This class provides an in-depth introduction to the philosophical problems surrounding death. It takes its starting point in the fact that everyone, eventually, will die. This is one of the few facts that human beings can be absolutely sure about. Given this certainty, however, death still presents us with many difficult and pressing questions. What does it mean to die in the first place? Who or what is the “person” that dies? Is it merely a physical body, or is it also something like a soul, and, if so, does the existence of a soul indicate that there is some hope of immortality? Moreover, what should our attitude toward death be? Should we think of it as a good thing or a bad thing? And what effect should it have on the way we live our lives? At some point in our lives, we all grapple with these questions. This course uses the doctrines and arguments of a number of prominent philosophers concerning death as a means to investigate these and other questions. The course is organized around the lectures of Shelly Kagan, Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, who develops his own philosophy of death over the length of the course. Its major purpose, aside from familiarizing you with the writings of major philosophers on the subject of death, is to teach you how to think about death philosophically—to decide for yourself what you believe about death and to provide careful and convincing arguments for those beliefs.
This course is divided into three long units. The first unit covers metaphysical questions about death, i.e., questions about what death is, what persons are, and the existence of the soul. This unit includes material about the positions of dualism and physicalism, various arguments for the existence of the soul, as well as a close reading of Plato’s Phaedo, one of the most influential arguments for immortality. The second unit deals with questions about how we ought to value death. We will address the views that personal identity is rooted in the soul, in the body, and in the “personality” (understood as a cluster of psychological properties). We will also consider the possibility that death has little or nothing to do with the death of the “person,” but can be accounted for in purely physical terms. We will conclude the unit with a look at Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich. In the third unit, we cover topics such as the (alleged) badness of death, how the fact that we will die should influence the way we live, and whether it is ever appropriate to bring about our own death prematurely. We will consult with several important contemporary philosophers, as well as with the great Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne, the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, and the late existentialist Walter Kaufmann.
Upon successful completion of this course, the student will be able to:
- Discuss the philosophical issues connected with death: what it is, whether it is good or bad, and its significance in terms of the way we choose to live.
- Explain the inter-relatedness of questions about death and questions about personal identity and the “self.”
- Differentiate between dualist and physicalist conceptions of death and specify the particular consequences of each approach.
- Describe the multiplicity of cultural, religious, and philosophical views about death and the soul.
- Discuss major philosophical arguments for and against the immortality of the soul.
- Articulate major theories of personal identity, and provide reasoned criticisms of these major theories of personal identity.
- Explain and evaluate the view of death presented in literary works such as Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
- Discuss in a philosophical way certain value-theoretic questions about death: whether it is inherently good or bad, whether it presents us with obligations to live our lives in a certain way, and whether it is permissible to end life prematurely.
- Describe the existentialist view of death and the notion that it gives life meaning by restricting its shape and scope; explain the various ways in which this limiting feature of death has been interpreted.
More info: http://www.saylor.org/courses/phil201/