This is a draft; comments welcome.

THE VERY PROBLEM OF DEATH On Ferrater Mora’s Thanatontology BRAD ELLIOTT STONE Loyola Marymount University As I have discussed previously,1 20th century Spanish philosophy can be best characterized by an attention to what I call “very problems.” The best definition of a “very problem” would be “the problem that something is problematic at all; a problem that is often avoided or overlooked in favor of an easier “problem,” i.e., a problem that seems to have obvious answers.” Contemporary Spanish thinkers heavily focused on these very problems, primarily due to the historical circumstances in which they found themselves: five radical changes of government, exile, war, and the lack of intellectual freedom. The result was the birth of the very problem, born in 1898 to be exact, of Spain. The very problem of Spain gave birth to many other very problems. In my previous exploration, I addressed the very problem of God. “God” names a very problem, often overlooked in favor of an easier “problem,” viz. the “problem” of God’s existence. In traditional philosophy of religion, there are three main “solutions”: theism,

atheism, and agnosticism. The problem, however, is that none of these positions eliminates the very problem of God. Theists believe that God exists, and that there are rational proofs for such existence; yet the God they prove fails to be the God that is worshipped, prayed to, etc. Atheists believe that God does not exist, and that there are rational proofs against such existence; yet all they succeed in proving is that God is something different than what philosophers claim—the very problem still goes unresolved. Agnostics are not convinced by the theists’ proofs but also
Cf. Brad Elliott STONE, “The Very Problem of the Problem of God in Zubiri and Unamuno,” The Xavier Zubiri Review 6 (2004): 73-88.


do not want to claim that God does not exist. They are also trapped in the wrong problem, for they think that they are “undecided” about God’s existence, when they could be seeking an alternative to the false dichotomy of theism and atheism all together. The very problem of God has nothing to do with God’s existence; it has to do with why it is that human beings are drawn to talk and think about a higher power than themselves. I will say a little more about what I mean by the term “very problem.” In Spanish, there would be two ways of translating “the very problem of death.” One way, borrowing from the British use of the word “very,” would be to say “el problema verdadero de la muerte,” the true problem of death. This would differentiate the very problem of death from several

“pseudoproblems” of death. Just as the question of God’s existence, traditionally conceived, is a deficient form of the very problem of God, there are several philosophical themes that seem to be dealing with death, but not in the way that truly captures our concerns about death. I will argue in this essay that one of the pseudoproblems of death is the question concerning immortality. The second way would be to say “el problema mísmo de la muerte,” the problem of death itself.” What the Spanish philosophers seek to explore is why it is that death is seen as a problem, and what that problematization says about the essence of human beings. So, like with the very problem of God, the very problem is actually not about “death” at all, but about being human. Fleeing from this dimension in a bout of inauthenticity, we seek to create “problems” about death (and God) that are impersonal. Every problema mísmo, however, can and should be subsumed under our ultimate problem: the very problem of being human. If being human were not a very problem, it would be hard to see other things as problematic. The very problem of death, which I call thanatontology (it could be shorted to thanontology if one does not confuse it with thanatology, the “metaphysics of death” that often


eludes the very problem of death; I use the longer form so that we will let ourselves get “tonguetied” by the very problem), is that we are defined by death—it is part of our essence as human beings. What does it mean to be mortal? Thanatontology is an understanding of be-ing and of beings in terms of mortality. Since human beings have ontological and ontical priority,2 and they are mortal, all other things are authentically understood in light of human mortality, even be-ing itself.3 One must not think of thanatontology as a critique of vitalism. Vitalism is a major theme in 20th century Spanish thought, and is understood in thanatontological terms. The real

