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The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of DeathReview - The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Death
by Ben Bradley, Fred Feldman, Jens Johansson (Editors)
Oxford University Press, 2015
Review by James Bodington
Feb 23rd 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 8)

The Oxford Handbook series endeavors to "offer authoritative and up-to-date surveys of original research in a particular subject area." Each volume consists of "specially commissioned essays from leading figures in the discipline give critical examinations of the progress and direction of debates, as well as a foundation for future research". Indeed, the volume on philosophy of death presents original work by numerous leading figures in analytic philosophy and contains thoughtful engagement with current lines of debate in the philosophy (mainly metaphysics, with some entries and engagements with ethical questions) of death. This collection opens up numerous fruitful lines of questioning that extend beyond the sphere of the technical questions with which many of these essays are concerned. It is, in this sense, authoritative. This volume consists of strong and thought-provoking contributions, most of which I imagine would warrant publication in peer-reviewed journals, and will likely prove valuable to those working in metaphysics who are especially concerned with the philosophy of death and are well-versed in the recent literature and perennial topics in both fields. Beyond such readers, though, the appeal and relevance of the book will likely be limited. While Oxford's publication of all original essays at a relatively affordable price ($50.00 USD in paperback) is both useful and admirable, this book lacks thorough introductions to many of the debates, problems, and positions under discussion and so the lack of canonical analytic pieces, e.g. Thomas Nagel's "Death" (which is done justice in John Broome's entry in this volume) and Bernard Williams' "The Makropulos Case", though referred to with some frequency, is felt. As a collection of essays in contemporary metaphysics of death, there is much to recommend in this text. This volume, though, is certainly not a survey, of the "philosophy of death." The philosophy of death, as the authors whose work is collected here, well-versed in the debates as they are, are certainly aware, is a long and productive line of inquiry and discussion stretching back millennia and perennially yielding new points of debate and question. Interestingly, the historical engagement of these pieces vary widely; while some essays engage explicitly with treatments of death in the historical philosophical canon (e.g.  Lars Bergström's engagement with Nietzsche, and Gareth B. Matthews' and Phillip Mitsis' treatments and applications of the ancients), others engage positions advanced by figures and movements in the history of philosophy without seeking or fully utilizing the resources therein for dealing with the questions raised. This specificity is not a detriment to the volume itself, but may come as a surprise to those who might have different expectations of a handbook of philosophy of death. The essays in this volume constitute a discussion with shared points of reference that sometimes remain implicit. For those seeking a fuller background in recent philosophy of death, John Fischer's The Metaphysics of Death is an invaluable resource (Stanford, 1993).

It might enrich this volume, as well as the particular approach and set of questions and methods of which it is exemplary, to  consider philosophical engagements with death that lie outside of mainstream Anglo-American/analytic philosophy. Issues related to those taken up in the text, both in and out of metaphysics strictly conceived, have been prominent in continental philosophy. Among many others, the work of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Beauvoir, and Derrida, which are best thought of and treated not as resources to be mined (as is sometimes the case with Anglo-American/analytic engagements with continental thought) but as engagements to approach and think through on their own terms, have much to contribute to, and occasionally trouble, the methods and debates characteristic of this volume. While such work, despite topical similarities, falls outside of the mainstream of Anglo-American/analytic philosophy of which this collection is exemplary, an "authoritative and up-to-date survey" likely stands to be enriched by recourse to other philosophical schools and traditions, as well as to those historical figures who play various roles in this collection.  As far as more continentally informed and motivated engagements with the debates contained in this text, one might consult Death and Philosophy, edited by Jeff Malpas and Robert Solomon (Routledge, 1999) as well as my essay with Iain Thomson, "Against Immortality: Why Death is Better than the Alternative" in Intelligence Unbound  (Wiley-Blackwell, 2014). The editors' introduction describe the volume as guided by "the questions that define the growing intersubdisciplinary field of philosophy of death." (p. 5). An expansion of the subdisciplines included in the volume would, I think, deepen the debates within it.

For the reasons just elaborated, this anthology, while a strong collection of essays, is more representative of debates in the metaphysics of death, which does not exclusively constitute the philosophy of death. It is worth noting, though, that there is much of ethical consequence at stake in this anthology. A small number of these essays, e.g. F.M. Kamm's essay on just war theory among others, primarily engage with ethical questions, and Ted Sider's essay insightfully casts light on the relationship between metaphysical facts about death and their ethical implications (or lack thereof).  

            For those interested in contemporary debates in analytic philosophy of death, as well as the unique application of concepts and methods of analytic metaphysics tothe philosophy of death, this collection will almost certainly prove very valuable. I will here recap a few of what I take to be the highlights of this volume. The book begins, understandably, with a consideration of what death is. This question is a guiding thread throughout the text. Cody Gilmore's substantial opening essay casts the question as "when does a thing die?" Gilmore compellingly argues in favor of understanding death in terms of "dying and having the capacity to live." (p. 44). The next few chapters are devoted to the question of what it would mean to survive one's own death, and whether and how such survival might obtain. Eric T. Olson's "The Person and the Corpse" gives a robust account of the various possibilities of survival after death, including an extended engagement with the question of whether and in what sense we might exist as a corpse. With this consideration, Olson compellingly dismantles the annihilation/afterlife dichotomy. While I think one may need to go further in disproving the "pluralist" thesis that Olson engages at the beginning of the chapter, his chapter lucidly and critically engages various metaphysical positions on death en route to the conclusion that "an easy and satisfying metaphysics of death is elusive" (p. 95).

Olson's and Gilmore's essays both consider cases of non-human death. What does it mean to die as a human? Ought there to be a specific understanding of human death that ought to be marked as such? Are our philosophical accounts of death anthropocentric, even when we consciously strive for a universal account? Such questions are very much worth thinking through with recourse to work inside and outside the tradition represented in this collection. The question of non-human death is most fully addressed in Alastair Norcross' "The Significance of Death for Animals." Norcross advances the "Well-Being Thesis": "Death is bad for an animal to the extent that it results in the animal's life containing less well-being than it would otherwise have contained" (p. 466). In light of this, Norcross carefully considers the relationship between self-consciousness and well-being and concludes that "the significance of death to a self-conscious animal mis different from the significance of death to a merely sentient animal," but is careful to critically engage what he takes to be the problematic elements of Singer's argument from personhood. The ascription of self-consciousness vs. sentience in non-human animals certainly raises a number of important questions, and Norcross admits that the topic warrants further consideration. As a starting-point, though Norcross', though, could be put into fruitful dialogue with the ever-growing field of empirical and theoretical work on animal cognition and emotion.

          As a collection on cutting-edge work in metaphysics of death and, to a lesser extent, related ethical issues, this is a solid collection that both engages recent debates and furnishes multiple possible directions that these debates may take.

 

© 2016 James Bodington

 

Review by James Bodington, PhD Student in Philosophy, University of New Mexico

 


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