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research in phenomenology 46 (2016) 405–425 Research


Time, Singularity and the Impossible:

Heidegger and Derrida on Dying

Rafael Winkler
University of Johannesburg


This article focuses on Heidegger’s reflection on death in Being and Time, on the ques-
tion of whether death can be mine, on what the connection between death and mine-
ness can tell us about schizophrenia, and on the relation between Heidegger’s talk of
death and mineness and Derrida’s talk of mourning and mineness.


death – singularity – mourning – time

. . .
I have nothing of which I may say that it is mine.
Friedrich Hölderlin, Hyperion

. . .
‘I cannot say I.’
Paul de Man, Aesthetic Ideology

. . .
. . . the impossible must be done. The event, if there is one, consists in
doing the impossible.
Jacques Derrida, A Certain Impossible Possibility of Saying the Event

© koninklijke brill nv, leiden, ���6 | doi 10.1163/15691640-12341346
406 Winkler

1 Death, Demise and Perishing

In §49 of Being and Time, Heidegger notes that the existential interpretation
of being-towards-death is ontologically prior to the biological consideration
of death as an event bound up with the processes of life and to the anthropo-
logical and ethnological study of mortuary rites, burial or cremation practices,
the domestic or public cult of the dead, practices of mourning, etc. Biological
explanations of the causes of death in plants, animals and men, of their lon-
gevity, growth and reproductive cycles, presuppose an ontology of life. The
empirical study of life would not know what to apply itself to, the extension
of its field would be left entirely undetermined, without a preliminary under-
standing of what life is, of the essence or meaning of ‘life.’ The narrowing
down of its field to a determinate class of entities—say, to physico-chemical
mechanisms or self-organizing systems—guides in turn its understanding of
death and foreshadows its approach to it. Yet whichever basic concepts of life
the ontology of life thematizes, it will for obvious reasons understand death
as the ‘end’ of life. It will define death on the basis of life and will leave by
the wayside the formal-ontological consideration of the kind of ‘end’ that con-
stitutes death, the meaning or essence of ‘death.’ Death is no doubt an ‘end,’
but it is as such a πολλᾶχῶς λεγόμενον, since it can signify ‘stopping,’ ‘fulfill-
ment,’ ‘limit,’ ‘vanishing,’ etc. As long as the concept of ‘end’ is left undeter-
mined and its various senses are not parsed out, an unambiguous headway
into the ontology of life appears unpromising. That is why Heidegger can say
that the initial concepts of death and life in biology and the ontology of life
“need to be sketched by the ontology of Dasein” (Heidegger, 1997: 291), which
explores death in its formal-ontological constitution by reference to Dasein’s
kind of being. Heidegger is well aware of “the peculiar formality and empti-
ness of any ontological characterization.” But he adds that this “must not blind
us to the rich and complicated structure of the phenomenon” (Heidegger,
1997: 292). Likewise cultural and anthropological investigations of burial and
cremation practices, mortuary rituals and funerary customs, presuppose a
conception of death. Moreover, such studies generally inform us about a com-
munity’s self-understanding than about the essence of death. As Heidegger
notes, probably with reference to Ernst Cassirer’s The Philosophy of Symbolic
Forms, “the ways in which death is taken among primitive peoples, and their
ways of comporting themselves to it in magic and cult, illuminate primarily the
understanding of Dasein; but the interpretation of this understanding already
requires an existential analytic and a corresponding conception of death”
(Heidegger, 1997: 291–2).

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Time, Singularity and the Impossible 407

This leads Heidegger to make some of the most remarkable and controver-
sial statements in Being and Time. Since the existential interpretation of death
as being-towards-death is reducible neither to a universal structure of life nor
to a particular cultural signification, Dasein’s dying (sterben) embodies an
ontological structure that underlies and exceeds both the horizons of life and
spirit. One the one hand, dying cannot be identified with an event of life. More
precisely, if Dasein dies, or rather, because it can die, it “never perishes,” Dasein
verendet nie. On the other, its death doubtless has a cultural and medico-legal
sense in the modern world, i.e., it demises (ablebt), but Dasein can do so only
because and on condition that it can die. Dasein can “demise only as long as it
is dying” (Heidegger, 1997: 291).
Dasein verendet nie. Dasein never perishes. Verenden is a term Heidegger
reserves for that which is living, das Lebendem (Heidegger, 1997: 291), usually,
more narrowly, for animal life. Plant life rarely appears as an example of life in
Heidegger’s works. The difference between verenden and sterben is evidently
not reducible to a terminological distinction. Let us suppose that Dasein is
a living being. This cannot be more than a supposition, since the categorical
denial that Dasein perishes opens up the possibility that not every entity that
is of the measure of Dasein is a living being, that a Dasein endowed with a non-
biological constitution, a transcendental machine, as it were, is conceivable. In
any case, if Dasein is alive, must it not perish, by force or necessity?
Perhaps what Heidegger has in mind is that life, and in consequence the
end of living beings, perishing, doesn’t enter Dasein’s ontological constitution,
that being-towards-death doesn’t vary even as its physico-chemical makeup
varies over time—in other words that, whether young or old, healthy or ill,
male or female, death always impends for Dasein, is always felt in its unceasing
approach. Correlatively—but this is how Heidegger is usually read—perish-
ing doesn’t enter Dasein’s ontological constitution, it never perishes, because
whatever perishes has no access to death and Dasein is in its essence an entity
with such access. Is that not, at bottom, the meaning of perishing, that access
to death, to death as death, remains withdrawn?