opponents of thanatontology are what I call infinitism and eternalism. Infinitism holds that there is something infinite about all beings, some beings, or even be-ing itself. A good example of infinitism is Spinoza’s pantheistic monism. Eternalism holds that there is something eternal about all beings, some beings, or even be-ing itself. A good example of eternalism is Plato’s theory of the forms. Thanatontology refutes both of these claims, holding that all beings, and even be-ing itself, are finite and temporal in nature—in short, mortal. This essay focuses on the thanatontology of José María Ferrater Mora. Ferrater Mora was born in Barcelona, Spain, in 1912.4 He received his licenciado (it is like our M.A.) in philosophy from the University of Barcelona in 1936, and immediately enlisted into the Loyalist Army, fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Once Franco’s forces were victorious in 1939, Ferrater Mora left Spain. He taught in several Latin American countries until he came to the United States in 1947. He became an American citizen in 1960. He taught philosophy and Spanish at
Cf. Martin HEIDEGGER, Sein und Zeit, 5th ed. (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1953), trans. Joan Stambaugh as Being and Time (Albany: SUNY, 1994): §§3-4. Future references to this text will be made as BT followed by the standard German page number. 3 Hence why one can talk about be-ing’s history (Seynsgeschichte). Cf. HEIDEGGER, Die Geschichte des Seyns, Gesamtausgabe, Band 69 (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1998). 4 A more complete biography, bibliography, etc. can be found at, a website of the Josep Ferrater Mora Foundation, which is run by Ferrater Mora’s widow, Priscilla Cohn, Professor Emeritus at Penn State University (last consulted December 1, 2006).


Bryn Mawr College from 1949 to 1980. He spent his retirement years publishing and speaking at universities across Latin America and in Spain, receiving several honorary doctorates. He died in Barcelona in 1991 while visiting his birthplace to release his last book. He authored several works, including the impressive Diccionario de filosofía, for which he wrote every entry. This essay focuses on Ferrater Mora’s 1965 text Being and Death: An Outline of Integrationist Philosophy.5 In this book, Ferrater Mora offers an ontology grounded on the mortality of beings. Implicit (and sometimes explicit) in the work is a conceptual expansion and critique of Martin Heidegger’s fundamental ontology found in Being and Time.6 I begin with a quick summary of Heidegger’s account of Da-sein’s inauthentic response to being-toward-death, which avoids understanding oneself as mortal. Ferrater Mora goes beyond Da-sein’s beingtoward-death by offering a more robust thanatontology, the analogia mortis, which accounts for Da-sein as well as innerworldly things. Sections three through five deal with Ferrater Mora’s account of inorganic beings, organic beings, and human beings. In the sixth section, I address the question of human immortality as presented by Ferrater Mora, focusing on how the very problem of death plays out throughout the other very problems of philosophy. I Heidegger on Death and De-mise Heidegger argues in the first chapter of Division II of Being and Time that the ordinary understanding of death is a constant flight from death. Being toward the end has the mode of evading that end—reinterpreting it, understanding it inauthentically, and veiling it. Factically one’s own Da-sein is always already dying, that is, it is in a beingJosé María FERRATER MORA, Being and Death: An Outline of Integrationist Philosophy (Berkeley: California, 1965). References to this text will be made as BD followed by the page number. This text is an English version of his El Ser y la muerte (Madrid: Aguilar, 1962) with many revisions and new sections. Ferrater Mora states in the introduction that one must not think of the 1965 work as a translation of the 1962 book. 6 The impact of Heidegger on 20th century Spanish thought merits more study of the Spanish contemporary philosophers. Spanish-language Heidegger scholarship, shunned unilaterally from the Franco-Germanic continental tradition, has developed in Spain and Latin America in philosophically interesting ways.


toward-its-end. And it conceals this fact from itself by reinterpreting death as a case of death occurring every day with others, a case which always assures us still more clearly that “one oneself” is still “alive.”7 The ordinary understanding of death fails to see that Da-sein is always, at every moment, dying. Death is therefore not the same as “the end of one’s life” (which Heidegger calls demise). Entangled Da-sein always confuses the two, assuring itself that as long as it is not in the casket or the urn, that it is free from death, that it is still “alive.” In order to correctly understand death, one must differentiate it from demise. Demise is literally that: de-mise, the un-put of Da-sein (nicht zu mehr Da-sein), the negation of thrownness (how Da-sein is “put” or always already finds itself being-in-the-world). At the moment of our demise, Da-sein becomes un-put; it “shatters” and is no more. This shattering can happen at any time; it is inauthentic to assume that older people are “more likely” to meet their demise than babies are. Demise is an immediate possibility of every Da-sein. It is a Faktum of Da-sein that it will in the future no longer be. Any time one has before one’s demise is simply “time that remains.” However, one must not think of this “remaining time” as sands in an hourglass. Demise does not have to wait for the sands to come down; demise can break the hourglass itself, spilling sand everywhere. Demise is never to be understood as a kind of “running out” or “completeness,” a “ripening” or a “fading.” Demise is always sudden, even if one is very aware that one’s demise might be very close to occuring. The time between being the Da and no longer being that Da is an Augenblick—it is not really even a time at all. Dying is the process of thrown projection. Da-sein’s greatest death happened at birth. Upon conception, Da-sein’s possibilities are already set; none of which were Da-sein’s choice. Da-sein is thrown into existence with a finite set of possibilities and has only a time that remains to actualize a smaller subset of those possibilities. To do this, Da-sein projects, i.e., makes plans.

