On Death as a Limit
Van Evra (James)
Source: Analysis, Vol. 31, No. 5 (Apr., 1971), pp. 170-176
Paper - Abstract

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  1. Phenomenally speaking, dying is simply a matter of ceasing to think and experience, and death presumably is the state of such experiencelessness. But while it seems perfectly reasonable to describe death in this way, to do so invites some potentially troublesome questions. For instance, it might be asked whether there need be anything which (phenomenal) death as a state characterizes. In describing death as a state, that is, are we tacitly committed to accepting the personal survival of death1, in the sense that we need something of which we can say that it once thought and experienced, but, while still existing, does no longer? On the other hand, if we do not recognize the existence of experienceless selves, can sense be made of talking about phenomenal death as a state at all?
  2. In this paper, I shall develop a view in which death is seen to be a state which characterizes absolutely nothing, and hence requires no commitment to the belief in selves which survive death. At the same time, the concept of death will be shown to retain all of its "ordinary" significance.
  3. The heart of the view to be presented is an elaboration of Wittgenstein2's view that death is like a limit, in the sense that we can approach it, but cannot reach it. The elaboration consists in pointing out that, like states which serve as hypothetical limiting constructs in science, death gains what significance it has, not by serving as a state characterizing things, but as a function which orders members of the series limited. In this way, the significance of the concept of (phenomenal) death can be retained, while the need to recognize the existence of things characterized by death can be rejected.
  4. The paper is divided into three parts: first, Wittgenstein3's basic analogy will be considered. This is followed by a discussion of the extension of the analogy, just outlined. Finally, the significance of the expanded view for more traditional views of death will briefly be considered.

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