What is death? Do we know what death is? What do we think when we think of death? What kind of thinking is the thinking of death? Death is the condition of being without life. It marks the end of life. But it is also a phenomenon of life. “I am, therefore I die” to reformulate Descartes. For the simple reason that our life will come to an end, our existence is finite. Such thinking about death points to the indelible mark of one’s mortality, of one’s finitude. We ordinarily view death as the endpoint, the final cessation or dead-end of our being, hence, the finishing off of all that was once possible. In death, time ceases—I come to an end, I am no longer there, when I die. The present vanishes in the passing of our having-been. At its most bleak, death is the final termination of all activity, of time and life as such.
Heidegger presents a radically different interpretation of death. In Being and Time, death does not simply spell the end of existence, for in recognizing the undeniable certainty of one’s death, something else is revealed, something more fundamental is disclosed. One of Heidegger’s aims in Part I Division II of Being and Time is to formulate a more authentic mode of relating to death that goes beyond understanding death as the simple coming to an end of life or the final annihilation of all possibilities. This “more authentic” relation to death is a being-toward-death which Heidegger calls a “running ahead [Vorlaufen].” Because the certainty of my death is futural, because death will always come to me out of the future, my anticipation of death in the present makes me, so to speak, ahead of myself. I am thrown to the certainty of my own death, Heidegger would say. Insofar as I exist, I am running ahead of myself, because I am related to a futural possibility that is essentially always a “not yet,” namely, my death. “I will die, therefore I am,” to reformulate once again the Cartesian adage. Because I relate to the possibility of my death with resolute certainty, because what I can be most certain of in the world is that I will some day die, I am always already a being that is a being-toward-death. According to Heidegger, this being-toward-death is precisely what makes my being possible, for death is the most extreme possibility of my existence, my “ownmost potentiality of being [das eigenste Seinkönnen]” (BT, 232; SZ, 333 ). “I myself am in that I will die.” At stake for Heidegger, then, is to conceptualize death not as pure nothingness, but rather as pure possibility.
In view of Heidegger’s larger project in Being and Time to provide a fundamental ontology of being in the world, what is the significance of conceiving the “end” of death not as demise or perishing, but as Da-sein’s most extreme possibility? How does an authentic being-toward-death render a notion of death as the source of a radical possibilization, such that the existential analysis of death as a being-toward or running-ahead demonstrates the primordial manner in which Da-sein gives itself, in its thrownness, time and its own being? These are the questions that will guide our summary and reconstruction of Heidegger’s understanding of death as the most proper possibility of Da-sein. For what is key in understanding Heidegger is a conception of death not as a function of mortal finitude, but as a making-possible. By the end of “Da-sein and Temporality,” death is established as not the negation of possibilities, but as the most profound, originary possibility. Therefore, we must first ask: what is Heidegger’s interpretation of “possibility” (Möglichkeit) and of the “end” (Ende) of death, the analyses of which become the basis for his existential understanding of an authentic being-toward-death?
Possibility plays a central role in Heidegger’s Being and Time. In Heidegger’s fundamental analysis, possibility is shown to be the most primordial, ontological determination of Da-sein, such that Da-sein is unveiled as essentially the being of a being-possible. “Da-sein,” Heidegger writes, is “the possibility of being free for its ownmost potentiality of being [“die Möglichkeit des Freiseins für das eigenste Seinkönnen”] (BT, 135; SZ, 191 ). Or, more succinctly, possibility constitutes the existence or being in the world, that is to say, Da-sein. But what exactly is meant here by “possibility” or “being-possible”? What precisely is Heidegger’s concept of “possibility” and how does it differ from the ordinary understanding of the term?
