The Phenomenology of Mood and the Meaning of Life
Abstract and Keywords
This article describes the phenomenological role of deep moods, and goes on to consider their nature. It argues that we experience the world through our feeling bodies, and that distinctions between internally directed bodily feelings and externally directed intentional states should be rejected. It distinguishes between intentional and pre-intentional feelings, suggesting that most of those phenomena referred to as “emotions” are comprised at least partly of the former, whereas those moods that constitute the experienced meaningfulness of the world consist entirely of pre-intentional feeling.
In his book The Passions, Robert Solomon proposed that emotions are the ‘meaning of life’. By this, he meant that they constitute the meanings in a life, frameworks of value and significance that are incorporated into the experienced world. I think there is something importantly right about his claim, and my aim in this chapter is to defend a somewhat revised version of it. I begin by outlining Solomon's conception of emotion, focusing on the phenomenological role assigned to emotion, the distinction drawn between emotions and feelings, and the claim that moods are generalized emotions (intentional states that have the whole world or a substantial chunk of it as their object). I go on to argue that Solomon, like many others who have written on the emotions, fails to appreciate the phenomenology of mood. It is a background of feeling more often referred to as a ‘mood’ than an ‘emotion’ that plays the meaning‐ (p. 350) giving role emphasized by Solomon. Not all moods are generalized emotions. Some may indeed take this form but those that are responsible for the ‘meaning of life’ are not intentional states at all. Instead, they are part of the background structure of intentionality and are presupposed by the possibility of intentionally directed emotions. To illustrate this, I turn to Martin Heidegger's phenomenological analysis of boredom and then to descriptions of altered mood in depression. In so doing, I draw a distinction between the intensity or strength of an emotional state and its depth. An emotion can be quite intense but at the same time shallow, whereas a phenomenologically inconspicuous mood can be deep precisely by virtue of its inconspicuousness. This greater depth of a mood, I suggest, consists in its being responsible for a space of possibilities that object‐directed emotions, however intense, presuppose. For example, to be able to experience fear, one must already find oneself in the world in such a way that being ‘endangered’ or ‘under threat’ are possibilities.
Having described the phenomenological role of deep moods, I go on to consider their nature. I argue that we experience the world through our feeling bodies, and that distinctions between internally directed bodily feelings and externally directed intentional states should be rejected. I distinguish between intentional and pre‐intentional feelings, suggesting that most of those phenomena referred to as ‘emotions’ are comprised at least partly of the former, whereas those moods that constitute the experienced meaningfulness of the world consist entirely of pre‐intentional feeling.
15.2 Solomon on Emotion and the Meaning of Life
In his earlier writings, Solomon insists on a clear distinction between emotions and feelings. Emotions, he says, are judgements rather than feelings. Although feelings often or perhaps even always accompany emotions, the relationship is one of association rather than constitution. Feelings are mere bodily reactions, whereas emotions are conceptually sophisticated intentional states that have objects outside of the body. By claiming that emotions are judgements, Solomon does not mean to suggest that they are attitudes that we adopt on the basis of our experiences of the world. Instead, he says that emotional judgements are constitutive of world‐experience. The world is experienced as a practically significant realm of norms, values, and enticements to act. Things appear to us as inviting, valuable, fascinating, threatening, dull, repulsive, proper, improper, comforting, terrifying, and so on. Emotions are responsible for our sense that things matter in these various different ways: ‘The passions are judgments, constitutive judgments according to which our reality is given its shape and structure’ (1993, p. xvii). Solomon also claims that emotions, although constitutive of the (p. 351) experienced world rather than explicitly and knowingly adopted by us, are in a sense chosen. As with beliefs, emotional judgements are often unreflective but we are still responsible for evaluating and revising them.
According to Solomon, emotions are the ‘meaning of life’, in the sense that they are a precondition for the intelligibility of all our goal‐directed activities. If no actual or possible states of affairs were ever judged by us to be preferable to any other, we would have no grounds for action. Without emotions, we could have no projects, nothing to strive for, no sense of anything as worth doing:
I suggest that emotions are the meaning of life. It is because we are moved, because we feel, that life has a meaning. The passionate life, not the dispassionate life of pure reason, is the meaningful life. (1993, p. ix)
So emotions do not give life a meaning relative to some standpoint external to experience but are experienced as the significance of things in the world; they are the ‘meanings in life’ (1993, p. 7). As Solomon puts it, we do not experience a neutral, objective reality but live in a ‘surreality’ of purpose, value and significance (1993, p. 18). However, he is not very clear on what the relationship is between objective conceptions of reality and our everyday surreality. One possibility is that science succeeds in transcending the everyday world and replacing it with a description of things that is freed of emotional projections. Alternatively, it might be that the scientifically described world continues to obliviously presuppose the context of significance that we take for granted in everyday life. In the next section, I will suggest that the latter view is more plausible.
In his later writings, Solomon retreats from some of the more extreme claims made in The Passions and elsewhere. The emphasis on choice is toned down and he also acknowledges that the body makes an indispensable contribution to emotional experience. A problem with the early view is that it is not clear how an emotional judgement is to be distinguished from a non‐emotional value judgement with the same content, without appealing to the fact that the former is felt while the latter is not. Solomon tries to deal with the problem by insisting that emotions are ‘self‐involved and relatively intense evaluative judgments’ (1993, p. 127). But this seems to beg the question, as it is not clear what, aside from feeling, could make a value judgement intense. For this and other reasons, Solomon later concedes that our bodily phenomenology makes an important contribution to emotional experience. However, rather than accepting that emotions incorporate feelings, he widens the concept of judgement so as to accommodate at least some of what others might call feelings. He does this by drawing an analogy between emotional and kinaesthetic judgements (2003, 2004a, 2004b). When you walk up the stairs, you ‘judge’ the distance between the steps but this judgement is not separate from your activity. Such judgements are incorporated into activity; they are ‘judgments of the body’, habitual and often skilful bodily responses to situations (2003, p. 191). Similarly, Solomon suggests, the bodily ‘feelings’ that others take to be partly or wholly constitutive of emotions can be reconceived as bodily judgements. As with (p. 352) experiencing the stairs while climbing them, these judgements are not feelings of bodily states but ways of experiencing things external to our bodies. The stairs appear as ‘steep but climbable’; the bodily judgement is partly constitutive of how they are perceived.
