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by Shelly Kagan
Yale University Press, 2012
Review by Brad Frazier, Ph.D. on Jun 25th 2013


Death, by Shelly Kagan, a philosopher at Yale, is a book based on a course Kagan regularly teaches at Yale.  The book is advertised as part of "The Open Yale Courses Series."  Accordingly, the intended audience for the book consists of a "wide variety" of "curious" readers who are looking for an introduction to the topic of death from a philosophically informed perspective. (I am not going to discuss here the ongoing debate about massive open online courses, or "MOOCs" as they are called).

Death turns out to be a whopper: 16 chapters and 376 pages -- including the index and suggestions for further reading.  The basic structure of the book is relatively simple, though.  The first half of Death -- roughly chapters 1-9 -- deals with metaphysical issues related to death, such as, for instance, the possibility of surviving death and the nature of personal identity.  The second half discusses ethical questions having to do with death -- e.g., the morality of suicide.  In the transition from the first part to the second part, Kagan also discusses harder-to-categorize questions, such as whether anyone really believes or could believe that she is going to die, and what sense there is in the oft-repeated mantra about having to "die alone."

Kagan ably defends a physicalist view in the first half of Death.  He dispatches with the best philosophical arguments for the existence of immaterial souls. Then he discusses the implications of his account for the afterlife (there isn't one) and the badness of death (it can only be comparatively bad, that is bad because of what the dead person could have been doing or enjoying if she weren't dead).  Once he has given non-physicalist views a fair shot and found them wanting, he assumes the truth of physicalism for the rest of his discussion of death.  He concedes that persons who are not persuaded by his defense of physicalism will have to view much of Death as an elaborate thought experiment about how things look, if physicalism were true.  This is a wise move, as it gives the book a more intriguing plot line: how death looks from a perspective that embraces it as the end.

If you are wondering what a physicalist like Kagan thinks about the mysteriousness of death, once he's removed from the picture souls, an afterlife, and a final judgment issuing in heaven or hell, it's pretty simple.  As he puts it, "it seems to me that once we become physicalists there is nothing especially deep or mysterious about death. . . . There may of course be a lot of details to work out from the scientific point of view.  But from the philosophical point of view there is nothing mysterious going on here.  The body works and then it breaks.  That's all there is to death" (184-85).  Kagan arrives at this conclusion at the end of chapter 8 and reiterates it in his conclusion, where he notes that death is no more mysterious than "the fact that your lamp or your computer can break, or that any machine will eventually fail" (363).

This is no doubt true -- that in Kagan's hands, death is not very mysterious.  After all, that is the deliverance of "the" philosophical point of view, as Kagan sees it.  If only Kagan could take a cue from another Ivy League philosopher, John Rawls, and refer to his philosophical approach as yielding a theory of death, it would be easier to let pass this kind of (albeit very polite) presumption.  Of course, Kagan's approach -- as would be the case with many analytic philosophers writing about death -- assumes that we can carefully distinguish between the merely cultural and psychological elements in our views about death and the purely philosophical issues that any philosophical treatment of death must tackle.  That's why he can write about death without worrying at all about the wild diversity of actual views about death across cultures and various time periods in human history, and without any apparent concern that he might be personally invested in divesting death of its mystery.  To take that stuff into account when writing about death as a philosopher would make it vastly more complicated and would have to give nearly anyone a very palpable sense of fallibility and perspective about her own views.

But then let's be clear about what "the" philosophical point of view amounts to here: it is what death looks like to a philosopher trained well in the analytic tradition in the United States in the middle of the twentieth century, who has had a successful career writing and teaching from a perspective that zeroes out all the cultural, psychological, and religious baggage that surrounds death in order to focus on the properly philosophical issues about it.  Getting to the bottom of these, in turn, reveals to us the "nature" of death -- what has to be true about it across all human experiences of it, no matter what else may be true or may be believed to be true.  If you are dubious about the prospects of knowing the nature of death, as so described, then you are probably going to find Kagan's admittedly very learned approach rather naïve.  I do, and I was trained in the same tradition, and want to preserve its best aspects.