When we speak of possibility we ordinarily mean at least three things by the word. First, possibility is understood as that which is opposed to actuality, in the sense of something not yet actual or not yet real. We say that something is a hammer when it is actually a hammer, whereas something that is possibly a hammer (say a collection of stones and sticks, for example) is something that is in fact not a hammer. Second, possibility refers to the postulation of what is only possible, the “what may come to be” or the “what may perhaps be true”—the modal verbs signifying an empty logical possibility, whether or not what is referenced actually exists. For example, the sentence, “it is possible that it may rain in Manila” is said to be possible if it might be true, whether it is actually true or actually false. Third, possibility can mean the “that which can be” or the “that which could turn into”—that is to say, possibility as potentiality. The potential of the rhetorician, one can say, is the capacity to persuade people. What is emphasized here is less the subject who acts or the object acted upon than a notion of possibility as a kind of force or power, namely a potential making-possible or being-able. For Heidegger, the first two senses of possibility function merely as a modal category and predication of innerwordly beings, in which the criterion of possibility refers simply to the contingency of something present at hand (“thatis possible to it“) or to the possibility of a “not yet” becoming real or actual (“it is possible it may be…”). It is the third sense of possibility—possibility as potentiality, the “that which can be”—which Heidegger will clarify and expand for his fundamental ontology of Da-sein, whereby the being of Da-sein will be revealed as always essentially thrown to its inmost potentiality as a being-possible (das Möglichsein).
If the theme of Heidegger’s existential analytic of Da-sein is to raise anew the question of being, by investigating not the “whatness” of being but to the more originary question concerning the being of being, Heidegger advances his fundamental ontology by revising traditional accounts of possibility. According to Heidegger, possibility has been subordinated to the concept of actuality in the history of Western philosophy, which has led to the pre-ontological misinterpretation of being as simple objective presence, a “vulgar” ontology that treats beings as entities belonging to the world of things ready-to-hand. This is found in Aristotle, for whom the question of being was primarily thought under the values of actuality. One recalls here Book Θ of Metaphysics, in which Aristotle sought to develop a theory of causal powers by distinguishing two ways of being: namely, being-in-dunamis (δυναμις) and being-in-energeia (ενεργεια), or potentiality and actuality respectively. Aristotle argues that actuality stands as the primary way of being, because beings manifest themselves in actuality and not in possibility. What is merely potential or possible is always directed towards a being-actual, for “to be,” in Aristotle’s ontology, means ultimately “to be actual.” Aristotle therefore opposes actuality to potentiality, whereby being-in-energeia is conceived as standing over and above being-in-dunamis. In Aristotle’s schema, where dunamis designates only what is possible or what is “not yet,” energeia expresses what primarily “is”: the actuality of a definite being understood as substance or ousia. Because what is possible or potential is only partial (the “not yet” is always directed towards its final completion as a being-actual), being-in-energeia is “more” full being, so to speak, than being-in-dunamis. According to Heidegger, Aristotle’s determination of being as actuality or being-in-energeia has had the consequence of narrowly defining the question of being in terms of “presence” (Anwesenheit) and something objectively present at hand (Vorhandenheit), both of which are essentially inappropriate and incompatible to characterize the being that is proper to Da-sein, namely as primarily a being-possible.