Despite these concessions, Solomon continues to emphasize the existential role of emotion, by which I mean its role in constituting an experiential sense of belonging to a world, of being there, purposively immersed in a realm where things matter. In so doing, I think he recognizes an important aspect of experience that tends to be overlooked by philosophers and others. However, I will suggest that his account needs to be clarified and significantly revised in order to make it plausible. Most pressing is the need for a clear distinction between those emotions that constitute the sense of being part of a meaningful world and other emotions that presuppose it. If I am happy about a specific event, I experience myself as being happy within a pre‐given world. My happiness does not constitute the entire framework of practical significance that I inhabit at the time of the event. Although Solomon frequently uses the term ‘emotion’ to refer to occurrent judgements such as being happy or angry about something, when he claims that emotions are the meaning of life he does also stress that they are not isolated, specifically focused episodes:1
My emotion is a structure of my world, which may at times manifest itself in certain specific displays of feeling or behaviour. But my emotion is neither such displays nor the disposition to such displays. (1993, p. 100)
An emotion is thus an enduring aspect of world‐experience. Between episodes of occurrent emotion, it remains in place as a system of meanings that we experience as integral to the world. Hence emotions ‘set up’ the world that we live in; they ‘constitute the framework within which our knowledge of the facts has some meaning, some “relevance” to us’ (1993, p. 135).
One might object that an emotion such as anger, even if it cannot be reduced to an occurrence or a disposition, surely does not ‘set up' a world. Solomon addresses this concern by maintaining that emotions are holistically linked. Every emotion ‘presupposes the entire body of previous emotional judgments to supply its context and its history’ (1993, p. 137). Although no single emotion is responsible for the sense that one is part of a significant world, they do so when taken together.
However, it is not clear how a number of interrelated emotions, all of which individually presuppose experience of a meaningful world, combine so as to constitute that experience. No doubt it is possible to concoct an account along such lines but I think this is the wrong way to go. What is needed instead is a distinction between those emotional states that constitute (or at least partly (p. 353) constitute) the sense of belonging to a meaningful world and those that we experience as occurring within the world. In everyday English language, the contrast between ‘mood’ and ‘emotion’ perhaps best approximates this distinction. It is certain moods, I want to suggest, that constitute the meaning of life.
Solomon claims that moods are just ‘generalized emotions’ (1993, p. 15), with the level of generality varying from case to case. Emotion is therefore the primary phenomenon and moods are a subset of emotions:
To understand the nature of moods, one has to first understand the nature of emotions. Moods, in their indiscriminate universality, are metaphysical generalizations of the emotions. (1993, p. 71)
In taking emotions to be intentional states with specific objects and moods to be intentional states with generalized objects, Solomon loses sight of the aspect of experience that he refers to as the meaningfulness of life. A sense of participating in a realm where some things matter is not an intentional state, a collection of intentional states or a generalized intentional state but a pre‐intentional background to intentional states. I say ‘pre‐intentional’ rather than non‐intentional because it is not wholly distinct from intentional states. Rather, it contributes to the structure of intentionally directed emotion, determining the range of emotions that one is capable of experiencing. For example, in the extreme case of a mood where the world appears utterly bereft of practical significance, worrying about whether a project will succeed and hoping that it will succeed would not be possible. Such emotions would be unintelligible without a presupposed set of mood‐constituted concerns.
A failure to fully appreciate the phenomenology of mood is not specific to Solomon. Many discussions of emotion take moods either to be generalized emotions or to be states that add ‘colour’ to experience, analogous to the icing on a cake. For example, Goldie (2000, p. 141) states that the difference between moods and emotions is primarily down to the ‘degree of specificity of their objects’, and Roberts (2003, p. 115) similarly endorses the view that moods are generalized emotions, adding that mood is analogous to a colour or tone: ‘depression and elation color the objects of our experience in hues of value’. This may well apply to some moods but what is needed, I will now suggest, is an account that also recognizes the greater phenomenological ‘depth’ of other moods.
15.3 The Phenomenology of Mood
Solomon acknowledges Heidegger as a source of inspiration for his account of emotion and world‐meaning (e.g. Solomon, 1993, p. 50), and it is to Heidegger that I turn in order to draw a distinction between moods and emotions. For Heidegger (1962, 1995), moods are phenomenologically deeper than emotions, by which I mean that emotions are only intelligible in the context of a mood. Heidegger does not actually draw a distinction between moods and emotions. However his discussion can, I think, be fruitfully couched in these terms, as he does want to distinguish intentional states (amongst which I include the majority of what we call ‘emotions’) from pre‐intentional moods.2 Those emotional states that we refer to ourselves as being in generally go deeper than those that we have (Cataldi, 1993). When we have an emotion, we are already in a situation. And, as Heidegger appreciates, this sense of being there depends upon mood.
Of course, the everyday terms ‘mood’ and ‘emotion’ do not map neatly onto two distinct phenomenological categories. Not all moods are pre‐intentional and, as I will make clear in the next section, not all pre‐intentional backgrounds are moods either. Nevertheless, ‘mood’ is more often employed than ‘emotion’ to communicate those states that are responsible for giving the experienced world its significance. Hence I use the term ‘mood’ for current purposes. However, when referring to mood, I restrict myself to ‘deep’ moods and thus depart from everyday usage, which is more wide‐ranging. I will suggest towards the end of this chapter that, when it comes to further studying the relevant phenomenology, a term of art (‘existential feeling’) might be preferable to the term ‘mood’.
Heidegger's conception of mood (Stimmung) is premised on the acknowledgement that we do not experience the world as disinterested spectators; we find ourselves in it. We are not in the world in the way that an object might be in a container. Experiencing oneself as part of the world is not principally a matter of registering one's spatiotemporal location in relation to other entities. Rather, we are situated in the world in the sense that we are purposively entangled with it. In any situation, certain things show up as practically significant. This is the case with items of equipment, for example, which knit together in holistic teleological frameworks that reflect potential activities (Heidegger, 1962, pp. 95–102). Consider perceiving a coffee cup. It is experienced as functional, as something for drinking from, and this function is interconnected with the functions of the bottle of milk in the fridge, the sugar bowl and spoon, the coffee jar, the kettle, the sink, the work surface, and so on. We do not perceive such objects in a neutral, detached, (p. 355) standoffish fashion. More often, our appreciation of them is practical in nature; we encounter them as tools that are seamlessly integrated into our activities. Thus, according to Heidegger, the world that we inhabit takes the form of a web of practical, purposive relations. We experience things in terms of what they offer in relation to our various projects.
