By Frederick Choo
Two famous existentialists, Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, believe human beings to be incomplete. In this article, I will first briefly outline Sartre’s view on incompleteness. Then I will turn to Heidegger’s view and show how it links to the existential implications of death. Lastly, I will argue that a Christian, who believes in an afterlife, may view death in a similar way that results in many of the same existential implications.
In Being and Nothingness, Sartre lays out two aspects of human existence. The first is facticity. We see this from a third-person perspective, just as when we look at ourselves as objects in the world. For example, one may be said to be a waiter. The second aspect is transcendence, or recognizing that we are not reducible to our facticity. Although one is currently a waiter, one is merely “playing at being a waiter.” He is not really a waiter just as how “the glass is a glass.” Instead, he is a waiter in “the mode of being what I am not.” In other words, while he is being a waiter in one sense, who he is is not fully reducible to being a waiter. It is possible that when he stops playing that role, he can play another. He is in another sense not really a waiter after all. Hence, Sartre views “human reality as a being which is what it is not and which is not what it is,” like how one is being a waiter though he is not reducible to just being a waiter and can actualize other possibilities.
As Sartre drew ideas from Heidegger, we can see this idea in Heidegger’s Being and Time. Heidegger uses the word Da-sein to refer to human beings. He claims that the Da-sein’s structure is care. There are many different possibilities for us and we care about actualizing them. This is like Sartre’s transcendence where one realizes that he is not just what he currently is but that he can actualize other possibilities. For example, I may not be a great musician but I want to be one. Care tells us that there is something “in Da-sein which has not yet become ‘real’ as a potentiality-of-its-being.” Hence, Heidegger thinks that there is a constant unfinished quality in the Da-sein.
In what way is the Da-sein incomplete? Heidegger uses the example of an unripe fruit that ripens itself. It is not as if there is some element missing from the fruit that we could add to it to complete it. Instead, “the fruit ripens itself, and this ripening characterizes its being as fruit.” Likewise, nothing can just be added to Da-sein to complete it. Instead, Da-sein itself “has to become, that is, be, what it is not yet.” It is constantly defining itself. For example, through choices, we are continually determining who we are and who we will be. I may be a student today, but I can choose to quit and find work tomorrow. Hence, Da-sein is characterized by a becoming rather than just being. This example shows that the fundamental constitution of Da-sein is being-toward-the-end, who are not just who we currently choose to be.
“With ripeness, the fruit fulfils itself;” that is the end for the fruit. The ‘end’ for the Da-sein however is death. Hence, Heidegger says that the Da-sein is being-toward-death. However, the way we understand ‘end’ is unlike the fruit. The end of the fruit is fulfilment. However in death, there is no fulfilment, neither is the Da-sein finished or completed like how a painting is after the last stroke. Hence, the Da-sein can never be complete.
In analysing death, Heidegger thinks we should not follow the normal understanding of death as a future event. When people think of death, they usually think of themselves one day passing away just as how an object is no more. This view causes people to fear death because people are afraid that this event will happen to them. However, Heidegger says, “being-toward-death is not meant as an actualization of death.” Da-sein cannot experience death because death is a lack of any experiences. Death is the possibility of the Da-sein not having any possibilities. Death is not a possibility to be actualised for Da-sein because when death actualizes, the Da-sein does not exist. Hence instead of understanding death as an event, we should understand death as an existential phenomenon of one’s own Da-sein. It is only something that Da-sein can look at as a possibility.
So what then is the significance of death? Firstly, Heidegger thinks death is non-relational. When we evaluate how we experience the death of others, it is not as if one experiences death itself when someone dies. Instead, when others die, what is experienced is a loss to those remaining behind. Also, no one can take away death from another. At most, one can “sacrifice oneself for the other” but not die the death of another. Hence, death is non-relational. This leads to the second point that death is the Da-sein’s ownmost. Because death is non-relational, “death is a possibility of being that Da-sein always has to take upon itself.” One’s own death belongs to oneself. This individuates Da-sein as it is “one’s ownmost potentiality-of-being at stake,” not anyone else’s. Lastly, it is a possibility not to be bypassed. Being-toward-death is part of Da-sein. As long as Da-sein exists, it faces the possibility of death. Da-sein cannot escape one’s own death, which is possible any moment and will certainly come one day. Hence, Heidegger says that “death reveals itself as the ownmost nonrelational possibility not to be bypassed.”
Since death is the possibility of the negation of all possibilities, and death is the ownmost nonrelational possibility not to be bypassed, Heidegger claims one should anticipate death. This is because in anticipating one’s own death, Da-sein realises that the possibility of the negation of all possibilities ultimately belongs to oneself, and this in turn reveals to Da-sein that all the possibilities of existence and meaning belongs to oneself. Hence, anticipation towards one’s death individualizes Da-sein and helps realise a potentiality-of-being and angst. Heidegger’s idea of angst is not about fear of death. It is not really about death, though it comes from thinking about death. Instead, it is about facing the individual responsibility of living in this world and choosing to actualise possibilities. This is the nature of the Da-sein.
While Heidegger’s account of death is the possibility of having no more possibilities permanently, religious people view death differently. For Christians, death has to do with leaving this physical world, followed by judgment which determines the world one gets sent to next. It is the possibility of receiving judgment for the possibilities that one had chosen to actualize in this life. The judgment then determines whether one goes to heaven or hell. Let us call Heidegger’s account of death as H-death and the Christian account of death as C-death. I will argue that C-death still individualizes Da-sein.
Similar to H-death, C-death is the ownmost non-relational possibility that cannot be bypassed. First, C-death is non-relational. When someone dies, others do not experience the C-death of the person. Also, when someone sacrifices his life us, that person does not take away our C-death. Hence, C-death is non-relational. Second, each person will be judged as individuals based on their own life. One’s own eternal judgment is at stake. Hence, C-death is ownmost. Lastly, C-death is not something that anyone can escape. Hence, it is a possibility not to be bypassed. Therefore, C-death is similar to H-death and it still individualizes Da-sein.
C-death also can help emphasize the individual responsibility of living in this world and the importance of choosing to actualize possibilities. This is because C-death is a judgment based on the possibilities actualized in this life which determines one’s afterlife. This may even be said to cause Angst because one has to face the individual responsibility of being-in-the-world and actualizing possibilities that determines one’s afterlife forever. Hence, one has to be concerned with one’s ownmost possibilities that are actualized in this life.
One may note a difference that H-death cannot be actualized and remains only a possibility for the Da-sein, but C-death is both a possibility and can be actualized. Hence, one may think that C-death as an end for the Da-sein completes it. I think that this is debatable depending on how one views possibilities in the afterlife. However, even granting that C-death completes Da-sein, this still means that Da-sein is still incomplete in this world like Heidegger’s account. Hence, many existential implications of Heidegger’s account remain.
In conclusion, both Heidegger and Sartre think that human beings are incomplete. Heidegger thinks being-towards-death individualizes us and gives us angst over our existence. Meanwhile, a Christian who views death differently may still view death in a similar way. As Sartre says, “existence precedes essence,” man must make choices and decide who he wants to be, and for the Christian believer, both who he wants to be and where he wants to be in the afterlife.
Marino, Gordon D. Basic Writings of Existentialism. Modern Library, 2004.
Image Credits: Biography, Goethe Institut