In contrast to Aristotle’s ontology, in which dunamis or possibility can have no final claim on being, Heidegger argues that “[h]igher than actuality stands possibility [Höher als die Wirklichkeit steht die Möglichkeit]” (BT, 34; SZ, 51-2 ). Heidegger reverses Aristotle’s ontological prioritization of being-in-energeia over being-in-dunamis. As mentioned above, if the “not yet” for Aristotle is only a partial, incomplete being awaiting its full actuality in the being-in-energeia, Heidegger argues that the being of Da-sein is such that a “not yet” constantly remains as something which is constitutively outstanding (Ausstand). “As long as Da-sein is,” Heidegger writes, “a not-yet [ein Noch-nicht] belongs to it” (BT, 225; SZ, 322 ). This means that Da-sein “exists” in such a way that there is always something that is still outstanding—a “not-yet,” which precisely must remain as an existential potentiality for Da-sein. To put it another way, Da-sein exists as a being-there insofar as it is a being that “is” and a “not yet”: I am actual and real, but my factically existing means that there is a “not yet,” a possibility, in me that must always remain to be actualized. If this “not yet” were not there, if there were nothing more outstanding, Da-sein, according to Heidegger, would cease to exist: I would become a no-longer-being-there, for there would be no possibility left of me to be realized. Because a “not yet” must always belong to it as its essence, Heidegger suggests that Da-sein exhibits “a constant unfinished quality [eine ständige Unabgeschlossenheit]” (BT, 2 19; SZ 314 ). This means that Da-sein is never fully totalized, can never achieve total wholeness, for its being must always be related to a possibility, a “not yet” whose elimination would be “equivalent to annihilating its being” (BT, 220 ). Although this “not yet” is by definition not something objectively present, it should not be interpreted in terms of actuality. The “not yet” is not unreal or non-being. It is for Heidegger a constitutive element of possibilization and, to that extent, positive phenomena. For without the “not yet,” Da-sein would come to an end as a being-possible.
Thus, in contrast to Aristotle, Heidegger privileges possibility over actuality as the most essential determination of the being of Da-sein. Unlike Aristotle, for whom being means the actuality of a being-present, Heidegger understands being as the potentiality of being-possible. This is why Heidegger apprehends Da-sein not as something that is simply actual or present at hand, but as “thrown possibility [geworfene Möglichkeit]” (BT, 135; SZ, 191 ). Heidegger writes, “Da-sein is not something objectively present which then has as an addition the ability to do something, but is rather primarily being-possible. Da-sein is always what it can be and how it is its possibility” [“Dasein ist nicht ein Vorhandenes, das als Zugabe noch besitzt, etwas zu können, sondern es ist primär Möglichsein. Dasein ist je das, was es sein kann und wie es seine Möglichkeit ist”] (BT, 134; SZ, 191 ). It is important to reiterate here that “being-possible” (Möglichsein) does not refer to being merely probable or logically possible (the “what may happen”), but rather, as signaled by the words können (to be able to) and Möglichkeit (possibility), from the verb mögen (favoring), “being-possible” is understood in the register of capacity or the ability-to-be, that is to say, a making-possible—the safeguarding of the possibility of the possible. Being-possible, hence, is submitted as a kind of power, an ability or capacity, which is the being proper of Da-sein, which it owns and dispenses. “When I speak of the ‘quiet power of the possible’,” as Heidegger writes elsewhere, “I do not mean the possible of a merely represented possibilitas, nor potentia as the essentia of an actus of existentia; rather, I mean being itself, which in its favoring presides over…its relation to being” (“Letter on Humanism,” p. 242). This self-favoring of Da-sein means that Da-sein projects its being upon possibilities, and, in its thrownness, gives itself as its ownmost possibility. If for Aristotle actual being is authentic being, Heidegger argues that what is primordially essential for Da-sein lies not in its actuality but in its potentiality of being. Insofar as Da-sein exists, Da-sein is possibility.