However, it is important to appreciate that there are various different ways in which things appear to us as practically significant. For example, the potential activities offered by an object might present themselves as pleasant, unpleasant, required, pressing, enticing, interesting, boring, only for me, for us, for them but not for me, difficult, easy or impossible. Objects do not summon us to act in a single, homogeneous way. Furthermore, potential practical utility is not the only kind of significance that things have for us. We experience actual and potential happenings as significant in many different ways too. They might be threatening, dangerous, exciting, relevant to you, me, us or them, fascinating, boring, expected or unexpected, comforting, reassuring, safe or unsafe. And then there are other people too, who we relate to in all sorts of ways and who appear to us as offering a range of significant activities, happenings, and relations, from sexual gratification to a boring conversation to a punch in the face.
Hence we experience people, objects, events, and situations in the world in terms of different kinds of significant possibility, different ways of mattering. The range of emotions that we experience reflects this possibility space. All emotions presuppose an appreciation of certain possibilities as somehow significant. This clearly applies to what Gordon (1987) calls ‘epistemic emotions’, which are directed towards outcomes that are either non‐actual or unknown. One fears, dreads, hopes for, or is excited by something that may or may not happen or have happened. But it also applies to many or perhaps even all of what Gordon calls ‘factive emotions’, emotions that are directed at things one knows to be the case. For example one might be sad, angry, or happy about an event. Here too there is an experience of salient possibilities. In disappointment, there is often the sense that the space of possibilities has narrowed, that certain significant possibilities are irrevocably gone. Much the same can apply to anger at something someone has done. In mattering to us, their deed has a significance that reaches out beyond the actual and impacts upon the likely shape of things to come. Not all of the salient consequences that provoke the anger are actualized.
Heidegger's proposal, as I interpret it, is that moods constitute the various different ways in which we are able to experience things as mattering. Hence they are presupposed by intentionally directed emotions. Take fear, for example. Heidegger claims that the experience of being afraid of something presupposes an appreciation on our part of distinctive kinds of possibility; ‘different possibilities of Being emerge in fearing’ (1962, p. 181). In order to be afraid, one must already find oneself in the world in such a way that being in danger or under threat are possibilities. Some being, perhaps oneself, has to matter in a certain kind of way (p. 356) for fear to be possible. The point applies more generally: different kinds of emotion presuppose a range of different ways in which things can matter to us, such as having practical significance, threatening us or being intriguing. According to Heidegger, mood determines the space of possible kinds of concern.3
It is surely uncontroversial to maintain that having an emotion with a specific content requires having a particular set of concerns. For example, the state of being thrilled at finding a rare stamp presupposes the kinds of value that a stamp collector might have. However, Heidegger's claim does not relate merely to the contents of emotions but also to the kinds of emotion that we are capable of experiencing, such as fearing, hoping, enthusing, regretting, or rejoicing. Take the appreciation of practical significance, for example. Some things appear to us as practically significant and others not, but consider the experiential changes that might occur if all sense of practical significance were removed from experience, if one were no longer able to entertain the possibility of anything having any consequence. Sartre's (1963) ‘nausea’ is a mood along such lines, where a background sense of purpose and function that pervades everyday experience is removed altogether, with the result that everything appears strangely alien and contingent. Things are experienced as bereft of their usual familiarity, appearing instead as ‘soft, monstrous masses, in disorder—naked, with a frightening, obscene nakedness’ (Sartre, 1963, p. 183). The world as it is experienced through nausea is not simply a place without purpose or function but a place where purpose and function are no longer conceivable.4 A mood like this is, at the same time, a shift in the range of possible emotions. Sartrean nausea occurs only fleetingly in its full‐blown form. But were such a mood to linger, one could no longer be excited, delighted, annoyed, or disappointed by worldly events, as one would no longer experience those events through concerns that such emotions presuppose.
Heidegger warns against philosophical perspectives that construe mood as ‘an object swimming in the stream of consciousness’ (1995, p. 90). A mood is not an internal mental state that we experience ourselves as having within a world. Neither is it an intentional state that has a substantial chunk of the world as its object. It is not ‘an inner condition which then reaches forth in an enigmatical way and puts its mark on Things and persons’ (Heidegger, 1962, p. 176). Rather, a mood is a background sense of belonging to a meaningful world, a condition of possibility for having intentional states: ‘The mood has already disclosed, in every case, Being‐in‐the‐world as a whole, and makes it possible first of all to direct oneself towards (p. 357) something’ (1962, p. 176). Mood constitutes a phenomenological background in the context of which intentionally directed experience is possible.
A similar account of mood (Stimmung) is offered by Stephan Strasser (1977), who distinguishes moods from other kinds of emotional state by appealing to different levels of feeling. Like Heidegger, he claims that intentional states are structured by moods, which determine the range of ways in which things can be encountered (as threatening, inviting, etc.). A mood is thus deeper than an intentional state; it is ‘the primordial phenomenological characteristic of self‐experiencing life’ (1977, p. 121), which ‘precedes everything that has the character of an act’ (1977, p. 182). The importance of mood is seldom appreciated and this, Strasser suggests, is because its depth serves to make it phenomenologically inconspicuous. A mood is not an object of experience but a space of possibilities in the context of which we experience other things. As he puts it:
…precisely those attunements [Stimmungen] to which we pay no heed at all, the attunements we least observe, those attunements which attune us in such a way that we feel as though there is no attunement there are all, as though we were not attuned in any way at all—these attunements are the most powerful. (1977, p. 68)
So we should not confuse the intensity of an emotional state with its depth. A phenomenologically inconspicuous mood can be deeper than an intense emotion, as mood constitutes the kinds of concern in relation to which such emotions are intelligible. Emotions always occur in the context of moods. As Heidegger observes, we are always in a mood even when we don't realize it. Even the ‘pallid, evenly balanced lack of mood (Ungestimmtheit), which is often persistent and which is not to be mistaken for a bad mood, is far from nothing at all’ (1962, p. 173).
