Thursday, June 17, 2010

“Death is the Road to Awe” Life and Death in Heidegger’s Being and Time and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philsophicus

I wrote this for my Heidegger class last semester and am thinking of reworking and submitting it for publication. If you have any criticisms of it, please share. Full PDF is here.

“Death is the Road to Awe”
Life and Death in Heidegger’s Being and Time
and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philsophicus

Death and its ending of life play important roles in both Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Written and published within the same decade, both works examine the place that death has within their philosophical explorations. In particular, both philosophers are interested in the notion of death as an end. Writing in the introduction of the second division, “Dasein and Temporality,” Heidegger writes that as “long as Dasein is, there is in every case something still outstanding” to which “the ‘end’ itself belongs. The ‘end’ of Being-in-the-world is death” (234). [1] Similarly, Wittgenstein writes near the end of the Tractatus  that “at death the world does not alter, but comes to an end” (6.431).[2] For both philosophers, death acts as not only as an end to life and as an end of one’s own world they as they try to philosophically describe it, but death also plays a vital role in how we both understand and live our lives.

As an aid to the discussion, I will use Darren Aronofsky’s science-fiction film, The Fountain, to illustrate the shared and different ways in which Heidegger and Wittgenstein examine death in these philosophical works.[3] This film consists of three separate storylines presented simultaneously. The first is the story of a 16th century Spanish explorer, Thomas, who is on a quest in the Americas (or “New Spain”) to find the rumored tree of life which would save his Queen and love, Isabella, from the murderous Inquisitor. Upon finding the tree, his over-zealousness for immortality prevents him from returning to be with the Queen. The second storyline involves a present-day scientist, Tommy, searching desperately for a cure for cancer to save his wife, Izzi, who is dying from a brain tumor. Because of his persistent work in trying to find a cure, Tommy ignores his wife’s pleas for companionship, resulting in his missing out on sharing the final days of her life. Finally, the storyline taking place half of a millennium in the future tells of the same scientist Tommy on quest through space to reach a dying star. He has managed to avoid death with the medicine derived from the sap of a tree that he discovered while searching for a cure to his wife’s cancer. He is in a race against time, hoping that the energy released from the exploding star will save his dying tree—which has been the source of his longevity. Because of his desire to continue living forever, he takes too much from the tree, eventually killing the tree moments before reaching his destination.
The format of the examination of the Tractatus and Being and Time will be as follows: a comparison of the relationships between life and the world (part 1); experiencing death; and death as the end of the world (part 2); and the role of death in understanding life (part 3).

