The importance of boundaries in human life is undisputable. They take different shapes and forms, but it is rather impossible to imagine the world with no boundaries of any kind. They form a very important imaginative tool that helps to organise and divide space. Trying to fulfil the mental exercise of picturing the space without boundaries we find it very difficult to set the right perspective. Should it be an empty container or a flat surface, it still requires some lines, fragmentations, points of reference, etc. The popular image of a black hole is probably the best guess. The physical as well as imaginative boundaries are omnipresent, what makes it so hard to imagine the reality without them (or without using them for organising the space). An equally difficult task is to comprehensively express what the boundary is.

A way to define a broad spectre of meanings that the boundary evokes is to distinguish some perspectives to look at the problem. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, there are three definitional areas:

1. Something (such as a river, a fence, or an imaginary line) that shows where an area ends and another area begins.

2. A point or limit that indicates where two things become different.

3. Boundaries: unofficial rules about what should not be done: limits that define acceptable behaviour.[1]

The authors decided to highlight the features of a boundary: it separates, indicates change and suggests a threshold of some kind. Another way to approach the subject is to focus on the subject (or object) that is separated by a boundary. That raises the question about the status of the line itself. Is it an abstracted entity or does it become an element of a divided part, and if so, which one? In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy this problem is characterized as the core interest of realist theories that are “(…) willing to take the problem at face value”.[2] This approach focuses on mathematical representations such as surfaces or points. The opposite theories represented in the Encyclopedia are described as eliminativist. Their practitioners (e.g. René Descartes, Richard Cartwright, Alfred Tarski) treat the boundaries as “fictional abstractions”.[3]

Inspired by the above division, I want to focus on two dimensions of presence of the boundaries in social life: the physical and the imaginative spheres. It seems the most obvious choice of perspective, but still, I find the subject of two forms of boundaries a very important component of life of every human being. What interests me most is the interplay between two dimensions: the way the experienced, imagined and real physical boundaries relate and influence one another.


The concept of mapping constitutes a perfect emanation of the interplay between empirical and mental representation of the spatial boundaries. Thinking in geopolitical terms we have a certain view of the country boundaries suggested by the common knowledge: the very precise image of the borders organising the globe in the modern world. It evokes certain associations linked to the process of control: passports, visas, limitations, permits, prohibitions, warrants. The more radical the norms are, the more meaningful the act of crossing the border is.[4]

This political way of thinking about the border is related to the notion that boundaries’ function is to separate one thing from another. It raises the question about the nature of separated entities. Is it necessary that they share the same status like the countries do? In terms of physical space (territories; divisions of political units), human imagination leads the lines between the figures of the same kind, or at least belonging to the same imaginative sphere. We may go further in this investigation and ask whether this kind of boundaries suggest the relation of dialectical background. The borders are not necessarily set between the objects of antithetic nature, but the line between them definitely suggests that there exists some sort of difference. Crossing certain line implies embracing change, encountering new reality. Crossing national borders indeed usually entails entering new cultural, political, lingual or religious order.

Going to the lower level of political divisions, to the borders between inner administrative units, this vivid notion of differences loses its strength. The borders between the provinces are usually unnoticed. Boundaries of a city are usually blurred in the long evolving chain of suburbs. Further fragmentation into quarters encodes different, local meanings. Theoretically we follow the same pattern of multiplication the entities of the same kind (political and administrative nature), but somewhere during this process happens a very important change: the physical emblems of the change are lost on the way. The fetishization of difference is diminished and crossing this inner borders goes unnoticed in everyday life.[5] However, the fact that there are no physical borders does not mean, there are no imaginative representations of such divisions. We do not have barriers when entering another district of certain city, but we have an overall idea where are we at the moment and to localise ourselves we use mental maps. Even when exploring a foreign city there is a need to have some notion about the location on the general plan of the city. This is not only of practical matter, but also to satisfy an inner need of feeling safe. To know “where we are” is a very important issue to every human being. The feeling of being lost, both spatially and metaphorically, causes great discomfort.

