Life and Death in Freud and Heidegger (Book Review)

Author:  Carel, Havi
Publisher: Rodopi
Reviewed By: Lina Schlacter, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3 (Summer 2008), pp. 75-77

On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
And that one dying.
Philip Larkin

Is psychoanalysis a science or an art? Is psychoanalysis more similar to empirical studies, such as statistics, or to art studies, such as philosophy? I know, those questions are tricky, and probably we will never reach a consensus on this matter. Everybody will agree, however, that psychoanalysis is influenced by philosophy, and the influence of Schopenhauer, Feuerbach and Brentano in Freud’s work is undeniable.

In the book Life and Death in Freud and Heidegger, Havi Carel, a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of the West of England, proposes to build another bridge between psychoanalysis and philosophy, and attempts to connect Freud with Heidegger through the concepts of life and death. The initial attempt to connect Freud and Heidegger was made by Medard Boss, a Swiss psychiatrist, who introduced Freud to Heidegger. Heidegger did not respect Freud’s ideas, stating that he “couldn’t believe that such an intelligent man could write such stupid things, such fantastical things, about men and women.” Freud, in turn, did not mention Heidegger in his work. Therefore, Carel tries to relate in death people who were not related in life — even when they had the chance. This new attempt is, to say the least, curious and provocative. For that, Carel starts her book by explaining Freud’s theories about life and death. She then explains the Heideggerian theory as it addresses the same concepts. Finally, she attempts to connect the two theories.

Carel understands that conflict is a fundamental tenet of Freud’s thought. For Freud, life and death drives were two opposing concepts. This conflict between the two drives would be responsible for neurosis, according to this formulation. Carel, however, suggests that there is no dissociation between life and death drives. She proposes they share the same origin (a bodily stimulus), serve one another at times, and obey the same principles. The guiding psychic principle, according to Freud, is that all drives aim toward a restoration of earlier modes of being; that is, they desire to reach complete rest through discharge of tension. All drives are conservative. The two drives, hence, would be connected, because the “death drive is the main regulative principle of life (through the constancy or Nirvana principle) while Eros creates undesired interruptions” (p. 24). Further, the death drive is prior to Eros (or life drive), and an operative force within Eros. In that, the death drive and Eros do not exist independently, even though they are contradictory: the life drive seeks extension and preservation of life, and the death drive seeks self-annihilation.

Carel believes that the death drive has two contradictory notions: the Nirvana principle and aggression. However, Carel claims that all ideas connected to the hypothesis that the nervous system would have this tendency to become inert, as evidenced by the Nirvana principle, were abandoned and disproved. Further, both aggression and the Nirvana principle have the same common tendency towards annihilation. For this reason, she attempts to reconstruct the death drive, discarding the Nirvana principle and defining it as aggression with a particular emphasis on self-destructiveness (annihilative aggression). Nonetheless, she understands that the death drive cannot be reducible solely to aggression, because aggression is perceived as directed outwards, and, according to Freud, the primary object of the aggression is the self. Finally, she concludes that we can keep the Nirvana principle, but in a modified form, in which the self-destructive tendencies are emphasized.

As you may have already noticed, Carel uses the term drive throughout her book, and not instinct. She claims that drives are undetermined when compared to instincts. Actually, Freud, when talking about drive, used the term Trieb, and not Instinkt. However, Strachey translated the two terms as instinct, which confuses the English reader. Trieb, as Laplanche and Pontalis (1973) suggest, retains overtones suggestive of pressure (Treiben means “to push” in German), and draws attention to the nature of the pressure in drives instead of stability of its aim and object. Instinct, conversely, is more related to a biologically predetermined behavior.

Following this exposition of Freud’s concepts, Carel discusses Heideggerian theory. Heidegger hypothesized that there is a Dasein (“being-there” or “being-here”), a being that understands its own being. According to Heidegger, our finitude is our fundamental way of being. For this reason, our Daseins can only be authentic if fully grasping our finite temporality — so we can be a “being-towards-death.” By accepting our mortality, we accept that we can never be all we could be. Further, each death belongs to a specific Dasein, and nobody else will be ever able to experience my death. If we dismiss and neglect death, we are adopting an inauthentic attitude.

Dasein becomes attuned to being-in-the-world by Mitsein (being-with). Heidegger understands that we have social structures such as Mitsein and Das Man (“the one” — an interpersonal singular pronoun in German). Mitsein is the Dasein’s capacity for socializing, for relating to, having concern, and communicating with others. Das Man is how Dasein articulates the shared norms and conventions in the world: das Man controls Dasein, as well as is a part of Dasein’s structure. Due to the existence of das Man, we are structurally flawed, because it is impossible to be completely authentic if we obey to norms and conventions. Hence, Dasein, when acting according to Das Man, is not “doing” because of his own will, but simply because that is what people do.

Authenticity, hence, is openness: through authenticity, we see ourselves as a whole, and fully experience the world. We are authentic when we acknowledge our angst, and our mortality. However, inauthenticity is also necessary, because it brings some comfort to us, “it covers over the truth of our groundlessness and mortality in a life of forgetful existence” (p. 111). For this reason, authenticity is dependent on inauthenticity.