¶ 1. A Comparison of the Relationships Between Life and the World
For both Wittgenstein and Heidegger the world and the life are inseparably related; however the interrelation between the two comes from two very different approaches. Wittgenstein, being influenced in what was becoming the analytic tradition by philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege, was primarily interested in describing the logical structure of the entire world and all of the entities which compose it. Because we are only able to describe the logic of the world using language, the logical world is dependent upon the language and life of the subject which gives sense to that language. It is for this reason that Wittgenstein is able to say that “The world and life are one” (5.621).  On the other hand, Heidegger was largely influenced by Edmund Husserl and the emerging phenomenological approach and was interested in discovering, not the structure of the world and its entities, but rather the structure of our own being in relation to, or in, the world. Whereas Wittgenstein argued that logic drew the limits of what could be said of the world, concluding that it could only describe the “how” and not the “that” of its existence; Heidegger was instead looking at the “that” of existence, or what it means to be a Being that exists.
In his own preface to the Tractatus, Wittgenstein writes: “The whole sense of the book might be summed up in the following words: what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence” (preface). In a letter to a prospective publisher of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein further elaborates on this idea: “My work consists of two parts, the one presented here plus all that I have not written. And it is precisely this second part that is the important point. For the ethical gets its limit drawn from the inside, as it were, by my book.”[4] It is this second part—that which is both most important and must be passed over in silence—which Wittgenstein begins to explore (but cannot state) in the closing pages of his work. However, in order to get to that point Wittgenstein believes that he must first draw out the limits of what can be said: “Thus the aim of the book is to draw a limit to thought, or rather—not to thought, but to the expression of thoughts.” Once the structure and the logic of the world can be shown (what can be logically described), we would then be able to see all that there is that cannot be shown through logic (i.e. ethics, aesthetics, etc.) It is then that we can see “how little is achieved when the problems [of the logical structure of the world] are solved” (preface).
Wittgenstein begins his structure of the world by declaring that “The world is all that is the case” (1). He further clarifies this by adding: “The world is the totality of facts, not of things” (1.1). Rather than trying to understand the world as the sum total of empirical items (things), Wittgenstein is interested in the logical structure of the world which makes sense of talking about those things. This structure is indicated though basic propositions or “states of affairs” which are the logical “combination of objects (things)” (2.01). Because facts describe that which is the case, it can be said that “The totality of existing states of affairs is the world” (2.04). Propositions are used to describe or represent “the existence and non-existence” of the facts of the world (or states of affairs), and this representation of facts of the world is what makes up the natural or empirical sciences. As Wittgenstein puts it, “The totality of true propositions is the whole of natural science (or the whole corpus of the natural sciences)” (4.10-4.11). The majority of the propositions in the Tractatus involve a discussion of the logic of language and its ability to describe the facts of the world. Because the “world is the totality of facts” (1.1), and those facts can be represented by the propositions of science, then all that which cannot be described by science is not in the world—meaning that which can be logically said of the world.
According to Wittgenstein, we cannot think illogically (for example, we cannot imagine circle with four flat edges) and thus, “We cannot think what we cannot think; so what we cannot think we cannot say either” (5.61). Because the logic of the world can only be described through language (and would not have sense without it), he concludes that “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (5.6). If logic is both the language by which we describe the world and the structure by which it has sense, then that which is illogical can neither be described nor be a part of the world. Thus, Wittgenstein is able to say: “The world is my world: . . . The world and life are one. I am my world” (5.62-5.63). Though he writes that such reasoning points out “how much truth there is in solipsism,” he does not mean this to say that there is truth in denying the external world, but rather that logically speaking (and thinking) one cannot describe the logical structure of the world without the logic of the mind: “For what the solipsist means is quite correct; only it cannot be said, but makes itself manifest” (5.62). In other words, the reality of the external world is not shown by logic, but is simply the case. It is for this reason that Wittgenstein says that “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists” (6.44). Logic and language are to describe how the world is, or how its objects are related. Anything beyond that (such as ethics, or for what purpose the world exists) is beyond logic and science.
Far from trying to describe the world that “is all the case,” Heidegger instead begins his work (in the first division following the lengthy introduction) by announcing that: “We are ourselves the entities to be analysed” (42). Rather than being interested in the substantive, logical, and scientific facts of the ‘outside’ world, Heidegger is instead interested in the being and existence that makes a discussion of the outside world possible. He writes: “Everything we talk about, everything we have in view, everything towards which we comport ourselves in any way, is being; what we are is being, as so is how we are. Being lies in the fact that something is, and in its Being as it is; in Reality; in presence-at-hand; in subsistence; in validity; in Dasein; in the ‘there’ is’” (7). Everything that Wittgenstein wanted to discuss, all of the states of affairs that could be articulated, as well as all those which cannot, are for Heidegger, being.
Though, to understand being, Heidegger focuses on a particular type of being, the inquirer—or ourselves. “[T]o work out the question of Being adequately, we must make an entity—the inquirer—transparent in his own Being” (7). This is because we are able to understand our own being in a distinctly phenomenologically way. As Heidegger puts it, “The very asking of this question [the question of being] is an entity’s mode of Being; and as such it gets essential character from what is inquired about—namely, Being. This entity . . . we shall denote by the term ‘Dasein’” (7). What separates us from all other beings (rocks, algae, trees, fish, deer, and even monkeys) is that we (who are Dasein) are able to contemplate what it means to be Dasein. “Dasein is an entity which, in its very Being, comports itself understandingly towards that Being” (53). While chimpanzees may behave in some ways similar to us (such as play) or may even mimic humans (such as by smoking a cigarette), they do not (as far as we are aware) question the meaning of being or self-reflect on their own existence—for example, they do not gather in philosophy classes, form or join religions, write books about existence, etc.
This emphasis of being and Dasein, however, does not mean that Heidegger is uninterested in the world. To the contrary, Dasein is dependent upon the world. Returning to the discussion of being quoted earlier, “Everything we talk about, everything we have in view, everything towards which we comport ourselves in any way, is being; what we are is being, as so is how we are. Being lies in the fact that something is, and in its Being as it is; in Reality; in presence-at-hand; in subsistence; in validity; in Dasein; in the ‘there’ is’” (7; emphasis added). Being only makes sense in a world of beings, without it being could not be.
However, the world that Heidegger is interested in is not the ‘external world’ of the natural sciences—in other words, he is not concerned with the world of facts that Wittgenstein was attempting to describe in the Tractatus. In his discussion of the world, Heidegger describes four different senses in which the ‘world’ could be discussed. First, “‘World’ is used as an ontical concept, and signifies the totality of those entities which can be present-at-hand within the world” (64). This is the world that Wittgenstein was describing. Second, “‘World’ functions as an ontological term, and signifies the Being of those entities” (65). In this sense ‘world’ is the set of entities involved in a particular type of life or category. Thusly, the ‘world of philosophy’ would include entities such as various philosophers, ways of thinking, texts, argumentation, etc. The ‘world of graduate studies’ might involve entities such as seminars, books, late nights, paper writing, and scholarships. Third, “‘World’ can be understood in another ontical sense . . . as that ‘wherein’ a factical Dasein as such can be said to ‘live’” (65). Different than the latter world, rather than describing the entities which compose or are included in this world, this “‘public’ we-world, or one’s ‘own’ closest (domestic) environment” (65) involves not the entities of the world, but the life and type of being (existentiels) that are expected or described by that world. Thus, while the ‘world of philosophy’ in the previous sense described the entities in the set of that world, this sense of the ‘world of philosophy’ would describe what it means to be live or be in the world of philosophy—or to be a philosopher. Finally, the fourth sense of ‘world’ “designates the ontological-existential concept of worldhood” (65). This is the essential structural and phenomenological form of the world by which any other sense of world gets its basis.
Heidegger describes the relationship of being and the world as “Being-in-the-world.” There are two senses in which this phrase could be understood. The first is the sense by which “we mean the relationship of Being which two entities extended ‘in’ space have to each other with regard to their location in that space” (54). This is the general colloquial (or “idle-talk”) sense in which entities are said to be “in the world.” “Both water and glass, garment and cupboard, are ‘in’ space and ‘at’ a location in that space” (54).  In this sense ‘I’—meaning my physical, corporeal body—am ‘at’ a table, which is ‘in’ the Honnold Library. It is this sense of “Being-in-the-world” which is being described in the Tractatus, and which Heidegger is not interested.
The other sense of Being-in-the-world “is a state of Dasein’s Being; it is an existantiale” (54). This way of Being-in is different from the previous in that it does involve other entities: “There is no such thing as the ‘side-by-side-ness’ of an entity called ‘Dasein’ with another entity called ‘world’” (55). Instead of being-in a world of other entities, this sense involves being-in a world of possibilities. Furthermore, rather than having a relationship to other entities my Being-in consists of ‘concern’ or choosing between possibilities in-the-world. Thus, my existential world—or Being-in-the-world—is a world of possibilities of which I may choose.
These various senses of ‘world’ and ‘Being-in-the-world’ are not entirely unrelated. In a similar manner that Wittgenstein’s conception of the world depended on the logical language of the ‘I’ (“The limits of my language are the limits of my world”), the ontical world, as we experience it and as it is structured by science, arises from our ontological Being-in-the-world. We are only able to conceive of and speak of every-day entities around us because of our concern with possibilities in-the-world. That I am concerned with possibilities in-the-world by walking, sitting, talking, eating, stepping over curbs, and typing on my laptop without even ‘thinking’ about these things is evidence for Heidegger that the ontological Being-in-the world precedes my ‘thinking’ about these things. Heidegger is critical of others such as Descartes who questioned the existence of an external world. This is because in order for Dasein to question an external world, it must be a Being-in-the-world of possibilities (and equipment to be used). As Heidegger puts it: “The question of whether there is a world at all and whether its Being can be proved, makes no sense if it is raised by Dasein as Being-in-the-world. . . . [T]he world is disclosed essentially along with the Being of Dasein; with the disclosedness of the world, the ‘world’ has in each case been discovered too” (202-203). This does not mean that all entities of ‘the Real’ external world are immediately known. For example, numerous entities are constantly being discovered in the natural sciences. This, however, is no reason to question the existence of the external world, as the discoveries of such entities are only possibly because of Dasein’s Being-in-the-world: “But even the Real can be discovered only on the basis of a world which has already been disclosed” (203).

