Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy

, Volume 16, Issue 3, pp 575–585 | Cite as

Death: ‘nothing’ gives insight

  • Eric J. Ettema
Scientific Contribution


According to a widely accepted belief, we cannot know our own death—death means ‘nothing’ to us. At first sight, the meaning of ‘nothing’ just implies the negation or absence of ‘something’. Death then simply refers to the negation or absence of life. As a consequence, however, death has no meaning of itself. This leads to an ontological paradox in which death is both acknowledged and denied: death is … nothing. In this article, I investigate whether insight into the ontological paradox of the nothingness of death can contribute to a good end-of-life. By analysing Aquinas’, Heidegger’s and Derrida’s understanding of death as nothingness, I explore how giving meaning to death on different ontological levels connects to, and at the same time provides resistance against, the harsh reality of death. By doing so, I intend to demonstrate that insight into the nothingness of death can count as a framework for a meaningful dealing with death.


Death Meaning Nothingness Ontology Aquinas Heidegger Derrida 



I would like to express my sincere thanks to Evert van Leeuwen and Loes Derksen who gave fruitful comments on an earlier draft. Thanks also to the research group Philosophical Anthropology and Gender Studies, of the Faculty of Philosophy of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, for giving me the opportunity to discuss an early version of this work.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Metamedica, Section Philosophy and Medical EthicsVU University Medical CenterAmsterdamThe Netherlands

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