Only man dies. The animal perishes. It has death neither ahead of itself
nor behind it. [. . .] We [. . .] call mortals mortals—not because their
earthly life comes to an end, but because they are capable of death
as death. (Heidegger, 1971: 178)

To be alive is not a sufficient condition to be of the measure of Dasein. To the

extent that Dasein perishes, that is not on account of its Daseinhood. It is on

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408 Winkler

account of its being a living being. An entity must have access to death as such
to satisfy the condition of Daseinhood. What Heidegger probably means then
is that Dasein never perishes qua Dasein.
Ableben aber kann des Dasein nur solange, als er sterbt. Dasein can demise
however only as long as it is dying. The difference between access to death
as death and its objectification in the world as a legal-medical or cultural
occurrence is doubtless legitimate up to a point. It is sometimes said that
the difference between dying and demising amounts to a difference in the
understanding of death between the first- and third-person points of view
(Carman, 2005: 290). I understand death to be mine in every case or to be an
issue that affects everyone most of the time.

In Dasein’s public way of interpreting, it is said that ‘one dies’ [man stirbt],
because everyone else and oneself can talk himself into saying that ‘in no
case is it I myself’, for this ‘one’ is the ‘nobody’. Dying is leveled off to an
occurrence which reaches Dasein, to be sure, but belongs to nobody in
particular. [. . .] Dying, which is essentially mine in such a way that no
one can be my representative [unvertretbar], is perverted into an event
of public occurrence which the ‘they’ encounters. (Heidegger, 1997: 297)

Death is always in play as a nonsubstitutable end for Dasein, an end that no

one can take away, replace or displace by means of a symbolic or real sacrifice,
an end in which no other Dasein can have a share. It is absolutely unshareable.
“There is no such thing as death in general” (Heidegger, 1985: 313). Das Man
objectifies it as a common and shareable concern, as an anthropological or
sociocultural occurrence with an exchange or symbolic value, an event whose
significance is the same as the death of the other, any other. If dying is always
one’s ownmost, proper or eigene end, to which Dasein has a pre-objective
access, unmediated by cultural institutions and significations, and to which it
can attest as its ownmost, proper possibility, demising concerns everyman. It
refers Dasein to the other’s death or to its own from the standpoint of the insti-
tutions and practices of its culture. This distinction, although clear enough on
the surface, raises a few questions.
Do dying and demising intend the same thing under two different descrip-
tions, or do they mean two different things? Heidegger’s talk of demise in the
text is not very precise. He associates it with the cessation of Dasein’s “physi-
ological” life, with the legal-medical certification of death, with the “ ‘typology’
of ‘dying’ ” that is concerned with the taxonomy of psychological experiences
(Erlebnisse) of dying persons (Heidegger, 1997: 291), and with an empirical

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Time, Singularity and the Impossible 409

occurrence in the public world of das Man (Heidegger, 1997: 301). This, along
with the paradoxical description of dying as “the possibility of the absolute
impossibility of Dasein” (Heidegger, 1997: 294), suggests that the second alter-
native is likely the case. This is to say that dying and demising cannot be dis-
tinguished as authentic and inauthentic ways of being-towards-death, as if
they aimed at the same matter. Rather, the derivativeness and inauthenticity
of demising is of the same kind as the derivativeness of metric time under-
stood as a succession of nows from originary time as the ecstatic temporality
of Dasein. An altogether different thing is aimed at with Dasein’s demising.
So far as it is objectified in the world as an anthropological or cultural occur-
rence, as shared or shareable by all of mankind—classically instanced in the
major premise of a categorical syllogism: ‘All humans are mortal’—or by all
finite rational beings, dying is no longer what it is, namely Dasein’s eigenste and
unvertretbar end. But this just makes it more urgent to ask what dying means.

2 Death as ‘Principle’ of Singularization

Is dying accessible from the first-person point of view? ‘Authentic (eigentlich)

dying’ or ‘authentic being-towards-death’ is doubtless a pleonasm if ‘dying’ is
an end to which the adjective ‘one’s own’ (eigen) or ‘ownmost’ (eigenste) essen-
tially belongs. Heidegger writes that “[b]y its essence, death is in every case
mine ( je meines), in so far as it ‘is’ at all” (Heidegger, 1997: 284). Dasein owns
its death in a way that no other Dasein can own it. Although death is a com-
mon occurrence in the world there is properly speaking no common death.
An authentic utterance regarding death, if there is such, will use singular pro-
nouns, ‘my death,’ ‘your death.’
This is not only true of death. If authorship entails ownership, the reverse is
not always the case. I am not the author of my existence, and I may not be the
author of my current thoughts or experiences. Nevertheless, an existence that
doesn’t belong to someone, a ‘who,’ an experience or thought that isn’t some-
one’s experience or thought, is hardly thinkable. Except, of course, when this
belongingness-to-me, this ownership, is neutralized by das Man, and existence,
experience and thought, along with death, appear as impersonal causal events
in nature or as culturally mediated significations. Properly considered, how-
ever, existence and death, experience and thought are characterized by first-
personal ownership, mineness, even if their author is not always identifiable.
Yet Heidegger qualifies his statement that “death is in every case mine” with
the additional clause “in so far as it ‘is’ at all.” This suggests a certain disanalogy

