Do We Die Alone? Edith Stein’s critique of Martin Heidegger

This essay is long, lots to chew on (and probably lots to spit out).  For those of you, besides my immediate family–thanks mom, who venture on and read it, either in part or whole–Lord have mercy on you.–Ken



In the recently translated appendix to Edith Stein’s major work Eternal and Finite Being, Stein assesses Martin Heidegger’s philosophy. This essay focuses on a narrow portion of that work and reviews Stein’s critique of Heidegger’ claim in Being and Time that authentic death is experienced alone. The central focus of the essay concerns the nature of intersubjectivity and whether it can be said either that the process of dying can be shared or that the dead are disconnected from the living. In other words: do we die alone?


Do We Die Alone? Edith Stein’s Critique of Heidegger



Prefatory remarks: Do we die alone?

When I first envisaged writing a paper on dying alone, I had in mind reports of soldiers dying on the battlefield and their claims of camaraderie during that ordeal and their conviction that the living and dead are in solidarity. My student soldiers who return from the intensity of close living, where deep bonds develop in the face of danger, often lament the loss of a sense of community in the humdrum of everydayness, and yearn to journey back to the world of war and death. I envisaged writing a paper to show that these reports of solidarity were not necessarily illusory; Heidegger was mistaken when he claimed that the experience of dying cannot be authentically shared. I wanted to take sides with the soldiers, knowing that they asked for no intellectual defense. I felt it was important to show that their pre-theoretical intuitions have a deep grounding in the nature of being. Further, the experiences of sharing with the dead and dying illumine something deep and mysterious about the nature of being human and therefore should not be philosophically dismissed.

However, before I got around to writing the paper, death intruded itself deeply into my own experience with the murder of my own 20-year-old son, Casey Olmsted. This event has shaken me to the core and lends a new, personal urgency to the question for me.

Imagine with me a bereaved parent who spies on the funeral home’s literature rack a pamphlet entitled ‘In your hour of need’. Next to it are two rather bulky texts: Edith Stein’s Finite and Eternal Being and Heidegger’s Being and Time. Despite the absurdity of that image, I am in a way that parent. At first glance, questions about the nature of the ‘I’, the ‘they-self’, ‘Dasein’ and ‘mitt-sein’ all seem far removed from what a person with tears streaming down his face would want to address. For me, reeling and raw from the shock of my son’s death, the questions swirled but one seemed to reoccur with great force: ‘need we die alone?’ Though the literal meaning of aloneness as physical absence is quite clear; there are other less literal meanings of ‘alone’. In one sense it can mean isolated, estranged and alienated. Solitude is another sense of the word ‘alone’—in contradistinction from isolation, some have claimed that solitude, while it may imply a separation, at the same time implies a deep communion of being with others; it is alone, but not isolated. It may seem that the contrast between solitude and estrangement here is primarily a psychological subjective state. Although I don’t deny that this is an important component in what we mean by dying alone, my concern here is less psychological and more metaphysical. I want to gloss the question, ‘do we or need we die alone?’ this way: at the core of our being does death intrude itself in such manner as to estrange and isolate or is there a kind of communion that binds the living and the dead? The word communion of course is laden theologically, but without excluding the idea of a communion of saints, I want to look at basic structures of being that are shared or perhaps not shared across the chasm of death.

A sufficient philosophical answer requires an understanding of ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘we’, ‘they’, ‘death’, ‘aloneness’, and no doubt many other terms. Both Heidegger and Stein fruitfully elucidate the nuances of meaning in all these terms. This essay considers what Heidegger says about Dasein and the meaning of death, reviews Stein’s critique, and explores the extent to which Stein’s work is helpful as an ethical and metaphysical understanding of the meaning of life and death.


Heidegger’s inquiry into the meaning of being


Heidegger’s Being and Time sets out to explore and re-open the question of the meaning of being.  The direction of the inquiry is partly informed by the phenomenological method.  That method, as developed by Husserl, attempts to look within particular conscious experience by giving fine-grained descriptions and then seeking to discover what is common or universal to all experience.  Heidegger’s phenomenological beginnings start with Dasein and an explication of the concepts necessary to it; this he calls the analytic of Dasein.  For Heidegger, being as experienced is always “being there” or Dasein.  The explication of Dasein includes a notion of “everydayness.”  Everydayness is a pre-philosophical consciousness.  It is pre-philosophical because though notions of subject and object may be interpreted as operating within it, they are not clearly articulated—or rather they are overlays that can obscure the more original and primordial sense of the term.  The goal of the inquiry is not to let over-determined philosophical concepts into the inquiry and then draw them out like a rabbit already put inside the hat.  For example, even if we have our notions of space geometrically informed by an infinite Cartesian grid, this is not our primordial awareness of space.  Rather, Dasein is experienced as having a right, left, up and down (a shifting center) and things are then far or near.

Dasein’s fundamental structure is explicated by Heidegger in the notion of care (sorge).  Care is always ahead of itself.  It stretches out toward the future (again this is not an idea of clock time) and projects its possibilities into the future.  The being that has care, then, is one that has possibilities inherent in it.  Temporality is inherent to its structure; it can look back to what it has been as well as forward.  As being in the world there are a variety of possibilities. Possibilities that involve other things to be used are dubbed “ready-to-hand’; the world is furnished by these.  Also present in the original state are other beings like myself; these are not just “ready to hand” but are also part of Dasein—Dasein is also mitt-sein or being with others.  Here is an important ambiguity about the term Dasein—it describes both myself and others.  This ambiguity will become important later as Dasein considers death as “my death.”

Having explicated Dasein in terms of being-in the world, with others (mitt-sein), and care, Heidegger asks if he has captured the totality of care’s being.  Given the nature of care as always ahead of itself, the answer would seem to be that no explication of its being can be complete, since there is always some unexercised possibility to which Dasein stretches. Thus, he comes to the tentative conclusion that temporality is one of the horizons of its being.  In asking the question about the totality of its own being, Heidegger delves into the question of Dasein’s death, asking how death can somehow drive Dasein to apprehend its own being as a totality.

Heidegger on death


The meaning of the totality of Dasein can come into focus, Heidegger says, only if examined existentially. Heidegger’s analysis begins with an existentielle rather than existential.  Existentielle is everydayness that is not cluttered with ontic freight.  Although ontic existentials will form a hermeneutic by which the meaning of being is addressed, this meaning has a primordial ground in the human being’s individual being. Although the formal structure of care as ‘always ahead of itself’ helps focus the inquiry into being, it is only the primordial experience of Dasein that will reveal authentic being. Beginning formally with an ‘analytic of Dasein’, he defines end and totality to narrow the inquiry into Dasein itself. One way to look at the narrowing is to see it as a constriction, telling us what is excluded from a proper, authentic inquiry. Seeing a loved one dying may bleed part of my world away, but ‘my death’ leads to the end of the world as such for me; the only world I can experience vanishes.  In the experience of my death, an existentielle is revealed; in the experience of the death of another, something existential is revealed.  The initial narrowing of the question rejects the experience of the death of others as irrelevant to his inquiry into the meaning of Dasein’s being. Heidegger is absolute in his rejection of the place of the death of others as a ‘substitute’ for the understanding of death.

Why is the inquiry limited here? Two reasons are given in the early sections of Part II in Being and Time. The first limitation is based on a general rejection of ontological categories; the second regards the rejection that the death of others can be an adequate basis for understanding my own death. These two claims are inter-related, but let me treat them seriatim.

Rejection of interpretative schemas as posterior to investigation of Dasein


In section 48 Heidegger’s difficulties manifest themselves in a discussion of ‘the corpse’, which falls ‘betwixt and between’ his two categories of Dasein and an object present-at-hand. We are told that ‘the end of the entity qua Dasein is the beginning of the same entity qua something present-at-hand’.[1] However, the corpse does not fit easily here, for it is something more than a ‘lifeless material thing. In it we encounter something unalive, which has lost its life’.[2] Heidegger notes that while a corpse could be a subject for a student of pathological anatomy, Dasein is beyond biology and precedes these inquiries. Heidegger explains:

The existential Interpretation of death takes precedence over any biology and ontological interpretation of life. But it is also the foundation for any investigation of death which is biographical or historiological, ethnological or psychological. In any ‘typology’ of ‘dying’, as a characterization of the conditions in which a demise is ‘Experienced’ and of the ways in which it is ‘Experienced’, the concept of death has already been presupposed. Moreover, a psychology of ‘dying’ gives information about the ‘living’ of the person who is ‘dying’, rather than about dying itself.[3]

Note that several terms are in scare quotes. One is ‘experience’. All ‘experience’ occurs in the world and under the headings of various disciplines. But this is an ‘experience’ that is not an experience or rather is primal to other kinds of experience (for instance experience interpreted psychologically or biographically). It will be an ‘experience’ that is un-interpreted by any of the various logoi that are mobilized as part of understanding.

