Defining the Foreigner: Existential Migration


Part 1.1

Asking a foreigner for a definition of the foreigner 1 is a guarantee of failed objectivity. My status as a foreigner, and further, my particular historical and spatial context, as well as my experiences as a foreigner, necessarily influence my intellectualizations of this situation. The definition of the foreigner by a non-foreigner would seem particularly dubious, and on the contrary, it would appear as perhaps too personal when given by an individual who has had, or who is still having, a first person experience of it. Nonetheless, it is the second option that we attempt to explore here. As we will see, the main theoretical supports on which my thoughts on the foreigner will be developed will be borrowed from traditions of phenomenological, existentialist and post-structuralist thought, which all respect – if not, request – a first person involvement of the thinker in what is discussed. This implication, and this level of subjectivity, may not satisfy the methods or expectations of certain philosophical traditions. It is a choice I am consciously making. But before entering into the content of discussions of what constitutes the foreigner and foreignness, and in particular, the importance and role of language in the experience of foreignness, we must start by setting a definition of the foreigner. It is a necessarily arbitrary definition, selected for its relevance with regards to my own experience as a foreigner, but one with particularly insightful intuitions: existential migration.

Canadian psychotherapist Greg Madison has developed in the past few years the notion of existential migration. Initially presented in a 2006 article, this conceptual creation was proposed by the researcher in the course of a study based on the interview of twenty migrants who shared similar, and rather unique features. These migrants had become foreigners by choice, leaving their country to go reside in another land. Their decision was not motivated by financial, educational or political reasons but for primarily existential needs: self-actualization; definition of one’s own identity; experience of the Other; experience of oneself as a foreigner somehow ‘detached’ from her environment; in the hope, generally, of tackling and finding solutions regarding one’s often bitter relationship with her original culture and country (Madison 2006, 238). It represents a drastic change in the existence of the person: the distance, if not loss, of contacts with friends and relatives who stayed at home; the exposure to a culture where everyday life may at times seem particularly challenging; and the risks, often realized, of loneliness. Madison paraphrases this point from various interviews: the existential migrants are “‘caught between the difficulty of living in a foreign place, and the perceived impossibility of return” (245).

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On the other hand, the existential migrant does not need the migration to remain alive, to acquire a better education or to have a higher standard of life.

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Why is this definition of the foreigner interesting? Existential migration is particularly prone to a philosophical investigation because it is almost explicitly a life experience motivated by philosophical questions. The individualistic pressures of contemporary life, in particular in ‘developed countries,’ have broaden the popularity of existential questions beyond the small group of philosophers and scholars, but these are profoundly, in essence, philosophical question. The difference between economic, political and educational migration on the one hand, and existential migration on the other, is that the former legitimates migration in the hope of attaining a particular gain, whether absolutely necessary for mere survival (political exile, migration for financial reasons) or to reinforce one’s educational profile in the prospect of a future career. In this case, the experience of foreignness is truly felt, but it is coincidental to the research of these gains. It is contextual; it arises as a happy or unhappy co-existence in the environment of the new life. The main purpose remains mere survival or the attainment of a higher standard of life. On the other hand, the existential migrant – while she may, too, move to another country within the institutional context of a company or of a university course – does not need the migration to remain alive, to acquire a better education or to have a higher standard of life (it may even be the opposite – in Madison’s words: “it is equally likely that we end up living less affluent lives because we left”, 254). The travel, and the settlement in the foreign country is not motivated by material reasons, but by intellectual and identity quests. Existential migration is driven by curiosity, the research of experience and the wish to discover (other forms of) life through depth immersion, in an extended period of time.

In his research, Madison argues that the various interviews have revealed a rather large set of recurring themes and viewpoints. Unsurprisingly, these themes have profound philosophical resonances. It can be seen in the list of concerns through which he examines the testimonies:

“[I]ssues of self and identity, issues of belonging, valued personal characteristics and sensitivities (need for space, independence, freedom, choice), wider life perspectives (philosophical or spiritual outlook), openness to experiences of difference and foreignness, significance of family relations and home circumstances, explicit issues of home and returning home, an overview of the process of migrating (leaving, adapting to the unfamiliar, unexpected consequences, life paradoxes)” (247).

“It is my intention to try to relay some feeling of the underlying ‘existential dichotomies’ inherent in ‘home and not-at-home’ (the unheimlich), ‘belonging and never quite belonging’, ‘the world of mystery and the mundane’, ‘freedom and the suffocation of potential’, ‘independence and loneliness’, and ‘yearning and loss’…” (248).

More could be said on each of these questions, all equally important and inspiring, and for which Madison provides initial thoughts. He also connects this new perspective on the foreigner with particular theories of psychology and philosophy, some of which will be discussed later in this essay. The central notion of our question, the foreigner, is now defined. We shall next look at a number of conceptual insights that will contribute in new perspectives on foreignness and its relation with language.


Badiou, Alain. “Thinking the Event.” In Philosophy in the Present, edited by Peter Engelmann, translated by Peter Thomas and Alberto Toscano, 1-48. Cambridge: Polity, 2009.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.

Heidegger, Martin. “Language.” In Heidegger, Martin, Poetry, Language, Thought, translated by Albert Hofstadter, 185-208. New York: Harper Perennial, 2001.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie, and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.

Lewis, Philip E. “Merleau-Ponty and the Phenomenology of Language.” Yale French Studies, No. 36/37 (1966): 19-40.

Madison, Greg. “Existential Migration.” Existential Analysis, 17.2 (2006): 238-60.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. La Phénoménologie de la Perception. Paris: Gallimard, 1945.

Royle, Nicholas. Jacques Derrida. London & New York: Routledge, 2003.

Image courtesy: The Accidental Nomad



  1. In this section, by “the foreigner,” I mean the conceptualization of the individual who is in the status of being a foreigner, in a foreign country. This expression is preferred over that of “foreignness,” which is a larger one, encompassing elements going beyond the discussion of existential migration.