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410 Winkler

between death, on the one hand, and existence, experience and thought,
on the other. ‘Being’ (Sein) applies to my existence, experience and thought
without question. They are, after all, entities, Seiendes. They are determinable
under various descriptions as being thus-and-so. Various true and false propo-
sitions can be said of them. Yet Heidegger hesitates to say of death that “it ‘is.’ ”
Is this not because death is not an entity, a Seiendes? Because, in other words,
it is neither determinable nor identifiable under a description, the word ‘death’
being a placeholder for an event for which there is no word? And because,
being indeterminable or unidentifiable, it sets an absolute limit on language
and thought, on what can be said and thought as such, and on the as such, the
phenomenality of entities?
Heidegger writes that it “knows no measure at all, no more or less, but signi-
fies the possibility of the measureless impossibility of existence” (Heidegger,
1997: 307). In the anticipation of death, Dasein is drawn to a future or absence,
its future absence, which is without measure, incalculable. If death is the limit
of Dasein’s being, there is no limit to its nonbeing. Its nonbeing is absolute,
unqualified, and singular. How can Dasein then own its death? How can it own
that which is not, in the double sense of ‘that which is not yet’ and ‘that which
is not determinable as an entity,’ a ‘not yet,’ then, that aims at the unqualified
nonbeing of being-in-the-world, at the very elimination of this ‘not yet’ itself?
If death does not conform to the meaning of being as presence, if it is unthink-
able in terms of the categories of Sein as modifications of being-present or
presence, then it must by the same token refuse the predicate Seinkönnen,
‘being-possible.’ But then, how is death possible for Dasein? Can it ‘be’ Dasein’s
ownmost possibility? As Derrida (1993: 21) wonders in Aporias, “Is my death
possible?” I will return to this question later on.
Heidegger’s claim that “death is in every case mine” can be read differently,
however, not strictly in the sense that Dasein owns its death in the way it owns
its thoughts, i.e., as having a first-personal access to it, but that death is for
Dasein something like a ‘principle’ of singularization. Not a principle of indi-
viduation. Dasein is not an individual, an indivisible or simple atom, whether
soul, substance, ego or person. Ricoeur’s distinction between ipse- and idem-
identity in Oneself as Another goes some way towards clarifying this distinction
between the singular and the individual (cf. also Derrida, 1991: 100, 107).
Following Kant, Ricoeur says that permanence in time is the transcenden-
tal criterion for numerical identity, for substance or individuality, identity as
sameness—in short, for determining an entity from the third-person stand-
point as a ‘what.’ He considers whether there is a “form of permanence in
time” which is not simply the schema of the category of substance but which
can be “connected to the question ‘who?’ inasmuch as it is irreducible to

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Time, Singularity and the Impossible 411

any question of ‘what?’ ” (Ricoeur, 1992: 118). He distinguishes between “two

models of permanence in time” with respect to persons: character and keep-
ing one’s word. Character expresses the permanence of a person’s numerical
identity over time, her individuality. A person’s second nature, which com-
prises her acquired and sedimented dispositions and habits, remains relatively
unchanged throughout her lifetime. This makes it possible to re-identify her
as the same from the third-person standpoint as a ‘what.’ In contrast, keeping
one’s word “expresses a self-constancy which cannot be inscribed, as charac-
ter was, within the dimension of something in general but solely within the
dimension of the ‘who?’ (Ricoeur, 1992: 123). When I promise someone to do
x I make myself responsible for my word before the other. The fact that I am
accountable to her and that she counts on me requires that I stay constant
or steadfast in my word, whatever dramatic changes and turns my character
may undergo in time. The ipseity of the self, its permanence in time, has the
ethical sense of self-constancy, and is grounded in an ethics of responsibility
(Ricoeur, 1992: 165).
But is the dimension of the ‘who’ properly staked out in this way? What does
the question ‘who?’—‘who am I?’—designate in the first place? Is it some-
one who makes herself responsible before the other for what she says? Or is
it someone who knows she can die at any moment, someone who, exposed
to her eventual absence, knows her existence to be irreplaceable or singular,
and who thus knows her existence to be her own to bear each time? What
singularizes my existence first of all? Is it my ethical responsibility before the
other, which is in its essence nonreplaceable, or is it my death, which is no less
However this question is decided, whether in favor of Ricoeur (and Levinas)
or Heidegger (but must this question be decided? and can it?), it is not certain
whether the terms in which Ricoeur poses the issue allows him to properly
demarcate the ‘who’ from the ‘what.’ So far as the issue is posed in terms of
“two models of permanence in time,” there lurks the suspicion that the ‘what’
and the ‘who’ are determined as two species of the same genus permanence in
time, which, as the schema of substance, entails that selfhood and sameness,
ipse- and idem-identity, are two species of substance. No such suspicion arises
with Heidegger. For that which distinguishes the ‘who’ from the ‘what’ in Being
and Time are not two modes of presence or endurance, but the imminence of
death, the future. Only what is singular, nonrelational or absolute—death in
its imminence—can singularize absolutely.
The various characteristics of dying in §50 of Being and Time are in effect
one and all characteristics of imminence, bevorstehen, which is to say of the
futural tenor of Dasein’s end. It “reveals itself as that possibility which is one’s

