All human beings come into existence by being born, and all human beings die. But over the course of history philosophers have focused attention on only one of these two ends of human life: death and mortality. Philosophers have asked whether death is bad; how one might die well; how our existence is shaped by our mortality; whether there is life after death and what it might be like; whether immortality is possible or desirable; and much more besides. In contrast philosophers have had little to say about being born and how the fact that we are born shapes our existence. There are exceptions to this neglect of birth, notably in some recent work in feminist philosophy. But even here attention to being born has often been overshadowed by a focus on the experience and politics of giving birth, pregnancy, motherhood and parenthood. That is, feminist philosophers have largely considered birth in terms of what it means to give birth rather than what it means to be born.
In response to this history of philosophical neglect of being born, I have recently been trying to set out what I call a “natal existentialism”: an account of how lived human existence is the way it is because we are born. This is, in other words, an account of our natality: our condition insofar as we are beings that are born.
What does being born consist in? For a human being, to be born is (i) to begin to exist at a certain point in time, by (ii) coming into the world with and as a specific body, and in a given place, set of relationships, and situation in society, culture, and history, while (iii) doing so by way of being conceived and gestated in and then exiting from the womb. Up until now this has generally been the maternal womb, although this is changing now that there are increasing numbers of transgender pregnancies. Regarding (iii), we can distinguish narrow and broader senses of the expressions “birth” and “being born”. Most narrowly, to be born is just to leave the womb. More broadly, to be born is to be conceived and gestated in the womb and finally exit it. I favour this broader usage, because one does not simply enter into existence at the point of leaving one’s parent’s womb – one has already been coming into existence over the course of the preceding nine months of gestation. There is, though, a still broader view usage of “birth” which treats the process of formation as continuing into psychological birth right through the infant’s first few years. I see this as over-extending the meaning of “birth”, although I agree that our earliest years and the relationships we experience in these years have deep formative effects on our personalities.
To examine how we exist as natals is to explore how our being born in aspects (i) to (iii) gives rise to some of the structuring features of our existence and affects others, so that our existence is the way it is only because we are born. In exploring these features, we are at the same time further clarifying what it is to be born in the first place – we are shedding further light on what being born consists in.
Some philosophers on being born
Even though philosophers have on the whole neglected birth, as I mentioned above there is a partial exception in the work of some recent feminist philosophers. One of these is the French feminist Luce Irigaray. In her view, there is an overarching “Western symbolic order” – a fairly unified system of meanings and symbols which has run like a red thread through Western culture ever since classical Greek times. A key element in this order, for Irigaray, is that it has been “matricidal”. One of her examples is the Oresteia by Aeschylus, the tragic trilogy that narrates how Orestes kills his mother Clytemnestra and is eventually acquitted of her murder by the Athenian court, providing a sort of matricidal “origin story” of the Greek city-state.
Irigaray’s broader claim, though, is not that Western culture has explicitly prescribed that we should commit literal matricide. Rather, Irigaray’s claim is that there is a pervasive and implicit strain of thought that we need to make a sharp mental and emotional break away from our mothers and from everything that is regarded as maternal. For instance, some twentieth-century psychoanalytic authors have held that making such a break away from our mothers is necessary for us to achieve individual autonomy. In contrast to all this, Irigaray wants us to remember and not repudiate our maternal and uterine origins, and she explores how our unresolved preoccupations with these origins find expression right through our lives – as well as finding expression in canonical philosophical texts, such as Plato’s Myth of the Cave in the Republic.
The Italian feminist philosopher Adriana Cavarero builds on Irigaray’s work. According to Cavarero, the Western symbolic order has foregrounded death rather than birth, hence the saying “All men are mortal” and the fact that the quintessential syllogism runs: All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, Socrates is mortal. There is not a similarly widespread slogan “All human beings are natal” or a classic syllogism that runs: All human beings are natal, Socrates is a human being, Socrates is natal. This focus on death reflects a fear and rejection of maternal power, Cavarero suggests. Rather than admitting our fear of the power that mothers have over foetuses, babies and infants, we have collectively displaced that fear onto a fear of death. Cavarero is in favour of a wide-sweeping cultural change, wanting us to refocus our attention on birth instead of death.