The difference between intensity and depth is made clear by Heidegger's (1995) lengthy phenomenological analysis of boredom (Langeweile), which distinguishes three kinds of boredom.5 First of all, there are those occasions when we are ‘bored by’ something. Heidegger offers the example of waiting at a quiet, rural railway station for a train that is not due for another few hours. In such circumstances, we are very much aware of the situation as boring. Our surroundings appear boring; the station is experienced as something that ‘does not yet offer us what it properly ought to’ (1995, p. 103), as something that puts our projects on hold. We try to distract ourselves from the situation by walking up and down or drawing pictures in the sand with our fingers. Every so often, we look up at the clock and will the time to pass more quickly. In this case, our boredom is intense and, although its object is not neatly defined, it is still an intentional state directed at a particular situation.
(p. 358) Heidegger contrasts this with a second form of boredom; being ‘bored with’ a situation. He offers the example of attending a dinner and being struck, upon leaving, by the realization that one was bored all night. The odd thing though is that one was not aware of being bored at the time. The situation did not present itself as an object of experience, as something that was boring. In fact, one quite happily chatted away all night, expressed oneself with enthusiasm and more generally immersed oneself in the evening. Yet, Heidegger says, what we have here is actually a more ‘profound’ form of boredom than being bored by something. During occasions like the dinner, the boredom is not intense in the way that being bored by something is. But it is deeper all the same. We are aware of the station as boring because alternative possibilities present themselves; it stands in the way of projects and concerns that are not themselves experienced through the boredom. So boredom is experienced within a space of other possibilities. However, during the dinner, one experiences one's whole situation through the boredom. It no longer incorporates the possibility of one's not being bored and so there is no vantage point from which to resist the boredom: ‘any seeking to be satisfied by beings is absent in advance’ (1995, p. 117). Hence, in the case of the station, a particular thing fails to satisfy us, whereas, at the dinner, the possibility of anything satisfying us is absent from the experience; we are in the boredom. The latter is phenomenologically deeper as it is ‘a preventing of’ a ‘seeking’ that is still there when we find something intensely boring (1995, p. 117).
However, Heidegger indicates that there is an even deeper form of boredom. At the dinner, the boredom is my boredom, a realm where only I dwell. I can still conceive of other perspectives on this and other situations. Thus the space of possibilities that I currently inhabit does not exhaust my sense of what the world might have to offer. This is not so in the third form of boredom, being ‘boring for one’. Here, the boredom is all‐encompassing. A sense of there being any alternative to this way of finding oneself in the world for anyone is absent from experience; ‘we find ourselves in the midst of beings as a whole, i.e., in the whole of this indifference’ (1995, p. 138). All experience is structured by a space of possibilities that is quietly lacking. Things ‘offer us no possibility of acting and no further possibility of our doing anything. There is a telling refusal on the part of beings as a whole with respect to these possibilities’ (1995, p. 139). Certain possibilities that remain presupposed by the first and second forms are now absent. Hence the third form is the deepest, as it involves a loss of certain kinds of concern that the shallower forms of boredom continue to depend upon. While waiting at the station, things are experienced as ‘refusing’ possibilities (1995, p. 140). And, in the second form, not all situations offer the same possibilities as the dinner. In the third form, however, there is nothing left to refuse and no alternative on offer.
I suggest that we think of the distinction between emotions and deep moods in these terms. Emotions are, for the most part, intentional states, such as Heidegger's being ‘bored by’. Moods, in contrast, are presupposed possibility spaces that we (p. 359) find ourselves in. As Heidegger notes, not all moods are equally deep. The second form of boredom is not as deep as the third. It is not experienced as encompassing the world for everyone, as a way of being in the world to which there is no alternative.
The kind of tripartite distinction proposed by Heidegger can be applied to a range of other emotional states too.6 For example, Garrett (1994, pp. 73–4) distinguishes three kinds of despair. There is ‘project‐specific despair’, which is an intentional state where one despairs about a specific state of affairs. There is also ‘personal despair’, where one despairs over one's entire life. And there is ‘philosophical despair’, which is despair over the meaninglessness of all lives.7 Again, we have a specifically directed intentional state, a mood that shapes one's intentional states and a deeper mood that envelops all conceivable predicaments.8
What Garrett calls ‘philosophical despair’ is closely related to the experience of depression, and deep mood changes are vividly conveyed by numerous autobiographical descriptions of altered experience in depression. It is clear from such accounts that the experience of depression involves, amongst other things, a shift in the kinds of significant possibility that shape experience of self, other people, and the surrounding world. Many authors describe a loss of both practical connectedness with things and emotional connectedness with people. What is lost is not just experience of actual connections. Experience no longer incorporates the sense that such connections are possible. This is frequently communicated in terms of an invisible but impenetrable barrier or container that irrevocably separates the sufferer from things and people. For example, Andrew Solomon reports that ‘I felt as if my head had been encaged in Lucite, like one of those butterflies trapped forever in the thick transparency of a paperweight’ (2001, p. 66).9 A sense of anything as offering potential pleasure is also gone. As William Styron (2001, p. 14) remarks, there was ‘a sense that my thought processes were being engulfed by a toxic and unnameable tide that obliterated any enjoyable response to the living (p. 360) world’. And, as Andrew Solomon puts it, ‘the first thing that goes is happiness. You cannot gain pleasure from anything. That's famously the cardinal symptom of major depression. But soon the other emotions follow happiness into oblivion’ (2001, p. 19). It is not just that things no longer make one feel happy; a sense of their even having the potential to do so is gone. Also gone is the conceivability of any alternative to the depression. Almost all authors who offer detailed accounts of a major depressive episode state that, whilst suffering from depression, they could not contemplate the possibility of any alternative to the world of depression and therefore could not conceive of the possibility of recovery. For example, Styron states that ‘all sense of hope had vanished’ (2001, p. 58), and Sally Brampton, in a recent memoir, describes her predicament as follows:
It is the glass wall that separates us from life, from ourselves, that is so truly frightening in depression. It is a terrible sense of our own overwhelming reality, a reality that we know has nothing to do with the reality that we once knew. And from which we think we will never escape. It is like living in a parallel universe but a universe so devoid of familiar signs of life that we are adrift, lost. (2008, p. 171)
As her account illustrates, although we are often oblivious to deep moods, this is not always so. Changes in mood are phenomenologically conspicuous in depression partly because of the awareness that something has been lost. The sufferer knows all too well that the world used not to be like this, that something is missing from experience. However, to be aware in this way that things were once different is not to retain the kinds of possibility that previously characterized experience. The sufferer can remember that things used to be different but she cannot rekindle the experience of their being different; she can no longer feel the possibilities that were once there and that might one day return. Although she knows that something is gone and is able to speak of what has been lost, there remains something she cannot fully conceive of, an appreciation of things that none of her thoughts or words are able to evoke. It is the possibility of actually experiencing things as mattering in the ways that they once did which she cannot entertain. For example: ‘What time is it? A little after ten in the morning. I try to remember what ten in the morning means, how it feels. But I cannot. Time means nothing to me any more’ (Brampton, 2008, p. 29).
