Meaning and Mortality in Kierkegaard and Heidegger: Origins of the Existential Philosophy of Death by Adam Buben
Buben undertakes the ambitious project of providing "a compelling framework for understanding the ways in which philosophy has discussed death" (3). This is a tall order for 136 pages of text, all the more so since he argues that the thinkers of western philosophy before Kierkegaard's and Heidegger's innovative existential philosophy of death can be broadly categorized into a Platonic strain, and an Epicurean strain. The Platonic strain suggests that death should not be feared, as the soul will survive the death of the body. Thinkers such as the Apostle Paul, Plotinus, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, and Pascal are briefly discussed as examples. Membership in the Epicurean strain is marked by the conviction that the particles of the soul disperse at death and leave no subject in any form that might experience evil or salvation. Since there is no "meaningful postmortem" (23) experience, concerns with death are rendered irrelevant in life. The Epicurean strain of thought, Buben argues, was appropriated by the Stoics, Montaigne, Spinoza, [End Page 181] Hume, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and even Hegel, all of whom are critical of the Platonic recommendation of "dying to" the world (11) to focus on an afterlife that finds its heyday in Christian thought. Buben admits that it is difficult to situate Hegel in this Platonic/Epicurean dichotomy. Ultimately, Buben reads Hegel as arguing that human beings can find divinity in their mortal selves and not in some future heavenly realm. Buben briefly discusses a few other notable exceptions to the Platonic/Epicurean framework, namely analytic philosophers Thomas Nagel and George Pitcher. Given that they argue that one need not experience harm for harm to be done, they do not fit comfortably into the Epicurean framework. The two strains are uniquely merged in Kierkegaard and Heidegger, resulting in an existential account of death, in which, contra Epicurus, death and the I coexist, and contra Plato, life must not be a "dying to the world" in preparation for an eternal afterlife. According to Buben's reading, Kierkegaard is at odds with the Epicurean strain because Kierkegaard is concerned with the theme of death in life in ever-increasing intensity throughout his corpus. Moreover, Kierkegaard is highly critical of the Platonic/Christian strain that attempts to offer individuals worldly comfort by mitigating the fear of death with hope for an afterlife. Buben offers an interesting account of Kierkegaard and his relationship to Christianity; and he provides ample references to Kierkegaard's texts. He also includes a thorough and valuable discussion of Kierkegaard scholarship, as well as an interesting engagement with Hegel's thought on Christianity. One drawback to this section of the book is that Buben does not sufficiently distinguish between the individual Socrates's and Plato's doctrines. Buben argues that Kierkegaard is critical of Plato's "dying away from the world"; however, in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard emphatically praises Socrates for being an authentic individual who held fast to uncertainty and was therefore a truly subjective thinker. In the chapter on death in Being and Time, Buben promises to clarify, by means of a careful explication, "the most controversial and difficult in the history of philosophy's dealings with the topic" (92) and to argue that the role that death plays in the "care" structure of Dasein constitutes an important "response" to Epicurus. In the first part of the chapter, Buben gives a detailed analysis of the death chapter. He concludes, along with Heidegger, that Dasein released from the illusions of the "they" and inauthentic ways of understanding death as demise, inter alia, will enjoy a robust freedom to be what it really is. The last part of the book offers an interesting discussion of the unacknowledged debt that Heidegger owes to Kierkegaard's thought and underscores the similarity in their projects. The heart of their kinship lies in "the combination of maintaining a sense of dying to the world while refusing to speculate about the afterlife" (116). Buben concludes with an account of the legacy of the existential philosophy of death in French thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Emmanuel Levinas, and Paul Ricoeur, and an explanation of the heart of the distinction between Kierkegaard and Heidegger. The two part ways on theological matters—Heidegger remains an atheist, whereas Kierkegaard consistently posits finite beings as derived from a Christian God. While Buben does not decide in favor or one thinker over the other, he does point out that Kierkegaard's attitude toward death, and his advice on a life well lived, only make sense if one shares his hope in the infinite significance of God. Heidegger, having neatly sidestepped such theological commitments, has merely to give a compelling account of what it means to be human in order to give pride of place to death. Buben's work is an interesting exploration of what it means to live authentically, that is, by acknowledging the truth of finitude and without fear of death.