The expectation of nothingness

James Baillie, University of Portland

Philosophical Studies, 2013, Volume 166, Issue 1, 185-203.

© 2013 Springer Publishing

Linked version is the final published version.


While all psychologically competent persons know that they will one day die, this knowledge is typically held at a distance, not fully assimilated. That is, while we do not doubt that we will die, there is another sense in which we cannot fully believe it either. However, on some rare occasions, we can grasp the reality of our mortal nature in a way that is seemingly revelatory, as if the fact is appreciated in a new way. Thomas Nagel calls this experience ‘the expectation of nothingness’. But how can I be shocked by what I already know? After illustrating this phenomenon via examples including Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, I draw on the work of Thomas Nagel, Tamar Szabo Gendler, Mark Johnston and others to articulate and explain our typical state of believing-yet-not-believing in our inevitable death, and offer a hypothesis as to how this condition is occasionally overcome, so that we grasp our mortality in a more psychologically integrated manner.