Sooner or later we all face death. Will a sense of meaning help us?


Detail from the Dance with Death by Johann Rudolf Feyerabend. Courtesy the Basel Historical Museum, Switzerland/Wikipedia

Warren Ward | Aeon Ideas

‘Despite all our medical advances,’ my friend Jason used to quip, ‘the mortality rate has remained constant – one per person.’

Jason and I studied medicine together back in the 1980s. Along with everyone else in our course, we spent six long years memorising everything that could go wrong with the human body. We diligently worked our way through a textbook called Pathologic Basis of Disease that described, in detail, every single ailment that could befall a human being. It’s no wonder medical students become hypochondriacal, attributing sinister causes to any lump, bump or rash they find on their own person.

Jason’s oft-repeated observation reminded me that death (and disease) are unavoidable aspects of life. It sometimes seems, though, that we’ve developed a delusional denial of this in the West. We pour billions into prolonging life with increasingly expensive medical and surgical interventions, most of them employed in our final, decrepit years. From a big-picture perspective, this seems a futile waste of our precious health-dollars.

Don’t get me wrong. If I get struck down with cancer, heart disease or any of the myriad life-threatening ailments I learnt about in medicine, I want all the futile and expensive treatments I can get my hands on. I value my life. In fact, like most humans, I value staying alive above pretty much everything else. But also, like most, I tend to not really value my life unless I’m faced with the imminent possibility of it being taken away from me.

Another old friend of mine, Ross, was studying philosophy while I studied medicine. At the time, he wrote an essay called ‘Death the Teacher’ that had a profound effect on me. It argued that the best thing we could do to appreciate life was to keep the inevitability of our death always at the forefront of our minds.

When the Australian palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware interviewed scores of people in the last 12 weeks of their lives, she asked them their greatest regrets. The most frequent, published in her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying (2011), were:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me;
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard;
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings;
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends; and
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

The relationship between death-awareness and leading a fulfilling life was a central concern of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, whose work inspired Jean-Paul Sartre and other existentialist thinkers. Heidegger lamented that too many people wasted their lives running with the ‘herd’ rather than being true to themselves. But Heidegger actually struggled to live up to his own ideals; in 1933, he joined the Nazi Party, hoping it would advance his career.

Despite his shortcomings as a man, Heidegger’s ideas would go on to influence a wide range of philosophers, artists, theologians and other thinkers. Heidegger believed that Aristotle’s notion of Being – which had run as a thread through Western thinking for more than 2,000 years, and been instrumental in the development of scientific thinking – was flawed at a most fundamental level. Whereas Aristotle saw all of existence, including human beings, as things we could classify and analyse to increase our understanding of the world, in Being and Time (1927) Heidegger argued that, before we start classifying Being, we should first ask the question: ‘Who or what is doing all this questioning?’

Heidegger pointed out that we who are asking questions about Being are qualitatively different to the rest of existence: the rocks, oceans, trees, birds and insects that we are asking about. He invented a special word for this Being that asks, looks and cares. He called it Dasein, which loosely translates as ‘being there’. He coined the term Dasein because he believed that we had become immune to words such as ‘person’, ‘human’ and ‘human being’, losing our sense of wonder about our own consciousness.

Heidegger’s philosophy remains attractive to many today who see how science struggles to explain the experience of being a moral, caring person aware that his precious, mysterious, beautiful life will, one day, come to an end. According to Heidegger, this awareness of our own inevitable demise makes us, unlike the rocks and trees, hunger to make our life worthwhile, to give it meaning, purpose and value.

While Western medical science, which is based on Aristotelian thinking, sees the human body as a material thing that can be understood by examining it and breaking it down to its constituent parts like any other piece of matter, Heidegger’s ontology puts human experience at the centre of our understanding of the world.

Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with melanoma. As a doctor, I knew how aggressive and rapidly fatal this cancer could be. Fortunately for me, the surgery seemed to achieve a cure (touch wood). But I was also fortunate in another sense. I became aware, in a way I never had before, that I was going to die – if not from melanoma, then from something else, eventually. I have been much happier since then. For me, this realisation, this acceptance, this awareness that I am going to die is at least as important to my wellbeing as all the advances of medicine, because it reminds me to live my life to the full every day. I don’t want to experience the regret that Ware heard about more than any other, of not living ‘a life true to myself’.

Most Eastern philosophical traditions appreciate the importance of death-awareness for a well-lived life. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, for example, is a central text of Tibetan culture. The Tibetans spend a lot of time living with death, if that isn’t an oxymoron.

The East’s greatest philosopher, Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha, realised the importance of keeping the end in sight. He saw desire as the cause of all suffering, and counselled us not to get too attached to worldly pleasures but, rather, to focus on more important things such as loving others, developing equanimity of mind, and staying in the present.