BT 254.


At every moment, Da-sein must decide which possibilities to explore, expand, and actualize. Da-sein will never actualize all of its possibilities; its demise always interrupts its plans. Also, choosing certain possibilities to realize causes other possibilities to no longer be possible. Therefore, with every decision that Da-sein makes, Da-sein “dies.” Just as birth was a big death, every decision is a kind of mini-death, the death of a possible Da-sein. For example, in pursuing my Ph.D. in philosophy, I killed the Brad Stone that would have been an interpreter by the age of thirty. Authentic being-toward-death means understanding that every decision matters; that one must become who one is by using what possibilities are available in the limited amount of time one has, a time that can end at any moment. Inauthentic Da-sein does not understand its being-toward-death that way. In

inauthenticity one seeks to avoid dying, to “live” as if nothing matters, as if there will always be tomorrow to begin living one’s life. Inauthentic Da-sein decides to not decide, therefore

actualizing the possibility of Da-sein of doing nothing. It is often these people, Seneca reminds us, that upon approaching their demise, always wish for more time, as if more time would make a difference.8 This is inauthentic, for if they had more time they would waste it just as they did the life they were originally allotted. For Heidegger, it is equally inauthentic to presuppose that one’s Da-sein consists of a non-mortal part such that Da-sein actually avoids being-toward-death. Death is Da-sein’s

ownmost possiblility of being-a-whole; any other account of what it means to be a human being does not phenomenologically square with our experiences of our own life. In fact, it is the inauthentic attitude about death that causes Da-sein to think that time is in-finite, therefore

Cf. SENECA, “On the Shortness of Life,” The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca, trans. Moses Hadas (New York: Norton, 1958), pp.47-73.



holding the view that time is eternal.9 Infinitism and eternalism are the results of Da-sein’s inauthentic understanding of its own mortality. II The Metaphysics of Mortals Ferrater Mora was inspired by Heidegger’s understanding of death, although he did not agree that only Da-sein dies. Expanding on Heidegger’s model, Ferrater Mora argues that everything can be understood in terms of mortality. The analogia mortis that drives Ferrater Mora’s thanatontology is summarized in Being and Death as follows: 1. To be (to be real) is to be mortal. 2. There are various degrees of mortality, ranging from “minimum mortality” to “maximum mortality.” 3. Minimum mortality characterizes the type of reality called “inorganic nature.” 4. Maximum mortality characterizes the type of reality called “human beings.” 5. Each type of being included in the notion of “reality” can be (ontologically) located within a continuum circumscribed by two contrasting (ontological) tendencies: one that runs from “the least mortal” to “the most mortal” and the other one that runs in the opposite direction.10 The first proposition is the explicit statement that for Ferrater Mora, nothing will count as a being that cannot cease to be. There are three kinds of beings (mortal realities): inorganic beings, biological organisms (organic beings), and human beings. All three of these kinds of beings are to be understood in terms of mortality. The second proposition establishes the continuum. For Ferrater Mora, “to die” is an equivocal expression, i.e., it is true of different things but in different ways. Beings are always “less mortal,” “as mortal,” or “more mortal” than other beings. Theoretically, there is therefore a “least mortal” and a “most mortal” being, with all other beings fitting somewhere in the range between those two.
9 10

Cf. BT 329-330. BD 64-65.


