Winter School: Philosophy of Death and Dying

February 15th-18th 2016 Forum Scientiarum

with Prof. Dr. Sami Pihlström, Professor of Philosophy of Religion, University of Helsinki, Research Fellow am FORUM SCIENTIARUM 

Application deadline: 15. December 2015

→  Submission Information


When exploring issues in the philosophy of death and dying, we should keep in mind that human mortality is a strongly interdisciplinary topic relevant to a number of academic disciplines (e.g., medicine, biology, philosophy, theology, religious studies, history, art and literature, law, social sciences, gender studies, education, psychology, and other fields). The interdisciplinary nature of this problem area is concretized in special problem areas or “grand challenges” such as aging, the global climate change, the significance of embodiment and human bodily vulnerability, etc. However, even though the field is interdisciplinary, the philosophical core of the various approaches to death and mortality should also be investigated. While interdisciplinary inquiries into death and dying are fundamentally important for an enhanced understanding of the human condition, such inquiries seem to presuppose philosophical reflection on the basic conceptual, metaphysical, and ethical problems underlying these notions. From a philosophical perspective, death, dying, and mortality raise a number of conceptual issues that need elucidation and clarification, both systematically and historically. These include at least the following:

  • The definition and criteria of death: what are death, dying, and mortality; what can and should we mean by these concepts and the relevant linguistic expressions, how should we define them, and how can we recognize that a particular phenomenon falls under them?

  • The Epicurean controversy: is death and/or mortality necessarily bad (evil) for the one who dies, or can it ever even be bad (evil) in this sense; furthermore, is it in any sense possible to die a “good” death?

  • The existential significance of mortality: “living toward death” as an ontological feature of human existence (cf. Heidegger on Sein-zum-Tode). This topic can be connected with pragmatist examinations of the concern with (im)mortality as a feature of purposively forward-looking human practices.

  • The metaphysics of death: is it in any sense possible to survive death (materialism vs. dualism); how is death connected with fundamental ontological problems regarding persistence, identity and individuation, modalities, etc.?

  • In addition to these theoretical philosophical problems of death and mortality, there are hot issues debated in applied ethics: abortion, euthanasia, suicide, killing and dying in war, capital punishment, genocide, terrorism, etc. These special instances of death and dying raise difficult ethical and political problems that need to be addressed in contemporary societies.

  • Metaphilosophically, the crucial question emerging from the present situation in the philosophy of death and dying is whether there in the end is anything that could appropriately be called “philosophical thanatology” and, if so, what its relation to the other academic approaches to death and mortality could, and should, be: are there fundamental, specifically philosophical problems that would remain to be discussed even after all the empirical (e.g., medical, historical, social-scientific, etc.) “thanatologies” had completed their work? What, then, is philosophical thanatology? Would, for instance, the kind of philosophical questions concerning human mortality listed above remain open even after all the different empirical or scientific questions had been adequately answered?

The one-week-long winter school, intended to both doctoral students and advanced undergraduates, will consist of a series of lectures, based on a book manuscript in progress (tentatively titled Death and Finitude: Toward a Pragmatic Transcendental Anthropology of Human Limits and Mortality), as well as short presentations by the course participants.