"A 97-Year-Old Philosopher Faces His Own Death"

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That's the title of this outstanding 18:12 video about Herbert Fingarette (1921-2018).  After the video and a brief explanation of its contents, I will explain what Fingarette has to do with language and Chinese Studies.

Video by Andrew Hasse posted on The Atlantic (Jan 14, 2020) with nearly half a million views after less than a week.

In his 1996 book about death, Herbert Fingarette argued that fearing one’s own demise was irrational. When you die, he wrote, “there is nothing.” Why should we fear the absence of being when we won’t be there ourselves to suffer it?

Twenty years later, facing his own mortality, the philosopher realized that he’d been wrong. Death began to frighten him, and he couldn’t think himself out of it. Fingarette, who for 40 years taught philosophy at the University of California at Santa Barbara, had also written extensively on self-deception. Now, at 97, he wondered whether he’d been deceiving himself about the meaning of life and death.

The first time I heard of Fingarette was in 1972, the first year I was in a Ph.D. program. That was also the year when he published a little book of just 84 pages called Confucius, the Secular as Sacred.  It went through 42 editions published between 1972 and 2018 in 7 languages and is held by 1,223 WorldCat libraries.  Seen as a "radical revisionist" and a "contrarian philosopher", Fingarette was not trained as a Sinologist or scholar of Chinese philosophy.  There was, however, something about the Confucian concept of lǐ 禮 ("present; gift; ceremony; ritual; rite[s]; etiquette; propriety") as a principle for organizing society that struck him so powerfully that he set aside his usual philosophical investigations and explications to master the basics of the main issues in the Chinese philosophical tradition.

Deceptively small though it appeared, Confucius, the Secular as Sacred hit the scholarly world like a bomb.  During my first year of Ph.D. studies, everybody was talking about it, conferences and workshops were organized around it, and it powerfully energized the field of Chinese philosophy for a decade or so.

I bought the first edition, and it had a big 禮 on the front cover.  I was hooked on this character forever, with its "spirit" semantophore on the left and *riːʔ phonophore on the right.  Since, as is true of many ancient pictophonetic characters, for the first thousand or so years of its existence, did not have the semantophore on the left; it was just the ideogrammic form 豊 — showing strings of jade above a drum (indicating a gifting ceremony) — on the right.

In my estimation, putting 禮 front and center on the front cover of the book was a much better choice than having a portrait of Confucius, as on later editions.  After all, we don't even know what Confucius looked like.

As I myself grow older, there are two distinct ways in which I am different from Fingarette.

I do not, and will not, consume numerous pills every day.

I have loved trees my entire life, so I won't have to wait till the end to appreciate them.

Nonetheless, when all is said and done, and when the time comes, may we all face death with such equanimity and honesty as Herbert Fingarette.

[h.t. James Fanell]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    January 21, 2020 @ 11:15 am

    A very poignant and moving film, Victor. Thank you for drawing it to our attention.

  2. KeithB said,

    January 21, 2020 @ 11:40 am

    Do not go gentle into that good night,
    Old age should rage and burn at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    (I did not watch the video, so if this is referenced, my apologies)

  3. Lois Radford said,

    January 21, 2020 @ 11:55 am

    I believe there was another Chinese philosopher who defined the meaning of life very well. It's too bad, in all of his studies Mr. Fingarette never found it.

    There was a man, standing on the bank of a river. A ferry boat came along and the man boarded it. He met the captain and crew and, together, they sailed across the river. When they got to the other side of the river, the man got off the boat. He looked around and the captain and crew had disappeared. The boat had disappeared. The river had disappeared. He looked down, and he was standing exactly where he had been before boarding the boat. Only, this time, he knew where he was.

    The man is your soul before you were born. The boat is the body you take in order to cross the river of life. The captain and crew are the teachers and people you meet along the way. When you die, you leave the boat and the river behind. You will be right back where you were before you were born but IF the journey is successful, this time, you will know where you are.

    Death is a returning to where you were before you were born. Life, if lived successfully, will give you awareness. Finding that awareness is the meaning of life.

  4. David Marjanović said,

    January 21, 2020 @ 5:06 pm

    argued that fearing one's own demise was irrational. When you die, he wrote, "there is nothing." Why should we fear the absence of being when we won't be there ourselves to suffer it?

    Ah yes, the Epicurean argument. I've always thought it misses the point: people aren't afraid of being dead, but of dying, of loss.