Proposition three states that inorganic beings are “minimally mortal.” Regardless of how mortal an inorganic being is, it will always be “less mortal” than an organic or human being. Corresponding to the third proposition is proposition four: human beings are “maximally mortal.” Nothing is “more mortal” than human beings (be-ing itself would be, Heideggerian speaking, “as mortal” as human beings). So, as proposition five states, there are two “tendencies” that account for the mortality of a given being. One tendency is the movement from “least mortal” to “most mortal.” But this would not be sufficient for the ontology that Ferrater Mora seeks to present. As he puts it, Those metaphysical systems which introduced the notions of process and change clearly recognized that there is something in reality which is explicable primarily in terms of process, but they paid little or no attention to the dual direction of this process. For this reason, reality was often “measured” (ontologically) on the basis of a single direction, particularly that which leads toward “Being,” “perfection,” “plenitude,” and so forth. The further an entity was from one of the “poles” of the ontological line, the less real it was supposed to be … This was achieved primarily by identifying the other possible “pole” of the line as a signpost of nonexistence … [our ontology] employs two opposing yet complementary points of view in order to speak about any reality.11 Every being, therefore, will be a mixture of the “least mortal” and the “most mortal.” Inorganic beings, for example, might be “least mortal,” but they are not “less real” because of it. There is still something very mortal in inorganic life. Likewise, human beings are not “more real” because they are “more mortal” because there is something in human beings that resists, albeit in a very weak way, that mortality. Ferrater Mora calls this non-perfectionist view integrationism. As he describes it,

integrationism holds that “[w]hat is real is only what exists, lives, and moves ‘between polarities,’ without ever being transformed into any of them, that is, without ever being petrified,


BD 72-73.


so to speak, into ‘absolutes.’”12 The two poles in Being and Death are “total mortality” and “total immortality.” No being actually finds itself at either of these poles. Every entity has an “ontological situation” “between” these two poles. Human beings, for example, are

ontologically situated closer to the “total mortality” pole than atoms. Therefore, death makes up a larger part of the essence of a human being than it does of an atom. However, atoms are not immortal, so the “total mortality” pole still exerts some influence, although that influence is weaker in an atom than it is in a human being. Human beings likewise have inklings of immortality, because the “total immortality” pole influences them, although in a very weak way. The rest of the book is Ferrater Mora’s analysis of the ontological situation of the three categories of beings. For each category, there is a description of what it means to be that kind of being (often refuting other descriptions of what it means to be those things, while nonetheless integrating them into his view), an explanation of how it has “mortal tendencies,” and an explanation of how it has “immortal tendencies.” Following Ferrater Mora’s layout, we will begin with inorganic beings, continue with organic beings, and end with human beings. III Inorganic Beings According to Ferrater Mora, there have been three main “tendencies” in philosophy and science when it comes to describing inorganic beings: hylomorphism, substantialism, and processualism. All three of these tendencies have something right about them, yet none of them fully capture what inorganic beings are from a thanatontological point of view. Hylomorphism is rejected by Ferrater Mora “because of its failure to harmonize with the present state of physical theory.”13 Substantialism “say[s] both too much and too little” about inorganic reality

12 13

BD 7. BD 36.


(e.g., is a rock a substance? an atomic particle?).14 Processualism, although closer to what scientists are currently doing than the previous two tendencies, cannot offer a process “which consists solely of not being what it is” that would account for the mortality of an inorganic being.15 Ferrater Mora’s suggestion is to explain inorganic beings in terms of structures. Structures are the ways in which elements are interrelated. It would be tempting to define inorganic beings as “structured elements,” which would borrow from hylomorphism. It would also be tempting to think of elements as properties, which would turn structures into “substances.” “Structure” could also be understood as the process of organizing given elements. Ferrater Mora resists any of these temptations. The reason he resists these views is that although there is a logical priority of elements over structures, elements per se do not really exist qua elements: “in inorganic nature only structures exist, and thus what we call ‘an element’ proves in the last analysis to be only ‘a structure viewed (temporarily or for some well-defined purposes) as an element.”16 Every structure is an organization of “elements,” but there is no such thing as an “unstructured element:” not—contrary to hylomorphists—because it would require an abstraction, but because every element is actually a structure. For this reason, not only are there actually no such things as “elements” per se, there cannot be “singles” (a structure with only one element) either. Inorganic beings are mortal insofar as structures can be changed, altered, etc. Insofar as inorganic beings are always interacting with other things (at least at the level of physical chemistry), they are changing, and are therefore dying. There is also, however, a death, a
BD 37. BD 39. 16 BD 45. The example Ferrater Mora gives earlier is the atom, which for centuries was considered to be an “element,” although we now understand atoms as structures made up of “elements” that are also actually “sturctures,” ad infinitum. Cf. BD 42.
15 14


