Philosophy built into language: reflecting on the words Gefährte and Lebensentwurf
Etymology — the study of the origin of words and their meaning — can provide us with interesting insights into the relationships between concepts in a particular language space. The German language is a rich etymological hunting ground as it tends to build up even complex words from simple stems and modifiers which are often interconnected. Here, I reflect on the words Gefährte (companion) and Lebensentwurf (life-draft) from an etymological perspective.
Recently, I have become aware of the richness and underlying beauty of the word “Gefährte”. In everyday language, this word is often used rather profanely or even bureaucratically e.g. as in “Weggefährte” (way-companion) to describe a friend or as in “Lebensgefährte” (life-companion) to describe a domestic partner. Wiktionary lists two meanings for Gefährte: 1) “person with whom one goes on a venture”; and 2) “person to whom another person is connected through affection or destiny”. Interestingly, Gefährte has as its root the verb “fahren” (to drive, to travel) so it does point at life as consisting of journeys, sometimes undertaken together with others, at least in part. Gefährte is also related to the word “Gefahr” which means danger as well as the word “Erfahrung” (from the verb “erfahren”) which means experience.
From such connections, one could elicit that a Gefährte is someone who partakes in someone else’s journey, jointly facing dangers and sharing experiences. This way, the language suggests certain preconceptions of what life and human relationships are like. When considering this, even words conventionally considered rather dry and profane can exhibit a more lyrical, transcendent side. Let us consider the rather unwieldy “Lebensabschnittsgefährte” (life-section-companion) which reflects all the more the transient nature of one’s life journey. Based on the above, the Lebensabschnittsgefährte could be viewed as a person who, through affection and destiny, shares - for a period of time - the dangers and experiences of somebody else’s life journey.
Another word that fascinates me is “Lebensentwurf”. Wiktionary defines it as “conceptions/plans for the design (Gestaltung) of one’s own life.” ”Gestaltung” itself requires some unpacking, even though it is based on a different stem: Wiktionary describes it a ”creative process of creation” and the attempt to achieve “a conscious impact onto the world with the goal of changing it in a certain direction”. Wiktionary then suggests “Lebensgestaltung” (life-design) and ”Persönlichkeitsgestaltung” (personality-design) as other manifestations of Gestaltung.
But back to Lebensentwurf: the core of the word is “Entwurf” which is usually translated as draft or design. An interesting aspect of an Entwurf is that it is both deliberate but also tentative. It points to a certain direction but also needs updating and is never quite finished. Entwurf comes from the verb “entwerfen” which consists of the parts ent- and -werfen. Werfen means throwing — an action that is deliberate, aiming somewhere (at least in intention) but retaining an element of uncertainty (with respect to execution).
Werfen also connects to an important term in Heidegger’s philosophy: “geworfen sein” (being thrown). Heidegger suggests that as humans we find ourselves thrown into the world. Through entwerfen, we now engage in throwing of our own. The modifier ent- typically indicates some sort of unfolding or reaching of some final state such as in ”entwickeln” (to develop), “entdecken” (to discover) and “entwirren” (to untangle). So through a Lebensentwurf, we engage in an act of unfolding or reaching for some kind of conception of who we are and what we want to do that has both elements of deliberation and uncertainty in them, and that requires periodic revisitation and updating.