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412 Winkler

ownmost, which is non-relational, and which is not to be outstripped. As such,

death is something distinctively impending” (Heidegger, 1997: 294). Dying is an
end before which Dasein always already stands. Not an end in the sense of a
telos, the actualization of a potentiality that fulfills Dasein. “With ripeness, the
fruit fulfills itself. But is the death at which Dasein arrives, a fulfilment in this
sense?” (Heidegger, 1997: 288). Dasein may have attained a state of maturity in
the Aristotelian sense, a state of ‘perfection’ or ‘wholeness’ in the world. It may
be engaged in fulfilling its elected potentialities-for-being-a-self in its various
activities and dealings with others. Yet its end does not cease to approach. It
is not a potentiality that calls for being actualized or exercised like a habit or
virtue, a disposition. Its end is, properly speaking, atelic. It can have no reality
or actuality for Dasein, no mode of presence, except as what is to come at any
moment. Death is imminence pure and simple. It is always on the approach as
long as Dasein exists. So long as it exists, Dasein cannot finish (with) dying. It
is as if dying was interminable for Dasein, as if death was always not-yet or no-
longer there, and the gap, in truth infinitesimal, between being and nonbeing
never ceased shrinking without closing. That is why ending for Dasein cannot
signify being-at-an-end (Zu-Ende-sein) but always only being-towards-the-end
(Sein zum Ende). Death’s incessant approach discloses the dimension of the
‘to-come’ (Zu-kunft), the singular future on which Dasein projects itself. This
self-projection on death in anticipatory resoluteness is the concrete manifesta-
tion of its being-ahead-of-itself. This “ ‘ahead-of-itself’ is what first of all makes
such a Being-towards-the-end possible” (Heidegger, 1997: 303).
Ricoeur (1992: 123) rightly notes that the self-constancy of Dasein, its Selbst-
Ständigkeit, exhausts itself in anticipatory resoluteness. “Existentially, ‘Self-
constancy’ signifies nothing other than anticipatory resoluteness.” (Heidegger,
1997: 369) This self-constancy doesn’t express the self-sufficiency of Dasein,
its independence. It expresses the permanence of its identity in time, its
ability to come back to itself as the same, as Heidegger notes in the Zollikon

The constancy (Ständigkeit) of the self is proper to itself in the sense that
the self is always able to come back to itself and always finds itself still the
same in its sojourn (Aufenthalt). (Heidegger, 2001: 175)

But not only is this return to self, the constitution of its sameness, mediated
by its relation to an originary or non-derivable absence, death, it is also in the
final analysis to be understood from the solitariness of being-in-the-world.
Each time Dasein resolves to bring itself into the anticipation of death in a fac-
tical situation it singularizes its being-in-the-world. Its relations with others,

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Time, Singularity and the Impossible 413

which are normative of its self-understanding in the public world of das Man,
are undone. It thus stands before its metaphysical solitude, its existential solip-
sism, which determines the possibility of an authentic being-with-others.

3 The First-Person and Schizophrenia

The question remains, however, whether Dasein has access to death from the
first-person standpoint. Does death provide Dasein with a grip on itself, with
a sufficiently strong grip that it can own its death and own itself before death?
Or does anxiety before death cause the Jemeinigkeit of existence, and a fortiori
the Jemeinigkeit of death, its belongingness-to-me, to fail?
Heidegger seems to be in two minds about this. Death, the end of the self, is,
in Being and Time, seen as that in which the self finds the ultimate confirma-
tion of its existence as thrown possibility, whereas in “What is Metaphysics?” it
is described as the absolute undoing of the self, of mineness in general.
The ontic-existentiell attestation of being-towards-death in the call of con-
science and resoluteness shows that Dasein is able to own its existence authen-
tically only if it owns its death as its ownmost possibility. Conscience calls
Dasein from its fallenness in the anonymous world of das Man and calls it to
assume responsibility (Verantwortung) for its having-been-delivered-over-to-
itself (Selbstüberantwortung) as being-in-the-world. Dasein has always already
been abandoned to itself as an entity disclosed in the world. Conscience calls it
to take responsibility for the disclosure of entities in the world. It and it alone
is answerable for the event of truth. This becomes patent to Dasein in anxiety,
which reveals itself to itself as an entity that is both disclosed and disclosive
of the world:

Here the disclosure and the disclosed are existentially selfsame in such a
way that in the latter the world has been disclosed as world, and Being-in
has been disclosed as a potentiality-for-Being which is singularized, pure,
and thrown. (Heidegger, 1997: 233)

In this self-disclosure as thrown possibility, Dasein faces the choice of choos-

ing itself: whether it is going to assume responsibility for its facticity, for the
uncanny fact that it “ ‘is’ at all” (Heidegger, 1985: 291). Dasein makes itself
responsible for its existence by making its mortality the focal point of its
chosen possibilities of existence. It resolves to bring itself into the anticipa-
tion of its end before any concrete factical situation. “[C]ourage for anxiety
in the face of death” (Heidegger, 1997: 298) makes possible Dasein’s authentic

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414 Winkler

self-appropriation. First-personal access to death, which is to say claiming

ownership of death as one’s ownmost possibility in anticipatory resoluteness,
is thus the necessary condition of possibility of Dasein’s authenticity.
“What is Metaphysics?” offers a different description of the effect of anxiety
on Dasein. The question in the text is not, as in Division II of Being and Time,
whether and how Dasein’s being-a-whole can be given a phenomenological
attestation. Heidegger’s 1929 inaugural lecture, delivered before the faculties
of the natural and social sciences at Freiburg University, argues that the sci-
ences, generally speaking any kind of talk of entities, presuppose the discourse
of metaphysics, talk of being, which depends in turn on the experience of the
difference between entities and their being. This is the experience of the noth-
ing in anxiety. At the threshold of existence where entities no longer have any-
thing to say to Dasein, they thrust themselves to the fore as such and as a whole
in an oppressive manner:

[A]nxiety leaves us hanging because it induces the slipping away of

beings as a whole. This implies that we ourselves—we humans who are
in being—in the midst of beings slip away from ourselves. At bottom
therefore it is not as though ‘you’ or ‘I’ feel ill at ease; rather, it is this way
for some ‘one.’ In the altogether unsettling experience of this hovering
where there is nothing to hold onto, pure Da-sein is all that is still there.
(Heidegger, 1993: 101)