¶ 2. Experiencing death; and death as the end of the world.
For both Wittgenstein and Heidegger, that one is unable to experience their own death—nor that it even makes sense to—is an intrinsic part of their philosophical exploration.
Near the end of the Tractatus Wittgenstein remarks that “So too at death the world does not alter, but comes to an end” (6.431). As pointed out earlier, this solipsistic-sounding proposition is not saying that the external world is ceasing to be, but rather that at death the world as structured by language and logic can no longer be described by the subject making the description. As pointed out earlier, Wittgenstein writes that “The world and life are one” (5.621), “I am my world” (5.63), and “The subject does not belong to the world: rather, it is a limit of the world” (5.632). To illustrate this, he uses the analogy of our eyes and our visual field. When we look and describe what it is that we are seeing, we do not include our own eyes. Instead of being a part of our visual field, our eyes lie outside of the visual field and make that field possible. Just as it is the eye that views and limits our visual field (where without the eye, there is no visual field), it is the 'I' (the subject) that describes and limits the world (where without the 'I' there is no world). It is for this reason that Wittgenstein can say that both one’s own death is an event that cannot be experienced and that “at death the world . . . comes to an end.”
With the analogy of one’s eye and one’s visual field it can seem clear why it is that one cannot experience one’s own death. In our everyday experience we can (and probably have) witnessed someone getting violently poked in the eye, blurring or blinding their vision. (Hopefully this occurred accidentally and not intentionally.) When we see this happen, we witness it in our visual field, seeing the finger or other object make contact with the unfortunate victim’s eyeball. However, we cannot see our own eyeball getting poked.[5] I may, for example, witness the dangerous finger approaching ever closely and threateningly, but I cannot visually witness the actual moment of contact between the finger and my eyeball. Visually witnessing this event is impossible for two reasons. First, my eyeball is not within my visual field, but lies just outside of it. Because I cannot see my eye, I cannot see it getting poked. Second, it is not just the case that my eye lays outside of my visual field, but that it is my eye which makes my visual field even possible; or in other words, it is my eye from which my visual field arises. Even if I were normally able to see my own eyeball within my visual field (as with perhaps a mirror), I would still not be able to witness my own eyeball being poked. This is because the very poking would blur or blind my visual field. Without a visual field, it makes no sense to visual witness something.
In describing the world it makes sense to talk of and describe someone else dying. When Izzi dies near the end of The Fountain, it is a describable experience and change of the world for Tommy. The facts of the world were different following her death than they were just moments before and were something that could have been stated with the propositions of logic and science. For example, her death could be scientifically described as a cessation of her heart and brain activity. In the film this is depicted by the flat lining of Izzi's heart monitor in the hospital at the time of her death. If Tommy wanted to, he could have described this by saying that at time T1 Izzi had a heart beat and brain activity, and that at T2 she neither had a heart beat nor any brain activity (or any other way in which someone’s death might be described).
While this is possible to do for someone else’s death, I cannot provide a similar account for my own death (or the death of I). Just as the eye is outside of the visual field, the I (or subject) is outside of the logically describable world. As Wittgenstein puts it, “There is no such thing [logical object] as the subject that thinks or entertains ideas. If I wrote a book called The World as I found it, I should have to include a report on my [corporeal] body, . . . showing that in an important sense there is no subject; for it [the subject] alone could not be mentioned in that book” (5.632; clarifications mine). While Tommy could give an account of Izzi’s death, he could not give an account of his death. First, this is because he as a subject (Tommy’s I) is not a part of his own logical world. And if the subject Tommy is not a part of Tommy’s world, then neither could the death of Tommy as a subject be a part of his world. But even more so, Tommy cannot experience his own death because at the death of Tommy, there is no Tommy that can experience death. Just in the same way that a visual field cannot exist without an eye, according to Wittgenstein the world of the subject cannot exist without an I. Tommy’s death can only be experienced by others witnessing it. In the same manner, my death can never be experienced by myself as a subject, but can only be experienced by others who survive me.
Finally, just as the blinding of my eye would mark the ending of my visual field, so does my death mark the end of my world. My world simply isn’t changed; it is obliterated. For this reason it is important that The Fountain ends at the moment of Tommy’s death. Because the film is told from his perspective (his world) it cannot continue after his death. As D.Z. Phillips puts it, “The deaths of other people are events in our world, and can be analyzed without remainder in those terms. But a complete analysis of my own death cannot be given in these terms. My own death is not an event in my world, but the end of my world.”[6] The death of the self logically is the cessation of the world for the self.
Heidegger takes a very similar, though much more in depth, approach to the question of experiencing death. As pointed out earlier, Dasein can be said to exist as Being-in-the-world as it is a Being in the world of possibilities. It is Being in that it has concern for, or is capable of choosing between, possibilities which are available to it. Because of this, in order for Dasein to be, there must be some possibilities available to it. As Heidegger puts it, “It is essential to the basic constitution of Dasein that there is constantly something still to be settled. . . . Such a lack of totality signifies that there is something still outstanding in one’s potentiality-for-being” (236).  As long as there are possibilities still available, and that totality has not yet been reached, then Dasein is still being in a world of possibilities. The problem that death brings forth is that “as soon as Dasein ‘exists’ in such a way that absolutely nothing more is still outstanding in it, then it has already for this reason become ‘no-longer-Being-there.’ . . . Its Being is annihilated when what is still outstanding in its Being has been liquidated” (236).  Just as with Wittgenstein, Heidegger shows that Dasein can never experience its own death. However, for Heidegger, this impossibility does not arise from a negation of logical sense, but it instead arises from the very nature of being. Because Dasein exists as Being-in-the-world in which there are possibilities available, there cannot be a Being or Dasein without possibilities. If to be ‘whole’ or ‘total’ is to have no more possibilities (and thus fulfilled them all), then a dead entity, which cannot choose and thus has no possibilities, cannot be said to ‘exist.’  “But if [Dasein] gains such ‘wholeness’, this gain becomes the utter loss of Being-in-the-world. In such a case, it can never again be experienced as an entity” (280).
There is a sense though in which the death of a being or entity can be said to continue to exist, which must be distinguished from the death of Dasein. Heidegger writes:
When Dasein reaches its wholeness in death, it simultaneously loses the Being of its “there”. By its transition to no-longer-Dasein . . . , it gets lifted right out of the possibility of experiencing this transition and of understanding it as something experienced. Sure this sort of thing is denied to any particular Dasein in relation to itself. But this makes the death of Others more impressive. (237)

