Existential feelings and politics

The role of moods in human existence

A bit more than a year ago, I presented Heidegger in a talk as a philosopher who can help us to think about existential choices. These choices are different from ordinary choices – where we choose between two actions or streams of actions. They are more fundamental choices that can lead to changing the entire framework of sense in a field of human action. Martin Luther’s choice to post his 95 theses on the door of All Saints‘ Church in Wittenberg was an existential choice, for instance, insofar as it lead to revision of the whole Christian religion. It was existential for Luther, insofar as a monk, the Christian religion was the framework through which he would make sense of his own life and he had decided to fundamentally change this framework of meaning.

During my talk, I failed to talk about another dimension of human existence – or ‚Dasein‚ as Heidegger describes it – that is essential to our capacity of making existential choices and that plays a fundamental role in Heidegger’s philosophy. In Being and Time, Heidegger points out the essential function of moods in human existence. Moods are all-pervasive: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, boredom, tiredness, etc. We are always in one mood or another. The German word Stimmung captures this permanence very well, because it can also be used to refer to the tuning of a musical insturment. A violin, for instance, is always tuned, even if we don’t play on it. Similarly to human beings, the tuning of an instrument becomes even more apparent if it is detuned. Negative moods – such as anger, boredom, sluggishness – make themselves felt much more heavily because they make us feel bad; but still we have to cope with them somehow.

Even the lack of mood is a privative phenomenon that only makes sense if we relate it to the circumstance that we are constanlty ‚tuned‘ to the world. This lack of mood actually highlights the burden of existence that we have to carry with us since we are born. As Heidegger points out: „The pallid, evenly balanced lack of mood, which is often persistent and which is not to be mistaken for a bad mood, is far from nothing at all. Rather, it is in this that Dasein becomes satiated with itself. Being has become manifest as a burden. Why that should be one does not know. A mood makes manifest ‚how one is, and how one is fairing‘ [„wie einem ist und wird“]“.

The circumstance that we do not „know“ why we are in such or such a mood, particularly in weighty situations wherein we lack of mood, is noteworthy. It highlights that part of our human condition is to be born into a world that we could not choose ourselves and yet we have to get on with our existence. We are condemned to deal with it somehow. Heidegger writes that Dasein is ‚thrown‘ into the world. But this ‚throwness‘ is not a one-time event, but a constant feature of our existence. Moods are not mereley inner perceptions but urge us to behave in one way or another. In each and every situation of our life, we find ourselves in concrete situations with particular moods that make us engage with the world in one way or another.

The term that Heidegger has chosen to describe this overall feature of human existence captures this pretty well: ‚Befindlichkeit‚. It is an old-fashioned German word to describe one’s general state of mind. It is derived from ‚befinden‚ which be used in at least three ways: either to describe how one feels or to describe where one is or to describe how one judges about something. There have been many curious translation of this word in English, reaching from ’state-of-mind‘ to ’sofindingness‘. None really captures the wealth of associations linked to Heidegger’s term.

All things considered, moods are a baffling phenomenon. Why do we have moods, feelings, emotions in the first place? Where do these moods come from? How do we perceive them? Do we feel them? Do we see them? Can we smell a mood? What is their way of being? Are they something physical? Are they something inside our body or inside our brains? How is it possible to share moods with other people? Is it possible to feel or see the mood of someone else without sharing it? And what would be the ‚physical‘ difference between the joyful mood of a birthday party and the sadness of a funeral?

Existential feelings and the groundlesness of Dasein

I will not try to answer these questions here, but come back to Heidegger. In his analysis of Dasein, there is a category of moods that play a special role. It is what I call ‚existential feelings‘. Moods, feelings and other affective phenomena play an epistemic role according to Heidegger: They are not merely things that we perceive, but they disclose or reveal something themselves.

Think about the fear of a dog, for instance. A dog that appears as a threatening occurence in our life is not simply an animal that we identify as a physical entity in our proximity. The dog appears to us through the feeling of fear, as something that threatens to bark, jump or bite. Other examples could be the joy of listening to a concert, the annoyance of meeting someone you dislike, the pleasure of cooking a delicious dish. These feelings are not accidental occurences that accompany our perceptions of the world but they are part of how we disclose and find ourselves in concrete situations.

Existential feelings are different from ordinary feelings as the one described above. They are different because they are not feelings about something in the world, but they are feelings about existence. They disclose being itself.

In his early work, Heidegger attributed a high importance to anxiety. Anxiety, which is not to be confused with fear, is not directed at something within the world – as would be the fear of a dog for instance. It is not triggered by an occurence in the world, but rather emerges by its own. It throws us back from our everyday life, makes one feel uncanny, unhomely and paralises. As Heidegger describes it very poignantly in a lecture on metaphysics, anxiety reveals ’nothing‘ i.e. nothingness itself:

„In anxiety, we say, „one feels uncanny“. What is „it“ that makes „one“ feel uncanny? We cannot say what it is before which one feels uncanny. As a whole it is so for one. All things and we ourselves sink into indifference. This, however, not in the sense of mere disappearance. Rather in their very receding, things turn toward us. The receding of beings as a whole, closing in on us in anxiety, oppreses us. We can get no hold on things. In the slipping away of beings only this „no hold on things“ comes over us and remains. Anxiety makes manifest the nothing“.

