Levels of Attunement. A Comment on Matthew Ratcliffe´s The Feelings of Being

Phenomenology, Psychiatry and the Sense of Reality. New York: Oxford University Press 2008 (309 pages)
  • Somogy Varga
Book Review

In Feelings of Being, one of the most recent publications in the IPPP series, Matthew Ratcliffe provides a detailed phenomenological investigation of a distinct category of existential feelings in everyday life and psychiatric illness. Ratcliffe´s book is divided into three parts, each dealing with issues of remarkable complexity and scope.


In Part I, Ratcliffe argues that recent interdisciplinary discussion of emotion is reduced either to pure bodily feeling (a position falsely attributed to James, as Ratcliffe convincingly demonstrates in chapter 8) or to cognitive judgments and appraisals (in the early work of Solomon). Even accounts that strive to unite cognition and affect do not really work out the difference between: “states that are intentionally directed at particular objects, events or situations in the world, and others that constitute backgrounds to all our experiences, thoughts and activities.” (37) The last mentioned category comprises the neglected phenomenological category of existential feelings, which Ratcliffe wants to draw attention too. They are non-intentional in the sense that they are not directed at any objects or situations, they constitute ways of relating to the world as a whole, a sense of reality and belonging, provide an affective background orientation and make up a space of salient possibilities to act upon (101, 106). Everyday language provides a reservoir of expressions for existential feeling, which, taken strictly, are not part of our catalogue of standard emotions. The feeling of unreality or heightened reality, of being at home in the world or being cut off from it and the feeling of familiarity or unfamiliarity, are good examples (see more 37).

Turning to the nature of existential feelings, Ratcliffe notes that we often express our relationship with the world, using the word ´touch´ -for instance with the sentence:´Being in touch with reality.´ (97) He opposes the sharp distinction between body and world that is often applied in various accounts of feeling and contends that the overall structure of existential feeling is ´touch-like´ (97). Like in touch, a bodily feeling and experiencing the world are inextricably aspects of the same unitary experiential structure. Existential feelings concern neither the body nor body-external affairs; rather they are simultaneously bodily feelings and feelings towards the world. Drawing on James´ account of ´pure experience´, Ratcliffe argues that some: ‘bodily feelings’ are merely ‘ways in which the world appears.’ (234, 244) A changed sense of the body is also a changed sense of the experience of worldly objects (115). As proprioception constitutes a space of possibility for potential bodily movements, existential feelings structure the practical possibilities the world offers. In fact: “Proprioception, kinaesthesia and an ´introceptive´ awareness of visceral feelings are phenomenologically inextricable aspects of existential feeling.” (123)


The second part of the book is dedicated to showing how the concept of existential feeling can be useful in understanding various psychiatric conditions, such as the Capgra´s and Cotard´s delusions, depersonalization, depression and schizophrenia-related thought insertion. Following Ratcliffe, delusions usually taken to involve propositional attitudes can be explained more plausibly in terms of existential feelings, since they: “can be directly responsible for certain delusions.” (187) Ratcliffe questions whether it is correct to speak of ´belief´ in regard to delusions, since the very modality of belief changes, but also because the sense of reality that is presupposed by beliefs is diminished or lost: “With an altered sense of reality, patients cannot take things to be the case in the usual way, as the sense of ´is´ and ´is not´ has changed.” (194) Instead, Ratcliffe invites us to think of the all-pervasive senses of deadness, unfamiliarity or unreality involved in delusions and thought insertion, not as beliefs or propositional attitudes in the usual sense, but rather as expressions of altered existential feelings. If existential feelings are not taken into consideration, one risks double-counting these symptoms and misinterpreting these experiences as involving altered feeling and faulty reasoning that lead to the propositional attitude involved in the delusional belief. So the explanative force of the concept of existential feelings stems from its dismissing of a sharp distinction between cognition and affect and from its abandoning a notion of experience that separates body from world. A shift of existential feeling can explain altered reasoning and belief, as long as we accept that reasoning processes do not just follow experience but are imbedded in it (160): “Delusions are embedded in existential changes…” (194). The concept of existential feeling also allows us to understand the characteristic conspicuousness of the body in mental illness and the altered world perception as two inextricable parts of the same experience of a changed existential feeling (208).


For Ratcliffe, existential feelings also have a role to play in religious experience and ground-floor philosophical commitments. The implicit aspect of a philosophical stance can at least be partly characterized in terms of existential feeling (250), since it is to a certain extent based on a pre-reflective background commitment (257). In closing the book, Ratcliffe addresses the issue of how pathological existential feelings can be distinguished from non-pathological feelings, such as those involved in religious experience. Ratcliffe holds that pathological existential feelings involve an impaired sense of inter-subjective skills (284), the: “felt loss of access to other people.” (287)

IV. Levels of feelings, levels of attunement

Ratcliffe interestingly argues that the loss of the interpersonal possibilities and relatedness is central to pathological existential feelings (214, 287). Unfortunately, this remarkable point is not worked out in depth. It would have been fruitful to bring into play the work of two central figures from the tradition of phenomenological psychiatry, namely Minkowski and Blankenburg, who held similar views.