Because we cannot experience our own death, Heidegger asks if it is possible to understand the death of Dasein by understanding the death of others. At death my Dasein transitions from Being-in-the-world to Being-no-longer-in-the-world. This is true for all cases of Dasein, such that at each death the other’s Dasein makes this same transition. Thus, while Tommy is unable to observe his own death, he is able to observe Izzi going from Being-in to Being-no-longer-in the world. In both cases (before and after death), Izzi is still a being that exists—though she is no longer Dasein (meaning that she is no longer a being that comports herself toward her own self). According to Heidegger, “Yet when someone has died, his Being-no-longer-in-the-world . . . is still a Being, but in the sense of the Being-just-present-at-hand-and-no-more of a corporeal Thing which we encounter” (238). When Tommy sees Izzi’s dead body in the hospital, she is still a being, and rather than just being a corpse (or simply meaningless inanimate object), she is now a being that was once the Dasein of Izzi. At life she existed as a Being-in-the-world and at death she Being-no-longer-in-the world. “This something which is just-present-at-hand-and-no-more is ‘more’ than a lifeless material Thing. In it we encounter something unalive, which has lost its life” (238).
However, upon examination it becomes clear that by looking at the death of others, we do not come closer to understanding the phenomenology of one’s own death. While we may be witnessing the transition, we do not know what it is like to experience that transition ourselves. In a similar manner, I may witness someone stub their toe on the table leg, and I may be able to describe their transition to Being-in-pain from Being-not-in-pain. However, I cannot share their phenomenological experience of pain. Likewise, I (like Tommy witnessing Izzi’s death) can witness someone’s loss of life, but I cannot experience what it is like to lose my life. Furthermore, unlike with the person stubbing their toe, with which I can perhaps recall a moment when I stubbed my own toe, there is no experience of my own death which I am able to recall. “Death does indeed reveal itself as a loss, but a loss such as is experienced by those who remain. In suffering this loss, however, we have no way of access to the loss-of-Being as such which the dying man ‘suffers’” (239).
To bring more clarity to the examination, Heidegger distinguishes death into four categories: perishing, demise, dying, and death. ‘Perishing’ is the physiological ending of a biological life at death. When Izzi’s body finally gave in to the brain tumor, when her heart stopped, and when the doctors were unable to resuscitate her, Izzi perished. When the future Tommy’s tree was drained of its sap it perished. ‘Demise’ is our way of talking about the death of Dasein without addressing what authentic death is. It is the intermediate way, just illustrated above, where we can talk of Dasein’s death as if it were just perishing, avoiding the existential reality of death. With demise, talk of death is turned to a natural part of life that can be understood biologically, cured at times, etc. “In this manner the ‘they’ provides . . . a constant tranquillization about death. At bottom, however, this is a tranquillization not only for him who is ‘dying’ but just as much for those who ‘console’ him” (254). As Izzi was approaching her death, Tommy turned to death as demise as a means to avoid the reality of her soon to be Being-no-longer-there. Rather than accepting, as she had done, that she was dying, he instead turned more to his research to provide a cure—not to just for cancer—but for all death, which he said was nothing but a disease.
‘Dying,’ on the other hand, shifts from a view of death as merely physiological to the way in which Dasein can be said to experience death. This is “that way of Being in which Dasein is towards its death” (247). Rather than just a psychological way in which one relates do death (including and especially one’s own), dying is the existential relationship that Dasein has with death. As Heidegger puts it, “dying” is “thrown Being towards its ownmost potentiality-for-Being, which is non-relational and not to be outstripped” (295). Tommy was ‘thrown’ into death in that he did not choose to die, but rather, as Dasein, found himself as a Dasein that was going to die. This is Tommy’s “ownmost potentiality” in that the possibility of death is just essential to Tommy, but is something that is inherently had by all Dasein. Not all possibilities are available to all Dasein—it is unlikely that being President of the United States will ever be a possibility for me, even though it is logically possible. However, death is an essential possibility that all (and each) Dasein have. “Death does not just ‘belong’ to one’s own Dasein in an undifferentiated way; death lays claim to it as an individual Dasein” (308).
Furthermore, Tommy’s possibility of death is “non-relational” in that, unlike all other possibilities, it does not depend on (or is relational to) any other beings or entities. My possibility to type on my laptop is relational to my laptop as equipment. Death, on the other hand, requires no such relations to be fulfilled. Finally, Tommy’s death is “not to be outstripped” in that it is certain and inevitable. Despite what Tommy can do to prolong his life—even using the miraculous power of a tree to survive for centuries—he cannot avoid death. However, Heidegger notes that death “is indefinite as regards its certainty” (310). While it is certain that death is inevitable, it is indefinite in that one may never know when it may occur. “As soon as man comes to life, he is at once old enough to die” (245).[7]
The fourth way of understanding death is simply ‘death’ in the way in which Heidegger defines it existentially. While he gives numerous expansions of the definition, in its basic form it is “the possibility of the impossibility of any existence at all” (262). More than simply just a physiological going from living to not-living, existential death is the phenomenological passing from Being-in-the-world to no-longer-Being-in-the-world. It is the transition from having possibility to no-possibilities. It is the cessation of Dasein.
 Like with Wittgenstein, there is a certain sense in which the world also ends at the death of Dasein. As mentioned earlier, there are at least four senses in which Heidegger says we can speak of the world. With the first (the world of ontical entities), it seems clear that the world of entities will continue to regardless of whether or not there is a Dasein. Heidegger asks, “But ‘does not time go on’ in spite of my own no-longer-Dasein? And can there not be an unlimited number of things which still like ‘in the future’ and come along out of it? We must answer these questions affirmatively” (330). The next two worlds, which denote sets of which entities are categorized into (such as the ‘world of medicine’) and existentiels (such as the ‘world of a doctor’) can still be said to continue on after the end of my Dasein as long as there are other Dasein to ‘create’ the “they” which can continue these worlds—though it does seem that if all Dasein were to no-longer-be-Dasein, that these worlds would also come to an end. However, it is with the fourth, the phenomenological world that, if dependent on Dasein’s Being-in-the-world, would end along with Dasein. Just as Wittgenstein’s structural logical world could not continue without a subject which gives it life, it seems that for the very same reasons the phenomenological world of Dasein’s Being-in-the-world can no longer exist if that Dasein is no longer in the world.