The concept of mapping plays a crucial role here. Maps are organising the space and make it familiar. Make it known, safe and predictable. They may seem just a facade, a clever invention for administrative purposes and a tool for tourists to navigate in the alien city. But we cannot deny the importance of knowledge about the existing divisions, of the city, country and the continent. Mapping is the way of labelling, stating where are the boundaries of safe territory. In the city we have our places of importance, points of reference. The map creates and overall image of the city and teaches the receivers how to read the space, as well as how to think about it. It sets the perspective. While travelling through the city, moving along the densely built-up streets, there is no focus on the perspective, but it is worth exploring, whether one percept the move from the height of own eyes or from a bird view, as maps are teaching us.[6] Is having this perspective form above necessary to navigate from point a to b or is it just an imposition of omnipresent maps.[7]

The very concept of mapping, as formulating the proportional representation of space and transferring it to paper, greatly influences experiencing and perception of boundaries as such. First of all, map requires cutting the space into pieces. The lines of borders, rivers, streets, railway tracks divide the terrain. Secondly, by suggesting a certain kind of spatial orientation it influences the imagination. Produces a particular language that sets the mind to think about space in disintegration terms. The question whether this way is the best way for the human beings to cope with the never-ending vastness of space is certainly the very intriguing one.


Insofar I have been focusing solely on spatial forms of dividing lines, but it seems necessary to mention the time boundaries as an inevitable part of life (especially in the modernity).[8] Time boundaries have a very strict organisational scheme: there are units creating other units, multiplying and dividing; there are seconds becoming minutes and minutes becoming hours. The strict time measurement did not happen without a reason – with more and more complicated organisation of mass labour and the separation of leisure time in the 19th century it was necessary to introduce some time standardization. The rapid development of railway connections and other means of transport also created a need for unification. The time organisation was simply inescapable and I do not aim to argue about it. I would rather focus on the impact that the fixation on passing time has had on human condition.

Passing time’s structure is based on the notion of crossing another boundary. In relation to the concept of mapping, the mankind customised time to certain time zones, although this goes fairly unnoticed in everyday life. The same cannot be said about time boundaries that organises societal and private calendars. Lives are being structured with the separation of spheres of work, learning, leisure and entertainment; around going to school, waiting for the vacation, going to work, waiting for the holiday and waiting for the pension. Crossing this boundaries is generally a positive transition, somehow experienced as a step on a linear development. The anticipation of birthdays and anniversaries is the good example of this waiting for the change, of stepping out of one boundary and embracing another one. What comes to mind is the phenomenon of celebrating New Year’s Eve, the tradition of bidding farewell to the old year and welcoming the new one, with excitement, expectations and resolutions to be better, healthier, industrious, active, etc.

Naturally, one might argue with the purely positive note of crossing another time boundaries. Time passing inevitably leads to death and this realization never completely leaves the human mind. Nevertheless, this notion shows another important role of boundaries as concepts arranging people’s lives. There are points in time that we await for and ones that we do not want to come. There is always some boundary towards which we are heading.

According to Bertrand Westphal time experiencing stays in close relation to spatial imagination, what he calls spatiotemporality.[9] He shares his thoughts on the changing rules of geopolitics. It seems that political interpretations have had a major influence on mental divisions of the globe. Westphal focuses on the colonial defragmentation of the world and it indeed seems a great example of shaping boundaries in particular temporal reality. For centuries whole surface of the Earth, cut into several parts with the lines of political fights, appeared to be the property of just a few empires. Similar pattern of setting boundaries could be derived from the geopolitical principles of the Cold War. Westphal’s remarks on this matter make one think about the role that wars played (and still play) in the process of placing boundaries.[10] The shifts of borders contribute to the redefinition of space as such by changing the assertion of what is our and what is alien. Borders circle the boundaries of familiarity, beyond which there is foreign territory. This structuring is obviously highly time-variable and vulnerable to socio-political narratives. In the globalized world we experience some sort of blurriness in the traditional boundaries of our and their. The order has been disturbed. Apart from all the market-related changes of recent decades that allowed us to buy French goods, watch American television and travel to Japan whenever we want to, there has been an even more important novelty still going on: a switch in a way of thinking about the world as an accessible and borderless (or at least “border-weakened”). Places and things appear to be closer and, as Martin Heidegger put it: “ready-to-hand”.[11]