As well as Irigaray, another major influence on Cavarero is the work of Hannah Arendt. Indeed, it is Arendt who introduced the concept natality into philosophy, above all in her work The Human Condition. But for the most part Arendt understands “natality” not directly to mean “being born”, as I do. Rather, she uses “natality” to mean the human capacity to initiate new actions spontaneously and freely, something that she calls the power of initium. There is a link with birth, though: Arendt calls this capacity to initiate new words and deeds “natality” because in exercising it, an individual realises the newness that they have just insofar as they are born. And sometimes Arendt does after all equate “natality” just with, in her words, “the fact that human beings appear in the world by birth”; while at other times she equates it with our newness by birth and at other times again with our condition of appearing before a plurality of others, in a shared world, as a condition that we come into by birth. But most often, though, Arendt takes “natality” to mean the power of initium, so that the connection between natality in her sense and actually being physically born remains rather ambiguous.
Aspects of natality: dependency and the relational self
Let me now briefly sketch some of the features of human existence that come to our attention once we take as our starting point the fact that we are beings who are born. The first thing that jumps out is the depth and extent of our dependency on others for care. Initially, human babies and infants are acutely helpless – much more so than our closest primate relatives (chimpanzees, orang-utans, bonobos), and so much so that the human baby has not unreasonably been called an “exterogestate” foetus. This peculiar helplessness of human babies is generally thought to have arisen, earlier in our evolutionary history, as follows.
The young of our nearest primate neighbours are precocial: they develop independent powers fairly quickly after birth. The contrast is with species whose young are altricial, i.e. helpless and dependent on parental care after birth. Early hominids, then, were precocial; yet these hominids became bipedal, meaning that their brains expanded considerably just as their pelvises narrowed. The solution to the ensuing “obstetric dilemma” was for babies to begin to leave the womb relatively early in their intra-uterine formation – at nine months, whereas babies would need to be born at 18 to 21 months gestation to be as precocial as the young of our closest primate relatives. Hence: exterogestate foetuses.
The consequence of this acute, and extended, helplessness is that we begin life utterly dependent on the people who care for us physically and emotionally (this is our natal dependency). Usually we become more independent over time, but never completely or permanently so. Moreover, to the extent that we become more independent of our first care-givers through undergoing education, we remain dependent for this on the wider human community. And throughout our lives we all remain dependent on others in respect of, e.g., our means of subsistence, language, the personal relationships with others that sustain our emotional well-being, and the basic level of interpersonal trust that sustains social life. These ongoing forms in which we are deeply dependent on others have continuities with the forms under which we depended on adult care during infancy and childhood. For instance, we acquire language in infancy, and what languages we speak retain connections with that childhood context. And basic trust in others is generally learnt in infancy – or not. Overall, then, some of the elements of our life-long dependency derive directly from our being born, while others remain connected with birth in less direct ways.
Following on from our dependency, we see that because we are born our selves are relational through-and-through. This is something that psychoanalytic thought has highlighted, in terms of the formative impact of our early relationships with our first care-givers. These relationships are formative of us, and uniquely so, because they occur first in our lives – since, being born, we have beginnings – and because of our dependency and still-unformed nature during our earliest months and years. Still-unformed and malleable as we are at this point – notwithstanding that we have some innate make-up as well – we internalise the traits and behaviours of our first care-givers so that these become our basic dispositions. The sets of ways in which we most spontaneously feel and act thus embody our identifications with our first care-givers, on whom our selves have come to be modelled. Much of what psychoanalysis examines, then – namely how our earliest relationships get inside and shape us – in fact bears on our condition as beings that are born. The net result is that our first relationships constitute and do not merely qualify who we are; and we go into later relationships in ways that are shaped by these first ones, even when the later influences come to modify the workings of the earlier ones.
