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The inborn germ
Philippe Huneman
19 April 2023
published in Issue Three

Death is the cessation of life as well as the absence of life in something previously alive. In The 42nd Parallel (1930), the first novel in John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy, a character named Joe Williams, walking and thinking in the streets of New York, is hit by a truck and « that was the end of Joe Williams. » Death, here, is an event. But « dying » is a process, often a long one, and hard to define.

There’s no unanimity about criteria of death. The traditional criteria were crude: absence of respiration, movement, and heartbeat was death’s hallmark. In the twentieth century, though, emergency medical techniques — defibrillators, resuscitation, and life-support devices (ventilators, blood circulation pumps) — demanded a redefinition of those criteria, since people whose hearts or lungs had failed could remain, clearly, alive. So the brain came to the fore. In 1968, The Harvard Medical School created an Ad Hoc Committee to Examine the Definition of Death. It added the criterion of « irreversible coma » to the traditional criteria of irreversible cessation of respiration and circulatory activity. Brain death is now a reason for hospital personnel to stop maintaining cardiac and respiratory activity. It also triggers the medical and social practices related to death in our societies: organ extraction and transplant, mourning, inheritance, etc. Yet an active brain, even in a comatose state, leaves intact the possibility that the person may come back to life, which happens in ten or fifteen percent of cases of coma. Some US states refused to adopt the Harvard definition. Kansas was the first state to include a reference to brain death in its « Act Relating to and Defining Death ». Hence, someone could be dead in Kansas but alive in a neighboring state.

« Why death? » When philosophers ask this question, they tend to arrive not at an explanation, exactly, but at a justification — a story that makes sense of death as necessary and meaningful. Without death, life would have no meaning: meaningful choice would be impossible since no action irreversibly precludes another one. Does this help? Death’s fictions have taken up this theme. In Borges’s short story, « The Immortal », the narrator tells of his many experiences in many places and times, and eventually we realize that he is Homer, the narrator from whom narration originated, who is always there to tell the stories. But because he is immortal, he is experiencing a deep despair about the impossibility of an ending.

What death is depends, of course, upon what « I » means, or more generally, upon what is referred to when I talk about a person. When do such questions become biological questions? ...

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Ben Nipper, « Legislating death: A review and proposed refinement of the uniform determination of death act », Houston Journal of Health Law & Policy 17 (2017), 429-462.

Steven Luper, The Philosophy of Death (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

« Philosophy of Nature », Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, § 355.

Denise Paulme, « Two themes on the origin of death in West Africa », Man, 2:1 (1967), 48-61.

Supplement XLV, The World as Will and Representation.

Recherches physiologiques sur la vie et la mort (Paris: Béchet, 1800).

Supplement XX, The World as Will and Representation.

Bernard Williams, « The Makropulos case: Reflections on the tedium of immortality », in Problems of the Self (Cambridge University Press, 1973), 82-100.

Todd May, « Death, mortality, and meaning », in Travis Timmerman & Michael Cholbi, eds., Exploring the philosophy of death and dying (London: Routledge, 2021), 157-162.

Hans Jonas, « The burden and blessing of mortality ». Hastings Center Reports, 22:1 (1992), 34.

Martha Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Princeton University Press, 2018).

Gladys Swain, Le sujet de la folie (Seuil, 1976). See also Emil Ackerknecht, Medicine at the Paris Hospital (Johns Hopkins Press, 1967) and, on physicians in the Revolution, Jacques Léonard, La médecine entre les savoirs et les pouvoirs: histoire intellectuelle et politique de la médecine française au 18-19éme siècles (Aubier Montaigne, 1981).

J.F.R. Kerr, A.H. Wyllie, and A.R. Currie, « Apoptosis: A basic biological phenomenon with wide-ranging implications in tissue kinetics », British Journal of Cancer, 26:4 (1972), 239-257.

Anatomie générale (Paris: Béchet, 1802), « Preliminary discourse », 99.

Recherches…, part II, p.364.