This anxiety is a fundamental mood in human existence – an existential feeling. Few have maybe experienced it in this explicit form. Yet, according to Heidegger, anxiety is always latent in our everyday life, when we are dispersed in causal activities and conforming us to an average social behaviour. This average, everyday behaviour of Dasein reveals that it is lost to what Heidegger calls the ‚anyone‘. The anyone refers to what ‚one‘ does: the average, unpersonified way of being which we grow up into and we share with everyone i.e. anyone else.

Heidegger interprets the fact that, in everyday life, we disperse ourselves in an average behaviour as a flight from ourselves – from the responsibility of doing something with an existence that we were thrown into and with which we have to cope. This flight is a quest for stability and certainties, whereas, in reality, our existence has no foundation: There is no reason why we are in this world and for what we are doing. In this mode of everyday life, we are inauthentic or we do not ‚own‘ our existence (here again, translations of the German ‚uneigentlich‚ differ).

An authentic way of being, in contrast, does not turn away from this absence of a foundation. Rather, it faces it, as in facing the void of one’s own death – being-toward-death as Heidegger describes it – ready for anxiety and ready to be freed of the constraints of the ‚anyone‘. For Heidegger, this mode of authenticity is the key to freedom:

„When, by anticipation, one becomes free for one’s own death, one is liberated from one’s lostness in those possibilities which may accidentally thrust themselves upon one; and one is liberated in such a way that for the first time one can authentically understand and choose among the factical possibilities lying ahead of that possibility which is not to be outstripped. Anticipation discloses to existence that its utmost possibility lies in giving itself up, and thus it shatters all one’s tenaciousness to whatever existence on has reached. In anticipation, Dasein guards itself against falling back behind itself, or behind the potentiality-for-Being which it has udnerstood. It guards itself against ‚becoming too old for its victories‘ (Nietzsche)“

Existential feelings in politics

Nothing works better if you want to produce a bit of inflated pathos than a quote by the good ol‘ Nietzsche. But this quote here reveals in what tradition of thought Heidegger locates himself. For him, freedom lies not in a faculty that finds expression in concrete singular acts. Rather, in a world where our actions are shaped by social norms, by institutions, by interpersonal relations and constrained by concrete situations, freedom relates to spheres of possibilities, of potential action and influence. It makes more sense to speak of degrees of freedom or unfreedom, rather than the freedom of a given act or a given thought.

The reference to death in this context needs to be elaborated. Heidegger’s conception of death does not refer to the biological death suffered by our organism. In Being and Time, he develops an ontological concept of death which he characterises as the ‚possibility of absolute impossibility of Dasein‘. We distinguish ourselves from other beings insofar as we make sense of the world we are in. Heidegger describes this as the ability to project ourselves into possibilities, which means that we create a framework of meaning through which we make sense of the world and ourselves. This framework of meaning encompasses many different things such as the language we use, a set of metaphysical beliefs about god, values and the world, the social norms to which we adhere, etc.

This framework of possibilities through which we make sense of our world and ourselves is something that we take for granted in our everyday life. However, Heidegger points out that it is contingent. There is no ultimate foundation and a given set of beliefs. Coming to our example with Luther, for instance, the framework of catholicism, which by many was assumed as fixed, stopped making sense for the initiator of the reformation. And what we observe with one concrete sphere of being can be extrapolated to the whole of Dasein: there is no ultimate foundation of existence. Dasein is condemned to somehow make sense of the world into which it was thrown, to determine itself, constantly facing the possible void of a world, an existence, which loses its meaning.

Finally, this absence of a foundation, the void which is disclosed in anxiety and being-toward-death, brings us to the possibility of politics. This claim I am making here is quite bold, because Heidegger has always denied that there was a political intention behind his analysis of existence. But the contingency of Dasein ultimately applies to political orders as well. A political order is nothing else but a framework of meaning into which we project ourselves, through which we make sense of the world and ourselves. But a mood, such as anxiety, can reveal the groundlessness of such an order.

I am ending with a programmatic observation. If we look at the political scene in Europe today, there is something in the air. There is a restless dissatisfaction with the standing order of globalisation, neoliberalism and the EU. The trench is deepening between, on the one hand, rightwing populists who want to seal themselves off from global evolutions and reformist movements who want to pursue international integration but steer it more decisively. Ulrike Guérot goes as far as to claim that a new civil war is impeding. In the middle, we could locate the political and administrative elite, well-educate but lacking ideas, who are at risk of being marginalised by the subversive forces. The Brexit vote, the election of Trump in the US, the referendum in Catalonia, and the elections in French, which have all been political events marked by unexpected changes and new discourses, may be symptoms of a broader renewal that we are about to experience.

Here, I am not so much interested into what direction these political events will take, whether we should endorse them or be concerned about them. I just want to reflect about the role of moods that one might observe – the mood of dissatisfaction with the standing order, the fear of being left behind, but also the enthusiasm about new ideas and projects. Something is in the air. These moods resonate with Heidegger’s existential feelings which could erupt at any moment and shake the present order which is easily taken for granted. As mentioned above, this is only a programmatic observation, but I think it is worth paying attention to how these atmospheric processes impact the political agenda and will continue doing so in very near future. My thesis is that they are slowly revealing the contingency of the current order and triggering the striving for something new.

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