Friday, April 7, 2017

Deaths that Matter

Eric Schliesser responded to my post about the “problem of death” and raises issues that I can perhaps elaborate upon. 

One of the issues Schliesser raises is that many philosophers “may well think that grief is best left for the self-help section or the bio-chemical industry.”  I think that perception correct, though I despair of it.  I once gave a talk at a conference on death.  The conference had two full days of papers, with multiple sessions running concurrently.  Mine was the only paper on bereavement.  In the questions that followed, one colleague asked skeptically, “But what is there to say about grief?  It doesn’t seem there’s anything to say.” Here are a few things I would say, in addition to what I’ve already said.

Schliesser catches a version of my meaning by noting:  if we have lived well, our deaths are not so much a loss to ourselves but a loss to our friends (and community,) and loved ones. Saying you'll miss me when I am gone may well be the most truthful thing one can say about one's own death.”  The Chinese philosophical version of this (and my version) is stronger still.  Where we love our companions well and eschew that hopelessly, bloodlessly abstracted individuated self so common to much philosophy, we recognize that the phenomenon of death does not easily individuate.  In looking at those for whom I care, I can attest to myself:  “You will take me out when you go.”  On this, the best way to capture the phenomenon is to appeal again to Zhuangzi and his reaction to passing his friend Huizi’s grave.

The friendship between Zhuangzi and Huizi is one of more enlivening and comic in any philosophical corpus.  They argue, they contest, they quarrel.  Huizi is committed to logic while Zhuangzi regularly skewers him for this.  They argue over whether fish can be called happy, whether Huizi should better appreciate “useless” things, and when Zhuangzi is widowed, Huizi arrives to comfort him, only to quickly descend into their familiar pattern of argument.  It is an exquisite scene for one feels that the best Huizi can do for Zhangzi in his grief is to quarrel, their disagreement itself the consolation announcing that while Zhuangzi has been fractured by grief, not all is lost.  Arguing with Huizi gives purchase and stability where the ground has slipped from under Zhuangzi’s feet.  But here is what Zhuangzi says in melancholy to Huizi’s grave:

There was a man of Ying who, when he got a smear of plaster no thicker than a fly’s wing on the tip of his nose, would make Carpenter Shi slice it off.  Carpenter Shi would raise the wind whirling his hatchet, wait for the moment, and slice it; every speck of the plaster would be gone without hurt to the nose, while the man of Ying stood there perfectly composed. 

Lord Yuan of Song heard about it, summoned Carpenter Shi and said, ‘Let me see you do it.’ ‘As for my side of the act,’ said Carpenter Shi, ‘I did use to be able to slice it off.  However, my partner has been dead for a long time.’

‘Since [you, Huizi,] died, I have no one to use as a partner, no one with whom to talk about things’ (Graham, 124).

This is, I think, the most exquisite and concise statement of an orientation ubiquitous in early Chinese philosophy:  The sociality of persons is such that the loss of intimate, beloved others constitutes a loss of self.  We come to be selves by way of others and in dependence on those others.  As Zhuangzi makes plain, even skills we might incline to consider “mine” are shared, developed in relation with and to others.  So it is an altogether too simple conception of skill and of human beings that would have us think Carpenter Shi is, himself and by himself, the actor in wielding his ax.  Likewise, Zhuangzi does not merely lose a friend, nor merely a shared language of disputation in friendship, he loses that Zhuangzi he can be with Huizi.   Lest this seem an idiosyncrasy of early Chinese philosophical views, this is caught in what is surely the most melancholy poem of bereavement ever penned, W.S. Merwin’s “Elegy,” which reads, in its entirety, “Who would I show it to?”  This is the poet gone mute without his reader, the poet who cannot write a poem and so be a poet without his reader.

If selves are social, so will death be.  Yes, we “die alone,” in the altogether trivial sense that the biological phenomenon of death happens to one.  But no one cares about this – it is not, in the phrase of Thomas Lynch, another poet, “the death that matters.”  Because the Chinese philosophers took this seriously, they argued hotly and long about what to do in loss.  Should one, as Zhuangzi implies, seek to greet the radical fracture of self induced by loss by cultivating a capacity to turn on a dime, developing a fluidity of self that accommodates change and (tries to) resolve on cheerful, playful acceptance of one’s own transformations in loss.  Or, as the Confucians suggest, ought one develop distinctively social mourning practices that will place the bereaved in company with others in sorrow so that reparative relation can close the perilous gap in self-understanding and personal identity wrenched open by loss.  These, then, are some of the “things to say” on the subject about which some would doubt there is anything to say.  And they cut right to the heart of how we understand personal identity.  Such is to say that where personal identity is concerned, me-without-you can, in some relations, no longer be the me as was, nor will I be able to achieve that future me-I-aspired-to-be without you.  If we want our accounts of the self to have traction in lived experience, this, then, is something formidable to consider.

