For a Kinder, Gentler Society
Death and Life
  • Paul Fairfield
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Death and Life .
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Death and Life explores our awareness of death, a concept that confronts the mind as nothing else. Drawing from the writings of varied figures including Dostoyevsky, Sigmund Freud, Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche and many others, the book helps comfort us as we contemplate this universal human phenomenon.

About the Author

Paul Fairfield is Assistant Adjunct Professor of philosophy at Queen's University (Kingston, Canada) and has taught philosophy at McMaster, Waterloo, and Wilfrid Laurier Universities. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from McMaster University (Hamilton, Canada) and is the author of The Ways of Power (Duquesne University Press, 2002), Moral Selfhood in the Liberal Tradition (University of Toronto Press, 2000), Theorizing Praxis (Peter Lang, 2000), and coauthor of Is There A Canadian Philosophy? (University of Ottawa Press, 2000). He has also published numerous articles and reviews in the fields of political theory, ethics, and contemporary continental philosophy. Fairfield currently lives in Gananoque, ON, Canada.

About the Book

"What peculiarity of human nature impels us to turn our backs resolutely not only on death, on the price we pay for every choice, and other unpleasant realities, but ultimately on life itself?"

...

"What peculiarity of human nature impels us to turn our backs resolutely not only on death, on the price we pay for every choice, and other unpleasant realities, but ultimately on life itself?"

As long as death remains a topic of abstract discussion, we are all philosophers. We speak with great detachment of death as an inevitability and certainty, of its mystery and our anticipation of a life beyond this life. Yet death leaves us, as Sigmund Freud observed, "shaken by the unexpected," as if somewhere in the inner recesses of our being we did not altogether believe in the reality of death-most especially our own. Leo Tolstoy pinpoints our difficulty in The Death of Ivan Ilych, when his character observes, "The syllogism...'Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,' had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself." 


Preface

Authors of books such as this one frequently write less than everything they think regarding their subjects. Scholarly...

Authors of books such as this one frequently write less than everything they think regarding their subjects. Scholarly writers, of which I am one, are especially inclined to play their cards close to the vest, whether so as not to be thought an extremist or to protect themselves from other criticism. It is part of every academic’s training to learn to stick one’s neck out only when necessary, which, according to most academic authors, is not often at all.

 In writing this book, I have chosen to disregard this convention and instead to express as directly and straightforwardly as possible everything that I know, believe, or even suspect about my subject. That subject is nothing less than human life and death. Perhaps the topic is simply too important, to us all, for anyone writing about it to treat it as a mere curiosity or yet another academic puzzle in need of a solution. It seemed to me that death, in particular, and the experiences connected with it, was simply too serious a subject to be treated in the usual fashion, and that what was called for was a treatment that prized honesty over caution.

It seemed as well that because death and life are of ultimate importance to all human beings, it would be appropriate to address this book to a general reading audience rather than to one of professional academics only. While the book is of a philosophical nature, it is not written (or not primarily) for an audience of specialists in philosophy, nor does it presuppose acquaintance with that field. For this reason, I have chosen to forego the technical language and niceties of scholarly writing and to express myself as straightforwardly as possible (or as is still possible for one accustomed to writing for an academic audience).

I have written this book on the conviction that an honest contemplation of death provides us with a perspective on life — human existence — that cannot be had by any other means. To understand anything is to do so from a definite perspective. Understanding human life itself and its ultimate significance is notoriously difficult, but it is made easier if we approach it from an appropriate standpoint and with an appropriate set of questions. This standpoint, I would suggest, is what I have called (in the title of Chapter 1) “the encounter with death.” This phrase refers equally to the experiences of dying, confronting one’s mortality, and grieving the loss of another.

Contemplating these experiences serves several aims. The first is to comprehend in the most fundamental way the significance of these universal human experiences — and, by this means, to gain some insight into what makes peaceful resolution and acceptance possible. Second, reflecting on death provides a perspective on what would appear to be death’s antithesis: life. If “the meaning of life” is too unwieldy a subject to be approached directly, perhaps the meaning of death provides an indirect route to the same end. Finally, while philosophical writing often serves practical ends, it also aims to understand the human condition for its own sake, and in a fashion that is as subtle and complex as its subject demands. When that subject is of no little complexity — as in this instance it most certainly is — an understanding of it must be equal in complexity; however, I have sought to do justice to the subtlety and complexity of the topic of this book without turning it into an academic exercise.

I have also written this book on the conviction that the prophetic words of Fyodor Dostoyevsky — that “we have all lost touch with life” — are true, and that the truth that they express is of considerable importance. Dostoyevsky expressed that observation well over a century ago, but when we contemplate the various elements of modern life, can we honestly declare it any less true at the present time than at the time it was made? How often do we hear the complaint not so much that we are unhappy, but that our lives lack something — something that we find difficult to describe, but that can be loosely captured in the word “meaning” or “ultimate significance”?

It is as if some vital connection to life itself has been lost — but how are we to understand this, and how did it come to pass? Exactly what is it with which we have lost touch, and what possible remedy might we identify?

These are philosophical questions, but at the same time they are urgently practical questions to which modern culture almost frantically searches for an answer. A trip to most any bookstore reveals that what we anxiously desire are big answers to big questions — the old answers (as provided by the great world religions in particular) appearing to have lost their capacity to convince. This book does not offer new answers to ancient questions, but asks a series of questions relating to Dostoyevsky’s observation and to the phenomenon of death. These are “existential” questions, or questions arising from the fundamental experience of being human: what is the meaning of death? What is it to “come to terms” with death, or indeed with life? Why is it that we turn our backs on death, preferring not to speak of it at all, much less to confront it directly? Do we not similarly turn our backs on life? Precisely what is it with which modern life has lost touch, and what alternative to this condition might there be?

Several of the observations and ideas that follow are drawn from a group of authors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries known as “existential” philosophers, as well as from such figures as Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Sigmund Freud, and others. Where appropriate, I have referred to or directly quoted numerous authors whose understanding of a certain point seems to me correct. As with many books of this nature, it attempts to synthesize ideas drawn from a variety of authors, contexts, and genres while incorporating some observations of my own on the subject.

I have often had occasion to transfer or apply ideas originally expressed in contexts very different from this one to a discussion of human life and death. It has been my observation that the “wisdom” we seek concerning ultimate questions of life and death is found in this rather nebulous body of literature more readily than in either the religious texts of old or in more contemporary books on the subject. Novelists in particular often attain a more profound under9 standing of human existence than authors of other genres, including most philosophers. (The main exception to this I would identify as the late nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose understanding of the human spirit and the human condition as a totality remains, in my view, unrivaled to this day. Were we familiar with more of his observations, and with the observations of several of those whom he inspired, major portions of this book would have been unnecessary.  


Categories

Pages 192
Year: 2001
LC Classification: BD444 .F29
Dewey code: 128'.5
BISAC: PHI015000
Soft Cover
ISBN: 978-1-892941-72-5
Price: USD 19.95
Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-892941-73-2
Price: USD 26.95
Ebook
ISBN: 978-0-87586-147-0
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