In this essay, I will be looking at whether or not Martin Heidegger’s analytic of finitude may be considered a Husserlian phenomenological reduction of the phenomenon of death. In order to do that, I will progress in three stages. First of all, I will give a brief description of The Phenomenological Reduction as it is put forward by Heidegger’s predecessor Edmund Husserl. In this description I will make reference to the other major concepts which act as a foundation to Husserl’s idea of phenomenology: namely the natural attitude, the phenomenological attitude, and the epoché. Once I have completed this description I will move on to the second stage, which will be to explain what Heidegger’s analytic of finitude is exactly, with reference to Being and Time, which focuses on the different understandings of the concept and phenomena of ‘death’. Once stage two has been completed, I will then be in a position to make a comparison in stage three, between Heidegger’s task in his analytic and to what I have discussed as being Husserl’s method of the phenomenological reduction. It is in this comparison that I will be able to disclose the similarities and differences between the two methods of approaching experience, and so determine whether or not what Heidegger has accomplished can in fact be called a Husserlian Reduction of the phenomenon of death. 

§1 The Phenomenological Reduction [Husserl]

Edmund Husserl is widely accepted as the founder of the philosophical movement known as Phenomenology; and it is through this movement that the notion of a phenomenological reduction arises. In his lectures, which can be found in his book The Idea of Phenomenology [1], he outlines current problems with epistemology; giving context  to why we have a need for the reduction In the first place. He explains that in our search for knowledge, we build systems of information based on logical relations and the laws which arise through our observations and studies. However, in the process of trying to attain such knowledge, when the mind is set to what Husserl terms ‘the natural attitude’, there is no concern, or effort, to critique the fundamental question of the possibility of knowledge in the first place, before we begin our attempts at attaining it. When one ceases to view the world via the natural attitude and instead takes on the mode of a philosophical attitude, it becomes clear that knowledge itself is problematic and mysterious. Even the possibility of logic becomes an issue. Further on this, Husserl points out a problem with the idea of the evolutionary development of humanity, and its inevitable consequences on logic. 

Do not logical forms and logical laws, then, simply express the contingent peculiarities of the human species? But couldn’t they have been different? And won’t they become different in the course of future evolution? Knowledge, then, is just human knowledge, bound to the forms of the human intellect, incapable of making contact with the very nature of things, with the things themselves.

Husserl, [2]

Here, Husserl makes it clear that the scientific framework, while readily engaging with the world through the natural attitude, ignores such problems. It is assumed that objective knowledge is possible, and so humanity goes on collecting information without any regard for the foundation on which they build their intellectual edifices. These are constructions which, upon reflection, are shown to be unclear and problematic. This explains why Husserl thinks that pure philosophy “must disregard and refrain from making any use of the entire intellectual achievement of the positive sciences as well as natural wisdom and lore” [3]. It is based on this reasoning, that Husserl sets out to establish a solid foundation from which humanity can determine what counts as genuine knowledge. 

It is important to clarify here that, although the possibility of knowledge making contact with any sort of ‘objective fact’ has been put into question, this is not to make an outright dismissal of such a possibilities altogether. On the contrary, “its being, its validity, remains undecided” [4]. That is, upon realising there is an epistemological problem, one refuses to make any assertion with regards to the “facts”. In that moment such conclusions appear to be out of reach. This is what Husserl terms, the epoché; which is an ancient Greek word roughly translating to ‘putting to one side’, or ‘the suspension of judgement’ [5]. Once this suspension has taken place, one is left with an experience of pure phenomena, which is given absolutely. However, this phenomenological experiencing cannot be doubted in the same way as knowledge gained from the scientific method can. For example, in the act of perceiving something, I may doubt the object of perception, but I cannot doubt that I am in fact perceiving something in the first place. This is required in order for the possibility of doubting it to arise at all. This makes all phenomena equivalent in the sense that they are the objects of experience, be that things in the ‘external world’ beyond me, or the products of my imagination in my ‘internal’ world of thought. This internal/external distinction becomes somewhat arbitrary other than as a descriptive quality the phenomena possesses. 

