The images elicited by the term 'death' are so diverse that they do not seem to mirror the same reality—or even the same process. Is death not conceived in various ways depending on learning, profession, temperament, and personal and social circumstances? Is it not confronted quite differently by the "primitive" and by the "civilized" man? By country folk and by city dwellers? By the extremely wealthy and the poverty-stricken? The "ages of man" only help multiply these images. An adolescent might envisage death as a welcome liberation from some cosmic evil; a young man might look at it as the glorious prize of an heroic act; a mature man may find himself suddenly plunged into disturbing thoughts of mortality while earning his daily bread. Thus the first difficulty encountered when we consider the problem of death concerns the possibility of unifying the above images in a single, all-embracing notion.
Let us assume that this has already been accomplished. Unfortunately, most of the problems raised by the meaning of 'death' remain as formidable as ever. Do "human death," as a single, all-embracing concept, and "organic death" have something in common? If 'to die' merely means 'to be no longer,' is it not reasonable to say that other realities besides human beings and organisms "die"? Can we ever discover a concept that comprehends so many diverse phenomena? Or granting that such a concept has been unearthed, will we not have dissolved once and for all the idea of human death in the much too general notions of "being no longer" and "passing away"?
The present book attempts to answer these questions. It advances the opinion that "death" is, indeed, a rather general concept, and that it should permit us to grasp the nature and meaning of all realities, whether inorganic, biological, or human. This is not to say that human death cannot be adequately elucidated except against the background of the more general concept of "cessation." As I eventually hope to make clear, the death of human beings is a phenomenon both unique and common; in point of fact, unique only because it stands against a common (and cosmic) background.
Hence an investigation of the "problem of death" can lead to an outline of a philosophical system, or at least to three basic branches of such a system: an ontology, a metaphysics of organic reality, and a philosophy of the human person. The question of death is not an isolated problem, but rather a cluster of problems—problems about man, Nature, and the structure of reality.
My interest in the subject of death does not arise from morbid feelings. Nor is it linked to the too often talked about Hispanic obsession for the "moment of truth," corpses, funerals, and mourning. If there is such an obsession, I am not responsible for it. As a matter of fact, more is said here about life than about death. The "problem of death" is not, or is not only, something to feel anxious about, but rather something to discourse on.
Thus the problem of death does not need to be surrounded by the somewhat pathetic halo which a number of 'isms,' and in particular Existentialism, have given it in the recent past. No doubt, such 'isms' have helped emphasize the fact that we are confronted with a real problem. Unfortunately, in their frantic attempt to make 'death' synonymous with 'human death,' philosophers subscribing to such 'isms' have soon reached a point of no return: a purely existential treatment of death has ended by severing the links of man with Nature and, ultimately, with reality. To be sure, the heavy emphasis placed on "death" as "human death" by Existentialism—including the anti-Existentialist wing of Existentialism—was understandable enough. A sizable portion of modern philosophers had slighted the problem of death, regarding all attempts to tackle it as an outcome of unreflective anxiety, and hence as a philosophically worthless undertaking. It seemed therefore quite pertinent to arouse the opposite feeling, and to try to convince so-called "philosophical deflationists"—the ones, that is, who denounce all talk except their own as a case of "philosophical inflation"—that the problem of death is a truly significant one. But once existential-minded thinkers had performed their task, it was no longer necessary to aggravate the philosophers' anxieties. For philosophers at least, the age of anxiety is over; the age of critique is here again.
We shall proceed then according to the new times, and treat death as an authentically philosophical problem. We shall do it, however, against a somewhat larger background than that set up by existential or semi-existential philosophers. Furthermore, we shall single out the problem of death as no more, but no less, than a guiding thread for philosophical exploration.
Throughout the centuries, countless human beings have sought and, occasionally, found solutions to the "problem of death" in magic, religion, and myth. Magic is today out of the question. But religious and mythical conceptions are still very much alive. At least with respect to one question—the question of whether there is or is not a survival after human death—mythical narrations and religious feelings still play a significant role. Nevertheless, although I may at times touch upon them, I will be particularly, if not exclusively, concerned with the philosophical concept of death. Hence I will not dwell upon the much talked about question of the "feeling of death," an intriguing problem no doubt, and one that has a long history behind it, but one which, nevertheless, would be of little help in strict philosophical elucidation. Philosophy is not necessarily alien to "feelings," but it should be careful not to be ruled by them. On a philosopher's door, the following sign may not be unwelcome: "Feelings are accepted (sometimes recommended), but only if they help to understand."
