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How (Not) to Think about Death: A Meditation on Life

In the Genesis account of the Fall, the primary reason that Adam and Eve are driven out of Eden is so that after having eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they may not eat of the tree of life and live forever. This narrative provides a very straightforward account of how death comes into the world: It is a consequence of disobeying God.

Underlying the etiological import of the story, though, is an interesting assumption about the nature of death itself. This assumption is the radical externality of death, which is at odds with much contemporary theorizing about death. In the Genesis account, death is not constitutive of who we are. Death is not part of our essence; it comes from without. Death is the consequence of walking down a path away from the tree of life, rather than toward it. The remainder of the biblical narrative, however, is predicated on the fact that we are so far along this path that return is impossible and a new way must be provided. Thus, we find ourselves in a position where death is both ineluctable and external.

Contemporary philosophy has excelled at focusing on the ineluctability of death, but very rarely has it focused on the externality of death. In fact, many philosophers have concluded that the ineluctability of death entails its internality. I take the chief proponents of this entailment relation to be Hegel and Heidegger. Although they articulate this relationship differently, their positions share a fundamental homology. In this essay, I will briefly sketch what I take to be Hegel’s and Heidegger’s positions with regard to death and then uncover the structural similarity that undergirds both positions. Next I will illustrate an alternative to these positions, that is, an account in which death is both ineluctable and external. In sketching this alternative viewpoint, I will rely heavily on the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, two contemporary French thinkers with deep criticisms of the traditional practice of philosophy and psychoanalysis. My claim is that thinking of death as internal arises from a misconception of desire and that rethinking death requires a rethinking of desire.


Hegel first introduces death in the Phenomenology of Spirit as a “natural negation,” “For just as life is the natural setting of consciousness, independence without absolute negativity, so death is the natural negation of consciousness, negation without independence.”1 In this early discussion of death in Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel contrasts death with life. Life is “independence without absolute negativity,” whereas death is “negation without independence.” To these characterizations of life and death, Hegel attaches the adjective natural: Life is the “natural setting of consciousness,” and death is the “natural negation of consciousness.” What is at stake for Hegel, then, in these initial encounters with death is both the relationship between independence and negativity, and the characterization of this relationship as natural.

The term natural for Hegel is opposed to the term spiritual. Hegel sees his task in the Phenomenology of Spirit as following the development of consciousness from its natural setting to its spiritual setting. As consciousness develops, it becomes less natural and more spiritual. What characterizes this conversion from natural to spiritual is an incorporation of consciousness’s external relations to internal relations, and the incorporation that concerns us here is the incorporation of death. Consciousness discovers that it cannot incorporate death within itself as consciousness; it must become a community in order to convert its external relation with death into an internal one. Death first appears to consciousness as something wholly outside of its power—death destroys consciousness rather than developing it. At the same time, however, death is unavoidable; consciousness cannot circumvent death but must find a way of dealing with this natural negation. Hegel’s solution, then, to the ineluctability of death is to incorporate it into the development of consciousness.

The Phenomenology of the Spirit is thus the history of consciousness and the concomitant history of death. In successive encounters, consciousness attempts to comprehend death. Initially, consciousness finds death alien because the power of death is opposed to and negates consciousness, yet consciousness slowly mitigates the power of natural negation by taking on some of the work of death within itself. The servant takes on the negativity of death in work, the family incorporates the negativity of death through burial rites, and only in the terror does the community see death as its sole work. Death is no longer external, but internal.

If Hegel were only concerned with how communities constitute death, this history of death could have ended here, but Hegel is also concerned with how communities can constitute death but not organize themselves according to death. It is only in the revealed religion and absolute knowing sections that the community is able to organize itself by a principle other than death. Revealed religion, however, is only partially successful in this attempt. Because religion articulates the overcoming of death representationally, it pictures the full realization of this incorporation at some point in the future. Absolute knowing, on the other hand, is finally able to organize itself in relation to death in such a way that death is presently incorporated and overcome. The community of absolute knowing is not governed by death, nor by hope in the future, but by the freedom of reason that all its members enjoy.