I confess that much of this, as I intimated in the original post, is so intuitive to me that I struggle to articulate it other than evocatively.  I find myself impatient with any philosophy that fails to recognize that the lived experience of oneself is so tightly wound into the well-being and continued existence of others that talk of any self apart from this reads as utterly abstract fiction.  I simply do not recognize anything of my own experience in it, so perhaps I am constitutionally ill-equipped to make philosophy of this, left as I am with conviction that cannot shift.  And this is part of why I struggle to make sense of philosophy that makes so much of my own end.

Relative to my own, other deaths matter so much more in terms of how I will live and understand myself.  My parents are alive, and when they die, I will live in a world I have never inhabited before, a world in which I am orphaned and which, for me, is wholly unprecedented.  I mercifully do not yet know any world that does not have them in it, that does not have the me that is daughter-of-them in it.  The Confucians get this – this is one reason Confucius observes that one of life’s most demanding experiences is the deaths of one’s parents.  For it is here in human experience that one enters into the uncharted terrain that lies beyond all of the maps of experience one has already constructed.  However difficult this stands to be, there is of course worse.  Consideration of some deaths utterly transforms thought of my own death into an affirmative good I can embrace without reservation.  Put less obliquely, I will count it the finest piece of good fortune to die before my daughter does.  In any reflections on deaths that matter, thinking of hers is one from which I so utterly flinch that I will say no more.  Suffice it to say that what I prize in philosophers such as the early Chinese thinkers is that they exhibit a finely wrought understanding of the fragility of the self.  They speak to a self that can be shattered, and speak of what this means to us, and about how we might pick up the shards and carry on as life demands we must.  

It is true that one can retrieve commentary about grief and even some consolatory philosophy out of the western tradition.  I do not deny this.  However, one must retrieve it.  It is not typically there on the surface.  The few who are on available on the surface are too often committed to identifying relationships with others as “external goods.”  So for consolation we could turn to Stoics who compare friends to tunics that get stolen and must be replaced (Seneca), or one’s own children to vases that can break (Epictetus), even as some of them (Seneca!) can’t quite seem to persuade themselves of this.  We can look to philosophers who characterize friendship as a skill (several of the ancient Greeks and Romans) that one exercises and so retains even in grief, though this again declines to imagine skills as seated and sourced in more than an individual agent.  We can hypothesize that Plato writes his sorrow into and through the dialogues, with these as memorializations ruefully written into the silence of Socrates’ voice and the impossibility of Socrates making any response.  We can even excavate the slight and subtle signs that much lies under the surface, asking, for example, why, if Socrates wants to liken the body to a cage, he couples saying so with affectionately touching one of his interlocutors, a bodily gesture that may say much.  And of course we do have Montaigne, though not enough read him.  Montaigne is, from what I have read, the closest we come to courting the idea that bereavement may do much to unsettle the human being and, along the way, longstanding ideas about personal identity.  But, again, few read Montaigne.

My point is not that the western canon is without resources, but that one has look harder than one ought to find them.  They must be retrieved and sometimes excavated from the barest indications.  The ones easy to find are works that I at least judge insensate to how I in fact live.  To me, this intellectual poverty reads as testament to an impoverished tradition for addressing the complexities of the self, or at least the self that actual people walk around with.  Should philosophers care that people do not live like the entities described in our philosophies?  Obviously, I think we should.  But I think that means we need to care about bereavement.  I said that philosophy should help – I do think, perhaps archaically, that philosophy ought equip us to reflect upon and manage well common human struggles – but let me emphasize the obverse of this coin for the skeptical.  Philosophy itself will not be very good if it cannot entertain the complexity of experiences people attest to finding exceptionally complex where their lived personal identities are concerned.  It likewise will not be very good if it decides, in advance of substantive inquiry, that we can learn nothing from one of the most significant and painful experiences in human life, bereavement.

For what it’s worth, the early Chinese sources do suggest that the Chinese philosophers themselves did die well, in line with the courage and equanimity we see in figures like Socrates.  Tellingly, though, this just isn’t counted a very interesting aspect of who they were, how they lived, or what constitutes their wisdom.


  1. I don't want to trivialize the points made here, but whenever someone attempts to "socialize" things, as it were, by default, my immediate suspicion is that an abdication of responsibility is taking place. *I* will die, and pulling the "discuss the social aspect of this thing to the exclusion of everything else" move so popular in humanities scholarship right now seems to simply ignore that point. Dismissing this as "mere" biology is inconsistent, unless all that stuff about the importance of ~*THE BODY*~ in philosophy is just rhetorical or something.

    There's a similar problem with talk of the self-as-apart-from-others as an "abstract fiction." Okay, so let's say I'm marooned alone on a desert island. "But but but," says the philosopher, "You are still a social being!" But this "socialness" is every bit as much of an abstract fiction as the self-apart. If marooned on that island, you may ruefully recall how you used to argue against the self-apart. Where's the "abstract fiction" now that you're all alone?

    Things have context; fine. But there is a danger of allowing things to disappear into their contexts, which defeats the point altogether. I won't go so far as to suggest that this is a way of forming a psychological buffer against death anxiety by socializing it, as academics are surely too conscientious to do this, but the reader is tempted to use such a train of thinking in just that way.