Above being said, I feel it is necessary to be cautious with the generalizations and admit that notion of a common influence of the globalisation might be exaggerated. Globalisation inequalities are a broad subject that has been thoroughly discussed in social sciences and it is recognised that the borders disappeared only for some. Moreover, I am willing to risk the hypothesis that the borders of national space (or rather: cultural space) still very much influence who we are. The project of a “citizen of the world” is still just a project, with some exceptions that prove the rule. There is a whole package of meanings when Americans say that some product is German or Canadian; when Croats say something is domestic (domaće) or foreign (strane), etc.

Cultural boundaries are still very much present in everyday life. They are the foundation of distinction towards the others and the source of identification for the members of the group. It makes one wonder where the roots of perceiving the boundaries as shelters lie. Traces of such reasoning may be found in Hedegger’s essay on building, dwelling, thinking.[12] As he stated, building is in fact constructing the borders in order to dwell. It lies in the very core of human nature, because “(…) dwelling is the manner in which mortals are on earth”.[13] From the beginning of mankind’s activity on earth, people have been building boundaries in order to separate themselves from the world. In Heidegger’s thought a very important role is given to the idea of preserving life and nature. Searching for shelter (in the caves or the huts) was aimed to preserve from danger and harm[14], but in the same moment it gave a special place to the feeling of being safe and was a foundation for the longing of having own piece of space. To be at peace would in fact mean to be separated and sheltered.

The boundaries in human life provide a base for separation and incline thinking in term of differences. It is worth concentrating on the idea how to overcome the distance that is implied by such divisions. Common knowledge, as well as humanities, often cope with this problem by turning to the metaphor of a bridge. It is a popular concept to think of a bridge as a connection set upon the boundaries, joining separate realities. The bridge is a glue binding communities against the differences and creating the space for a dialogue. Does it then mean then that the bridge may patch two halves and erase the lines of a boundary. My earlier remarks on the globalisation processes seem to state against that. Heidegger also argues with the idea that bridges are the source of uniting the space. In fact he states that building bridges make one understand that there are actually two sides of the river.[15] It sets the line across the space seen as one complete picture. The concept that is supposed to bring two edges together may be the source of realizing that they are separate things. The bridge redefines the space and may be the source of thinking in our/their terms.[16]

The boundaries set the limits of feeling safe. Being here activates the sense of feeling “cosy” and “homey”. It is the environment where one can relax and feel satisfied. Perfect circumstances for self-development and creative growth. It seems like there no reason to ever leave this safe boundaries. How can we then explain the yearning for “seeing the world” that exists in human beings. Let’s consider the phenomenon of travelling. For centuries people has been exploring the furthest parts of the planet. Travelling nowadays  takes different forms (from organised excursions to backpacking lonely escapades) and is deeply institutionalised as a tourism industry, but in the core of all this lies the wanting of seeing for own eyes how do they live there and forget what we left here. It is the magic of the foreign. Crossing another boundaries. Feeding own imagination. The image of an eternal vagabond is somehow very appealing to human nature.

Given the affirmation of feeling at home, the values of feeling safe and familiar, it is not an easy task to interpret the joy of travelling. We may attempt to associate this with the concept of liminality and the positive outcome that is expected of the rites de passage.[17] Crossing the boundary would mean a positive change, stepping into the next (better? higher?) level. The journey is a way of enlightenment on the evolutionary scale of development and understanding. The educative value of travelling is wildly recognized. However, besides self-education, what urges people to be on the way is the search for adventures. Could it be id prompting us to leave this safe space and explore the world? To enjoy the change, leave responsibilities, forget the rules, be nomadic and free? The tempting image of adventurous journey surely suggests that. Following the psychoanalytical metaphor, could it be superego suggesting us that the boundaries exist for a reason? Being here keeps us safe. That is the environment to put down roots and focus on preserving precious life, contribute to the community and reach the limits of self-development. This two forces are whispering to the ears of humans, renegotiating the scope of boundaries that one is ready to cross.

