Finding Ourselves in the World: Emotion, Orientation, Place. Part II

By Jeff Malpas, University of Tasmania

The sorts of claims about the role and character of the emotions that appear in the work of phenomenologists like Heidegger are ontological in character. And what this means is that those claims concern some of the most basic and necessary structures by means of which human being is in the world. Heidegger thus says that here ‘it is not a matter for psychology, nor even for a psychology undergirded by physiology and biology. It is a matter of the basic modes that constitute Dasein, a matter of the ways man confronts the Da, the openness and concealment of beings, in which he stands’.[1] What is at issue is the most basic way in which we encounter the world – in which we are placed in the world. One thus cannot be ‘in’ the world, responding and acting in relation to things, without also being emotionally engaged with the world. Consequently, if characters like Spock and Holmes are to be understood as real characters acting in and responding to the world, then they cannot be understood as emotionally inert. On this basis, emotions cannot be construed as contingent properties, capacities or affects that belong to subjects in addition to their other capacities as acting and responding beings. Instead emotion refers us to a basic feature of subjectivity, namely, to the way subjectivity is always oriented in relation to its environment and the objects around it. We might say that it is precisely this orientation that, as it is also felt, is experienced as emotion. What emotion is, at least in terms of the experience of emotion, is just such felt orientation (or even, in some cases, of disorientation).

The sort of ontological approach that can be found in phenomenological investigations of these matters is quite distinct from the more empirical type of enquiry that appears in the work, for instance, of neuropsychologists and cognitive scientists – including scientists such as Damasio. The philosopher Mathew Radcliffe points out, however, that the phenomenological view of the emotions that is found in Heidegger can be seen as convergent with, and indeed supported by, much contemporary work on the emotions in their relation to cognition and behaviour.[2] Thus in a review article in Science, the neuropsychologist R. J. Dolan writes in quite general terms of emotion as tied to the capacity to find value in the world – which is, one might say, another way of describing what I have referred to as the capacity for orientation. Dolan writes:

An ability to ascribe value to events in the world, a product of evolutionary selective processes, is evident across phylogeny. Value in this sense refers to an organism’s facility to sense whether events in its environment are more or less desirable … emotions represent complex psychological and physiological states that, to a greater or lesser degree, index occurrences of value … the range of emotions to which an organism is susceptible will, to a high degree, reflect on the complexity of its adaptive niche. In higher order primates, in particular humans, this involves adaptive demands of physical, socio-cultural, and interpersonal contexts.[3]

It is worth noting too, the way many contemporary neuroscientists contest the supposed separation of emotion and cognition that is exemplified in the contrast between Spock and Kirk or Holmes and Watson, but which phenomenology also rejects as untenable. In his own discussion, Radcliffe cites Damasio’s work, but he also discusses other aspects of the way emotional responses, or the lack of them, directly affect the capacity to engage with the world – Radcliffe cites certain breakdowns in cognition, Capgras’ syndrome and anosognosia, that are linked to damage to particular neural pathways in the brain also associated with emotional response. Both involve a deficit in relation to what I referred to earlier as cognitive emotions – doubt, for instance and so involve a failure in the ability to recognise of the possible falsity of beliefs, and the need for their revision as well as appropriate behavioural adjustment.

Contemporary neurophysiological accounts of emotion, and of the underlying mechanisms of emotional response that connect them with specific parts of the brain, provide important insights into the physiological basis of emotion. But such accounts need be inconsistent with the sort of ontological account at issue here and neither should they be seen as an alternative to it. The empirical neurophysiological and the ontological operate at different levels of analysis and explanation. Moreover phenomenological approaches to the emotions also reveal aspects of the emotions that may not be so immediately evident on a neuropsychological approach alone.

Part of what is characteristic of the sort of ontological account associated with a phenomenological approach to the emotions is indeed the way in which the emotions are connected, whether explicitly or implicitly, with orientation and so with being-placed – something given particular salience in Heidegger’s use of the term Befindlichkeit, but evident too in Heidegger’s talk, in the brief passage I quoted earlier, of what is at issue as concerning ‘the ways man confronts the Da, the openness and concealment of beings, in which he stands’. The language here, as in so much of Heidegger’s thinking, is strongly topological, by which I mean that it connects to and invokes ideas and images of place and situation, and a similarly topological emphasis, although variously articulated, can be found in the work of most of the key thinkers within the phenomenological and hermeneutic traditions. If the topology at issue here often goes unremarked, then that is largely due to the fact that it is so absolutely basic, so much so, in fact, that it is all too readily taken for granted – taken for granted just as we typically take for granted the places in which every day we live and move.