Depression thus involves a transformation of deep mood, a shift in the kinds of concern that structure experience of people, things, and also, of course, oneself. So there is a big difference between at least some of the emotional changes that occur in depression and an increase in the intensity of emotions like sadness. The sadness of severe depression is not adequately characterized as an intensification or generalization of some intentional state. The world is experienced through the sadness. It is how one finds oneself in the world rather than an emotion that one has within the world. One cannot see outside it, which is partly why telling people with depression to ‘snap out of it’ is notoriously ineffective.
(p. 361) The depth of depressed mood will of course vary from case to case. Like Heidegger's second form of boredom, it often seems to take the form of my depression, rather than the world for all of us, but more severe cases involve an inability to appreciate that there are alternative possibilities available to anyone. Depression is reality and any activities that seem incongruous with it appear as absurd rather than as pointing to possibilities beyond depression:
During my long morning walks I watched people hurrying along in suits and trainers. Where was it they were going, and why were they in such haste? I simply couldn't imagine feeling such urgency. I watched others throwing a ball for a dog, picking it up, and throwing it again. Why? Where was the sense in such repetition? (Brampton, 2008, p. 249)
Deep depression is not a complete absence of all forms of significance though. Many sufferers report intense feelings of fear, dread, isolation, and loneliness. They still relate to the world in some way, but in a way that is quite different from what most of us take for granted most of the time. Everyday world‐meaning is replaced by a radically altered relationship with the world, characterized by irrevocable alienation, despair, futility, guilt, and the like, with no hope of reprieve. Sufferers often describe the change as akin to having died. They have lost the feeling of being alive, a sense of being practically entwined with the world and emotionally related to others that everyday experience obliviously takes for granted:
People talk about the way disembodied spirits roam the world with no place to park themselves, but all I can think is that I am a dispirited body, and I'm sure there are plenty of other human mollusc shells roaming around waiting for some soul to fill them up. […] with every day that goes by, I feel myself becoming more and more invisible, getting covered over more thickly with darkness, coats and coats of darkness that are going to suffocate me in the sweltering heat of the summer sun that I can't even see anymore even though I can feel it burn. Imagine […] only knowing that the sun is shining because you feel the ache of its awful heat and not because you know the joy of its light. Imagine always being in the dark. (Wurtzel, 1996, pp. 42–54)
It is not that one doesn't feel joy but that one cannot feel joy. The ‘darkness’ is a loss of certain possibilities, with the result that everything is experienced through a sense of insurmountable estrangement.10
Although I have focused on negative moods here, much the same point can be made, I think, by appealing to more ‘positive’ moods, such as feeling wholly at peace with the world, at one with things, and at least some instances of being in love. A love that is ‘blind’ is a love through which one experiences the world, a love in which one is oblivious to certain possibilities. And an all‐encompassing, unchangeable mood of being completely at peace with the world would be one in which the possibilities of fear, worry, and the like were absent from experience. Moods thus open up certain kinds of possibility and close down others. This role is (p. 362) not readily apparent unless we reflect upon various kinds of extreme alteration in mood.
It would therefore be quite wrong to conceive of deep mood as a subjective gloss, resting on top of a pre‐understood objective world. A mood, as Heidegger points out, has neither an internal nor an external phenomenology: ‘A mood assails us. It comes neither from “outside” nor from “inside”, but arises out of Being‐in‐the‐world, as a way of such Being’ (1962, p. 176). When we experience something as a state of ourselves or as a state of the world, we are already in a mood. Hence it is a mistake to think that we can contemplate and describe the world in a neutral, detached fashion by simply discarding a subjective overlay. One's mood is not discarded; it is a context of intelligibility that continues to be presupposed by all experience and thought. In a world devoid of all significance, an objective account of the structure and origin of the universe could be of no more worth than a comprehensive account of the precise configurations of all the grains of sand in a bucket. There could be no motivation for formulating a scientific theory, no sense of it being of any potential interest or consequence. It is doubtful that scientific theories would even be intelligible to someone in such a mood. Without relevance, significance, purpose, without a sense of the world as a place that merits exploration and explanation, the possibility of seeking to understand anything would be absent. Indeed, it is arguable that a kind of seeking is inextricable from the process of understanding. Hence a sense of what it is to understand something would be gone. One would be presented with a series of hollow claims that one might indifferently assent to or deny but which one could not fully grasp. Just such a loss of intelligibility is often reported in severe depression. For example, Brampton remarks that she found herself unable to read: ‘Words are no more than patterns on a page’ (2008, p. 33). Background mood is not something that any experience, thought, or conceptualization can simply transcend. However, as the deeper moods are often phenomenologically inconspicuous, their role tends to be overlooked. Hence scientific and philosophical accounts of how we experience the world generally fail to incorporate a sense of being in the world that they obliviously take for granted. As Heidegger remarks, ‘science becomes blind to what it must presuppose’ (2001, p. 75) and ‘one must see that science as such (i.e., all theoretical‐scientific knowledge) is founded as a way of being‐in‐the‐world—founded in the bodily having of a world’ (2001, p. 94).11
A question still to be addressed is what moods actually consist of. Granted, we can describe them as playing a distinctive kind of phenomenological role but what kind of state could play that role? In the remainder of this chapter, I will suggest that moods are comprised of bodily feeling and that the apparent (p. 363) implausibility of this view is symptomatic of a commonplace misconception of bodily feeling.12
15.4 Emotions and Bodily Feelings
The term ‘feeling’ is used in various different ways. We might speak of the feeling of being in love, the feeling that all is well, the feeling that something is not true, the feeling of being at the beach on a hot, sunny day or feeling like one is on a rollercoaster. One could maintain, as Nussbaum (2001, p. 60) does, that certain uses of the term ‘feeling’, including those associated with emotions and moods, are synonymous with ‘judgement’ or ‘belief’. Thus, when we refer to a feeling that relates to states of affairs outside of the body, we are talking about something quite different from a ‘bodily feeling’. Nussbaum is of course right that not all talk of feelings refers to bodily feelings. Nevertheless, it is a mistake to think of all bodily feelings as states that have an exclusively bodily phenomenology. The same feeling can be referred to as bodily in nature and also as a way of experiencing something other than the body.13 We can talk about the same feeling in different ways, and what might appear to be different feelings are often one and the same.