Ratcliffe´s account of existential feelings is generally well-argued and appealing. Nevertheless, some legitimate concern might be raised regarding its theoretical underpinning. Ratcliffe concedes that his account of existential feelings is very closely related to Heidegger´s notion of mood and he terms them existential feelings mostly for terminological reasons. Ratcliffe rightly points out that “attunement” (Befindlichkeit) and moods are essential parts of ´care´ (Sorge) and shape Dasein’s Being-in-the-world: “By ´attunement´, Heidegger seeks to convey the way in which moods constitute a sense of belonging to the world.” (47) On closer scrutiny, however, I think it is far from clear whether attunement and mood refer to the same level of disclosure. Heidegger says that: “The phenomena of mood…is an exponent of attunement”1 and that: “...attunement (Befindlichkeit) on the ontological level manifest itself ontically in being in a mood (Heidegger 1962).” Heidegger seems to argue that both attunement and mood are disclosive and not just that attunement is disclosive exclusively via mood. Across the wide range of moods, there is a fairly consistent attunement to the world, responsible for the basic ´sense of realness´, as Arendt puts it (Arendt 1978). Thus, we could understand them as inextricable but still different levels of finding oneself in the world. We might say that attunement is a more profound way of structuring experience at the level of realness, while moods give rise to an extended sense of belonging to the world. This distinction can be strengthened by bringing into play Husserl’s idea of a non-conceptual sense of ‘aquaintedness´ or ‘reality’ that is a fundamental part of perceptual experience. “In the flow of world-experience (...) the sense of world (Seinsinn Welt) remains invariant.2 “What renders the perceived object real and familiar is a: “…consciousness of the world in the mode of certainty of belief…”, or more precisely faith3 - a primordial certainty in the fundamental features of the world, others and self. Importantly, the fundamental structure of the basic world disclosure is a twofold one: we could say “familiarity”, or “unfamiliarity.”4 The idea could be strengthened by invoking Merleau-Ponty´s idea of ´perceptual faith´, without which objects: “lack the distinctive sign of reality, as they do to the schizophrenic (Merleau-Ponty 2008).” So, applying the two-level model and acknowledging both the variety of existential feelings and their functioning on different levels of attunement would provide a more precise taxonomy of existential feelings and their pathologies. Ratcliffe takes a mere shift in existential feeling to explain the loss of familiarity and realness, and this results in an imprecise account. The significant gain of this corrected approach would be that one no longer would have to deal with mood disorders (like depression) and schizophrenia as impairments of the same sort of existential feelings, which I think is - at least from a clinical approach - quite problematic. Indeed, for Ratcliffe the difference between depression and schizophrenia seems to be: “that the former inhabit(s) an enduring existential orientation that is recalcitrant to change.” (212) When reading Ratcliffe’s book I was not really sure whether feeling ‘unworthy’, ‘a fraud’ and ‘watched’, (that Ratcliffe also lists on page 45), are meant to be included into his already too broad account of existential feelings. For me, these feelings belong to different levels of finding oneself in the world. Feeling ‘unworthy’ or feeling like ´ a fraud’, clearly needs to be distinguished from the basic, all-encompassing sense of familiarity, since it refers to a different level of orientation in the world. They involve some kind of self-reflection and knowledge about the normative framework of a specific practice. Indeed, it involves what Charles Taylor has termed ´strong evaluations (Taylor 1985). Feeling ‘stared at’ refers more to certain situations one can find oneself in, rather than descriptive of one’s relation to the world. Of course, they also contribute significantly to structuring experience, but in a secondary manner.

In conclusion, this is a rich and stimulating book permeated by a commitment to making philosophy relevant to life. It is an admirably wide-ranging book that provides a solid phenomenological account and a well-founded theoretical reflection over a group of feelings that have not received sufficient attention, this despite the central role in perception, everyday life, theoretical inquiry and psychiatric illness. Ratcliffe deserves credit for drawing attention to a shortcoming in the discussion of emotions and feelings and for providing an important corrective to this tendency. The book is highly recommendable to anyone interested in these issues.


  1. 1.

    “Das Phänomen der Stimmung und des Gestimmtseins…ist ein Exponent der Befindlichkeit” Martin Heidegger (1979): Prolegomena zur Geschichte des Zeitbegriffs, Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, Gesamtausgabe Bd. 20, p. 353.

  2. 2.

    Edmund Husserl (1973): Experience and Judgment, Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, transl. by James Spencer Churchill and Karl Ameriks, Evanston: Northwestern University Press. P. 36-37. I slightly modified the translation. See: Edmund Husserl: Erfahrung und Urteil. Untersuchungen zur Genealogie der Logik, Hamburg: Meiner 1971, p. 33.

  3. 3.

    The German ´Glaubensgewissheit´ is translated to belief, but it actually can mean both belief and faith. ”Weltbewusstsein ist Bewusstsein im Modus der Glaubensgewissheit…” Ibid., p. 25

  4. 4.

    Ibid., p. 37.


  1. Arendt, H. (1978). The Life of Mind -Thinking -Willing (p. 51). New York-London: Ed. Harvest/HJB Book.Google Scholar
  2. Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and Time (Trans. Macquarrie, J. And Robinson, E. Oxford: Blackwell), p. 172 (orig.) 134Google Scholar
  3. Heidegger, M. (1979). Prolegomena zur Geschichte des Zeitbegriffs, Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, Gesamtausgabe Bd. 20, p. 353Google Scholar
  4. Husserl, E. (1973). Experience and Judgment, Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, transl. by James Spencer Churchill and Karl Ameriks (pp. 36–37). Evanston: Northwestern University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Merleau-Ponty (2008). The Phenomenology of Perception, transl. Colin Smith, Routledge: New York.Google Scholar
  6. Taylor, C. (1985). ´What is Human Agency´, in: Human Agency and Language. Philosophical Papers 1 (pp. 15–44). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department Arts and Cultural StudiesUniversity of CopenhagenCopenhagenDenmark
  2. 2.Institut für Sozialforschung an der Johann Wolfgang Goethe-UniversitaetFrankfurt am MainGermany

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