Photograph of Martin Heidegger. Detail of a phototograph entitled : "W 134 Nr. 060678b - Hausen: Festakt, in der Reihe, Kultusminister Storz, Prof. Heidegger, Dichtel
Photograph of Martin Heidegger. Detail of a phototograph entitled : “W 134 Nr. 060678b – Hausen: Festakt, in der Reihe, Kultusminister Storz, Prof. Heidegger, Dichtel

Heidegger is notable for his attentiveness to the spatial and topological structures in play here, although the way emotion is connected with those structures often appears as only a sub-theme within Heidegger’s account, and is not directly thematised. In this respect, the work of Otto Bollnow is notable, even though it is much less philosophically interesting or significant overall than Heidegger’s, for the way in which it does indeed focus directly on the connection between emotion – and again, like Heidegger, Bollnow gives special attention to mood – and, in German, Stimmung (a term often translated as ‘attunement’). Although Bollnow’s early work, Das Wesen der Stimmungen, focused specifically on moods,[4] his later writings, notably Mensch und Raum, addressed the issue of lived space. However, Bollnow also drew the two themes together. In Mensch und Raum, he emphasises the importance of mood in the understanding of space, but he also stresses the way mood is not a property merely of the subject nor of the object:

Mood is a characteristic of just about every space … Mood is itself not something subjective ‘in’ an individual and not something objective that could be found ‘outside’ in his surroundings … Mood … concerns the individual in his still undivided unity with his surroundings … One speaks of a mood of the human temperament as well as of the mood of a landscape or a closed interior space, and both are, strictly speaking, only two aspects of the same phenomenon…[5]

It is worth noting that Bollnow’s insistence on the way emotions are ‘two aspects of the same phenomenon’ can be interpreted in terms of what Dolan identifies as the way emotion connects with value – the values at issue arising precisely out of the complex of agent and world, being determined neither by one nor the other alone. Together with Hermann Schmitz, in whom one also finds a connection between emotion, or mood, and the bodily and spatial, Bollnow has been influential in the development of recent thinking around the notion of atmosphere – a notion that has been particularly influential in architecture and the arts,and is developed further in the work of writers such as Gernot Böhme, Tonino Griffero and Peter Zumthor. The atmosphere of a space is the felt quality that belongs to that space as that is determined by the physical, and more specifically the sensory, qualities of the space. In the work of many of these writers, however, and sometimes in Bollnow too, it can be ambiguous as to whether the idea of atmosphere, or of the mood of a space, refers only to a quality of any and every space, or only of some spaces. If one follows the argument that I have sketched, however, then every space, or better every place (since space in this sense is always the space of a place), is always infused with mood and atmosphere. Atmosphere, or emotional affect, is part of the orienting and oriented character of a place, so that be in it is already to be affected, to some degree or other, by its atmosphere. The atmosphere of a place is thus precisely tied to the character of a place as having its own oriented and orienting character.

In being tied to the felt bodily locatedness – the ‘being-placed’ – of the subject, and so also to place itself, emotion can be said to belong not to phenomenology alone, but to an essential topology – and as part of that topology, emotion belongs to the externality of things no less than to the internality of the self. We readily overlook the character of human being, and indeed of being itself, as always tied to place. That there is no being that is not placed – that to be is to be somewhere – is an idea already present in the work of Greek thinkers, including Aristotle. The argument for this claim is not one that I have time to develop here – on that point I have to refer you to some of my own work elsewhere, as well as to the work of others – notably Heidegger, and also thinkers like Bachelard, as well as my contemporary Ed Casey. Part of what the investigation into the emotions shows, however, is not only the way the emotions are tied to place and being-placed, but also the extent to which place and being-placed are indeed essential to the possibility of cognition and action. If to be capable of thinking and acting requires emotional responsiveness (as empirical neuroscience and phenomenological ontology both indicate), because emotions are indeed orienting as well as motivating, then what this shows is the way cognition and action, and so also rationality as such, themselves depend upon place and being-placed. The contrast between the rational and cognitive and the emotional that is supposedly embodied in the contrast between figures such as Spock and Kirk or Holmes and Watson is thus a false one – dependent upon a false and narrowed-down conception of reason and cognition, no less than of the emotions themselves.

