I am rooted, but I flow. ― Virginia Woolf
The concept of appropriation is one of the key ideas within hermeneutic philosophy.
It arises from the idea that we are embedded (thrown) into a world. The notion of ‘world’ is important here, and distinct from the general usage of the term. For example, Heidegger famously distinguished between different ’levels’ of worldhood:
A stone is ‘worldless’; it has no active relations as part of its existence. Animals, for Heidegger, are ‘world poor’, they only have a partial or impoverished sense of their own relation to their environment and each other. Humans (Dasein), are ‘world-forming’, and this is one of the primary features that defines human existence.
Through existence, we are always acting on, and acted upon by, different worlds and milieus. These can be cultural, personal, historical, etc. While I do have more freedom than, say, a stone, my freedom is also conditioned by the horizon of my own singularity. That is, even though our free existence is the result of being a ‘world-forming’ being, the worlds which I create and exist within are also worlds into which we are thrown (a simple example here would be your national culture).
This notion of existential freedom differs from, for example, that of John-Paul Sartre. Sartre makes a similar kind of comparison between humans and (worldless) objects - when we look at a designed object (for example, a knife) its purpose is clear (to cut), but when we look at ourselves, we have no clearly defined purpose. In this sense, we are free to create (form) or own purpose in life.
The concept of appropriation provides nuance to Sartre’s notion of freedom. Appropriation is a free, world-forming act, but it is always carried out in relation to some kind of meaning which exists apart from us. For example, a parallel could be made here with a pianist. The pianist is limited by a number of factors, the 12-tone tuning of the piano, the notations on the sheet music which they are performing from, the limits of their own training and experience, etc. Yet, at the same time, we are able to appreciate the freedom and singularity of performance. The limiting factors do not constrain performance possibilities, but rather enable them.
I have been associating appropriation with ‘freedom’, but perhaps this is a bit misleading. At least, it is misleading if we think ‘freedom’ in terms of freedom of the subject.
Instead, and in-line with the concept of ‘world-forming’, we should think about freedom in terms of the freedom which is embedded in the world, of which we (‘subject’) are a part of and participate in. The pianist, in the example above, is unfolding and revealing the latent possibilities hidden within the world (in this case, the world is made up of the tradition of tuning, musical language, etc.). In doing so, they are also creating (forming) new worlds.
So, in this sense, appropriation is the unfolding of unseen possibilities which are latent within the world.
In the old debate of ‘creation’ vs. ‘discovery’ (was the wheel ‘created’ from nothing, or was it ‘discovered’?), appropriation stands somewhere in the middle. It is not as if there is one single ‘world’ from which all new forms are pulled (a Platonic, realm of forms). Rather, worlds are always plural and historical. Appropriation is always ‘relativistic’ in that sense. ‘Relativism’ is often taken as a ‘bad’ word (by those who link things like postmodernism to nihilism, etc. and who are in search of universal theories), but it can be taken in a positive sense, i.e., as a sensitivity to context and embedded meanings. Furthermore, appropriation is also the creation of meaning and history - a particularly notable performance (for example Glenn Gould’s performance of Bach) can become its own world and history for others to appropriate and re-interpret. It is impossible to think that Glenn Gould’s performances of The Goldberg Variations would exist without Glenn Gould. Yet, it is also not correct to say that he created/invented these performances ‘from nothing’.
To conclude, appropriation is a way of conceiving Being as something which is open to interpretation, and ‘meaning’ as the subject of a dialogue between humans and tradition, between agents and worlds.