A plane flies into a mountain and everyone perishes. A loved one is taken by cancer way before her time. An earthquake rips through a country causing enormous loss of life. All events, these, that occurred over the course of our inquiry into the history of Western Philosophy. All events, these, that have happened before, and will happen again. In the meantime, we try to make sense of them: doing our thinking through what Marshall McLuhan terms "the rear view mirror"; turning to ideas that were circulating about life and death and everything in-between during the first half of the 20th Century in order to come to terms with these 21st Century personal tragedies and large-scale calamities alike. For as McLuhan insists, only the most prescient of visionaries can think the present through a philosophical lens which has actually arrived in that present, much less leaped ahead of it. And though we were feeling pretty primed with 2000 years of Western Philosophy under our belts and just 50 short Modern World years to go, we weren't about to presume that we counted among that number. Which meant that we hit the year 1900 running: pouncing upon Nietzsche's (1844-1900) pronouncement - "God is Dead!" - as one would a baton in a relay race; sprinting out into that brave new world of uncertainty like punch-drunk gazelles...And he doing the pronouncing barely in his grave.
But now that we were on the home stretch, the harsh reality of it all was beginning to sink in. Cicero circa 500 AD had argued that philosophy teaches us how to die. 1000 or so years later, de Montaigne - after a near-death experience had cured him of his paralyzing fear of the grim reaper - was suggesting the opposite: that philosophy teaches us how to live. And quite apart from whether our natural inclination was to see life and death as opposites or the self-same thing, and regardless of which philosophical camp we chose to align ourselves with - the life camp, the death camp, or the camp that sees philosophy as there to teach us something entirely different - the fact remained that we were entering the philosophical equivalent of a no-man's land. Gone were the usual touchstones: Truth, Faith, Reason, Science. Instead, we looked around and saw one great big gaping void. God might well be dead but so, it seemed, was everything else: either rotting away on the slag heap or hurtling hell-bent towards an inevitable and absolute end. All in all it was a tad depressing. Though nothing that a touch of philosophical tweaking couldn't put right.
Take, for instance, that plane - an event which, like the other two, is seemingly beyond our control. But somebody was at the controls of that plane. And if Nietzsche is to be believed, it sure wasn't God. So what to make of this horrific act of human volition? What to make (to incorporate the second event) of our ongoing insistence that people die “before their time” when no time, much less a defined time, is graspable when it comes to those we love? And speaking generally of that which is within our grasp (and specifically of the numbers to perish in that earthquake) how is it that one death can rock our world, whereas the deaths of tens of thousands will often barely register? These propositions or “pictures of facts,” as Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) would have it, we considered; and the tweakers at our disposal were a mixed bag of early 20th century German phenomenologists, French existentialists, and British logicians.
From the phenomenologist camp, we drew upon Martin Heidegger’s (1889-1976) idea that each of us is but a temporal being – a “being-toward-death,” as he terms it – and that to live “authentically” is to live each day facing up to the certainty of our own impending death. Against this idea, we pitted the contention of fellow phenomenologists Edith Stein (1891-1942) and Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995): that it is in facing up to the deaths of others, and not our own, that the route to authenticity is to be found.
With all this talk of authenticity flying around the room, it came as no surprise to find an Existentialist or two weighing in on the matter. In addition to Nietzsche wandering around out there in a “Godless Universe” there was, for example, Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936): the brave and outspoken critic of Franco’s violent methods and accompanying motto – “Long Live Death!” Arguing that suffering is not only a “vital experience” but an essential aspect of learning what it means to exist, Unamuno made love the cornerstone of his existentialism: to love is, at the end of the day, all that matters; to learn how to love we must necessarily identify our own suffering with the broader suffering of the world.
And then there were those wise old owls of the Anglo-Saxon tradition: mathematician turned analytic philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) shouting “Down with Work!” and “Up with Happiness!” from the barricades while professing life to be nothing more than the sum total of “muddle and accident”; American pragmatist John Dewey (1859-1952) asking the question we in this new post-Enlightenment world could no longer avoid: What do we do when, in spite of taking control in every way we can, disaster still strikes?
We fittingly brought the evening to an end – and by extension, this series – by choosing an appropriate death for our philosopher self. Were we the kind of thinker who would die heroically, as Vitalist philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) had: taking sick after standing in line with other French Jews as they registered with the Vichy government, even though his fame as a philosopher had been enough for the Nazis to grant him an exemption? Or were our philosophical leanings more likely to incline us, like 101 year-old Hermeneutics philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002), towards a somewhat gentler death: slipping into unconsciousness just hours after celebrating a clean bill of health from our doctor with a glass of wine? But whatever our chosen philosopher death – and we had a great number of them to choose from thanks to Simon Critchley’s surprisingly entertaining book on the subject, The Book of Dead Philosophers (2008) – we parted this latest salon adventure a good deal more awakened to the story of Western Philosophy and the mostly his-stories that inform it. Thank you to all who participated. It has been quite the road-trip of a ride!