Hegel’s project is remarkable on multiple levels. Philosophically, it shows the way in which consciousness can only properly think itself and its object within a community—not only are knowing and being identical for Hegel, but they are also intersubjective. Politically, it provides an antidote to the Hobbesian state that is predicated on the fear of death. The price of Hegel’s progress, though, is the incorporation of death as the essential driving force behind the development of consciousness. This is the labor of the negative that must be grasped in order for thought to be itself. For Hegel, insofar as death remains external, or natural, we are no better than animals in that we are simply subject to natural processes. It is only to the degree that we grasp death and make it our own that we are able to transcend our natural starting point and progress. And it is in transcending our natural standpoint that we find culture, society, philosophy, religion, and art. In a word, it is only in transcending our naturalness that we find Geist (spirit). Hegel puts this quite succinctly in the Preface: “But the life of spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself.”2


Although Heidegger would acknowledge that Hegel makes important strides in thinking about the relationship between a community and death, he would also say that Hegel fails to account for the peculiar relationship between the individual and death. For Heidegger, death is a multifaceted, complex phenomenon, and in the context of our discussion, several facets of his understanding are worth noting here. First, death for Heidegger is unsurpassable; there is no overcoming or circumventing death. Second, death is non-relational, that is, death cannot be shared or transferred to anyone else—I can be with the dead and with others in mourning, but this cannot substitute for my own death, nor does it allow me to experience death. And third, death is the possibility out of all other possibilities that is most proper to me. In fact, Heidegger would go so far as to say that death is definitive of who I am. Death is the absolute limit of all possibilities, the very impossibility of possibility.

A great deal of careful phenomenological analysis underlies Heidegger’s claims about death. The key component, though, is a certain conception of “possibility.” At bottom, Heidegger’s claim is that human existence is structured as possibility. Individuals are always already stretched ahead of themselves into their possibilities. Death, as the limit of these possibilities, functions as the transcendental condition for the very possibility of possibility. To put this in a more straightforward way: Humans are the way they are because they die. The ineluctability of death structures our very existence.

Again, notice that in order to account for the ineluctability of death, Heidegger supposes that death must be constitutive of existence itself. The reason for this lies in the way that Heidegger understands possibility. For individuals to be constituted as possibility means that something always remains outstanding for them. For example, if a biochemist is constituted by her possibilities, then in the tasks she is pursuing, something always remains undone until the task is complete. That which remains undone stretches the biochemist ahead of herself into her possibilities. But even if the biochemist were to complete all of her tasks, this does not mean that she no longer lives ahead of herself into her possibilities. Instead, she is always distended, stretched ahead of herself such that she both is and is not at the same time. For instance, in writing this essay, I am both writing it in the moment but also writing it with the goal of completing it. In my project I am both here and ahead of myself at the same time. This gap between the here and the ahead of myself is the structure of possibility. Without the gap, without the distension, there is no possibility. Thus, possibility functions on the basis of a gap, an emptiness, a lack. Individuals exist as possibility such that there is a fundamental lack in their constitution. In Being and Time, this lack is the ineluctable, non-relational, individualizing structure of my death. In other works, Heidegger articulates this idea in numerous ways, such as the Nothing and the event of appropriation (Ereignis), but Heidegger never abandons the supposition that human existence is constituted around a lack, although he never ceases finding new ways to articulate it.

As a result of his analyses, Heidegger summarizes the human condition as “being towards death” (Sein zum Tode).3 It would be difficult to overestimate the power that this understanding of human existence has had over contemporary thought. Heidegger forces us to face our finitude in uncompromising terms. Furthermore, he shows that the way in which we make a meaningful world, the way in which we relate to others and things, is all predicated on this fundamental understanding of the nature of possibility and its limits.

His analyses of language, mood, and truth are original and far-reaching, but what seems to be missing in Heidegger’s formidable discussion of death is the role of the community. In fact, it seems that both Hegel and Heidegger provide what is missing in the other. Hegel has an account of communities and death, whereas Heidegger has an account of individuals and death. Granted, Heidegger discusses what it means for individuals to be with others—in fact, being with others (Mitsein) is one of the basic structures of existence for Heidegger—and he also discusses how a “people” gets formed with both a history and a destiny. It seems to me, though, that Heidegger ignores community when he begins to discuss death. Death individualizes (einzelnen) me; death is precisely an instance when I cannot be with others.4 Thus, at the crucial moment, being with others becomes subordinated to being towards death.

What Lies Beneath

On the topic of death, then, Hegel and Heidegger appear to be strange obversions of one another. Both account for the ineluctability of death, and both suppose that the ineluctability of death entails its incorporation into the very structure of human existence, but for Hegel this incorporation happens at the level of the community whereas for Heidegger this incorporation occurs at the level of the individual. Despite this crucial difference, the fact that both philosophers incorporate death into the structure of existence creates a homology at a deeper level. For both Hegel and Heidegger, death is that which moves life. As we saw previously, for Hegel the transcendence of bare life requires that communities continually embrace their own destruction. The dialectic cannot progress unless each position faces its own negation, and the truth of life can only be discovered in death. By the same token, in Heidegger existence is propelled by the lack around which it is organized; human existence is being towards death, and death defines existence and governs its possibilities.

