Phenomenology of Death

Phenomenology of Death

What is the phenomenology of death? What is it like to die? What does the final cessation of consciousness feel like? The answer is that there is no phenomenology of death, nothing it is like to die, no feeling of the end of consciousness. As Wittgenstein says, “Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death…Our life has no end in just the way our visual field has no limits.” (Tractatus, 6.4311) We don’t experience death because that would require survival of death: we would need to experience the far side of death. Consciousness ends at death, so there can be no consciousness of the transition to its absence—you can’t be conscious of the absence of consciousness. There is something it is like to experience the lead-up to death, an awareness that one is about to die, but there is no experience of the moment of death, its arrival and consummation. You can experience the end of a football game because you experience its aftermath, but you can’t experience the end of your life because you have no experience of its aftermath. You are gone at that crucial moment. No sooner is that moment upon you than your consciousness goes blank. In other words, you don’t experience the final border of your life. The same is true of its beginning: you don’t experience the coming-to-be of consciousness. Now it doesn’t exist, but now it does—but with no consciousness of the transition. That would require being conscious before you are conscious! So, the beginning and end of consciousness have zero phenomenology: it is impossible to employ phenomenological intuition at these crucial junctures. The phenomenological method is useless to gain insight into the borders of consciousness. No doubt it has borders, perhaps precisely detectable (by use of a brain scanner), but your consciousness is powerless to scrutinize the borders: it comes up empty at these terminal points. Thus, the end of consciousness is a mystery to consciousness, not even resolved by directly undergoing it. We have no impression of death at the moment of death, or birth at the moment of birth (I mean the onset of consciousness in the womb). We can’t even imagine the thing, though we know it occurs. We are cognitively closed to the event of dying, in the sense that we have no consciousness of it, and never can as a matter of principle. Wittgenstein is wrong to say that “death is not an event in life”, because there is an event of finally losing consciousness and it can occur in a living body; but what is true is that losing consciousness is not an event in consciousness—unlike, say, having a sudden thought or a sharp pain. As he remarks, the situation is logically like the borders of the visual field: we are not aware of these borders as borders, simply because we have no awareness of what lies beyond them. We know the border exists because we can’t see behind us, but we have no experience of the border as such—we can’t see this border. Death is a temporal border, and this is a spatial border. A generalization suggests itself: consciousness can never be conscious of its borders. This is a necessary truth about consciousness—a de re necessity, if you like. It is a necessity of phenomenology, though it is not verifiable by phenomenological inspection. It is a fact of phenomenology but not a phenomenological fact (did Husserl ever consider it?). We can grasp the intentionality of consciousness by the phenomenological method, but we can’t grasp the limits of consciousness by that method. The finiteness of consciousness is not a phenomenological fact about it. We can never think, “Oh, so that’s what the end of consciousness feels like”. Death is not a datum of consciousness; there are no death qualia. Sartre talked about the nothingness of consciousness, but its transition to nothingness is not an “immediate structure of the for-itself”. If we were conscious of its border, we would be immortal, since every event of losing consciousness would be present to an existing consciousness. It would be impossible for one’s consciousness to die, because it would always be accompanied by an act of consciousness that persists through death, which in turn would require another act of consciousness of its death. No, when consciousness ends it is never conscious ofits ending—it never experiences itself as passing into oblivion. It passes into oblivion without revealing what that process is like, because it is not like anything. We don’t know what it is like to be a bat and we don’t know what it is like to die—but in the one case there is something it is like and in the other there is nothing it is like (though there is something that it consists in). The end of consciousness is a process of some sort, a natural process, but it is not phenomenologically accessible.[1] It is a change of consciousness that is unavailable toconsciousness. Of course (and I have been consciously suppressing this fact throughout) death is not the only end of consciousness in life: there is also going to sleep. And here I will assert a bold conjecture: the death of consciousness is the same kind of event as the loss of consciousness we undergo every night in sleep. It too is not an “event in life”. So, there is nothing very remarkable about the end of consciousness (except that it is the final end): it is a daily occurrence, and it always involves the same basic law of phenomenology, namely that consciousness is never aware of its borders. This is why you never remember going to sleep: you never remember the experience of passing from wakefulness to sleep, because there is no such experience. You know you must have gone to sleep at some point but you had no consciousness of it—it just happened. It is a blank in your mental life. You might remember the thoughts you had while trying to get to sleep, even up to the last second, but you don’t remember the blissful moment of dropping off (strange phrase). For it didn’t occur inyour consciousness. You might even remember a dream you had immediately after falling asleep, because that occurred in your consciousness, but you draw a blank on the period during which you lost consciousness. You went from waking consciousness to dreaming consciousness with a gap in between. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what this gap was like? But there was nothing it was like—no event in consciousness. You are never conscious of losing consciousness, because that would require consciousness of no consciousness, which is contradictory. So, sleep is like death in this important respect (hence the Big Sleep). Sleep doesn’t intellectually prepare us for death, however, since it too presents us with a cognitive lack: we don’t know what it is like to fall asleep either. Nor could we know this. Still, we know that death is very similar to falling asleep, which is not too terrible a thing. It is the Little Death. Our nightly Little Deaths precede our once-in-a-lifetime Big Sleep. Both are phenomenologically opaque, necessarily elusive, but they are alike in essence. They are both mysterious to us, from the phenomenological point of view, and for the same reason, but at least we have been there before many times. If we never slept, it would be different—then we would have no prior experience of losing consciousness, it would be an alien occurrence. But as it is we have been there many times, so we know what we are in for; it’s nothing new, nothing foreign. Imagine if you belonged to a species that went to sleep once in its life at a predictable time: this might be something feared yet celebrated, with many a ritual and preparatory oration. You might be apprehensive, anxious, and baffled—will you survive this unprecedented fall from consciousness (maybe some one-time sleepers have died)? We at least don’t have to face death with so little experience of its essential nature, i.e., the loss of consciousness. With us it is normal and routine; we just have to accept that this time there will be no waking up again. But the event itself won’t be so unnerving and potentially horrible (our one-time sleepers might be petrified of the process of dying itself, in addition to its outcome). At least we are not completely ignorant of what will be involved when the time comes. In any case, death and sleep are alike in being preceded by an event with no phenomenological reality.[2] This is a result of the very nature of consciousness and its borders: consciousness can never cross its own borders.

