Kevin Drum, Andrew Sullivan, Martin Heidegger

Heidegger Action Figure
Image by Mads Boedker via Flickr

Lo and behold, just as I’m jumping back into the blogosphere I see that two prominent political bloggers are debating one of my favorite philosophical hobbyhorses.


To be human is to be aware of our own finitude, and to wonder at that. Montaigne argued that to philosophize is to learn how to die. Camus put it differently: men die and they are not happy. For me, this last thing is our first thing as humans. It is our defining characteristic, even though some animals may experience this in a different way.


“Facing it is our life’s task”? I can’t even conceive of that. I think about death sometimes, just like everyone, and sometimes these thoughts bother me more than other times. But thinking about it all the time? Casting it as uniquely central to the human condition? That’s almost incomprehensible to me. Wondering about our own finitude is one thing — I imagine we all do that from time to time — but why should this be elevated above the human ability to create art, science, mathematics, love, war, poetry, trade, government, or ethics — or the ability to wonder in the first place? Why is learning how to deal with our eventual death the defining characteristic of being human?

Drum says, “this attitude toward death surely sums up a vast chasm between the religious [Sullivan] and the nonreligious [Drum].” But as a fairly strident atheist, my own position is actually much closer to Sullivan’s, with one major caveat: I wouldn’t call awareness of death’s inevitability the defining characteristic of what it means to be human. It’s just a byproduct of the defining characteristic.

That characteristic is self-reflection. Sartre and many of the other existentialists have a similar take, but of course we all end up agreeing that self-reflection of even the most shallow kind will inevitably lead one to awareness of one’s own mortality.

So that’s where I differ with Sullivan. But I do think he’s onto something when he says that coming to terms with death can be viewed as, if not the human endeavor, certainly in the top three or four. Here I take my view from Heidegger’s Being and Nothingness Time.

Heidegger argues* that we the only authentic choices we can make–by authentic, I mean the only choices that are true to who we actually are–are those we make while staring death and guilt right in the face. All of our other “choices” are more like passive compliance with societal and institutional pressures; we bow to those pressures in a state of “everydayness,” the inauthentic position that we find ourselves in for the vast majority of our lives. We enter everydayness through a process called “falling” in order to flee from anxiety.

Anxiety is what forces us to look at death and guilt. It’s the state we enter when a tool we’re using breaks or we fail at a goal; suddenly we become aware that we, too, will end, and that every choice we make at every moment negates all of the other choices we could have made at that moment. But this awareness is intrinsic to your very being, as opposed to the values and goals foisted on you by everydayness. So you shouldn’t run away from it, but nor should you let it cripple you in despair; instead, the thing to do is accept it, and make as many choices as you can with it in mind.

Note that Heidegger never once invokes God in making the argument.

*DISCLAIMER: In philoblogging, “[Philosopher] argues” should always be taken to mean “What follows is my grossly reductive paraphrase of [Philosopher]’s argument.”

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5 Responses

  1. Being and Time. Nothingness is Sartre’s misreading of it as somehow Cartesian.

    And while not a believer himself, Heidegger was very clear that, in his words, “only a God can save us.”

    • The funny thing is, when I was writing this post, I kept saying to myself, “Don’t accidentally type Being and Nothingness.

      What do you suppose he meant by saving us?

      • From the original interview, he’s speaking in the context of saving us from the kind of all-consuming functionalism of modern life he describes in Question Concerning Technology. And connecting early and late Heidegger is always tricky, but I think liberation from Das Man can be viewed in a similar way.

  2. @Dylan: Any chance I could persuade you to go into further detail about that? I’d like to blog a response if possible.

    • I’m operating on a semester-old reading of B&T here, but even authentic Dasein are indebted to Das Man inasmuch as their authenticity is a result of untethering oneself from Das Man. Viewed collectively, this is pretty unsatisfying. Wouldn’t one be thrown into possibilities even if all those already in the world are authentic? They’d just be different possibilities. This seems like a case where, at a more radical level, only a God can save us. This is me and not Heidegger talking, of course, but I do think there are serious religious possibilities in his account of being-toward-death.

      Which is to say this is another edition of “Kierkegaard and Tillich got it right”.

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