We do not perceive our bodies in complete isolation from how we perceive everything else, and then link the two kinds of perception together by means of some subsequent mental process. Consider, for example, the sense of balance. Losing one's balance or feeling disorientated is not just a perception of one's body or of the world outside the body. It is a perception of the relationship between one's body and its surroundings.14 A sense of bodily orientation is integral to world‐experience; the perceived world is organized in terms of ‘up’, ‘down’, ‘left’, and ‘right’. A feeling such as disorientation is a bodily feeling but it is not just an experience of the body. In fact, the term ‘bodily feeling’ is ambiguous. It could be understood as referring exclusively to feelings of the body, experiences where the body or a part of it is phenomenologically conspicuous in some way. This is consistent with the pervasive tendency to think of bodily feelings as having an (p. 364) exclusively internal phenomenology. However, bodily feelings can also be conceived of as experiences where the body feels something, and here there is no commitment to the assumption that they are experiences of internal states. I suggest that what applies to a feeling of disorientation also applies to many if not all of the bodily feelings that are implicated in emotional states. The feeling body is an aspect of the experience but it need not be the exclusive object of the experience. Indeed, it need not be an object of experience at all. A bodily feeling can be a way in which something other than the body is experienced. It can be that through which we experience something, an agent of perception rather than an object of perception.
This conception of bodily feeling follows naturally from the increasingly widespread recognition amongst phenomenologists and others that we do not experience and understand the world primarily as detached spectators but through our practical, purposive, bodily involvement with it. A background sense of interconnected bodily potentialities structures perception of one's surroundings:
The body is the vehicle of being in the world, and having a body is, for a living creature, to be intervolved with a definite environment, to identify oneself with certain projects and be continually committed to them. (Merleau‐Ponty, 1962, p. 82)
The body is not simply an object of experience that one is intimately associated with or perhaps even identical with. Bodily dispositions to act, recoil, immerse oneself in activity, or withdraw from it are reflected in what things are perceived as offering. Hence perception of the body and perception of what is outside it cannot be disentangled. Much the same point is also made by J. J. Gibson:
Egoreception accompanies exteroception, like the other side of a coin. Perception has two poles, the subjective and the objective, and information is available to specify both. One perceives the environment and coperceives oneself. (1979, p. 126)
There is considerable current interest in ‘enactive’ approaches to perception, which develop the ideas of Gibson and others, in order to argue that perception of the world incorporates proprioception and also bodily activities embedded in particular kinds of environment. Accounts such as that of Noë (2004) maintain that salient possibilities for perception and action are reflected in how objects are experienced. For example, integral to experience of an object is the sense that it might be perceived from another angle, revealing its hidden aspects.15 Although I endorse the view that we experience things in terms of significant possibilities (see, for example, Ratcliffe, 2008, ch. 4), I also think that enactive approaches generally fail to appreciate the wide range of different ways in which things and people are perceived as significant. Consider what Gibson (1979) calls ‘affordances’, (p. 365) opportunities that things are perceived as offering. One can say that a fast‐approaching and unavoidable avalanche affords curling up in a ball and waiting to die but this is uninformative. It needs to be acknowledged that many different kinds of significance relation feature in our experience, such as ‘threatening and impossible to escape from’, ‘desirable but beyond one's grasp’, ‘interesting’, ‘easy to obtain’, and so on. Different emotions depend upon different kinds of significance, different ways in which things matter to us.
Solomon's claim that some emotions incorporate kinaesthetic judgements is susceptible to much the same criticism. There is too much emphasis on bodily activity, on ‘getting engaged in the world’ (2004a, p. 86), and insufficient acknowledgement of the variety of ways in which things are felt to matter. Once it is appreciated that feelings in general do not have an exclusively bodily phenomenology, that we do not experience our bodies as sealed containers with some experiences falling clearly on the inside and others wholly on the outside, it becomes clear that not all world‐directed feelings are akin to the kinaesthetic judgements involved in catching a ball or running up the stairs. Bodily feelings can involve a sense of disengagement and passivity as much as they can engagement and activity.
All sorts of different experiences serve to illustrate the double‐sidedness of feeling, how feelings can be both perceptions of self and at the same time perceptions of non‐self.16 Consider Sartre's description of experiencing eyestrain while reading:
…this pain can itself be indicated by objects of the world; i.e., by the book which I read. It is with more difficulty that the words are detached from the undifferentiated ground which they constitute; they may tremble, quiver; their meaning can be derived only with effort.…(1989, p. 332)
When one is concentrating on the words, the experience of eyestrain, the discomfort, is clearly there but it is experienced primarily as a way in which the words on the page appear. Then, as one attends to the experience, there is a phenomenological shift. One becomes aware of a pain around one's eyes and, in so doing, disengages from the text. The object of experience shifts but the discomfort, although not previously an object of experience, was surely not wholly absent from the experience. Strasser (1977, pp. 238–9) makes a complementary point in relation to the experience of tiredness:
I can simply live ‘in’ my tiredness. I intransitively ‘feel’, then, in the mode of attraction or mood. But I also transitively ‘feel’ my tiredness; then I examine it on the basis of a knowledge‐intention and possibly identify sensations of pain in this or that group of muscles, organ‐sensations, and so forth.
A feeling of tiredness need not be first and foremost a feeling of the body. We can inhabit our tiredness, experiencing the world through it rather than scrutinizing (p. 366) the tiredness itself. It can happen that someone who is extremely tired, perhaps for a prolonged period, remains curiously unaware of it. Even though the tiredness is not itself conspicuous in a case like this, it might well be phenomenologically deep, a shape that all experience takes on rather than an inconvenience that one actively tries to shake off. We can thus distinguish between intentional bodily feelings like the eyestrain, which present the body or something else in some way, and ‘pre‐intentional’ feelings, such as a background feeling of tiredness that shapes all experience and thought. As Strasser notes, ‘governance by feeling operates partially on the preintentional level, partially on the intentional level’ (1977, p. 229).