Some philosophers stubbornly shun any statements even vaguely hinting at rational analysis or scientific procedure. What can rational analysis and scientific method teach us philosophers, they argue, about such an "irrational," "mysterious," and "unscientific" problem as that of death? I strongly disagree with such quibbling, and what I say throughout this book will, I hope, testify to my disagreement. On the other hand, some philosophers embrace the opposite viewpoint: they scoff at any statement about death which happens to be a more or less mature fruit of human experience or speculative reflection. I disagree no less strongly with the latter contentions, for I do not think that we can so easily dispense with such a rich source of knowledge as human experience and "speculation." In sharp contrast with all these prejudiced and, at bottom, nihilistic attitudes, I have tried to pay heed both to reason and human experience, to analysis and speculation. Only by bringing all of them together shall we be able to cast some light on our subject. As a consequence of this integrating or, as it will soon appear, "integrationist" viewpoint, I have also bypassed two quite similar tendencies. There are those who hold that the problem of death is meaningless. On the other hand, there are those who think that only the problem of death has some meaning. I myself believe that the problem of death has a very definite meaning, but that it is far from being the only philosophical problem enjoying this sinecure. It is one philosophical problem among many, but one which is central enough to make the philosophical wheels turn swiftly.
It has often been said that only in the twentieth century, and in particular after the first World War, have philosophers shown any interest in the problem of death. This is not absolutely true. Death has been a subject for meditation both in "Dark Ages" and in self-styled "Enlightened Ages." Yet, there is some truth in saying that many modern philosophers shunned death as a philosophical problem insofar as they tried to circumvent it. In particular, the so-called "mechanical philosophers," or "mechanists," tried to prove that "death" is more an "appearance" than a "reality." Reacting against "mechanists," and their efforts to eliminate the problem of death, some authors launched systems according to which nothing "mechanical" ever seems to exist, or happen, in the universe. Some of these authors went very far indeed. Not only were they opposed to the idea that the universe is comparable to a clock, but they argued that it is comparable to an organismor even perhaps to a "Spirit" or a "Soul." Against the thesis that Mind reduces to Nature, they advanced the idea that Nature ultimately reduces to Mind. Thus the door was left open for every variety of uncontrolled speculation. For these "speculative philosophers," it did not seem enough to reject, as Kant did, dogmatic rationalism. They did not stop at anything short of a boisterous irrationalism. Some of these philosophers found it utterly insufficient to point out that, when all is considered, biological organisms or human persons are not inorganic entities. This would be equivalent to yielding to a dualism, which these philosophers staunchly (and rightly) rejected. Thus, they tried to bridge the gap between the world of Naturewith all its "mechanical" propertiesand the world of Mindwith all its "spiritual" characteristics, but they based their attempt on one of the following controversial assumptions: either they "constructed" the world of Nature on the basis of the world of Mind, and thus reduced the former to the latter, or else they advanced the idea that there is some kind of entity"the Absolute," "the Idea"which underlies both Mind and Nature. To these philosophers death was not an "appearance" but a "reality." Yet, it was a reality that had very little, if anything, to do with Naturean "unnatural" reality. Thus, whereas some philosophers maintained that, properly speaking, there is no such thing as death, other philosophers intimated that there is nothing "natural" in it.
The above is a rather sweeping description of an embarrassingly complex affair called the "history of modern philosophy." All-encompassing as it is, however, my description serves a purpose, which is to show that, although neither side was completely right, neither side was hopelessly wrong. The present book tries to do justice to both sides without necessarily subscribing to either. Thus, the critique of mechanism contained in chapter 1 is not to be construed as an attack on "materialists" similar to those launched by romantic and post romantic idealists, especially those who have been labeled "spiritualists." It is my belief that mechanism as a philosophy plays no negligible role in the understanding of certain types of reality. It is only fair to add that phenomenalism, organicism, personalism, and other such similar doctrines also play a role in the understanding of at least some aspects of "Being." Each one of these views is, therefore, welcome on the philosophical stage provided that it makes its appearance "on cue." To ascertain the propitious moment is, of course, not an easy matter, but one that no philosopher should consider irrelevant. In some ways, a good philosopher is one who knows when to give (or follow) the right cue.
