The Metaphysics of Death
Fischer (John Martin), Ed.
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Amazon1 Book Description

  1. This collection of seventeen essays deals with the metaphysical, as opposed to the moral issues pertaining to death. For example, the authors investigate (among other things) the issue of what makes death a bad thing for an individual, if indeed death is a bad thing. This issue is more basic and abstract than such moral questions as the particular conditions under which euthanasia is justified, if it is ever justified.
  2. Though there are important connections between the more abstract questions addressed in this book and many contemporary moral issues, such as euthanasia, suicide, and abortion2, the primary focus of this book is on metaphysical issues concerning the nature of death:
    • What is the nature of the harm or bad involved in death? (If it is not pain, what is it, and how can it be bad?)
    • Who is the subject of the harm or bad? (if the person is no longer alive, how can he be the subject of the bad? And if he is not the subject, who is? Can one have harm with no subject?)
    • When does the harm take place? (Can a harm take place after its subject ceases to exist? If death harms a person, can the harm take place before the death occurs?)
    • If death can be a bad thing, would immortality be a desirable alternative?
    This family of questions helps to frame the puzzle of why - and how - death is bad.
  3. Other subjects addressed include
    • the Epicurean view that death is not a misfortune (for the person who dies);
    • the nature of misfortune and benefit;
    • the meaningfulness and value of life; and
    • the distinction between the life of a person and the life of a living creature who is not a person.

In-Page Footnotes ("Fischer (John Martin), Ed. - The Metaphysics of Death")

Footnote 1: This is effectively the blurb on the back cover.


Stanford University Press, California, 1993

"Allen (Woody) - Death Knocks"

Source: Fischer - The Metaphysics of Death

"Brueckner (Anthony) & Fischer (John Martin) - Why Is Death Bad?"

Source: Fischer - The Metaphysics of Death

Philosophers Index Abstract
  1. Death is considered bad, even though it may be an "exteriential blank". But why do humans take asymmetric attitudes toward posthumous and prenatal non-existence?
  2. We propose an explanation of the asymmetric attitudes which is consistent with death's not involving unpleasant experiences.

COMMENT: Originally published in Philosophical Studies, Vol. 50, No. 2 (Sep., 1986), pp. 213-221

"Feinberg (Joel) - Harm to Others"

Source: Fischer - The Metaphysics of Death

  1. Death and Posthumous Harms
  2. Surviving Interests
  3. The Proper Subject of Surviving Interests
  4. Doomed Interest and the Dating of Harm
  5. A Note on Posthumous Wrongs

"Feldman (Fred) - Some Puzzles About the Evil of Death"

Source: Fischer - The Metaphysics of Death

Philosophers Index Abstract
  • This paper provides a new formulation of the deprivation thesis. According to this view, a person's death is bad for him if and only if his welfare level at the nearest world at which he does not then die is greater than his welfare level at the nearest world at which he does.
  • This provides a basis from which to answer four Epicurean questions about the evil of death:
    1. How can a person's death be bad for him if he doesn't exist when it takes place?
    2. Does the deprivation thesis presuppose an illegitimate comparison between goods received in life and goods received while dead?
    3. When is death bad for the one who dies?
    4. Why isn't prenatal nonexistence just as bad as death?

  • Mentions the Makropulos Case
  • Originally in Philosophical Review, Vol. 100, No. 2, Apr., 1991, pp. 205-227

"Fischer (John Martin) - Death, Metaphysics, and Morality"

Source: Fischer - The Metaphysics of Death, 1993, Introduction

  1. The Definition of Death
  2. Death and Meaning
  3. Why – and How – Death Is Bad
  4. Death and Morality
  5. Death, Humor, and Ambivalence

"Luper-Foy (Steven) - Annihilation"

Source: Fischer - The Metaphysics of Death

Philosophers Index Abstract
  1. Many people are tempted to accept some version of Epicurus' famous attempt to show that "death is nothing to us" in spite of efforts such as Nagel's to show that death is an evil.
  2. I bring out the ugly implications of Epicurus' view, showing that while certain changes in the values and desire schemes of people will allow them to think that death is not an evil, no one would want to "be" that sort of person, so that we are better off accepting the fact that death is an evil for us.
  3. I then offer suggestions for how we can structure our lives so as to reduce the degree to which death is a misfortune for us.