In certain respects, Death is an excellent source book for other philosophers and generally curious persons who want to know: a) the implications of some current debates in philosophy -- especially in analytic metaphysics -- for issues related to death; b) the basic outlines of the best arguments for and against the soul, patiently and clearly spelled out; c) the broadly ethical implications of a fairly standard physicalist account of death.  The reader will find learned discussions of the main arguments surrounding these topics and their philosophical implications for understanding death.

If you are a fan, moreover, of the science-fictionish thought experiments made popular in philosophy circles several decades ago by Derek Parfit in his Reasons and Persons -- and you would almost have to be an analytic philosopher to be such a person -- you will love much of the first half of Death, especially the chapters on personal identity.  If you are not, that is, if you are dubious about our intuitions about who and where Johnny would be, if Johnny were subjected to various currently impossible brain transplants and body switches, then probably you will grow a bit impatient with the book.  It is not that Death can come across this way because of the difficulty of the philosophical issues or reasoning in it.  Rather, it is the tedious, often silly, just-so puzzle cases that dominate it.  I read several such passages aloud for my partner, an accomplished art historian.  She was mostly incredulous and bemused.

I concur with Philip Kitcher's incisive assessment of this way of doing philosophy, as he presents it in his January 2012, New Republic review of Parfit's much more recent book (in two volumes), On What Matters.  The supposed "schematic fictions," as Kitcher calls them, are not analogues of experimental results in science.  They do not yield anything remotely like the more precise concepts that are based on the deliverances of experiments.  Even worse, there is no standard for doing these puzzle cases well.  Often when people encounter these fantastic fictions, even very gifted philosophers, they have no idea what to say about them.  As Kitcher points out:

          Readers are pitched into a fantasy world, remote from reality, in which our natural reactions are sharply curtailed by authorial fiat.  When we are called to render a verdict, the dominant feeling is a disruption of whatever skills we possess, and a corresponding distrust of anything we might say-often publicly visible when lecturers ask their audiences to respond to some puzzle case: only partisans of some particular theory answer confidently, while the rest sit in uncomfortable silence.  The reader may even be left with a deep sense of unease that matters of life and death are to be judged on the basis of such cursory and rigged information.

To his credit, Kagan is no simple partisan for his preferred theories in Death.  He painstakingly considers alternative points of view and acknowledges lingering ambiguities and perplexities that attend even what he takes to be the best theories.  Otherwise, though, Kitcher's points are remarkably apt in regard to much of the philosophical methodology of Death. (For the full review, see: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/books/magazine/99529/on-what-matters-derek-parfit. )

Perhaps the worst thing about this methodology is that it leads us to look in the wrong places for help in thinking about the subtleties of death and personal identity.  Instead of pondering obscure and often silly artificially constructed puzzles, philosophers should be thinking about and helping others think about the implications of actual research on the brain and how it affects identity, for starters.  Perhaps we could learn something profound about death, too, if we look more carefully at the kaleidoscope of ways that people have dealt with it and the research that has been done on this and related issues.  But that would require us to be much more interdisciplinary in our approach, which is, of course, much more difficult.

When I first started reading Death, I was riveted by the topic and very interested in everything Kagan had to say.  I found the initial discussions about the soul very interesting and persuasive.  I was actually considering using the book in a course I teach that tackles death as a major subject, and was happy to have fond such a prospect.  Then, I must admit, things started going downhill fairly rapidly.

          In addition to the problems noted above, Death is extremely pedantic and often needlessly repetitive.  The book could have been much shorter without any real or significant loss of rigor and clarity.  Furthermore, often Kagan is much more interested in puzzles that matter only to other analytic philosophers than ones that interest generally curious people.  When he does tackle common "confused" concerns about "dying alone," for instance, his discussion is borderline boorish.  It was a chore, to put it mildly, to finish Death, and not for good reasons.  Unfortunately, I would not consider subjecting my students to this book and I do not recommend it except as a kind of source book for philosophical issues and arguments related to death.


© 2013 Brad Frazier


Brad Frazier, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion, Wells College