Although Heidegger does not speak of death in “What is Metaphysics?,” every-

thing points to the fact that nothing else can be meant in his talk of the noth-
ing except anxiety before death, since that is what highlights the difference
between being and entities. As Heidegger tells us in the Zollikon Seminars, to
experience the difference between entities and their mode of disclosure is to
experience what is not a being, and this experience of “ ‘what-is-not-a-being’ ”
is “manifest in the relationship to death—to mortality—since death is the
leave-taking or departure (Abschied) from beings” (Heidegger, 2001: 184).
Daher ist im Grunde nicht ‘dir’ und ‘mir’ unheimlich, sondern ‘einem’ ist es so.
The experience of uncanniness in anxiety—which is the experience of the
sudden or unexpected revelation of entities in their naked presence—is pre-
sented as radically disabling, as an experience that is apparently not owned
by someone, or at any rate not owned in the first-person singular, by a ‘you’ or
a ‘me.’ The ‘einem’ who suffers the experience is a being that lives in a kind of
anonymity and impersonality. Not the anonymity of das Man, the impersonal
way in which Dasein understands itself as an entity in the world, access to self
from the third-person standpoint of its cultural institutions or of the causal

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Time, Singularity and the Impossible 415

laws of nature. It is the anonymity of its non-replaceable existence, of its sheer

facticity, the fact of being-there at all, for which there is no name or identifying
attribute, insofar as attributes and names, whether proper or common nouns,
refer to items that are replaceable by other instances of the same kind. More
precisely, when the sense of the world grows dark in anxiety, reference to self
and other, ‘I’ and ‘you,’ access to one’s existence from the first- and third-person
points of view, is compromised in its very principle. All that remains is Dasein
in its monadological singularity as an openness to what there is.
To sharpen Heidegger’s claim, it might be worthwhile to bring it to bear
against Dan Zahavi’s Husserl-inspired argument in Self-Awareness and Alterity
that there is no type of awareness that lacks the first-personal mode of given-
ness. By first-personal givenness Zahavi doesn’t mean self-identification
through criteria such as name, sex, physical appearance, family, nationality,
profession, knowledge or memories. None of these third-personal character-
istics are necessary to think of oneself as ‘I.’ A man suffering from amnesia,
immobilized in a dark room, and ignorant of his biography is capable of being
self-aware. The ‘I’ “refers without attributing any specific property to the entity
in question, and my awareness of myself is consequently not mediated by the
awareness of any identifying property.” The “ ‘I’ cannot fail to refer to the object
it purports to refer to, and one can consequently speak of its ontological and ref-
erential priority over all names and descriptions.” (Zahavi, 1999: 7, 3–4) Zahavi
notes that the self of which consciousness is pre-reflexively aware in such
utterances as ‘I think that p,’ ‘I believe that p’ is not a self that exists apart from
the pre-reflexive experience. It is not positional or objectual, a transcendental
ego that observes from above and unifies the goings on of the empirical self:

The subject or self referred to in self-awareness is not something apart

from or beyond the experience, nor is it a new and further experience,
but simply a feature or function of its givenness. If the experience is given
to me originarily, in a first-personal mode of presentation, it is experi-
enced as my experience, otherwise not. (Zahavi, 1999: 12)

As a counterexample to test the strength of his claim, Zahavi considers experi-

ences of depersonalization. People suffering from this condition believe that
others control their thoughts or that there is someone other than themselves
thinking their thoughts. This suggests that there is a type of awareness that
lacks the first-personal mode of givenness. Zahavi contends that, when closely
considered, this is not the case. In the first place, he questions the accuracy
of the description of experiences of depersonalization. Although “the experi-
ences of a subject suffering from depersonalization have been described as

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416 Winkler

experiences which lack the peculiar quality of my-ness, one might question the
accuracy of this description.” Depersonalized experiences appear strange and
intrusive, but “they cannot lack this formal kind of my-ness, since the subject
is aware that it is he himself rather than somebody else who experiences these
foreign thoughts.” (Zahavi, 1997: 154) But this just begs the question. What is at
issue is whether the subject is aware of being the owner of his thoughts, and in
some cases of depersonalization the subject claims not to be their owner, since
he claims not to be aware of who and where he is. As one patient says:

I forgot myself at the Ice Carnival the other night. I was so absorbed in
looking at it that I forgot what time it was and who and where I was. When
I suddenly realized I hadn’t been thinking about myself I was fright-
ened to death. The unreality feeling came. I must never forget myself for
a single minute. I watch the clock and keep busy, or else I won’t know
who I am. (Laing, 1969: 109; emphasis added)

Why should we think that the subject has misdescribed his experience?
In the second place, Zahavi draws on the work of P.F. Schilder and L. Sass
to argue that depersonalized experiences might be seen as experiences of
extreme self-objectification:

“The subject is so obsessively preoccupied with his experiences that they

are gradually transformed and substantialized into objectlike entities,
which are then experienced as alien, intrusive, involuntary, and indepen-
dent.” Since self-objectification is a form of reflective self-awareness, it
presupposes the first-personal givenness of pre-reflexive self-awareness.
(Zahavi, 1999: 156)

It is odd that Zahavi doesn’t draw on Heidegger’s description of anxiety as a

possible counterexample, especially as all the experiences of depersonaliza-
tion that R.D. Laing reports in The Divided Self, which Zahavi cites, are experi-
ences of Angst. Besides, is it so certain that depersonalized experiences are
experiences of self-objectification? The schizoid individual doubtless has a
heightened awareness of his outward behaviour. He regards it as meaning-
less, insubstantial, unreal, mechanical. But this reduction of his outward
behaviour to the status of a thing is a mechanism of defense against anxiety
in the face of total extinction, death, loss of self, the feeling of losing oneself
in what there is, of becoming one with the world (Laing, 1969: 99; see the case
of James), the kind of mystical, sacral fusion Hölderlin describes at the start of
Hyperion and whose loss he mourns in the remainder of the poem: “To be one

