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Death in the perspective of existential phenomenology/Mirtis egzistencines fenomenologijos perspektyvoje.


How the death in phenomenology has been interpreted? For E. Husserl, differently from M. Heidegger, the death did not become the theme of phenomenological considerations. Here a question emerges: does the death, not being bracketed, have no eidetic dimension, and herewith is not accessible for phenomenological reduction? My major thesis to be developed in this article is the following: the life as an existential project under implementation is the bracketing of the death. The minor thesis follows from the major one: "death" is a criterion of demarcation (border stone) between existential (ontological) and eidetic phenomenology. Heidegger, for who the death had become a core of his Dasein analytics, prefers ontology to ethics. On the contrary, Levinas prefers ethic relations. Meanwhile Ricoeur contrasts death with birth, which opens ethic perspectives of historical existence: we are born every time during creative renewal. What is the role of the "death" question in this quarrel concerning competitive regions of ethics and ontology, of the beginning and the end?

The other minor thesis which follows not only from the mentioned major one, but also from the context of cultural (as life's creation) phenomenology: a certain "death's" bracketing emerging as an under-development interpretation of techne ton bion signifies the ethical approach, which opens the contiguity of ontological and ethical regions. In other words, the question of "death" presupposes an existential approach, which opens a historical perspective, on the one hand, and creative renewing, on the other. Both historical viewing and cultural renewing characterize the life's (social) environment of an individual, who is "dying" within it due to its life, while it is "dying" due to the individual aspirations to change it. Ethos as a dimension of living in the social environment covers both individual and social regions, which interconnect thanks to death's perspectives. The plural "perspectives" appealing to Nietzsche's perspectivism covers the individual becoming in a certain social environment, which emerges by constituting the horizon of a biography. By living we inscribe ourself into certain life-environments and become the members of the mortal social bodies being towards death. The death always being bracketed presupposes not only the change of interconnected social bodies, but also the horizon of understanding, inseparable from ethical co-existence. Besides this, the concealment (bracketing) of death allows interpreting the culture as human creation towards death as a whole of the concealed perspectives, a whole, the regions of which are contiguous by highlighting a certain life horizon. Herewith it presupposes a historical perspective of the individual being-towards-death. Death as a limitation does not mean a separation of different life-wholes; on the contrary, it opens the interconnection of the different historical environments being created by the mortal members of one political body. This vertical (chronological) interconnection has been supplemented by a horizontal interconnection between political formations, which are influenced by local and global motions. Therefore, the perspective of death opens the interconnection between different-layed regions, which by emerging both in vertical and horizontal ways, guarantee an alive life-environmets' becoming supported by each individual being-towards-death. In order to develop these ideas I shall appeal to Heidegger's considerations that have been criticized from the ethical point of view. The question emerges: is the separation of the ontological and ethical regions by contrasting death and birth reasonable.

Therefore in order to develop the mentioned theses I shall examine firstly the Heideggerian death's perspective, later I shall move to the Levinas' and Ricoeur's critique of death's ontology and finally I shall analyse the ethic regions emerged in this polemics. This article is to be considered not as an apologetics of Heidegger and even analysis of his ideas. This is more the sketches of a regionalistics following from, firstly, existential phenomenology, secondly, ethical considerations, thirdly, cultural philosophy, fourthly, existential historics. Regionalistics that has to do with an individual (1) region of the existence (Dasein), resounds the aspirations of ethics as practical philosophy. Praxis is a creative activity in a certain existential region, which intersects the other regions thanks to proactive being-towards-death.

