Philosophy of decapitation

Joshua asked

What kind of thinking may be going on in the mind of a headless man ? Existentialism, or… what ?

He had a sudden accident where his head was cut clean off, but managed to walk for some meters before falling down cold.

What may he be thinking before falling down dead, and do philosophers think about this?

Answer by Craig Skinner

The mind is closely associated with the brain. A common view, which I share, is that the mind just is the mental activity of an embodied brain embedded in an environment.

Like most normal people I feel that ‘I’ (my self) am situated just behind my forehead. But this is not because the brain is there. It is because this is where I view the world from. And in experiments with special goggles where I look at the world as seen by a video camera placed somewhere else, I feel that ‘I’ am at that other viewing point. This point can be well away from my body so that I see my body in front of me, or over in the corner, and feel that I am situated some distance from it rather than in it. But normally I, my self, my mind are in my head.

So, in the case of the man who suddenly loses his head, his mind will be in the head not in the detached body, and he might think ‘that’s my body over there’. Indeed, a car crash victim whose passenger was suddenly beheaded reported that his friend’s head registered shock, then horror as it saw it’s detached body, then eye closure/ stillness, all in a few seconds.

A person will only be conscious if the brain has a continuous oxygenated blood supply — cardiac arrest leads to unconsciousness in about 10 seconds. So, decapitation taking longer than this (blood gushing from the neck all the while) will yield a head already unconscious. As in the botched execution of Mary Queen of Scots when the axeman couldn’t get the head off after three strikes and had to finish the job with a dagger. However, if decapitation is immediate, as by the expert swordsman hired by Henry to despatch Ann Boleyn, the head will fall off conscious and remain so for some seconds.

The classic era of such beheading was at the time of the French revolution when the guillotine was invented to deal efficiently with the numbers involved. And there are plenty of anecdotes of heads communicating with a friend using a prearranged eye blinking code, or swivelling eyes towards the friend’s voice. But I doubt there was much philosophical thought, existential or otherwise, in the few seconds before death. This would be different if the head were removed as a planned surgical procedure with connection of neck blood vessels to a heart-lung machine. Then a head could live much longer. As far as I know, this hasn’t been done with a human, but, rather horribly, has with some other animals. I suppose it wouldn’t be all that different from being paralysed from the neck down, when the inert body is effectively a heart-lung machine, and these unfortunate people are perfectly capable of philosophical thought.

Craig Skinner at


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

“Even if one’s head were to be suddenly cut off, he should be able to do one more action with certainty.” (Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, translated by William Scott Wilson)

Existentialism is a philosophy of anguished reflection and doubt. I would have thought that Aristotle is more your man.

Aristotle would have understood perfectly the process of training a Samurai warrior. You draw the sword, say, a hundred thousand times, or however many times it takes until the action is one of perfect precision. (Careless trainees will lose a finger or two.)

The Aristotelian person of virtue knows what to do, without agonizing about it — unlike one who is merely ‘continent’, who has to fight against wayward passions. True, the virtuous judgement is not ‘headless’. To hit the mark you need to use your eyes. But only up to a point. A skilled archer, having aimed at the target, should be able to complete the action of releasing an arrow blindfold.

There is some ambiguity in the quote from Yamamoto. We can read this as making a point simply about the benefits of self-discipline and practice, or being about the intense level of determination required to defeat one’s enemy. (The quote continues, ‘…with martial valor, if one becomes like a revengeful ghost and shows great determination, though his head is cut off, he should not die.’) Aristotle would reply that heroic determination is itself a practised virtue, not something you can just conjure up in your head.


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