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An Ontological Study of Death

From Hegel to Heidegger

By Sean Ireton

Publication Year: 2007

In An Ontological Study of Death: From Hegel to Heidegger, Sean Ireton examines conceptions of death as manifested in German literature and philosophy from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century, expanding on thanatological theories that distinguish between a metaphysical and an ontological view of human finitude. Whereas metaphysics separates life from death and posits a transcendent reality beyond the physical world, the ontological perspective integrates death into the very core of being where it functions as a fundamental phenomenon of life. Arguing that the dialectical thinking of Hegel and Hölderlin erases the metaphysical paradigm of death and sets the stage for the existential interpretations advanced by Nietzsche, Rilke, and Heidegger, Ireton maintains that each of these authors ultimately seeks to incorporate the traditional realm of nonbeing into the heart of existence. Framed by the opposing philosophies of Hegel, who deems that death has little personal meaning but is vital for the life of Spirit, and Heidegger, who converts death into the determining factor of selfhood, Ireton’s study finds common ground in the way death is viewed—as the promise of possibility, freedom and wholeness. Though primarily focused on the Germanic tradition, Ireton’s study also addresses the modern French philosophical treatment of death by Blanchot, Kojève, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and Foucault in the wake of their German predecessors. Ireton concludes by placing the dialectical and existential views discussed in his study within the context of modern thanatology, specifically demonstrating how themes of human finitude and freedom have a direct bearing on the current debate surrounding the dignity of death and the right to die.

Published by: Duquesne University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii

I would like to thank the University of Missouri Research Board and the University of Missouri - Columbia Research Council for supporting me in the completion of this book. I am also deeply grateful to Hellmut Ammerlahn and Jane K. Brown, both of whom gave me valuable feedback on earlier phases of this project. Here in Missouri, ...

Abbreviations of Frequently Used Works and Editions

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pp. ix-xi

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Introduction: Philosophical, Historical, and Pathological Models of Death

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pp. 1-27

In his major philosophical work from 1943, Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre outlines two paradigms of death based on the image of a borderline. As Sartre points out, every boundary is a Janus bifrons: it simultaneously looks in both directions, not only dividing space into two separate domains but also forming part of that which it demarcates....

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1. Hegel: The Dialectic of Death

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pp. 28-78

Hegel and H

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2. H

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pp. 79-127

By the time the Phenomenology of Spirit appeared in the spring of 1807, Hegel’s erstwhile companion and collaborator had suffered a mental breakdown from which he would never recover. Hölderlin, who had lost contact with Hegel since the latter’s move to Jena in 1801, and had experienced his share of bouts with nervous disorders through-...

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3. Nietzsche: The Deaths of Empedocles and Zarathustra

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pp. 128-177

The figure of Empedocles is as present in the work of Nietzsche as in that of Hölderlin. However, this presence is not readily apparent to the casual reader and must often be sought in Nietzsche’s lesser-known writings. Like Hölderlin, he, too, struggled to compose an Empedocles tragedy but never progressed beyond preliminary notes ...

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4. Rilke: The Holistic Recovery of Death

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pp. 178-228

In August of 1902 Rilke left the northern German idylls of Worpswede and Haseldorf—the former an artists’ colony, the latter an isolated estate belonging to aristocratic acquaintances—to settle in Paris, the modern city par excellence. The clash between these two environments exerted a profound impact on the young poet, bringing about a reori-...

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5. Heidegger: The Ontology and Onticity of Death

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pp. 229-280

Heidegger’s analytic of death in Being and Time forms the culmination of the literary and philosophical thanatology that I have discussed in the foregoing chapters of this study. His understanding of human finitude as a supreme possibility of existence that both intimates freedom and reveals selfhood has obvious precedents in the works of Hegel, ...

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Epilogue: The Dignity of Death and the Right to Die

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pp. 281-288

Death, as conceived in a line of thought stretching from the late eighteenth to early twentieth century, is far more than a narrow philosophical concern or isolated literary theme. As I have tried to illustrate in the foregoing chapters, it is intimately connected with a host of other underlying issues that feed into a comprehensive worldview. ...


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pp. 289-308


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pp. 309-320


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pp. 321-326

E-ISBN-13: 9780820705552
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820703961

Page Count: 337
Publication Year: 2007

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Death.
  • Philosophy, Modern.
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