Living and dying are also put into scare-quotes; but what is living and dying and how are they conceived? First, a kind of parenthetical substitution occurs when he writes ‘in the dying of the other we can experience that phenomenon of Being which may be defined as the change-over of an entity of Dasein’s kind of being (or life) to no-longer-Dasein’.[4]  He defines death: ‘death reveals itself as that possibility which is one’s ownmost, which is non-relational (umbezeugliche), and which is not to be outstripped (unuberholbare)’.[5] However, we are ahead of ourselves. In order to explain how death is ‘non-relational’ we must turn to what I am calling the second constriction of the question of death.

Rejection of Substitution of other persons as a means of inquiry into the being of Dasein


The second limitation that Heidegger places upon the inquiry is his rejection of any representation of knowing death through the dying of others. Dasein in its everydayness is always/already ‘being with’. However, in experiencing a corpse Heidegger qualifies a kind of ‘being with’: ‘In tarrying alongside and commemoration, those who have remained behind are with him, in a mode of respectful solicitude’.[6] However, ‘in such Being-with the dead, the deceased himself is no longer factically ‘there’.[7] ‘Being with’ must occur in the same world. We may not know which world or whether the other is in another world, but he or she is no longer in this one. To those who attend the funeral, death will reveal itself as a ‘loss such as experienced by those who remain. In suffering this loss, however, we have no way of access to the loss-of-being as such which the dying man “suffers.”’[8] The problem here seems to be one of access (since we can’t access their being). He goes on:

Even if we could make plain to ourselves ‘psychologically’ the dying of Others, this would by no means let us grasp the way-to-be which we would then have in mind—namely the coming to an end. We are asking about the ontological meaning of the dying person who dies, as a possibility which belongs to his being. We are not asking about the way in which the deceased has Dasein-with or is still-a-Dasein with those who are left behind. If death as experienced in Others is what we are enjoined to take as the theme for our analysis of Dasein’s end and totality, this cannot give us, either ontically or ontologically, what it presumes to give.[9]

This is a freighted passage; Heidegger simultaneously recognizes and dismisses the question of how the dead are ‘with’ the living.[10] The experience of dying is not a ‘psychological’ experience or at least its psychological rendering is not the most primordial. In addition to the closing of the psychological dimension, Heidegger also strikes a new note—the experience of the death of others cannot be substituted for an inquiry into the death of Dasein because the proper domain of death is always ‘my death’. The death of others would be a substitute for my death. Why?

Heidegger’s rejection is emphatic. Substituting another’s death for ‘my death’ rests upon ‘a presupposition which demonstrably fails to recognize Dasein’s kind of Being’.[11] This presupposition is the claim that ‘any Dasein may be substituted for another at random, so that what cannot be experienced in one’s own Dasein is accessible in that of a stranger’.[12] Ordinarily Heidegger says that representing is normally part of Dasein’s everyday being: it happens all the time and indeed ‘representability is not only quite possible but is even constitutive for our being with one another’.[13] However, though this ‘constitutes’ our being in life, in death where one’s being achieves its wholeness, it is unlike the being in life. In death representing comes to an end because “No one can take the Other’s dying away from him”’.[14]

Although it is possible that one can save another’s life by sacrificing one’s own, this is always in some definite affair in the world and ‘such “dying for” can never signify that the Other has thus had his death taken away in even the slightest degree’.[15] If ‘being with’ is constitutive for life, ending, as dying, is constitutive for Dasein’s totality; ‘in dying it is shown that mineness and existence are ontologically constitutive of death’.[16] My death is mine alone; in other words in dying, one is clearly alone. Is Heidegger doing anything here other than reiterating his claim in slightly different terms? Heidegger seems to think not. He claims that he is recognizing an existential fact: ‘these are the facts of the case existentially’.[17] Further, this claim is conjoined to a very peculiar ‘essential’ claim: ‘in the ending, there is, by its very essence, no representing’.[18] The existential claim eventually finds its way into the definition of death as in its essence ‘non-relational’.

The ‘non-relational’ character of Dasein in death finds its fuller elaboration in the discussion of how the ‘they-self’ falsifies the experience of death and allows Heidegger to contrast authentic and inauthentic modes of facing death. The authentic mode of being includes ‘being-toward death’, which accepts its end as inevitable and non-relational. However, in its being with others and in the midst of everydayness, the ‘self’ becomes ambiguous. Heidegger orients himself to this question of everydayness and death noting: ‘But the Self of everydayness is the “they”. The “they” is constituted by the way things have been publicly interpreted, which expresses itself in idle talk’.[19] Heidegger then notes the way in which awareness of an end seeks to hide the end from itself. His language, copying the everyday language of idle talk, is of ‘stranger’ and ‘neighbor’, ‘they’ and ‘one’ as in ‘one dies’. Only once in this section is there a first person plural ‘us’ used and never is there a ‘you’. The ‘they’ and the ‘they-self’ are always impersonal and indistinct. The they-self tries to envisage death as ‘not yet’ in order to evade rather than face it.

The ‘they’ knows fear of illness or violence but never pushes forward to the proper ‘mood’—anxiety. From what has been said about eschewing psychological descriptions, we must be careful in naming it as a mood, as Heidegger himself is. Anxiety is not a fear of this or that but a reaction to my own extreme and ever-present possibility that I will no longer be. Anticipation is a forerunner to full-blown anxiety, but the corporate understanding of death is ‘a constant tranquilization’. Conviction of the reality of one’s own death is avoided. In order, then, to seize one’s own death one must ‘”wrench” oneself off from the “they.”’[20] The belief that death or my death is open to corporate experience and interpretation is highly suspect and even prohibited by Heidegger on pain of being inauthentic. The question, ‘do we die alone?’ then has an emphatic answer—yes we do and inquiries that might suggest otherwise fail to understand basic existential facts about the essential nature of death.[21]

Edith Stein’s Response to Heidegger


Finite and Eternal Being is Stein’s attempt to plumb the question of the meaning of being. Its vision is quite different from that of Heidegger’s Being and Time. I shall explicate Stein by taking up two questions—1) What is Stein’s assessment of Heidegger’s thought generally and 2) is Heidegger’s understanding of death an adequate framing for the experience of death? I shall then attempt an evaluation of Stein’s critique of Heidegger.

Stein regards Heidegger’s comparison of ‘everydayness’ and authenticity as ‘masterly’.[22] As a contemporary of Heidegger she was well aware of the new ground that Heidegger had broken with Being and Time and appreciated the importance of the re-opening of the question of the meaning of being. Although her own work in Finite and Eternal Being approaches reality from what by Heidegger’s lights would be called ontological or metaphysical perspective, she valued the phenomenological approach to being as fruitful, and held that it could be rejected only on pain of philosophical regression. At the close of her work Finite and Eternal Being she attaches an appendix that addresses Heidegger’s work in Being and Time.  In the appendix she outlines her understanding of the progression of Heidegger’s investigation and also gives a brief, incisive critique.  Though Heidegger would never have seen the work it does open interesting dialogical possibilities and, I suggest, offers an insightful questioning of Heidegger’s project.

Stein holds that despite mastering many things well, Heidegger’s work does not press matters as far as it can, as seen in her insinuating question, ‘Does the investigation not in many places and in surprising ways halt in front of references which present themselves in a direct and imperious manner?’[23] It is these ‘surprising halts’ done in an ‘imperious manner’ that Stein believes close doors of inquiry inappropriately.

In the body of her work Stein endeavors to show that certain ideas can be accessed phenomenologically and clarified, including the ideas of eternity and form. Heidegger’s notion of time does not allow any notion of an ontological eternity; further, Heidegger’s inquiry into everydayness and Dasein will not allow formal notions of human being as primordial beginning points but only hermeneutical interpretations of being. Also the emphasis on Dasein and ‘human being’ has, from Stein’s point of view, neglected both divine and material being, which Heidegger rejects as onto-theology.[24] This, we could say, is Stein’s external critique—criticizing Heidegger’s position from the viewpoint of her own developed metaphysics and fundamental ontology.

