The existential shock of death

James Baillie, a professor of philosophy, looks at why people struggle so much to accept the fact of death even though they know it is inevitable. He starts by looking at a passage from The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) by Leo Tolstoy.

The syllogism he had learned from Kiesewetter’s logic – ‘Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal’ – had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but by no means to himself. That man Caius represented man in the abstract, and so the reasoning was perfectly sound; but he was not Caius, not an abstract man; he had always been a creature quite, quite distinct from all the others.

Baillie says this cognitive split described by Tolstoy arises because we see the world from both an ‘outside view’ and an ‘inside view’.

Let’s consider the way in which my inevitable death is old news. It stems from the uniquely human capacity to disengage from our actions and commitments, so that each of us can consider him or herself as an inhabitant of the mind-independent world, one human being among billions. When I regard myself ‘from the outside’ in this manner, I have no trouble in affirming that I will die. I understand that I exist because of innumerable contingencies, and that the world will go on without me just as it did before my coming to be. These reflections do not disturb me. My equanimity is due to the fact that, even though I am reflecting on my inevitable annihilation, it is almost as if I am thinking about someone else. That is, the outside view places a cognitive distance between myself as the thinker of these thoughts and myself as their subject.

The other basic way of conceiving of ourselves consists of how our lives feel ‘from the inside’ as we go about our everyday activities. One important aspect of the inside view has recently been discussed by Mark Johnston in Surviving Death (2010), namely the perspectival nature of perceptual experience. The world is presented to me as if it were framed around my body, particularly my head, where my sensory apparatus is mostly located. I never experience the world except with me ‘at the centre’, as if I were the axis on which it all turned. As I change location, this phenomenologically central position moves with me. This locus of perceptual experiences is also the source from which my thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations arise. Johnston calls it the ‘arena of presence and action’. When we think of ourselves as the one at the centre of this arena, we find it inconceivable that this consciousness, this point of view on the world, will cease to be.

While the outside view enables us to view our deaths with some degree of equanimity, it is the inside view that is the default, and it is the attempt to conceptualize the end of this perspective that causes the existential shock.


  1. says

    Around the time I transitioned I stopped counting how many years were behind and now count how many years are left. I’m 52 now, and I know I’m only going to get slower and less able, but I’m more concerned about having fun and making up for lost time, things I never got to do when I was younger. It sounds silly, but my life has turned into a game of Perfection, just like the jingle.

    I and several other foreigners have semi-seriously talked about signing up for voluntary defence forces if the political situation starts to deteriorate and China gets more aggressive. I’ve never been in the military, but I could accept going out defending something worthwhile. I’ve had my chances to have fun and live a life.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    When we think of ourselves as the one at the centre of this arena, we find it inconceivable that this consciousness, this point of view on the world, will cease to be.

    Has the person who wrote this ever experienced major illness or injury?

  3. file thirteen says

    If I could snap my fingers and terminate my consciousness I would have long since done it. (I’m snapping my fingers in hope as I write this, but to no avail).

  4. Jenora Feuer says

    I didn’t even have to click the link, I grew up when that commercial was on TV and I’ve already got that earworm going through my head just from reading your statement, thank you EVER so much.

    In general, my attitude is: sure, I’ll die. I’ve got some things I’d rather do first, and I know it happening will disappoint my friends, so I’m in no hurry.

  5. robert79 says

    What I suspect also plays a role is the our personal experience is incredibly biased. Our experience tells us we’ve managed to live through everything that life has thrown at us, so we expect we’ll live through anything else life will throw at us.

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