Monday, April 7, 2008

Spring, Week 1 Meeting -- Part III


With these distinctions in mind, we can better understand Heidegger's distinctions between perishing, demise and death. These three ‘death-like’ phenomena are distinct because they are exhibited in distinct kinds of entities. Perishing is what happens to living things; it is their ceasing to be alive. It has nothing to do with Dasein or being-towards-death. Demise applies to people, and it is a social event – the event at which your possessions pass to your heirs, at which your spouse becomes a widow/er, and so on. We can think of demise as a ‘legal death,’ as ceasing to be a person in society. Typically, such demise is concurrent with perishing. This is because it just so happens that for every person (who can demise) there is a "biological specimen" (a homo sapiens) which can perish. Nonetheless, people and homo sapiens are distinct kinds of entities, so perishing and demise are distinct ways of ending.

'Death' is the term reserved for the ending of dasein. What would it be for a way of life to end? We considered the example of the ending of the way of life of the Jewish community in pre-war Western Europe. In some sense, this becomes a "dead" way of life, where this means that Jewish weddings, brisses, celebrating Passover, and so on, end – not because someone is literally, physically preventing these events from happening, but because they no longer make sense as a way of life. Death, then, is the coming-undone or failing of a whole rich fabric of mutual intelligibility.

To make this more precise, we contrasted the examples of the coal man on a coal-powered train and the superfluous elevator operator who can no longer pursue their professions. Although there are difficulties in spelling out exactly why these don't count as the death of dasein, we can see that the elevator man experiences a breakdown in his situation with respect to entities, given his understanding of being, rather than a breakdown in his understanding of being per se. This suggests that being an elevator man doesn't quite count as a way of life (as dasein), because it is in some way insufficiently rich, complex and internally integrated.

Nikhil suggested that even when the Jewish way of life died, those who used to live it might have still found themselves (in Heidegger’s technical sense of Befindlichkeit) as Jews, might have still felt compelled to make sense of their lives in those terms. This brings out what, on the existential level, is so traumatic about the death of a way of life, where one cannot – yet cannot help but – make sense of oneself in terms of the way of life that has died.

We also considered the situation of classical physics at the beginning of the 20th Century. In this case, the whole intelligibility of physical things came unglued – as it did with the Copernican revolution (where, as Prof. Haugeland put it, “the world got literally turned upside down”). Unlike the elevator man or the coal man, this is not a breakdown in relating to entities, but a breakdown in how the world itself works or makes sense, and how we understand our place in that world. In this breakdown, everything comes apart and we don't know how to project entities at all.

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