moment in which that inorganic being ceases to be that being. Ferrater Mora writes that “[s]ince inorganic nature continuously undergoes changes it may be said that it ceases continuously, but never completely. Death in inorganic nature could be defined as ‘permanent structural

damage.’”17 For example, a book qua book “dies” when its cover, spine, and pages are unstructured into a mess of cardstock, glue, and paper (all of which are still structures). A falling vase “dies” upon shattering into pieces when it hits the floor. Although each piece of glass is still a structure, the vase qua vase “is no more.” We see that there is analogia mortis even among inorganic beings: books and vases are “more mortal” than paper, glue, cardstock, glass, etc. Quarks, superstrings, etc. are “less mortal” than paper and glue, and so forth. An interesting fact emerges, however. Since every structure, upon its “death,” yields more structures, [w]hat we call “cessation of an inorganic entity” is, at bottom, not a “real cessation” but a change, a structural change. In other words, ‘O ceases to exist’ means ‘O as a structure ceases to exist, but there is something in O that endures’ … When [O] eventually ceases to exist, there will still be something that for the time being at least is held to be invariable. This process may continue ad infinitum. There will always be something remaining that will never cease.18 This “never ceasing” is not the same as “immortal,” but it is definitely “least mortal.” Since simples do not exist, every structure can be “broken” into its “elements” ad infinitum. This is the closest anything (inorganic, organic, or human) gets to “immortality.” Finally, we need to describe the ontological situation of inorganic beings as such. Inorganic beings are the “least mortal” beings in the continuum, and that is why their “death” seems very external to it. The “more mortal” something is, the “more interior” its death is. In theory, an inorganic being can only cease to be when radically affected by something else. I must drop the vase for it to break (or the wind can blow it over perhaps). If there was a way to
17 18

Ibid. Ibid.


limit the potentiality of breaking, the vase could exist “forever.” Since inorganic beings’ death is external to them, there could be a state of affairs such that a given structure would never cease to be. Nonetheless, it is still mortal; it has the potential of cessation. So, if we are going to say that inorganic beings are ultimately “eternal” using the law of conservation of energy and mass (which would therefore make every being “eternal”), we would have to append “yet still susceptible to coming to an end.” IV Organic Beings There are four main “tendencies” in philosophy and science when it comes to describing organic beings: radical vitalism, strict vitalism, organicism, and mechanism. Like with his treatment of inorganic beings, Ferrater Mora will offer a refutation of each, followed by his own proposal. Radical vitalism is outright rejected; if inorganic beings are themselves organic (as the radical vitalist claims), it would make no sense to say that organic beings are “more mortal” than inorganic beings. Strict vitalism, also called neovitalism, although it acknowledges that there is a fundamental difference between organic beings and inorganic beings such that organic beings cannot be totally reduced to inorganic beings, also fails, for “neovitalism has become a doctrine that has found little support in the developments of contemporary biology.”19 Organicism claims that although organic beings can be described in terms of inorganic beings, one cannot start from inorganic beings and get organic ones; although this ensures that organic beings are understood as something different from inorganic beings (even if only on a conceptual level), it lacks the explanatory power held by more reductivist accounts of organic reality. Mechanism, like strict vitalism, suffers from the lack of difference between organic and inorganic beings since it holds


BD 102.


that organic beings should simply be understood as inorganic beings; to hold this view would result in there being no thanatontological difference between the two. Although it is true that organic beings are made up of inorganic materials, and is therefore to be understood in one sense as a kind of structure of elements, it would be quite problematic to say that understanding fully captures what it means to be organic. Mora focuses on five characteristics of organic beings that are not present in inorganic ones: (1) indecisiveness, (2) “being for itself,” (3) spontaneity, (4) specificity, and (5) individuality. Indecisiveness points to organic beings’ blending of both the inorganic and the “psychical.” Living things are made up of inorganic matter, but they are not reducible to that matter; they also have psyché, but they are not reducible to that. Every organic being, just as it can be situated as “more mortal” or “less mortal” in comparison to other organic beings (they are collectively “more mortal” than any inorganic being), is “more material” or “more psychical.” Ferrater Mora calls this “oscillation.” By “being for itself” Ferrater Mora means that organic beings tend to look out for their own existence and survival, or what he calls “a utilitarian orientation”: “the activities of

