If we had no language, we would neither have a negotiable memory nor could we anticipate and plan a future. It is only in language that our inner images, feelings, and narratives merge into a symbolic, intersubjective continuum. This means that other people can understand and relate to our linguistically encoded messages across time and place. Symbolic action constitutes our horizon of understanding. Only language makes culture possible for us, the ability to exchange and pass on historical experiences and potentials between generations: Medial, ubiquitous, and existentially.
In this context, Heidegger’s idea of being thrown into the world (‘In-die-Welt-Geworfensein’) turns out to be a philosophical assumption that appears (from today’s perspective) unscientific and illusory, since firstly, we are not thrown into this world, but we grow into it. Secondly, being ‘thrown’ implies a notion of powerlessness. I might claim, for example, that it was not my choice to be born as a privileged white person in Europe. So, strictly speaking, I would have to ascribe the ‘responsibility’ for me ‘being-thrown‘ into this world to my parents, even as blame, or to my grandparents or great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents… etcetera. Argumentatively, we slip into an infinite regress. With each cycle of a new generation, the question would arise again: Are we lovelessly thrown into this world, or have we lovingly grown up in it? Heidegger’s ‘In-die-Welt-Geworfensein’ constitutes therefore not a meaningful philosophical construct. Some may experience themselves as subjects being thrown into a strange and hostile world by fate, which is a rather dystopian perspective, while others experience themselves growing up in dialogue with the natural world.
Our language, sticking with Vygotsky, was passed on to us by our cultural community and our parents as part of that community. Through language alone, we are never really alone. In this light, I like Umberto Eco’s notion of the ‘inner population’ of our consciousness. Indeed: language needs an open community to evolve.
Language is a living animal. It is constantly evolving and with it our consciousness. Language adapts while it remains open to development. Paradoxically, it is also open to lying to itself, standing in its own way, even corrupting and destroying itself. But regardless of the inconceivable beauty or the equally inconceivable horror of what human symbolic constructs of consciousness are capable of – one basic property of language can never be denied: it connects us to our collective past as it is, in Einstein’s light cones touching at the tips, simultaneously directed towards the future. The irreversibility of the arrow of time: Even the word held in captivity clings to a piece of the future.
In a positive sense, we always develop the future as soon as we project ourselves symbolically, whether in images, words, or complex, coherent visions. The motives are manifold. For example, we want to escape unhappy or painful experiences and fates, expand freedoms we have already gained, share new options for creating desired futures with others, solve problems of the present, or, like happy children, we are curious to playfully explore new spaces of possibilities. The great promises of the 19th century offered another path on the basis of society.
Classical utopias usually lived on the paradigm of promised progress. The future was always supposed to be better than the present. Behind a veil of ignorance (Rawls), utopia was supposed to be classless, providing prosperity and freedom for all, guided by reason and empathy, brighter and more capable than the past had ever turned out. Children shall have it better than their parents. These desires are anchored in our collective subconscious as archetypes. But utopia is a strange phenomenon: the closer it gets to us in its realization, the stronger its morphology renders, and the more ambiguous the difference between original expectations and reality becomes. The present has a way of inviting multiple world perspectives.
We cast our nets to catch the fish of the future. But once the dreams wriggle in our nets, and we pull the nets closer to our boat, we are no longer sure of our catch. The moment we recognize the future’s powerful presence, it disintegrates right in front of our eyes in the granularity of the moment: Like a ray of light silently breaking in crystals, so does its ever-changing structure reveal itself to us like a kaleidoscope that reassembles itself with every change of perspective: We live in time as time lives in us. The liveliness of time itself prevents the formation of full certainty. Neither Heidegger’s illusion of being ‘thrown’ into this world nor a heroic journey into a Terra Incognita appears as the true core of our reference to the future.
It is indeed the open, future-directed mind that is capable of being surprised by the new, the unexpected advent of a present that has neither been investigated nor yet fully understood, that astonishes us. How much do we desire to know this future! But with the greed for control, the commercial ascertainability, and reproducibility of the present, the future loses its magic, shine, and resonance. The more we desire to control it, the less it unfolds. As a result, our access to the future becomes broken by our own design. Future, like a language that leads us to it, is a fragile and living phenomenon. Likewise, all that is forced out of (perceived) necessity, is an extension of the past over the present. It is not the future.
However, we do not only project political hopes into the future but complex personal visions, including positive ideas and ideals. These encompass, for example, the notion of our better Self, or the idea of a good life, culminating in Harald Welzer’s question: Who do I want to have been?
It is noble to ask this question, in order to fall into congruence with oneself, to remain true to oneself.
But as sensible as this question seems, I can think of an even wider, more inviting field. At the end of the day, I don’t just ask: Who can I have been or How far can I have come; for I can liberatingly add … once I have been able to let myself fall into the loving upliftment of others, despite all doubt and despair, despite all confusion of life? And in turn, the motif of all the love we could have given begs us, if only we had known the future!
The most beautiful courage to embark on future paths is conclusively not born out of the ‘insight into necessity’ (Hegel) or illusions of fate (Heidegger), but springs from the supra-temporal loving connectedness of all human beings. Not in a romantic sense, but a positive property of social psychology; the ability to develop positive social relationships. Spaces of possibility exist bidirectionally on the time axis: only by relating the past to the future ubiquitously can we recognize spaces of freedom and attach meaning to our actions. We may call this the phenomenological sense for the future that truly free people share. In Spinoza’s terms, future-directed people live blessed lives, maximizing their potential and joy for life while realizing desired futures (a wonderful expression used by Albert Bandura in ‘Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective’). However, at the end of the day, we are vulnerable human beings. We are not Gods or Goddesses.
Perhaps, as we get older and become more aware of our mortality, our thinking becomes stricter and less tolerant to diversions of fuzzy or ideological thinking, for we do have some, but not all the time in the world.