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Introductions and Comments > Which philosopher can help us cope better with our own mortality?

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message 1: by Danielle (new)

Danielle Aleixo | 4 comments Nietzche, Epicurius and Spinoza have really guide me into understanding my finitude and the need to live the present with pleasure and endurance. Any opinions on this topic?


message 2: by Feliks (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) | 89 comments The existentialists. Without hesitation, that is my suggestion.
No, not just the simplistic stuff of Sartre and Camus.
Start there, but move into existentialism combined with phenomenology.
Heidegger. Merleau-Ponty. Husserl. These writers truly help one focus on each moment.
Bolster one's nerves to face any extremity.

And don't overlook spirituality, either.
The Upanishads, for example (Joseph Campbell's pick for himself).
Christianity, too. 'The Imitation of Christ' or 'Interior Castle'.

Vernacular writing too, has its consolation:
'Anatomy of Melancholy' by Burton. Soothes the tortured mind.


message 3: by Phil (new)

Phil (turbulent_architect) I have never found much comfort - or anything else, really - in Nietzsche, and I have always found peoples' enthusiasm for Spinoza a little baffling, so I have little to say about what can be gained from their writings.

Personally, I find the Stoics, and in particular Epictetus, much more insightful on the question of mortality. I also have an affinity for Kant's views. Both of these have in common an emphasis on leading a good life and a disdain for morbid speculation about a finitude that can neither be remedied, nor even asserted with certainty.

Most of all, though, I find Wittgenstein's view in the Tractatus to be particularly insightful on this front. Here again questions regarding the afterlife, the soul, etc are summarily dismissed as nonsensical and therefore unanswerable, leaving behind only the world and our ethical living:

6.431: "So too at death the world does not alter, but comes to an end."

6.4311: "Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death.
If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.
Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits."


message 4: by Phil (new)

Phil (turbulent_architect) Also, Feliks: I positively venerate Merleau-Ponty, but I'm not sure how much he has to say about mortality or finitude. What texts are you thinking of?


message 5: by Feliks (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) | 89 comments Ah yah Kant and Aristotle I'd agree with those picks; Liebniz as well--but only if purity of thought is something you enjoy. I never found anything particularly uplifting in these beautiful thinkers; just marvel at the crystalline quality of what they can do.

Yes! The stoics. Epictetus and Heraclitus. 100%

Now, Merleau-Ponty is superb as I say because he shakes one out of the 'automatic pilot' we all typically run on. All our 'learned behaviors' which keep us in a fog; keep us from self-realization.

MP breaks all that down so you can set it aside. Think of it this way: many people fear being struck blind, (as many people dread death). Our sight and hearing; the functions of our bodies; our physical rhythms...to many, there is a sense of being 'welded' to all this. One agonizes: 'how could I ever give up this body?'. We are comfortable in our skins. Its all we've ever known.

But when you examine (as MP does) what the body-experience really consists of--it becomes much less a vital priority. You can finally see that your 'self' is not your senses. You can give up sensation, prepare to give up sensation...after reading him. Its no longer terrifying. Your body was not truly 'you'.


message 6: by Phil (last edited Jan 25, 2017 10:15AM) (new)

Phil (turbulent_architect) "Your body was not truly 'you'."

This is very literally the opposite of Merleau-Ponty's conclusion in Phenomenology of Perception.

Re: "autopilot", a large part of Merleau-Ponty's analysis consists precisely in trying to break down the dichotomy between automatic bodily functions and willed action in order to paint the corps propre (which Colin Smith abysmally translates as "one's own body", but which would be much better rendered as "the lived body") as being neither an "in-itself" (a mere object) or a "for-itself" (a pure consciousness), but something in between.

If anything, Merleau-Ponty is trying to affirm our being "welded to our senses" - put otherwise, to affirm the unity of mind and body - against two thousand years of philosophers who have thought that mind and body could in principle be distinguished. Reason, the self, etc. are for him always situated: in time, in history, and most importantly, in a body.


message 7: by Feliks (last edited Jan 25, 2017 11:46AM) (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) | 89 comments No, I'd put it exactly the opposite from your objection. MP is not about tedious, boring debates as to whether objects or bodies are 'for themselves' or 'of themselves'. Yes, that's all covered in the book of course, but it's the most meager thing to take away from his text.

Because you can always find those dry, rote exercises in a dozen other philosophers and in hundreds of other books. Focus on it, and you miss the real value of what he did, which was to explore medical results. Optics and neurology, brain function, memory, the nervous system.

Really, it sounds like you're saying the same thing as I am (in your paraphrase of TPoP), even when you're switching items around.
You: "there is no mind/body divide, MP suggests that our reasoning-about-an-object has always been influenced by our optics"
Me: "well, since our idea of a circle has always been influenced by optics, therefore I am free to think about it in a different way, or even not think about it at all"

Who comes out better? I think I do. For the sake of warding off 'mortality anxiety', certainly.

I see part of MP's tremendous value in that he doesn't try to 'tell one what to think'. I'm not even sure why you would care to hear how him reinforce that our reason is situated 'in our bodies'. For me, that is his fresh starting point; not just dully coming back around to a place of historical divergence 2,000 years ago.