  • Mentions the Makropulos Case
  • Originally in The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 148 (Jul., 1987) (pp. 233-252)
  • Steven Luper-Foy and Steven Luper (Steven Luper) are, of course, the same person, and the "two" papers of this title are the same paper.
  • So, see "Luper (Steven) - Annihilation".

"McMahan (Jeff) - Death and the Value of Life"

Source: Fischer - The Metaphysics of Death

Author’s Abstract
  1. Among the services that philosophers have traditionally attempted to provide is the manufacture of arguments intended to show that death is not or cannot be bad for those to whom it happens.
  2. In the first section of this paper I will contend that the most influential of these arguments fails to establish the conclusions which its defenders have sought from it.
  3. I will then devote the bulk of the paper to developing an account of why it is that death can be bad for those who die.
  4. Finally, I will sketch an apparent paradox which threatens this account and conclude by proposing a way of dissolving the paradox.

  1. The Epicurean Argument
    • 1.1 The Existence Requirement and the Wide and Narrow Experience Requirements
    • 1.2 The Reconciliation Strategy
    • 1.3 The Existence Requirement
  2. The Badness of Death
    • 2.1 What Death Deprives Us Of
      … 2.1.1 Counterfactual Conditionals and the Problem of Specifying the Antecedent
      … 2.1.2 The Problem of Causal Overdetermination
      … 2.1.3 A Proposal
      … 2.1.4 Deprivation of Future Goods and the Global Evaluation of Lives
    • 2.2 Death and the Degree of Psychological Connectedness
    • 2.3 The Revised Possible Goods Account
  3. A Paradox

COMMENT: Originally published in Ethics, Vol. 99, No. 1 (Oct., 1988), pp. 32-61

"Murphy (Jeffrie) - Rationality and the Fear of Death"

Source: Fischer - The Metaphysics of Death

Philosophers Index Abstract
  1. There is a tradition within the history of philosophy that it is irrational to fear death or, as Spinoza put it, to be "led by" a fear of death.
  2. What does this counter-intuitive claim mean and how might it be justified?
  3. The purpose of this essay is to answer these two questions.
  4. A general distinction is made between rational and irrational fearings, and this analysis is then applied to the fear of death.

COMMENT: Originally published in The Monist, Vol. 59, No. 2, Philosophical Problems of Death (April, 1976), pp. 187-203

"Nagel (Thomas) - Death"

Source: Nagel (Thomas) - Mortal Questions

Author's Introduction
  1. If death is the unequivocal and permanent end of our existence, the question arises whether it is a bad thing to die.
  2. There is conspicuous disagreement about the matter: some people think death is dreadful; others have no objection to death per se, though they hope their own will be neither premature nor painful. Those in the former category tend to think those in the latter are blind to the obvious, while the latter suppose the former to be prey to some sort of confusion. On the one hand it can be said that life is all we have and the loss of it is the greatest loss we can sustain. On the other hand it may be objected that death deprives this supposed loss of its subject, and that if we realize that death is not an unimaginable condition of the persisting person, but a mere blank, we will see that it can have no value whatever, positive or negative.
  3. Since I want to leave aside the question whether we are, or might be, immortal in some form, I shall simply use the word 'death' and its cognates in this discussion to mean permanent death, unsupplemented by any form of conscious survival. I want to ask whether death is in itself an evil; and how great an evil, and of what kind, it might be. The question should be of interest even to those who believe in some form of immortality, for one's attitude towards immortality must depend in part on one's attitude toward death.
  4. If death is an evil at all, it cannot be because of its positive features, but only because of what it deprives us of. I shall try to deal with the difficulties surrounding the natural view that death is an evil because it brings to an end all the goods that life contains. We need not give an account of these goods here, except to observe that some of them, like perception, desire, activity, and thought, are so general as to be constitutive of human life. They are widely regarded as formidable benefits in themselves, despite the fact that they are conditions of misery as well as of happiness, and that a sufficient quantity of more particular evils can perhaps outweigh them. That is what is meant, I think by the allegation that it is good simply to be alive, even if one is undergoing terrible experiences. The situation is roughly this: There are elements which, it added to one's experience, make life better; there are other elements which if added to one's experience, make life worse. But what remains when these are set aside is not merely neutral: it is emphatically positive. Therefore life is worth living even when the bad elements of experience are plentiful, and the good ones too meager to outweigh the bad ones on their own. The additional positive weight is supplied by experience itself, rather than by any of its consequences.