[1] Is it a mental event? If so, it is one that ends with an absence of mentality. Does it begin in the mind and end by exiting the mind? Is it psycho-physical? Maybe if we could experience it, we would know, but that is not possible. I leave the question for homework.

[2] We are said to “fall asleep” but not to “fall a-death” and to “die” but not to “sleep-en” (“slipe”?).  Ordinary language resists the analogy, the identity: but couldn’t we say, “I sleepened (sliped) before midnight and I hope not to fall a-death for a long time”?  Of course, our language around death is notoriously tortured, torn between euphemism and appalled recognition (not to mention incomprehension). Let me suggest “to deconscious” instead of “to die”, as in “He peacefully deconscioused last night”—like “decoupled” instead of “divorced”. That would helpfully distinguish the end of the conscious mind from the end of the living body, and gives a suggestion of voluntariness.

4 replies
  1. Henry Cohen
    Henry Cohen says:

    “We have no impression of death at the moment of death, or birth at the moment of birth (I mean the onset of consciousness in the womb).”

    I don’t believe that birth, like death, occurs at a particular moment. A baby’s body emerges from the womb over time,* and consciousness probably does not come into existence at a single moment. There are degrees of consciousness, and the beginnings of it, for all we know, might occur days before birth and come into existence fully days after birth.

    *When my daughter’s head exited the womb, I asked the doctor if it was a boy or a girl. He counseled patience.

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      It’s surely true that consciousness grows over time, adding more and more, and beginning well before birth. But whether the first glimmers of it appear gradually is another question: it seems to be an all-or-nothing phenomenon, because what would borderline consciousness be like? It’s either there or it isn’t.

  2. Jeffrey Kessen
    Jeffrey Kessen says:

    I’ve kind of hesitated to mention this, but I think now is the appropriate time. My partner of 24 years doesn’t have much time left Quiet conversations at night. He’s still capable of a chuckle when I remind him of times gone past. He'[s one of the most stable people I’ve ever known—no drink, no drugs, as befits a life-long accountant. His only passion is opera.


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