    IF the journey is successful, this time, you will know where you are.

    And then you die, and this insight was all for nothing – at least if you didn't share it with other people while you still could, I guess.

  5. Daniel L. Overmyer said,

    January 21, 2020 @ 6:29 pm

    Thank you! All good! Dan Overmyer, retired prof. 84

  6. Phillip Helbig said,

    January 22, 2020 @ 3:12 am

    "Death is a returning to where you were before you were born. Life, if lived successfully, will give you awareness. Finding that awareness is the meaning of life."

    Would be nice if it were true. The first sentence is probably literally true: in both cases, nothing.

  7. Phillip Helbig said,

    January 22, 2020 @ 3:14 am

    "I've always thought it misses the point: people aren't afraid of being dead, but of dying, of loss."

    Many people say that they don't fear death, but fear dying. I don't fear dying. Of course, I don't want to die in pain, but that is unlikely. Either I will die in my sleep or, if ill, while sedated. In either case, I won't even notice.

    No, I fear being dead. However, "fear" is probably not the right word; I just don't want to leave life.

  8. Julian said,

    January 22, 2020 @ 4:43 am

    What is the point? The point is everything you've ever done (and you certainly don't need to have any worries on that score, Victor).
    Melvyn Bragg – Dennis Potter interview, 15 March 1994 (it's on Youtube): Potter (dying of cancer): 'When I look out the window, the blossoms on the plum tree look whiter than ever before.'
    I would say to the shade of Herbert Fingarette: don't feel too bad about failing to find answers that no-one else has ever been able to find either.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    January 22, 2020 @ 7:26 am

    From Alan Kennedy:

    My father will have his 97th birthday in one week. When he speaks of death, he usually sums up his statements by saying, "It's a dead issue."

    As you can imagine, my father loves to joke.

    Here is a farewell video from another UC (Berkeley) professor, James Cahill (1926-2014), the great scholar of Chinese painting:



  10. Chandra said,

    January 22, 2020 @ 3:19 pm

    In his 1996 book about death, Herbert Fingarette argued that fearing one's own demise was irrational.

    The flawed premise here seems to me to be not whether people are fearing death versus dying, but that feelings are meant to be rational.

  11. Benjamin E Orsatti said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 8:50 am

    Ever get trapped (even momentarily) beneath a raft or other similar pool toy in a swimming pool? Whether you're a believer or an atheist, a transcendental mystic or "rational" humanist — you are inescapably seized by "mortal dread", quite literally.

    Suffocation is the worst; must be why people react so viscerally to waterboarding — whether there's any long-term harm or not, according to those who have undergone it, the subject most certainly fears immanent death.

    That's the "dying" bit. As far as "death" qua "not being alive anymore", that _does_ depend on one's worldview. For the atheist, there is nothing (le néant, das Nichts), and neither Nietzsche, nor Sartre, nor Camus, nor Heidegger, nor anyone else have ever been able to come up with a reason why one should not fear death in a Godless universe.

    But the believer can always hope for an eternity spent in the presence of the Infinite, if one's soul is properly prepared. That is why the Martyrs do not fear death — there is the story, perhaps apocryphal, of St. Lawrence (I think), while being roasted in a Roman fire having exclaimed: "Turn me over, I'm done on this side". Not only did he not fear death, he _taunted_ it.

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 9:23 am

    I very nearly did drown, at the age of ten or thereabouts. I could barely manage to swim even a width, and found myself (a) out of my depth, and (b) unable to reach either side. I screamed for help, no-one heard, and in the end I managed to get a death-lock on the neck of someone swimming past me, who was fortunately able to get both of us to safety. I am told that I was still screaming for help five minutes after being pulled out. I said nothing to my parents about the incident until I leaned over the desk, whereon half a pint or so of water came out of my nose. At that point I had no option but to confess …

  13. Bathrobe said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 6:17 pm

    Perhaps the Buddhist concept of 'attachment' is more relevant here than the Confucian concept of 禮.

  14. Bathrobe said,

    January 23, 2020 @ 9:04 pm

    You will die without air (very quickly), water (considerably more slowly), or food (more slowly again). Panic at suffocation is the organism's natural response to lack of air.

    People with terminal disease have time to prepare themselves for death. It appears that after a period of anguish many are able to compose themselves and go peacefully .

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