Heideggerian ethical perspective of death

What is the content of Heideggerian conception of being-towards-death (Sein zum Tode) and what are its ethical aspects? The milestone of my interpretation is ethos as a whole of custom attitudes with historical and regional dimensions. On the other hand, it requires an individual approach, i.e. the existential region's limitation inseparable from being-towards-death. It is not accidental that Heidegger states that the analysis of death (Tod) as mortality (Sterben) is either existential or any (2). "Existential interpretation of death goes before any biology and ontology of life. However, it also founds the all biographic-historical and ethnological-psychological researches of death." (1993: 247) Firstly, Heidegger here tries to limit the existential region with horizon of death. Secondly, he prefers this region a priori comparing it with other regions of biology, ontology, biographical-historical and ethnological-psychological ones. The content of latter two has been not developed in Being and time; however, appealing to the considerations elsewhere we can state that they have been related with culture as "creative humanity's ornament (Zierde)" being contrasted to the existential interpretation of being-towards-death.

Leaving aside the ethnological-psychological region I shall interpret biographics-historics here like elsewhere (Kacerauskas 2008b) as an inscription (graphei) of life story into a certain existential creation's environment that has reborn every time this way. In other words, our existence towards death always unfolds in a certain historical region for whose becoming we are responsible. With our life as existential project we are creating a region of a certain historical co-existence, region required by the constant anxiety. This existential creation is inseparable from anxiety about environment of even imagined nation's (instead of humanity's logos) becoming constitutes exactly the content of culture. Therefore, culture is to be interpreted not as "creative humanity's ornament", but as existence' (towards death) region that has been reborn thanks to inscribing within it our story from birth until death.

Although elsewhere (Kacerauskas 2008a) I interpreted logos as individual's national environment, the participation (methexis) in which is required by analogical (ana ton logon) individual is actions, there is a need to bracket these platonisms in the context of Heidegger as a critic of Plato, even if they assume other forms in the analysis of culture as existential project. Logos as a component of biology and ontology in Being and time signifies an area without place and history, area of immortal "humanity" requiring the cultural ornament instead of existential region, where an individual creates his mortal life's story being inscribed into environment of nation's becoming. A nation (differently from humanity) with history being imagined in the context of individual existence towards death is also to be interpreted as a mortal individual becoming in the environment to be reborn. Differently from Kant's universal imperative, ethical responsibility emerges here as anxiety about a region as an environment of existential becoming, as interconnection between individual being-towards-death and existential mortal region. This interconnection turning to creative tension resounds the tension between Dasein and Sein: Dasein is always "here", i.e. it is not considered a-topical, without the region of existence towards death, and Sein assumes an interpretational horizon only as Sein zum Tode, as a certain region of being instead of a descent of divine logos or even uncertainty (Unbestimmtheit) of das Man. However, this responsibility covers also certain aspects of atopos, to be more precise, utopia. On the one hand, our death emerges only being imagined, on the other hand, we are creating the region of historical co-existence following the ethical images (3). In this sense we can speak about ethical regionalistics being supposed by interconnection of existence towards death and historical imagination.

Dasein as openness (Entschlossenheit) of imagination is also a crossing of anxiety, death, conscience and guilt, what supposes the mutual interconnection of these existential components (existentials). The tautological analysis has been avoided thanks to Dasein as the interpretational-hermeneutical openness to be compared with the novelty of Kant's synthetic aprioric propositions. However, synthetic aprioric propositions, founded on Kantian ethics as well, appeal to the universality of the reasonable creations, although it is grounded by the individual ethical decisions (imperatives). Meanwhile Dasein appeals to the existential mortality, which emerges as a region of co-existence worthy of the individual anxiety with sub-regions of guilt and conscience.

Existential mortality does not mean neither the individual existence towards death nor collective demarche towards a "promised land". The limitation of the first one is being in the world (In-der-Welt-sein) as in the existential environment, which matures and where we are maturing for death together with our responsibility for the sub-regions of anxiety and guilt. The second one has been connected with anonymous das Man element, where an unauthentic (uneigentlich) forgetful and not responsible being prospers. Therefore, Heideggerian interpretation of being (4) is a middle (5) or long (6) way which is open for the curves of both individual responsibility and environment's relief, and the journey along them constitutes the mortal being in the world. Namely the perspective of the imagined death allows remaining both open and responsible. In addition to that this perspective connects in one life-way such different sub-regions of existence as anxiety, conscience and guilt, which, all being authentic only in the individual perspective of death, become (mature) as existentials in the region of responsible imagined community.

