NOV 9th, 2015

In this blog post I’d like to talk about two forms of death, biological and social death, through the conceptual lens of personal identity. This deceptively simple distinction informs a lot of my subsequent conceptual analysis about the harm and redemption of death and dying. It also lays one of the foundation stones for a conceptual analysis of historical case study in much of my subsequent work.

Paul Ricoeur talks about two kind of personal identity arising from its Latin root meaning. ‘Being the same’ (idem) is expressed through the question ‘what am I?’ And ‘self-constancy’, or ‘oneself as the self-same’ (ipse) is expressed through the question ‘who am I?’

While the two forms of personal identity are intimately related in understanding death of any kind, the primary bias of focus for understanding biological death is on idem identity and for social death is on ipse identity.

Biological death’s primary focus is on the question ‘what am I?’ This familiar understanding of death marks a real change in ‘being-the-same’ (idem identity) clinically and medically speaking. Whether biological death is understood in absolute terms, the state of being dead, or processual terms, partial deaths involved in the process of dying, they both involve thinking about the materiality of existence.

Social death’s primary focus is on the question ‘who am I’. The self-constancy of ‘who I am’ represents an ipse or narrative identity and relational change in respect to physical death in both simple and complex ways.

Let me give some examples of the relationship between biological and social death, starting from the simple and ending in the more complex.

Absolute death is a biological state and has a relational effect in how persons are referred to after death. For example, the pronoun ‘I’ is no longer grammatically correct form of designation when describing me as a corpse. As a corpse ‘I’ am no longer. Corpses are husks of former persons. They are strictly speaking ex-persons. My physical death also involves relational changes in others; for example, my wife, after my death is now formally a widow.

Social death is not just simple matter of grammar and correct designation. It also involves complex reconfiguration and refiguration of who a person is in light of physical death. Either contemplating the narrative meaning of a life lived in anticipation of physical death (by self or other), or the narrative meaning of having once existed by others who survive the deceased. For example, the story of our lives may remembered by gossips, or worse still, by those intent on reinterpreting an ordinary life, as a notorious one.

Less obviously changes in narrative identity (social deaths), are events that may occur prior to our physical death; the narrative of who we are being re-configured in facing the way that we physically die.

Let me give two examples: one from a contemporary medical context and another from a wider historical cultural context of understanding.

Being in a permanent vegetative state (PVS) can be explained in terms of physical and social death. Biologically, PVS can be explained as a partial but significant brain death. To be more precise this involves the death of the neo-cortex – the death of part of the brain, largely responsible for recognition of self/other, biographical memory, speech, etc. In terms of social death, this spells the end of personhood, and how that unique person can auto-generate their life story.

Serious criminals between 1752 and 1832 in England were sentenced to posthumous punishment – an extra ‘punishment’ meted out on the criminal corpse post-hanging either by gibbetting or dissection.

Posthumous punishment is a curious notion, because it an act of branding the corpse after physical death, where persons are beyond harm. So why did posthumous punishment matter to criminals? It mattered because criminals were forced to contemplate the meaning of their afterlife, in light of knowing that they would be deliberately dismembered post-mortem.

The first narrative fear of dissection afterlife was natural enough: would their body fall into the hands of the surgeons (who would dissect them, and even worse vivisect them if alive) or might it, with luck, fall into the hands of their family and friends (where they might be resuscitated, or at least given the respect of a proper burial). The second fear of afterlife was supernatural and concerned fears about whom they might become in a life hereafter, after dismemberment. Contemplating the prospect of dissection hooked onto culturally conditioned spiritual beliefs about being denied smooth passage in a disembodied life hereafter – however, that was specifically understood at the time.

Both biological and social death can be thought of as forms of change, either absolute or partial. Yet while biological or physical death involve real or intrinsic changes in biology, social death involves relational changes in the meaning of who persons are as a consequence of physical death. In this sense social death is significantly existential, not literal, occurring before or after physical death.

Floris Tomasini

For the last twenty years, Floris has worked in applied philosophy, working on: belonging and sense of place; trust and health-care, bioethics, philosophical aspects of genomics, philosophy of mental health, philosophy of disability, vulnerability and death. Before turning to academia, Floris worked: as a deckhand on trawlers; as a ‘roadie’ for Queen and David Bowie; in prisons and secure mental health facilities and as a full-time volunteer in a night shelter for the homeless in London. He was also once a history teacher and military journalist.

BANNER IMAGE: Death as the reaper eyes a man and a woman protected by Cupid. Etching by H. Thoma, 1919. Wellcome Images L0078820