individual caught in a war situation. One might expect
      contingency to become more pronounced given the lack of documents
      confirming historical identities, the lack of consistency or legal
      validity of any such documents that can be produced and the concomitant
      difficulty in projecting projects forward. Paradoxically, this is also
      likely to grant a greater degree of freedom with regard to the scope of
      possible future projects to certain particularly enterprising or lucky

      If we can validly perform a complete separation between a person's
      being-for-itself and his or her being-in-itself, then we can disregard
      the implications of the death of being-in-itself and concentrate on the
      being-for-itself. Clearly, the uneasiness and anxiety involved in the
      death of the self (being-for-itself) concerns the effect that this will
      have on one's projects. How will these be advanced without the efforts
      of being-for-itself to continually advance them? Can we trust others
      who may be present after our demise to faithfully continue to advance
      them, in a complete knowledge of their subtle meaning and scope?

      I think it is these questions that really constitute the basis for
      uneasiness and anxiety and to the extent that we ARE our projects they
      are justified.

      I don't think that Sartre was able to perform a metaphysical operation
      on the relationship between being and consciousness and to a certain
      extent he avoided this, considering it futile. I would envisage this
      relationship roughly as follows: consciousness is the spark that
      enables a separation operation to be able to occur between
      being-in-itself and being-for-itself. When individual consciousness is
      extinguished by death, this operation is no longer able to be

      But what if we consider the consciousness as a thing in-itself? Perhaps
      this is the bit that can most clearly be said to have died. But then we
      have the relationship between consciousness and time. It seems pretty
      obvious to me that time is produced by consciousness, at least that
      specific time according to which we perceive the progress of our lives.

      If we are looking for some kind of spiritual continuity, immortality,
      life-after-death, it seems to me that we should be concentrating our
      efforts on what happens to the flow of time at the instant of death,
      from the perspective of our individual consciousness.

      I was looking for a suitable deathbed quote from Sartre to back up this
      thesis but couldn't find the one I was looking for. Anyone?


      On 11 Jun 2004, at 14:50, tillich16 wrote:

      > The existence of fear of death among average person is without any
      > doubt. Now I want to explore the reason of such emotion toward
      > death: Is it inevitable? Can it be overcome by profound reflection?
      > Here I only want to reflect on the reason of such feeling. Why death
      > is awful? Why it always brings about uneasiness and anxiety? I think
      > many facts contribute to such phenomenon, and the most significant
      > one is the ignorance of the condition after the death. After all, we
      > are accustomed to getting to know the world from our own
      > perspectives, even other person¡¯s death is known through our sense
      > and experiences. So what if the functions of our sense and mind are
      > completely destroyed? Is there nothing left for me at that time?
      > Does it infer that we should try to learn a new way to perceive the
      > condition if it were still possible for us to continue our spiritual
      > life after death? However, such question may be impossible to answer
      > because most probably we can do nothing after death and our
      > existence transforms into nothingness at that time. But nothingness
      > can¡¯t be sufficiently known in terms of Logic, so death still is a
      > mystery for us, what we fear is the metaphysical abyss of
      > nothingness.
      > So to conquer the fear of death, the truth and pragmatic
      > interpretation of nothingness is vital, especially for atheist.
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