In doing this I have bracketed of the world and left it open for a reflective observation. I can scour through the products of the given phenomena, and have solid grounds from which to project a theory of knowledge that does not suffer from the same epistemological problems as that suffered by the knowledge that is produced by the scientific method. 

Every intellectual experience, indeed every experience whatsoever, can be made into an object of pure seeing and apprehension while it is occurring. And in this act of seeing it is an absolute given. It is given as an existing entity, as a “this-here.” It would make no sense at all to doubt its being.

Husserl [6]

Thus, we can direct our attention to these ‘objects of pure seeing and apprehension’. Having suspended judgement and rejected any presuppositions supplied by the endeavours of the sciences or folk lore, one can say that one has performed a phenomenological reduction. In this act “we are led from “the natural attitude,” in which we are involved in the actual world and its affairs, to “the phenomenological attitude,” in which the analysis and detached description of the content of consciousness is possible” [7]. Having concluded my description of this process, I can now move on to an exposition of Heidegger’s analytic of finitude. Once this has been completed, I can then compare it to the phenomenological reduction in order to make clear to what degree Heidegger can be said to be utilising this method with his analysis of the phenomenon of death. 

§2 The Analytic of Finitude [Heidegger]

At the beginning of Division Two, in Being and Time, (§46-53) Heidegger gives an analysis of the phenomenon of Death. This follows directly from concluding in Division One that Dasein should be thought of “in terms of its existence, Being-in-the-world, and care;” [8] revealing Dasein as fundamentally a temporal being whose existence is an issue for it, and finding itself thrown into its world. Although he has, up to this point, offered a very meticulous analysis of the being of Dasein, he has not yet touched on what it means to be an authentic being. It is here where the opportunity arises for the analysis of death, or rather, of Dasein’s finitude, which is revealed through an observation of Dasein’s fundamental temporality. 

Starting with §46, Heidegger discusses the difficulty of getting “Dasein’s Being-a-whole into our grasp ontologically and determining its character” [9]. This difficulty arises because in ‘care’, which “forms the totality of Dasein’s structural whole,” [10] its main feature is in Dasein’s ability to project itself into its future possibilities. This, Heidegger says, is Dasein’s ability to be ‘ahead-of-itself’, which is a way of comporting “itself towards its potentiality-for-being”. So long as Dasein lives, and has a future ahead of itself, its possibilities are always open and there is “constantly something still to be settled.[11] This openness towards the future is what makes it difficult to ‘grasp’ Dasein as Being-a-whole. And so, that which consists in its being ahead-of-itself is not yet actual but constantly a potential, and therefore hard to pin down.

This insight, which is a purely phenomenological one, gives rise to the following question: “If Dasein has future possibilities open to it as long as it exists, then how can we ever grasp it as a whole?” [12] Due to Dasein’s ability to make choices, or to change its trajectory, it seems impossible to consider it a finished thing with which one can get a grasp off in its totality; that is, until it finally reaches its end, or upon the arrival of its death. 

Dasein’s way of being a whole is unique. It involves neither the elimination of possibilities nor their realisation — it is a certain way of having possibilities in which these possibilities are limited. Dasein’s possibilities are always limited by the possibility of the impossibility of existing — and this is what Heidegger means by “death”.

Polt [13]

However, with the arrival of death and in its becoming a whole, Dasein ceases to be Dasein [Nichtmehr-dasein] and so is unable to experience itself as a totality. It is here that Heidegger attempts to move to an analysis of the death of others in §47 in order to see if this can shed any light on the phenomenon. 

As he explores the death of other Dasein, Heidegger makes a distinction between the deceased [Der “Verstorbene”] and the dead person [dem Gestorbenen]. Upon reaching its end, the deceased is “torn away from those who have ‘remained behind’ [den “Hinterbliebenen”], and is the object of ‘concern’ in the ways of funeral rites, interment, and the cult of graves” [14]. It is due to the existence of those who ‘remain behind’ and who are concerned, that the deceased is more than just a thing which is ready-to-hand. In the process of mourning, the Dasein’s who experience the death of the deceased “are with him, in a mode of respectful solicitude” [15]. Although they have left the ‘world’ and are no longer factically there, those others who remain are still able to experience being there with them. 