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Time, Singularity and the Impossible 417

with all that lives, to return in blessed self-forgetfulness into the All of nature”
(Hölderlin, 1990: 3).
What is it that fails to function in depersonalization? Depersonalization
might be described in Rimbaud’s phrase as the experience that ‘I is an Other’,
that existence is not or is no longer mine but is held hostage to the other. How
is this to be understood? It is not that my existence has become an object to me
or that I have identified myself with the other. The schizoid being lives under
the constant threat that his existence is slipping away from him, that he is no
longer able to project it as his own ability-to-be. Mineness is always on the verge
of collapsing.
That is what Laing suggests in his description of the depersonalized subject
as “ontologically insecure”, as a subject whose identity is so weak and feeble
that it is pulled at once in contrary directions. Given his lack of conviction that
he is real or exists, the subject needs others to be aware of his existence, since
that alone can give him the reassurance that he exists and is real. The subject
needs to be visible to others in order to protect himself against the feeling of
being unreal, insubstantial, a nullity. However, to be visible to others is also to
be exposed to danger. It is imbued with the danger that others are aware of him
just as he is aware of himself, namely as an insubstantial thing, a nullity. The
subject thus de-subjectifies itself. It makes itself invisible and anonymous by
blending with the landscape, by becoming one with what there is:

Indeed, considered biologically, the very fact of being visible exposes an

animal to the risk of attack from its enemies, and no animal is without
enemies. Being visible is therefore a basic biological risk; being invisible
is a basic biological defense. We all employ some form of camouflage.
(Laing, 1969: 110)

The schizoid being needs to be visible and invisible at once, visible to others
so that he can convince himself that he exists, invisible to others (and to him-
self), disappear in total “self-forgetfulness,” so that he can be convinced that
others don’t see him as he sees himself. That is how a patient described her

It struck me that if I stared long enough at the environment that I would

blend with it and disappear just as if the place was empty and I had disap-
peared. It is as if you get yourself to feel you don’t know who you are or where
you are. [. . .] I would just be walking along and felt that I had blended
with the landscape. Then I would get frightened and repeat my name
over and over again to bring me back to life, so to speak. (Laing, 1969: 110)

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418 Winkler

By blending with the landscape, Laing comments, the patient lost “her autono-
mous identity, in fact she lost her self.” She did not swoon or become uncon-
scious. The disappearance of mineness produces an intensified awareness, a
deep anxiety at lapsing “into a state of non-being,” a state where ‘I’ and ‘you,’
‘self’ and ‘world,’ are becoming indiscernible. If, as Zahavi insists, conscious-
ness has a self-referential structure, the intentum of this self-reference does not
coincide here with the consciousness to which experiences are given first-per-
sonally. Its content is the total abdication of the first-person, its death, which
interrupts the self-referentiality of consciousness and produces an impersonal
awareness that is coextensive with what there is. Consciousness is, here, abso-
lutely outside of itself, ecstatic.
This becoming-anonymous or -invisible in schizophrenia is, to be sure, a
pretense or game, a performance. Yet Laing notes that the trouble is that “the
individual may find that the pretense has been in the pretending and that, in a
more real way than he had bargained for, he has actually lapsed into that very
state of non-being he has so much dreaded, in which he has become stripped
of his sense of autonomy, reality, life, identity, and from which he may not find
it possible to regain his foothold ‘in’ life again by the simple repetition of his
name.” (Laing, 1969: 111)
Mineness can collapse in the face of death. That is after all the basic condi-
tion of being mortal, namely that, exposed to death as death, the sense of what
there is can utterly fail, leaving me unable to say ‘I,’ ‘I think that,’ ‘this is mine,
this existence, this death, these thoughts.’ It is not by chance that Heidegger
holds that mineness is not merely given or disclosed, something into which
Dasein is thrown always already, but projected as a possibility, disclosive of
being-in-the-world. Since this projection can fail, Dasein can return to the ano-
nymity of its pure facticity, to the uncanny fact that ‘it’ exists at all.

4 Mourning the Impossible

The collapse of mineness presupposes that Dasein has access to death as death.
But is that true? Is death as such accessible to Dasein? Death, we have seen, is
not determinable as an entity. It doesn’t conform to the meaning of being as
presence. It doesn’t even seem to be possible to talk of death, at least not with-
out objectifying it, since it resists the totality of predicates of being as modifi-
cations of presence or being-present, including the predicate ‘being-possible.’
As Derrida remarks in Aporias, excepting ‘God,’ ‘death’ is the only other word to
which a referent or meaning cannot be assigned. It is not possible to attribute

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Time, Singularity and the Impossible 419

to the noun ‘death’ “a concept or a reality that would constitute the object of an
indisputably determining experience” (Derrida, 1993: 22). And so he wonders:
is my death possible?
Derrida holds that death is not accessible to Dasein, such that what was
supposed to distinguish Dasein from the animal—notably, access to death—
proves to not do so at all. This threatens the limits of the existential analytic.
More precisely, it makes the analytic of Dasein impossible, since it renders
Dasein and the animal indiscernible. If access to death as death is impossible
then Dasein will have to perish like an animal:

The impossibility of existing or of Dasein that Heidegger speaks of under

the name of ‘death’ is the disappearance, the end, the annihilation of the
‘as such,’ of the possibility of the relation to the phenomenon as such or
to the phenomenon of the ‘as such’. [. . .] According to Heidegger, it is
therefore the impossibility of the ‘as such’ that, as such, would be possible
to Dasein and not to any form of entity and living thing. But if the impos-
sibility of the ‘as such’ is indeed the impossibility of the ‘as such,’ it is also
what cannot appear as such. Indeed, this relation to the disappearing as
such of the ‘as such’ [. . .] is also the characteristic common both to the
inauthentic and to the authentic forms of the existence of Dasein, com-
mon to all experiences of death (properly dying, perishing, and demis-
ing), and also, outside of Dasein, common to all living things in general.
Common characteristic does not mean homogeneity, but rather the
impossibility of an absolutely pure and rigorously uncrossable limit [. . .]
between an existential analysis of death and a fundamental anthropo-
theology, and moreover between anthropological cultures of death and
animal cultures of death. (Derrida, 1993: 75)

