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Death anxiety and existentialism


To: Paul M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Death anxiety and existentialism
Date: 3rd February 2010 13:19

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your email of 21 January, with your fifth and final essay for Pathways Introduction to Philosophy, Possible World Machine which you have titled, 'Death anxiety: An existential based solution'.

Well done for completing your program! What now? For the Associate you will be sending me essays of 2000-2500 words. I expect you to do a substantial amount of reading and your own research. Essays should have a bibliography of works mentioned, and, optionally, also works consulted in the writing of the essay.

Perhaps the first thing to do would be to write me a short proposal outlining topics that interest you together with reading that you have done or intend to do. It is important that essays have a sharp focus rather than cover a topic in a very general way. For example, if you are writing about death, then the title of your fifth essay would be fully acceptable. Whereas, the title, 'Death' would be less suitable.

Have a look at some of the essay portfolios archived at

I didn't find your essay very Heideggerian. You say a number of things which come from the philosophical tradition long before existentialism: Your remark that 'an individual's conscious subjective experience is all that one has and as such the immediate moment of experience is of primary significance' reminded me of Marcus Aurelius 'Meditations' (a classic work of Stoic philosophy which I can strongly recommend that you read), and also Wittgenstein's remark in the Tractatus that 'eternal life belongs to those who live in the present' (6.4311).

In the same paragraph Wittgenstein also asserts that 'death is not an event in life' which looks superficially like a rejection of the view that you attribute to Heidegger that death is 'an inevitable part of life'. However, there is no real inconsistency. Finite beings, such as ourselves, are mortal by definition. Even if you could 'cheat' biological death, you will not escape the 'big crunch' when the universe itself comes to the end of its 'life'. Death is the 'limit' which defines a human life. That's why it is not an 'event in life'.

The big question, however, is what difference it makes if one acknowledges this fact. Why should it make any difference? Why should I do anything differently or live in a different way just because I recognize the inevitability of my death?

You say that 'the reality of death completes us giving individuals a certainty which nothing else can'. What difference does that make? How does this certainty motivate an 'authentic' existence by contrast with an 'inauthentic' one?

One could make this easy for oneself by simply defining 'inauthentic existence' as any kind of life or activity which is motivated by the avoidance of the subject of death, or denial of our mortality. But why is that so bad? All I can see here is the thought that in doing so we are deceiving ourselves, and self-deception is a bad thing in itself. We are refusing to face 'the truth' about what we are.

I don't think it's enough to say that. There has to be something that death makes possible, in itself, which a person who lives an authentic existence is able to achieve, while the person who lives an inauthentic existence is not able to achieve.

A human being is a 'life history in the making'. When someone has died, their life is complete, nothing can be added or taken away. When we 'tell the story' of someone's life, we thread the various incidents that made up their life together in a way that makes sense. Of course, there can be different interpretations, up to a point. Apart from the fact that no biographer ever has full access to all the facts, there are different ways of telling the story.

However, when I think of my life as a potential 'life history', or a life history in the making, I have a responsibility for how things will turn out, for 'what I make' of my life. The very task of doing this is defined by the 'limiting condition' of death. The life of an immortal being, supposing that one could exist, would not be a life but a mere soap opera, without shape or form.

The crucial point, for Heidegger, is that I am living my life. My life isn't something that 'happens', a sequence of events in the objective time order but rather the continual expression of my freedom. I will be a 'sequence of events in time' when I die, when I acquire a 'life story'. While I am alive, others make make whatever provisional interpretations that they may, but I am not bound by any such view. I, not they, am the one writing the story.

All the best,