The view according to which many, but not necessarily all, views can be combined without too much friction is one that I hope to develop in some detail. An intimation of it, however, can be glimpsed in chapter 1. It appears there primarily in the form of an ontology which I have termed "integrationism." It consists roughly in postulating that all absolutes, or all "absolute entities," whether they are called "Nature" or "Spirit," "Object" or "Consciousness," should be given a long, and hopefully permanent, vacation. I am talking about entities, not about names of entities. For I feel confident that the latter can still be used to function as "limiting concepts," so that they may describe, although not refer to, "limiting realities." These "limiting realities," which I will sometimes label "polarities," are indeed, only limiting; they are not realities at all. What is real is only what exists, lives, and moves "between polarities," without ever being transformed into any of them; that is, without ever being petrified, so to speak, into "absolutes." From this viewpoint it makes sense to say that nothing exists as "pure matter." By the same token nothing is (philosophically) acceptable as "pure mind." There is no such thing as subject or object. And since it is assumed that nothing exists "absolutely" or, more precisely, that nothing is "an Absolute," the predicates 'is mechanical' and 'is organic' must not be construed as "absolute predicates." Yet, there is a sense in which one could say that these predicates may refer to something actually existing; this is the case when they are used to qualify, in terms of "more" or "less," any entities, or classes of entities. From this viewpoint we can claim that some entities are "more material" or "less material," "more organic" or "less organic," "more conscious" or "less conscious" than other entities.
All this may look surprising, if not downright scandalous; if X is material, certainly it is not conscious, and if X is conscious, it is not, or is not necessarily material. And if X is both material and conscious, then it is material and conscious, but not "more so" or "less so."
I admit that the point is tricky. At any rate, it is not a point that can be adequately elucidated with one stroke of the pen. The present book contains many such strokes, and does not claim to do much more than to try to see the point. But, although sweeping formulas do little justice to subtle points, I may be allowed to put forth a few formulas as an avant-goût of more to come.
To begin with, the expressions 'more' and 'less' obviously have no quantitative meaning. To say that X is more material than Y is not to say that X contains "more matter" than Y. It is only to say that X is more of the nature of a material reality than Y. 'More' and 'less' are thus used here as "ontological adverbs," modifying or qualifying reality and making a given reality a "way of being." Therefore, we should not say, even if sometimes we cannot help saying, that X is this or that, because, properly speaking, X is never this or that. It merely displays some (ontological) "tendency" to behave the way "this" or "that" would behave if they existed absolutely. Thus to say that X is more material than Y means that X "tends to be" more material than Y. To be sure, the "tendency" I am talking about has nothing to do with any irrepressible urge supposedly felt by X. 'Tending to be material' is not equivalent to 'longing to be material.' It is just "to be" in the way of "being more so." Nor is the tendency in question something like a "becoming." Indeed, I am not talking now about "being" or "becoming," for it happens that "being" and "becoming" are themselves to be construed as "absolutes," and as such they are not allowed to exist or to be exemplified by any given entities. Only because language behaves the way it does must we resign ourselves to saying that X "is" or "becomes" without really meaning it.
Thus, I certainly do not mean to say that, if X happens to be a lump of matter, X is not material because X may partake of consciousness. I am not intimating that matter is mind and mind is matter, or in general that anything is everything. If X is a lump of matter, and this is all that there is to X, then X is obviously not conscious. But denying consciousness to X is still viewing X, or being able to view X, from the point of view of consciousness. X thus falls somewhere between two contrasting ontological poles or directions, so that it may be more precisely located in terms of its proximity to one pole and its distance from the other. In fine, X is located at the intersection of two ontological "poles," which are referred to as "matter" and "consciousness" (or "mind"). If such were not the case, then "being material" and "being conscious" would not be possible features of one single world. They would be names of predicates designating two mutually exclusive realms of being. In other words, to say that X is a material entity is, for the moment, to say no more than that it has a place in a real continuum in such a way that 'is material' proves to be the best possible (general) predicate for X.
