Boundary Situations and Guilt  

Dr. Ronny Miron, Bar Ilan University, Israel

In his major book Philosophy, Karl Jaspers writes:
These situations, like those I always exist within, that I cannot live without struggle and sorrow, that I accept upon myself inevitable guilt, that I must die, I call boundary situations. They do not change, but only their appearing; in their reference to our existence they are totally valid.

We cannot see beyond them; in our existence, we do not see [anything] behind them. They are like a wall that we push and walk into. They cannot be changed through us, but we can only bring them into clarity without being able to deduce them or explain them from something else. They exist with existence itself.



(My translation from Philosophy, Part 2, Page 203).



The notion of ‘boundary situations’ is one of Karl Jaspers’ most celebrated ideas. Its basic insight is that in some human situations we cannot fully immerse ourselves in our concrete concerns, because these situations are embedded in a larger scope of reality, which contains contradictions. We can try to flee from such situations, or alternatively boldly face the pain and grief involved in them. But either way, we must face the unavoidable contradictions that are built in reality: the co-existence of the good and the bad, the positive and negative, the infinite and the finite, the whole and the partial, day and night.

In boundary situations, according to Jaspers, we experience ourselves as lacking freedom, as a ‘plaything’ in the hands of arbitrary conditions. There are various kinds of boundary situations, such as death, guilt, suffering, and struggle. Each of them contains this fundamentally inevitable contradiction. We cannot live a life without encountering it.

An especially illuminating boundary situation is guilt. Here Jaspers distinguishes between ‘avoidable guilt’ – guilt that results from the person’s specific actions, and ‘unavoidable guilt’, in which the person finds himself unwittingly. The latter, like other types of boundary situations, is accompanied with a sense of extreme powerlessness. Guilt as a boundary situation is thus involved in all forms of human existence.

This is why when Jaspers discussed the Nazi war crimes, he did not identify guilt with specific behaviors during the war, such as collaboration with the Nazis or even murder. Rather, he contended that these crimes were made possible by the environment in which Germans lived. It is not by coincidence that he titled his famous essay, which was much discussed right after World War II, "The Question of German Guilt." In contrast with accusation, which is an action that invites the accused to supply answers or responses – and thus turn outside himself, guilt turns the person towards himself, inwardly, and draws him to reflect on it and to work towards understanding it. Jaspers believed that only if Germans keep dealing with the issue of guilt will the issue become entrenched in their lives, as well as in human life in general, so that they would continue to grapple with its meaning.

The conclusion can be formulated as follows: I live therefore I am guilty. Boundary situations characterize the realm of human existence, because there is no human existence outside their realm. The boundaries of human existence are also the boundaries of guilt.



Dr. Ronny Miron is a professor and researcher at the Bar Ilan University in Israel, who works in the fields of philosophy and modern European thought, and has published in these areas. For further reading see:


Ronny Miron, "Karl Jaspers: From Selfhood to Being," Value Inquiry Book Series, Rodopi, 2011.

Ronny Miron, "The Guilt Which We Are: An Ontological Approach to Karl Jaspers’ Idea of Guilt", Analecta Husserliana, vol. CV, 2010, pp. 229-251.