It is through the experience of being-with those who are dead, and no longer Dasein, that one can come to the realisation that “the authentic Being-come-to-an-end [Zuendegekommensein] of the deceased is precisely the sort of thing which we do not experience” [16]. In fact, death is something that everyone must face alone; it is inescapable, and no one can experience it for or with someone else. No Dasein can die for another nor have an identical incite into this death phenomenologically:

My mortality is my “ownmost” possibility (294/250): in other words, what makes my life my own is ultimately the sheer fact that it is mine to live, mine to make something of, in the face of my possible non-existence. Every other possibility is something that I may be free not to do, and that someone else may be able to do just as well as I can. But my death is a possibility that necessarily faces me alone: no one can face it for me. (284/240)

Polt [17]

From this Heidegger makes it clear that by observing the kind of possibility which death is, one can see it is unique. All other possibilities are open to other Dasein. They can become a philosopher, a teacher, join the Nazi party, etc; but they cannot die in my place. This is something personal, and for the most part, Dasein will often try to neglect this reality because of its morbid nature. However, death is certain, and whether or not we give recognition to this fact does not take away from the reality that our possible non-existence always hovers above our heads. We are fundamentally finite beings; we are mortal; and according to Heidegger, this is something we must face up to. 

In §53, he outlines what he describes as an authentic response to the phenomenon of death which he terms Vorlaufen [to run towards, or to face up to]. He does not mean this in a suicidal sense. One should in no way try to speed up the process or put one’s own life in danger. But rather, one should acknowledge that the possibility of death is ever present. This is not equivalent to fearing death — the biological ending of a functional body — but to allow oneself to become anxious in the realisation that if life is finite, then so too are our possibilities. One can only face up to this fact if there is a willing engagement with the idea of death as a constant potential. That is, “when I accept the fact that my possibilities are neither unlimited nor guaranteed, I realise the importance of choosing a possibility and defining myself by it” [18]. Once submission to this has taken place, one opens up the possibility of living a more engaged and authentic life, and is less likely to waste time with trivial pursuits.

§3 Is the Analytic of Finitude a Phenomenological Reduction of Death?

Now the question arises: is Heidegger moving away from what Husserl termed the natural attitude, in order to attain a phenomenological perspective? Has this been achieved in the analytic of finitude? To answer this, we must first turn to his use of the concept of finitude itself. Can this be said to be free from presuppositions, as is achieved by the enacting of the epoché? Or is it inextricably connected to prior roots established else where? As Tarek Dika points out, it appears that Heidegger takes a lot of his idea of finitude from Christian anthropology, and that this concept relies upon its relation to an infinite being; otherwise referred to as God. Dika explains that the difference between Husserl and Heidegger is that the latter suffers a problem from his need “to preserve a sense in which Dasein is an ens finitum” [19]. Whereas the former (Husserl) dismisses the idea of ‘ens finitum’ as a way of describing the being of the conscious subject and so can be said to be more committed to the phenomenological reduction. 

For the proposition “Dasein can never gain power over its ownmost being from the ground up” to function phenomenologically, two prior operations are required. First, this phenomenological description of Dasein must be affected by the idea of a being that does have such a power. Otherwise, there will be no positive content to negate, no “being able to gain power over thrownness” that Dasein can never have. Second, it requires describing Dasein in relation to that power, for only then can it be asserted of Dasein that it can never gain power over its thrownness. The creative, causal power of another being forms the basis of Dasein’s relation to its own powers as “finite.” The Greco-Christian categories of causality and creation remain effective here and determine the intelligibility of the phenomenon of finitude in Sein und Zeit [Being & Time]. Heidegger does not successfully dissociate the ens finitum from the ens creatum. The former continues to affect the latter, for even when God does not explicitly appear in any of Heidegger’s descriptions, his infinite power nevertheless constitutes their horizon.

Dika [20]

From this it can be posited that Heidegger does not successfully perform a Husserlian phenomenological reduction. He still carries with his thought some theological baggage and so cannot be said to be building upon a presupposition-less foundation. Nor can it be said to have fully embraced the epoché for this very reason. 