Let us to analyse an image of the journey towards death in the context of a certain region in the sense of place (Grand Duchy of Lithuania) and time (epoch of baroque). An a-topical (in the sense of both time and place) interpretation of the phenomena is not only a prejudice (rephrasing Gadamer (1975)), it supposes the anonymous world instead of existential region, the anonymous being instead of opened here-being and nontemporal logos instead of temporal existence. However, every phenomenological interpretation is also an utopia drawing the outlines of existential region and constituting the sketches of the spiritual environment, where an existential project has been developed. That is why the interpretation of a nation's historical phenomena appeals to memory of our utopian future (7). It corresponds to Heideggerian conception of Vorlaufen, which covers existential openness and possibility of reality, but not a free fluttering (8). Herewith it is a reference to the visual plane of existence towards death to be more analysed later.

Let us get back to our death's picture, which is inseparable from the environment of culture as existential creation. J. Oginskis' funeral speech (9) edited in Vilnius at the end of 17th century has been illustrated with rapid stairs, on the top of which there was a portico in the classical (Doric) style with the angels on the frieze. In both sides of the stairs we can see the shields with symbols of the virtues (justice), blazons of the family and the attribute of incumbency. Upstairs we can see one more gate defended by two pagan guards, namely a uniformed Roman with a sword and a half-dressed "Lithuanian" with a bat. They both keep an outspread cloth with following inscription within it Iter Gloriae/ A Porta Gentilitia vsq ad Portas Mortis ... From both sides of the upper gate (of death) we can see also the military ammunition, namely empty armours and chain-mails, lances, arrows, flags. Downstairs we can see the figure of J. Oginskis who shows with a sceptre to the death's gate in the smoke of the war. The composition is crowned by the ruler's mitre that has both appellative (of Grand Duke of Lithuania) and proper (of Vytautas the Great) names.

In what way are these all symbols, reflecting the Christian death's culture of a borderland (GDL) to be interpreted? The author of the copper-plate pictures the life of his hero between two gates of a family and the death. Herewith it is a field of battle for the just existence where the hero manifests his belonging to the community of the virtues (the shields with symbols) showing the gate of exit (ex-sistus). Power and obedience emerge here as an inversion of showing: the imperious gesture of a hand with sceptre directs towards way of following the virtues. The virtue serves also as safety (the shields) in the existential way, which should be straight. The inversion of straight and just as right is the aspect of interconnection between corporeal way (towards death) and spiritual ex-sistus. This interconnection presupposes an existential region as the field of change between locality and globality. In the case of J. Oginskis it is the interconnection between the cultures of West (Roman warrior) and GDL ("Lithuanian" guard), the struggle between which inspires (spiritualizes) a certain culture as the existential environment of an individual. This environment after having assumed an appellative form changes thanks to proper heroes: mitre (of Grand Duke of Lithuania/ Vytautas the Great) above covers both aspects. Therefore, existential region needs both safety and change. Safety is guarantied by the institute of family, speaking in a broad sense, nation's history, which has been changed by every hero, who shows an exit from a tense political situation. Herewith the predecessors both in appellative (nation) and proper (family) senses are the guards of virtue and guarantors of justice (rightness). The paradox is that the straightest way needs the inventions of the heroes, who imagine the nation's future. Therefore, the imagination as an aspect of culture (existential creation) guarantees environment's change, from which the very notions of virtue or truth are not saved.