We are often oblivious to the role played by pre‐intentional feeling. However, as Heidegger (1962, pp. 226–7) recognizes in his discussion of Angst, its role can become noticeable during extreme shifts in mood. In some such cases, what one previously took for granted becomes salient in its absence, as illustrated by everyday metaphors such as ‘having the rug pulled out from under one's feet’. John Hull, in his autobiographical account of becoming blind and living with blindness, describes what I take to be a shift in pre‐intentional feeling, an experience which he concedes is extremely difficult to express. He refers to the onset of depression and to a feeling much deeper than mundane feelings, which came to encompass all experience and thought: ‘the deepest feelings go beyond feeling. One is numbed by the feeling; one does not experience the feeling’ (1990, p. 168). It is not a localized experience but a way of being that transforms the range of possible emotional experience: ‘The emotional life is no longer experienced as content (i.e., an emotion having the identifiable content of anger, sadness, and so on) but as a sort of numbness or recoil. I take refuge in sleep, or sleep seeks to inhabit me’ (1990, p. 153). Numerous other reports of painful feeling in depression make clear that such feelings are neither directed at the body in isolation from the world nor vice versa. They are bodily feelings and, at the same time, ways of finding oneself in the world. For example, Tracy Thompson (1995, p. 73) describes the transition from grief to depression as follows: ‘As the months went by, the breathtaking reality of my father's death became a physical hurt, a heaviness in my bones, a pervasive lethargy.’ A world that is all too conspicuously empty of value, practical significance and potential communion with others is quite literally painful. As William Styron (2001, p. 49) remarks, ‘the gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain’ (Styron, 2001, p. 49).17
(p. 367) Deep moods, I suggest, are pre‐intentional feelings that remain consistent over fairly long periods of time. It follows from this that the role of constituting a space of significant possibilities is not performed solely by these moods. Sometimes, background feelings shift only momentarily. In other cases, these feelings might be so consistent and enduring that we refer to them as character or personality traits rather than moods. Hence the term ‘mood’, even when restricted to deep moods, is not wholly adequate. For this reason, I have recommended using the term ‘existential feeling’ instead (Ratcliffe, 2005, 2008). Whether sporadic, longer term or operative over a whole life, a feeling is ‘existential’ insofar as it constitutes a sense of belonging to a significant world. Even so, the term ‘mood’ does at least serve to capture many of the relevant predicaments. Furthermore, the distinction between having an emotion and being in a mood is a useful one.
It is important to recognize that, even though existential feelings (amongst which I include deep moods) and intentionally directed emotions play different phenomenological roles, the two aspects of experience are intimately related. Existential feelings and emotions are not wholly separate, static ‘states’ but inextricable aspects of experience that shape each other. For example, a sudden change in deep mood is often brought about by an intense emotion or series of interrelated emotions. These emotions, although intense, might at first be specifically focused and thus not very deep. However, such emotions often provoke reorientations of mood, a process that is referred to in some cases as something's ‘sinking in’. Sue Cataldi (1993) describes the process by reflecting upon how she felt when attacked on the street. To begin with, there is a gradual realization of her situation, involving a loss of practical, bodily ‘grip’ or ‘hold’ on her surroundings. The initial disorientation gives way to an awareness of danger. As she is assaulted and a knife is revealed, the experience takes on the form of ‘sheer terror’, which is not a localized emotion but an all‐encompassing way of being. The terror is not felt within a situation; it is the situation (p. 15). It is, as she says, ‘deep’, a deep emotion being something one is ‘in’ (p. 2).
When intense emotions culminate in deep mood changes, the process is essentially bodily in nature. For example, here is how the philosopher Havi Carel describes her experience of receiving a diagnosis of serious illness:
Pain and fear struck like a physical blow. It is difficult to describe the physicality of bad news. I remember looking at the room and feeling confused: it looked the same, while my life had been turned upside down. Make it stop, I thought. This is the wrong story. Someone come and fix it. Someone do something. The realization that everything was about to change, that a new era was about to begin, seared like burning oil on skin. It crushed me with invisible force. It is difficult to describe the pain and fear that descended on me at that moment. Now I cannot imagine my life without this pain and fear. (2008, p. 4)
What she conveys here is a way the body feels and, at the same time, a dramatic and ultimately enduring shift in the space of significant possibilities. How the body feels (p. 368) cannot be pulled apart from world‐experience, and Carel herself explicitly rejects contrasts such as mental/physical and internal/external, which are engrained in so much of philosophical discourse (2008, p. 21).
Experiences like these do of course involve more than just alterations in intentional and pre‐intentional bodily feelings.18 There is also a conceptual understanding at play, and I think it likely that many of the experiences we refer to as ‘emotions’ are not comprised exclusively of bodily feelings. Emotions can be complicated, dynamic processes, which have an elaborate conceptual structure that often takes the form of an unfolding narrative. As Peter Goldie suggests, an emotion is:
… a relatively complex state, involving past and present episodes of thoughts, feelings, and bodily changes, dynamically related in a narrative of part of a person's life, together with dispositions to experience further emotional episodes, and to act out of the emotion and to express that emotion. (2000, p. 144)
However, I suggest that existential feelings, in contrast, are comprised wholly of pre‐intentional, non‐conceptual feeling. They can be influenced by emotions and thus by the conceptual appraisals that are integral to at least some emotions. But existential feelings are not themselves conceptual. They do not incorporate judgements or appraisals of any kind. By implication, they do not incorporate any conceptual content. An existential feeling is a space of possibilities within which we experience, think, and act, as opposed to being an experience or thought content. As these feelings are presupposed by conceptual judgements rather than being wholly separate from them, it would be better to call them ‘pre‐conceptual’ than ‘non‐conceptual’.
It might be objected that non‐conceptual feeling cannot amount to a sense of salient possibilities. Conceptual understanding is required for that. However, I doubt that this is so. Consider the experience of surprise. In order to be surprised, one need not have conceptualized expectations about a situation. Rather, the anticipation of what is likely to happen can take the form of an unthinking, habitual, bodily engagement with the world (Husserl, 1973, 2001). Expectations are often only conceptualized after one has met with the unexpected. I see no reason why the same point cannot be applied more generally—we anticipate salient possibilities through our feeling bodies.