However, as explained in my description of Heidegger’s analytic of finitude, he draws towards the relation of the phenomenon of death in order to determine Dasein as a being with limits intrinsically tied to its nature. This is something that can be revealed through the experience of the death of other Dasein, which then proceeds to the inference that just as no one could die in their place, so too can no one die in mine. Every Dasein must eventually face its own death and this is fundamentally a private phenomenon. 

An important thing to mention here is that this particular experience is one which could rightfully be said to have existed in the pre-Christian world [21], and so this surely throws the claim that ‘an idea of finitude relies on a Christian conception of God’ into contention. If you can determine existentially that you will reach an end at some point and establish this as certain through an observation of the death of others, then it necessarily follows that your possibilities are limited. You are mortal, and ergo, you are a finite being. Therefore, with this said, although Heidegger does distinguish his method as different in its approach to phenomena from Husserl, if this position is accepted over that put forward by Dika then Heidegger is in fact staying true to the phenomenological reduction in a Husserlian sense to a certain degree, with respect to his analytic of finitude. There is no need to insert, necessarily, an influence by Christian anthropology as it is not unreasonable to say that one can come to the same conclusions through an experience of death; whether or not one has been exposed to Christian theology or an idea of an infinite God at all. 

Lastly, one might well ask if Heidegger was even trying to appropriate Husserl’s reduction. According to Heidegger himself, in his work titled The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, he was not. Here, he outlines a distinction between his own methods and that of Husserl’s:

Apprehension of being, ontological investigation, always turns, at first and necessarily, to some being; but then, in a precise way, it is led away from that being and back to its being. We call this basic component of phenomenological method—the leading back or re-duction of investigative vision from a naively apprehended being to its being—phenomenological reduction. We are thus adopting a central term of Husserl’s phenomenology in its literal wording though not its substantive intent. For Husserl, phenomenological reduction, [..] is the method of leading phenomenological vision from the natural attitude of the human being whose life is involved in the world of things and persons back to the transcendental life of consciousness and its noetic-noematic experiences, in which objects are constituted as correlates of consciousness. For us phenomenological reduction means leading phenomenological vision back from the apprehension of a being whatever may be the character of that apprehension, to the understanding of the being of this being.

Heidegger [22]

As is made very clear in this quote, whereas Husserl was more concerned with the relationships that are revealed in the observation of experience, Heidegger preferred to go a step further than this and turn back to the ontological foundation that allowed for all such experiences in the first place. This allowed him to be influenced by Husserl to a certain degree, but ultimately he did not feel that Husserl had gone far enough with his phenomenological vision and so was unable to discover the root of the problems faced by phenomenology. This left Husserl, according to Heidegger, unable to find a proper foundation from which to build a legitimate field of knowledge. 


I began by explaining what was involved in performing a Husserlian Phenomenological reduction. This itself grew from a problem that arises out of the lack of justification for an objective knowledge that has no proper foundation. I then explained that Husserl’s responce to this problem suggests the adoption of the epoché is necessary in order to move from the natural attitude to a better suited phenomenological attitude. This would give the seeker of knowledge a solid foundation from which to progress and allow for the construction of a ‘science of consciousness’. Once this was concluded I then went on to explain Heidegger’s analytic of finitude, by describing how this was revealed through an exploration of the phenomenon of the potential death of oneself, and the experience of the death of others. Having completed this, I was then able to contrast it with Husserl’s phenomenological reduction in order to tease out the potential contention between Heidegger’s method and Husserl’s. In explaining this, I have shown that Heidegger’s analytic relies on a relationship towards the experience of the death of others, and as a potential in oneself. Furthermore, I have shown that Heidegger’s methodology ultimately frees him from necessarily being connected to any Christian theology. This could just as easily have been discovered in a non-christian environment, without any mention of an infinite being. Last of all, I showed that although Heidegger was greatly influenced by Husserl, he thought his teacher did not take his methodology far enough and so made slight modifications in order to overcome the problems he saw in his Husserl’s work.


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