Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Can I Die? Derrida on Heidegger on Death

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Can I Die? Derrida on Heidegger on Death

Article excerpt

No one believes in his own death. Or, to put the same thing in another way, in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality.

Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams

Is my death possible?

Jacques Derrida, Aporias (p. 21)1

Holding to the truth of death-death is always most/just [one's] own-shows another kind of certainty, more primordial than any certainty regarding beings encountered within the world or formal objects; for it is the certainty of being-in-the-world.2

Martin Heidegger, Being and Time

In this opening provocation, Freud and Heidegger make assertions which stand, prima facie, in extreme opposition to one another3-with Derrida situated, not surprisingly, somewhere in-between.4 But between what? What is the philosophical significance of the cognitive relation one stands in with respect to one's own death? Between (1) Heidegger's assertion that holding onto the truth of death reveals the primordial certainty of being-in-the-world and (2) the universal, albeit unconscious conviction that I will not die which Freud diagnoses as a common feature of the human psyche, the skepticism Derrida's question expresses initially strikes one as very strange. But is it unheimlich? Is it capable of driving us from our home in the familiar? This remains to be seen.

Can we be certain of death? Not of what might happen after death,5 but of the brute "fact" [Faktum] that each of us will meet with his or her own death? For Freud, none of us has such certainty. We all say "I know I am going to die," but deep down, behind the one-way mirror of the unconscious, the archival repository of the repressed, none of us believes it. (As though "bearing witness"6 to Freud's claim, Antony Flew's A Dictionary of Philosophy contains under the heading "death" only the following entry: "See survival and immortality.")7 For Heidegger, on the other hand, death is more certain-or better, is certain in a more "primordial" [ursprungliche] way-than epistemic certainty (knowing that there is a computer in front of me, or even that, to paraphrase Moore, "this is a hand") or even cognitive certainty (that, for example, the sum of the interior angles of a triangle equals one hundred and eighty degrees). Heidegger is no skeptic; for him, "holding to the truth of death"-which as we will see means maintaining ourselves in the unconcealedness of the phenomenon of our own death-reveals a certainty which is absolutely basic to the totality of lived contexts constituting worldly intelligibility. As a being-in-the-world, Dasein dies; there is nothing more certain: "More original than man is the finitude of the Dasein within him."8

If, accordingly, Heidegger and Freud are taken as providing two extreme characterizations of the cognitive relation one stands in with respect to one's own death, then it becomes easier to imagine why Derrida might ask such a strange-perhaps unheimlich-question; for this seems to be an irreconcilable opposition, an either/or of the type notoriously most vulnerable to Derrida's deconstructions. Thus, when Derrida asks, "Is my death possible?" he is not simply speculating as to whether one can be certain of death's obtaining; his is a more radical questioning: Can I die? Is it even possible for me to die? Can I meet with death? In what sense can death happen to me-can "it" "happen" to "me" at all?

Deconstruction: Tying the Knot Tighter9

Aporias, a recent addition in a long line of Derrida's interpretations of Heidegger's thinking, is surely best heard as speaking out of the rich heritage of that lineage.10 It is thus not without reason that I use Freud to introduce a paper on the relationship between Derrida and Heidegger, a relationship marked by differences which I take to be best characterized as generational. This assertion would surprise Derrida least of all, who describes his Auseinandersetzung with Heidegger as generational,11 and thus as a generational alter-cation. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.