However, she also develops an internal critique noting how the gaps in Heidegger’s inquiry point to two inadequacies within its own framework: first, in the phenomenological account of matter, and second, in his idea of wholeness, which is insufficient to cover the whole of being. For Stein, the analytic framework that Heidegger uses to open the question of being is insufficient to account for the phenomenon of anxiety, since the nature of care over-emphasizes the futurity of Dasein.[25] So Stein is not only pointing out a phenomenological problem, she is diagnosing its cause.  She claims that Heidegger’s treatment of anxiety about the future needs a significant explication. Heidegger notes a concern for preservation about the possibility of one’s being; however, the concern for the future is also about something beyond mere being in that it anticipates a fullness of being. Second, she maintains that the present must be ‘accorded its rightful position as the way of being open to fulfillment, which like a flash of eternal light—opens up the understanding of being’s fulfillment, and the past as the way of being that gives the impression of durability in the flux of our being’.[26] How does she arrive at this critique?

Heidegger’s framing of the experience of death


For Heidegger, death is the end of Dasein.  While the intent of his inquiry is to be ‘of this world’, he also claims that this will not foreclose a metaphysics or theology of death.  To account for death, some conception of it must be given.  Heidegger has defined it as the end of Dasein while simultaneously claiming that the movement toward death will show the meaning of Dasein. Dissatisfied, Stein writes:

Much is strange in this discussion. If it is the ultimate meaning of Dasein to be ‘being towards death’, then the meaning of Dasein should be clarified by the meaning of death. How is this possible, however, if nothing else can be said of death than that it is the end of Dasein? Is this not a completely fruitless circularity?[27]

Even if we grant that some analytic starting points are necessary, they need filling in by experience, to be tested and confirmed.  However, for Heidegger, there is no ‘filling in’ of the experience of death and no appeals to experiences are allowed here.  Rather than opening the experience of death in such a way to engage experience, he shuts the possibility down.  Heidegger has denied that both the near death experience of demise and the death of others are adequate to authentically reveal being; Stein will seek to show that these two experiences can be authentically illumining.

Turning from the criticism of the definition of death, Stein addresses the question that Heidegger treats at great length: How is death experienced? She writes, ‘1. Is there an experience of death? (Heidegger says yes!) 2. Is there an experience of the death of the other? (Heidegger says no!) 3. How do the two relate?’[28] In the previous discussion of Heidegger’s treatment of the experience of death, I tried to show how the word ‘experience’ is problematic; as a primal experience it is prior to all psychological categories and hence indescribable. But even if we allow the term ‘experience’ these experiences need to be examined.

These three points need amplification.  In saying that there is an experience of death, Heidegger is speaking metaphorically.  When Dasein encounters the possibility of death, angst can emerge by perceiving that the ‘object’ of anxiety is the non-existence of the totality—the possibility that I will not be in the world or that ‘my world’ as a whole will cease.  It is in this ‘experience’ that resoluteness can emerge in the face of death and being-toward death can emerge as an authentic response.  She writes: ‘According to Heidegger’s interpretation dying is “that way of being in which Dasein is toward its death,” and by this is not meant its “demise” as transition from life to death, but something belonging to Dasein as such, which co-constructs it so long as it lasts’.[29]  There is an ambiguity then about death—it can mean the process of dying (even over the entire process of life) and it can also mean the end.  However, why should demise be excluded as a possible site for an authentic process occurring?  The notion of resoluteness requires the involvement of choice and is more than something that merely happens to a person, and so in this sense because demise can ‘just happen’ without human will being involved, it can’t by itself create resoluteness; but why shouldn’t resoluteness grow out of the experience of demise less than any other experience?  Why isn’t any moment in human experience open to the cultivation of authentic response?  More about revelations from the experience of demise in a moment, Stein, thinks them revealing and potentially authentic. But perhaps I have jumped too fast to the authentic response.  Prior to the authentic and resolute response, another phenomenon occurs—angst.

For Heidegger, angst is that which reveals being-toward-death—it is closely connected to resoluteness, which takes death upon itself but also distinct.  Commenting on Heidegger Stein writes: ‘in resoluteness anguish has reached understanding.  Anguish as such does not understand itself’.[30]  Anguish is mood, growing out of care.  Heidegger interprets this as both ‘anguish for ones being and about ones being’; but Stein asks whether the same sense of being is referred to in the for and the about. She sees two very different meanings and so writes:

Does ‘being’ here mean the same in these two cases? Or more correctly: is it the same being wherefore and where-about one is anguished? That wherefore one is anguished is the possibility not to be, to which anguish testifies; it is the experience of the nothingness of our own being. That about which one is anguished and likewise that about which human beings are concerned with in their own being, is being as a fullness, which one would like to preserve and not leave behind—of which there is no mention in Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein and through which it would nevertheless first be founded.[31]

Stein’s notion of fullness is foreign to Heidegger’s vocabulary.  It may seem to have some analog with Heidegger’s notion of totality and one might be tempted to say that Stein has inserted the notion of ‘fullness’ here as an external critique.  Such an interpretation could also be supported by also noting that in the critique she explicitly switches to human being and implies a human nature and a telos of human beings.  However, despite appearances that this is an external critique, I suggest that it is an internal critique based upon the phenomenology of angst.  For proper framing of the experience of angst, there needs to be not just nothingness—but its co-relate, fullness. Stein seems to claim that a notion as thin as un-interpreted Dasein cannot support the experience of angst. If Dasein is simply non-being why should this trouble a person into anxiety?[32] Stein believes that it can’t—it is only against the background of fullness that anxiety could make sense as an authentic response. Another way to put this point is to say that un-interpreted and bare possibilities are not enough to generate angst—it is the interpreted or ‘full’ possibilities that generate angst.  Stein seems to suggest Heidegger has illicitly traded on the ambiguity of Dasein.  Perhaps an example will help here: suppose a hospitalized person has minimal awareness of surroundings a vague sense of place and background and has the possibility for continued experiences of this sort, would the loss of this possibility engender angst?  These ‘bare’ possibilities are distinguished from fuller interpreted ones.

But what does Stein mean by fullness and is her claim about fullness a necessary notion to explicate Dasein in a way to generate angst?  A complete notion of fullness is beyond this paper but a few remarks may be ventured.[33] Regarding fulfillment Stein writes, ‘all moments present a fullness that should be brought out’.[34] Bringing out these moments requires a future time (and with this Heidegger would surely agree). But ‘moment’ here should not be taken as a mere stretch in time, but rather ‘it designates the way in which the temporal touches something that is not itself temporal’.[35]  It might be said that for Stein, fullness is the unity of the ecstases of past, present and future.  She writes, ‘human beings share in a fullness from which something continually slips and something is continually won: both life and death . . . authentic dying means the loss of fullness right to complete emptying, and death means emptiness or non-being itself’.[36]  The fullness that ordinarily is the locus of the enduring present is ended in death and death for Stein is the ‘the powerful sundering of a natural unity’.[37] To continue to bring out the fullness that is longed for is based on something more than mere care (sorge)—rather ‘what gives human life fullness [is] joy, happiness, love’.[38]  It is the loss of these that generates angst, not the loss of possibility that is bare being. I take Stein’s criticism here to be a phenomenological point—Heidegger insists that care issues in anxiety over my death; angst over my death, he says, is an existential fact that reveals the nature of being.[39] Stein’s criticism is twofold; first, there are other ‘experiences’ with other ‘moods’ that open the meaning of being, anxiety is not the only revealing mood; and second, anxiety does not in fact ensue without an interpretation grounded in some notion of fullness. Heidegger’s account claims that my death as the horizon of experience is without referent—it is nothingness or the emptiness of future potentiality to for my own being—but if so, why should we be troubled by the absence of future possibilities unless those possibilities have a referent that I am attached to? Heidegger cannot have it both ways here: anxiety can’t be non-intentional and also generate the psychic energy he claims is proper to the experience. He has neglected to see that care must have an intentional object and that the intentional object must be fullness—not nothingness.