"Pitcher (George) - The Misfortunes of the Dead"

Source: Fischer - The Metaphysics of Death

Author’s Introduction
  1. I assume, as most people nowadays do, that one's death means the permanent end not only of one's physical life, but also of one's conscious life. Death, so conceived, has its obvious drawbacks, but also its benefits; for the dead are at least free from pain, grief, despair, and other unpleasant sensations, moods, emotions, and so on.
  2. But we have conflicting intuitions on the question of whether the dead can be harmed, on the question of whether an event that occurs after a person's death can count as a misfortune for him. (I shall, throughout, use the terms "harm" and "misfortune" so as to render these two questions equivalent).
  3. In this paper, I want to defend the thesis that the dead can be harmed, and to explain how this can be, and is, so. (I think the dead can also be benefited, but I shall concentrate on the gloomy side of things.)
  4. First, however, I shall discuss a second thesis about the dead – namely, that they can be wronged. ("To wrong someone" will be used as a generic term to cover such actions as being unjust to someone, maligning or slandering someone, betraying someone's trust, and so on.)

COMMENT: Originally published in American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Apr., 1984), pp. 183-188

"Rosenbaum (Stephen) - Epicurus and Annihilation"

Source: Fischer - The Metaphysics of Death

Philosophers Index Abstract
  1. This paper constitutes a partial clarification and defense of Epicurus's view that "death is nothing to us."
  2. The arguments and ideas are juxtaposed to a critical appraisal of an earlier article in The Philosophical Quarterly, "Annihilation," published in 1987.

Author’s Introduction
  1. Steven Luper-Foy's recent article, "Luper-Foy (Steven) - Annihilation" joins a steadily growing body of writings attacking the Epicurean view of death. That view of death is the striking idea that 'death is nothing to us', in Epicurus' own insouciant words, that being dead is not bad for us.
  2. Being deeply convinced that annihilation is a terrible fate, Luper-Foy dismisses Epicurus' argument as 'inane' and 'absurd'. However inane and absurd he may feel Epicurus' reasoning was, he, like numerous others, takes the argument seriously enough to devote considerable intellectual effort to its defeat. He, like others, may believe that the view has a vague plausibility.
  3. However, not only is the Epicurean idea vaguely plausible but also it can be effectively defended.
  4. Furthermore, it has far-reaching implications for many moral issues concerning death and killing.
  5. Defending the view is not simply an engaging historical exercise, but an important philosophical enterprise.
  6. In this essay, I wish to do two things:
    • first, to sketch the Epicurean view and the way in which one may support it;
    • second, to reveal the misconceptions which Luper-Foy has and to use them as a basis on which to describe more fully the Epicurean view and what it entails.

COMMENT: Originally published in The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 154 (Jan., 1989), pp. 81-90

"Rosenbaum (Stephen) - How to be Dead and Not Care: A Defense of Epicurus"

Source: Fischer - The Metaphysics of Death

Author’s Introduction
  1. The prospect of death is at best a disquieting annoyance; it is at worst a terrifying mystery. However we react to the prospects of our deaths, we try to suppress our thoughts about death, and live as if our time were endless.
  2. Long ago, Epicurus offered a remedy for our attitudes toward our deaths. He apparently argued that since death is neither good nor bad for the person dead and since the fear of that which is not bad for one is groundless, it is unreasonable to fear death; consequently, no one should fear death.
  3. If Epicurus were correct in this, we should perhaps try to revise our attitudes toward our deaths. Without regard to what we can do or what we should do about our attitudes, I wish to discuss Epicurus's view that one's death is not bad for one.
  4. Since Thomas Nagel's article, "Death," published in 1970, Epicurus's view has come under strong attack from various sources, but has not yet received a sound defense. I undertake to supply that defense.