At this point, owing to the differences in their methodologies, we can note that while both Hegel and Heidegger incorporate death into existence, each treats it differently. Because Hegel’s method is dialectical, lack or negation is continually overcome only to be reproduced by each new position. Heidegger’s phenomenology, on the other hand, leads him to argue that the death that lies at the heart of existence cannot be overcome. Or to be perfectly precise, an individual who had overcome death would experience the world very differently from the rest of us.

Regardless of how each philosopher deals with this incorporated lack, the crucial thing is that the lack becomes the engine that drives existence. It is at this point that desire comes on the scene. Both Hegel and Heidegger in their conceptions of death have reproduced the traditional logic of desire whereby one desires because one lacks. According to this model, the purpose of desire is to make good on what one is missing. This seems like a very reasonable account of desire when it comes to things like food or sex, but Hegel and Heidegger take things a step farther. Hegel argues that existence itself is predicated on a lack that continually renews itself, and Heidegger argues that existence is predicated on a lack that in principle can never be filled. Thus, when comparing Hegel and Heidegger, the issue that arises is whether desire as predicated on a lack is fundamental or derivative.

In response, I propose that desire need not be predicated on a lack. Instead, desire is fundamentally productive. Furthermore, when the traditional conception of desire is replaced, a new conception of death emerges, one in which death remains ineluctable but external, one in which death is no longer the driving force within life.

Productive Desire

To be perfectly frank, it took me a long time to get my head around the idea of desire as productive. It did not become clear to me until I saw my children play. The great temptation in watching children play is to impose an overarching narrative on their play, as if they have long-range goals that they are trying to achieve. Thinking about play in this way merely reintroduces the traditional conception of desire at the outset. But suppose a child is running around with a toy in each hand and then suddenly throws them down in order to pick up two new toys. Is it necessary to assume that the child was lacking the new toys and picked them up in order to fill that lack? Or is the answer less complicated? Perhaps the child is simply seeking new experiences and new connections, and in order to make these connections, she must break the old ones? To suppose that experience begins in the making and breaking of connections does not require predicating desire on a lack; I do not need to lack something in order to want to experience something new. However, experiencing something new may require disengaging some of my current connections. I cannot hop on one foot and run at the same time because these activities require mutually exclusive connections.5

This view of desire has wide-ranging implications for understanding not only human nature but also general ontology. Chief among these implications is that this view allows things to be defined by their specific types of connections and the degree to which they are exercised. For example, a human is complex and capable of a great number of connections whereas a jellyfish is capable of significantly fewer connections. This view avoids essentialism, not only about human nature but also in general, and thus it avoids introducing lack into the heart of existence. An essence always seeks its actualization, and the gap between an entity’s potentiality and its actuality is precisely the kind of lack that Hegel and Heidegger introduced as constitutive. It is here that death gets incorporated into life as the engine of life, whether it be negation in Hegel’s dialectic or being towards death in Heidegger’s phenomenology.

How (Not) to Think about Death

A great deal more could be said about the critique of essentialism from the perspective of a productive desire, but my task here is to use a productive account of desire to rethink death. The first and most obvious implication is that insofar as existence is no longer constituted around a lack, there is no need to suppose that death is internal to life. Death remains ineluctable, to be sure, but it is no longer the driving force within existence. According to Deleuze and Guattari, the fundamental failure of philosophy lies in the fact that it is not a song of life. It sings an unrelenting dirge about death. I have argued, following Deleuze and Guattari, that this failure is the result of the way that desire is construed as precipitating from a lack. Hegel and Heidegger both accept this fundamental presupposition of a foundational lack but organize their thought in different ways with regard to this lack. What I will do by way of conclusion is build upon the resources provided by Deleuze and Guattari and discuss the way that the practice of philosophy might be characterized by joy rather than sadness. In order to do this, I will look at Nietzsche’s engagement with death in The Gay Science.

In The Gay Science, Nietzsche takes aim at the division that runs through Western culture between the frivolous and the serious. The history of Western thought has been the history of seriousness, and so science can only be science if its object is serious. Things that must be taken seriously are reason, God, and order, and philosophy, theology, and the natural sciences have these things, respectively, as their object. Nietzsche further argues that reason and order are the result of the Western conception of God.