Two important points follow from consideration of the way emotion and place, but also emotion and reason, are tied so intimately to place. The first point follows from the sort of refusal of the identification of emotion as subjective and reason as objective that we find exemplified in Bollnow. Both emotion and reason are best understood as founded in the inter-relation of agents with the world that occurs in and through place and being-placed. What this brings with it, in ontological terms, is a relational understanding of the nature of the self and the world – neither stand entirely apart from one another, and both are to be understood only in their mutual inter-relation. This topological relationalism – a relationalism that involves a tri-partite relationality of and to the self, of and to others, and of and to things – has the consequence that the usual dichotomies that are so often employed between, for instance, the subjective and objective, but also between the mental and the material, can no longer function in any absolute fashion. Those dichotomies, if they are to be retained, have to be understood as themselves operating within a similarly relational ontology (one that I have referred to elsewhere as a ‘romantic materialism’), so that the material is understood as material only inasmuch as it stands in an essential relation to the felt, the thought and the remembered, inasmuch as it is suffused with these; in their own turn, the felt, the thought, the remembered are shaped and formed through being embodied in the material and only thus – not only the materiality of the body, in its movement and its rest, in its activity and affectivity, but also in the materiality of things, whether made or unmade, and in the materiality of land, water and air, of earth and of sky. It is only in the midst of such materiality, a materiality that is felt, thought, imagined and remembered, that we find ourselves in the world at all, and to find ourselves in that way is always to find ourselves in a place – a place that encompasses both a space and a time.

Let me then come back to the focus of this conference: what of the future of the emotions? If past thinking about the emotions, as well as about reason and cognition, has often been hampered by a false view of the nature of the emotions, then one might hope that the future of thinking about the emotions will involve a reconceptualisation of the nature of the emotions, of cognition and reason, and so also of ourselves. Yet if part of what is at issue in the thinking of the emotions is indeed the thinking of our relation to the world, and our relation to place, then it is not at all obvious that the way that is currently thought, if it is genuinely thought at all, is other than in terms of a relation that still privileges a certain sort of abstracted and displaced stance – a stance that we can now say is not a real privileging of the rational as such, but rather the privileging of only a certain abstracted and so disembodied and displaced mode of rationality (the mode of rationality associated with reductionism whether in its economic or scientific forms).

But the situation is even worse than that. Notwithstanding any advance in neuroscience or philosophy, what has occurred is a loss of the proper understanding of both reason and of emotion, as well as of the intimate relation between the two – and this is itself a loss of any proper sense of our place in the world and so of any proper orientation to things or to ourselves. Here we might say, the question of orientation brings with it the question of truth. To be disoriented is also to lose hold of truth or of any standard of truth. This is indeed where we find ourselves today. Curiously, our ‘post-truth’ world is one that is often characterised in terms of the privileging of emotion over reason – so the Economist can say of the world epitomised by the current US President, that in this world: ‘Feelings, not facts, are what matter’.[6] Yet the loss of any sense of truth is not about the triumph of emotion, not if what we have so far said here is correct. The loss of any sense of or respect for truth is indeed a form of disorientation, at the most general level, but that disorientation is as much a disturbance that pertains to the emotions as it is does to reason. This disturbance affects both emotion and reason – it involves their seeming separation, but also the taking of both to extremity. Ours is a time of extremity in which both emotion and reason have been ripped from their proper places so that both are now disoriented and disorienting. Regaining a sense of their proper place, finding again our own place in the world, is the most pressing task for the future – it is a task that is fundamental to our capacity to address all of the challenges that face us, both the socio-political and the environmental, which are themselves also intimately bound up together.

Jeff Malpas is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Tasmania and Visiting Distinguished Professor at La Trobe University, Melbourne. He was founder, and until 2005, Director, of the University of Tasmania’s Centre for Applied Philosophy and Ethics. He is the author or editor of 21 books on topics in philosophy, art, architecture and geography. His work is grounded in post-Kantian thought, especially the hermeneutical and phenomenological traditions, as well as in analytic philosophy of language and mind. He is currently working on topics including the ethics of place, the failing character of governance, the materiality of memory, the topological character of hermeneutics, the place of art, and the relation between place, boundary and surface.


[1]Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche I, trans. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), p. 45.

[2]See Matthew Ratcliffe, ‘Heidegger’s Attunement and the Neuropsychology of Emotion’, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 1.3 (2002), pp. 287–312.

[3]R. J. Dolan, ‘Emotion, Cognition, and Behavior’, Science 298 (2002), pp. 1191–94.

[4]See Otto Bollnow, Das Wesen der Stimmungen (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1941).

[5]Otto Bollnow,Human Space, translated by Christine Shuttleworth (London: Hyphen Press, 2011), pp. 216–17. In this discussion Bollnow also refers both to Heidegger and to Binswanger.

[6]‘Art of the Lie’, The Economist, 10 September2016.

One thought

  1. A most thoughtful and interesting perspective on the complex nature of being. Noel Morrison

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