What do you do with the new understanding he affords? Stand still? How do you use it? What's the benefit? I say the gain is that you don't have to be tied down anymore. If MP proves that our ideas are skewed by our perceptions, (unified mind/body) then what's the worth of this reasoning-power which is always so fettered? You can either stop there--with that dry factuality--or move on with the fresh insight, away from it all; into new spiritual territory.

For me, the best philosophers are always those who help me discover new ways to live; rather than just academic prattle. "Autopilot" is just my phrase to refer to the absent-mindedness in people who have never read any phenomenology at all. There's a popular impression that philosophy is always too-abstract and never really 'useful'. But I think everyone is interested in the way perception works. I use the same term towards readers of poetry. Both audiences benefit from being 'shook up'.

Eh. Digressing. But I won't further split hairs over what I gained from MP vs what you may have gained. When someone can show me (as MP did) that I am not correctly seeing an object even when I am gazing straight at it; and that my sense of touch is as dubious as the same sensation is experienced by a soldier who has lost his arms...then the upshot is, that the senses are ephemeral and incomplete in their very design.

Perception gives an incomplete world-view. The abstract idea of 'a circle' is not necessarily the one which is presented to us by vision. Therefore, the confidence we have in our faculties--and the world they translate for us--is mistaken. That's the long and the short of it. MP overturns the entirely pragmatic social mindset of 'seeing is believing' which everyone around us always parrots. If you didn't gain all this benefit from the book, I'm sorry to hear that.

Bottom line: the OP is free to take my advice or not, just as she sees fit. I'd bet anything she will come away with the sense of liberation I obtained.


message 8: by Danielle (new)

Danielle Aleixo | 4 comments Thanks Feliks and Phillipe for the contributions. Do you recommend a specific MP book to start with?

I am not quite familiar with phenomenology. I find it very abstract.

With respect to Spinoza, I find his approach to nature very inspiring. Feeling as a small part of nature make us feel eternal somehow.


message 9: by Phil (last edited Jan 26, 2017 07:56AM) (new)

Phil (turbulent_architect) Feliks wrote: "No, I'd put it exactly the opposite from your objection. MP is not about tedious, boring debates as to whether objects or bodies are 'for themselves' or 'of themselves'. Yes, that's all covered in ..."

Well, I am really not sure what sort of gain is involved in the claim that "since our idea of a circle has always been influenced by optics, therefore I am free to think about it in a different way, or even not think about it at all," nor even what it is supposed to mean. Before reading M-P, were you under the impression that you were under a moral obligation to think about circles?

Merleau-Ponty's point is not that our ideas are skewed by our perceptions, but that they are indissociable from them. Again, you seem to be reading him as some sort of Kantian or Platonist, and so assimilating him to the very tradition that he aims to reject. You seem to be reading the doctrine of things-in-themselves or that of appearance vs. reality into the one work that is probably furthest from them. Some of your comments sound positively Cartesian.

That being the case, I really don't understand what you think there is to gain in M-P. Everything you attribute to him has already been said by Plato, Kant, Descartes, etc. The only difference would be the kind of evidence he marshals in support of them, while in fact, what M-P tries to do is to use then-contemporary advances in the hard sciences to try to undermine those very doctrines. That, to me, seems to be a tremendous gain. If you read some of the secondary literature, interviews, etc. on the topic, you will find that this is exactly what virtually everyone - including M-P himself - thought he was doing.

What you will do with his conclusions, if you think they are well founded, I cannot hope to tell you. But I think that for the average person, the shift from a view of oneself as a disembodied mind attached to physical body, the shift from an impoverished to a holistic view of the self, the shift from an idealistic and absolutist conception of free will to one that is conditioned by one's past and present circumstances, and the consequent shift from the traditional prioritizing of viva contemplativa to that of recognizing viva activa as the primary mode of human being are sure to bring with them consequences both in self-understanding and in way of life.


message 10: by Phil (last edited Jan 26, 2017 08:09AM) (new)

Phil (turbulent_architect) Also, Danielle: Merleau-Ponty is a very tough read. He cites a lot of scientific research and tends to assume that you are already highly familiar with the works of Kant, Husserl, and Sartre and with their esoteric vocabularies. For that reason, I would recommend starting with some sort of introduction.

Taylor Carman's Merleau-Ponty is a great place to start and can give you a feeling for what is going on in his work without losing you. If you then want to read the primary literature, Merleau-Ponty: Basic Writings, edited by Thomas Baldwin seems to have a good selection. I would recommend not starting with the selections from The Structure of Behaviour, as it is particularly dry and more scientific than philosophical.

Hubert Dreyfus, a prominent english-speaking scholar of phenomenology at MIT, also has lectures on The Phenomenology of Perception available on Youtube. They are decent, though Dreyfus tends to ramble a bit in his old age. On a side-note, since you asked about phenomenology in general, Dreyfus' Being-in-the-World is an excellent way into Heidegger's Being and Time and is both highly accessible and good at highlighting the existential relevance of Heidegger's thought.

