“The Significance of Insignificance : Two Ways to Learn to Die in an Egocentric World” (Jeremy J. Wisnewski)

Journal of Philosophy of Life, vol. 5, no.2 (August 2015):42-61

Abstract: The claim that philosophy is training for death has an astonishing pedigree. In both the East and the West, the oldest philosophical traditions maintain that philosophy’s central function involves coming to terms with mortality. My aim is to sketch two approaches to this question, both of which involve a recognition of one’s insignificance. I will first present a therapeutic reading of the Socratic/Epicurean tradition, suggesting that the arguments surrounding mortality should be understood as tools for developing certain attitudes rather than simply as tools for ascertaining the truth. I next present some basic traditions of meditation in outline, arguing that they are similar in certain fundamental respects to pursuing the ‘life of reason,’ understood therapeutically. In both cases, we find practical techniques for cultivating awareness of one’s insignificance, as well as a recognition (and acceptance) of one’s mortality.

1. Introduction

The claim that philosophy is training for death has an astonishing pedigree. In both the East and the West, the oldest philosophical traditions maintain that philosophy’s central function involves coming to terms with mortality. And yet, despite a sometime-consensus regarding the goal of philosophy, there has been no such consensus on the manner in which philosophy is to achieve this goal. Nevertheless, as I hope to show, there is at least a common thread in some of these approaches: namely, the attempt to recognize one’s own insignificance. My aim in what follows is to sketch two approaches to this question—one of which is much more alive today than the other. I will first present a therapeutic reading of the Socratic and Epicurean tradition, suggesting that the arguments surrounding mortality should be understood as tools for developing certain attitudes rather than simply as tools for ascertaining the truth (though these are certainly compatible). I will next present some traditions of meditation in outline (vipassanā and zazen), arguing that they are similar in certain fundamental respects to pursuing the ‘life of reason,’ provided this is understood therapeutically. Although most people no longer think of the life of reason in the terms I will suggest, the traditions of vipassanā and zazen meditation are alive and well—and provide practical techniques for cultivating awareness of one’s insignificance, as well as a recognition (and acceptance) of one’s mortality.

2. Existential and Propositional Knowledge: Two Approaches to the Life of Reason

The Socratic and Epicurean view that philosophy is a kind of preparation for death is usually understood in a more or less rationalist way: following the Epicurean strategy, when we fully understand the nature of death, we will be free from fears regarding it. On the Epicurean view, to understand death entails understanding that it involves the absence of the possibility of any kind of experience whatsoever. Through a startlingly seductive and brief series of arguments, we are then led to the claim that death cannot be a harm.

The responses to Epicurus’ therapeutic argument are legion. One common response—and one that I will argue misses the point of the Epicurean strategy—centers on the nature of argument. The idea that reason by itself can beat back the fear of death—that rational argumentation could in fact conquer finitude—is itself problematized by our continuing struggle with Epicurean thinking. Emil Cioran, for example, writes that “those who try to eliminate the fear of death through artificial reasoning are totally mistaken, because it is impossible to cancel an organic fear by way of abstract constructs…All attempts to bring existential questions on to only a logical plane are null and void” (Cioran, On the Heights of Despair, 26-27). Françoise Dastur makes a similar claim when she writes: “The idea that we may free ourselves from the anxiety that arises from our being mortal merely by appealing to reason constitutes an illusion or trap that in the end is just as deceptive as any of the discourses about ‘the beyond’ or technico-scientific fantasies about the indefinite extension of life” (How Are We to Confront Death?, 42). Robert Solomon, in a similar vein, writes that “confronting death is a very emotional experience… Thinking about death, by contrast, seems curiously detached, abstracted, and out of touch with the phenomenon it ponders” (153). He goes on to claim, perhaps somewhat bitterly, that our attempts to address the question of death philosophically are ultimately an evasion of death: “What happens, particularly in contemporary Anglo-American attempts to argue that ‘death is nothing’, is that the natural perplexity surrounding the question is supposedly resolved by ‘clarifying the question’…But some questions cannot and should not be clarified, and this is one of them. What we see here is an analytic philosopher’s trick: First, eliminate everything that isn’t death as such…and Bingo! – there’s nothing left. Death is nothing” (169).

Can there be an answer to the problem of death, from the critical perspectives of Cioran, Solomon, and Dastur? Ignoring the obvious anachronism of referring to arguments with their origins in ancient Greece as being from ‘analytic philosophers’—a silly claim, in my view – one wonders, on Solomon’s view, whether or not there’s anything that can be said philosophically about death. He seems, rather, to come close to advocating the view of the Nobel Prize-winning author Elias Canneti, who claims “Ich anerkenne keinen Tod,” that he “does not acknowledge death in any form.” One then must wonder why refusing to talk about death itself in any form (as opposed to the social dimension of death) is less an evasion than trying to grapple with it in argument and analysis.

Dastur, by contrast, does offer a positive response to how we should confront death—but one that proves, in my view, every bit as perplexing as the one she aims to replace. Rather than thinking of death as the unfortunate consequence of living, we should think of it as the very condition through which existence is possible. “Death would no longer appear as a scandal, but rather as the very foundation of our existence” (44). To achieve this requires the cultivation of Gelassenheit—the classic Heideggerian notion of ‘letting being be’—with an attendant ability to leave room for “the incalculable, the irremediable, and all the negativity that existence can attain” (45). Gelassenheit, Dastur explains, is “a letting be that lets all things return to themselves at the moment one stops making use of them for one’s projects, the moment when one is able to deprive oneself of one’s ego” (42). On Dastur’s view, death is not a problem to be dealt with. To treat death as a puzzle is to misunderstand it, and misunderstand as well our relationship to it. Much like Cioran and Solomon, Dastur is unimpressed by the syllogism when it comes to confronting our own mortality… [PDF]