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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


JONES, Chris. A philosophical discussion on death and the meaning of life. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2022, vol.62, n.1, pp.15-39. ISSN 2224-7912.

This article gives an account of a philosophical discussion of death and the meaning of life. In Part 1 the focus is on a conversation between the author of this article and Anton van Niekerk after the publication of the latter's book Die dood en die sin van die lewe (Death and the meaning of life) in 2017. Because of Van Niekerk's huge influence in the discipline of philosophy, not only in South Africa but also internationally, and because this book is probably the most important one on the subject that has yet appeared in Afrikaans, this article further explores the theme of death and the meaning of life. In the conversation referred to above the following questions were put to Van Niekerk, who responded as comprehensively as time allowed: (i) What is life? Meaning: Before one can talk about death, should one try to define life? (ii) Is death the most decisive, or the most real, attribute of life? (iii) Isn t death a very morbid subject to research? How should we think about death with the current knowledge at our disposal (after all, we do not know everything)? (iv) Some people say: Religion is necessary to live meaningfully; others claim that death takes away the meaning of life. What is your view? (v) Is there an instinctive, evolving need to (want to) experience meaning in life? (vi) What was the inspiration for your writing this book? The question of the meaning of life is probably one of the most important questions in philosophy, but did other matters inspire you as well? (vii) How does one deal with death, especially once it has crossed the threshold of one s home? (viii) Every one of us probably fears and rebels against death. Why, and does it make any sense to fear death? (ix) How should we think about life after death? Where does this idea come from? How would people offaith know they were dealing with a Deity if there were life after death? Is eternal life really such an attractive option? (x) Will the day come when human beings will overcome death (not in the spiritual sense of the word)? (xi) What are your thoughts on assisted dying? (xii) Death remains a mystery, but how do you see it? (xii) As death remains a tragic event, is there anything worse than death that can happen to a human being? (xiv) When would one be able to say one's life has meaning? All these questions relate to the content of Van Niekerk's book. Part 2 of the article focuses on VincentBrümmer 's religio-philosophic thoughts on Van Niekerk's book. Shortly before his death, Brümmer sent Van Niekerk those thoughts, and in the correspondence he touched upon, among other things, our human limitations, our temporality and mortality, and the problems associated with the limitations of our human existence. He argued that many people try to deny the finitude of their earthly existence by assuming that death involves only the body and not the so-called "immortal soul". This view posed a problem for him, and he acknowledged that, in this respect and in the absence of any clarity on the matter, he was agnostic. Furthermore, not only a human being's earthly life ends at some point, but also the earth itself-and our solar system and all the others. He described the four phases one's life normally goes through from birth to death and joined Jean-Paul Sartre in distinguishing between the body one is and the body one has. For Brümmer the transition to the proverbial autumn of one's life (the last of the four phases) is radically different from the transition between the other phases. He emphasised the difficulty of the detachment process brought on by death and stressed that one does not think about (one 's) death enough because one often is too busy. He also struggled with Van Niekerk's argument that life is a tragedy in the face of death, but shared Van Niekerk's distinction between problems and mysteries, even though he found it difficult to understand Van Niekerk's explanation of mysteries. In the last section of Part 2 ofthe article, Van Niekerk, in his reply to Brümmer, appreciates Brümmer's grasping the fact that life was as essential a part of the book's content as death. Although the title of the book might give the impression that it is about death, it actually is about life, but then life outlined against the background of the ever-present death. He finds Brümmer 's analysis of the four phases of life both illuminative and problematic. Yet this four-phase model expresses something of what Van Niekerk means by a meaningful life. Upon rereading Brümmer 's correspondence, it struck Van Niekerk again that the theme of corporeality is very important for any reflection on the meaning of life and death, and that one of the mysteries of human existence lies in the fact that one can say of oneself that one is a body and one has a body. He points out how important detachment (highlighted by Brümmer), brought about by one's approaching death, in the last phase of life is. Van Niekerk concludes his reply by maintaining his claim that life ending in death is indeed a tragedy - a claim not supported by Brümmer - but a tragedy that has the potential to mediate meaning.

Keywords : death; meaning of life; corporeality; philosophical discussion; Anton van Niekerk; Vincent Brümmer; mystery; tragedy.

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