¶ 1. The Role of Death in Understanding Life
While The Fountain may seem from the outset to be a simple science-fiction film about the quest for immortality, at the heart of the movie is an examination of our intimate and troubling relationship with death. Izzi’s character, though initially fearful of her own death, comes to accept her certain death as a call for her to live out each day until that indefinite end. Tommy, on the other hand, (as the past explorer, present-day scientist, and future explorer) is constantly fleeing from death. Whether it is in search of the tree of life, a cure to cancer, or a life-giving star, Tommy sees death as something that ought not to be inevitable, but instead eternally avoided. This intimate and, at times, troubling relationship with death is further explored by both Wittgenstein and Heidegger.
As discussed earlier, Wittgenstein saw the Tractatus as consisting of two parts: the first being a logical description of the world, and the second a way of showing by the first all that which cannot be described by logic. Because the “world is the totality of facts” (1.1), and those facts can be represented by the propositions of science, then all that which cannot be described by science is not in the world—meaning that which can be logically said of the world.
Because ethics are neither scientific claims, nor can they be explained by science, “it is impossible for there to be propositions of ethics,” and it “is clear that ethics cannot be put into words” (6.42-6.421). This is, of course, a philosophical claim about propositional language and the logical structure of the world, as we ordinarily put our ethical claims into words and propositional form all of the time. For example, we might commonly make ethical claims and say something like “It is wrong to kill.” We may even believe that this is a true claim about reality. However, because ethical claims cannot be logically or scientifically described in the world (what would that even look like?), such ethical claims cannot be said to be in the world, but are instead “transcendental” (6.421). 
So instead of being in the world, ethics lies at the limit or boundaries of the world and changes the way that we experience and see it. This is related to Wittgenstein's analogy of our physical eyes not being a part of our visual field. It is not that ethics plays no role in our life. On the contrary, like our physical eyes, ethics are how we understand and see the world. Ethics is, in a way, our world. It is for this reason that Wittgenstein writes that “The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man” (6.43). It is not that the state of affairs for the two men are different. For each, the facts of the world are the same. Their cups may be holding the exact same amount of Mountain Dew, though one sees and describes it as being half-full while the other sees and describes it as being half-empty. Similarly, the ethical views of a person—and it is telling that we often use the word ‘view’ to describe ethics—do not change or alter the facts of the world; rather they alter its limits. For example, the ethical view someone holds does not change the facts of the world concerning the recent signing of Arizona’s new illegal immigration law. However, some may see it as a mark of Arizonian racism, while another may see it as a patriotic step toward protecting Americans.
In Ray Monk's biography of Wittgenstein, we get an image of a person who seemed to be constantly concerned (or even obsessed) with his own death—either in fear that his own death was impending or in contemplation of suicide. This was certainly the case while he was writing the Tractatus—which was largely done under death’s watch over the European continent during the first World War. For example, Wittgenstein’s close friend David Pinset writes in 1913:
During all the morning and most of the afternoon Ludwig was very gloomy and unapproachable. . . . He is morbidly afraid he may die before he has put the Theory of Types to rights, and before he has written out all his other work in such a way as shall be intelligible to the world and of some use to the science of Logic. . . . He is always saying that he is certain he will die within four years—but today it was two months.[8]

