The recognition of nothingness
I describe a distinctive kind of fear that is generated by a vivid recognition of one’s mortal nature. I name it ‘existential shock’. This special fear does not take our future annihilation as any kind of harm, whether intrinsic or extrinsic. One puzzling feature of existential shock is that it is experienced as disclosing an important truth, yet attempts to specify this revelatory content bring us back to familiar facts about one’s inevitable death. But how can I discover something that I already knew? I argue that in our everyday lives, we are in the grip of deeply entrenched patterns of thought and feeling that prevent the knowledge of our mortality from being fully assimilated. Rather, we merely ‘pay lip service’ to the facts of our mortality. I propose that existential shock involves a distinctive mode of presentation of oneself as a mortal being, in a way that cuts through subtle layers of denial that govern our lives. I develop this thesis by utilizing and synthesizing ideas from several traditions, including the work of Samuel Scheffler, Mark Johnston, Martin Heidegger, and Jay L. Garfield.
KeywordsDeath Mortality Anxiety Nothingness Buddhism
My oldest debt is to Lajos Brons, whose paper (2016) showed me the strong parallels between my thinking about death and Buddhist thought. My colleagues Andrew Eshleman, Sruthi Rothenfluch and Alejandro Santana devoted a session of our Summer Research Group to a draft of the paper. John Fischer gave useful responses to my work in progress, as did Kathy Behrendt, who generously showed me her forthcoming work. Finally, I thank an anonymous referee for a superb set of comments.
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