Master of Arts
Date of Defense
Following Adam Zarakov, the last known survivor is a significant figure and a representative of a larger type that is under-considered. Last known survivors are ubiquitous in fictional media and how history is told. Some survivors like Frank Buckles are given lavish state funerals with participation of strangers. Yet, this under-analysis is concerning as the 21st century will likely feature the recognition of last known survivors of many significant 20th century events. I offer one attempt of addressing this lacuna.
The first aim is to motivate philosophical interest in the phenomenon of the last known survivor. I present case studies from obituaries, newspaper articles, documentaries, “popular” and academic history, and fictional media to clarify the phenomenon. The second aim is to describe the phenomenon, using a view entitled Symbolic-Personal Remembrance & Recognition, and consider its implications. This view is generalized from an Arendtian heuristic, using Arendt’s thought on history and collective remembrance, towards a way of understanding recognized last known survivors as neither simply a symbol nor a person but someone in the liminal space of both. The last known survivor is significant as an individual in the timings of the event and of their death. A sub-category, recognized last survivors, received recognition from a collective due to the individual’s survivorship, even if their biography alone would not typically merit it. SPRR is a means of showing these features in a generalizable formulation.
I argue that the tension between the symbolic and the personal should be maintained as this view solves two thought problems. Viewing the survivor as participating in a symbolic role allows for the remembrance or honor to be show to the event and other survivors, as is common, to be done in a way that still appropriately recognizes this survivor. Also, emphasizing the personal and “knownness” avoids concerns like those of the Vietnam “unknown soldier.”
I conclude with my criticism of a frequently and colloquially used explanation of last known survivor significance—the loss of all direct, first-hand memory of the event—and my raising of several ethical concerns of the phenomenon for future engagement.
Tofte, Michael, "Those Thrice Marked By Time: The Significance of the Last Known Survivor, Their Death, and Our Remembrance" (2021). Theses. 415.