In a similar vein Wittgenstein writes in his 1916 journal—while stationed on a dangerous tower at the front lines of the World War—that only under this threat of death “will the war really begin for me. And—maybe—even life. May God enlighten me. I am worn, but through God I become a man. God be with me. Amen.”[9] A few months later he writes in his journal about an experience he had that can be seen as the fulfillment of the previous thought: “Yesterday I was shot at. I was scared! I was afraid of death. I now have such a desire to live. And it is difficult to give up life when one enjoys it. This is precisely what 'sin' is, the unreasoning life, a false view of life.”[10]
With such back drop, it is easily understandable why Wittgenstein moves into a discussion of death and eternal life in the Tractatus. During this time it may not have just been a question on his mind, but perhaps the question on his mind. Following his remarks on the cessation of one's world, Wittgenstein shifts from what seems to be becoming an almost nihilistic discussion of death to that of life and eternal life. Perhaps inspired by the previous journal entry, Wittgenstein writes in the Tractatus that “Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death.” And in this same numbered proposition, he continues to write that, “If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits” (6.4311). If we do not experience our own death, and eternal life is (as it is commonly understood) to not experience death, then, as Wittgenstein notes, “eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.” As Phillips says concerning the same subject, “Eternity is not an extension of this present life, but a mode of judging it. Eternity is not more life, but this life seen under certain moral and religious modes of thought.” And again, “Questions about the immortality of the soul are seen not to be questions concerning the extend of a man's life, and in particular whether that life can extend beyond the grave, but questions concerning the kind of life a man is living.”[11] Just as with the happy man, the unhappy man, and their Mountain Dew, whether or not someone has eternal life is not dependent upon the facts of the world, but upon their outlook on the world. 
One question we could ask here is of whether or not Tommy, as depicted in the future storyline of The Fountain, had achieved 'immortality' or 'eternal life' in the ordinary sense (living for an endless duration). It seems that his death at the end of the film shows that he did not have this sort of eternal life, nor was he actually immortal. Rather, he had just been living for a much-extended period of time. The movie points out that to say that one has attained this sort of eternal life is confused and akin to someone saying that they have counted to infinity, or after hearing in a geometry class that parallel lines meet at infinity, sets out walking along a railroad track hoping to eventually reach the point where the two tracks come together. Because it does not make sense to speak of a life that has lived infinitely, to speak of eternal life must mean something else. 
Wittgenstein alludes to this point when he continues to write that “there is no guarantee of the temporal immortality of the human soul, that is to say of its eternal survival after death” (6.4312). Wittgenstein isn't simply referring to the scientific guarantee of the survival of the human soul after death, but he is rather referring to the logical guarantee of the temporal immortality of the human soul.
Wittgenstein continues this discussion in the same numbered proposition by saying:
. . . but, in any case, this assumption [that eternal life is the temporal immortality of the soul] fails to accomplish the purpose for which it has always been intended. Or is some riddle solved by my surviving for ever? Is not this eternal life as much of a riddle as our present life? The solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time. (It is certainly not the solution to any problems of natural sciences that is required). (6.4312)

Wittgenstein is asking what sense it has to say that simply more life is able to solve the deepest existential problems of life. If we answer the question, “What is the purpose of life?” with the answer, “To live forever,” we are still left with the next question, “Well then, what is the purpose of living forever?” Such a response would be akin to saying that the purpose of eating is simply to eat more, or that the purpose of existence is to exist even longer. This problem is portrayed well in The Fountain. Near the end of the film, the present-day Tommy is overcome with emotions at Izzi's funeral, and walks away from the proceeding angrily proclaiming that, “Death is a disease. Nothing more. A disease and I will find a cure. . . . I will live. I will fight. I will win. It won't end. Never. . . . NEVER!”[12] For Tommy, death was the problem of life, and the answer to that problem would be immortality. In the future storyline we see Tommy in his spacecraft believing that he has discovered a means to avoid death and has thus answered the problem of life. And yet in his ‘immortality’ he is forever haunted by the ethical and emotional loss of Izzi. Of Tommy it could be asked, “So you have found a way to avoid death. Now what?” 
For Wittgenstein, it is not the absence of death where life exists. It is quite the opposite. Just as he discovered on the front lines of the war, it is death that reveals the true importance and eternality of life. He writes, “To view the world sub specie aeterni [under the form of eternity] is to to view it as a whole—a limited whole. Feeling the world as a limited whole—it is this that is mystical” (6.45). The acknowledgement of death enables us to view the eternality and timelessness of our present life. Just as the subject, ethics, and aesthetics lie at the limit of our world and change that world, so does death. Like the happy man whose happiness causes him to view the glass of Mountain Dew as half full, so does the acknowledgement of death cause a person to see the eternal life as a limited whole, or as Wittgenstein proclaimed in the face of death while stationed at the front lines of the war, “I was shot at. I was scared! I was afraid of death. I now have such a desire to live.”[13] 
What then is the problem of life that death reveals? And what is it's answer? This, for Wittgenstein, is a question and answer not left up to philosophy and science. “When the answer cannot be put into words,” he writes, “neither can the question be put into words. The riddle does not exist. If a question can be framed at all, it is also possible to answer it” (6.5). This is because when we “feel that even all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer” (6.52). 
It wasn't until Tommy acknowledges that he was going to die that he realizes that he had been posing the wrong problem and riddle of life. His scientific quest for eternal life and the scientific answers he found left him in the same place where he had been five hundred years earlier: mourning over the death of his wife Izzi. It is at the moment that he accepts his death—what Izzi had managed to do with her own—that he realizes that he had been asking the wrong questions all along. Rather than believing that the answer to life was in the defeating of death, he discovers that his acceptance of death provides him with a new limit and understanding of life. The problems of life were not the scientific and logical questions that he had been seeking an answer to, but were rather the ethical and aesthetic that could not be spoken. Wittgenstein writes that “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists” (6.44). Along with this proposition from the Tractatus, Tommy realizes that it is not the how’s or why’s of life (or the world) that is mystical, but simply that he lived—and for a time he lived with Izzi—that was mystical and of utmost importance. It is the awe of life, and it is death that reveals it.
Wittgenstein continues his discussion in 6.521 saying that “The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem. (Is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have been unable to say what constituted that sense?)” He adds in the next proposition that “There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical” (6.522).
Near the end of the first chapter on death, Heidegger attempts to put into words that which Wittgenstein thought impossible. He describes the “authentic Being-towards-death” as
anticipation reveals to Dasein its lostness in the they-self, and brings it face to face with the possibility of being itself, primarily unsupported by concernful solicitude, but of being itself, rather, in an impassioned freedom towards death—a freedom which has been realized from the Illusions of the ‘they’, and which is factical, certain of itself, and anxious. (266)