Philosophers Index Abstract
  1. The Epicurean view that one's own death is not bad for one has recently come under increasing and powerful attack.
  2. Professor Rosenbaum defends Epicurus's view on this point.
  3. He interprets Epicurus's view, offers positive argument for it, and critically assesses the recent arguments against it.

COMMENT: Originally published in American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Apr., 1986), pp. 217-225

"Silverstein (Harry) - The Evil of Death"

Source: Fischer - The Metaphysics of Death

Philosophers Index Abstract
  1. This paper is concerned with the "Epicurean view": that, as dead persons do not exist, death cannot intelligibly be regarded as an evil for the person who dies.
  2. After showing that neither the claim that death, while not a "positive" evil, can nonetheless be viewed as an ordinary evil of deprivation, nor Nagel's claims that recipients of evils need not suffer and that values can be relational, succeed in refuting the epicurean view, the author argues that this view can be successfully attacked by adopting a framework that takes a four-dimensional view of the universe, a framework of the sort advocated in Quine's "physical objects."

  • Originally published in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 77, No. 7 (Jul., 1980), pp. 401-424
  • Mentions the Makropulos Case

"Velleman (David) - Well-Being and Time"

Source: Fischer - The Metaphysics of Death

Author’s Abstract
    I argue that how good a life one has is not a function of how well-off one is at each moment during that life. The argument yields implications about the nature of prudence, the evil of death, and the value of euthanasia.


"Williams (Bernard) - The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality"