The words of John Lennon’s song “Imagine” inspired many. The lyrics describe the world of “no possession”, “no countries”, “a brotherhood of man”. It is hard to imagine a more “no boundaries” project. Lennon is creating a beautiful vision of unity of mankind, freed from differences and inequalities. In view of my deliberations, a deeper analysis of the “Imagine” ends with an ambivalent outcome. As much as appealing is the idea of forgetting all boundaries, it simultaneously means giving up the safety-barriers. It involves risk and resign of the feeling of being at peace. The great power of boundaries and its omnipresence in human life may be one of the reasons why socialists’ utopias never proved successful. There seem to exist some boundaries which people do not feel comfortable to leave and their real value lies in creating safe-places – spaces of trust and ease.


[1] Merriam-Webster online dictionary: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/boundary (06/06/15).

[2] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, entry: Boundary, available online at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/boundary/ (06/06/15).

[3] Ibid.

[4] It would be therefore extremely interesting to investigate the disappearance of the borders in the European Union and its influence on the perception of “European” space.

[5] Of course it is possible to think of exceptions. What comes to mind are the world metropolises, like New York or London with their Chinease, Jewish or Italian districts. However, such multiculturalism is an internal and indispensable feature of such cities what makes the differences a part of everyday life. More persuasive exceptions are the “divided cities”, such as Bosnian Mostar or Israeli Jerusalem, although in both cases there are obvious physical borders separating conflicted groups (that is the bridge and the wall).

[6] An amusing analogy are the videogames which allow the player to switch the perspective: from looking at the action with our avatar’s eye, to the picture from above, when we see whole avatar’s silhouette moving through artificial space.

[7] Maps also suggest certain points of anchorage that give us orientation and help to navigate through space. See: M. Marleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, Routledge Classics,  London 2002, pp. 283-347.

[8] The problem of space and time discourse intertwining is thoroughly discussed by Bertrand Westphal in Geocriticism in the Chapter 1. Spatiotemporality. B. Westphal, Geocriticism. Real and Fictional Spaces, Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2011.

[9] All Westphal’s observations I will be referring to are part of his Geocriticism book, ibidem.

[10] Ibidem, pp. 10-14.

[11] M. Heidegger, Being and Time, Blackwell London 2001,  pp. 135-138.

[12] M. Heidegger, Building, dwelling, thinking, in: M. Heidegger, Basic Writings, Harper & Row Publishers, New York 2008, pp. 319-339.

[13] Ibidem, p. 326.

[14] Ibidem, p. 327.

[15] Ibidem, p. 330.

[16] That is the case in aforementioned city of Mostar in Bosnia.

[17] A. van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, Psychology Press, New York 1960.


Heidegger M., Being and Time, Blackwell, London 2001.

Heidegger M., Building, dwelling, thinking, in: M. Heidegger, Basic Writings, Harper & Row Publishers, New York 2008.

Marleau-Ponty M., Phenomenology of Perception, Routledge Classics, London 2002.

Van Gennep A., The Rites of Passage, Psychology Press, New York 1960.

Westphal B., Geocriticism. Real and Fictional Spaces, Palgrave
Macmillan, New York 2011.

Internet sources:
Merriam-Webster English Dictionary:


Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/boundary/


Źródło grafiki: link (Creative Commons) / Autor zdjęcia: Ferran Jordà


Barbara Tołłoczko – Ukończyła slawistykę oraz socjologie na Uniwersytecie Warszawskim. Jako doktorantka w Szkole Nauk Społecznych przy Instytucie Filozofii i Socjologii Polskiej Akademii Nauk prowadzi badania na temat ewolucji znaczeń przypisywanych przedmiotom zagranicznym w kontekście transformacji ustrojowej w Polsce. Jej zainteresowania naukowe obejmują antropologię podróży i turystyki, skutki zmian politycznych w Polsce i byłych republikach jugosłowiańskich oraz współczesne praktyki kulturowe Chorwatów. Pracuje jako tłumacz języka chorwackiego i angielskiego.