Continental Philosophy Review

, Volume 36, Issue 3, pp 235-262

First online:

Death and immortality ideologies in Western philosophy

  • Maxine Sheets-JohnstoneAffiliated withDepartment of Philosophy, University of Oregon

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This article examines immortality ideologies in Western philosophy as exemplified in the writings of Descartes, Heidegger, and Derrida, showing in each instance the distinctiveness of the ideology. The distinctiveness is doubly significant: it broadens understandings of the nature of immortality ideologies generally and deepens comparative understandings of the ideologies of the philosophers discussed. Pertinent writings of Otto Rank, the psychiatrist who first wrote of immortality ideologies, contribute in fundamental ways to the discussion as do pertinent writings of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, who elaborated and publicized Rank's thesis concerning immortality ideologies. The notion of an ideology, clarified in the beginning as an empirically unfounded belief structure, hence an illusion, is taken up briefly but pointedly at the end in the context of Rank's distinction between rational and irrational elements of the self as they are played out in the creations of the hero-artist. The article ends by examining his distinction in the context of the philosophic perspectives discussed, most notably the perspective of Heidegger.