What brings to full illumination Da-sein’s ontological structure of possibility? What does it mean that Da-sein projects itself upon possibilities? In virtue of what does Da-sein disclose itself as its ownmost potentiality of being-possible? Heidegger argues that it is a certain relation to death—being-toward-death—which gives existential access to the possibility of Da-sein that is itself and its own. According to Heidegger, being-toward-death discloses Da-sein’s structure of possibility. But how can death, as a certain end understood as the possibility of my-no-longer-being-able-to-be-there, allow me to face my most extreme possibility, hence, what is most proper to my being as a being-possible? Is not death precisely the ending of my existence, the finishing off of my possibility of being-there? In other words, is not death pure nullity? Heidegger indeed defines death as a certain “end” and as a certain “possibility.” But just as we have seen how Heidegger shifted the analytical focus of “possibility” away from the values of actuality and toward an existential notion of possibility as potentiality or ability-to-be (Möglichkeit), so we will see how the “end” (Ende) of death becomes ontologically clarified not as an actual end-point, but as a being-toward-the-end (Sein zum Ende). Death stands before us as a certain end, but it is an end toward which we relate as a possibility, something that is “not yet.” Hence, Heidegger writes, “the ending we have in view when we speak of death does not signify a being-at-an-end of Da-sein but rather a being toward the end [Sein zum Ende]” (BT, 228; SZ, 326). This being-toward-the-end gives access to death as the most proper possibility of Da-sein: “As the end of Da-sein, death is the ownmost nonrelational, certain, and, as such, indefinite and not to be bypassed possibility of Da-sein” [“Der Tod als Ende des Daseins ist die eigenste, unbezügliche, gewisse und als solche unbestimmte, unüberholbare Möglichkeit des Daseins”] (BT, 239; SZ 343 , my emphases). As my ownmost possibility (die eigenste Möglichkeit), what kind of “end” is death, and how to respond to this “end” that is my own, such that it brings me face to face with the possibility that is myself as a being in the world?
In Heidegger’s existential analysis, the “end” of death is not something which one directly apprehends or experiences. Death is not an event in the sense of a determinable end-point. Because it is not an event, death does not mean the final termination or the finished fulfillment of being. “In death,” Heidegger writes, “Da-sein is neither fulfilled nor does it simply disappear; it has not become finished or completely available as something at hand” (BT, 228 ). In other words, the “end” of death is neither conceived as eskhaton nor as telos. One cannot after all “experience” the nullity that is one’s own death. This is because when my death “arrives,” I am no longer, so to speak, there to experience dying as no-longer-being-able-to-be-there. The impossibility of phenomenologically grasping or experiencing the “end” of death is one aspect of what Heidegger means when he defines death as “the possibility of the absolute impossibility of Da-sein [die Möglichkeit der schlechthinnige Daseinsunmöglichkeit]” (BT, 232; SZ, 333 ). Yet death is nonetheless a certain “end” I can posit: I am certain of the possibility of my death, in spite of the very impossibility of my directly experiencing it. The “end” of death thus “must be understood as possibility, cultivated as possibility and endured as possibility in our relation to it” (SZ 261). Because I am certain of my own death, the coming of which I cannot overcome or bypass, death is the ineluctable, unsurpassable possibility I anticipate with resolute anxiousness, a mood (Stimmungen) which Heidegger calls Angst.
“In Angst,” Heidegger writes, “Da-sein finds itself faced with the nothingness of the possible impossibility [möglichen Unmöglichkeit] of its existence” (BT, 245; SZ, 352 ). But, most importantly, this for Heidegger does not amount to an obsessive thinking about death or a relating to death in the manner of awaiting or expecting. To wait or expect anxiously are inauthentic modes of relating to death. They are inauthentic for Heidegger because they risk obfuscating or altogether nullfiying the structure of possibility of an authentic being-toward-death. When I begin to ruminate or expect in anxious anticipation the coming of my death as a foreseeable point in the future, I project death not towards the open horizon of possibilities, but drag it under a horizon of anticipation or expectation that delimits death as though it were something present at hand or actual. As Heidegger writes, “in expecting, one flies from possibility and sets foot in actuality [Wirklichen]” (BT, 242; SZ 348 , translation modified). In other words, when the thought of death impinges on me such that I begin to expect it, I anticipate the moment of death not as possibility, but as something realizable, thereby fixing (and fixating) the end (Ende) of death as a determinable event. This inauthentic way of positing death and positioning onself to death as an actualizable event or end-point forecloses in advance the horizon of possibilities to which I am originally thrown as a being-possible. At this juncture, the crucial question becomes: if death is a fate which I cannot overcome but must face and confront as my ownmost extreme possibility, how, exactly, do I relate in an authentic way toward the possibility that is the impossibility of my death?