Husserl interprets historical imagination as formatting (Gestaltung) of productive fantasy grounded on the true data while a historian projects (entwerfen) "a coherent viewing (zusammenhangende Anschauung) of the destinies and the ages, the viewing of reality instead of excogitation (Einbildungen)" (Husserl 1980: 4) Therefore, a historian is between reality and possibility, between the abundance of the data and their coherent whole. The dated deaths for a historian are the true bio-graphical data that allows creating a coherent nation's project. This is an inversion of the conception of being-towards-death: on the one hand, death for an individual is an indefinite possibility instead of an inscribed data; on the other hand, as an indefiniteness (Unbestimmtheit) it is namely true, i.e. the most own, not disregarded, exceptional contraposition (Bevorstand), for which Dasein is open (10). The openness of the individual being (Dasein) embodied by the image of the gate is also to be connected with a transitional position between a change of imagination and the ethical safety. Embodiment and imagination, as well as transition signify "here" and "now" (Da-) of being (Sein), i.e. the individual being that is possible only in the perspective of death. Therefore, Heidegger maintains that existential region being first founds all biographical-historical projects.

However, we have seen that becoming of the existential region is inseparable from historical imagination as a dimension of co-existence (Mitsein) and being in the world (In-der-Weltsein). In addition to that, being in "historical nation guarantees the regionalistics of being, i.e. the possibility of "here" and "now" in the face of death. Additionally, it opens also the possibility of ethical safety co-existence with the family's and nation's predecessors, possibility, which we are trying to save with the help of our existential heroics. Here emerges a question, also raised elsewhere (Kacerauskas 2008a, 2008b): whether nation's history is to be interpreted as an individual existing towards death? If so, who plays the role of imagination, embodiment and transition?

While interpreting the nation as an individual I shall not restrict to analogy applied by R. Ingarden during the interpretation of piece of literature as alive organism (Ingarden 1968) living its own life (Ingarden 1965). Analogy (ana ton logon) like ontology needs "a forestalled openness" (vorlaufende Entschlossenheit), which Heidegger connects with voice of conscience that destroys forgetful self-covering (Selbstverdeckung) due to existential understanding (11). According to Heidegger, this understanding is not defeat of death; on the contrary, immortality has been connected with das Man without memory and future. Analogy of the nation and an individual has been nourished by existential understanding constituting both a place (existential region) and no place (utopia).

The history of a nation has been always imagined forestalling to other side of interplace. This inter-place or inter-gate (between the gates of birth and death) emerges as a region of the voice of conscience and responsibility while both an individual and a nation exist towards death. The inter-place is ethical battle's region filled with gunpowder smoke, because of which chosen by us way is never straight. The conscience voice sounding in the battle of ethical fight is arising from the tension between ethos heritage to be saved and individual existential creation, which, while changing the spiritual environment, constitutes culture. Imagined existence towards death arises as forestalling regarding created life-whole to be inscribed (bio-graphy) into history of community (family, nation). Anxious about nation's history, which we imagine in the perspective of our exist (ex-sistus) towards death, is inseparable from guilt for not defended ethical-historical region. According to Heidegger, "the existential phenomena of death, conscience and guilt are linked (verankert liegen) in the phenomenon of anxiety." (1993: 317) We have existential compunction namely because of inter-place, i.e. because of the fact that being-towards-death has been involved both in the historical imagination and in the existential creation. Conscience gives a voice because the inevitable curves of here-being, while the straightness of a way has been sacrificed due to justice of an individual in an imagined community and showing of picture has been sacrificed due to proof of a conception.

Critique of death's ontology

After this analysis of being-towards-death I shall examine Levinas' and Ricour's critique of "death's ontology". The argumentation of both Levinas and Ricour has been supported by the ethical aspirations.

Dasein towards death is criticised in contrast to birth in the book (Ricour 2000), topic of which relates with the issues of historical imagination and nation's existence. Ricoeur appealing to transitional position of here-being stresses birth as its existential condition instead of only an event of birth purportedly symmetrical to death's event. The birth expresses more social relations including ones of family and nation (Mitsein, In-der-Welt-sein), while the death expresses more individual way. However, we have seen that the existential exit is a way of life's inscribing (bio-graphy) into nation's spiritual environment. Ricoeur stresses a corporal character of the birth; however, the death is also an aspect of corporal disappearance. Developing historical memory as a component of anxious Ricoeur speaks about balance between memory and forgetfulness, while they have concluded a contract. The birth is to be related with forgetfulness as a partner of memory not because of the fact that we do not remember the event of our birth.