Derrida seems to suggest that Heidegger’s reflection on death is caught in a

double bind. Either death—the end of the world, of phenomenality or the ‘as
such’—can appear as such, or it cannot. If it can appear as such to Dasein then
it was never what it was supposed to be to begin with, namely the unpresent-
able, my future absence, which is incalculable, dying properly speaking, since
a death that appears as such carries the sense of demising or perishing. It is the
other’s or the animal’s death, an objectified death. But if death cannot appear
as such to Dasein then Dasein finds itself in the same predicament as the ani-
mal, which is subject to the non-appearance of death.
But is a third alternative not possible? It is true that my death cannot appear
to me as such, but its refusal to appear, its non-appearance, can appear to me in

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420 Winkler

anxiety. If the impossible is by definition impossible, it doesn’t follow that the

possibility of the impossible is in turn impossible. Heidegger is clearly aware
that death is absolutely unpresentable, that it is not a possible presence, a
being-possible that is modifiable into a being-actual.

The closest closeness which one may have in Being towards death as a pos-
sibility, is as far as possible from anything actual. [. . .] Death, as possibility,
gives Dasein nothing to be ‘actualised’, nothing which Dasein, as actual,
could itself be. (Heidegger, 1997: 306–7)

Although the end of being-in-the-world cannot appear as such to Dasein, its

non-appearance has always already invaded the present in the mode of the
imminent future, as what is to come at any moment. It has always already
shaken the order of phenomenality, Dasein’s mundane access to entities as
entities, and brought it to the limit of what it can be or say. That is after all
why death bears the hallmark of transcendence or infinite alterity—why, as
“the shrine of the Nothing,” it accomplishes the ontico-ontological difference.
Death is in effect inapparent, concealed or closed. It is the very ‘emblem,’ if
one may say so, of concealment. It is, in Derrida’s words, the absolute secret—
absolute because absolutely unshareable, not even disclosed to the self whose
death it is:

[T]he most tempting figure for this absolute secret is death. (Derrida and
Ferraris, 2002: 58)

But this just means that its mode of presence is not the present or a modifica-
tion of the present, a past or future present, a memory or expectation. Its mode
of presence is a future that cannot be made present but whose approach is felt
in anticipation, as Heidegger shows. Or its mode of presence is a past that was
never present and that is felt in mourning, as Derrida shows.
There are in fact two things that caution us against taking Derrida’s argu-
ment at face value in Aporias. Both of them have to do with his double use of
the word ‘impossible.’ He uses it at times in the ordinary sense as ‘that which
cannot be or be conceived,’ particularly in reference to the Blanchotian claim
that the instant of death is an impossible experience. Blanchot speaks of “the
impossibility, alas, of dying” (Derrida, 1993: 77). Dying is impossible because to
experience the moment of my death is impossible. Such an experience can-
not take place. Its occurrence is inconceivable. That is how Derrida sometimes
inflects the sense of Heidegger’s description of death as the possibility of the
impossibility of existence. Reading Heidegger, Derrida says that dying is the

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Time, Singularity and the Impossible 421

aporia, “the impossibility of being dead, the impossibility of living or rather

‘existing’ one’s death” (Derrida, 1993: 73). Yet Heidegger is clear that his analysis
of death has nothing to do with the supposed possibility or impossibility of an
Erlebnis of its occurrence:

[W]hen Dasein dies—and even when it dies authentically—it does

not have to do with an experience (Erleben) of its factical demising.
(Heidegger, 1997: 291)

Nevertheless, it is because Derrida thinks of death in this Blanchotian sense as

an impossible experience or actuality that he concludes his critical reading of
Heidegger with the Levinasian claim that the death of the other is, phenom-
enologically, the first death (Raffoul, 2010: 292):

[I]f death is indeed the possibility of the impossible . . . then man, or man
as Dasein, never has a relation to death as such, but only to perishing, to
demising, and to the death of the other. . . . The death of the other thus
becomes again ‘first’, always first. It is like the experience of mourning
that institutes my relation to myself and constitutes the egoity of the
ego. . . . The death of the other, this death of the other in ‘me’, is funda-
mentally the only death that is named in the syntagm ‘my death’ [. . .].
(Derrida, 1993: 76)

It is in this talk of mourning that Derrida insists on another sense of the

‘impossible,’ one that is close to Heidegger’s notion of death “as a possibility
[that] is as far as possible from anything actual.” In this other sense, the ‘impos-
sible’ means the singular or nonrelational, that which exceeds the conditions of
possibility of exchange or substitution, the order of phenomenality or the ‘as
such,’ the horizons of expectation and memory that ground it—an impossible
of which there is, however, an experience, although in the form of an interrup-
tion or limit, a limit to what can be expected or recalled, to what can be pres-
ent to consciousness, the subject or ego. The gift, hospitality or the future, the
arrivant or the other and, first and foremost, death, are such limit-experiences,
experiences of the impossible for Derrida. Let me consider this in the context
of his reading of mourning.
Somewhat like Ricoeur and Levinas, Derrida holds that the singularization
of the self takes places in the ethical relation to the other, in friendship and
mourning. As he argues in The Politics of Friendship and Memoires for Paul de
Man, there is no friendship without the possibility of mourning. One friend
must die before the other. The fact that the other can die before me mediates