Nietzsche’s project in The Gay Science is twofold. First, he wants to show the limits of “serious” science, and second, he wants to provide an alternative conception of science, namely, gay science. His task is complicated by the fact that he cannot simply take the “serious” as a serious object of study. To do so would result in being recaptured by what he is trying to escape. One way of looking at Nietzsche’s solution to this difficulty is to look at The Gay Science as a set of bodily practices for overcoming serious science. These practices are aesthetic; they seek laughter but not comfort, and instead of certainty, they seek struggle and pain, while recognizing that these are not inimical to laughter. We can see Nietzsche’s call to a new set of bodily practices in the Preface: “I have often asked myself whether, taking a large view, philosophy has not been merely an interpretation of the body and a misunderstanding of the body.”6 The misunderstanding lies in the confusion of cause and effect, and in mistaking the primary for secondary. For Nietzsche, the body is not an appendage of the soul or an intransigent materiality that gets in the way of thinking. The body is the ground of all thought; all thoughts arise in and through the body.

The revaluation of the body that Nietzsche undertakes provides an aesthetic grounding for all thought. “Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings—always darker, emptier, and simpler” (§179). Given this revaluation, Nietzsche cannot simply argue that we should think differently. To argue in this way would again grant too much to what he is trying to delimit. On the contrary, Nietzsche must present a new way of acting, a new set of bodily exercises. Indeed, it is only by creating new kinds of bodies that one is able to create new philosophies: “A philosopher who has traversed many kinds of health, and keeps traversing them, has passed through an equal number of philosophies [. . .]: this art of transfiguration is philosophy.”7 This art of traversal does not have truth as its goal, but health. Truth as a goal presupposes a very particular kind of body, one that is for the most part ignorant of its bodily underpinnings. What Nietzsche proposes is an experimental philosophy of the body, a technique of the body that continually tests its limits knowing that the result will not always be pleasure, but wisdom.

Nietzsche sums up these bodily practices in the eternal return. How should one orient one’s actions? How can one make an experiment of one’s existence? The eternal return seeks to answer these questions and does so by proposing a thought experiment: What if a demon came and said that this moment in all of its aspects, joy and suffering, would be repeated endlessly? Would such a proclamation be a curse or a blessing? Nietzsche argues that if we can organize our practices such that this becomes a blessing rather than a curse, we will be irrevocably changed. “Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”8 Notice that the outcome of this experiment is a particular disposition: One becomes well disposed to self and life. Insight is gained here, but one would be hard-pressed to call it truth in any traditional sense. Nietzsche is not making an ontological or even cosmological claim here. Rather, this is an aesthetic claim, a bodily claim that follows from a particular practice.

Within the context of the eternal return, Nietzsche’s claims about death become clear. The first thing to note is that Nietzsche rarely talks about death. This should come as no surprise, because the purpose of philosophy is to teach one how to live, not how to die. Nietzsche writes, “It makes me happy that men do not want at all to think the thought of death.”9 Nietzsche says this in spite of his recognition that death is certain for all and all are equal in death. This understanding does not lead Nietzsche into the kind of theorizing that we see in Heidegger. For Nietzsche the fact that something is common to all is not an indication of its importance. In fact, for Nietzsche commonness usually indicates a lack of importance. As a result, Nietzsche concludes, “I should like very much to do something that would make the thought of life even a hundred times more appealing to them.”10

It is at this point that we see the importance of Nietzsche’s scathing critique of the Beyond, on the one hand, and his valuation of the eternal return on the other. Both are attempts to make life more appealing. The elimination of the Beyond as an object of thought returns one’s focus to this life in all of its suffering and joy. The eternal return, in particular, becomes a way to affirm life, not primarily by changing the way one thinks but by changing the way one feels. It is a way of experimenting with one’s affects so that joy might be one’s dominant affect, so that one might see the beauty in life in order to make it more beautiful.

Deleuze and Guattari can also be seen as proposing a set of bodily practices, an experimentation with life. This experimentation treats life not as an appendage of death as we see in Heidegger and Hegel, but as the primary object. We are not driven by death, negation, or lack, but by life itself in all its productive effulgence. As Deleuze and Guattari write in A Thousand Plateaus, “This is how it should be done: Lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it [. . .] have a small plot of new land at all times.”11 Treating death as ineluctable yet external opens up new possibilities that are not bound to our moribund fascination with death. Life can be lived rather than endured or escaped. Indeed, life becomes a blessing and death a curse, regardless of how tempted we are to reverse this relationship.

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Brent Adkins :
Brent Adkins is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia. His most recent book is Death and Desire in Hegel, Heidegger and Deleuze (Edinburgh, 2007), and he has a forthcoming book entitled True Freedom: Spinoza’s Practical Philosophy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009).