Memory becomes active only after we start to inscribe our bio-graphy, i.e. existence into life-environment, in other words, after we start the way of our exist from spiritual environment enforcing its rebirth. While creating our bio-graphy we have to do with both memory of the future and utopia as forgetfulness of death's place. The memory of future is to relate with national environment, which needs our (its participants) certain biographical inscription (12). Utopia as forgetfulness of death's place is to relate with constantly renewing (revival) existential creation that influences the spiritual environment. The forgetfulness is an aspect of imagination: a hero of biography must "forget" ethos as much as to be enable to show a picture of national existence emerged for him. The interconnection of memory and forgetfulness allows expanding the existential "between" herewith enlarging the size of responsibility, which emerges not only as anxious about existential inscription, but also about reborn environment of biographical inscription. Therefore, Ricoeur's "critique" is not "straight", i.e. it does not challenge the legitimacy of being-towards-death appealing to an alternative region of human reality. Therefore, it does not invert the concept of being-towards-death. Instead of this it extends its interpretational opportunity: the birth's (not only of death's) gates signified by the blazons of both memory and forgetfulness has been opened for here-being.

Differently from Ricoeur, Levinas contrasts the ontological region of being-towards-death with ethical one, which purportedly is previous: metaphysics has been realized by ethics (Levinas 1984). Levinas defines ethics as optics, as spiritual viewing, which constitutes the contours of externality. Meanwhile, "there is no death in the horizon", its uncertainty emerges as dizzy abyss of that what is not yet. According to Levinas, there is possible "personal victory" against death. We have seen that Heidegger's existence towards death is inseparable from ethical content of anxious, conscience and guilt. Additionally, the optical aspect of ethical being-towards-death emerges namely because of imagined death in the horizon of spiritual viewing. As mentioned, existential optics keeping balance between birth and death makes us both the guards of nation's ethos and the heroes in the fight for a new nation's spiritual topos. If death does not emerge even in the horizon of spiritual viewing, it is especially traitorous enemy who lies in ambush. Such guerrilla war gives not many chances for "personal victory". From the proposed interpretation of being-towards-death follows that the death could be defeated only in the open field after making it a property of our ethical existence imaging it together with birth, i.e. a becoming in the national environment. It seems that Levinas maintains on the contrary: death dizzies not arising in the horizon of spiritual viewing, it shocks as an abyss to be compared with semantic utopia of metaphor.

In this way we have approached the Ricoeur's researches of metaphor's existential and visual planes (Ricoeur 1975), from which only one step is to Heidegger's conception of being-towards-death. Before highlighting this bypass I shall examine more closely the ethical aspirations of Levinas. In the book Autrement qu'etre ou audela de l'essence (1978) Levinas maintains that the way of the good is un-usual, transcendent: it emerges in the break of being and its history (1978: 22). He related the good with an-archy as responsibility for Other's freedom previous to the freedom in me (1978: 176). Therefore, we have to do here also with historical way of coexistence, the breaks and rupture of which need the responsible passing and wades. Therefore, life-way is less going than leading (13), from the curves of which the destiny of our historical fraternity depends. In this context we can rephrase Kant: live in order to feel responsibility for your historical fraternity. This is previous to freedom responsibility for Other without any preconceived engagement, i.e. the human fraternity. In the sense of belonging to historical fraternity and responsibility for its other individual Levinas speaks about eternal life without death beyond "being" and nothing (1978: 181). Therefore, the priority of ethics regarding being and priority of life regarding death express not as much an aspiration to prefer one of the reality's region, as ethical approach of existence, which finally opens historical viewing as responsibility for own nation, ethical obliged fraternity.