That Heidegger’s analysis can’t support the experience of anxiety has its flip side in his devaluation of what might be called the ‘healthy-minded’ avoidance of the thought of death. In Being and Time, Heidegger notes that maintaining anxiety is always an issue for Dasein—the temptation is always present to devolve out of anxiety into the complacency regarding death. Against Heidegger, Stein argues that a healthy-minded disposition is not in itself inauthentic. In everyday terms, angst overshadows everything else only in pathological instances. At the primal level too, anxiety is not the only rational response. Stein is eloquent here so I take the liberty of quoting her at length:

The undeniable fact that my being is limited in its transience from moment to moment and thus exposed to the possibility of nothingness is counterbalanced by the equally undeniable fact that despite this transience, I am, that from moment to moment I am sustained in my being, and that in my fleeting being I share in enduring being. In the knowledge that being holds me, I rest securely. This security, however, is not the self-assurance of one who under her own power stands on firm ground, but rather the sweet and blissful security of a child that is carried along by a strong arm. And, objectively speaking, this kind of security is not less rational. For if a child were living in the constant fear that its mother might let it fall, we should hardly call this a ‘rational’ attitude.[40]

Anxiety is not the only required reaction to the primal constitution of our being—other facts of our primal being require attention as well. Stein thinks Heidegger’s focus on angst and death is the result of over-emphasis on futurity in the nature of our primal being. In the emphasis of care as ‘not yet’, Heidegger distends being in favor of one of the ecstases of time over another.  Riddled with anxiety, one is anxious subjectively, but this anxiety may miss the grace of present being—in the grip of anxiety, Heidegger’s phenomenological observations necessarily overlook important aspects of being.

Not only is Heidegger’s care overly futural and a distortion of the fullness of our being in time, Stein also faults it for its emptiness. Part of what makes anxiety a rational response is the notion of the fullness of being. This fullness expresses itself both primally and in our everyday ‘interpreted’ world. She says:

But it is probably no coincidence that the word ‘care’ has been chosen, and that his investigation, on the other hand, leaves no room for what gives human life fullness: joy, happiness, love.  Dasein is for him emptied to the point of being a sequence from nothing to nothing. And yet, it is rather the fullness that first really makes it understandable why the human being is ‘about its being’.[41]

If Stein’s critique has merit, Heidegger’s analysis of being is insufficient to explain why anxiety follows from loss of being.  However, given that anxiety is a part of human experience, an account of its being is called for.  Stein thinks that two kinds of experiences, excluded by Heidegger, are particularly important to explaining how anxiety emerges. How is angst generated in experience? Stein notices at least two ways: 1) in one’s own experience of near death in sickness or immediate danger, which she terms demise, and 2) in being with another either immediately after death or through the process of dying.

The experience of demise undoubtedly draws upon Stein’s own experience as a nurse in World War I.  She was frequently left to attend large numbers of dying soldiers in hospital, often with language differences that hindered communication.  Though Stein notes that many do not experience demise (followed by survival) she still sees it as a potentially illuminating experience.  Even if demise is not literally an experience of death, an experience of near-death may reveal something both about the dying process and perhaps also about the nature of death.  Regarding demise Stein sketches a kind of phenomenology of demise.

In severe illness, which brings us face to face with death, all ‘concern’ stops: all things of this world, with which one has been concerned, lose importance and fade completely from view.  This also means a separation from all those who are caught up in concern; one stops living in their world. Another care may replace it, as long as the inevitability is not yet understood or recognized: the exclusive care for one’s own body (even if it is possible that someone might stay prisoner to it and even be ‘surprised by death’ in the midst of it), and then there is only one question: being or not being?  The being now in question is certainly not ‘being-in-the world’.  That has already ended when one actually sees death eye to eye.  It is the end of bodily living and of all connected to bodily life.  Beyond that, however is a large dark gate: one must pass through it but what then?  This ‘what then?’ is the real question that is experienced in dying. Is there an answer to this question even before one passes through the gate.[42]

The phenomenology of the experience here is one where the vanishing of the world has a kind of order to it—the loss of the social world and then the vanishing concern with the body and then the mystery of the ‘what then’? The question of being in demise has moved past social being and bodily care; in the moving forward, anxiety need not appear—indeed social anxiety and bodily anxiety are out of the question—such that any anxiety tied to those interpretations is let loose.  There is a sense of being that is beyond care.  However, Stein does not push any further on demise. Demise, she notes, is a fairly ‘rare experience’—the more common experience that does relate to anxiety and concern has to do with the experience of the watching another die, which Heidegger had said was of no use in getting at authentically experiencing death.

Stein takes a psychological point of view on human beings, asking, How does experience of watching others die factor into the development of anxiety about death? Stein argues that the death of others is ‘fundamental’ in the development of our awareness of death and in generating angst. Heidegger had argued that looking to the death of the other had the tranquilizing effect; part of this tranquilization was the tendency to generalize about the nature of death and to see death as applying to Das Mann rather than to me.  Rather than tranquilizing us, Stein notes that seeing death in others is precisely what often jolts a person out of complacency.  

For Stein, the death of another person, experienced as an accomplished act, prompts the notion of form—leading to the question ‘what made this being alive?’[43] Finite and Eternal Being lays the groundwork for a phenomenology of death that considers biological evidence as part of the meaning of being, something Heidegger’s method forecloses. Stein’s method rests on the assumption that though the phenomenological method that Heidegger uses is one legitimate approach to the meaning of being, it is not the only approach, and further, that there are senses of being (present-at-hand) that are not approachable through Heidegger’s method but nonetheless presumed by it. The sciences are better suited to these meanings. Heidegger’s method would need some additional claims to rule out other approaches as legitimate. It would need to say that all meaning of being is connected to Dasein—but nowhere is this claim established. Stein’s method moves more freely between primal phenomenology and established biology and psychology.

In regard to the experience of the process of dying, Stein considers individual cases—something that Heidegger’s approach also forecloses[44]. Noting that each case of dying is unique, she says that some people going through the process reach a kind of peace. It is a compelling experience to be in the presence of a dead person, but how can we know the thoughts of the dead? Stein’s earlier work on empathy offers a response to Heidegger’s claim that these are not the experiences of the dying but of the living. Stein might reply that empathy can be both accurate and authentic. Empathy is not necessarily a retreat to the ‘they-self’, seeking to assuage the pain of death in a kind of denial but a legitimate ‘being-with’. Further it can be a ‘being-with’ that takes me deeper into coming to terms with my own finitude and the totality of my being.

One of the reasons that Heidegger had marshaled against looking at the death of others was his claim that the they-self caught in everydayness tempts Dasein away from the anxiety of facing my own death.  After rejecting certain kinds of accounts as illuminating the being of the end of Dasein, he sets forth that care (with its future orientation) is the basic state of Dasein.  Care though is rather a formal notion and he seeks to ground it in everydayness: ‘this then would give the phenomenal confirmation for the thesis that “care” is the ontological term for the totality of Dasein’s structural whole’.[45]  This confirmation of the thesis is done in two moves, first a showing of how Dasein flees the understanding of death, and second how the misunderstanding of death through fleeing is contrasted with an authentic understanding that leads to being-toward-death.  Heidegger’s account of the inauthentic approach to death takes the form of a narrative in which Dasein retreats from individual facing of my own death to the shared account of the ‘they-self’.  The flow of the phenomena goes occurs as follows. The ‘they’ transform anxiety into fear of a specific event.  Next the fear is accounted for as a weakness to be avoided and thus Dasein is alienated from realizing its own wholeness, on pain of appearing weak.  The conclusion follows, ‘The “they” do not permit us the courage for anxiety in the face of death’.[46]  While I think that Heidegger’s account is powerful and pervasive as a narrative of what often happens in certain cultures and in fact was the milieu of Heidegger’s time, it is not universal.  In order for it to reveal Dasein’s total nature it must be a universal narrative. Though Heidegger’s account of everydayness allows for large variations of mood, understanding, situated-ness, the critique of the ‘they’ implies universality and seems to function as a meta-narrative for all experience.

