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Robert G. Fox, MSW
The Institute for Existential-Psychoanalytic Therapy
69 Day St.
Newton, Ma. 02166
[email protected]


Gene Gendlin asked me to write a little about my understanding of "thrownness" from the vantage point of my being a psychotherapist who reads and cares about philosophy. I came to thrownness in the following three ways:

  1. Reading Heidegger's Being and Time and being deeply impressed with the philosophical and psychotherapeutic implications of the concept.

  2. Studying with Gene Gendlin, and seeing the connection between thrownness, Heidegger's concept of Befindlichkeit, and Gendlin''s notion of the felt sense.

  3. The desire to reframe psychoanalytic theory and therapy in terms of thrownness rather than psychodynamics.

All three of these ways have gone together to lead me to the belief that attending to thrownness is the essential project of the therapeutic process.

[From the paper Thrownness and Possibility, delievered June 8th, 1996 at the New England Center for Existential Therapy's Inaugural Conference: Heeding the Call of Being.]

To me, philosophy, psychotherapy and personally living one's life are very similar endeavors. There is something important which we are continually trying to grasp in each case, which somehow is elusive and slips through our fingers...Something, which I will call merely "it", which somehow is crucially significant yet impossible to define or categorize, and equally impossible to hold onto and capture, demands attention. "It" emerges all the time. We cannot call it up, but rather it calls to us. It calls at a time of its own choosing, not ours. It does not belong to us, rather we belong to it.

This can begin to sound somewhat mystical, and certainly that is one way we can go with it. To me it is sufficient to be what I call phenomenological; i.e. to experience "it" and to follow it without needing to explain it or figure out what category it belongs to. But it can be helpful to give it names, as long as we remember that the names do not "capture" its meaning but rather open it up to us...

What is "it"? This is a very personal question, because we each, everyone of us, can experience "it", which seems to emerge from the very core of our being. It is the crucial clinical question, because whether one calls it the pathology, the problem, the complex, the condition, the trauma, or the situation, it calls and demands to be attended to. Diagnosis in any meaningful sense means to come to grips with "it". And it is an important philosophical and theological question. What kind of being does "it" have? Can we work with it without reifying it? And what does it mean to even ask:

What is "it"? Approaching it in this way is similar to how Heidegger approaches the question of Being in Being and Time. "It" is not a thing, not a substance nor a subject. We cannot answer the question in a preesent-at-hand way. What we can do is to try to find the right way to be "with"it. Finding the right way to be with it seems to me to be the central concern of life, therapy, and philosophy...

Heidegger doesn't believe that we "have possibilities", as if possibilities were somehow things that might or might not happen. Possibilities are not occurrences for Heidegger. Rather, human being is possibility. Existence, for Heidegger, means to be thrown into possibility all the time. The concept of "change" tends to be a present-at-hand concept which assumes a static essence which may or may not change at any given time. The existential concept of possibility sees human being as a primal openness, as a moving process, in its very Being. Abstracting static essences from that openness may be our human tendency, but basing our metaphysical, epistemological, and logical theories on that abstracting is fundamentally misguided. We cannot grasp our being; we can never grasp "it". Trying to grasp it, to get it, heaven help us most especially trying to keep it!, is like trying to carry water in our hands. It is not a thing to grasp or keep. It is a movement, and it is a movement that Heidegger calls thrown projection.

For Heidegger, the future is our projection of possibilities. While those possibilities are finite, they are also indeterminate. They can never be grasped or worked out in advance. The desire to grasp and work out our possibilities in advance, due to fear, insecurity and the illusion of control, contributes to some of the most painful aspects of the human condition. There is another way to be with our possibilities, but it is not this way.

Now we turn to thrownness. This is one of the most evocative of Heidegger's concepts. Wherever we are, at any moment of our lives, with no exception, is where we have been thrown. It is not necessary to figure out who threw us, why we have been thrown, or towards where we are being thrown. We spend an inordinate amount of energy on those three distractions. The key to thrownness is not about that; it is that we are thrown, and that we can attend to our thrownness.

