Language, Metaphysics and Death: A Metaphysical Reader
Donnelly (John)
Source: Donnelly (John) - Language, Metaphysics and Death: A Metaphysical Reader
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Preface (Full Text)

  1. This Second Edition of Language, Metaphysics, and Death deletes eight essays from the first edition, retains nine, and adds eleven. The authors of the twenty essays analyze various fundamental themes inherent in a metaphysics of thanatology, involving the meaning and nature of death and dying and the prospects for survival and postmortem existence.
  2. Despite Epicurus' admonition in his Letter to Menoeceus that we "become accustomed to the belief that death is nothing to us," most of us are skeptical about his caveat and even a few of us, in his words, "crave for immortality." The volume's contributors are at one with Plato, who reminds us in the Phaedo that true philosophers are regularly occupied in the practice of dying. Construed as a descriptive statement about the philosophical life, the Platonic view is no doubt false, yet interpreted as a regulative prescription, it would appear profoundly insightful. In facing foursquarely our own mortality and reflecting on the meaning of death and dying formally analyzed as the irreversible loss of those characteristics that are essentially significant to a living human being, we are simultaneously enabled to ponder the meaning of life and living.
  3. Metaphysics is a difficult subject to study and to teach. And a course that explores the metaphysical issues inherent in thanatology is perhaps even more pedagogically burdensome, not just because of its somewhat rarefied themes and puzzles, but also due to the fact that typical undergraduate students are often reluctant to engage in serious reflection upon death-related issues. Granted: abortion1, euthanasia, suicide, and capital punishment pass conventional muster as highly discussable socio-moral issues involving public policy (and staples of undergraduate courses in applied ethics); but as Tolstoy reminds us in his novella The Death of Ivan Ilych2 ("Tolstoy (Leo) - The Death of Ivan Ilyich"), a young person can easily grasp the hackneyed example of a paradigmatic deductive argument that Socrates is a human being, human beings are mortal, therefore Socrates is mortal, yet not realize that this now-trite example is not really so vacuous after all. Somewhat repressing the thought of a first-person account of death, a young person often vicariously acknowledges that, of course, Socrates in the abstract was mortal, but I'm not Socrates but a creature quite set apart. Feeling invincible, if not immortal, young people see death as something that happens to others. Unfortunately, death is no stranger to even the young, as but witness the tragedies of AIDS, suicides, accidental deaths, and personal and institutional forms of killing.
  4. In general, human beings are both fascinated and horrified by the topic of death. What Kierkegaard said about dread we might also say of death — namely, that toward it we have a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy. We are somewhat perversely intrigued by the behavior of serial killers, the media reports of random killings in our streets and neighborhoods, and our children's high-tech glee over the video game "Mortal Kombat," etc. Despite the surrealism of it all, we are also repulsed by death, often sheltering the young from witnessing the death of relatives, adamant that legal executions not be televised, and so ever fretful about mortal dangers that we arm ourselves to the hilt, etc.
  5. We often prettify death, euphemistically referring to relatives and friends that have "passed away," "been called home," no doubt as the result of a "negative patient outcome" at a hospital or nursing home. Among college students, sex is hardly a taboo subject, but direct language about the metaphysical aspects of death is surely muted, however ironically bountiful in non-thanatological vernacular contexts, as in "I was dead drunk at the party," "The Professor's lecture was deadly," or "I sat next to a drop-dead redhead in class."
  6. In the years between these two editions of Language, Metaphysics, and Death, death has certainly been no stranger to me. I have lost my beloved parents, my two Jesuit uncles John and Philip Donnelly, my uncle Harold Norton, and my aunts Evelyn Norton and Gladys Cove. I learned much from their character and courage in facing their human mortality, and dedicate this volume to their memory. And amid the sadness and bereavement of death, I have been blessed by the births of my beloved son and daughter, Colin and Maria Donnelly, whose integrity and scholastic and athletic skills never cease to amaze and delight me.
  7. I am grateful to those students in my "Death and Dying" course at the University of San Diego who have wrestled with me on various thanatological problems (despite the pernicious Southern California ethos that would vaporize death), and I wish to acknowledge the fine secretarial assistance I have received from Leeanna Cummings, Vivian Holland, and Monica Wagner.

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  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)



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