1 February 2014

Geworfenheit: an inevitable aspect of human existence

Geworfenheit is a concept not only of use in social theory and philosophy, but can be used to express personal experience.

Geworfenheit, a term used by Martin Heidegger, can be translated into English by the rather cumbersome expression having-been-thrown-ness. It is used to describe an obvious and inevitable feature of human existence, namely that of finding ourselves in already pre-created situations. One powerful example of Geworfenheit is the first act of self-consciousness of a child who, at the point of thinking, already finds itself in a particular place and time, has a language, ideas in its head, relationships to other people, etc.

Three points should be made to clarify the meaning and implications of Geworfenheit. First, every aspect of the world that we interrelate with is already pre-articulated when we encounter it, from the computer technology we use, the language we speak and write, the ideas we think. Even if we rebel, we rebel in a way that has already been articulated by others, so we are thrown into a stream of already-existing rebellious behaviour. Second, the human subject cannot be conceptualised independently from his or her environment: what we are is the summation of our acts and thoughts which are inseparable from the situations in which we have lived our lives. And finally, though we are thrown into and are embedded in the world, the notion of Geworfenheit implies nothing about whether we have free-will or not, at least in the sense of my being able choose whether to scratch my nose or my ear.

The concept of Geworfenheit chimes in well with Marx's famous remark in the The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”

Geworfenheit has an obvious affinity with the sociological concept of socialisation in which an individual is socialised into forms of behaviour by the family, education system, etc. Yet the subtle conceptual difference with Geworfenheit can be see by taking the negative form of the socialised individual - that of an “unsocialised” person. That tends to suggest that a person has never encountered social situations, or more likely that he or she has, but has somehow been socialised incorrectly. The idea behind Geworfenheit avoids this difficulty by asserting that the human being is, by virtue of being human, thrown into the world and that the idea of non-socialisation has no meaning.

Geworfenheit, while implying nothing about free will, contains an important methodological point in the study of human beings, namely that it makes no sense to study the human subject and its thought as existing prior to, or separate from, the world, as the whole tradition of philosophy from Descartes onwards does. We are of the world and embedded in it - and it is from there that we must start, and that is true not just in social theory and philosophy, but it is also valid for literary theory, memoir writing and all aspects of personal experience.