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Thinking About Last Things: Death, Finitude, and Meaning

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Pragmatic humanism regards mortality as an essential characteristic of human beings. It is sensitive to the existential challenges and to our need for comfort that arises in the face of life’s contingencies. However, the humanist position rejects any attempts to overcome or deny death. Instead, it suggests defying and resisting the threat of nihilism by way of acknowledging human finitude. While keeping a sense for the tragic, the human ability to create meaningful lives is underlined and encouraged.


  • Death
  • Finitude
  • Meaning
  • Immortality
  • Nihilism
  • Transhumanism

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  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-02441-3_6
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  1. 1.

    Given that reductionistic approaches do not meet our demands for a comprehensive understanding of death and thus a genuine philosophical problem is at hand, one could expect philosophical thanatology to be an integral part of any philosophical anthropology. Instead, academic philosophy widely ignores death and dying; see Pihlström 2016, 1–19.

  2. 2.

    “It is clear […] that a pragmatist philosopher should not endorse any naive metaphysical doctrine of the immortality of the soul as eternal transcendent existence of an immaterial substance somewhere outside space and time” (Pihlström 2008, 61). Also, we cannot simply construct immortality; it has an independent reality in that it is a limit. Nevertheless, the hope for it may legitimately be held in the sense of an ideal that is effective in life; see Pihlström 2008, 60–70.

  3. 3.

    Moreover, shortly before he died, James made an agreement with his brother Henry: he should stay for six weeks after his death in Cambridge and wait for posthumous messages from William. (He received none.) See Menand, Louis. 2002. The Metaphysical Club. A Story of Ideas in America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 435.

  4. 4.

    Though death is seldom explicitly topical in James’ work, the question of mortality virtually grounds his thinking, shining through as an existential seriousness, for example, when he starts and ends his Pragmatism lectures with death (and suicide); see Gavin 2010 and Pihlström 2008, 57–70.

  5. 5.

    James connects his transmission theory to the psychological studies of Fechner, Kant’s idealism, and Schiller’s early idealistic conception in Riddles of the Sphinx (1891). It also seems to be inspired by Swedenborg’s influential “theory of correspondence” between the material and spiritual world, which James’ father adopted (see Blum 2007, 11–13). In his later works, James tends more and more toward ideas of panpsychism based on Fechner’s ideas; see, for example, lecture IV of his A Pluralistic Universe. A similar option to understand immortality within a natural framework, that is, not as a supernatural miracle (and thereby as violation of physics), is presented by Ronald Dworkin, drawing on quantum physics and the idea of a “bizarre but natural soul”, quantum fragments that continue to exist after our brain dies—though he admits this idea was “not the least comforting” (Dworkin, Ronald. 2013. Religion Without God. Cambridge/London: Harvard University Press, 150–152).

  6. 6.

    Only this deliberative and active ignorance could explain, for Schiller, why there is no further proper research on human immortality, “the most important of all questions”, and it is “easier to raise the funds for a hospital for leprous cats” (Schiller 1903d, 233–234).

  7. 7.

    Christina makes a similar point: Religious beliefs in an afterlife are “only comforting if you don’t examine them” (Christina 2014, 48; for a polemical “reality check” of some ideas, see 48–51).

  8. 8.

    Schiller’s argument for immortality thus runs contrary to the anti-theodicist attitude introduced in Chap. 5. Moreover, he follows the Kantian postulates of practical reason—without ever mentioning Kant.

  9. 9.

    Moreover, “goodness” is an infinite task, as we tend to fail in being good. For a thoroughgoing criticism of Johnston with regard to what he calls “transcendental guilt”, see Pihlström 2016, 134–140.

  10. 10.

    Any prognosis is, of course, science fiction. But even from an extremely optimistic outlook that allows for a survival of humanity not only in the face of a dramatic climate change or possible aggressive virus diseases, but even the end of our solar system (which will take place round about 5 billion years from now), someday the universe will cease to exist in a way that allows for human life. There are several competing physical hypotheses about the ultimate fate of the universe. If it will suffer a collapse, a big freeze, or heat death depends on a lot of hitherto unknown variables. Anyway, humanity is unlikely to last until one of these scenarios takes place.