While this may seem difficult to understand (or clear to those who have ears to hear and eyes to see), what Heidegger proposes as the authentic Being-towards-death is quite similar to what has just been shown with Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. So without delving too much into Heideggerian redundancy, what follows is a brief discussion of Heidegger’s conception of authentic and in-authentic Being-towards-death in light of the previous discussion.
As discussed in the previous section, all Dasein (whether they like it or not) are dying. Even Tommy, who has managed to avoid death for centuries, is nevertheless going to inevitably die. This Being-toward-death is what each Dasein is thrown into.  “Being-towards-the-end does not first arise through some attitude which occasionally emerges, nor des it arise as such an attitude; it belongs essentially to Dasein’s thrownness, which reveals itself in a state-of-mind (mood) in one way or another” (251). Thus, it is how we react to this factical dying that interests Heidegger. Like Izzi, we can be an authentic Being-toward-death and fully accept our certainty of death; or we can be like Tommy and be in-authentic in our fleeing from death.
That death is not something toward which the everyday Dasein is concerned is evidence for Heidegger that “proximally and for the most part Dasein covers up its ownmost Being-toward-death, fleeing in the face of it” (251). Rather than authentically embracing our certain indefinite death, we have a tendency to flee from it by covering it up as if it did not exist. One of the primary ways in which we cover up death is being limiting to the demise of the distant other:
In the publicness with which we are with one another in our everyday manner, death is ‘known’ as a mishap which is constantly occurring—as a ‘case of death’. Someone or other ‘dies’, be he neighbor or stranger. . . . People who are no acquaintances of ours are ‘dying daily and hourly. . . . [The ‘they’] talks of it in a ‘fugitive’ manner, either expressly or else in a way which is mostly inhibited, as if to say, “One of these days one will die too, in the end; but right now it has nothing to do with us.” (253)

In our everydayness we treat death as if is just something that happens to others. We can watch the news or violence in movies with the safety of knowing that those who die—especially without notice or preparation—are not us. It happens to someone else and not me.
However, it is not always possible to avoid death as something that happens to the distant other. As soon as someone close to us dies or is clearly near to death, the certainty of death can throw itself upon us as unavoidable. “Cases of death may be the factical occasion for Dasein’s first paying attention to death at all” (257). While Tommy may for a while been able to avoid the certainty of death, it was when Izzi first showed signs of her cancer becoming more aggressive—and even more so at Izzi’s death—that Tommy suddenly became acutely aware of his own certain death. He could no longer avoid it as something that happens to the distant other. Now it was something that was certain for those close to him, and violently certain for his own self.
This being thrown into death does not simply make one authentic toward death. Rather, it can instead lead to another way in which we might flee from the face of death. When aware of Izzi’s and his own certain death, rather than embracing it as Izzi had managed to do, Tommy instead sought out to postpone and indefinitely delay that which was certain. “One says, ‘Death certainly comes, but not right away’. With this ‘but . . .’, the ‘they’ denies that death is certain. ‘Not right away’ is not a purely negative assertion, but a way in which the ‘they’ interprets itself” (258). While embracing the certainty that was avoided in the previous form of fleeing, we can still avoid its reality by turning its indefinite-but-possibly-soon to a definitely-not-soon.
What Tommy’s prolonged avoidance of death shows is that attempts to view death as merely perishing or demise were inauthentic. When fleeing from death, Tommy was not avoiding a physiological death to his corporeal body. Nor at this point was he avoiding his own demise, attempting to avoid the world of his no-longer-Being. Rather, Tommy was attempting to avoid the reality and truth of his own Dasein—that his Dasein is Being-toward-death and that death “is Dasein’s ownmost possibility” (263).  If fleeing from this reality is in-authentic, then it is by running toward this truth that one becomes authentic Being-towards-death. Death must be anticipated:
Anticipation, however, unlike inauthentic Being-towards-death, does not evade the fact that death is not to be outstripped; instead, anticipation frees itself for accepting this. When, by anticipation, one becomes free for one’s own death, one is liberated from one’s lostness . . . and one is liberated in such a way that for the first time one can authentically understand and choose among the factical possibilities lying ahead of that possibility which is not to be outstripped” (264).

While Heidegger approaches the problem differently, the result is the same. Authentically accepting death for what it is points to a life full of possibilities and frees us from the burden of death and other hindrances. It is this authentic acceptance of death that enabled Izzi to find peace and finally enabled Tommy to be liberated from his fear or grief immediately before his own death.