organisms are directed toward a kind of self-satisfaction: satisfaction of their inclinations, appetites, [and] instincts.”20 Organic beings are also spontaneous insofar as they adapt to new situations. Evolutionary biology is the paradigm example of observing organic spontaneity; it would seem strange to think that a vase “adapts” to the room in which it is placed. This connects to the fourth characteristic, specificity, insofar as organic beings will adapt in order to save whatever is specific to that being. As Ferrater Mora writes, “[i]t is as if a living being had only the following ‘purpose’: to develop a structure, its own structure, and maintain itself in this structure by reproducing it.”21

20 21

BD 116. BD 118.


The fifth characteristic, individuality, is to be differentiated from “particularity.” Individuality is not that something or someone is one thing instead of another thing (that would be “particularity;” rather, individuality is the way in which an organic being plays out its specificity. Not every organic being plays out its specificity in the same way; therefore it can be said that “some organic beings may be ‘more individual,’ and, therefore more strongly individuated, than others.”22 Ferrater Mora thinks that individuality is a kind of “interior” dimension of organic beings, although it cannot be absolute (rather, “more mortal” organic beings are “more interior,” hence “more individual”). It is the interior individuality that factors into the death of organic beings. The major difference between organic death and inorganic death is that death seems to be internal and essential to organic beings compared to the exterior, accidental nature of inorganic death. The vase, if it is never disturbed, will never “die.” It is hard to say the same about fish. Some organic beings, like paramecia, live quite indefinitely, but the principle of their death are not accidental. Trees can be very old, but when they do die, they “die from the inside.” In fact, Ferrater Mora says that “death is an essential ingredient of organic life, to the point that organic life is not even conceivable without death … if organic beings cannot live indefinitely, then it is because death is a necessity for them.”23 This differentiates organic beings from inorganic ones: although one can slow down the dying process by keeping the structured elements free from “permanent structural damage,” the organic being still dies down the road; a perfectly preserved dead body, for example, is not alive qua organic being, even if all of the parts are intact. Organic beings have two possibilities of death. As organic being, the cessation of vital functions constitutes death. This death can come about, even if vital functions are working fine,

22 23

BD 119. BD 122.


by means of inorganic death, “permanent structural change.” Cutting a chicken’s head off creates a permanent structural change which leads to cessation of vital functions. This captures the dual, oscillating nature of organic beings. As in his discussion of inorganic beings, Ferrater Mora discusses theories concerning the potential for organic immortality. Like with the conservation of energy and mass, which gives a “kind of immortality” to organic beings, unicellular organisms seem to be immortal when kept free from external causes of death. However, Ferrater Mora denies such immortality in any absolute sense, for it is only a “makeshift” immortality; what makes death essential for organic beings is not that they will some day die (although that is mostly true) but rather that they can die. To be mortal, Ferrater Mora argues, is not that something dies, but that it is capable of dying. The more complex the organic being, the “more mortal” it is, due to the potential death of the central system that coordinates all of the other organ groups. This is due to the fact that, as Ferrater Mora points out, [a] higher biological organism becomes increasing complex the more its component parts (the tissues) are differentiated and, at the same time, the more effectively they are subordinated to a central system … to say that aging and death in an organism is due to the latter’s complexity is equivalent to saying that such an organism can be greatly affected through the growing centralization of its functions. In this case, aging is not a process that extends uniformly throughout the entire organism … Similarly, death does not equally or simultaneously affect all the parts of an organism.24 V Human Beings In patented style, Ferrater Mora starts his analysis of human beings by addressing the traditional positions on the issue. There are three main tendencies: spiritualism, dualism, and epiphenomenalism. The spiritualist believes that what makes a human being a human being is that human beings have souls, souls that upon the death of the body will carry on the essence of a

BD 136-137.