The last thing the Buddha said to his followers was: ‘Decay is inherent in all component things! Work out your salvation with diligence!’ As a doctor, I am reminded every day of the fragility of the human body, how closely mortality lurks just around the corner. As a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, however, I am also reminded how empty life can be if we have no sense of meaning or purpose. An awareness of our mortality, of our precious finitude, can, paradoxically, move us to seek – and, if necessary, create – the meaning that we so desperately crave.Aeon counter – do not remove

Warren Ward is an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Queensland. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Lovers of Philosophy (2021).

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

Being & Becoming


This is a stub entry from Wikibin, the recycle bin of Wikipedia.

Christopher Macann

Christopher Macann (born March 3, 1941) is a philosopher who has devoted his life to the further development of the phenomenological position advanced by Martin Heidegger in Being and Time. Rather than accepting the conventional view that the two main forms of phenomenological philosophy—transcendental and ontological—are intellectually opposed, Macann conceives of them as stages in the ‘genesis’, or coming into being, of human consciousness. The logic of this genesis is comprehensively explored in Macann’s four-volume Being and Becoming (2007), which employs a Hegelian approach to integrate transcendental with ontological phenomenology—and to integrate phenomenology more generally with analytic philosophy. The aim of Macann’s programme is nothing less than to resolve the key dichotomies of contemporary philosophy, and to begin the task of reconciling Western intellectual traditions with the basic tenets of […].

Macann has taught philosophy at the Universities of Paris, California, Pennsylvania, London and Bordeaux, and is a research fellow of the , whose two year fellowship he held at the University of Heidelberg.


Christopher Elton Macann was born into a diplomatic family stationed in India. He lost his father in 1944 on the same day that his brother Peter was born. His mother, Cecile Rosemary Macann, remained in India until after the end of World War Two and then brought her sons back to England. Christopher and Peter were both sent to , Winchester, where they served as choral scholars in the Cathedral choir. Both brothers subsequently boarded at Tonbridge School in Kent.

Christopher went to Oxford University to read History at Lincoln College but switched, after a year, to Modern Greats (Politics, Philosophy and Economics). At Oxford he was introduced to philosophy in the form of Logical Positivism (Ayer) and Linguistic Philosophy (Wittgenstein and his disciples). His growing dissatisfaction with Oxford’s style of philosophy found sympathy in one of his professors, Sir Isaiah Berlin, who helped to re-orient Macann’s thinking in a Continental direction, and encouraged him to do his doctoral work in France.

At the University of Paris (the Sorbonne), Macann found a notable sponsor in Paul Ricoeur, who undertook to direct his doctoral work. Ricoeur subsequently invited Macann to teach British philosophy at the newly founded philosophy department at Nanterre. Macann’s teaching experience at Nanterre (1967-8) was cut short by the French student revolution of 1968, which however left him more time to complete his doctoral thesis.

In 1969, Macann took up a visiting appointment at the , which was transferred to a tenure-track position at the new UC campus at Santa Cruz (founded 1965). At that time, UC Santa Cruz sought to offer a Continental alternative—with a particular emphasis on phenomenology—to the orthodox Anglo-Saxon philosophy taught at most American universities. One of the two full professors in the Philosophy Department at UC Santa Cruz was a Husserl specialist, and the other was a Hegel and Heidegger specialist.

Following ideas developed in his doctoral thesis, and encouraged by UC Santa Cruz’s aspirations in Continental philosophy, Macann conceived an original phenomenological philosophical project of his own, which he termed ‘Being and Becoming’. But the extensive scope of this project meant that it could not be completed in time for his tenure review, so instead he began work on an epochal interpretation of the history of modern philosophy (covering eleven major historical figures). When this project also proved too extensive for the timing of the tenure review, Macann concentrated finally upon an interpretative transformation of Kant’s Critical philosophy, for which the historical precedent was Heidegger’s Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics.

Despite the positive response of the philosophy department as a whole, Macann’s Kant book was sent out for re-appraisal by the University of California and judged to be insufficient to justify a tenure appointment. This same book nevertheless sufficed to secure for Macann an Alexander von Humboldt research fellowship, the world’s most prestigious fellowship in the field of Continental philosophy. The Kant book was also later published on the recommendation of Hans-Georg Gadamer as “going beyond Heidegger”. The philosophical project offered and rejected for tenure at UC Santa Cruz indeed provided Macann with material for a life-time’s work in the field of phenomenological philosophy, a programme that is now largely complete.

Macann lives near Bordeaux in France in a neo-Gothic château, which also does chambres d’hôtes (bed and breakfast). Frequently amongst the guests are philosophers, other academics, and philosophy students.