This curve from an abstract ethical engagement to historical region of national community is guaranteed by a language, which is both a form of national identity and a way of existential interconnection. According to Levinas, "primary or pre-primary utterance, pre-word in the proper sense, evokes a dramatic intrigue of responsibility (une intrigue de responsabilite)" (1978: 6). Levinas speaks about epoche of utterance (1978: 17) that allows bracketing the existence towards death due to ethical way, to bracket topos of here-being due to utopia, to bracket freedom due to responsibility, to bracket bio-graphy due to historical break. We can remember Heidegger (1997), who, while interpreting G. Trakl's poetical utterance, speaks about change of a day and a season, while this change during chiming embodies the interconnection between birth and death while a mortal traveller returns home. Although Heidegger and Levinas move to different regions of reality, they suppose similar way of interconnection between ethics and existence.


The Heideggerian conception of being-towards-death presupposes ethical region, which covers the sub-regions of responsibility, conscience, guilt. Herewith the mortality, inseparable from birth, guarantees the interconnection between an individual and his existential environment. This environment opens the horizon of existential creation during the historical imagination of an individual. Existential creation as the core of culture develops in a transitional responsible region between topos of past and utopia of future. Ricoeur continues the interpretation of historical being-towards-death and stresses the importance of birth while a nation has been reborn as a house of ethical co-existence. Ricoeur supplements the conception of historical memory with the need of forgetfulness while the participants of historical fraternity move between remembered topos and imagined utopia. Levinas contrasts the region of being-towards-death with ethical responsible region full of passing's breaks and ruptures. Although the Levinas' and Heidegger's approaches regarding the reality are different, they both like Ricoeur treat the poetical language, which is a form of existential creation during imagination of historical co-existence, treat as a way of interconnection between ethical and existential regions.

Iteikta 2009-03-25: priimta 2009-06-11


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(1) A certain political community is to be treated also as an individual, who becomes between other individuals.

(2) "Es bleibt fur die Analyse des Todes als Sterben nur die Moglichkeit, dieses Phanomen entweder auf einen rein existenzialen Begriff zu bringen oder aber auf sein ontologisches Verstandnis zu verzichten" (1993: 240).

(3) The ethical regulators, rephrasing Kant.

(4) Heideggerian interpretation of Dasein inevitable covers the analysis of reality with its visual charge.

(5) Comp. the middle way in Aristotle's Nicomachean ethics (1990).

(6) Comp. the long way in Ricoeur's Conflict of the interpretations (1969).

(7) I developed the conception of future's remember both in the article Existential identity and memory of a nation (2008a) and in the book Reality and creation (2008).

(8) "Das Vorlaufen ,ist' nicht als freischwebende Verhaltung, sondern muss begriffen werden als die in der existenziell bezeugten Entschlossenheit verborgene und sonach mitbezeugte Moglichkeit ihrer Eigentlichkeit" (1993: 309).

(9) See Paknys (2008: XLIV-XLV).

(10) "So enthult sich der Tod als die eigenste, unbezugliche, unuberholbare Moglichkeit. Als solche ist er ein ausgezeichneter Bevorstand. Dessen existenziale Moglichkeit grundet darin, dass das Dasein ihm selbst wesentlich erschlossen ist und zwar in der Weise des Sich-vorweg" (1993: 250-251).

(11) "Die vorlaufende Entsclossenheit ist kein Ausweg, erfunden, um den Tod zu ,uberwinden, sondern das dem Gewissenruf folgende Verstehen, das dem Tod die Moglichkeit freigibt, der Existenz des Daseins machtig zu werden und jede fluchtige Selbstverdeckung im Grunde zu zerstreuen" (1993: 310).

(12) More about the conception of future's memory see (Kacerauskas 2008b).

(13) Levinas speaks about Other's pregnancy in Self, which is responsible for Other (Levinas 1978: 134).

Tomas Kacerauskas

Vilnius Gediminas Technical University, Department of Philosophy and Political Theory, Sauletekio al. 11, LT-10223 Vilnius, Lithuania E-mail:
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