  11. 11.

    Dworkin similarly underlines that our common understanding of immortality entails personal survival, for which reason continuance of dissociated “mind stuff” does not count as survival, and neither do personal achievements that last over time (Dworkin 2013, 156–157).

  12. 12.

    This urge is beautifully expressed by Walter Benjamin in the ninth thesis in his essay “On the Concept of History” (“Über den Begriff der Geschichte”, 1940): “There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed.”

  13. 13.

    “Life after death, reincarnation, salvation, immortality – all these are variants of the refusal to accept the fact of death” (Kolenda 1976, 20).

  14. 14.

    “Any time you talk about wrestling with the terrifying question of what it means to be human, you must begin with the Latin humando, which means ‘burying’. To be human is to bury your dead, to put those beloved corpses in the grave, and somehow connect yourself to them. To never forget” (West, Cornel. 2008. Hope on a Tightrope. Carlsbad et al.: Hay House, 26).

  15. 15.

    Rosi Braidotti’s posthumanist theory of death (and “life beyond”) suggests adopting this view, since the zoé, the universal vital force, continues; see Braidotti, Rosi. 2013. The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press, 105–142.

  16. 16.

    James is critical of religious bans against suicide. Rather, he deems the option to end one’s life consoling in itself, which may, in turn, lead to remedy the suicidal Weltschmerz; see James 1979, 38–45. Yet, as Pihlström objects, the social ideal of total control, even concerning the end of one’s life, should be critically examined. Principally, (assisted) suicide can mean a way of self-determination, yet there is nothing as complete control of the world, and death reminds us of that. So control could mean, on a meta-level and in certain situations, to give up control, a tension that needs to be addressed; see Pihlström 2016, 153–163. Suicide as logical conclusion of the absurdity of life is also extensively discussed in the first chapter of Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus (1955) [Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942)].

  17. 17.

    For further considerations, see Pihlström 2016, 179–185.

  18. 18.

    Mortality becomes a fundamental precondition even for the striving for immortality, thus turning into a transcendental postulate: “We have to be mortal and experience our lives as mortal, limited, perishing, turning into nothingness, in order to be able to experience a fight for a better life, an immortal life, as meaningful” (Pihlström 2008, 64).

  19. 19.

    Schiller indeed considered hylozoism as an antidote to the nihilistic outlook: “It frees us in the first place from what constitutes perhaps the worst and most paralysing horror of the naturalistic view of life, the nightmare of an indifferent universe” (Schiller 1903a, 13).

  20. 20.

    The perspective of the other is made strong, for example, by Emanuel Levinas and Zygmunt Baumann; see Pihlström 2016, 99–116.

  21. 21.

    The positive flip side of this desistance is that there is also no threat of eternal damnation. Generations of people were frightened into “good behavior” with the idea of sending their souls to hell. If we are to talk of heaven and hell at all, we have to take a look at the conditions under which we live on earth. The examples of hellish environments, both personal and structural, are legion. It is our very task to diminish and fight those conditions. We may also think of moments and glimpses of paradise (experiences of bonding and support in communities, fulfilling relationships, intense aesthetic experiences, etc.), though they may be far more rare and dependent on personal judgment. As in the case of “good” and “evil”, pragmatic humanism identifies what has to be avoided, criticized, and changed, but leaves room for a plurality of positive visions of how it should be. Virtually, we can agree on what is hell, but not on what concretely is heaven. Accordingly, the minimalist pragmatic approach tries to enable circumstances that allow for the realization of the widest possible variety of “heavens”, that is, of good, rich, fulfilling lives.


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Honnacker, A. (2018). Thinking About Last Things: Death, Finitude, and Meaning. In: Pragmatic Humanism Revisited. Studies in Humanism and Atheism. Palgrave Pivot, Cham.

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