More aspects of natality: Situatedness, power, contingency and facticity
To be born is also to be situated. By birth, one arrives in a situation – historical, social, ethnic, geographical, familial, generational, etc. That situation is unique for each individual, because in each case it is comprised of a unique set of factors transmitted to this individual through their birth. I cannot possibly be born without coming into the world to a particular parent, in a particular place in time and space, and, through these, in a particular place in history and society. One’s natal situation is the specific set of circumstances and relationships into which one arrives by birth. This natal situation in turn affects every subsequent situation one comes to be in. However much free choice I may or may not exercise about how I respond to the situation I find myself in, necessarily my responses always arise in response to that prior situation. And that situation in turn is one I have come to be in through my response to the situation before it; and so on right back to my initial natal situation. Consequently all one’s situations flow down through one’s life from one’s birth, and situatedness obtains in our lives in the ways it does because we are born.
One particular factor with respect to which we are situated, by birth and subsequently, is social power relations. These relations are embodied in and immediately begin to be transmitted to us through our natal situations and relationships, affecting us before we have any possibility of or capacity for criticising or questioning them. Once we bear in mind that we are born, then, we see that power is a normal and constitutive, not aberrant or accidental, feature of human life (a point that has been made by another feminist philosopher, Christine Battersby). This normal presence of power does not mean that it is impossible for us ever to criticise any particular set of power relations. It does mean, though, that when we criticise those relations we will be doing so in ways that have been enabled by the power relations that have shaped us – even when what they have done is equip us with critical capacities that we are now turning back against them, biting the hand that fed us.
There is also, I believe, a radical contingency in whom each of us is born as. It is always possible to ask: “Why am I me?” or “Why is this the life I’m leading and none other?” Since I’ve been leading my life since birth, the latter question goes back to another: “Why was I born into this life and none other?” I think these are genuine questions. Eastern and Western religious traditions offer various answers to them, answers that refer for instance to our immortal souls or to cycles of rebirth. Another possibility – especially if we reject appeal to either rebirth or the immortal soul – is that, for all that the above questions are genuine, there is no explanation to be had for my having been born me. That I was born me and no-one else is just a fact for which we cannot supply any satisfactory reasons or grounds.
Certainly, there is a causal account to be given of why the particular body that I am was conceived. My parents conceived on a given date, putting together a particular egg and sperm, etc.; and had they conceived on a different date, a different individual body would have been formed which would have been a different person, not me. Yet while this causal account explains why the body that I am was originated and why it took the shape it did, this account leaves unexplained why it is this body and none other that I am inhabiting from the inside in the first place. That is, why is it this body whose life I am experiencing directly in the first person, as I am not with the lives of any of the countless other human bodies I encounter around me?
Now the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre takes it that this question “Why am I me?” cannot be answered and that, as I put it earlier, it is just a fact – a bare fact – that I was born me, arriving in the world in the particular body and situation that I did. This bare appearance in a particular body and place in the world is one key part of what Sartre calls our facticity. The other part is the givenness of everything that I begin to inherit and receive from others immediately upon my birth. Take, for example, the culture that I am born into. However, much I may come to modify elements in this culture in later life, and to add new and unprecedented things into it, I still do so on the basis of this culture having first been given to me. In both its respects, then, facticity is bound up with natality and it is because we are beings who are born that facticity figures in our existence in the ways it does.
There are many other features of human existence that emerge in connection with birth, and about which much could be said. Our mortality looks different when it is viewed in relation with birth and not, as it normally is, in isolation from birth. Human life gets its temporal shape from the way it stretches between birth and death. And, I believe, there are specific forms of anxiety to which we are subject in virtue of being born – we are liable to feel anxious not only at the prospect of our death but also on account of features of our birth and our natal condition. For instance, it can be anxiety-inducing to think that there is no reason, and no explanation, why I was born me – for this means that there is an element of mystery at the heart of my life. I don’t have time to go into these other aspects of our natality here, but I hope I’ve given you a sense of the scope and significance of the topic “How is human existence shaped by the fact that we are born?”