Up to this moment, Carel offers relatively straightforward discussions of Freudian and Heideggerian theory regarding life and death. From now on, the most provocative part of the book starts: how Freud and Heidegger could have had a conversation, and what they could have taught each other. Successfully or not, Carel attempts to create a dialogue between psychoanalysis and philosophy through the concepts of life and death — according to these two near contemporaries. As a beginning dialogue, Carel claims that for both authors death is a force within life, whose existence is a given fact, and not an abnormality. To press their similarities too far, however, risks obscuring fundamental differences. Freud posited the central importance of unconscious processes. Heidegger, however, ignored the concept of unconscious, and believed in a Dasein that is a being-in-the-world. For this reason, they understood death differently. Freud, for example, suggested that the unconscious does not know death, because death is an abstract concept with a negative content. Being barred from knowing about death, Carel suggests that the only way that it can know about death is through the death of another.

According to Freud (1961/1915), however, we acknowledge death only for strangers and for enemies. As Freud emphasized, “in our unconscious impulses, we daily and hourly get rid of anyone who stands in our way, of anyone who has offended or injured us” (p. 297). So, our unconscious thinks death and wishes it. Further, there is one case in which the unconscious faces two ambivalent attitudes. When a loved one dies, one “acknowledges it as annihilation of life and the other which denies it as unreal” (p. 298). The unconscious is ambivalent because the loved ones are part of our own ego, and also partly strangers, or even enemies. Further, Freud claimed that we acknowledge only the fear of death, which is usually the outcome of guilt.

Heidegger, nonetheless, understood death in another way. He understood that the only significant death is our own death. Carel tries to link the two theories, and states: “if everyday consciousness is inauthentic, the potential for authenticity can be located in the unconscious, and emerge in response to the call of conscience.” This call-of-conscience is, according to Heidegger, what opens the door to the authenticity. Hence, when we think about the death of another in Heidegger, we understand it as inauthentic, because that is an impossible experience. Nonetheless, the death of another can call attention to my finitude and also to my death. In that, Mitsein (being-with) and authenticity can be compatible.

Carel also suggests that guilt is a structural component of Dasein, as well as of the Freudian subject. Both subjects (Heideggerian and Freudian) are tortured from within. The superego persecutes the Freudian subject, and an understanding of itself as finite persecutes the Heideggerian subject. The ontological guilt, in Heidegger, is originated in the nullity (the essential ungroundedness of one’s identity) that belongs to the structure of Dasein. However, Carel understands the superego as destructive: it represents all moral restrictions and constantly requests ego perfection. Conversely, the “call of conscience” is fruitful. So, guilt, in Heidegger, is productive.

As said before, however, the unconscious, according to Freud, acknowledges a fear of death, and this is usually the outcome of guilt. Freud (1961/1923) believed that the fear of death is something that occurs between the ego and the superego, and makes its appearance under two conditions: a reaction to an external danger and as an internal process, as in melancholia. In melancholia, “the ego gives itself up because it feels itself hated and persecuted by the superego, instead of loved” (p. 58). Therefore, the guilt, originated with the conflict between ego and superego, can also point to the unconscious that death (or fear of death) is a reality, which would make the superego “fruitful.”

Further, Carel proposes that “covering up,” in Heidegger, may be a type of repression. Hence, “covering up” is an inauthentic denial of death performed by das Man. Das Man does not deal with death; it flees from it. In that, she believes that Dasein has a portion that is unconscious. The covered up material can be aroused only in response to the call of conscience. However, if that is true, death would be a part of the unconscious content, which is problematic to Freud. Attempting to solve this problem, she states that there is an awareness of death in the unconscious, but it is not an awareness of my own death but of the death of another. Freud would say that Carel is correct: there is an awareness of the death of another that is a stranger and/or an enemy to me. However, when I think about my death, my unconscious does not process that, just fears it.

One month after publishing Life and Death in Freud and Heidegger, Carel faced what our unconscious fears: she was diagnosed with “one of the rarest diseases known to mankind (lymphangioleiomyomatosis, or LAM)” (Carel, 2007), and was told she had just 10 more years to live. Describing her experience, she states:

“I want not just to be able to accept my illness—for I have no choice, really — but to make my life a good one, with all its limitations and truncated future. With Heidegger, I think that in order to understand my life I must understand it as finite. I see my actions and possibilities as limited and ultimately nested within a finite existence. (…) where I am, death is. It is a constant presence, a perpetual shadow.” (Ibid.)

Havi Carel is dealing with the reality of what we hardly want to be in contact with — our death, which sooner or later makes its presence felt — in life.

Lina Schlkacter


Carel, H. (2007). My 10-year death sentence. Retrieved June 25, 2008, from
Freud, S. (1961). Thoughts for the times on war and death. In J. Strachey (Ed. & Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 19, pp. 3-66). London: Hogarth Press (Original work published 1915).
Freud, S. (1961). The ego and the id. In J. Strachey (Ed. & Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol.19, pp. 3-66). London: Hogarth Press (Original work published 1923).
Laplanche, J. & Pontalis, J-B. (1973). The language of psycho-analysis. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.


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