Macann is best known for his ontological phenomenology: Being and Becoming (2007). Distinguishing three stages in the development of human consciousness, Being and Becoming situates ontological philosophy at the first (‘originary’) stage, analytic epistemology at the second (‘objective’) stage, and transcendental philosophy at the third (‘reflective’) stage. The fact that historically, ontological philosophy has always followed upon its transcendental complement (Aristotle after Plato, Hegel after Kant, and Heidegger after Husserl), calls for a re-instantiation of the originary stage—a reflective recuperation of the origin—thereby transforming a mere linear progression into a cyclical, spiral genesis. Along similar lines, the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty talked of ontological phenomenology as ‘reflection upon the unreflected’.

By grounding the ‘being’ of human being in its being a body, Macann has also been able to bring the structures of his cyclical ontological genesis in line with the findings of the sciences, thereby avoiding the excessively formal and non-empirical character of Heidegger’s ontology. Although Macann’s opening on Eastern philosophy—particularly the Vedantic philosophy (seen through the eyes of Sri Aurobindo) and Japanese philosophy—is only preliminary, he is convinced that the greatest task awaiting philosophy is to close the philosophical gap between East and West and so point the way towards a genuinely universal world philosophy.

The first division of Macann’s life-long philosophical programme has been published in a four-volume edition entitled Being and Becoming. Its first volume is devoted to General Metaphysics; its second volume to Natural Philosophy (Time, Space); its third volume to Social Philosophy (Personal Relations, Language); and its fourth volume to Practical Philosophy (Freedom, Ethics). In the first edition of Being and Becoming, the second, third and fourth volumes are each missing their conclusive theme (currently under development by Macann): Natural Philosophy is awaiting an enquiry into Causality; Social Philosophy an enquiry into Culture; and Practical Philosophy an enquiry into Politics.

The second division of Being and Becoming, an epochal interpretation of the history of modern philosophy which will be entitled The Descendence of Transcendence, comprises essays on eleven historical figures grouped into three epochs: a transcendent epoch (Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Hume), a transcendental epoch (Kant, Husserl), and an ontological epoch (Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre). This epochal interpretation is complete and will be published shortly.

Macann is the author of several other studies in the field of phenomenological philosophy, including Presence and Coincidence and Four Phenomenological Philosophers. He is also editor of a Routledge collection of essays, Martin Heidegger: Critical Assessments. He has been responsible for numerous philosophical translations from the French and German into English, including Michael Theunissen’s Der Andere, translated as The Other, and Phénoménologie et physiologie de l’action, by Alain Berthoz and Jean-Luc Petit, translated as The Physiology and Phenomenology of Action.

In conjunction with a former philosophy student of his at UC Santa Cruz, David Gettman, Macann founded in 1996 the Internet’s first professional e-book publishing house, through which the first edition of Being and Becoming was published in 2007 in both e-book and library (printed) editions. In addition, Online Originals has published a novel by Macann entitled Ananda and a social critique, Egoism and the Crisis in Western Civilization.

Selected Publications

Kant and the Foundations of Metaphysics. Carl Winter, Universitätsverlag, Heidelberg, 1981.

The Other. A translation of Michael Theunissen’s Der Andere. M.I.T. Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1984.

Presence and Coincidence: The transformation of transcendental into ontological phenomenology. Phaenomenologica 119, Martinus Nijhoff: The Hague, 1990.

Martin Heidegger: Critical Assessments, editor, London: Routledge, 1992, (4 Vols.)

Four Phenomenological Philosophers, London: Routledge, 1993.

Critical Heidegger, London: Routledge, 1994.

Being and Becoming, Volume I, General Metaphysics; Volume II, Natural Philosophy; Volume III, Social Philosophy; Volume IV, Practical Philosophy, Online Originals: London & Bordeaux, 2007.

Phénoménologie et physiologie de l’action, by Alain Berthoz & Jean-Luc Petit, translated by Christopher Macann as: The Physiology and Phenomenology of Action, Oxford University Press, 2008.


See Also

Being and Becoming

OOOH! What Now Nietzsche!?

In its answers to the question concerning beings as such, metaphysics operates with a prior conception of Being. It speaks of Being necessarily and hence continually. But metaphysics does not induce Being itself to speak, for metaphysics does not recall Being in its truth, nor does it recall truth as unconcealedness, nor does it recall the nature of unconcealedness. To metaphysics the nature of truth always appears only in the derivative form of the truth of knowledge and the truth of propositions which formulate our knowledge. Unconcealedness, however, might be prior to all truth in the sense of veritasAlitheia might be the word that offers a hitherto unnoticed hint concerning the nature of esse which has not yet been recalled.