            In The Fountain, Izzi tells Tommy about a discussion she had with a Mayan tour guide as she was doing research for her novel. The guide, Moses Morales, said that when his father died, a seed was planted over his grave. He believed that as the seed grew into a tree, that his father would become that tree, would become the seeds of the tree, and would even become a part of the birds who ate the fruit of the tree. If he had dug into the grave, his father would no longer be there as he would now be a part of the new life of the tree and nature. Izzi recounts, “He said death was his road to awe. That's what he called it. The road to awe.”[14] This line—that death was the road to awe—is repeated again in the film by the Mayan priest that the conquistador Thomas encounters guarding the passageway to the tree of life. Modeled after the biblical cherubim guarding the tree of life in the garden of Eden, the Mayan priest holds a flaming sword and tells Thomas that death is the road to awe, and that it was by the death of the First Father that life was created. The priest then drops to his knees, leaning his had back, and exhibiting his throat to be slit.
By presenting his neck to Thomas to be cut, the priest is not running toward death in self-negating suicide, but is signifying to Thomas and the audience that eternal life is not found in the sap of the tree behind him, but is in an anticipating acceptance of death. The tree, instead, was merely an attempt to flee from and avoid the reality and certainty of death. For both Wittgenstein in the Tractatus and Heidegger in Being and Time death has this same certainty. While they approach it from different angles, they are both able to show that free authentic life is made clear in death—not in avoiding it, but in authentically accepting it as the end of one’s life and world.
This authentic approach to life and death (Being-toward-death) is portrayed in the later revision of an earlier scene in the movie where Izzi pleads with Tommy to momentarily set aside his search for a cure to her cancer and instead go for a walk outside with her to enjoy the first snowfall of the winter together. In the first iteration of the scene at the beginning of the film, Tommy turns down her pleas and resumes working on a cure to flee from death. Following his epiphany that he was also subject to death at the end of the film, the scene is shown again, but this time with Tommy authentically Being-toward-death and leaving his work to join her

[1] All citations of Being and Time (unless otherwise noted) are from Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper Perennial, 1962). Page numbers refer to the marginal German page numbering. All emphases are in original unless noted.
[2] All citations of the Tractatus are from Ludwig Wittgenstin, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D. F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness (London: Routledge, 1974). References are to the propositions unless noted. All emphases are in original unless noted.
[3] The Fountain, written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. Burbank, CA: Warner Bros., 2006. DVD recording. See also, Darren Aronofsky and Kent Williams, The Fountain (Broadway, NY: DC Comics, 2005). After the original 2002 production of the film was scrapped, Aronofsky and illustrator Williams made this graphic novel which sheds further light on the films story line. Production for the film resumed while the graphic novel was nearing completion.
[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein, ProtoTractatus — An Early Version of Tractatus Logico- Philosophicus, ed. B.F. McGuinness, T. Nyberg, G.H. von Wright, trans. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971), 16.
[5] For the purposes of this paper I am excluding the possibility of a person seeing one eye getting poked by looking into a mirror with the other eye. With such a possibility we could instead use the example of having both eyes poked simultaneously.
[6] D.Z Phillips, Death and Immortality (London: Macmillan, 1970), 50
[7] Quoting Der Ackerman aus Bohmen, ed. A. Bernt and K. Burdarch, in Vom Mittelalter zur Reformation: Forschungen zur Gestichte der deutschen Bildung, ed. K. Burdach, vol. 3, part 2 (1917), chap. 20, p. 46.
[8] Quoted in Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (New York: Penguin, 1991), 87-88.
[9] Ibid., 138
[10] Ibid., 146
[11] Phillips, Death and Immortality, 49.
[12] Aronofsky and Williams, The Fountain, 140.
[13] Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein, 146.
[14] Aronofsky and Williams, The Fountain, 93.


  1. I remember reading this a long time ago...before I had watched The Fountain and when I definitely did not understand either Wittgenstein or Heidegger.

    Anyway, I watched The Fountain and had forgotten that I had read this...and so I was looking for "Death is the Road to Awe" (the song) and this page popped up again.

    The read-through was a lot easier this time through, and I think I came through with a better understanding of Heidegger and Wittgenstein too.

    I you think that any attempts to prolong life are inauthentic? Or is some level of inauthenticity (to reach a certain "life expectancy" for example) understandable?

  2. Thanks.

    It would seem that many attempts to "prolong life" could be authentic, and that intentionally preventing those attempts would be authentic. For example, if I am crossing the street and about to get hit by a car. The authentic thing would be to try to get out of the way of the car. To stand still and tell myself that death is a fact of the world would be quite inauthentic to my own experience of life.

    Even trying to cure cancer or save someone from dying of a disease could easily be authentic. However to remain authentic, in doing so we must recognize that death still remains and that being unable to cure the disease is not failure or wrong. We must remember that death just is.

  3. I guess there's some nuance in the different scenarios, but I don't get one thing.

    So, Tommy's problem was that he was so fixed on trying to cure Izzi's cancer and prevent her death (and this is highlighted even in the future where he lashes out at the "memory" or "spirit" of Izzi, so to speak). The "lesson" that he was to learn was to live in the present with her (e.g., going out for a walk with her for the first snowfall).

    But one is opposed to the other. His trying to cure her cancer was diametrically opposed to his spending time in the present moment with her.

    So, at what point does self-preservation (or the preservation of others) in a future-seeking way "overpower" and "misplace" one's authentic obligation to the present?

  4. At the point where the quest for self-preservation overpowers and renders the present life rather meaningless.

    A great example of this is our country's fascination with preserving life at all costs, where we have our elderly and brain-dead involuntarily "live" in incapacitated states for months/years with the aid of medical machinery.


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