We all know that we will die, so why do we struggle to believe it?
Baillie (James)
Source: Aeon, 04 November, 2019
Paper - Abstract

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  1. This is another – fairly brief – take on "Tolstoy (Leo) - The Death of Ivan Ilyich", which I’ve myself covered in a Note on Ivan Ilych1.
  2. James Baillie is correct to say – as he does – that there’s a distinction between a first person and a third person view2 of the world, and that our ready acceptance of the fact that all will die, is viewing ourselves objectively in the third person sense almost as a separate individual.
  3. He is also right to say that subjectively we are at the centre of our – even “the” – world, as the location of our brain and the bulk of our sense-organs is in our head, around which the world seems to revolve. He cites "Johnston (Mark) - Surviving Death" in support of this3. He’s right that this pre-eminence given to ourselves is absurd from a third-person perspective, but I think this is a perspective that we grow out of fairly early in childhood.
  4. He’s also right that the reality of our own impending death gives us as an “existential shock” when we really first take it seriously, and that it’s something that we do our best to ignore by just getting on with things.
  5. His own crisis (first) occurred quite late in life – though not as late as Ivan’s – at age 27, after “a retreat”, though he doesn’t specify what kind of retreat – maybe a Buddhist one as that’s his metier. I think mine4 – in the sense of meditating on the inconceivability of my own ultimate “ceasing to be” occurred in my mid-teens, I think.
  6. Baillie’s opinion is that the existential shock is caused by the realisation that the Self5 is illusory. He attributes this supposed insight to Buddhism6, “rediscovered” by Hume7, whose introspection revealed no Self, but only a succession of “impressions”.
  7. looking at this more closely, Baillie cites "Garfield (Jay L.) - Engaging Buddhism: Why It Matters to Philosophy" to the effect that what’s wrong with our ‘primal confusion’ in seeing ourselves and the world through the ….
  8. Baillie’s take on the matter is not mine, however. Nor is it the view of common sense. You’d have thought that the realisation that the Self is illusory would either itself cause the existential crisis, or – if it didn’t – would defuse the one caused by the realisation of ultimate non-existence.


For the full text, see Aeon: Baillie - We all know that we will die, so why do we struggle to believe it?.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 2: Footnote 3: Footnote 4:

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  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2021

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