Source: Williams - Problems of the Self

Notes1 / Comments
  1. p. 82:
    • Williams believes in the “mortality of the soul” and that eternal life is meaningless because death gives the meaning to life, though not in the existentialist sense of the fear of death that does so.
    • Yet death is still an evil, which is not the same thing as whether it is to be feared.
    • Given the facts about human desire and happiness, and what human life is, eternal life without the prospect of death would be intolerable.
    • Background to the Makropulos2 Case: play by Karel Capek, opera3 by Janacek. Unending life leads to boredom, indifference, coldness, joylessness. The elixir is destroyed by a young woman, to the dismay of the old men.
  2. p. 83:
    • Death is not just not an evil as an end to suffering, but because it is best not to live too long.
    • This – that death is not necessarily an evil – is disputed by some philosophers. Those that agree do so either on the grounds that death is not the end, or that it is!
    • Lucretius seems to have feared death, and so was – by way of consolation – keen to prove it – seen as annihilation – not to be an evil. His argument concludes that the length of life – viewed selfishly – is unimportant.
    • Lucretius’ first argument is that fear of death is based on the confusion that we will – despite annihilation – still be around to contemplate our loss. Death and us are mutually exclusive.
  3. p. 84:
    • His second argument is that it doesn’t matter when we die as – if eternity is really infinite – then we’ll be dead just as long. This argument would fail if “eternity” was finite, but either way, the issue seems to be that there’s something wrong with the state of “being dead”, which is denied by the first argument.
    • However, there is something wrong with the first argument in that it would seem that a long life full of good things is better than a short one without them. In this case, dying early would be bad in some way. Longer consciousness of good things is better for the individual that a shorter life, irrespective of the fact that the dead are conscious of nothing.
  4. p. 85:
    • I prefer a situation in which I get what I desire to one in which I don’t, and death deprives us of realising any of our desires. So, even though when dead I’ll not know anything of my unsatisfied desires, the realisation that death frustrates all my desires is sufficient for it rationally to be considered an evil.
    • But are not all wants conditional on being alive, and “if one dies, all bets are off”? Some old people desire many things, yet on balance would prefer it if they and their desires were dead. And if one desires death, one cannot fail to satisfy the desire by dying.
    • Williams considers the occasional rationality of suicide, though he focusses on the case where the temptation is rationally resisted.
  5. p. 86:
    • His claim is that there can be unconditional or categorical desires that are not conditional on being alive. If I decide to go through with some unpleasant future event, rather than committing suicide, then I must have some desire that propels me on into the future, and not one conditional on being alive as it is the very desire that resolves whether or not I will be alive4.
    • There are more categorical reasons than the ascetic requires or suggests.
    • It is absurd to represent every desire as a desire to avoid its own frustration.
    • For humanity to survive, the drive to survive needs to be greater than any perceived reason so to do.
    • The minimum is something beyond the mere desire to survive – maybe the desire that my future desires will arise and be satisfied.
  6. p. 87:
    • But normally, the question never even comes up. The question of life being desirable is certainly transcendental in the most modest sense, in that it gets by far its best answer in not being asked at all.
    • Someone can think egoistically about whether it would be better or worse for him to go on living longer or less long, but not whether it would be better for him never to have existed at all.
    • The response to Lucretius’ first argument in "Nagel (Thomas) - Death" is interestingly different to the one Williams has presented. His point is that a person can suffer a misfortune even if he never knows about it (eg. if betrayed). This is not just – as any rejecter of Lucretius’ argument must admit – that we can suffer misfortunes that do not involve nasty experiences.
  7. p. 88:
    • Unlike on Williams’s account, whereby the reasons for avoiding death are based on the frustration of categorical desires, Nagel’s doesn’t even go this far (I might never have had a desire not to be betrayed).
    • Hence, Nagel is one step further from utilitarianism than is Williams, and his argument might be rejected by a utilitarian, while Williams’s cannot. Granted categorical desires, death has disutility for the agent in their non-satisfaction even though this disutility does not rest on any unsatisfactory experiences.
    • Williams takes it that it is a contingent fact that – contra Lucretius – most people have categorical desires that make death a misfortune for them. But Nagel’s argument can be taken as supplementary to Williams’s in supplying non-utilitarian reasons. Williams also doubts that categorical desires are merely contingent.
    • Neither argument against Lucretius considers possible worlds in which the agent does not exist. The shared reason is that the misfortune is X’s, which cannot be the case in a world in which X never existed.
  8. p. 89:
    • Williams further grounds X’s misfortune on his categorical desires, which cannot be had if there was never an X in that world.
    • So we should reject the Lucretian argument that it doesn’t matter when you die, and death is – cateris paribusalways5 an evil.
    • Nagel admits this, with some qualification that it is worse to die in one’s prime or failing to live out one’s natural term.
    • But – and here’s the point of all this in the context of Williams’s paper – if Lucretius is wrong, then isn’t it best to live for ever? Are we committed to wanting immortality?