While Stein might well agree that avoiding direct confrontation with one’s own death can and does occur—she disagrees with Heidegger’s claim that in communal life it must always happen. She holds that just as there is an ‘authentic being for a person’ there is also an ‘authentic community’. Because of this, dying can be authentically experienced together.  Heidegger’s claim that all talk about the death of others is ‘idle talk’ seems to be a premature block on the range of authentic experience. But more important, if Heidegger’s project entails discovering that for all Dasein death is inevitable and a part of ‘me’, then he is neglecting an important resource.  Both Heidegger and Stein accept the claim that awareness of death ought to enhance our sense of being and inform our choices.  Stein holds that the death of others is precisely what shocks us out of complacency and can be the raw material out of which authentic realization of death to grow.  Stein writes:

as long as we do not experience any more than that, anguish is not awoken, nor is the horror of death. On this basis what Heidegger calls ‘one dies’ can grow: a knowledge that all human beings will one day be cut out of the world in which we live, and that also such a day will come for us. It is a fact which we do not doubt. But we do not have a lively experiential faith in it; it is not a happening which is embraced with a live expectation. Therefore it leaves us cold . . . [but this] is certainly shattered by seeing someone dead.[47]

Rather than detracting from a sense of inevitability and increasing tranquilization, the death of others is spur to a deeper, more vivid awareness.  Stein writes, ‘The question is definitely awoken when one sees the dead, but lives through the dying process with the person dying.  The one who has witnessed a difficult death is for always lost to the indifference of “one dies.”  It is the powerful sundering of a natural unity’.[48]  The knowledge of going through the dying process with another, or of seeing a dead person can help, then to open one to confront its own finitude.  Stein concludes that ‘the dying and death of others are fundamental . . . for the understanding of our own being and of the human being as such’.[49]

Note that Stein has given a definition of death in the passage above and that it is quite different from Heidegger’s—she calls death a ‘powerful sundering of a natural unity’.  One sense of the unity that Stein’s view entails is that of body and soul; this of course would be barred from Heideggerian inquiry as getting off track of the meaning of being by bringing in considerations of something merely present-at-hand and therefore not part of Dasein’s being.  It might seem then that Stein’s critique is merely an external critique to Heidegger, since her definition of death is excluded by Heidegger’s method.  However, there is another sense of unity and sundering that would make hers an internal critique of Heidegger. Whereas Heidegger’s main question seeks the being of Dasein in its totality against the end in time, which it must face, Stein’s question is more about the unity of Dasein in its three ecstases.  Death as a powerful sundering of a natural unity could also be read as death creating a rupture in the ordinary unity of time’s ecstases.  In Stein’s view the question of being and time is one of how finite being is sustained through the three ecstases—it is primarily a question about unity and meaning in time.  Heidegger’s notion of totality also assumes the continuity of being in time and so the two approaches are not totally incongruent. Stein seeks to add a fourth ecstases, eternity, to the mix creating a profound break from Heidegger. For Stein, eternity should not be taken just as ‘an after-life’—if this were so then Stein’s critique would be purely external (and also probably obtuse).  But eternity is not just that, eternity includes all units of time.  There are moments when time seems gathered up in a fullness that emerges out of a given past, reveals itself in a present and seeks to ‘draw out’ the meaning of it all into the future.  In these three ecstases there is an openness. Stein writes:

‘openness’ in a double sense: as transition from all possibilities into reality (the perfection of being) and –in the Heideggerian sense—as unlimited understanding of one’s own being and absolutely all being, limited (only) through the limits of one’s own finite being.  In both [of these senses] the recollection of the temporal extension into a unity, referred to by Kierkegaard and Heidegger as the ‘moment’ is necessary.  The mode of being in which the difference between moment and duration is surpassed and the finite reaches its highest possible participation in the eternal is a midway between time and eternity that Christian Philosophy has designated as Aion (aevum)’.[50]

In Heidegger’s ‘moment’ Stein sees an opening for eternity. Perhaps what she sees is a mere gesture in Heidegger’s thought toward a very limited sense of eternity; in this sense her suggestion may open an internal critique.  There may be a little play within Heidegger’s thought for a need to transcend time, in time.  She claims that without eternity it is impossible to clarify the moment as the fullness to which Dasein (even in its limitedness) aims.

Stein’s notion of eternity is not just some naive notion that can be read out of the nature of Dasein.  The grasping of eternity in its fullness is for God alone.  When she does speak of eternity it is in the context of a flash of eternity, a brief illumination of a fullness when the moment opens. This opening of the moment can reveal itself throughout life in moments of self-transcendence—Stein notes a few as moments of being with those who stand beside those who go through the process of dying.

Stein considers a few examples of dying and relates them to ‘moments’ in which questions of being poignantly open up. In the first case she notes how death can give rise to the question of vitality and liveliness.  She writes:

If religious education has not given death a new meaning through reference to eternal life, seeing the dead adds wrenching away of the soul to the interpretation of death as being-no-longer-in-the-world.  This is so particularly when one understands vital liveliness to predominate in living human beings as compared with the spiritual expression.  Heidegger must ignore this contemplation of death as it would force him to consider body and soul in their mutual relationship.[51]

Again this seems to import philosophical categories that Heidegger would eschew.  However, Stein as a phenomenologist is open to the notion that everydayness can lead to philosophical questions.  Soul and body can be approached metaphysically, but they can also be approached as part of lived experience in everydayness and phenomenologically unpacked.  Why doesn’t the question about loss of liveliness reveal the meaning of being?  It emerges out of existential everydayness equally as well as Heidegger’s preferred question regarding the nothingness of my world in death.  Why is one question less existentially grounded than the other? The fact that Stein is open to approach questions metaphysically as well as phenomenologically may make her retort seem suspect but I hope to have at least suggested that her remarks can be given a phenomenological gloss that makes them relevant to Heidegger’s inquiry.

A second example of dying that Stein considers is tinged with religious overtones.

Here the dying person is illumined by another life in a manner visible to all those who surround him. He is illuminated as his eyes see into a light out of reach for us: Its glory still lingers in the body whose soul has been wrenched away. Anyone who had not heard of a higher life, or who had lost belief in such a life, would in this sight meet the likelihood of its existence. The meaning of death as a transition from life in this world and in this body to another life, from one mode of being to another, is revealed to him.[52]

No doubt Stein is basing this on her own experience as nurse to the dying and her conviction that this moment is revelatory in several senses: one, it reveals the question, What next—is there a beyond?  This we had already seen is a natural question to ask of one who had been in demise and then recovered. This question she thinks is a fundamental one, which is also revelatory of the meaning of being—even if there is no answer that can be read off, the asking of it is part of Dasein’s being.  So the experience raises a question, which any account of Dasein must include and explain.  Stein also thinks that the experience is revelatory in another sense, in which an answer may appear to a neutral observer.  She writes, ‘Anyone who had not heard of a higher life, or who had lost belief in such a life, would in this sight meet the likelihood of its existence.  The meaning of death as transition from life in this world and in this body to another life, from one mode of being to another would be revealed to him’.[53]  Here, Stein’s openness to a possible experience is (perhaps) endearing but also overly optimistic in suggesting that it will confirm the presence of another life.  It seems the kinds of experience are too varied and culturally dependent to yield any consistent generalized response—either in mood or understanding.  It may be objected that this example is clearly motivated by her own interpreted experience.  Stein’s considered view allows that theological experience can be used as part of the grist for the phenomenological mill.  For her, eternal life is accessible as an article of faith, but some revelations of faith can be confirmed in experience and in the everydayness of life.[54]

One other aspect of Stein’s ouvre is also relevant here, namely her doctoral work on empathy, done under Husserl.  If we ask how we can know the thought of the dying, Stein’s answer would inevitably take us into the realm of einfuhlung—empathy.  In that account she argues against an inferential account of empathy whereby we deduce feelings from bodily behavior saying that such accounts are inadequate.  The intersubjectivity of thought and emotion is more an immediate for Stein; we don’t deduce the inside from the outside, rather in seeing the outside (say tears) we intuit the inner, as mood.  It is not an infallible process, but rather a refined skill.  Presumably then in being with a person in the process of dying, the same kind of intersubjectivity sharing is experienced. From Stein’s own life—we should note her reports that seeing the spouse of Adolf Reinach after his untimely death had impressed her with its sense of peace and dignity.  Although she was an atheist at that time, she notes the impression Frau Reinach made upon her; this was a decisive moment for her conversion.  It seems that understanding the place of this event in her life also connects with those whose death seems to illumine a realm that transcends our own.  This glimpse into another realm need not imply anything magical; the inter-penetration of the meanings of the lives of the three friends allowed for closeness and sharing of being that somehow transcended death.  Some ‘moment’ to her opened up the fullness of the past, expressed in the present and set forward to draw out the meaning of that experience into the future.