Since, as suggested earlier, there is more to come, I shall drop the issue here. I would like to add, however, that inherent in the integrationist view just outlined is an integrationist methodology. Roughly, it consists of substituting names of limiting concepts for names of absolute entities. For, although the former names do not in fact name anything, they can "delimit" everything. I use the expression 'names of limiting concepts' and, more briefly, 'concepts,' in the plural form because it is my view that no single concept can ever perform the "integrating" task. Furthermore, concepts cannot perform this task unless they are conjoined as opposites which does not necessarily mean that they are in fact opposites, but only that they should function as such. Thus, 'matter' and 'mind' function here as names of opposite or, at least, contrasting, concepts, and the same may be said about any other concept of similar scope and character. I hold that only by handling opposing limiting concepts can any given reality be "located" ontologically and thus grasped conceptually. As will be seen later (§ 9), any given entity, or class of entities, can be (ontologically) "delimited" by means of two contrasting conceptualizations or, in the language which I will eventually propose, by means of a two-way ontology. And, since a number of relevant philosophical positions have emphasized just one conceptualization, the doctrine of actual integration sketched above may be better understood in the light of a doctrine of conceptual integration. All of this is, I assume, quite different from a mere "philosophy of polarity," which is at best a well-meaning eclecticism. "Integrationism," as I understand it, does not limit itself to combining polar concepts or to harmonizing mutually hostile philosophies by arguing, for instance, that only in such a way will each philosophical tendency receive its due. It does not matter to me in the least if any given philosophical tendency can harmoniously combine with any other philosophical tendency. I am not weighing the merits of, say, naturalism and personalism, merely to conclude that both systems have something to say that is true or enlightening, so that some "third system" can then be set up which would be nothing but the sum total of what is borrowed from each one. This type of manipulation of doctrines, which treats doctrines as if they were mere "positions" and looks at them, so to speak, from the outside, never makes much progress. My aim is rather to see whether there is any "third position" or, rather, "conceptual system," which might prove capable of accounting for whatever mutually exclusiveor seemingly mutually exclusivetendencies may eventually arise. This explains why I do not think it fair to take up, say, a bit of materialism and a bit of personalism, or a bit of mechanism and a bit of organism, and concoct some sort of philosophical pudding with them. These puddings, made with only the best ingredients, are too good to be true. Even W. H. Sheldon, who, more than any other contemporary philosopher, emphasized "polarity" and "productive dualism," had to acknowledge that what we may call "combinatorial philosophic systems" are satisfactory only because they are "too satisfactory." "They are pervaded," Sheldon rightly noticed, "by an almost saccharine flavour." It is not then a question of "harmony," and least of all a question of harmony among philosophical tendencies. It is rather a question of testing to the utmost the adequacy of contrasting explanatory concepts. Thus, for instance, if we tackle the problem of whether relations are internal or external, the viewpoint I propose is not based upon the position that relations are both internal and external, or that some are internal and some are external. Rather, it consists in denying that relations can ever be internal or external in toto. It makes little difference, although granted it may make some, for an atom to be in this or that point in space (assuming, for the sake of simplification, that there are "spatial points"). Hence, an atom is, or rather, tends to be, externally related to other atoms. But it makes a great deal of difference, although not all the difference, for a relatively complex organic being to be in this or that point of space, since being in this or that point of space is then definable in terms of organic behavior (such as mating, falling upon a prey, or adjusting to the environment). Thus an organic being is, or rather, tends to be internally related to other organic beings and to the biological milieu. Therefore, in the two-way "direction" of relations, there are points in which the "direction" called "internal relation" almost overcomes the "direction" called "external relation," and vice versa, without the relations ever being, for any given entity, completely internal or completely external. This is, of course, just one example, but I hope it may suffice. If names are still necessary to characterize my philosophical viewpoint, I would then prefer such names as "principle of complementarity" rather than "principle of polarity," provided that 'complementarity' be understood both as conceptual and as real.
It may, of course, be said that there is nothing really new in an attempt to integrate contrasting concepts, and that an attempt was made by such philosophers as Leibniz and Hegel, not to mention Aristotle. To this I would retort that nothing would please me more than to be able to do what any of these philosophical giants did. But the question is not what kind of an attempt I am proposing, but how it is carried out. Philosophy is not, or should not, be a "program," but the real thing. Thus, I will soon stop talking about what it is that I am trying to do in order to spend more time in actually doing it.
Nevertheless, a few more remarks on the meaning of 'integrationism' may still be in order. And at any rate I would like to add that, although the term 'to integrate' may evoke ideas of "harmony" or "combination," it is a rather unorthodox type of harmony or combination that I have in mind. To begin with, if philosophical tendencies are still considered, I do not propose to string them together but to give each free reign. Let us then, if necessary, carry naturalism, or personalism, or any such philosophical position, to its ultimate consequences. We shall eventually see where it must stop. I was tempted to say that each of them has to stop where the other one starts, but this would still be a one-way ontology of the eclectic type. Thus, I prefer to say that a position does not have to stop but is counteracted all along by some opposite position. The two positions are maintained as opposed. If one comes to the rescue of the other, it is neither to replace the other nor to supplement the other, but to use the other as a brake.
