The Meaning of Death

In Being and Time Heidegger's analysis of Dasein's being leads to a consideration of the phenomenon call death. It is appropriate, though, to first explicate what is meant by death. When Heidegger describes Dasein as being-toward-death, he is not referring to the myriad ontic ways to die or even to the biological death by which they are subsumed. For Dasein to die signifies that it becomes no-longer-Dasein, i.e., Dasein no longer exists. Yet Heidegger maintains that death is still a possibility-of-being for Dasein. Death "is the possibility of the absolute impossibility of Dasein".

Being-toward-death is the way Dasein comports toward this possibility, and it may do so authentically or inauthentically. Inauthentic, or everyday, being-towards-death treats death as something which is remote and hence of little threat to one's own person. People die all the time, but unless Dasein were personally in the throes of the event termed dying, he would contend that death, for the time being, had nothing to do with him-self. In addition to this, this way of being-towards-death dictates how death may even be properly contemplated. Anxiety over death is interpreted as a cowardly weakness and hence proscribed by the they-self. In its stead one is to regard death with indifference. What everyday being-towards-death amounts to, according to Heidegger, is an "...evasion in the face of death". It does not want to admit that death is a real possibility for Dasein. Even in affirming death it denies it; the empirical certainty of demise indicates it is probable Dasein shall die, but this does not make the individual Dasein's death certain. Treating death as an event and pushing it into some indefinite time in the future is to deny that it is a genuine possibility for existence now, and perhaps even later. Afterall, maybe Dasein shall prove to be an exception to the rule and not die. This tacit hope is often seen in advertisements recommending to Dasein that he purchase life insurance for the benefit of his family "should anything happen" to him. The word "should" makes the very certainty of death problematical, and the avoidance of the word "die" in this context adds to the strength of the denial.

Authentic being-towards-death, on the other hand, emphatically affirms the certainty of the individual Dasein's death. Death as a possibility-for-being can occur at any moment, including this one. In authentically comporting himself toward death, Dasein does not negate this, but rather anxiously expects death. This is not to be confused with preparing to die (as one who is about to commit suicide expects to die), nor does it entail an explicit "brooding over death", which Heidegger says actually negates the possibility of death by attempting to discern how it shall come about and thus assign a more definite 'when' to its appearance. Authentic being-towards-death is best understood as a comporting of oneself toward one's ownmost possibility of being, one which is non-relational (i.e., does not involve a relationship with any entity in-the-world or within-the-world).

Does Dasein comport himself toward death all the time? Is Dasein essentially being-towards-death? Heidegger answers these questions affirmatively. Being-toward-death does not necessarily involve thinking explicitly about death in either the authentic or inauthentic mode. Instead, it is

the anticipation of a potentiality-for-being of that entity whose
king of Being is anticipation itself... [, anticipation being] the
possibility of understanding one's ownmost and utter potentiality-
for-being - that is to say, the possibility of authentic existence.

If the above statement were to be taken as an argument, it would be hopelessly circular. Heidegger is here trying to explicate the being of Dasein, though, not provide a proof for it. A proof of Dasein cannot possibly be had. Assuming the above to be true, then, what does it mean?

Earlier in Being and Time Heidegger defines Dasein as an entity that cares. This caring includes Dasein's being within its scope, i.e., Dasein is a being whose very being is an issue for it. Death, as a possibility-for-being, is subsumed by the existentialia. Hence Dasein can and does care about it as it concerns itself with any possibility of its being. The relationship between Dasein and death is such, however, that this caring is constitutive of its care for any aspect of its being. So long as Dasein lives it is thrown into this world, but to authentically understand its being in this world includes understanding it could also possibly not be in this world. Thus being-in-the-world goes with being-towards-death.

Is Heidegger correct? According to his ontology it is because Dasein cares that he can even be said to comport himself toward other entities in the first place; his being is more accurately described as a 'how' than a 'what'. To be-toward anything, Dasein must understand it as a possibility. To understand something as a possibility, though, means to recognize that it may well no be as well as be. So Heidegger's assertion that Dasein is being-towards-death is sound. A successful denial of this position would involve invalidating Heidegger's ontology, and this is something that the author of this essay has yet to accomplish.

Death, as the possibility of the impossibility of possibilities is something toward which Dasein may comport itself either authentically or inauthentically. Analysis of Dasein based on the Heideggerian ontology indicates this being-towards-death is essential to Dasein's being.