human being. Ferrater Mora believes that this view is problematic, because it fails to account for the significance of the body to human beings. Dualists grant the significance of the body, yet also see them as two different substances, such that, like the spiritualist, there will be a separation of the substances at death. This leads to the many problems surrounding mind-body interaction, problems that only arise due to the assumption that the body and the mind are different substances, therefore lacking a common communicative possibility. Epiphenomenalists reduce all human activity to inorganic and organic activity, seeing the human mind as epiphenomena of the physical body. This view, however, would eliminate the claim that human beings are “more mortal” than other beings because they would then have the same ontological amount of mortality. Concerning the interaction of mind and body, Ferrater Mora leans closer to Aristotle and Augustine, who never understood the soul and the body as distinct “elements” of a human being (as if human beings were merely structures of elements). Aristotle holds that the soul is “the form of the organic body having the power of life,” and Augustine says that human beings can be defined as “the way in which the body attaches to the soul.”25 The advantage of these definitions is that they both understand that human beings cannot be one without the other; the disadvantage is that the tradition reads these quotations in a spiritualist way, so their impact is not as clear as hoped. Jettisoning the question of mind/body interaction (which is not a very problem at all, but rather a distraction away from more pressing questions), Ferrater Mora states the following: “man does not have a body, but is his body—his own body … Man is a way of being a body … what I contend is that nothing can be detected in man that absolutely transcends his body; and

Cf. BD 146. Ferrater Mora is citing ARISTOTLE, De Anima II.1, 412a27ff and AUGUSTINE, De Civitate Dei XXI, 10.



that man is not reducible to a material substance … Man can be defined tentatively as his living.”26 The way humans live their lives reveals the meaning of being human. Humans are neither “embodied souls” nor “animated bodies;” they are the lives they live, their hopes and dreams, their heritage and their destiny. Needless to say this differentiates human beings from other organic beings. The

distinction is between zoé and bios, between mere animation (life in the biological sense, zoé) and one’s distinctive path of living (life in the biographical sense, bios). Animals have zoé but not bios. As Ferrater Mora puts it, “[m]aking one’s own life … is then something different from, although somehow correlated to, the biological processes of growing and developing.”27 Furthermore, human beings are not “things” in any normal sense of the term. Ferrater Mora believes that both inorganic and organic beings are what they are, whereas human beings are incomplete and are always working toward themselves: “[h]uman life can be defined as a kind of unceasing march toward oneself, which can often become a march against oneself. Paradoxically, not being oneself is as good an attribute of human life as being oneself.”28 One of the ways humans can live their lives is by not living them, by simply bumming around. This is a making of one’s own life nonetheless. This understanding of what it means to be a human being, that humans are ways to be bodies, must be thanatontologically grounded. Humans are “maximally mortal;” their deaths are more interior than either inorganic or organic beings. It is not that humans die “more from the inside” than animals do, but rather that the very heart of human bios is death, that without death there could possibly be zoé, but it would be impossible to have a bios. As Ferrater Mora writes, “human life calls for and, as it were, necessarily implies death, which is nearly the same as
26 27

BD 147, emphasis his. BD 159. 28 BD 165.


saying that human life would become meaningless without death, and indeed without ‘his own’ death.”29 This makes death something different than just the cessation of the biological

organism. The death must give meaning to life. It must also capture the ‘ownness’ of human life such that everyone’s death is her own. The paradox, of course, is that death, devoid of life, is actually meaningless, i.e. dead. Human death can be thought about on three levels. Humans die qua human when they are no longer making their lives, when there are no possibilities left to explore. “When this happens,” Ferrater Mora states, “man ceases to be a man; he is then only a member of a biological species … The man contemplating suicide, who sees his future as completely devoid of any and all possibilities … and no longer finds any meaning in his life … does not really need to carry out the final and supreme act: he is already dead.”30 For those who are living their lives, human death happens along with the death of their organic being: vital functions shut down, catabolic processes completely overtake metabolic ones, etc. If that is not happening—not to sound too gross—one can die by means of inorganic death: severe dismemberment, being crushed, “permanent structural change.” VI Human Immortality What about immortality? As “most mortal,” the possibilities for immortality are quite slim. It would be very difficult to think of one’s bios surviving one’s death in any real way. One’s bios might be written down, or a documentary might be made about it, but that would not be the person continuing to make her life. As an organic being, humans have a “kind of immortality” insofar as certain cells survive the cessation of the organism; for example, hair and nails continue to grow on corpses. As made up of inorganic structures, humans have a “kind of
29 30

BD 171. BD 201.