I have also always had a soft spot for Sartre's Existentialism is a Humanism (which I believe is also sometimes translated as Existentialism and Humanism). It is a very accessible and very fun read, and since it is the transcription of a public lecture, you can get through it in an afternoon. It can familiarize you with all the central tenets of Sartre's early thought.

Hope this helps!


message 11: by Danielle (new)

Danielle Aleixo | 4 comments Thanks a lot Phillipe, I will now have a long list of books to read this year. So much to learn, it feels great!


message 12: by Anthony (new)

Anthony | 2 comments "a free man thinks of nothing less than of death," suggests Spinoza, but Miguel de Unamuno (being Spanish, like myself) saw this as the 'De Profundis' of a man in chains.
Philosophy (at its very best, Plato to Wittgenstein, say) may help us to die (with nobility) but no amount of preparation, it seems to me, can mitigate the terrifying fear of Death (as distinct from dying; a much easier prospect)
Only great Art (a 'religious' aesthetic; I'm thinking of George Steiner's wager on transcendence, or Peter Berger's rumour of angels) can hope to instil any Hope.
Bach's music, Dante's poetry, Chagall's paintings, Dostoevsky's novels, in works of this calibre melancholia becomes mystical, and we are transported back to the courts of the wisest (most sorrowful) man of all: King Solomon.
In other words, I don't believe anyone can (really) help us endure (the ways of the world) but figures like Solomon exemplify some way of 'coping' with this (disillusionment).
The late (great) John Berger probably sums it up best ('Hold Everything Dear') or another beautiful figure (now departed) Leonard Cohen ('Do not lament casually')


message 13: by Kendall (new)

Kendall Moore Robert Eduard Von Hartmann, Max Stirner, Ayn Rand, Albert Camus, and Rudolf Steiner.

A heroic end even if just for an average person.


message 14: by Nick (new)

Nick Riso (nickriso) | 3 comments Old topic, but old only in the sense that it was created long ago. Always itself pervading our lives.

That being said, I want to switch gears and recommend someone not typically thought of as a philosopher in the western, academic sense... Proust!

I've somewhat recently finished his ISoLT after working on it for quite a long time, and, though it may be somewhat cumbersome at times, the wealth of insight shines through that's really been unrivaled by anything else I've read thus far. To me, it was like phenomenology in practice, which gave me such a rich and exhilarating experience of the surrounding world.

It's not for the light-hearted, though. You're life will be changed.


message 15: by L (new)

L | 6 comments Nietzsche, Plato I find very transparent and Kant.

I would recommend Thus spoke Zarathustra and the answer to the question: what is enlightenment and Plato's Laws.


message 16: by Rafael (new)

Rafael Zucolotto | 1 comments I would not neglect Simone Weil!
What Camus has said - 'The only great spirit of our time' - gives the idea of the heights of her thoughts!
Based on a theist cosmovision, her philosophy is clearly presented in a rare non-dogmactic fashion, therefore easily comprehensive even though you previously have disagreements on points of view and insights.
Hardly recommend 'Grace and Gravity', 'Waiting for God' and 'La personne et Le
Sacré'.Unique thinker whose genius is still unknown in the mainstream.
A iníquo th


message 17: by Danielle (new)

Danielle Aleixo | 4 comments Great Rafael. I will add Simone Weil to my readings! Thanks


message 18: by Numi (new)

Numi Who | 16 comments Danielle wrote: "Nietzche, Epicurius and Spinoza have really guide me into understanding my finitude and the need to live the present with pleasure and endurance. Any opinions on this topic?"

There is a new philosophy - the Philosophy of Broader Survival, that offers the ultimate sane mode of thinking on life. It will be the philosophy of the future. The past and present will be seen as a sad time for humans.


message 20: by Aporias (new)

Aporias | 1 comments In trying to cope with our own mortality, I believe, we must realize that there is no better author to cope with death. At best we may find a cop-out, an evasion, but certainly not a coping method. We will die, there is nothing to do about it, not even coping.

Having said that, I agree with previous comments that both Nietzsche and Spinoza can inspire reflection and philosophies that confront us with the basic fact of our finitude. An interesting analysis of how cultures react to death can be found in The Denial of Death, these reactions have consequences on how the individual psyche understands and confronts death in its own way. I would highly recommend existentialist writers which have already been mentioned before so I'll skip that. Finally, I would suggest Leaves of Grass. If living our life to the fullest is the best response we can give to death, then this book is certainly a song to such heroic answer. Although it is not a philosophical book but a poetry one, it condenses the views of those such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, you could complement the reading of Whitman's poetry with the essays of Emerson.


message 21: by Walter (new)

Walter Horn | 15 comments My own efforts in that direction can be found in a book called The Perennial Solution Center.


message 22: by Michael (new)

Michael | 27 comments do not know if Merleau-Ponty necessarily helps you 'cope' with death: he helps you 'cope' with life... 'the lived body' is the absolute facticity we must all accept, as inevitability or death, as end with no remainder, such that 'coping' is something that poets are better at than any philosophers...


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