If this should be so, then the representational thinking of metaphysics could certainly never reach this nature of truth, however zealously it might devote itself to historical studies of pre-Socratic philosophy; for what is at stake here is not some renaissance of pre-Socratic thinking: any such attempt would be vain and absurd. What is wanted is rather some regard for the arrival of the hitherto unexpressed nature of unconcealedness, for it is in this form that Being has announced itself. Meanwhile the truth of Being has remained concealed from metaphysics during its long history from Anaximander to Nietzsche.

Why does metaphysics not recall it? Is the failure to recall it merely a function of some kinds of metaphysical thinking? Or is it an essential feature of the fate of metaphysics that its own ground eludes it because in the rise of unconcealedness its very core, namely concealedness, stays away in favor of the unconcealed which appears in the form of beings?

– Martin Heidegger

My question to you, late Heidegger: What compels you to write about the nature of Being up to Nietzsche and YOU in metaphysics?

As a philosopher apparently I converse with the dead. They’re my friends, but they’re all idiots. At least Nietzsche’s Being is interesting though, Heidegger.

Life Beyond Logic

The rational is not thinkable without its other, the non-rational, and it never appears in reality without it. The only question is, in what form the other appears, how it remains in spite of all, and how it is to be grasped.

It is appropriate for philosophizing to strive to absorb the non-rational and counter-rational, to form it through reason, to change it into a form of reason, indeed, finally to show it as identical with reason; all Being should become law and order.

But both the defiant will and honest mind turn against this. They recognize and assert the unconquerable non-rational.

We wish to subordinate ourselves to the natural character of impulses and passions, to the immediacy of what is now present. These drives are now translated by the philosophy which adheres to them into a knowledge of the non-rational: philosophy expresses its falling into the non-rational, the counter-rational, and the super-rational as a knowledge about them. Yet, even in the most radical defiance of reason, there remains a minimum of rationality.

For Aristotle, there were men, the alogoi, who had a better principle than deliberative reason; their affairs succeeded without and even counter to reason.

The contemporary philosophical situation is determined by the fact that two philosophers, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, who did not count in their times and, for a long time, remained without influence in the history of philosophy, have continually grown in significance. Philosophers after Hegel have increasingly returned to face them, and they stand today unquestioned as the authentically great thinkers of their age. Both their influence and the opposition to them prove it. Why then can these philosophers no longer be ignored, in our time?

In the situation of philosophizing, as well as in the real life of men, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche appear as the expression of destinies…

Whoever even once thought he heard softly the authentic philosophic note can never tire of trying to communicate it.

– Karl Jaspers


Who has thought about the deepest, loves what is most alive. – Hölderlin

Every metaphysical question can only be put in such a way that the questioner as such is by his very questioning involved in the question. – Heidegger

Behind the Scenes

Martin Heidegger


Metaphysics, however, speaks continually and in the most various ways of Being. Metaphysics gives, and seems to confirm, the appearance that it asks and answers the question concerning Being. In fact, metaphysics never answers the question concerning the truth of Being, for it never asks this question. Metaphysics does not ask this question because it thinks of Being only by representing beings as beings. …

Due to the manner in which it thinks of beings, metaphysics almost seems to be, without knowing it, the barrier which keeps man from the original involvement of Being in human nature.

What if the absence of this involvement and the oblivion of this absence determined the entire modern age? What if the absence of Being abandoned man more and more exclusively to beings, leaving him forsaken and far from any involvement of Being in his nature, while this forsakenness itself remained veiled? What if this were the case – and has been the case for a long time now? What if there were signs that this oblivion will become still more decisive in the future?

Would there still be occasion for a thoughtful person to give himself arrogant airs in view of this fateful withdrawal with which Being presents us? Would there still be occasion, if this should be our situation, to deceive ourselves with pleasant phantasms and to indulge, of all things, in an artificially induced elation? If the oblivion of Being which has been described here should be real, would there not be occasion enough for a thinker who recalls Being to experience a genuine horror? What more can his thinking do than to endure in dread this fateful withdrawal while first of all facing up to the oblivion of Being? But how could thought achieve this as long as its fatefully granted dread seems to it no more than a mood of depression? What does such dread, which is fated by Being, have to do with psychology or psychoanalysis?

Suppose that the overcoming of metaphysics involved the endeavor to commence with a regard for the oblivion of Being – the attempt to learn to develop such a regard, in order to experience this oblivion and to absorb this experience into the involvement of Being in man, and to preserve it there: then, in the distress of the oblivion of Being, the question, “What is metaphysics?” might well become the most necessary necessity for thought.

Thus everything depends on this: that our thinking should become more thoughtful in its season. …

Will Christian theology make up its mind one day to take seriously the word of the apostle and thus also the conception of philosophy as foolishness?

Nihilism has a very specific meaning. What remains unquestioned and forgotten in metaphysics is Being; and hence, it is nihilistic.

Cue The Matrix.