Varieties of Limitude Experience∗

Human finitude takes many forms and all can be sources of trauma.

Posted Jun 03, 2014

Most often the term finitude is used to denote our temporal limitedness—our mortality. But the term can be seen to encompass all the ways in which finite human existing is limited, and they all can be sources of emotional trauma.

Our freedom is markedly limited by what Martin Heidegger calls our thrownness—we are all delivered over to circumstances that are not of our own choosing. Our ability to protect ourselves and, especially, those we love, from harm is severely limited, and this can be a source of terrible agony ( Our knowledge and understanding are limited in virtue of always being perspectival, shaped and delimited by our own preconceptions—what Hans-Georg Gadamer calls our prejudices. There are no immaculate perceptions (Friedrich Nietzsche) or God’s-eye views of anything. Wilhelm Dilthey writes of the tragedy of this dimension of human finitude—the contradiction between the metaphysical desire for universal truth and the realization of the fundamental limitedness of every attempt to find it.

Especially vexing for many people is the limitedness of our ability to know the outcomes of our decision-making in advance. Being troubled about this limitation can be particular acute for someone who grew up feeling alone and unprotected in childhood situations of emotional trauma and who turned to his or her own mental activity as the only source of protectedness and safety. Covering every base in advance is of paramount importance for such a person, and the limited ability to do so is anathema to him or her, resulting in unbearable anxiety and a propensity for obsessional rumination, doubt, and indecision. In a therapeutic situation, a person tormented by this legacy of emotional trauma needs to find in the therapeutic bond a source of protectedness and safety, along with a relational home—a context of emotional understanding—for the unbearable existential anxiety of uncertainty.

In short, emotional trauma confronts us with our limitude (see Trauma and Human Existence, Routledge, 2007; link:

* I am grateful to Dr. Penelope Starr-Karlin for coining this term.

Copyright Robert Stolorow