Our essential possibility, says Heidegger, is in our freedom to choose how to attend to our thrownness...Our being as possibility is shaped by the way we are with our thrownness.

I cannot emphasize enough the fact that, in our being thrown, we did not nor could not choose the way we were thrown. We did not choose to exist, nor did we choose to exist in this particular body, with this particular family, at this particular time, in this particular place. What we can choose, and this is the crucial responsibility of being human, is how to be with how we were thrown. We are absoilutely innocent in our thrownness, and we are absolutely responsible for how we relate to that thrownness. I try to communicate this position in all of my therapeutic work. The clinical question is also the philosophical question: how can we understand thrownness, and what are the possibilities of being with thrownness?

Thrownness and possibility are not static places we have come to or are going to. We are always in the throw, says Heidegger, and our possibility always is in terms of how relate to that. Thrownness is moving, always. We cannot grasp it. So how can we be with it?

Here Heidegger introduces the term Befindlichkeit. Befindlichkeit is the way we access our thrownness, or to use a more strictly Heideggerean language, the way our thrownness is disclosed to us. The standard translation as "State-of-Mind" is clearly wrong. Hubert Dreyfus prefers to translate it as "affectedness", which is better. Thrownness is essentially disclosesd via affect, and Heidegger specifically privileges mood. I would add that thrownness is essentially disclosed through a bodily felt sense. However, I prefer to understand the term through its literal translation as "where one finds oneself."

"Where do I find myself? Where am I?" I never ask this when I am involved seamlessly in my everyday world, because then I already know where I am. I only ask this when there is a break in what Heidegger calls the circumspective context. Now, when I ask "where am I?", I can try for what he calls a present-at-hand answer, to locate myself in (or as) some category or other. But I have another choice, another possible way of responding to the question. I can ask "where is the most authentic reference point, right now, for my amness?" I can linger with the word "am" in the "where am I?" Where do I look, and how do I look, for the where of my "am"?

Befindlichkeit is already there. I am thrown into it! I need to be attentive to my already-being-there and how it gives itself to me, rather than figure it out. Where is my already-being-there? How does it disclose itself to me? What comes to us via thrownness? Certainly our bodily feelings, our moods, our affects. They are there, not as present-at-hand things, but as referents which orient us to our being-in-the-world. Certainly the past experiences which have impacted on us are included here. Our drives, our object relations, our good and bad experiences and our traumas, are disclosed as our thrownness. We are thrown into our culture and our language, too, so our thrownness is disclosed linguistically and culturally as well as bodily, affectively, and relationally. But all of these are aspects of what I have been calling "it". What is thrown essentially is "it".

What might this mean for psychotherapy? A therapy which is based on attending to thrownness rather than on trying to change it or analyze it? If we focus on how our clients should be in the world, we have reified their possibilities. If we focus on why and how they have become the way they are, we reify their thrownness. Figuring out how to be, and doing archeological memory digs are alienating; they are based on a present-at-hand understanding of the past and the future, and the present can have no genuine meaning that way. If we turn to Befindlichkeit, however; if we ask ourselves, "Where am I?", we can be-with whatever comes up. We go into therapy to learn how to authentically be with what comes up; to find a genuine possibililty of being our thrownness. Heidegger says that authentic existence means to "take over" thrownness; by that he means to find a way back to our thrownness and be it, rather than run from it, evade it, analyze it, or cover it over. To be it means to let it come to us in its own way.

There is an "it" which cannot be reduced to any aspect of itself. It is rich with structure and can be explored in a disciplined way (this is equally true for therapy and for philosophy). Let us not make the mistake of confusing the true fact that it cannot be reduced to any aspect of itself, and that it is and must remain indeterminate in the present-at-hand sense, with the error of believing that therefore there is no "it" at all.

[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]