Are Stein’s descriptions of these death experiences a tranquilization of the reality of death? If anxiety is the only authentic response to death, then this is clearly its dilution and these experiences of death as an illumination are suspect—but that would beg the question about the true nature of death. It is a stretch to say that her experiences or that all such experiences (even those tinged with theology) dilute anxiety of death; instead, Stein recognizes the many faces and moods of death. Heidegger, in contrast, gives no examples.  His method in Being and Time moves at a high level of abstraction, so the absence of examples may be defended. The one reference he does give in Being and Time is in a footnote praising Leo Tolstoy’s ‘Death of Ivan Illych’.  He notes this story ‘has presented the phenomenon of the disruption and breakdown of having ‘someone die’.[55] However, the point here is not about the curious biographical detail of Heidegger’s writing choices or about methodology. The point I wish to make is about examples generally; in searching for completeness, philosophically and phenomenologically, Heidegger risks ‘too narrow a diet of examples’.  Zero examples is a starvation diet—a metaphysical inquiry in which no examples are drawn entails that all those following the method must be starved of experience. Perhaps we need to distinguish between idle talk and authentic examples, but this can happen only if we attend to examples. Heidegger’s limitation on narratives of the dying of others rests upon two concerns: first, a concern that looking to others’ death will become a substitute representation for ‘my death’ and hence an inauthentic fleeing; and second, a concern that death as such is not representable. We have already noted concerns that Stein has about Heidegger’s circular definition of death and its adequacy to the phenomenon of death.

If Stein has answered Heidegger on the automatic rejection of inquiries into the death of others, how does she respond to another possible objection from Heidegger, that her own examples are not extirpated of Christian residue? Clearly, Stein’s mentioned cases of death are laden with Christian interpretation; and if the attempt is being made to go after some primordial being that is pre-theoretical, then perhaps it is best avoided if the goal is to remain strictly phenomenological. However, Stein holds that the question of eternity can’t be ruled out in advance of the question of the meaning of being and that Heidegger’s inquiry does just this while pretending not to.  In comparing the two, we could ask, Has Stein ‘read eternity in’ to the experience and what reason do we have for ruling it out as part of interpretive experience, as Heidegger does?

Why should we rule eternity out of the experience of death? In arguing against Heidegger, Stein notes:

From the start everything is meant to demonstrate the temporality of being. Hence a barrier is raised everywhere where a view could open onto the eternal; therefore there cannot exist an essence distinct from existence that could develop in existence, no meaning distinct from understanding that is grasped in understanding, no ‘eternal truth’ independent of human understanding. In all these the temporality of being would be broken open, and this is not allowed to happen, even though existence, understanding, and ‘discovering’ cannot be understood apart from something that is independent of them and timeless, which enters time through these and in these.[56]

Stein’s broader claims are beyond the scope of this paper. However, in the case of death we can see how Heidegger’s shutting down the question of eternity is a series of ‘barriers erected in advance’ to prevent the breaking open of temporality.

Stein writes, ‘human beings have, since time immemorial, spontaneously met the experience of death with the question of the destiny of the soul’.[57] Is there anything after this life? Stein says this question has deep roots. Is closing this question off from the question of the meaning of being part of existential authenticity? Does the desire to keep it open reflect the intent to dilute the awfulness of death? Is hunger part of humankind that longs for more? Stein urges a consideration from a most unlikely ally, Nietzsche, who in the person of Zarathusthra says, ‘Woe to the one who says: end! For all desire wills eternity, wills deep, deep eternity’.[58]  For Stein this longing for a fullness that draws out the meaning of being is not in itself inauthentic or a retreat or flight from authentic questions.  Though the presence of desire itself does not prove that there is necessarily a satisfaction of that desire, it does say something authentic about longing that cannot be dismissed as inauthentic.

Stein is at least open to the possibility of eternity and the surprising areas it may open up within our experience. Stein cites Hedwig Conrad-Martius, who compares Heidegger’s approach to ‘a door, so long left unopened that it can hardly be opened anymore, [now] blown wide open with enormous strength, wise intention and unrelenting stamina, and then immediately closed again, bolted and so thoroughly blocked that any further opening seems impossible’.[59] Stein has shown how Heidegger’s re-opening of the question in terms of Dasein blocks out social references, form, and eternity as ontic rather than ontological questions and removes them from the inquiry into the meaning of being.  According to Stein, Dasein in its primal form is too lonely, solipsistic and void of form; the gap between the authentic self of Dasein and the They-self does not allow Dasein’s primal being to have much to do with its everydayness and communal nature. The sense in which we die alone for Stein is important, but the sense in which we share death with others is also part of our everydayness and can be part of our authentic being—a being-with that is sundered by death. This sundering reveals a deeper unity that binds us together and opens eternity to us.

Closing Evaluation


All told, I think Stein’s arguments against Heidegger’s conclusions as well as her critique of his method raise important questions and new lines of departure. Heidegger’s genuine and robust contribution to the question of death, as I see it, rests on the brilliant account of how the they-self easily insinuates itself into a refusal of the question of death. Both Heidegger and Kierkegaard provided philosophical reflection on death as an existential, personal phenomenon that was needed in Western Philosophy.  Kierkegaard’s work through the pseudonymous authors had the virtue of keeping things personal and particularistic. Heidegger’s account though is carried on at high level of abstraction, and so can easily lose the particularistic or personal dimension.  The account of the “they-self’ is a brilliant social critique, timely and salutary; and, it seems to me, still edifying. However, the force of the critique is to see all community as inauthentic and tranquilizing. This is where Stein’s critique is helpful. One of the curious aspects of the line of inquiry in the early sections of Being and Time is how being in its everydayness is ‘already always’ being with others. Mitt-sein is part of the world. However, Heidegger may be taking a quick turn to a solipsistic account where the death and dying of others is removed from the meaning of one’s own being.  In this regard, Stein’s focus on the communal nature of death and dying is a salutary correction to Heidegger. It need not entail a rejection of the Heideggerian project altogether, just a retooling.

If part of this re-tooling led to scaling back on the claims about a rejection of the ‘they-self’ account as a meta-narrative that governs all accounts of death, it would also dovetail with another aspect of Stein’s critique, namely the concerns that Heidegger’s account cannot adequately account for the generation of anxiety as the authentic mood in which Dasein can come to realize itself.  There may be other moods and other understandings of death that also lead to opening in which the meaning of being can appear.  Stein claims that anxiety over being cannot be adequately accounted for without an account of fullness and correlatively without an account of the ‘about’ of Dasein that generates the anxiety. Both of these claims would entail a significant break in Heideggerian inquiry into the meaning of being.  Stein introduces a telos into Dasein—an ‘about’ toward which Dasein is directed. Heidegger attempts to confirm the general nature of his claims by connecting them to everydayness, and so he creates an account of being toward death in resoluteness—being-toward-death (an ideal)—and an account of loss in the they-self where one realizes ‘one dies’ (a ‘fall’ from the ideal).  Stein makes similar, parallel moves in her account of the fullness of the moment (an ideal) and her description of such moments as rare and flashing ones (a fall from the fullness of the moment into ordinary lapses of time).  Heidegger holds that the object of anxiety is the nothingness of my entire being. But here there is an ambiguity that needs parsing. Nothingness can mean sheer emptiness (pure non-being) or it can also mean ‘no more future possibilities’. For Heidegger the nothingness means the loss of all future possibilities. But loss of possibilities is empty without specifying which possibilities are lost. Stein’s rests on the claim that nothingness does not generate anxiety unless it has ‘content’. If the possibilities that are lost are valuable, then, and only then, does anxiety emerge and only that referent can give a sufficient account of angst.

How might a decision be made between these two incompatible accounts?  One way is to construct a phenomenological inquiry into the nature of anxiety.  On the face of it, it seems that the appearances of everydayness favor Stein’s account.  For example, it is not uncommon to hear how people claim to lose their anxiety about death—when for example they say, ‘I can die with peace now that my children are grown’.  Further, the death of a child with its loss of future appears more grievous than the death of a person who dies after a rich and long life surrounded by loved ones. Though the grief and anxiety will be there in both cases, often it is lessened because the possibilities and the totality of the possibilities (both possibilities lost and achieved) are evaluated differently. A Heideggerian could cogently respond that such psychological accounts do not yield universal claims and that psychological accounts of death do not get at the root of the matter. Stein’s objection then requires further arguing, even if the appearances do sway in her favor. What is needed is a phenomenology of death and dying. This seems a fruitful path to engage upon. Even if no such phenomenology is forthcoming in discovering necessities regarding all deaths, it could be fruitful in collecting examples and enriching the range of hues on the pallet—the many moods and colors of death and dying. Stein’s criticisms should be welcomed as opening a new line of inquiry.