immortality” insofar as matter is neither created nor destroyed. The problem with these “kinds of immortality” is that what humans want most of all is not the persistence of their organisms or their material constitution but their lives. Simply having an organism, but nothing to do, would not make a good immortality. Simply not having one’s material constitution permanently Ironically, since all matter can undergo a

changed would not make a good immortality.

permanent structural change, human immortality is hindered if one’s material constitution changes in fundamental ways (for example, being immortal would not be an option for a decapitated body). Similarly, since organic bodies can perish, human immortality is hindered if one’s organic system is dead (for example, being immortal would not be an option for a dead body). Is there a possibility for human beings to be by essence immortal? Scientifically speaking, no. Philosophically speaking, no. If human beings are immortal, it would be contrary to our essence as human beings. Being mortal means that death is part of who we are; this fact is unavoidable. However, human beings feel very confident about the chance of overcoming death. Even if this confidence is misguided, illogical, or flat-out selfdelusional, there is something about this confidence that is important to what it means to be a human being. This is why death is a very problem: death is an essential part of human existence, yet humans do not want to die, yet they still want to remain humans. The very problem of death has to do with why mortals, wishing to be themselves, wish not to be themselves—the very problem of being human. In the final chapter, Ferrater Mora traces the origins of the theories of immortality that have occurred in human history, from the primitive cults of the dead to the philosophical concept of the soul. The very problem of the soul is the direct result of the very problem of death. Why do we insist on arguing that we have souls? Every argument in favor of souls presupposes that we


have something like souls, as if “soul” were simply a tag to put onto something already existent. This is akin to the “and this is what we call ‘God’” arguments Aquinas uses to prove God’s existence via The Five Ways. As Ferrater Mora writes: The rational proofs are almost always based on certain previous conceptions concerning the nature of the soul. Let us consider a typical rational proof: Plato’s third proof for the immortality of the soul in Phaedo. According to Plato, realities can be either simple (indivisible) or composite (divisible into their constituent, simple elements). Simple realities are imperishable … The soul is simple, hence imperishable, that is, immortal. Plato’s proof is irrefutable only if we accept the definition of the soul as a “simple reality.” If the soul is simple, and if ‘simple’ means both “indivisible” and “immortal,” then there is no doubt that the soul is immortal. But the proof is deceptive insofar as it says very little, if anything at all, about the soul … We have demonstrated that the soul is immortal, but we wonder whether we have even talked about a soul; we might just as well have talked about a geometrical point.31 The very problem of the soul is a much scarier question than whether or not our souls are simple or composite. The very problem of the soul is this: if humans were indeed immortal, we would not need such a thing as a “soul.” The “soul” is the human response to the problem of death; the “soul” is for humans what “life” is to Bichat’s biological organisms, “the sum total of the functions which resist death.”32 VII From the Very Problem of Death to Other Very Problems The very problem of the soul is not the only very problem that results from the fact that we are mortal although we wish we were not. The Spanish philosophical tradition derives most of the very problems from the very problem of death. The primary reason for this is that most 20th century Spanish philosophers offer an account of how human beings are material, organic, and human. As a result of seeing human beings in this triple way, death becomes a real theme

BD 228-229. BD 121; the quotation from Xavier BICHAT comes from Recherches physiologiques sur la vie et la mort (Paris, 1882), p. 2.



for them. Why is a human being not just another organic being? The answer has to do with how human beings die, and, therefore, how they live. Let us call this problem the very problem of human life. The very problem of the soul connects directly to the very problem of human life seen through the very problem of death. Since life is so problematic, one must philosophize. The very problem of philosophy is metaphilosophical in nature, but nonetheless important: if human beings did not die, there would be no need for philosophy. The real starting-point of philosophy, Unamuno states, is the tragic sense of life, the very problem of immortality. Similarly, if humans were immortal, it would be hard to understand how religions got started. This is the very problem of religion. As one can see, all of these very problems lead to what I present as the main very problem, equiprimordial to the very problem of death: the very problem of God. It could be the case that humans are necessarily mortal so that they can come to understand God by means of the other very problems. This is why I argue that atheism is an impossible position: how can one truly approach the other very problems without seeing God as problematic? The theist is the person who is willing to see human life and death as a kind of problem, one that is not solvable by simple solutions.