    • This brings us to the “other things being equal”. Obviously, as our faculties decline, death may eventually become “a good thing”. But this decline is contingent – maybe one day it will be possible for some of us not to age.
    • So, even in the Makropulos case, might it not be the case that things are indeed equal (selfishly, anyway) and that it might always be a good thing – for oneself if not for anyone else – if one lived on for ever?
    • Williams will argue that the supposed contingencies are not such, but that an eternal human life would be meaningless and one that we would not be rational to desire. There is no desirable or significant property which life would have more of, or have more unqualifiedly, if we lasted for ever.
  9. p. 90:
    • Williams considers – as an embodied being living in the world much as it is – at what bodily age one should best eternally be. Makropulos is 342, but has lived 300 years aged 42 – which is OK for Williams6. The issue for her is not that she is eternally too old, but that she is bored, being eternally the same age. All the sorts of things that could make sense to a human being of a certain character aged 42 had already happened to her. All the passing centuries could add were more memories and a few changes of style.
    • We can raise questions about the presumed constancy of her character, and how it remains that way in the face of endless experiences. Williams suggests that the only way is detachment.
    • Makropulos differs from the general population, but this would not be the case if her “condition” became usual. Williams thinks that this generality would ot eliminate boredom and inner death – it would be a world of Bourbons, learning nothing and forgetting nothing, and it is unclear how much could ever happen.
  10. p. 91:
    • Williams argues that the boredom of immortality has little to do with the specific character of Makropulos. He claims that the only persons who could endure such an endless life would be those whose character was already shut out, and with no categorical desires they would not want everlasting life in the first place.
    • There are two conditions that need to be met by any fulfilment of the anti-Lucretian hope:-
      … 1. That the person who live for ever be me.
      … 2. That I will survive in a state adequately related to aims I have for surviving at all.
    • The second condition says that my future life must hold out some hope for the fulfilment of my categorical desires; and, the limiting case of these, is that future desires of mine may arise and be satisfied, and that it should be clear how these future desires might relate to my present character.
  11. p. 92:
    • Williams now considers a succession of lives as an alternative to the Makropulos situation. The major problem with this7 has always been recognised as the fulfilment of the first condition above, namely the preservation of identity.
    • But Williams (for the sake of the argument) assumes this condition is satisfied – by some minimal physical8 continuity. Otherwise, the situation – supposedly rebirth – cannot be distinguished from new birth.
    • Could such a series of psychologically disjoint lives provide any hope to someone not wanting to die?
    • Williams thinks this difficult, even if we were to admit the cogency of the “Future Great Pain Test” (see Click here for Note) – that one should rationally fear the future pain of someone with whom one is only bodily continuous.
    • Williams sees psychological disjointedness9 as central to the “reincarnation” model, and so there is a limit to what the individual can know about his series of lives. Indeed, it might need to appear to him that his present life is the only one, and that he could not be sure of what sort any future lives might be, should there be any.
  12. p. 93:
    • With no intimation of future lives, there would be no hope for those wanting to go on living. So, Williams considers a variant whereby some expectation is present.
    • In this case, the prospect of future great pain might encourage the individual to self-terminate (which Williams thinks would be possible in this “recurrence” scenario), as the psychological connection needed before future great pain appears unacceptable is minimal.
    • This aside, it is difficult to see how the survivor’s former and latter characters can be linked. If his present character is wiped out, there is no sense in saying that he has survived. To think otherwise is a muddle.
    • We are referred to "Parfit (Derek) - Personal Identity" for further discussion, in a different context.
  13. p. 94:
    • Williams thinks the serial-lives suggestion – were it to make sense – is the only one with any appeal, on the grounds that each period is at least a life.
    • Yet those who believe in eternal recurrence seem to look for release from it, which Williams sees as seeking not eternal life but “a superior sort of death”.
    • Williams considers it a fantasy to try to combine serial and continuous lives by allowing earlier, and (attractively) very varied, lives to remain in memory. He styles this the Teiresias model10.
    • The issue is that these serial lives cannot combine into a character: Tiresias is not a person but a phenomenon.
    • All this may have missed the point of those who have wished for immortality – which was not that they should never die, but that they should live on after death (or that they should not really die), and that their eternal life would not be in this world. If this is so, then maybe the frozen boredom of the Makropulos case can be escaped?
    • But even this hope has to be modelled on some more familiar unflagging activity or satisfaction. Just what would stave off eternal boredom? Williams alludes11 to the old joke of Don Juan in Hell, the tedium of heaven, and the devil having all the best tunes.
  14. p. 95:
    • Such thoughts point out the difficulty of imagining unending, but supposedly satisfying, activity based on a self-aware character already acquired in a finite life.
