Monday, September 9, 2013

"The Experience of Death" by Hans-Georg Gadamer / Chasing Sophie

Hans-Georg Gadamer

Hans-Georg Gadamer
Hans-Georg (Pronounced Hans-Geyoorg) Gadamer was truly a man of the 20th century. He was born in 1900 and died in 2002. He worked under Heidegger for a time whose influence can be clearly seen in much of Gadamer's work. Gadamer's best known work is Truth and Method, which has had decisive impact on hermeneutics, legal philosophy, and history of philosophy. Gadamer emphasized dialogue in his writings, and so his style is very conversational though still weighty. Today's selection, "The Experience of Death," is taken from a collection of his essays entitled, The Enigma of Health, which was published in 1993. For further information, see Hans-Georg Gadamer.

The Experience of Death

In this essay, Gadamer is interested, not in discussing how death is represented, but in the way the experience of death has been steadily repressed (or unconsciously hidden). For Gadamer, the Enlightenment pushed for scientific advances and has secured many results, most impressively the origin of life through evolution. However, the quantifying power of the Enlightenment has continually struck an insolvable barrier with death. It is death's unquantifiable, unexplainable character that has made death the last bastion of religion. Nowhere is religion more evident than at most funerals. More importantly, many of the people who attend and participate in these funerals don't believe in God or an afterlife. Because death is a mystery, even unbelievers observe funerals.

Gadamer summarizes with these lines-
"But if it is true that even this scientific Enlightenment, like that of the ancient world, finds its limit in the ungraspability of death, then it remains true that the horizon of questioning within which thought can approach the enigma of death at all is still circumscribed by doctrines of salvation. For us, this is the doctrine of Christianity in all its diversity of church and sects."


We should not take this essay and try to prove that Gadamer was a Christian, but he did appear to leave the question of God open. This essay can be useful because it points out the serious limitations which science (and more importantly, humankind) faces when confronted with death. Death still possesses an inherent mystery, and in a culture that loves to reduce things to physical facts, death retains a sacred character which is an integral part of the Christian worldview.


I'm indebted to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for many of the facts, but I've especially appreciated Gadamer's work.

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