    That being said, as critical as this response was, I enjoyed this post immensely. Your desire to commute different philosophical traditions is admirable and sorely needed. And, despite my reservations above, your points about bereavement are well-taken. My ability to adapt must, if it is to be robust, involve an ability to deal with radical challenges to my self-concept.

    In closing - I am deeply sympathetic to your desire for a transformative philosophy, one with a place outside of the armchair in the faculty lounge. I hope you find my remarks helpful, or at least amusing.

  2. Yes, both helpful and amusing. A couple of things, maybe: First, I'm pretty sure even my body is social. At least so I tell myself about my "Pentecost Eye." This is a drooping lid inherited from that branch of my family that bore the name Pentecost. I.e., that the body is individuated is also a bit suspect to me, as mine carries forward the drooping eyelid of, apparently, generations.

    With respect to the desert island, I'm sure nostalgia for the social would have a role. But maybe less a role if I at least have a volleyball I can make my friend and thereby remain my social self. I suspect a volleyball friend would be thing to keep one human.

    Point taken about context, but I do think individuated can transpire via these social aspects. To collect the social need not be to wholly dissipate the individual and it might even amplify a richer version of it. Maybe that does buffer against death anxiety. I'm not sure, but I suspect just any account of death is prey to hermeneutic suspicion of this sort, so I'm not sure insulating against this objection can ever be a goal well met.

  3. Your last paragraph rings quite true - you can pull the "Terror Management" psychoanalyst thing with pretty much any account of death besides total nihilism, which falls prey to psychologizing just like anything else. All the same, we die alone, and this is not "merely" biological. Nothing about our biology is "mere," particularly not where death is concerned.

    As to the the "social-" prefix, I have noticed that recent philosophical trends tend to generate disproportionate excitement, and this isn't a new phenomenon: you can see logical positivism in a similar light, as a lot of people who got way too excited about Hume, or at least about vaguely Humean ideas. A new idea emerges, everybody gets excited about it, the excitement dies down, we try something else new and shiny. Enter “social-everything.”

    In the case of the socializing tendency that I apprehend in philosophy now, I think it can be seen as (kind of?) an inverse of the previous trend. The positivist movement wanted to deny necessary connections between anything and anything else, and wound up being left with nothing but logic and an incoherent notion of raw sensation (implicitly at least), which didn't work. By contrast, contemporary philosophy has a preoccupation with the social aspect of everything. Case in point, your Pentecost Eye. It's social, sure, but how? Because it's the result of social interaction? I'll grant that, but how does calling it "social" help more than calling it "chemical?" It's the result of chemical interactions as much as social interactions, and both kinds of interaction are already thoroughly studied by large communities of people outside of philosophy. How does calling it "social" help more than calling it “chemical?” I can see why philosophers concern themselves with the social aspects of things, but they've been doing that from the beginning. The Republic did so explicitly! So what's so novel or interesting about the social aspect of things, and what's with the constant emphasis? What does saying “my body is social” tell you that you didn't know already?

    Maybe I'm just naive or dense, but it seems to me that saying stuff like “my body is social” obscures more than it clarifies. My hands are the result of social interactions. Yeah, I think I knew that. Saying “my hands are social” doesn't seem particularly enlightening. But I was taught by a nasty phallocentric analytic philosopher, so maybe my insistence on this being unnecessary because it doesn't clear anything up is just a conceit I inherited from analytic philosophy – I mean, uh, a socially contextual absorption of fragmentating linguistic praxis.

  4. By the way, my more angry and sarcastic comments are not aimed at you. I'm a tad disgruntled with the state of philosophy. That's the reason for the sarcasm and implied eye-rolling – sometimes it just comes out that way. Hope you don't take it as aimed at you. :-)

  5. I think we're just coming at this from different vantages. I don't know anything about the trends you're describing re. contemporary philosophy. I'm trained in early Confucian philosophy and that's where most of my sensibilities about this derive. E.g., in early China, the body derives from and, upon death, is returned to one's ancestors. (This also accounts for the way some criminal penalties deformed the body.) I'm not in the trend stream described and I guess I'm surprised by it since the trend you describe here doesn't seem to improve the reception of the Confucian and Confucian-esque among contemporary philosophers. I.e., if they're so enthusiastic about the social, I wish they'd spare a little more love and attention for Confucianism. Then again, this would not be the first time philosophers have gotten enthusiastic and eager about "new" ideas that in fact have existed for centuries or even millennia in traditions they just don't deign to read or credit.

    I guess what the above amounts to saying that I didn't know about this trend, but hearing about it makes me cranky since it looks like it renders into novelty and fad ideas that are far from either if philosophy would just (for once! please!) not confine itself to a western canon and lineage.

    And, sure, some of the language here is playing at the boundaries of the figurative and evocative, but I guess I think precision can be a false god since seeking it where it isn't readily had can distort as much as the evocative and loose might.

    Anyway, I'm not sure how to respond to this.