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422 Winkler

the relation between two friends. The possibility of mourning makes friend-
ship possible. It is at the same time the condition of the mineness of the self,
since the self is thrown back on itself in its fundamental solitude before the
possibility of the other’s death, his eventual absence.
Unlike Freud, who conceives of mourning as labor or work, as the negation
and sublation of the other into oneself, as a cannibalistic process of assimi-
lation and interiorization, “originary mourning” (Derrida, 1993: 61) leaves the
other his alterity. It is the thoughtful remembrance (Gedächtnis) of the other
in his singularity. It is a mourning that affirms the alterity of the other, rather
than a work of memory or interiorization (Er-innerung). In mourning, there is
the felt difference between the memory of the other, the other who is now noth-
ing more than a memory or idea, and the other’s absence, which is absolute,
irreversible, and uncontainable in or by the self.1 This felt difference reveals
the alterity of the other, and makes Freudian mourning impossible. It makes
successful mourning impossible where the dead other is assimilated into the
self without remainder, absolutely interiorized. But it also makes unsuccessful
mourning impossible, as Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok describe it, where
a part of the ego is identified with the dead other who then continues to live on
in the ego as a stranger, unassimilated or undigested (cf. Derrida, 1985: 57–8).
The other who is irrevocably gone and absent draws the self to “an absolute
past” (Derrida, 1989: 66). But this absolute past that reveals the alterity of the
other can be neither assimilated nor identified with. It transcends the mourn-
ing self:

Upon the death of the other we are given to memory, and thus to interi-
orization, since the other, outside us, is now nothing. And with the dark
light of this nothing [cf. Heidegger’s phrase in “What is Metaphysics?”:
“In the clear night of the nothing . . .” (Heidegger, 103)], we learn that the
other resists the closure of our interiorizing memory. With the nothing of
this irrevocable absence, the other appears as other, and as other for us,
upon his death or at least in the anticipated possibility of a death [. . .].
(Derrida, 1989: 34)

The possibility of the other’s absence constitutes the relation to self. It makes
patent its “terrible solitude” (Derrida, 1989: 33). The self is constituted in its
ipseity as a responsibility before the other, as an infinite responsibility of

1  Derrida’s model here is Levinas’ claim that the experience of the other, his presence in
speech, transcends the idea I have of him, which reveals his alterity.

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Time, Singularity and the Impossible 423

remembrance—infinite responsibility because the other’s absence is infi-

nite, absolute. Originary mourning for Derrida opens up the dimension of the
There is, then, for Derrida an experience of the impossible, “the other
appears as other,” an experience that hinges on the possibility of the other’s
death. Why death? Because death singularizes the other. His infinite absence
brings out his alterity. It manifests the impossibility of the other’s interioriza-
tion in the self or the self’s identification with him. From this perspective, a
certain rapprochement between Heidegger and Derrida becomes possible.
Both are concerned to distinguish between ‘proper’ and ‘improper’ ways
of relating to death, the other’s death, Dasein’s death: an originary or ethi-
cal mourning as opposed to a Freudian mourning in Derrida’s case, an exis-
tential anticipation as opposed to an object-oriented expecting or waiting
in Heidegger’s case. The relation to death, Heidegger explains, cannot be an
expecting or waiting for (Erwarten, Warten) something. To expect or to wait for
something is to represent its possible presence. It is to have in advance, before
its actualization and with a view to its actualization, an idea of what it will look
like, where it will be and in connection with what. In contrast, Vorlaufen puts
Dasein in the paradoxical situation of having to anticipate a possibility whose
arrival it cannot expect or predict. I cannot compute in advance the indefinite
time of my death, its arrival at any moment, precisely because it can arrive
at any moment. Nor can I represent, have an image or idea of my eventual
absence. In anticipation, I await the incalculable, what is beyond measure, “the
possibility of the impossibility of any existence at all” (Heidegger, 1997: 307). Isn’t
this also, in the end, what hospitality amounts to for Derrida, the greeting or
welcome, being open to what is to-come at any moment to the point of having
one’s identity called into question?

A question, impossible to decide, remains, which we have now twice encoun-

tered, at first with Ricoeur and then with Derrida. Being singular means not-
belonging, not-being-at-home in, not being a member of a group, family, race,
nation, school, etc. Being singular is the condition for entering into relation
with the singularity of the other. If I claim to belong to a people, if I’m at home
in a nation, race or school, etc., then the other is for me either an insider or
an outsider. In any case, he is a ‘what,’ an instance of a concept or a mem-
ber of a group, whether the same or another. But if belongingness fails and all
that remains is the metaphysical solitude of being-in-the-world then the other
whom I encounter is neither an insider nor an outsider. He is manifest in his
singularity, a point of view on the world that is incommensurable with mine,

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424 Winkler

infinitely other. That is at any rate what Heidegger suggests when he writes
that authentic care, which anticipates death as its ownmost possibility, relates
to the other as a ‘who’ and not as a ‘what.’ It “helps the Other to become trans-
parent to himself in his care and to become free for it” (Heidegger, 1997: 159).
Or is it the other way around, as Derrida suggests? Is it by becoming singular in
authentic care that I can enter into relation with the singularity of the other?
Or does the singularity of the other, manifest in friendship and the possibility
of mourning, bring Dasein back to the singularity of being-in-the-world? What
is essential in both situations is the possibility of death as absolute alterity,
whether the alterity of the future in anticipation or of the past in mourning,
which singularizes absolutely, my being, your being. But if this question can-
not be decided, a decision has nevertheless always already been called for. For
what is at stake is nothing less than the essence of philosophy, what philoso-
phy is, whether a reflection on the oblivion of the meaning of being or an eth-
ics, a meditative thought or the invocation of a responsibility before the other.


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