    • For Williams, the point is not that we have boredom in the utilitarian sense, which might be imagined away, as it is in our present life12. The point, rather, is that boredom would not just be a tiresome effect, but a perception of one’s relation to the environment. And such an unending perception, Williams thinks, has to be unthinkable.
    • This cannot be – thinks Williams – for there is nothing for a man with a developed character – that could be continually absorbing. And, merely thinking away the reaction of boredom isn’t improving the circumstances, but simply becoming less conscious of them.
    • We can make the immortal content by stripping him of all consciousness that would bring discontent. Even total absorption might do this.
    • Williams acknowledges that there can – even in this life – be necessary boredom. He gives as examples a radical bored by his party’s rhetoric or a sentry on duty.
  15. p. 96:
    • But eternal boredom doesn’t fit this mould. What would it be for?
    • Williams now turns to the philosopher’s favourite eternal pursuit – intellectual activity, which is totally absorbing and in which the philosopher can lose himself. This last thought suggests a warning to Williams.
    • He leaves aside those for whom intellectual activity has not been a focus in this life, and who would consequently require a new character to develop.
    • But even the intellectual would not be liberated by an eternity in which intellectual activity as all that was on offer. The activity must relate to the person, and not just the enquiry.
    • Williams claims that the Platonic introjection is an illusion. This13 is imagining that the satisfactions accruing from studying what is timeless and impersonal are themselves timeless and impersonal.
    • Williams rejects Spinoza’s idea that a man is most free and most himself when occupied in intellectual activity.
  16. p. 97:
    • We are referred to "Hampshire (Stuart) - Spinoza and the Idea of Freedom" as a supporter of Spinoza’s view, and Williams notes that Hampshire sees a similar trait in Freud.
    • It seems the freedom arises because in all else we’re subject to the action of unconscious memories, hence the Freudian appeal. But Williams thinks that Strawson has already committed himself to the importance of the accumulation of memories in developing the individual’s character.
    • Strawson thinks that we have maximal freedom in intellectual activity because the sequence of thoughts is maximally determined by internal considerations and the logical relation between thoughts. But this leaves out the question why the thinker is bothering with this line of thought at all. And it leaves out entirely what is going on in creative thought, where later thoughts are not supposed to be fully determined by earlier ones.
    • While all this may offer something in the way of freedom of the intellect, it is no help with freedom of the individual.
    • While freedom is rightly taken to include freedom from outside coercion14, it is not to be understood as freedom from my past, my character and my desires. This would be to pre-judge the boundaries of the self.
  17. p. 98:
    • Williams sees freedom to lie in the development and exercise of character, not in the desire to be free of character. Unconscious memories and desires fall within the boundaries of the self and are involved in the desire to persist in an active life.
    • So, contra Hampshire, an eternity of intellectual activity is no use to one concerned with individual immortality. Such ceaseless intellectual activity is fitted rather to Aristotle’s Prime Mover rather than to an individual man.
    • Williams closes with reference to Unamuno15, who gives in a cited purple passage a classic statement of the desire to go on living, come what may. He just wants the life of this self not to end, rather than wanting a Spinozist life of the intellect.
  18. p. 99:
    • Williams says that Unamuno is – rightly – at equal remove from Manicheanism and Utilitarianism, describing the latter as “the one-legged descendent of the former”.
    • Williams usefully points out that Manicheanism (also Orphism and Platonism) contrasts the spirit and the body such that the former is eternal and aims at truth and salvation, while the latter is adjusted to pleasure and is destined for dissolution. Secular utilitarianism is just the residual half of this dualism. There is no immortality, so this life should go on as long as we (or, Williams thinks, ultimately others) think it pleasant for us to be around.
    • Whatever else is wrong with Unamuno’s philosophy, Williams thinks he’s right in denying that the meaning of life consists in managing the satisfactions in a body or in an abstract immortality without one.
    • It looks like Unamuno “looked for” the resurrection of the body16, which Williams describes as the “rather brutal Catholic faith”. But his real desire is to go on irrespective of agreeable experiences. Williams quotes him as preferring Hell to nothingness.
    • Williams can make no sense of this claim. Lucretius has disproved – if too lightly (Williams says) – the rational fear of nothingness. Yet Unamuno would prefer continued existence even if it involved limitless suffering, and we are back to a categorical desire for life that can push through not just the presence but the prospect of “unpleasant times”.
  19. p. 100:
    • Williams has claimed that – while this categorical desire remains – one will not want to die. But he has also shown – he thinks – that such an eternal life will be unliveable.
    • He thinks the reason is that the categorical desire will – as in the Makropulos case – go away where I remain recognisably myself, of whom I will eventually have had too much.
    • But prior to this, Williams admits (contra Lucretius) that there can be reasons for not dying, and that death comes either too early or too late. One should die just before the horrors of not doing so become evident.
    • He suspects that technical progress may make this luck rarer17, but that currently one can be “lucky in having the chance to die”.