The authentic way is to face death not as event, but as always a “not yet” which constitutes every moment and second of my existence. This means that I anticipate death not as an actuality I expect, but as an omnipresent, immanent possibility to which I am always already thrown. In other words, one countenances death as constitutive possibility, that is, as constituting life. For Heidegger, death is a possibility of being that Da-sein always has to take upon itself (“die je das Dasein selbst zu übernehmen hat“). As we have spelled out above, Heidegger conceives death as a unique form of possibility, a radical being-possible: death as the “possibility of the absolute impossibility” is Dasein’s “most proper possibility [die eigenste Möglichkeit].” The being-possible of death is not a possibility of something that may become actual, for death is an existential possibility that is at the same time an impossibility to the extent that it cannot, strictly speaking, be actualized. That death is not an actuality means that death can never be present as such because it is beyond the reach of cognition and therefore not available to phenomenal experience. Heidegger insists that, as a futural possibility (i.e., as a certain end that cannot be bypassed), being-toward-death is what makes the present possible. Being-toward-death is what possibilizes the present. Heidegger views death as that which throws Da-sein back upon its “ownmost potentiality-of-being [sein eigenstes Seinkönnen],” which discloses Da-sein’s ontological structure as possibility.
We see now how Heidegger’s existential analysis of death goes beyond the conventional way of viewing death as the annihilation of all possibilities in view of a thinking of being-toward-death as pure possibility. I exist in such a way that I am always already thrown to the certainty of my own death. Death seals the singular facticity of my existence, the “that” of my being “there,” which stretches from birth to death, a lifespan finite and terminable. And because being-toward-death throws me to a futural possibility that is mine and my own only, I am thrown to what I was always already am. One is always the proprietor of one’s death (No one can die for me; I will die alone). But this property that is proper to me is at the same time something that is impossible, because it is a threshold toward which I am thrown, and to which I shall inevitably pass, but whose passage remains impossible or inaccessible for possible experience.
Death is therefore not an event in the derived sense of something actual which is phenomenally accessible. This is why death is not an event because, as something that will always necessarily come from the future, it maintains its status as a “not yet” (noch nicht). Yet, as Heidegger maintains, death is nevertheless a special kind of end (Ende), without which Da-sein would not be able to disclose itself as a being-possible. In this way, Heidegger’s existential analysis of death seems to me to have the effect of undoing the threat that death is often conventionally thought to represent. Death, in Heidegger’s thinking, paradoxically affirms that whose possibility lies in the futural. It is always something that is yet to come and, to this extent, one’s being-toward-death affirms the fact that one is—that a “not yet, “whose eventuality is not ours to decide, always remains to be lived because it has not yet passed. Dasein means that I am structurally related to this “not yet” that will always remain to be passed, and that this “unfinished” status is ultimately something like a gift of finitude, of being given. Hence, being-toward-death does not mean withdrawing or shrinking from death, as if one moves through life in an ever narrowing tunnel. Rather, it means understanding death in a higher sense: neither as an ominous imminence nor a self-nullifying event, of demising and perishing, but as possibility. “That I will die….“—this, for Heidegger, when attuned to the authentic comportment of a being-toward-death, is a relating to death which in fact returns me to my most proper self, to my most proper possibility. Being-toward-death opens Da-sein to a horizon and movement of possibility whereby I understand myself as running ahead, retrieving and finding comfort in what I was already always am, namely, “thrown possibility [geworfene Möglichkeit]” (BT, 135; SZ, 191 ). To put it as succinctly as we can, Heidegger’s radical reinterpretation of death thus amounts to something like the following: death is the absolute impossibility that makes my being there in the world possible.
Image: James Ensor, Masks Confronting Death, oil on canvas, 1888.
 Citations are as follows BT – Being and Time. Trans. Stambaugh, Joan. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996; German references are drawn from Sein Und Zeit. Ed. Herrmann, Friedrich-Wilhelm von. Vol. Gesamtausgabe 2. Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann, 1975, indicated as SZ).