Stein’s more radical critique that Dasein needs eternity to fully elucidate the meaning of being will be seem almost to much to ask of Heideggerian inquiry. Even if there are hints at eternity in notions like Heidegger’s use of the ‘moment’—these could clearly not be used as an internal critique from which to spin the notion of eternity. One move open to Stein is to note that the notion of finitude that Heidegger uses has as an analytic co-relative the notion of infinitude. Why not use such broad notions as an analytic of being?  Stein scholarship might be well served by spelling out the nature of eternity in Stein’s oeuvre.[60]  In evaluating Stein and Heidegger on this question, it seems to me that the ball is squarely in Stein’s court.  To defend her objection, it must be shown that eternity is a required necessity to understand the nature of Dasein. If it is not necessary, then it should be shaved off.

I am optimistic that a notion of eternity could be edifying. Let me venture a balance metaphor. Imagine being in a canoe and looking and leaning to the right side; the further one leans the more the canoe tips and with the canoe, the more the horizon also shifts and hence obscures the side one is leaning away from. Heidegger’s hard lean to the future reveals but also conceals.[61] Stein’s work emphasizing the present given-ness of being is an important corrective. If I could build a bit on her insight here—the fully balanced perspective will be one that has been the most experienced in all the positions of leaning and will be best able to embrace the totality of all experiences—past, present, future and eternity. The three ecstases, plus the fourth ‘eternal’ perspective constitute the wisest of perspectives.

Closing personal reflections


Where is all this in my personal experience of grieving?  The metaphysical aspect has been helpful to me—at least in retrospect. Stein’s schema has proved edifying to me, Heidegger’s vision at times, but less so. First, with regard to the experience of a corpse—or rather, my son as present to me as a dead body, the sense of loss at the scene is very difficult to utter in words; it may well be beyond language but this does not mean that the language is insignificant. Heidegger’s vocabulary regarding the being of the dead is impoverished—he says it is the experience of the ‘unalive‘—not a Dasein, not a mere object ready to hand. It is Dasein at its limit—without future potential for its being. Stein’s vocabulary is much richer; she is entitled to use words like human and form—body and soul—with much richer evocations of mood and nuance. The corpse is better described not as a ‘from-nothing—to nothing’ but as a ‘form out of nothing, established in the past and now gone’. The loss of this form is perhaps most clearly seen in its absence and its value is keenly and tragically felt. Though Heidegger is largely right in noting there are no future possibilities here in this world for this being, the ability for measuring the loss is sadly lacking. Dasein at the primal, un-interpreted level is too thin to lament; there is no ethical meaning at this level. Stein’s notion of the fullness of being is needed to accurately and deeply lament its loss. Indeed, her notion of fullness does not make the death easier to accept, but more difficult.

Stein has also been helpful for me with regard to balance. My grief in its early form looked primarily to the future—almost all that I could see were the possibilities that my son and I would not realize is this world—there was a new absence in the world. Grief often tips the balance to the future. However, it is here that I found valuable Stein’s desire to seek out a balance of viewpoints in the three ecstases.  The dead person offers a view of life with beginning, middle, and end. In this, the dead are unlike the living for whom the future is open. However, once something has happened in the past—it enters not just the past, but the eternal past. Heidegger uses the language they ‘have always been being’.

It seems clear that in the present, there is still access to the one who had been. The looking to the future needs to be balanced with the ecstases of the past. The past is always with the present and in this sense, grief in its backward looking moment can grow grateful for the present recollection. Is this present gratitude, inauthentic? Possibly, since death can be sentimentalized and trivialized in many ways, but following Stein, it is helpful to realize other authentic possibilities and other moods than just angst—perhaps flashes of eternity may open and shed light upon the past. Looking over my son’s journals I saw his past in a new light, with a deeper gratitude, and the non-repeatability of the past was more clearly present and poignant after his death. Indeed, when I look at the whole of my son’s life and see it rebounding off the absent future, its value as a whole becomes vivid in a way it hadn’t when the future was still ‘open’.[62]

One more return to the idea of balance and future. Of course, in Christian philosophy the possibility of a resurrection radically undermines the claim that the dead have no future. However, in keeping to a this-worldly perspective, I think there is also a way in which the claim that the dead have no future possibilities is not strictly true; even the dead have a this-worldly future. Herein part because of Stein’s notion of human form and fullness—I looked to Aristotle. Discussing an aporeia about happiness in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle notes how the fortunes of surviving relatives affect the happiness of persons both living and dead, ‘even if they are unaware of it’:

Now it would be a strange thing if the dead man also were to change with the fortunes of his family, and were to become a happy man at one time and then miserable at another; yet on the other hand it would also be strange if ancestors were not affected at all, even over a limited period, by the fortunes of their descendants.[63]

The happiness of the dead is in part affected by their projected future via their relatives. In a way, I have found that my son’s daughter has been a source of connection. Inasmuch as Casey’s fullness in this life was connected to his daughter, so his happiness even now is connected. I feel as if in some sense I am still in my present connected to Casey’s happiness. His own possibilities are not fully exhausted by the loss of his future. His own happiness was constituted intersubjectively. Heidegger had realized that Dasein is constituted intersubjectively in everydayness; however, he had denied this intersubjectivity at the point of death as revelatory of the being of the dead. For Heidegger, the meaning of Dasein at the interpretive level is shared and intertwined, since persons are constituted intersubjectively. In everydayness the meanings are shared—but what happens to these meanings at death?—surely they continue.  The meanings Casey had projected into the future continue to be projected even if his future in the world is at an end. This sharing of meaning and being is one way to be authentically with the dead. To some degree, part of their future is in the hands of the present. Indeed, the dead are with us—they did not die alone and we share with them, albeit somewhat removed in the fullness of the being they had projected into their own future.[64]

Ken Casey, Hopkinsville Community College

June 2012


Calcagno, Antonio: The Philosophy of Edith Stein (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquense University Press, 2007)

Heidegger, Martin: Being and Time, trans. by John Macquarie (New York, N.Y: Harper and Row Publishers, 1962)

Stein, Edith: Finite and Eternal Being, trans. by Kurt F. Reinhardt (Washington DC: ICS Publications, 2002)

Stein, Edith: ‘Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy’ translated by Mette LeBech, Maynooth Philosophical Papers IV (2007) pp. 55-98

Stein, Edith: The Science of the Cross, trans. by Josephine Koeppel (Washington DC: ICS Publications, 2002)

[1] Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time, trans. by John Macquarrie (New York, N.Y: Harper and Row Publishers, 1962) p. 281. In reproducing passages I have kept to the capitalizations and italicization of the Macquarrie translation, I am also using the English rather than the German pagination.  Heidegger makes a big assumption here in saying that the corpse and Dasein are the same entity.  Aristotle remarks that a living body and a dead body are the same only in an equivocal sense.

[2] Being and Time, p. 282.

[3] Being and Time, p. 291.

[4] Being and Time, p. 282.

[5] Being and Time, p. 294.

[6] Being and Time, p. 282.

[7] Being and Time, p. 282.

[8] Being and Time, p. 282.

[9] Being and Time, p. 283.

[10]Presumably Heidegger dismisses the question because he thinks he has already provided an account of how Dasein can accord meaning and status to things. The ‘corpse’ is a thing; the deceased is a status sustained by living persons who are thereby ‘ipso facto’ with the dead even though there is no such thing as ‘the dead’—the dead person is at an end and exists nowhere.

[11] Being and Time, p. 283.

[12] Being and Time, p. 283. I find it curious that the kind of substitution Heidegger is talking about here is of a person who is a stranger to me.  It is not one of intimate connection; the death of a stranger may touch me on some level and I am not with a stranger the way I am with close family; although in many ways I reject the Heideggerian trajectory of inquiry, it seems correct that understanding of death should be intimate.  However, the example chosen here for the presupposition serves to keep death further from home.

[13]  Being and Time, pp. 283-4.

[14] Being and Time, p. 284.

