Roanoke College

Professor Digs into Philosophy of Life and Death

  • Professor Digs into Philosophy of Life and Death

  • 03/29/07
  • Dr. Brent Adkins, assistant professor of philosophy at Roanoke College, has written a new treatise on life and death from a philosophical perspective. The book, Death and Desire: Hegel, Heidegger and Deleuze, is unique in that it stages a conversation of sorts between three of the 19th and 20th century's most noted philosophers: Martin Heidegger, G.W.F. Hegel and Gilles Deleuze.

    According to Adkins, contemporary thought is dominated by a concern with death. "However, there is a way to live life without this constant meditation on death," Adkins says. He says that people are constantly thinking about "the end" rather than the journey, which is typical of contemporary thinking.

    Adkins chose Heidegger and Hegel as the starting point for his research, an idea that sprung from graduate school research on the same philosophers. Work has been done in the past that compares the ideas of Heidegger and Hegel because they seem opposed in method and aim. This opposition is characterized in the psychoanalytic distinction between mourning and melancholia. According to Hegel, death was a necessary process in development. Growth can occur without overcoming the past. This overcoming is worked through in the process of mourning. Heidegger said that human experience is only possible on the basis of projecting ourselves into the future. This future, however, is limited by death. Death, thus, gets incorporated into all of our experiences. This is melancholia.

    Deleuze, on the other hand, believed that life is desire, and that there are two distinct ways of thinking about desire. The first is that we only desire because we lack something. The other is called productive desire, in that we desire to make new connections, not necessarily because we lack connections, but because we want to try something new. Deleuze would argue that Heidegger and Hegel would think that desires are based on a lack of something. Deleuze ultimately believed that life is not about living to fill a lack or a void, but rather to make connections. Because Deleuze conceived of desire as productive, his conception of death is joyful rather than mournful or melancholic.

    Adkins brings all of these complicated ideas into one book, an alternative history that sees death as part of life rather than the end of it. "There are fruitful, helpful and healthy ways of thinking about life and death," Adkins says. "The best kind of life is a joyful one, not mournful or melancholic."

    The primary themes of this book are death and desire, but they are supplemented by analyses of psychoanalysis, the death drive, capitalism and the nature of philosophy. Adkins also explores the ideas of Freud, Kant and Spinoza in addition to the three main philosophers of his book.

    Adkins had a lot of help from his colleagues and students. "Philosophy is a collaborative effort," Adkins says. Because the content of the book is so complex, Adkins bounced his ideas off of his students. "If I can explain my ideas to undergrads, and they get it, I can write about it for a wider audience," Adkins says.

    The book will go on sale later this year.