COMMENT: Also in "Fischer (John Martin), Ed. - The Metaphysics of Death".

In-Page Footnotes ("Williams (Bernard) - The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality")

Footnote 1:
  • I’m trying to develop a method of reviewing philosophical papers that is more than just reading them, or jotting notes in the margin, but less than a complete analysis and commentary, which takes an inordinately long time, and takes longer to (re-) read than the original paper.
  • This time I’m writing the notes up electronically as I read the paper, with the intention of making a final review and commentary in due course.
  • I should probably skim through the articles first before writing anything – but it is difficult to do this with understanding.
  • I have commenced a Note (Click here for Note) on the Makropulos Case, though it is currently only a place-holder for the papers involved.
Footnote 2: See also "Moore (Adrian W.) - Williams, Nietzsche, and the Meaninglessness of Immortality".

Footnote 3: Williams is an opera aficionado, so probably cam across the opera directly rather than via the philosophical literature.

Footnote 4: I do not understand this argument, and may consequently be misrepresenting Williams here.

Footnote 5: I’m not sure of the import of this qualification. Is it that future life will be on balance good? Or that we don’t have good reasons for wanting to die soon?

Footnote 6: This chapter started life as a lecture given in 1972, when Williams, born in 1929 (Wikipedia: Bernard Williams) was indeed 42.

Footnote 7: Effectively reincarnation (Click here for Note).

Footnote 8: Because this is the only option (unlikely though it seems) if psychological continuity is not allowed.

Footnote 9:
  • Why is this so? Some of the so-called “proofs” of reincarnation seem to involve memories of past lives.
  • Of course, if there is too much psychological connectedness, the situation collapses into the Makropulos case.
Footnote 10: Williams assumes we’re sufficiently well-educated to understand the allusion. See Wikipedia: Tiresias and note the alternative spelling! It seems Tiresias had a life (or part-life) as a woman, maybe 7 lives on some accounts.

Footnote 11: As usual, without a reference. Maybe “Don Juan in Hell” (see Link), Act III of "Shaw (George Bernard) - Man and Superman".

Footnote 12: Ie. We just get on with it?

Footnote 13: I don’t know whether the Platonic introjection is a standard expression. A quick Google revealed nothing.

Footnote 14: Indeed, it seems to me that in rational enquiry I am at my least free – in that I am constrained by the evidence, or ought to be. Anyone sufficiently rational should come up with the same answer. My contribution – other than my choice of problem – is no more than a computer’s.

Footnote 15: Footnote 16: There’s a quotation – in untranslated Spanish – from a Basque tombstone.

Footnote 17: He’s not explicit, but he says “in more than one direction” – so, presumably either by cutting off life too early, or extending it too long.

"Yourgrau (Palle) - The Dead"

Source: Fischer - The Metaphysics of Death

Philosophers Index Abstract
  1. Contemporary philosophy has not sufficiently concerned itself with the meaning of death and the status of the dead.
  2. A large part of the trouble comes from the difficulty of theorizing about objects that no longer exist and from the elusiveness of the 'flow' of time that leaves the dead behind.
  3. I attempt to provide a metaphysical framework in which one can philosophize about the dead, and I try to shine some light on the relationships of living to temporality.

Author’s Introduction
  1. Death opens the door to metaphysics. We must be bold and step through it. Plato has already traced for us, in the Phaedo, some of the intricate strands that tie together death and philosophy, the master insisting even that philosophy is itself a kind of cultivation of dying.
  2. There are, indeed, at least three topics that an analysis of death can be expected to shed light on:
    • 1) through the meaning of death, the meaning of life,
    • 2) the nature of nonexistence, and
    • 3) the relation of living to temporality.
  3. By (1) I have in mind the Ecclesiastes problem: How can one's life have meaning if after all is said and done one is simply dead? "Seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten, and how dieth the wise man? as the fool."
  4. The second problem concerns the fact that the dead no longer exist, and mere thought about the nonexistent (never mind what the appropriate attitude to adopt toward them may be) has been a thorn in the side of philosophers at least since the time of Parmenides, the Prince of Being.
  5. Finally, one can hardly expect to unravel the mystery of death without coming to grips with the even greater mystery of time – since it is, after all, the past that receives the dead and the future that holds the clue to our own mortality. More specifically, there is the problem, associated with Lucretius, of why we fear death but not the seemingly symmetric phenomenon of our prenatal nonexistence.
  6. In what follows I will attempt to shed some light on the second and third problems. Thomas Nagel, in "The Absurd," has offered some interesting suggestions concerning the first, but this will not be our focus here.
  7. I will, however, be concerned to defend the following three theses:
    • 1) Death is an evil, a misfortune, and one that befalls the nonexistent themselves.
    • 2) The dead, appearances to the contrary, are not nothing.
    • 3) Most people will never exist.
  8. The significance of these sobering facts is something that I hope will emerge as a consequence of the ensuing discussion.

COMMENT: Originally published in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 84, No. 2 (Feb., 1987), pp. 84-101

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