If we now abandon, as I wish we might forever, the language of "philosophical doctrines" and resume the language of "ontological poles," "conceptualizations," "limiting concepts," and so on, I may add that the integrationism I advocate is one in which no given "ontological pole" is even conceivable without the opposing "pole," and also one in which no limiting concept has any great meaning unless it begins by taking the opposite limiting concept into account.
If 'dialectic' had not become a term of abuse, I would have no objection to accepting it as a tentative label for the way of thinking proposed above. In the present state of affairs, however, the term 'dialectic' might seem a misnomer, because it tends to suggest that I am advancing a point of view based upon synthesis rather than one founded on integration. But there is not, in my opinion, any possible synthesis overcoming a so-called "thesis" and a so-called "antithesis." In my "system," theses and antitheses never cease interfering with each other; there is no moment, no point, where one of them is reduced to the other or, in the Hegelian language, "absorbed" by the other. In any given point at issue, there is a "thesis" that is, so to speak, "crossed" by an "antithesis"; any given point at issue is a kind of conceptual crossroads. By now, I hope it is no longer necessary to emphasize that the conceptual crossroads is such only because a real crossroads is constantly underlying it.
I have proposed the term 'integrationism' as an adequate label to describe my way of thinking. I insist on the word 'label' because I am perfectly aware that 'integrationism' does little more than tag a cluster of concepts. Like most philosophers, I am suspicious of 'isms.' They say both too little and too much. Moreover, what they say is usually misleading. I see no reason, however, for abstaining from using a term ending in 'ism' as long as we do not delude ourselves by believing that this is the end of the story. Once this caution has been taken, 'isms' can do no great harm. This is, by the way, the reason why I would like to propose yet another 'ism': "dialectical empiricism." By means of this expression I am trying to suggest that the way of thinking also labeled "integrationism" is one that is faithful both to the structure of reality and to the logic of concepts. But of labels and tags enough has been said.
As to the problem of death, 'integrationism' is meant to designate a point of view according to which we should not be allowed to confine "death" to any privileged area of reality but only to project whatever we can say about this area to the whole of reality. What Aristotle claimed of Being, we can claim of death, namely, that "it can be said in many ways." Thus, I wish to maintain that, although every existing entity ceases to be, and hence in a manner of speaking, "dies," only certain entities actually "die" without ever "ceasing to be." In fine: the continuum of reality includes different types of "mortality." Which specific kind of "mortality" we are facing at a given point depends upon how, and where, two different and opposing ontological "directions" may happen to intersect.
The present book is, I dare to say, both systematic and speculative. It is systematic because the main ideas contained in it are closely knit together within the framework of a conceptual system, and in particular within the framework of a "first philosophy." It is speculative simply because it is philosophical. I am not afraid of being systematic, because I heartily agree with Kant that philosophy should be a system and not a rhapsody. I am not afraid of being speculative, because I see no other way of doing philosophy. I often wonder what other philosophers do who claim that they do not "speculate."
But to be systematic and speculative does not necessarily mean to be reckless. By no means do I want to suggest that all the concepts I use denote a reality. Thus, although I constantly use such expressions as 'inorganic reality,' 'organic reality,' 'being,' 'life,' and so on, I am not assuming that there are such "things." Why then use these and similar expressions? Here is a question that can be answered only by pointing out what happens when one begins to philosophize. All sorts of strange things do indeed occur. For instance, one finds ordinary language most inadequate, and yet one cannot dispense with it. Similarly, one looks around, or perhaps inside, in search of a philosophical language, and finds that there is none. Finally, one begins twisting the meaning of ordinary words while claiming that everyone else, especially other philosophers, have been using these words in the wrong way. No wonder philosophers, even the least rash and adventurous among them, have never had a good press. How could the case be otherwise with people who never say, or for that matter never succeed in saying, what they "really mean," and who, furthermore, constantly claim to have said "something else"? As if that were not enough, philosophers are repeatedly misunderstood by their own colleagues. It would be difficult to find a philosopher who has not been the target of distorted, and often devious, interpretations on the part of other philosophers. Thus let us not waste time complaining. But let us remind the reader that in philosophy there is necessarily more than just one meaning. If there were such a thing as ready-made philosophical language, misunderstandings could be avoided. But then philosophy would not be what it is: an attempt to create its own language. This attempt usually fails, but in the meantime something is born: let us call it the "philosophical habit." It is a most peculiar habit, since it makes sense only to those who indulge in it, and, furthermore, to those who do indulge in it, it is the only habit that makes sense. So this is philosophy: something that, if done at all, simply cannot be done by halves.