J. Malpas, R.C. Solomon (eds.)

DEATH AND PHILOSOPHY


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (1999). This review first appeared in The Journal of Consciousness Studies.

Death is a uniquely difficult subject to philosophize about, for it is something that is going to concern all of us sooner or later yet about which no one has any first-hand knowledge; unless, that is, you accept the accounts of those who have undergone near-death experiences as authentic foretastes of what is to come. The book does include a description of a near-death experience, entitled, quite uncompromisingly, "My death", but it is very different from most of those reported elsewhere. There is nothing about tunnels, encounters with Beings of Light, or beautiful landscapes; instead, its author, Tem Horwitz, who is incidentally the only contributor who is not a professional philosopher, describes a mainly peaceful but quite unemotional journey into non-existence. There was a great sense of freedom but not one of love or bliss, and Horwitz does not seem to have acquired any belief in immortality as a result of his experience, which consisted mainly of negatives--a peeling away but without anything being added.

The tone of the book as a whole is in tune with Horwitz's account: a little flat. The kinds of questions the contributors address are: Does death matter? If so, how, and to whom? Would a life without death be worth living? Is there any way of coming to terms with death? Such questions are considered in the light of existentialism, the analytic tradition, and Chinese, Tibetan, and Japanese (Zen) thought. It is based on a meeting held in New Zealand, though the participants came from the USA and Germany as well as the host country. It would be interesting to know on what principle they were invited.

Ivan Soll asks whether the attempt to represent death as insignificant is a case of whistling before the dark. This was Epicurus's argument as reported by Lucretius: since death is not an experience, it is nothing to us and doesn't matter. Soll seems to say that it is legitimate to worry about dying but not about being dead, although he is expressly non-committal even about this.

Betty S. Flowers writes about the consequences of dismissing the possibility of a "necessarily fictional" afterlife. She holds that we should create fictions in the imaginative space of an afterlife in order to explore stories of meaning. Near-death experiences can be seen as fictions of this kind; even if they are not literally true, we need them to allow us to expand imaginatively.

Roger Ames looks at how death is treated in Daoism. (Unwary readers with only a superficial familiarity with Chinese literature may find themselves a little at sea with the transliteration system used in this book, which gives us, for example, Daodejing and Zhuangzi in place of the more familiar Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu.) The differences in outlook between ancient China and the West are certainly instructive and more than one of the contributors refers to these. The Chinese regarded death as natural and inevitable, and as the counterpart of life, rather than as something totally abhorrent and unnatural, as in Western Christianity.

Robert Wicks also looks at the Eastern view of death, this time in relation to the Bardo Thodol or Tibetan Book for the Dead (he prefers this title to "Tibetan Book of the Dead"). Wicks takes issue with both C.G. Jung and Lama Govinda for their well-known commentaries on this work; both these writers, he thinks, are too "aristocratic", too much concerned with the few readers capable of achieving high states of insight and illumination. He prefers to see the book as mainly relevant to "ordinary" unenlightened people, who he thinks are its main intended audience (literally an audience, for the Bardo Thodol is supposed to be read aloud to the person who is dying or recently dead). Like many other commentators, Wicks is concerned to emphasize the relevance of the book for the living as well as the dead; indeed, he is ambivalent about the existence of any post-mortem experiences: "The present interpretation suggests that it is certainly a book for the living, and only maybe one for the dead."

In what may seem a rather unlikely juxtaposition, Graham Parkes links Montaigne with Zen, Heidegger, and Nietzsche. From these sources he draws the conclusion that the best way to die is the best way to live: moment by moment, without clinging to attachments. Not all the contributors find such exhortations entirely helpful. Peter Loptson, in a rather sombre piece which he calls "The antinomy of death", comes to the uncompromising conclusion that death "is as terrible a thing as there is", and that there is no way of coming to terms with it at all.

I found Loptson's contribution rather impressive. The antinomy of his title comes from his contention that death, whenever it occurs, is always tragic because it entails the destruction of an experiencing person and this "is like a mathematical function that doesn't compute". We tend to weave an intellectual superstructure around this bleak fact, but this psychological activity is merely a Darwinian response to help us to control our incipient panic. Philosophers practise sleight of hand to anaesthetize us against this terror but they cannot really succeed in doing so. There is no point in railing against fate, of course; it's just the way things are, so the best we can do is to adopt an Epicurean attitude to our death if we can; but this doesn't make the objective fact of death any less appalling.

Jeff Malpas, in contrast to Loptson, doesn't really write about death at all (perhaps he finds it too awful). Instead, he writes on the theme of "having a life". I felt a bit cheated by this. Robert C. Solomon, on the other hand, does stick to the subject, perhaps because he was once at medical school, and his theme is precisely the denial of death. He sees belief in an afterlife or reincarnation as forms of death denial. He disapproves of those who actively seek to debunk such beliefs although he doesn't hold them himself, but he thinks the beliefs dodge the real issue, which is "What is death and how shall I think about it?" The modern fashion for glorifying the death "experience" is another kind of denial, which Solomon calls death fetishism (making death into something magical and wonderful). Nor can we use the analytic philosophers' trick of clarifying the issue until there's nothing left and so nothing to fear. In this refusal to accept easy answers, Solomon seems to be at one with Loptson. He concludes by emphasizing what he thinks is the need to see death in a social as well as an individual context, avoiding "morbid solipsism" by aiming for a "noble death" in which we are conscious of how our manner of dying will affect other people.

Western philosophy has been called a series of footnotes to Plato, but you would hardly think so if you read this book, which in places seems more like a series of footnotes to Heidegger; Plato receives but few mentions whereas Heidegger is frequently cited throughout and is the subject of two full-length treatments by Peter Kraus and Julian Young. Perhaps this neglect of Plato is hardly surprising, for Plato famously defended the immortality of the soul, but none of the contributors follows him in this. There have been several recent philosophers (C.D. Broad, H.H. Price, C.J.Ducasse) who have argued the case for survival, but this is not that kind of book. It is, it has to be said, somewhat dry, though there are some good insights to be found here and there.


%T Death and Philosophy
%A Malpas, Jeff (ed)
%A Solomon, Robert C,, Robert C, (ed)
%I Routledge
%C London and New York
%D 1998
%G ISBN 0-415-19144 0
%P xi + 211 pp
%O paperback
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