Derrida on Death

The Phaedo explicitly names philosophy: it is the attentive anticipation
of death, the care brought to bear upon dying, the meditation on the best way to
receive, give, or give oneself death, the experience of a vigil over the
possibility of death, and over the possibility of death as
impossibility.
-Derrida in The Gift of Death

The idea of “being-towards-death” and “facing your own death” are central to existentialism. However, it seems odd to me that the for Heidegger and other existentialists, these terms mean the exact opposite of Kierkegaard’s notion of “facing your own death,” with Kierkegaard being the supposed Father of Existentialism. For Kierkegaard “facing your own death” is relational and exoteric (the subject before God). For Heidegger, etc “facing your own death” is esoteric (the subject before the subject). It seems then that for the unbelieving existentialist, “facing your own death” is merely resolving to the fact, a sort of neo-Stoicism. But with Kierkegaard it is a living faith, a relation by constant choice.

Maybe a practical implication:
For the common American, life is the material. But death is non-material and therefore cannot even be in the purview of the material mindset. It precludes the notion of death, it is inauthentic in the Heideggerian sense of always losing oneself in the crowd so as to not have to face one’s own death. It needs a material ending and that ending is (perhaps?) retirement.But for the spiritual, death can be faced since it is not only not precluded but included in the very nature of the spiritual. The material is taking and can decide when to stop taking, when it’s had enough (retirement). But the spiritual is giving and so cannot decide when to stop giving, only death decides. But it is a death that can be accepted, it is truly the believer’s retirement.

The importance of death to the believer cannot be stressed enough.

As we learn to acknolwedge and admit the reality of death,
rather than deny it, we can prepare for our own death by familiarizing
ourselves with it while it remains (probably) at some distance…We should not
downplay or suppress the reality of death in our worship. Every occasion
of worship, after all, harks to the death of Christ on a cross. Every
baptism is a death, a drowning, and we should not gloss this.

-Rodney Clapp, Tortured Wonders

So then, this life brings death and this death brings life (just as Jesus taught). This is the paradox of the Christian life. It brings life now, but only insofar as its hope is in the future, not in this life. To grasp your own death as a Christian is to truly “hide your life in Christ” (Colossians 3; II Corinthians 4:18; Hebrews 11:1).

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5 responses to “Derrida on Death

  1. Kierkegaard may have been the father of existentialism, but he was NOT an existentialist! It’s like calling Aristotle a Thomist.

  2. Sure, I mostly agree, but that seems to me to be semantics. The point is that later existentialists themselves thought they were following in the trajectory of Kierkegaard, regardless of what you call him (I didn’t actually call Kierkegaard an existentialist in the original post).

  3. Sorry about that! It’s just that I read Kierkegaard’s plea, in his The Point of View, not separate his philosophy from theology, and seeing how history has played out in existentialism, it’s gone unfulfilled, and I feel sorry for the guy.

    Heidegger tried to secularize Kierkegaard’s anxiety/death from his Christian framework, and I think it fails spectacularly. (just think “The Nothing Nothings”)

  4. I would just like to comment quickly that you mentioned ” Heidegger and other existentialists”.
    I would just like to note that Heidegger cannot be categorized as an existentialist, and this is something he also refuted himself. He is a phenomenologist only.

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