Language is the grounding of human experience. It is through language that humans communicate with each other and make sense of reality. However, when faced with the horizon of death – the concentration of all concealment, as Heidegger might put it – language stutters and splits violently in two directions. On the one hand, there is the materialistic and scientific account of death, which although offering a perhaps fascinating and informative description of the physiological process of death, can say literally nothing about the metaphysical and subjective personal experience of death, rejecting as it does the Subject as an a priori move. While on the other hand, there is the explosive and ecstatic language of religion on death, containing literally everything: Heaven itself.
This short essay will draw on Heidegger’s thinking on death as a complement to the language of scientific and religious responses to death in the hope of revealing something about that ultimate Ereignis of death; our ownmost experience of Being.
The poet Patrick Jones writes, ‘There is eloquence in screaming’. If, as Heidegger claims, death is the concentration of all concealment, then we might conceive of all language as a scream against death’s ability to conceal itself. Indeed, one might say that the entire project of philosophy is humanity’s attempt to confront death through language. It is through language that we humans construct reality and enter into social relations. ‘Language is the house of being’, says Heidegger (Heidegger, 1977, p.193). Language provides the umwelt in which we live, or, to draw on Biblical language, John 1:14 says, ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’.
For Heidegger, human beings are unique in possessing both the ‘faculty' for language and the ‘faculty’ for death (Agamben, 2006, p.xi). ‘Only man dies’, says Heidegger in Poetry, Language, Thought, ‘The animal perishes. It has death neither ahead of itself nor behind it’ (2001, p.176). ‘Mortals are they who can experience death as death’, he continues in The Way to Language, ‘Animals cannot do so. But animals cannot speak either’ (1982, p.107).
Yet, one potential criticism must be addressed here; is it true, as Heidegger claims, that the gap between animals and humans with regards to death and language is so clear cut? Could it in fact be possible to think without language? In Thinking in Pictures, the famous animal behaviourist Temple Grandin makes the case that her experience of autism gives here an insight into how animals think, which she believes is based on, ‘visual thinking’ or, in her own words ‘full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape’ (Grandin (b), no date). However, even if we accept that animals may be able to ‘think’ in visual images, and are therefore able to ‘think’ about death to a greater degree than we may usually be willing to grant them, it would still seem reasonable to assume that verbal language at least makes thought easier. Certainly, Grandin states that abstract, symbolic thought is more typical of human communication in general (Grandin (a), no date), and this would seem to concur with the kind of language Heidegger speaks of.
Here, however, death presents a problem for language, since we cannot experience it and report back, so to speak. Even so-called near-death experiences do not suffice, since as a matter of fact the person recounting the experience did not truly die - or at least they did not remain dead – indeed, they were brought back to life. So, language is left bereft here, all that we are left with is speculation.
Science and medicine can provide us with a description of the mechanics of death; what happens to the body and the brain in those last moments and afterwards. Yet science cannot say anything about the experience of death itself; what does it feel like to be dead? Why does it cause us such pain to lose loved ones? Why does death cause us such fear? This inability of science to explain what happens after we die is perhaps why several of the most hard-boiled Victorian materialists and physicalists, some of them contemporaries and acquaintances of Charles Darwin, founded the Society for Psychical Research, in a vain attempt to pass messages onto each other from beyond the grave (Gray, 2012, p.9)
In contrast with the nothingness of death, the world’s great religions have presented mankind with a promise of salvation rather than annihilation. Revelations 21:4 promises us that, ‘God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away’. As beautiful as this language might be, and to say nothing about the question of the actual existence or not of God – to paraphrase Heidegger, such a God which could not indeed transcend the laws of creation it had itself created would not be a deity worthy of singing and dancing to – such statements of faith are epistemologically closed to many of us, the humans of late modernity.
In contrast, Heidegger’s language on death does not stand mute, as science does, or transcends into the ethereal, as religion does, but stands full square and forces us to look in the mirror, at our own destiny. The Inquirer on his stroll with the Japanese monk informs us, ‘Origin always comes to meet us from the future’: indeed, it is death that comes to meet us from the future (Heidegger, 1982, p.10). Death is the ultimate manifestation of Ereignis; the Event, the that-which-has-always-been; the fulfilment of scripture, so to speak: nebulous because we cannot be sure of its timing and nature, but absolutely and concretely certain.
Death is the rock upon which the ship of being must inevitably hole itself. It is the insurmountable horizon of Dasein. It presents nothing that can be actualised; it is the radical void of possibility. Death is profound finitude (Agemben, 2006, p.1). Yet, faced with this merciless confrontation with death, the inability of scientific language to provide an insight into death, and the unprovable claims of religious language, Heidegger’s language forces us to embrace life in all its delicate fragility. Dasein cannot awaken without the ultimate Ereignis of death (Heidegger, 2001, p.176). Yes, we are all going to die, Heidegger promises us, but first we have to live.
Agamben, G. (2006) Language and Death: The Place of Negativity. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis.
Dr Temple Grandin’s Website (a) (no date) Some animal behavior is similar to autistic savants: Extreme memory and specialized cognition [Online]. Accessed 29 August 2020. Available: https://www.grandin.com/inc/animals.in.translation.ch7.html
Dr Temple Grandin’s Website (b) (no date) Thinking in Pictures. Chapter 1: Autism and Visual Thought [Online]. Accessed 29 August 2020. Available: https://www.grandin.com/inc/visual.thinking.html
Heidegger, M. (1977) Basic Writings. Harper & Row: New York
Heidegger, M. (1982) On the Way to Language. Harper & Row: New York
Heidegger, M. (2001) Poetry, Language, Thought. HarperCollins: New York.