One might also question the relationship between existential feeling and thought. I have argued that deep moods and other existential feelings structure experience by constituting spaces of possibility. But do they similarly structure (p. 369) thought? Of course, they have effects upon what we think and upon how well we think. But the relationship, it might be argued, is causal; background feelings do not make our thoughts intelligible. Unlike emotion, thought does not have a phenomenology that presupposes existential feeling, the reason being that thought does not have a phenomenology at all. However, this kind of view is, I suggest, mistaken. When a native speaker hears a sentence spoken in his or her own language, their experience is quite different from that of someone who hears the same sentence but does not speak the language. Drawing on such examples, Galen Strawson (e.g. 2004) suggests—quite rightly, in my view—that philosophers need to acknowledge the category of ‘cognitive experience’. The view that conceptual understanding and, by implication, the process of thinking have a phenomenology can be further supported by a consideration of alterations in the experience of thinking that are reported in various psychiatric illnesses. If there were no phenomenology of thought, there could be no such changes. It also seems that these changes are, in every case, intimately associated with alterations in feeling. For example, people with schizophrenia may complain that their thoughts are not only fragmented but also strangely object‐like. Louis Sass (e.g. 2003), amongst others, has argued at length that these alterations in the phenomenology of thought are inextricable from anomalous background feeling. Patients suffering from depersonalization likewise complain of changes in how their thoughts are experienced, which seem to be bound up with anomalous feeling. For example, Simeon and Abugel quote a patient as saying that ‘thinking just felt different, as if coming from somewhere else’ (2006, p. 26).
Hence I propose that experience and thought are both structured by a felt sense of belonging to a meaningful world, a world that matters in various different ways. This existential background, when it remains consistent over a period of time, is often referred to as a mood. Such moods, and existential feelings more generally, are responsible for what Solomon calls the meaning of life. But they are not judgements and they are not generalized emotions. Instead, they are bodily feelings and, at the same time, spaces of significant possibility.
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(*) I am grateful to Peter Goldie and to an audience at Durham University for helpful comments on an earlier version of this chapter.
(1) Consider, for example, Solomon's example of mistakenly thinking someone has stolen one's car. The example is employed to illustrate that emotions are separable from feelings. When one realizes that the person did not steal one's car, one is no longer angry with him or her, even though the associated feelings remain. In this case, it is clear that the anger in question is an occurrent judgement directed at a particular person (1976, p. 123).
(2) Throughout this chapter, I adopt a phenomenological conception of intentionality, which takes it to be the directedness of experience. Intentionality is sometimes conceived of as a non‐phenomenological ‘aboutness’ and there is nothing to stop people from defining it as such. However, the intentionality of emotion is inextricable from the phenomenology of emotion. As I will argue later in this chapter, emotional feeling is intentional. See also Goldie (e.g. 2002, p. 241) for this view. Hence a non‐phenomenological conception of intentionality would be inappropriate in this context. I also conceive of emotions (and moods) phenomenologically, unlike some authors who treat them as physiological changes that may or may not be experienced (e.g. Damasio, 2004; LeDoux, 1999). Separating emotion from experience is, in my view, counter‐intuitive and unwarranted. But, if one insists on doing so, then we can simply call what I am addressing here ‘feelings of emotions’ rather than ‘emotions’. The disagreement is merely terminological.
(3) Distinguishing and categorizing all the ways in which things and people are experienced as mattering to us and exploring how the various emotions depend upon them would be a huge undertaking. My aim here is to argue for the more general claim that emotion presupposes mattering and mattering depends upon mood.
(4) A strikingly similar experiential transformation is often reported by schizophrenic patients and is closely associated with changes in feeling (for further discussion, see, for example, Sass, 2003; Ratcliffe, 2008, ch. 7).
(5) Heidegger's discussion places particular emphasis on the temporal structure of boredom. However, I do not discuss this aspect of his analysis, as it is not required in order to draw the distinction between intensity and depth.
(6) Although I distinguish moods from emotions, I use the term ‘emotional state’ in a more general way to refer to both.
(7) See Steinbock (2007) for a good discussion of the phenomenology of despair, which suggests that despair involves a loss of possibilities that various other emotional states, such as disappointment and desperation, continue to presuppose.
(8) However, I wonder whether the case of ‘personal despair’ suggests a fourth form of boredom, located between Heidegger's forms two and three. I can find myself in a boring situation or experience boredom as a space of possibilities in which we are all situated. But between the two is what one might call ‘personal boredom’, where one finds one's entire life irrevocably boring. This is more extreme than the case of the dinner, as it encompasses every possible situation one might find oneself in, rather than just the one situation. Yet it is still only my boredom and thus not as deep as form three.
(11) Similar statements can be found in other works by Heidegger (e.g. 1962, 1995).
(12) Heidegger's view on this matter is not at all clear. He does not discuss the phenomenology of the body at all in Being and Time, but does later acknowledge that it needs to be addressed (e.g. 2001, p. 81). Strasser (1977, ch. 7) is not wholly clear on the relationship between bodily feeling and mood either, but does seem to acknowledge that the two are intimately related.
(13) For other recent approaches which challenge the assumption that bodily feelings have a wholly ‘internal’ phenomenology, see Goldie (2000, 2002, 2009), Stocker (2004), Greenspan (2004) and Drummond (2004).
(17) As several authors have noted, the phenomenology of painful estrangement often reported in depression is characterized by a kind of unpleasant bodily conspicuousness. The body as a whole feels different, taking the form of an oddly conspicuous object of experience rather than a medium through which other things are experienced (e.g. Fuchs, 2003, p. 225). However, a contrast between the body that invisibly belongs and the body that is unpleasantly salient is, I think, an over‐simplification. There are many different ways in which the body can be phenomenologically conspicuous, not all of which are unpleasant or alienating (Young, 2005, ch. 3; Ratcliffe, 2008, ch. 4).
(18) Again, I should stress that, although I have chosen to focus upon negative emotions here, the process of reorientation does not always take the form of a negative event provoking intense and unpleasant emotions, which eventually tear one out of a realm of cosy belonging. For instance, the joy, delight, relief, gratitude, pride, or elation that follows very good news could equally provoke a change in mood.