[15]  Being and Time, p. 284. Let me note an ambiguity here about the taking away of death.  In one sense a person whose life is saved by another does have his or her death taken away, at least taken away there and then.  Of course there will be a later death that is inevitable.  Heidegger’s insistence that death does not admit of degrees seems also to invite thinking of the asymmetry of life and death.  Life does admit of the degrees, longer and shorter—while death is itself an absolute.  However, in denying the substitution of one life for another, I think Heidegger also may miss a biographically interesting case where a soldier who lays down a life for a friend (not a stranger) may share an intimacy of being both at the moment of death and also in living beyond ‘on behalf” of another.  It is possible to imagine saying, ‘take care of my child’.  In this way the two are joined in extending the ‘care’ of the dying through one’s own life.  ‘I will live for you’, being fully embraced by both parties such that even beyond death there is a communion of purpose and being.

[16] Being and Time, p. 284.

[17] Being and Time, p. 284.

[18] Being and Time, p. 284. The claim about the non-representational essence of death is not, Heidegger intones, meant to foreclose any interpretations of an after-life.

[19] Being and Time, p. 296.

[20] Heidegger says, ‘Authentic Being-toward-death can not evade its own most non-relational possibility, or cover up this possibility from it, or give an explanation for it to accord with the common sense of the “they”’, pp. 304-5.

[21] What is most curious to me about the non-relationality claim is that Dasein’s very being is relational.

[22] Stein, Edith: ‘Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy’ translated by Mette LeBech, Maynooth Philosophical Papers IV (2007) 55-98, p.70.

[23] Stein, ‘Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy’, p. 70.

[24] The discussion of objects ‘present to hand’ recognizes a kind of being that is not-Dasein—but the being of the ‘present to hand’ is neglected qua its being.  For Heidegger, any realities that do not pursue the meaning of being for that being do not have a meaning—they are surds and absurd in meaning.

[25] Heidegger’s thought may claim that three ecstases of past, present and future are equiprimordial—however, in Stein’ assessment Heidegger’s practice shows differently.

[26] Stein, ‘Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy’, p. 80-81

[27] Stein, ‘Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy’, p. 75

[28] Stein, ‘Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy’, p. 75

[29] Stein, ‘Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy’, p. 75

[30] Stein, ‘Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy’, p. 76)

[31] Stein, ‘Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy’, p. 76)

[32] The Epicurean therapy for death here seems to be a foreclosed option for Heidegger.  Though he claims he is not weighing in on the Epicurean claim, how can anxiety be troubling, if after entry into non-being, there is no being there to be troubled or anxious?

[33] For a fuller treatment of Stein’s notion of fullness, Antonio Calcagno’s chapter, ‘Heidegger and Stein and the Question of Being’ in The Philosophy of Edith Stein provide an excellent elaboration of her thought.

[34] Stein, ‘Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy’, p. 79.

[35] Stein, ‘Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy’, p. 79.

[36] Stein, ‘Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy’, p.76

[37] Stein, ‘Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy’, p. 77

[38] Stein, ‘Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy’, p. 80

[39] Some might object that though Stein would characterize this as a phenomenological point, it is a kind of phenomenology that Husserl could not endorse since it seems that such artifacts of traditional philosophical analysis are apodictically given in a phenomenological sense. Formed substances present themselves, and neither Heidegger nor Husserl deny this.  But neither allowed that such substantial forms are good guides at all to that which lets presences and meanings be (whether transcendental ego or Dasein). This is a powerful objection; however, Stein’s phenomenology will be different in that she believes that forms do present themselves with a necessity and that through phenomenological investigation one can ascend to this formal structure of being.  This is the book-length project in Finite and Eternal Being. The subtitle is illuminating: “an ascent to the meaning of being.”  But this criticism could also be turned around easily—hasn’t Heidegger said that an authentic experience of care reflecting on Dasein necessarily issues in angst?

[40] Stein, Edith: Finite and Eternal Being, trans. by Kurt F. Reinhardt (Washington DC: ICS Publications, 2002) p. 58

[41] Stein, ‘Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy’, p. 80

[42] Stein, ‘Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy’, p.76-77

[43] Some might object that for Heidegger the question of life is paradigmatically an ontic question; further this approach confuses her own metaphysical question of being with his question of being.   Life, energeia, form/eidos, and so on are not only not relevant to Heidegger’s question; he claims quite explicitly that a focus on these things nudges us into overlooking his question.  Heidegger does not insist that we not ask ‘what made this being alive’.  He does insist that it will lead away from the question he is trying to ask.  Nevertheless, a person following Stein could reply could also be made that Heidegger’s own statements seem at times to conflate Dasein with life.  For example he says, ‘Dasein may be considered purely as life’ Being and Time p. 290.  Despite his nuanced attempts to separate the two, the practical force of his argument tends to blur the distinction—especially since the end of Dasein is death—we must infer that its being is life.  Stein’s claim is that he trades off on ambiguities in the senses of being and if understanding Dasein’s being has no connection with life, then so much the worse of Dasein.

[44] Heidegger’s exposition takes place at a fairly high level of abstraction and so perhaps it is slightly unfair to take him to task on this.  He does however cite one ‘concrete’ case (albeit fictionally concrete) when in a footnote he praises Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Illych; interestingly Stein praises it as well. To say that Heidegger’s method also forecloses authentic cases still seems fair because for each authentic realization of death, there is only one possible case—my death.  Dasein when authentically confronting its death is always singular; it is ‘my death’.  Authentic Dasein is a solus ipse.  Stein too holds to a radical particularity, which she defends in other contexts.  However, for Stein the radical individuality of each particular person joins each person to others in terms of a common human form.

[45] Being and Time, p. 296.

[46] Being and Time, p. 298

[47] Stein, ‘Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy’, p. 77.

[48] Stein, ‘Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy’, p. 77.

[49] Stein, ‘Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy’, p. 77.

[50] Stein, ‘Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy’, p. 80.

[51] Stein, ‘Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy’, p. 77.

[52] Stein, ‘Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy’, p. 78.

[53] Stein, ‘Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy’, p. 78.

[54] Her final (posthumous) book—The Science of the Cross is relevant; the science in the title implies an approach for recovering the experience of the saints.  The thesis of the work maintains that there is a knowledge or science of the saints that can be approached phenomenologically as well as doctrinally and philosophically.  It is an ambitious approach and is focused on exhibiting the unity of life and thought in St. John of the Cross, her namesake (Sr. Benedicta of the Cross) and brother in Carmelite practice.

[55] Being and Time, p. 495

[56] Stein, ‘Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy’, p. 82.

[57] Stein, ‘Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy’, p. 77. Stein’s claim here seems historically dubious, although the question is raised by some, even by many, that not all cultures or all times have spontaneously raised the question of the destiny of the soul.

[58] Stein, ‘Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy’, p.79.

[59] Stein, ‘Martin Heidegger’s Existential Philosophy’, p. 81. Stein is quoting from Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Heideggers Sein und Zeit (Kunstwart, 1933).

[60] In regard to illuminating Stein’s notion of eternity, an excellent start has already been made by Antonio Calcagno in The Philosophy of Edith Stein (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquense University Press, 2007).

[61] Dasein is also and explicitly tradition and recapitulation of it, as well as transformation of it towards the future.  Gadamer brings out this side of Heidegger.

[62] I am indebted to Wes Demarco for the phase—rebounding off the absent future—somehow the wording seems exactly apt to catch the phenomenon.

[63] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1100 a, 30.

[64] Numerous people need to be thanked for their help with this essay.  First and foremost Jane Olmsted, my wife should be thanked both for the emotional support and generous encouragement she offered alongside her fine editorial skills.  Also great thanks to Mette LeBech for her timely translation of Stein’s Appendix to Finite and Eternal Being as well as her work in organizing the Edith Stein IASPES Conference at Maynooth, Ireland in June 2011.  Thanks to Haydn Gurmin also for helping to organize the conference and for his unfailing patience and generosity as an editor.  To those at the IASPES conference and an anonymous reader who commented on an earlier version of the paper, I extend thanks. Other support came from non-academic sources should be thanked as well including Mary Foster for her counseling services and Fr. James Conner, OCSO for spiritual direction.  Finally, I owe a debt of gratitude to Wes Demarco, whose close critical reading of this paper and careful and abundant comments helped me to see deeper issues and important objections to Stein’s positions. Most of all he helped me to see some of my own narrowness, which I have tried to excise.  I am sure it is a better paper for having attended to his comments.

About kencasey99

Teaches Religion and Philosophy at Hopkinsville Community College
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