Word of the Week: Gestaltungsmacht

Aug 10, 2012

Every Friday, Germany.info and The Week in Germany highlight a different "Word of the Week" in the German language that may serve to surprise, delight or just plain perplex native English speakers.


Vacancy Enlarge image Vacancy (© dpa/pa)

The power to shape a political decision-making process, to solve macro-level problems and resolve conflicts by negotiation, as well as the micro-level power of individual self-determination, can all be described in German as "Gestaltungsmacht."

A state that exercises such "Gestaltungsmacht" can be defined as a state that has the power to shape outcomes and events. The literal English translation of "Gestaltungsmacht" is "power of self-determination" or "decision-making power." It is based on two nouns - "Gestaltung" (shaping, forming, fashioning, structuring) and "Macht" (power, might).

Yet, like so many German expressions, it is more than meets the eye. "Gestaltungsmacht" can, for instance, be used to describe traditional "hard power" (i.e. military might) as well as far more subtle and opaque "soft power" (i.e. cultural relations) in the international arena.

Soft power was first defined as a concept in 1990 by Joseph Nye of Harvard University as the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce and rather than using force or money as a means of persuasion. Debates about the validity - and effectiveness - of "soft power" have abounded ever since in foreign policy circles.

Meanwhile, "Gestaltungsmacht" can be applied to all manner of abilities for exercising influence from the individual to the wider political level. It is not to be confused, however, with various avant-garde expressions or with "Gestalt psychology" or "gestaltism" - a mid-20th-century theory of mind and brain developed by the Berlin School which also led to "Gestalt therapy."

On its own, the word "Gestalt" translates roughly into English as "the essence or shape of an entity's complete form." The expression "Gestalt annehmen" means in turn "to take shape." And the verb "gestalten" means "to shape / to form / to fashion." A "Gestalter" (masc.) or "Gestalterin" (fem.) meanwhile means "creator" or "designer," whereas "Gestaltungskraft" means "creative power."

Creativity, incidentally, is considered the true mark of genius by brain experts today, given that only be creating new ideas based on existing knowledge can modern societies advance. This, in turn, could also be deemed a form of "Gestaltungsmacht."

As Albert Einstein once famously said: "Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand."

To place new knowledge into patterns, you may however crave a sense of "Ordnung" (orderliness), which in turn might lead you to define a new "Gestaltungsprinzip" (formal principle). If you manage to get this principle accepted by your peers, you may have exhibited "Gestaltungsmacht."

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